Jugged Valley

This weekend was time for another trip to London for playtesting, and I took with me my game which currently has the most momentum, Drafty Valley (for which I would like to find a new name!).

Now I've written that last sentence, I find myself thinking about momentum. It does seem to be that games vary in how much progress they are making at a given time, and that often, a game that has had some focus will keep moving onwards, with the occasional nudge from me to keep things going, until friction takes over and things grind to a halt. Earlier this year Craghold and Scurvy Crew were moving forward well. This time last year it was Invaded that was developing freely and quickly. Right now it is Drafty Valley.  The metaphor breaks down a little because usually a project seems to get moving on its own (specifically, I wake up one morning with an idea to try with a game, and it goes from there), but once it's moving, it keeps moving for a while. I'm not sure if my going-with-the-flow approach to game development is a particularly sensible one, but at least I do feel that I am making progress most of the time. Is that enough...?

Turns out that developing a location can get a little fiddly when there is a load of stuff on the board.

Anyway, back to the meetup. As planned, I left the prototype unchanged from the test I did at the Oxford meetup a few weeks ago (having not had a playtesting opportunity for the game in the meantime) and I played with the same rules, not changing setup, though happily I was able to get a 4-player game this time.

The first thing I noticed was that I got a lot of pushback (from one player in particular) against the idea of only explaining the parts of the game in the initial setup and allowing players to discover the game as they go. This doesn't really surprise me, as a lot of players do want to be competitive on their first play and want to know everything up front. I don't think this is really a problem: the game can be learnt in two ways: either with a short explanation and then find out the rest later, or by explaining everything up front. I think I'll keep things as they are and then I can use both approaches as fits the situation.

The game went well overall, though ran longer than I was hoping. We cut play off after an hour, with maybe ten or fifteen minutes left to go by my judgement.  Still, the players generally approved of the style of the game and the way it flowed.

That being said, there were, of course, problems.

What I think was the main issue was that the objectives didn't work right. The idea is that a pick-and-pass draft of objective cards (like in 7 Wonders or Sushi Go) takes place in fits and starts across the game and, while it worked a lot better than it did last month, it still left players waiting for information about what they should be trying to do in the game, and felt frustrating, and also (unlike the other actions) offered no advantage to the player who chooses the action card. A few ideas were thrown around, including possibly starting the game by getting everyone to draft a set of objectives, which could work but often makes for a horrible experience for inexperienced players. What I think I will try is to sacrifice a bit more table space by having a set of objectives on display, and then the "select objectives" action would involve taking cards from that display.  I may even go a little further and deal everyone a random card at the game start.

The other main issue that I want to consider this time is that the variability of which action cards are on display means that sometimes a player has first pick for that round, but there isn't really anything that they care greatly about, but other times a first choice is massively powerful.  This may be a little harder to fix, but I think that the solution is to make sure that every action is sufficiently interesting, or provides a really nice benefit to acting first with them (the actions resolve with whoever claimed the card going first). I will have to ponder on this one for a while...

So, that's what I will be doing in my spare time this week. I have decided that I will be taking Drafty Valley to test at the Playtest Zone at UK Games Expo in less than two weeks' time, so I need to deal with the biggest problems in the game so that I can make the most of the opportunity there.  Quite a bit of work to do...

Apart from my own game, I got to play a couple of others. The first was a football game (or soccer, if you are in the USA!) which isn't a theme that interests me at all, and felt a little fiddly, but had some really clever elements to it, so I suspect this will turn into something really cool for the right type of players.  The other game was a very early version of an experiment trying to make an accessible trivia-quiz game with a hidden traitor element; this wasn't really working, but led to some really interesting discussion, so it will be cool to see how things develop here.


Ivory Eggs

To cut a long story short, for the last year or two there has been a print-on-demand game manufacturer based in the UK, Ivory Graphics, and I have been meaning to try them out for some time. Well, I have just done that, just using their card printing service to get a few sets of my 9-card "The Yolk's on You" made. I figured that if it all went wrong, it wouldn't cost me an enormous amount. The cards have just arrived, so here are some thoughts on the service...

First off, the service is reasonably quick. I ordered my deck of 54 cards on a Friday evening, and they were delivered on Saturday the following week -- though as nobody was in to receive the signed-for package, I had to wait a few more days before one of us (my wonderful wife, as it happens) was able to go to the post office to pick it up.

I was worried about how the colours would come out, as (slightly technical bit coming up...) their print process requires submitted files to use a CMYK colour space, whereas the tools available to me mostly use the RGB colour space, and I have no idea what the result of getting this wrong would be. After a little searching online I found a Linux command line incantation that, allegedly, allowed me to translate my PDF files to the correct colour space, so I used that, submitted the converted files, and hoped for the best.

One way or another, things turned out fine and the colours looked just as I wanted them, with a slightly glossy finish, and really clear and crisp edges. The only things wrong with the printed images were entirely due to the quality of the files I sent, so no complaints there.

The cards themselves are reasonably stiff and will be just fine to play with, though if you hold them up to the light you can see what is on the other side pretty clearly. In most playing situations this won't be a problem.

Price-wise, the cards cost £8.45 for the 54 card deck (pricing starts at 20 cards and you pay a per-card price beyond that), which isn't cheap, but seems reasonable for P-o-D. The shipping, at a fiver, was a little pricey, though I don't know how that scales for bigger orders.

So, overall I'm happy with these cards. The service also offers boxes, tokens, boards, rulebooks, and all sorts of other components, so you can in principle get them to make up a full boxed game for you, as long as your requirements aren't exotic, and you can even sell your complete games direct from their website. I'm not sure if I'll be making use of that of those options, but I may well go for the card printing again from time to time.


Overhauling Craghold

Having decided what my priorities are in the lead-up to UK Games Expo, I have, of course, got immediately distracted by another project. In this case it is my intended entry for the wargame design contest on BGG, currently going under the working title of The Battle for Craghold.

To bring you up to speed, this is inspired by the Battle of the Pelennor Fields in The Lord of the Rings, where the forces of Sauron are assaulting the stronghold of Minas Tirith. This was the starting point, but it is gradually moving away from its inspiration, though it will probably always be recognisable as such. The set up is that one player is defending a fortified city, along with a port city a short distance away. The second player has a powerful army, with much more easily available reinforcements than the defender, and they are trying to overwhelm the defenders and capture the city.

Actually the specifics of the victory conditions are still in flux, but part of the objectives for the defender has always been to move wagons of supplies from the port to the main city, so the attacker wants to disrupt this.

So far the two sides have simply been marked as yellow and black, mostly because I have a stock of black and yellow plastic stands that I can use as bases for stand-up unit markers.  I wanted to move on from this, partly so information is not solely encoded as colours, but mostly because I wanted to start giving some degree of character to the thus-far faceless factions.  A chat with an acquaintance on Twitter reminded me that I should take a look at the vector graphics program, Inkscape, so that's what I did.
An experienced graphic designer will see nothing exciting here, but I was really pleased that I figured out how to make the banner shape (draw a square, add some extra nodes to the shape, and pull them up to make the zig-zag -- thanks to my daughter, Miss B, who is becoming quite something of a vector artist, for advice), and then slap an image from game-icons.net onto it. Little advances like this with a new-to-me tool are a great way to build confidence.

So, I fed my new graphics into my nanDECK script (with a few other changes from the last iteration) to make a new set of unit pieces for my next playtest.
One of each of the units, designed to be folded in half to make a 2-sided token.
I think, in retrospect, I should have made the banners take up a little more space, but I'll bear that in mind for next time.  This always happens, thinking of a change to make right after completing something, but if I worried about that all the time I would either never have a complete prototype or I would run out of card and toner.  Thinking of which, designing components is only any good if those components become a physical thing that can be used, so I fired up the printer and got to chopping and folding until I had a pair of armies, ready to go.

Two armies, both alike in dignity...
I have also been working on a printable game board, which looks scrappy but is slowly getting less so, and will get on with an overhaul of the action cards too shortly. The plan is to share this iteration online, so I can hopefully get a little feedback.

The aim is to make a fantasy wargame, but at the moment there isn't much of a fantasy element here. However, this set should help me check that the core mechanisms are working OK, and then I have some ideas for the next iteration.  My current thought is to make the attackers into an undead army, and add in a necromancer, who acts as a mobile mustering/spawning point for attacking forces, which should be fun and make the pressure on the defenders really ramp up through play. Once I've tried that, then I expect to start working on tightening up the objectives and balance.


Preparing for the Expo: 4 Weeks To Go

It's four weeks until the biggest event in the UK tabletop gaming calendar, UK Games Expo (1st to 3rd June), and again I am going for the full three days. Actually, I'm going up the day beforehand so I have an easier time on the Friday, and hopefully a bit of gaming the evening before the event starts for real. In the run-up there is a load of preparation I need to do.

The prototypes I'm planning on taking as they currently stand.
There may be some updates to come, but they'll look substantially like this.

So far, I have...

  • Written to a couple of publishers to see if I can arrange a meeting to discuss my games, particularly Invaded at the moment. I should probably contact at least a couple more, but we're getting to the point where it may be a bit late.  I'm keeping the number of pitches I am doing deliberately small at the moment, concentrating on people I think would be a decent fit for at least one of my games, as I want to just start learning how to do this sort of thing, and I am too cowardly to really jump in deep right away.  I have, however, heard back from the publishers I contacted so far, so fingers crossed.
  • Submitted a sell sheet (a 1-page document showing the key features and selling points for a game) for Invaded for consideration in the designer-publisher speed dating event. This allows designers to do 5-minute pitches to about a dozen publishers in close succession, but the designers invited to take part are selected by those publishers based on submitted sell sheets.  The application process is a little scary, but it does mean that, if you are selected, at least some of the publishers want to hear more about your game.  I decided to apply for this rather than for the "public pitch" session of the Wyvern's Lair as I think I would do better in this format.
  • Volunteered for a couple of shifts at the Playtest Zone (unless things change, I'll be there on Friday and Saturday mornings -- come and say hello!) and for one of the evening events. I've been doing this for the last couple of years, and found it very rewarding, being a great opportunity to meet loads of talented game designers and see a lot of awesome prototypes, even if I don't get to play many of them!
  • Booked my first playtesting slot for my own game: 15:00 to 16:30 on the Saturday, so please come by and play! The slot booking system opens early for volunteers, so we get first dibs on our first session, though there will be plenty more available for others when the bookings open up more generally in a few days. I have declared Scurvy Crew as the game I will be running, but I am starting to think about taking Drafty Valley now, as it has been developing well lately, and I would love to get some more feedback on it.
  • Booked accommodation (actually I did this several months ago), which is quite important!
  • Booked the necessary time off from work.

Things still to do include...

  • Check and update prototypes and rules for all the games I will be taking with me.
  • Create an up-to-date sell sheet for all the games I want people to know about.
  • If I'm going to try contacting any other publishers, I need to do it very soon indeed.
  • If I get selected for the speed dating, I'll really need to focus on that 5-minute pitch, and try not to panic. If I don't, then I still need to plan regular pitches.
  • Enter a couple of games into the "No Ship Maths Trade" that is going on. This is nothing to do with game design at all, but I have some games to get rid of and I have never tried maths trades before (briefly, they are a way to use a computer to set up trading rings so you can give a game to someone who wants it, and receive a game you want in return from someone entirely different), so I figure it's worth a go.
  • And, of course, pack all my necessary stuff and get up there.

I must be missing something, but I'm sure it'll all work out.

Let me know if you're going -- hopefully we'll be able to at least say hello some time.


Drafty Meeples

As you probably know, I go to London most months for a Playtest UK meetup, but there is also a monthly session in my nearest large town, Oxford. The events being on Sunday evenings tends to make them less convenient for me, but I've made a few of these over the last couple of years, and this week I managed another.

Unfortunately this session had only four of us in attendance, but with a little negotiation and planning, all of us managed to get one of our games played -- though one was a longer game and we only managed a partial run of that.

I forgot to take a photo of my game in play, so here's a pic of a 4-player setup at home.
I had a two-player game of Drafty Valley (which will need a new name at some time), which was enough to give a reasonable test of the changes I made since its last trip to the table.  The game ran for about 45 minutes, starting with a very short explanation of just the rules active with the initial setup, and learning the rest as they came up, which is my planned teaching method for the game. The first few rounds were a bit slow as the new actions cycled through, but things sped up a lot and after the first time through the action deck the game was flying along nicely.  We even ended up with a nice, fairly tense ending, which was pleasing -- though probably more by luck than design.

Overall the changes I made seem to have moved the game in a positive direction, but the game start is still a little slow in terms of getting things on the board. This was actually feedback I got from the previous playtest, but I didn't really address this time. I think that next time I might have everyone starting with a control cube on the board, which should accelerate the early stages quite a lot.  Other than that, I'm planning to run at least my next playtest with the same prototype and hopefully see how it looks with more than two players.

Incidentally, the paper-thin theme on the game and the general "get resources and swap them for money or more resource production" makes the game perilously close to the Eurogame cliché of "trading in the Mediterranean", but at this stage of my game design career, maybe that's not necessarily a bad thing. I've been explaining that the conceit of the game is that players are businessfolk in a corner of the kingdom, getting contracts from outside to develop the land in various ways, and that the objective is to fulfill certain key contracts and make as much money as you can while you do so, and that seems to fit just fine right now. Maybe I'll be able to come up with a more interesting thematic justification for everything later, but for now I'll just let it ride.

Other than Drafty Valley, I got to play a couple of others... One was ostensibly about investment and market manipulation, but is actually focused on negotiation, and does that very well once you get into it, and shows great potential, even though it's not a style of game I get on well with.  The other was an ambitious cooperative game about defending a village against ravaging monsters; the concept is great and the designer has made some absolutely charming character illustrations, but at the moment the gameplay seems a bit fiddly compared to what the game seems to want to be; if the designer can find his way through the complexities, this could end up being really great fun.


24 Hours of Eggs

The requirement for the April 24 hour game design contest is "Egg", and I had an idea bouncing around in my head. The problem here is that I really wanted to test the idea as early into my 24 hour period as I could, which made scheduling look challenging, given a load of other things in our lives.  Eventually, though, we hit a week where I was able to go to a Thursday evening gaming session where I didn't mind talking the others into playing a prototype for 10 minutes or so, followed by a (mostly) free Friday which I could use to finish things off and submit my entry.

The idea was not very ambitious -- a nine card microgame with a little bluffing and reading, and a lot of luck -- but not every game has to be particularly clever or complex. It's a kind of egg-based Russan roulette.  What happens is that everyone has (and looks at the face of) a card representing an egg, which can be either raw, boiled, or rotten, and there is an additional, unknown, card on the table. Each player announces what is on their card (lying is allowed) and places it in the middle of the table. After a short countdown, each player grabs a card and slaps it on their own head. The aim is to avoid getting covered with raw -- or worse, rotten -- eggs.

Blank cards plus Sharpies... a useful part of the toolkit, quickly resulting in a serviceable prototype.
By the time we got to testing the game, I had decided that one player announces what is on their card, and then everyone else makes the same announcement, regardless of what they actually have. This ensures that on most rounds, some players are lying, and some are telling the truth, and also takes a certain amount of pressure away from players who are uncomfortable with lying in games.

The result of the initial test game was sufficiently encouraging that, with a couple of minor tweaks, I could progress to writing up full rules and making a printable set of cards.  A post-play discussion came up with a few potential names for the game: I ended up settling on "The Yolk's on You".

Keep It Simple, Stupid. It's nice to be able to make really simple components.
The Friday was spent largely trying to make decent looking cards and finding graphics to use on them (this time the art is public domain stuff from Pixabay, with one of the images tweaked by me), as well as writing up the rules and wondering if I should try to fill them with hilarious egg puns. I decided that I rarely come across well when I try to be funny, but there may well have been one or two places in the text where I cracked.

So, that's my twelfth entry to the 24 hour contest submitted, and the first for this year. Hopefully I'll get at least a couple more done before the year is up.  In case you are interested, the game entry post is here, and includes links to the rules and print & play card files.


It's Drafty in Victoria

After missing last month's playtesting meetup in London, I actually made it this weekend, and on a whim decided to take my hand-made and still unplayed (other than some solo plays) prototype of "Drafty Valley".  I was chatting with one of the other designers before the session started, and we agreed that the type of feedback gained from other designers at this sort of meetup can often be amazingly useful in the earlier stages of a design, but might be less productive later on. That's been my experience anyway.

I was selected for the first round of games, and quickly had three volunteers to join me for a four-player game. Pleasingly, they were all willing to go with my preferred approach of, "We'll just explain each new thing as it turns up," and the game started in what must be a record time.

A few rounds in and there haven't been any builds yet. Hmm...
I won't go into a play-by-play or anything, but will report that many aspects of the game were just horrible. For instance:

  • Several actions just didn't take place because people couldn't capitalise on the selected cards.
  • The players producing grain and sheep found that there was precious little to do with their resources.
  • It took ages before we were really interacting on the board, and even then a couple of the players were still pretty isolated.
  • The scoring cards seemed pretty random and poorly thought through (well, there may have been a reason for that...!) and not knowing what was on them at the start of the game left players with no real direction for the first couple of rounds. 
  • The benefits of buying and selling on the market were massively disproportionate compared with the other things you could do.
And so on.

However, I knew that the game was shonky when I set out.  What I was really wanting to test was the overall concept of mashing together several variants on a drafting mechanic (where players pick some sort of a resource from a pool, generally taking turns to do so), and with the activities on each turn also based on drafting from a pool of options. How did that general idea work?

Well, towards the end of the session, one of the players said something along the lines of, "I don't know why we're doing what we're doing, but what we're doing is fun." He, and the others, had a lot of criticisms about the details of the game (as above), but the consensus seemed to be that the overall shape of the game (if not its current dynamic arc) has potential.  I am more than happy to take this as a result for a playtest.

So I need to build a new prototype which fits together a little more coherently, is not as slack at the beginning, is less likely to leave players unable to act on their turn, and gives everyone a bit more of a clue about what to do early on. All this while avoiding adding extra elements as, while I have a number of ideas for more features that I would love to add, there is probably enough here already to make a decent game once it is all knocked into shape. It would be great if I could get this one to play in, say, 30 to 40 minutes, but we'll see how we go.

Aside from my own game, I got to play two prototypes from other people. One was a midweight Euro with some really interesting challenges; it was a bit fiddly, and the various subgames weren't quite in sync with each other, but I really enjoyed playing it and can't wait to see it finished. The other game was a really neat and colourful abstract game that was teetering between being a crunchy puzzle-strategy game and a semi-mass-market family game, which I also very much enjoyed playing.