Moving Forwards

At last I can share something that has been in the works for a while now, and it's something I am really excited about.  As of Friday, I am a signed game designer, and I have been doing my happy dance since then.

Things are moving quickly, and there is still quite a lot in the air, but the headline news is that Cubicle 7 Entertainment will be publishing my "Giftmas" and "Shooting Party" games as part of their new "Dungeon Abbey" line, which looks like it should turn out to be a lot of fun.  Cubicle 7 are best known as a roleplaying games company and are great at world development, and have some great writers and artists working for them, so I'm really looking forward to working with them on these projects.

This was recently released as a teaser image. See what I mean about great artwork?
There is a lot of work still to do, both by me and by the folk at Cubicle 7, but if all goes well both games should be available before the end of the year.

So this has all been dominating my game design and development time recently, and will continue to do so for a while yet, but it's a fun rollercoaster to be on, and I'm finding the opportunity to do something else from time to time. I'm even hoping to do a 24 hour challenge in the next few days, which is possibly a bit ambitious under the circumstances.

I will be sure to share further information as it becomes available.


Double Trouble in London

It's that time of month when I take a trip to London to playtest with a group of other game designers, something that I continue to be enthusiastic about and thoroughly enjoy every time.  The form of these events is basically that there are usually three or four "slots", generally running for about 90 minutes each, and in each of these three or four tables are running with a game and an appropriate number of players.  Sometimes the times vary, and if there are short games to be played, sometimes they share a slot, but it generally works out that everyone who wants to will get the opportunity to test one of their prototypes.  I was fortunate this time in that I was able to run two of my games.

Looks a bit of a mess, but I'm working on it...!
First up we had a slightly shorter than usual slot, in which we played the latest iteration of my Shooting Party game.  I'm still a way off being done with this one, but managed to harvest a lot of valuable feedback from the three awesome testers I had at the table.  Part of the problems that we had would have been fixed by a rule that I had planned to use but had forgotten to add to the player aid cards or explain to the players, a rule that allows players to discard cards to gain extra actions -- I have only myself to blame here and have already updated the player aids for this.  Other than that the main result is that I need to simplify way more than I have already and stop trying to be clever with the way monsters behave.

The next slot had me testing someone else's design, which was a fast moving card game which included a lot of terrible cat puns.  This is a game that I really enjoyed as it is, and look forward to seeing how it develops.

Finally we got to play Giftmas, which I am currently overhauling with a view to a new version.  The main change I have made is to streamline scoring, and I wanted to see how that panned out after my initial testing had suggested that it looked OK.  The game went down well, but we found a few details that didn't quite fit right.  A little discussion after a few hands of play yielded some tweaks to try out, which we did for the rest of the game and this certainly helped a fair bit.  Some more discussion after that and my players asked to play again (always a good sign), and the game totally fell together and had bluffing, trash talk, furrowed brows, and plenty of laughter.  Of course, one great game doesn't mean we're done, and more testing is needed, but it does suggest we're getting there.  Thanks to this set of intrepid testers too.

So, Shooting Party will be getting another overhaul, this time mostly involving removing stuff, and Giftmas just needs more testing for now in the hope of shaking out any other issues with it.  Get to it, Rob...


Timing of Colonial Activity

In a recent playtest of Invaded, there was a suggestion that the colonial power should move more often.  The current game has play zipping around among the players, and when they have taken all the actions they want to (or can) do, the non-player colonial power makes a few moves.  The suggestion was essentially to put the colonial power into the normal cycle of player moves, so the players all take a turn, then the colonial power does too, and so on.

This has superficial appeal.  It means that the Colonial power is advancing its interests more steadily, rather than making sudden lurches every now and then.  It also means that the non-player power is moving at a similar speed to the players, which seems fair.
The colonial forces have landed and are ready to advance.
I have had a realisation though.  Reading an interesting post about designing heavier games by the League of Game Makers, there was a section entitled "Be Wary of Non-Trivial Mid Turn Decisions".  Now, Invaded isn't a particularly heavy game, and this section's title may not appear to be relevant here, but bear with me.

Part of the discussion was about how a useful feature in some heavier games is where players are able to analyse the game state and plan their move on other players' turns, so that their own turn doesn't devolve into having to make big decisions at the time; they can just execute the plan, making minor adjustments for the latest developments.  In, say, a worker placement game, you might figure out a list of priorities of what you want to do: I'll get resources from this space, and if that has been blocked I will go here or here...  This can help keep the game flowing and prevent everything from just bogging down and stretching play time for too long.

The relevance here (and it is a little tangential, but this is how my brain works) is that the colonial power is the biggest perturbing factor in the game -- or it should be; it isn't at the moment, and I need to fix that.  If your every move needs to take into account the fact that the colonials might mash your position in between any of your turns, that makes planning so much harder, and would probably disincentivise any even slightly risky manoeuvres.  That the colonials should be a threat is fine, and is pretty much the point of the game, but as the game is turn-based, with players taking small actions in turn, it makes sense that players should have a chance to get their ducks in a row, at least partly, before those nasty invaders start shooting at them.

The driver behind the playtest suggestion to have the colonial power activating between player turns was because so far the colonials have not had a sufficient impact on the flow of play.  On reflection I am pretty convinced that this suggestion is the wrong solution to a definite problem (see my previous post on the subject for some thoughts on better solutions) but I can always keep the idea in my back pocket in case I need to change my mind.


Moving Targets

The main focus of my attention recently has been Shooting Party, which is steadily improving, I think, but still needs a few tweaks.
A recent playtest with "hell mode" monsters appearing at double the rate.

One of the issues that have come up recently is something that I had not been thinking about really.  A major part of the game is a stream of monsters that come running along a path so that players can shoot them as they approach.  This is all well and good, and works fine, but a number of the monsters have special adjustments to how they move.  So most monsters just trundle along one space at a time, but others move at double speed, some move faster if there is nothing in front of them, some stay still if there is something in front of them, others make an attack or restrict player actions as they approach.

This sort of stuff adds variety to the game, but the problem is that it is really easy to forget to take into account the special rules for these monsters, and periodically we get a spell of, "Oh, crap, we forgot to double-move the hellhound and the dragon should have made a ranged attack last round."  Not ideal.

I think that, assuming I want to keep this part of the game substantially the same as it is, I have two major lines of attack to deal with this issue...

The first is to reduce the reliance on this type of monster effect.  Monsters can be differentiated in a number of ways, the most basic of which are their toughness and prestige value for bagging them.  Apart from the effects which happen each turn (like these movement rules that are getting missed), there can be effects that occur when they first appear, when they engage with a player close up, when they make an attack, when they are attacked, or when they are bagged/killed.  There are probably others too.

Observing how the game gets played, I see that monster cards get attention paid to them when they first appear, when they are in front of a player, and when they are killed, but when they are in the line, the only thing players really look at is their toughness and prestige reward.  So, if I usually use effects that activate when players are most likely to be paying attention to them, that should help.

But I would like to have the option of having some monsters that have different movement characteristics, or ranged attacks, etc., so how do I deal with that?  If only a few monsters have such effects, then it is possible that they are more likely to be missed.  If every monster behaved differently, that might encourage players to pay more attention, but in practice I think this would result in frustration and/or a slower game.

So, my second feeling is to use graphic design to make things clearer.  Now, I'm no graphic designer, so my work here is only any good to suggest how a professional could approach things, but I figure that icons and other graphic elements can be used to make the behaviour clearer.  So, for instance, arrows could be used to show the speed of movement: the number of arrows indicate movement speed, for instance.  Other symbols could potentially be used, but I need to be careful to not go too far with this and create a too-complicated graphical language; the aim is to simplify and clarify, after all.
A hastily hacked hellhound card, but you get the idea...
Back to work...


Colonising London

This weekend saw another trip to London for a Playtest UK meetup, and this time I took along Invaded, my game of indigenous tribes in a land being invaded by a strong colonial power.  These particular meetups start at around 1pm, and comprise a series of 90 minute slots with a few minutes' break between each.  There are generally three slots in the day (I think four have been known), usually with three or four tables running during each slot.   I was invited to run my game in the first slot, and got three volunteers to try it out.
A first ever 4-player game, including a slightly reticent colonial power.
I set out the prototype and stumbled through my rules explanation, and got surprisingly few questions.  That doesn't tell me anything in itself; it's what happens later that counts.  So, what did happen later?...

Well, the biggest thing that came out of this test is that the colonial forces took far too long to actually engage with the players, and only really did so as the game was coming towards an end. The activities of the non-player force is pretty much the raison d'ĂȘtre of the game, so its influence should begin to be felt pretty much from the beginning.  In discussions across the table we came up with a couple of relatively simple things to try and that, combined, should take us in the right direction.  First, there needs to be incentive for players to set up near the colonial landing ground, something which can be done by making those lands more productive from a resource point of view.  Secondly, the colonials need to be more proactive in moving forward and not have cards in their deck which often have no effect.  The plan for this second point is to put more than one action on the cards in the colonial deck, so each card is effectively of the form: "Take this action; if that is not possible/relevant, take this other action."  The next iteration of the game will be testing these tweaks.

There were plenty of other issues that came up, most of which are entirely relevant, but I am judging to be of lower importance right now.  Here are some of them...

  • The "press your luck" aspect to gathering resources worked fine, but the consensus was that the fact that you were effectively gambling with your action opportunities didn't seem right and it should be more about what resources you are looking for.
  • Gaining colonial favour could be made more interesting if, say, the player with the most favour could have some influence over colonial actions.
  • The resource market is uninteresting, and only really came into play a couple of times.
  • Gaining enmity from other tribes seems an interesting concept, but the downside to it is very small at the moment.
  • The balance of victory point rewards from objectives is completely wrong, and there is not enough variety in the objectives.
There was also an interesting comment that the game is very different to most other hobby games.  Whereas players are generally used to building something and developing greater efficiency throught a game, Invaded starts with players in relatively strong positions and things tend to go downhill from there.  Or at least they would if the colonial power did anything interesting.

Aside from the various comments and criticisms, the general flow of the game went well, downtimes were short (mostly longer while I was taking notes about something), and the overall concept really grabbed everyone's attention.  This was another great session for me: I got a feeling that I am definitely right to be working on this game, but we found some problems and identified directions for me to take in its future development.  I'm definitely looking forward to moving it along some more.  Huge thanks to J, W and M for their help.


Thinking about a couple of games I played today...

While it's fresh in my mind, I just wanted to make a note about a couple of games I played today.  I had a nice day at OxCon in Oxford today, and the day was dominated by two fairly heavy games that ran for about 3 hours each.  I don't get to play bigger games often, so it is interesting when they come up.

The first was Svea Rike, a game from the late 90's, covering the fortunes of noble families in Sweden over 300 years from the 16th to 19th centuries.  The game has some really interesting features, with game play switching between two different modes of play depending on whether the country is at peace or at war with one of its neighbours, this state being determined randomly at the start of each round.  The rules are remarkably straightforward and play actually zips along quite nicely so the fairly lengthy play time didn't seem to drag.  There is a lot to think about, with a few possible paths to victory and interesting twists in the way wars resolve.  However, the game relies on many forms of random chance: the overall events taking place on each turn, card flips to determine the strength of an enemy (non-player) army and dice rolling to resolve the conflict, plus event cards that players can use to manipulate play.  It is the event cards that prevented me from really enjoying the game as much as I would have otherwise: many of them are, either directly or indirectly, "take that!" attacks on other players, and some can swing the game massively, while others are just utterly irrelevant.

I would really like to see Svea Rike reworked with a lot of attention paid to rethinking the event deck.  Constrained a little bit, the game could be something really special.  Mind you, from comments and forum threads I have seen, I know that some people totally love the chaos of the event deck.  My argument would be that these factors can be a lot of fun in a 30 minute game, but when the game runs for 3 hours, they just get in the way and can be frustrating.

The other game was Mac Gerdts' Imperial 2030, which is a complex worldwide conflict where players are financial illuminati, manipulating the actions of 6 world powers for personal gain.  The interesting thing here is that who controls each of the major nations changes as the game progresses: in our 4-player game, one player spent a chunk of the game controlling three of the nations -- and he did not actually end up winning!  This is a massively complex game with so many factors and moving parts in play, but it is one where clever game design has reigned all this in so that none of the individual mechanisms are at all complicated, and just about all the rules you need to know are written on one side of a player aid card, about A6 in size.

I am coming to the conclusion (rather later than many others, it would seem) that Mac Gerdts is a bleeding genius.  The other one of his games that I have played, Concordia, is another huge heap of complex interacting systems held together in such a way that it only takes a few minutes to explain all the rules, and from then the mechanisms of the game are just perfectly straightforward and intuitive, so you stop worrying about them and spend all your time trying to execute a decent strategy.  (Note to self: I really need to play more of his games.)

So, what do I take away from all this?  Well, there are several of the mechanisms in Svea Rike that I would like to experiment with, and the way the game offers simple, interlocking systems is really rather neat.  And in the case of Imperial 2030, I just aspire to the craftsmanship Gerdts shows in making the very complex very accessible.


Colonial Advances

Resurrecting the "Invaded" game in the midst of all the other business going on, I have a new prototype, with its own map cards, resource cards, and so on.  You'll see from the picture below that I have replaced the map hexes with rectangular cards; I'd still hope for a final game to have hexes, but this arrangement has the same adjacency features and it is a heck of a lot easier to iterate a prototype if I don't have to keep cutting out hexagons.

Three times through the (18 card) colonial action deck with no natives.
Incidentally the circle and square in each space is an attempt to track the use of tribal units for various actions: rounds alternate between being "circle" and "square" rounds (yeah, a "square round", I know...), and during each round, used tokens get put into the appropriate shaped space to indicate their status.  The next round they move into the other shape, so we don't need to reset things between rounds.  I even have a card with a circle on one side and a square on the other to indicate which round we are on.  This seems to work OK so far, but I need more testing to see how it goes down with a variety of players.

One of the big challenges with the game so far is in building a deck of cards to control the colonial forces.  The idea is that each round, a couple of cards are drawn from the colonial deck and this results in the colonial power moving around, landing new regiments, building forts, and attacking natives when they feel like it.  I've so far had a play with the deck running unopposed to see what it does.  As you can see from the picture, it didn't result in anything particularly interesting happen, apart from the single regiment detaching and plunging into the wilds before building a fort.

Of course, this is not a natural situation for the game: there would always be at least one tribe sharing the board with the invaders, but it does indicate things aren't exactly ideal.  So, still more work to do...