Back to the Boogie

I had a playtest session this week, which was focused on Invaded, but after playing and some time on discussion, the players said that they were up for something else.  On a whim I pulled out Boogie Knights, a game that I haven't put in front of playtesters since autumn last year.

The last time I tested Boogie Knights, I was trying an alternative system where, instead of rolling dice to resolve challenges (in disco or combat skills), you played cards for their numerical value.  This went down well with the playtesters and I was happy with the change at the time, but since then I couldn't help but dwell on the fact that the players were all "serious" gamers and that the play time pretty much doubled from previous plays.  It was great that the players felt engaged and thought that there were decent decisions to make, but the more I reflected, the more I felt that the game had become something that I didn't really think it should be.

Complete sets of kit for almost everyone.

So we went back to the previous version of the rules, with a small tweak (rolls of 6 "explode") and gave it a go.  I would normally have my notebook open and writing down comments from the players and observations about their behaviour, but this time I didn't bother, I just wanted to give this game an airing and get a feel for it again.

Overall I'm pretty content with this playtest. I feel that this form of the game is not very far from "done" from my point of view, and I may give it a cosmetic change or two (like getting the action cards to have the same style art as the kit cards) and then pretty much leave it.  I was given advice that more publishers would be interested in the game if I could lose one of the types of component (specifically the dice!) but now I think that I will just go with what I have, and if someone wants to publish it, that would be great, but otherwise I have learnt so much from developing Boogie Knights from that rough 24-hour game design from two and a half years ago.

Also, whatever else, I enjoy playing it!


Returning to Corlea

You may remember last year I wrote about a trip to an archaeological site in Ireland, where an impressive iron age road made of oak had been discovered in a bog in County Longford, and how I made a simple race game inspired by it.  I didn't do any further work on that game, but the idea of basing a design on the Corlea trackway stayed in the back of my head, waiting for another idea to combine with.

I'm not really particularly imaginative about game mechanics, but thoughts about combinations of mechanisms that might be fun to fit together jump into my mind once in a while. And so it was that I started thinking about an area control game (players put tokens in various areas and, at various points in the game, score points according to whoever has the most points in each area) where the placement of these tokens is controlled by a worker placement system (players put "workers" onto spaces on a board to take actions, and these placements limit those available to other players).  The action spaces on the board would, however, be on a modular board that grew during play, so every now and then a new "slice" of board would be added, opening up new options.  Thinking about this a little more I thought that it would probably make sense for the workers to always move forwards along this extending track, and the turn order would be decided by the worker furthest from the front taking the next action, taking a cue on this from the delightful game of taking a walk in Japan, Tokaido.

That was all well and good, but some basic mechanisms do not a game make, for me at least, and I feel that I need some sort of theme (which may change later) to guide my decision making as I build and develop a prototype, so I was pretty much stuck until I remembered the Corlea trackway.  Slices of a board that grow during play could representing building sections of the trackway, and there are several tasks that can form the core of the game: cutting down trees, splitting the logs into planks, transporting the wood to the bog, and building the trackway itself.  It all started coming together...

So the core of the game is about those four key tasks: cut timber, make planks, transport planks, and build trackway.  Each of these actions is triggered by moving a "chieftain" (the tokens used for action selection) onto an appropriate space on the trackway.  When an action is triggered it moves a wood token along the board, indicating its current status and availability for further tasks, and points are scored according to who has the most "workers" (wooden cubes indicating clansmen as labour resources) assigned to that task.  Workers get moved around as part of various actions.  I also added a fifth task, which is to feed the workers, which scores points and allows the points scored for each task to be rearranged (this is indicated by little score tiles on each task space.

Finally I added a little extra interest in the shape of three types of special cards which can be acquired by sending a chieftain to appropriate action spaces... Offerings are items which you craft and can dedicate to the gods when you build a section of trackway (as an aside, these trackways commonly had offerings laid beneath them, but the archaeology of the main Corlea trackway showed surprisingly little evidence of this) to give you end-game scoring bonuses for sets. Skills are bonuses that apply to your workers all the time, like breaking ties for scoring on a task.  King's favours are one-off bonuses that you can make use of at an appropriate time.

I've done a bit of solo testing of this so far and just the one try with another player, and it plays OK and isn't terrible, but doesn't quite hang together right yet.  In particular, the trackway sections all seem a bit samey (there is some variation, but it is minor) and the way workers get deployed and moved about just doesn't feel right as it is.  I think there is a basis of a game here, though, so it will be staying in the development heap for a while to see what I can do with it.


Lessons in Perspective... and Invaded

This weekend just past was another Playtest UK Sunday afternoon session in London, and once again I took Invaded along to see how things were going.  On this occasion, things went a little differently.

We had a four player game (including myself), and I settled in to explain the rules, acutely aware that partly as the game has been changing a lot recently, I haven't really developed an effective rules explanation.  This is something I really need to work on.  I was a few minutes into this ropy rules run-through when I started getting questions from the player to my left.  These weren't the typical request for clarification that I am used to, but more fundamental, calling into question the game from a very basic level and my assumptions about what the players would understand.  

I really should start thinking of a way to tidy things up and make the game look neater on the table.
It quickly became apparent that this particular player was not a hobby gamer like the rest of us around the table and did not have the shared vocabulary that the rest of us knew.  We ended up being a bit derailed into a conversation kicked off by questions about why anyone would invent a game as complicated as this one and what families I thought would be interested in it.

While frustrating at the time, this is actually an interesting point to ponder.  Invaded, by hobby game standards, is not a particularly complex game, but it takes a lot more explaining than the sort of mainstream games you can buy in high street shops in the lead-up to Christmas.  If it was given to the average non-geek family, it might be opened and the rules looked at, and then put straight in the pile of stuff to be sent to the charity shop.  It is important to keep in mind who the target audience for a game design is, and who it is not.

Despite being hit and slowed down by the Sledgehammer of Perspective and the Cricket Bat of Confusion, we did get a couple of rounds of the game played, during which I saw evidence that my new system for controlling the colonial power worked well in general (though some actions were too frequent and became dull and repetitive as a result) and, pleasingly, I saw the two more experienced gamers in the group grokking the rules easily and being able to explain them to the non-gamer.  I identified a few other small issues, but I think this test was mostly more evidence that I really need to start moving into a new phase of playtesting.

So the plan now is to fix the issues we identified in the current version of the game and then start to work on more intensive playtesting.  Yes, I know this game's development has actually been pretty intense (by my standards) over the last couple of months, but in this case I mean that I need to have people playing the game multiple times, look for balance issues, try all the different combinations of finale/mission cards, really concentrate on finding and fixing any areas where people get confused or disengaged.  Basically, it's a matter of turning what I think is now a reasonably decent game into a good (and hopefully great) one.

As Matt Leacock might say, the first 80% of the work is done.  Only 80% more to go...


Those objectives...

We're over half way through the year and I figure it's appropriate to look back at those objectives I posted in January, which were basically:
  1. Have at least a couple of pitchable games by the end of the year.
  2. Submit a game for Wyvern's Lair at UKGE.
  3. Work on at least one collaborative design.
  4. Help with more other people's rulebooks than I did last year.
So, how am I doing so far?

Well, it's too early to say on the pitchable games, but Invaded is moving along and is getting quite a lot of work done on it, so I think that should be on the pitch list within not-too-many-months, plus there are several other projects ticking along more slowly, so a little more concerted effort on one or two of those should yield some results.

Wyvern's Lair...  OK, I failed on this.  With a couple of weeks until the submission deadline I had been working mostly on Shooting Party, so hadn't managed to get anything else to a state where I was willing to throw it into the ring. As a result I decided to save my sanity a little by abandoning this objective.  Maybe next year...

The collaboration is looking good.  I am in the early stages of collaborations with two other designers at the moment: one is waiting on me to pull my finger out, while the other is currently being worked on by my design partner.  I'm looking forward to seeing how these very different games develop.

Finally the rulebook work.  I make a note of when I read, review or edit a rulebook, and I recorded eight such jobs last year, which wasn't bad, and only three so far this year, so I've fallen behind, but I could still make the target by the end of the year.  Opportunities do come up on a regular basis, so I just need to push myself forward a little more.

Really any objectives I set myself are pretty arbitrary at the moment, but I'm happy with the progress I have been making, and content that abandoning one of the objectives was the right decision.  And all this ignores the fact that I actually have two signed games now (I'll be shouting about those a lot when release dates are firmed up!), which is hugely cool from where I am sitting.  Also, I have managed to attend a decent number of playtest meetups as well as getting fairly regular playtest sessions where I live thanks to some amazingly tolerant local gamer friends.  It's all moving in a great direction; I just need to keep working and keep the morale up.


Back to the Trees

In a change from the recent obsession with one game, I recently dusted off an old design and gave it a test play at work.  The game in question was An Angel On Top, which was my entry for the 24 hour game design contest back in December 2015.  I just figured that it might be worth a look to see if it had any merit.

An Angel On Top (previous post here) is basically a simple, area control game where you score points for putting the most decorations onto Christmas trees, and more points for putting angels on top of them to finish the tree off, with your opportunities and choices constrained by a bit of dice rolling.  I tidied the old prototype up and tried it out with a friend at work, Phil, who happens to also be a game designer.  We sometimes play each other's prototypes over lunch, and this was what I brought in one day.

The game sort-of worked, it was a bit of fun, but got frustrating when the dice ended up combining with the available tree cards to give little or no choice on your turn.  We had a useful discussion and ended up with a few ideas for improving the game.

A bunch of components that comprise version 2 of An Angel On Top.
The trees could do with being coloured in.
A week later we got to try an improved version: bigger cards (tarot sized) with different sized trees on them, decorations that you could add as long as you could physically fit them on the tree without touching another decoration, special actions you could take when you placed an angel, and a few more dice to increase the available options.

The improvements were definitely improvements, and there was definitely more of a game there, though it still felt like it was missing something.  I think that the main issue is that the dice selection mechanism is a bit dull.  Our discussion on this suggests that maybe if you could use different sets of dice to take different actions (a pair does one thing, three-of-a-kind does another; a run-of-three is something else, etc.) you might have some more interesting decisions to make.

So, that's what I will do for the next iteration.  I doubt this game will ever be particularly unusual or groundbreaking, but it might be nice to have a half-decent, light Christmas game in the collection.


What's in a Name?

Names have a lot of power, and I had a reminder of this recently when a playtester was giving me feedback about Invaded.  To him, the game's title suggested that there would be armies and fighting, and in practice, an entire game of Invaded can go by without any actual combat happening.  The mismatch of expectations with reality was a problem for him.  (He also had some other very interesting bits of feedback, but I'll focus on this one for the moment.)

So, as the game has developed, I've started to think that the combat side of things is not really the default focus.  I think that the threat of violence is probably more important than the violence itself, and if there isn't actually any fighting, that is fine, particularly if the reason for there being no combat is that the players were actively working to avoid it due to the danger it promises.
Turns out it wasn't just the British getting up to this sort of thing.
By Anonymous French engraver 1883 - "Histoire de la France" Milan Jeunesse, p.209, Public Domain, Link
On a related issue, I have been calling the players' mobile forces "warbands", but was called out on this by another playtester at UK Games Expo, who suggested that a different name would align better with their usual function within the game.  He's absolutely right, and at his prompting, I have started referring to them as "hunting parties", which is starting to feel a lot better.

I'm really not sure about the best way to address colonialism.  In the real world, colonial invasions often ended up with some real atrocities being committed, and at the very least, indigenous peoples were forced to take part in systems that were not in their own long-term best interests.  The atrocities and injustices were considered to be justified in the pursuit of profit (or in order to bring civilisation to the savages, the classic bogus rationale), rather than being the objective.  With colonial invaders typically having such a huge technological advantage over the indigenous peoples, though, any resultant violence can inevitably be blamed of those holding the power rather than those who feel threatened and fight back.

A game exploring these themes, where humans are considered to be resources, obstacles, and even animals that need to be trained, could get really dark and heavy.  The problem is that I want this to actually end up being a game, something that people can enjoy playing and hopefully helps to generate stories.  Anything above that is cool, but I'm aiming at having a game rather than a history lesson or a polemic.  That said, I keep thinking myself round in circles, as the theme of Invaded is so influential in what design decisions I make, and the invaders need, at the very least, to treat the natives unfairly.

And the playtester's comment about the title has made me think.  Based on a 10 second description of the theme, this game could go in a number of different directions, and the way it plays at the moment could result in several of them.  I normally don't worry about game titles: for the most part they are working titles, and can change later, but in this case, the title is instilling expectations that often are not fulfilled.  If it was called "Game 2016-K", or "Steve", there would be no such baggage.

"Invaded" as a title might be best consigned to history, but what to replace it with?  Some of the ideas people have come up with over the months might be better, like "Colonised", "Colonialism", or "Indigenous" all have their own potential implications.

I guess that at some point I need to just choose something that seems to do a reasonable job of representing the game and its theme, and just live with it.  After all, if this actually ends up being published it may well get renamed or get a specific historical setting, so it's not really worth losing sleep over.

I realise that this post is a little incoherent as I am partly using it to help me think some things through, but I would love to hear anyone's thoughts about the subject.  Particularly if any of you have any insights into any of the periods of history where a colonial invasion has taken place, but general thoughts and opinions would be great too.


Run to the Hills!

I've had another period of fairly intensive testing of Invaded.  This little wave kicked off with a trip to the monthly Sunday afternoon Playtest UK meetup in London on a baking hot day. 

As always this was a great get-together, and I played three really interesting games, all very different, created by other players (a dice allocation thingy, a timed co-op, and an abstract tessellation game), but also had a 3-player play of Invaded.  

Now, this test went a similar way to the second game at UK Games Expo: one player attacked the colonial power a bit too early and was smacked down for it, only this time the retaliation was not quite as overwhelming, so the player in question was left dangling in the wind, feeling helpless, while the rest of the game completed around him.

The end of a 3-player game where red got themselves into a world of pain.
This all led to a very interesting discussion about what the game should be: should it be punishing and realistic, or should it be more easygoing and forgiving of mistakes?  To be honest, I'm still not entirely sure where on that line it should fall, but I'm getting more of a feeling about it.  I think it should probably be pretty punishing, but hopefully have players able to see the likely outcomes of their actions, even on their first play, and that latter part is somewhere the game is currently falling down.  It also shouldn't be a war game, though violence should be an option that could be a plausible route to victory.

Another thing that came out of this was a thought that, perhaps, under certain circumstances, players should be able to escape from attacks or have options other than trading in favour cards (gained from supplying the colonials with their resource demands), which is currently the only defense.  I labelled this approach the "Run to the hills" strategy in my head, then went home to sleep on it.

Sleep is an essential ingredient in game design.

What this feedback, thinking and sleeping resulted in was a few cards that I labelled "finale cards" (I hate the name, but I'll think of something better later), which effectively provide special bonuses, either in victory points or in capabilities, which can be claimed and used in specific circumstances, and each player may only claim one of these cards during a game.  One of these, for instance, allows you to abandon your villages and be more mobile for the rest of the game, while another protects you from colonial attack as long as you keep them sweet.

Over the following few days I had a couple of two-player games and then went to another Playtest UK meetup, this time in Oxford, where we had a three-player game.  Distilling the key points from player feedback and my observations, I think the key things are:

  • The "finale" cards look like they could well be the making of the game.
  • BUT they absolutely are not right at the moment, neither in their form, how they are gained, or how I handle the opportunities for players to collect them.
  • For a first game, there really needs to be a "standard" start, a bit like used in Catan, as new players rarely have a clue about where to set up.
  • Villages are a bit boring: they need something else to do.  In fact there probably need to be one or two more things to do, though these could easily link to whatever the finale cards evolve into.
  • Remembering to flip colonial movement cards can be a problem with some play groups. 
I'm churning over ideas at the moment about how to address these.  I'm looking at a fairly big change now which mostly has a go at the last of those bullets: flip a colonial move card on every player's turn.  This would require a lot of rethinking, but I think I know how to do this, and along with some reworking of the finale cards it could yield interesting results.  I'll be working on this over the next few days, and then see where this takes us...