Back from the Dragon Invasion

Saturday was a very long day, having to leave home early in order to drive to the next town to catch a train to get me to London, then detour on an indirect route around the underground due to line closures, get to Dragonmeet, run a playtest of Invaded, help out at the Playtest UK area, actually play a few games, and then make the return journey.  All pretty much powered by coffee and pasties.
Ready to play. Thanks to the wonderful Mr Dave Wetherall for the pic.

First order of the day was in getting to the venue in time to run a playtest of Invaded at my booked time of 10:00.  This wasn't a problem, but it turned out to be a bit tricky to get a table of players at the start of the day.  Two guys eventually came and volunteered and I decided that I would rather sit out and watch a two-player game than participate in a three-player run.

The game went well, with my volunteers taking very different strategies and having role-played discussions about the relative merits of resisting versus collaboration.  One of them did keep forgetting certain parts of the game (I need to examine whether that is a problem with the game, or not something to worry about), but the other seemed to get comfortable with it all pretty quickly and built a strategy to follow.  As is often the case, an aggressive approach against the colonial forces ended in disaster, but it would have actually not taken too much to go differently for things to have worked out better.  I think that fighting back is a strategy that is difficult to profit from, but it is possible, and those times it works out are great.

My main intent with this playtest was to try out my new way of dealing with strategy cards and controlling access to them: each has a value, and the total value of strategy cards you hold may not exceed the current colonial attitude score.  I'm not 100% happy with the way you have to add things up and compare them with a number on a chart, but it seems to work well overall, preventing one player from having easy access to the best cards, and allowing for some planning ahead, so it may well be worth the small amount of complexity.  The values I have assigned to the cards don't seem too far off the mark at the moment, but I'll need to do a load more playtesting to be sure of this.

The pacing of the game seemed pretty good though, and we took almost exactly an hour to get through the game, which ended half way through the fourth round.

So we're definitely making progress here, but I need to get more playtesting done to check how the pacing is really working out, and to find the imbalances in the costings of the strategy cards.  There's still this issue where a player who attacks the colonial power without sufficient preparation usually ends up getting into huge trouble very quickly.  My inclination here is to just let it go as a feature of the game.  I'm sure that this is going to be a controversial part of the game, so it'll be interesting to see what gets said when I finally start talking to publishers about it.

Apart from running a playtest of Invaded, I spent a little while looking around the rest of the convention, including the now separate trade hall, but didn't get much of a chance to stop and really smell the metaphorical coffee before I got back to spend the bulk of the afternoon helping out at the playtest zone.  It felt a bit harder to attract players to join in tests than it was last year, probably mainly because there was less footfall in the area where we were. But we managed to get plenty of people in, many of whom had come over specifically, which was great.

I got to play a few games myself, mostly after the closing of the trade hall and playtest zone, which was very welcome before heading home for a beer.


The Dragon of Hammersmith Returns

It's that time of year again. Next Saturday (2nd December) is the Dragonmeet games convention in London.  I really enjoyed going last year, so this year I'll be heading over once again -- and this time I'm planning to stay for at least a little while into the evening.
Once again I'm just yoinking an illustrative picture from the Dragonmeet website.
It belongs to them, not me.
I am planning to run a playtest of Invaded for part of the morning, and then help out at the Playtest Zone for the afternoon, leaving me a little free time around lunchtime, and then in the early evening. We'll see what I can get up to in that time. If you're planning on going along, hopefully we'll be able to at least say hello and exchange a high-five.


The Invasion Plods Onwards

What with one thing and another it has been a good few weeks since my last playtest of Invaded, and this was a bit of a two-edged sword in that it was good to have a bit of a break and clear my head of a game that I had been becoming a bit too close to, but conversely, getting back into the swing of things took some real effort.  Two of my local playtesting pool came along and joined me for a run of the latest iteration of the game, with a couple of very minor tweaks since last time. 

I have been thinking lately that the game seems to have more or less the shape I want for it, and most of the elements are basically OK, but we've been having difficulty with pacing and the length of the game.  Specifically, in several test plays we have seen the game ending in a way that left everyone thinking that they hadn't quite played long enough to get strategies up and running properly.  So my tweaks were mostly an attempt to make the game give players just a few more turns and to have more opportunity to execute a strategy.

This particular play went amazingly well.  Play time was almost exactly an hour, one player got a comfortable (actually too comfortable, but that's mostly a number balancing issue) win, with the other two of us both feeling that if we had just had another couple of turns we'd have done a lot better, and possibly even won.  There were a heap of balance issues, but the flow and feel were all pretty much what I wanted, and I ended up with a good pile of notes from in play and feedback from afterwards.

The thing to recognise at times like this is that one good play doesn't mean that the game is done, but it shows that the game can be good.  What remains is pretty much to look for all the problems and do everything I can to make those good plays happen every time rather than occasionally.

I would like now to start moving the testing and development into a new phase.  I have been joining in most of the plays so far, but while this gives me a good feel for the game and how it feels to play it, it means I can't really observe the other players and the flow of play quite as well, so I plan to sit out and watch more often.  I also need a combination of a pool of experienced players repeatedly playing (I have a few fine people here who can help there) and a few more newbie groups to play the game for the first time or two.  Overall, the emphasis now has to be on hunting down those imbalances and broken elements that I haven't been worrying about so far; the game has its shape, so I don't want to make major changes at this point.

I also probably need to find a new name for the game.  The current working title, "Invaded", does seem to be a sticking point for a few players who go in expecting a combat game, which this most definitely is not.  It's only a working title, but it has been problematic.


24 Hours of Solo

On a bit of a whim I decided to have a go at the current 24 hour game design contest over the weekend. I knew that I had other things to do, but I managed to plan things so that I could allocate a few hours here and there to work on my project. A big part of the 24 hour contests is figuring out what you will be able to achieve in the available time, so while I wouldn't be able to achieve as much as I might normally, I should at least be able to get something done, which is pretty much the objective of the exercise.

This month's contest requirement was "solo", which of course has a lot of folks (myself included) thinking of solitaire games, but on reflection I started thinking about things like solo round the world flights, the classic card game Solo Whist (I used to play that with my grandparents as a teenager), and of course, Han Solo.  By the time I got to starting I was thinking about guitar solos, so that ended up being the core of my theme.  Remember that, in the 24 hour challenges, the requirement can be interpreted however you like, as long as your game incorporates the word or phrase in some way.

Possibly not the most compelling image of a game you're ever going to see.

What I ended up with was a game where you collect cards representing sections of a song (verse, chorus, etc.) and lay them out into a tableau representing your song, with each card restricting your options for the next.  After everyone has created their song, each gets scored according to various set collecting criteria which are randomly selected, some of them at the start of the game and some at the end.  I repurposed (or reinterpreted) a mechanism that I rather like from Doctor Who The Card Game ('Only be sure always to call it please, "research"'), where you pass your unused cards after taking your turn to the player on your right. In this case, you have a hand of six cards, of which you play two, keep two, pass two, then draw two and wait to be passed two.  I'm actually quite pleased with that. 

This game has had only very light testing at this point, and basically works, though needs a lot of work if it is to become a solid game. I also decided (as you can see from the picture above) to not bother with finding artwork to put on the cards; a search of free or CC images online would go a long way to making the game look a lot nicer.

If you are interested, then here is the contest entry, which has links to download the rules and print and play card file.


Back From Essen

After many years, I have finally popped my Essen cherry.  This is a big deal for me: I first heard about the event in the early 90's, and have promised myself ever since that one day I would go, but factors including finances, time, anxiety, and cowardice have always combined in various ways to hold be back.  This year, Cubicle 7, the publisher who have signed two of my games, asked if I would like to go along and help, and my very understanding wife gave me a nudge in the right direction, so I said yes, and off we went.

I spent most of my time on the Cubicle 7 stand with their team, Dom, Jon, and Becky, who are all jolly fine people to work with.  My task was to explain the basics of the non-roleplaying games on the stand to anyone who was interested.  This was mostly focused on the new releases, Cthulhu Tales, and the preview edition of my game, Giftmas at Dungeon Abbey, but there were also three Doctor Who games that I was covering as well.  Between them, it meant that I was talking an awful lot, but it was good practice to develop concise game explanations -- not actually a full rule runthrough on any of them, but intended to be enough to give a decent feel for what the game involves.

I did manage to look around the rest of the show during my breaks, and while I didn't get to play, and whoa! This is a huge show, making UK Games Expo look like a minor local event.  There were entire game shops with walls, windows and doors, within the halls, vast areas of demonstration tables, and some of the publishers had stages with cameras and large screens overhead, where presenters were hosting game shows to showcase their latest releases. All this time it was easy to just get swept along in the flow of a huge crowd on the move.

A small part of one of the halls on one of the quieter days!

One of the highlights of the event for me was selling out of Giftmas at Dungeon Abbey on day 3.  OK, so this was a very small print run, so the expectation (or at least the hope) was that we would sell out, but it was still amazingly gratifying and I owe a big thankyou to everyone who shelled out for a copy.  Given comments from people after the stock had gone, we would probably have been able to sell at least a few more if we had them.

And I owe an even bigger thankyou to the woman who came by the stall to tell me that she bought a copy the day before and had played it, loved it, and told all her friends about it.  Unfortunately we had sold out by this point so we couldn't sell more to her friends, but it was one of the most amazing experiences of the show.  I know that the game is sure to get criticism sooner or later, but the fact that at least some people are so enthusiastic makes it all worthwhile.

My favourite pic from the weekend and the source of much personal pride.
There were so many other highlights though, most of which actually involve interactions with people.  One of the big ones was meeting fellow designers published by Cubicle 7, Jeff Tidball, Francesco Nepitello, and Marco Maggi.  These are three of the nicest guys around as well as being great game designers into the bargain.  I was totally blown away when I spotted Francesco enthusiastically explaining about my game to someone he knew.

Then there was the guy who complimented me on my style of explaining games, which was really nice of him. And the high fives, handshakes, and fist bumps from so many other people I knew around the place -- and from all those I didn't know beforehand! There were also those funny moments, like when we were trying to arrange a team game of Cthulhu Tales with the designers only to realise that we had just sold our demo set so we couldn't.

SPIEL is different to other conventions I have been to in that it closes early every evening and kicks everyone out, but this means that there is a thriving fringe fair, with gaming areas set aside in many of the hotels, and parties and other events organised all over the town.  One evening I just crashed out in my hotel room to rest, but the other nights I was out and about, including a great Playtest UK meetup where we got to play a bunch of prototypes, including ones from some of our international friends. I didn't take a game along myself, and was very happy to just play and give feedback.

So, that was it.  I flew back home on Monday, absolutely knackered but happy to have been.  I'm sure I will go again, maybe next year, and maybe I will join the procession of game designers doing the rounds of pitching games to publishers.  That's a decision to make later.


Giftmas at Essen!

This is not a drill!  Something that I really wasn't expecting appears to be happening.  My first signed game design, Giftmas at Dungeon Abbey, will be available for purchase at Essen!
Image nicked from Cubicle 7 for promotional purposes.

The down side is that this is actually not a full release, but only a limited edition, "pre-release" version, and there is a serious emphasis on the "limited" there: it's a very short print run, and is there as a kinda promotional release for the main run in a few months time, but I am really excited to have one of my games actually available for people to buy and play.

Unfortunately there isn't a Board Game Geek database entry for the game yet, but that should follow soon. 

So, the upshot is that if you are in Essen and fancy getting yourself a lightweight game about unpleasant people swapping inappropriate gifts, come along to Hall 6, C120, and grab a copy while stocks last!

Here is the Cubicle 7 news item that includes the Giftmas news.


Ich Gehe Nach Essen

I first heard about the SPIEL games show in the early nineties, when I was introduced to the joys of German games, and I have wanted to go ever since. In all those years, finances, time, confidence, and all manner of other factors and excuses have conspired against me going, but finally I get to go this year!

In case you don't know about the event, SPIEL (held in the town of Essen in Germany, and often just referred to as "Essen") is generally recognised to be the biggest board game show in the world.  There is some argument about whether GenCon (in the USA) is bigger, or is even a valid comparison, but that doesn't really matter, SPIEL is a huge event.  This is the event where hundreds of new games are launched each year, and thousands of geeks mingle with many thousands more families, all looking for the best new games and bargains.   It's also a place where freelance game designers take the opportunity to meet with publishers (pretty much every publisher worth noting has a stand) to pitch designs.
Image yoinked from the SPIEL website.
For my first visit to SPIEL, I'm not planning on pitching any games; the intent is mostly to get a feel for the place and, you know, just be there.  I'm travelling with Cubicle 7, the publisher who has signed my first two games.  Unfortunately the games are not yet ready, but hopefully it won't be too far into 2018 before they are available.  Anyway, I will be working at their stand for most of the time, so if you are going to Essen (between 26th and 29th October), please do pop round to Hall 6, stand C120, and say hello. 

It's all very exciting for me!