Three pirate ships, two pubs, and some prehistory

This weekend I made my almost-monthly pilgrimage to London for an afternoon of playtesting thanks to Playtest UK.  For the second time I brought along Scurvy Crew, my card game about pirates, incorporating some changes to address issues identified last month.  I had two playtesters to work with this time, and I joined in to make a three.

As an aside, it is generally more effective to sit out and observe a playtest, which allows you more easily to watch what the players are doing, and make notes as you go along.  I find, however, that at this stage of a game's development, where it is changing quite rapidly, being involved can be a very effective way to get a feel for how the game plays, even at the cost of weaker in-play notes.

My usual blurry photography (not got effective shake compensation on the phone),
but going for more interesting angles this time.
My players were atypical for the Playtest UK meetups, as neither were game designers, they were just a couple of keen gamers who wanted to come along and try something new and potentially wobbly.  This meant that I could probably expect their feedback to be a little gentler and less critical than from the regulars, but getting thoughts from people I don't know at all (and watching them play) is generally useful.

As it turned out, the game ran smoothly, and these two players were really enthusiastic about it.  There were a few areas where the rules were less than perfectly clear and I had to re-explain a few times, and we cut the game off at about an hour of play, as it looked like it would run maybe another twenty minutes or so before ending.

A few really useful take-aways from this session:
  • Adding a full set of crew abilities so that every crew member had some text ability paid off, and I think most of the abilities in play were actually used at least once. Some fun combo play emerged, but I'm going to need to go through the possibilities carefully (and some of the details of card play) to ensure things don't get out of control.
  • Thinking of the details of card play, I have a couple of suggestions on how to tidy things up, and one of the players instinctively found a really efficient way of laying out their card tableau.
  • The game, as I mentioned before, was running long, which is partly because as it stands, player-versus-player combat just tends to make the game longer.  I have a couple of ideas to help here, including ways to keep the treasure and merchant decks ticking over, but also...
  • The treasure deck as it stands is just a regular deck of playing cards, which has been more or less adequate so far, but now really needs to be rethought. My feeling at the moment is to have a smaller deck, containing three "suits", with many cards providing treasure for more than one suit, to make set collection both easier and more interesting.
  • As for the p-v-p combat, this went down remarkably well, with one of the players building a crew that made it effective for them to attack other players, while I managed to build a crew that could generally evade attacks and recover quickly if that didn't work out.
Overall, while we didn't find deep problems (I always feel suspicious when that happens), this was a really positive experience, with both testers giving me a lot of encouragement to keep moving forward. I'm sure to find more problems in the coming weeks and months (I'll certainly be looking!) but it's nice to know that even in a flawed form, the game can, at least sometimes, entertain. That's a great place to be.

So my focus for the next iteration is to get the playing time down.  I would really like the game to play in less than an hour -- and if I can get it down to within 45 minutes I'll be a lot more confident about it's future.  

After the first round of testing, there was a bit of disruption due to our usual venue having a large party booked from the later part of the afternoon, leaving no space for us to stay.  During the first round of testing, our esteemed leader had taken a trip to another nearby pub and negotiated a room for us to use. So we went on a short walk to the new place and a function room that was comfortable, spacious and quiet, perfect for our needs.

Once we were relocated I only really had time to play one other prototype, but it was a fun one, inspired by Japanese hanafuda cards, and made into a game of prehistoric hunting and gathering. Very enjoyable.


Reindeer FTW!

Knock me down with a reindeer, I won the December 24 hour contest with my game, Loading the Sleigh! Thanks to Kai for running the contest and to the kind folks who voted for my entry.
Prize! (Image is Kai Schauer's)
If you go and look at the entry, you'll see that there were very few votes cast last month, as often happens.  The point of the contest really is more about participation than voting and prizes, but it would be cool if more people did vote, and I'm not sure how things can be improved. But if you have a little time and you have a BGG account, it would be really appreciated if you could go and take a look at the entries for the January contest ("Hope") and thumb the one you like the look of most. Playing the games isn't really expected, but if you do so, all the better.


Craggy Wars

A few weeks ago I stumbled across the 2018 Wargame Print and Play Contest on Board Game Geek, which is a long run-up contest with a development period running from last summer until the submission deadline in September this year.  I've not really thought much about making a wargame, but somehow ideas started churning in my head.  This year's theme (you don't have to go for it, but it basically means that there is a bonus prize category) is "sci-fi and fantasy", which added to the mental mix.

So, the concept I came up with was something loosely based on the battles for Gondor in the Lord of the Rings: Minas Tirith, Osgiliath, and the Pellenor Fields.  Mechanically, I wanted to try out action triggering in the style of the awesome Assault on Hoth (flip cards which indicate what groups of units can move or attack, making for a very dynamic battle), and combat resolution to be quick and straightforward but take account of mutual support of combat units.  The terrible working title for the game is currently Battle for Craggy City, and you can see the work in progress thread on BGG here.

I tried out a few things on my own with solo tests of a few options, and this week I finally got as far as having a reasonably full, playable prototype, with a friend to help test it.  Basically we had a map with two cities on it, one being a major fortified city and one being a port some distance away, plus a bunch of units for each side.  The defending player had control of both cities and a limited number of units, including some supply wagons that needed to be moved from the port to the main city.  The attacker had a larger army and more opportunity for reinforcements from the action deck, and a vague objective to capture the cities or wipe out the defenders.
Beautiful, huh? I also had dice that matched the unit bases.

We played the game twice, not going to a real conclusion, but going twice through the action deck on each play, which allowed for the battle to develop a reasonable distance and try out pretty much all aspects of the game as it stood.  The first game was played with the card flipping, and the second using the cards in a different way, each having a hand of cards to play, sometimes triggering an action for yourself and sometimes for your opponent.

Obviously the game has a very long way to go, but there were a few elements that worked pretty well (the basic combat system was OK, especially after tweaking the way damage was handled, for instance), and we identified a heap of elements to look at and some possible solutions to some of the problems we found. We also decided that we liked playing cards from hand a lot more than we liked the basic card flipping, so I think I will focus on that -- though the other way offers a potential other play mode that could be fun.

My immediate plans for the game are to make two main changes:
  • Modify the board to allow more space in general, but also to make the main city and the port closer together and to make a larger marshalling area for the attacking army.
  • Modify the action cards so that each activates one action for each army.  These can be used either in the order in which they are written or in the order chosen by whoever plays the card, and I will playtest this both ways to see what I like best.
A little further down the line my shopping list for changes currently includes things like:
  • Making the different unit types a little more distinct in their behaviour.
  • Enhancing the asymmetry between the armies.
  • Adding some fantasy elements like magic or special events.
  • Working on the background story for the game.
  • Figuring out more concrete and meaningful objectives for each side.
I think we're off to a decent start here though.


Scurvy London

Having revived Scurvy Crew over the Christmas and new year period, made a new version of it, tested it solo, then hastily revised the revision, I took the rather scrappy prototype to London for the first Sunday playtesting meetup of the year.

Once again the journey was not uneventful, as the skies saw fit to drop quite a lot of snow on me, starting just before I got into the car to drive to the station, making the half-hour drive far more hazardous than expected, and the wait for the train rather colder and wetter than normal, but the rest of the journey was just fine.  The snow appears to have followed me to London, where it started falling a couple of hours or so later, leaving rain behind at home, so there was no sign of snow on my return.

I'm British. We talk about weather.  Sue me.

Anyway, at the meetup, I got to play an early prototype of a worker placement game that was quite a lot of fun.  It was a bit fiddly, and had issues with the scoring, but was engaging and had a lot to think about and I was surprised when the designer said it was only the second playtest of the game, as it felt like it was a complete game that just needed a bit of tidying, streamlining and balancing.  Good stuff.

I was up in the second session and my pitch for Scurvy Crew (the routine is that everyone tapped for a slot gets a minute or so to outline their game so players can choose what they will play) was full of caveats about how wonky and untested it is, and how I had no idea of how long it would take to play.

Mid-play, with a couple of merchants being engaged, and the black ship in port to resupply.

So, we had four of us playing (thanks to Rob, Kieran and Gavin for playing and valuable feedback), and the game mostly went OK, though had some terrible balance issues (we made a couple of tweaks to the rules during play -- something that is easy to get away with when you have game designers testing) and ran long (we called it off after about an hour of play), but gave me a very good feel for how it works at the moment, and yielded some great feedback. 

Some of the main points that came up:

  • My mechanism for scoring treasure (gaining cards from a deck of regular playing cards and scoring your longest suit at game end) was very warmly received, which surprised me a little as I had pretty much just thrown the mechanism in as a place holder. This was made even better by the option to discard (an increasing number of) treasure cards to get extra actions.
  • Men o'war weren't handled quite right: they caused big problems and there was no incentive to do anything other than steer clear.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing as such, but it didn't seem much fun. Some changes introduced during play improved this, but I have a few other ideas to try.
  • There was no real incentive to attack other players, something that the players wanted to do in a pirate game.  We had some discussion about possible ways to improve this, and I think it is actually going to be my biggest challenge for the next version.
  • Overall, most of the mechanisms of the game seemed to have good thematic resonance, including the overhead of spending actions to move between port and sea, and from the general sea area to go hunting merchants, which provided a nice reward for ships that were able to stay at sea for longer.
I have a lot of work to do, but the main changes I made in the last revision (the new way to handle hunting and capturing merchants) seems to have been a real success, even if the balance is way off at the moment.  There was a lot more discussion about the game, identifying many other problems, but I am really happy with how things went.

So next up: rethink player vs player battles, take another look at men o' war (I definitely want to keep them), set up some crew cards for starter hands, a little tidying and simplification, and see how we go from there...


Milestones of Obsession

Sometimes I think about what classes as being a success as a game designer, and what classes as being successful for me.  I do harbour an idea at the back of my mind that it would be lovely to actually be able to earn a living designing (and otherwise being involved in the publication of) games, which makes it a rare hobby for me that I would even consider such a thing. But I also recognise that very few game designers do earn a living from the business, and to do so requires a lot of work and dedication, some great skills, and a whole dollop of luck.  I can safely forget about that as anything other than a "wouldn't it be nice..." aspiration and get on with my life otherwise.  More realistic would be the hope that at some point I will be able to earn enough from designing games that I cover my expenses in doing so and maybe even fund my unhealthy game acquisition habit.

A little more concretely, I have come to realise that there have been a number of milestones that I got a bit excited about when they happened, and a load more that I am looking forward to, many of which are achievable, but some are extremely unlikely, to say the least.  So, in the spirit of distracting myself from doing something more productive, I made a list of some of the milestones I could think of...
  • Have an entry for a game on BGG.  This was I Know an Old Woman, in 2015.
  • Have someone other than me logging a BGG play for my game.  Same game, though this was a personal friend.  It was last year's March Hares that was the first with plays logged by a complete stranger to me.
  • Have someone rating my game on BGG.  As with the logging, March Hares was my first game rated by strangers, but IKaOW got a rating first.
  • Sign a game for publication.  Nearly a year ago, not one, but two games!
  • Have a physical copy of my published game. Still waiting for this, but should be in the next few months.
  • Receiving royalties for the first time.  Hopefully before the end of this year.
  • Have someone with more logged plays of one of my games on BGG than I do.  It's actually close on March Hares, but not quite there - I think I need a professionally published game (coming really soon...) to achieve this one.
  • Have a game with enough BGG ratings to have a ranking.  I believe the threshold is something like 35 ratings, so fingers crossed.
  • Have a BGG top 1000 ranked game.  I don't think my first two released games will exactly set the BGG ratings alight (not really the target audience), but I can hope for this if I manage to get something released that works well for the hobby game market.
  • Have a "1" rating on BGG from that guy who rates almost everything a "1".  It's a badge of honour!
  • Have a BGG top 100 ranked game.  This is one that I doubt I will ever achieve as it is quite an exclusive club, but if it happens I suspect I'll be buying the drinks!
  • Have a game published that is a collaboration with another designer. I'm hoping to make progress with collaborations one of these days, so it could happen.
  • Be published by more than one publisher.  If the plan to start pitching games in earnest this year, I might be able to tick this off in the next couple of years or so.
  • Have someone asking me to sign their copy of one of my games.   This has actually already happened -- someone who bought one of the preview copies of Giftmas from us at Essen asked for an autograph. A weird feeling.
  • Have a game published in a language other than English.  No idea how likely this is, or how soon it might happen, but it's possible if one of my games does reasonably well.
  • Have an expansion published for one of my games.  Well, Shooting Party is eminently expandable, and I can think of some expansion options for Invaded, so it could happen.
  • Have a game I designed reviewed by Tom Vassal.  Or any video reviewer really, but Tom would be a kinda landmark, I guess.  (Maybe bonus points if he throws the game out the window.)
OK, so that's a bit of time wasted.  Maybe now I have that out of my mind I can get on with something else now... :)


The Crew is Still Scurvy

Over Christmas I started thinking about Scurvy Crew, a game I was working on ages ago, before I discovered the 24 hour game design contests or the Playtest UK community.  It has been sitting on the shelf for nearly two and a half years, having got to a state where it was playable but not particularly enjoyable.  One of the issues was that I had got about half of the game working fine, but the other half, which was basically the bit that allowed you to score points and win the game, was terrible.

The decent (though still flawed) part of the game was crewing a pirate ship by collecting cards and building a tableau in front of you, and the mechanism of either discarding cards from the tableau or taking them back into hand in order to trigger special actions.  However, hunting and capturing merchant ships was, at various times, boring, fiddly, and/or anticlimatic.

Me versus me in a battle for treasure on the high seas.
So I had an idea about how to handle hunting merchants, which kinda turns that aspect of the game from a make-a-decision-take-a-chance mechanism to a more Euro-style system, which involves overcoming a series of challenges by expending crew resources, and rewards coming when all the challenges have been completed according to who has done the most.  Yes, this is more or less an area control game, which doesn't sound too piratey, but I wanted to give it a try.

This required a fair bit of chopping and changing the game around, which I did over the last week or two, until I finally had myself a playable prototype again.  Where possible, it is worth doing a bit of solo testing before arm-twisting my friends into giving it a go, so I have done just that and can report that the game seems to have improved.  I didn't have a system for player-vs-player attacks, and I think the game is currently weaker because of it, but other than that, I think I have at least taken a step in the right direction.  It's worth sorting out the PvP aspect before the game leaves the house, but it feels nice to make some progress with an old design.


2018, Here We Go!

Having looked back at how things went for me last year, it's time to look at what I hope to do this year from a game design point of view.  Several of these are pretty much based on things I either didn't do, or only partly achieved last year.

First off, pitching and pushing my games.  A couple of objectives...

1. Having failed to do so last year, I will get more organised and submit one of my games for showing at UK Games Expo via either the Wyvern's Lair or the Speed Dating event (or both).  Even if I don't get picked, the application process would be good.

2. I will try my best to arrange at least a small number of pitch meetings with publishers at UK Games Expo.  It would also be cool if I could sort out something similar for Essen, but I'll count that as bonus points rather than the main objective.
Bonus objective: I will try to make this work!

And relating to contests...

3. This is more or less a "carry on" one, but I'll aim to take part in the 24 Hour Design Contest at least three times during the year.  With other stuff going on it's easy to ignore this, but I really consider it a useful exercise, and a great way to give myself manageable challenges to keep myself from getting stuck in a rut.

4. A little more ambitiously, I'll aim to enter a bigger contest.  The one that comes to mind is the Hippodice contest in the Autumn, so that is the big target.  Again, this isn't really about winning, but about the process, and if I get some useful feedback somewhere along the line that is even better.

General design, development and testing...

5. I will be a bit more proactive with the couple of collaborative projects that I have more-or-less on the go from last year and see if they can go anywhere (it's entirely possible that they are dead ends, which is fine, the same as with my own projects). Furthermore I'll get talking to more people and aim to get at least one more collaboration started by the end of the year.

6.  Playtesting.  Last year I did a lot better than I have previously, with two groups of fine individuals who I periodically managed to lure into my games room to test prototypes, and I went along to Playtest UK meetups when I could, but this still isn't enough.  I'm not going to put a specific target on this, partly as playtesting is relying largely on the goodwill of others and I don't want to overimpose, but I will try to do more playtesting than last year -- and smarter playtesting to make the most of what testing I do manage to do.

Let's see how we do with this...