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.


Building in the Valley

Following on from my post about my "drafting" game a couple of weeks back, I have spent a little more time on the game and am getting closer to a complete game.  There's still a little way to go, but it's coming along.

This game has been developing along an interesting path. What I did was to start with enough components to just about play a first round with three players, and solo-played all three positions myself, adding extra components when I needed them.  Unusually, by my recent standards, I was working by drawing on bits of card, something I usually only do for initial experiments with small parts of a possible game.
The big, green pawn, by the way, is a first player token.
This is a method that works pretty well with a supply of index cards, sharpies, scissors and a paper trimmer, and assorted "stock" components. The game starts with five actions available (claim location, produce goods, sell goods, buy goods, and select score cards), so the game can pretty much be started with knowledge of what those actions do, and more introduced as they are added from the deck, including the opportunity to build locations and roads, and expand your control from claimed locations.  Some of these required additional components to be added, and I was making new action cards when I thought of them.

At this point, the only thing really preventing the game being playable all the way through is a lack of score cards (I just fluffed through that when it came up), and I'll need to throw something together there before I can get much further.  The idea is that when the "select score cards" action is chosen, everyone gets to select a single score card which gives them a scoring condition to apply at the end of the game. Each player will acquire maybe three of these through the game, and not all of them will be in play in any given game. The idea is that your strategy is shaped by the score cards selected as the game progresses.

One major decision (which is reversible if I don't like the outcome, so it's not really a big deal) is whether victory is based on how much money you have at the end of the game (in which case the score cards give you bonuses to your earnings), there is a victory point tally, or something else is used. Victory points seems natural to me as a gamer, but they can be unintuitive and seem very arbitrary, suggesting that it is usually better to have some other measure of success.  I'll probably plump for "have the most cash" as the victory condition to start with.

Anyway, that's where we are at right now. Once I have an initial set of score cards I'll start pushing the game at playtesters, starting with some who I know are OK with incomplete and terrible games.


Simulating War, Casino-Style

One of the biggest challenges for me in game design is getting enough playtesting done. I get to playtesting meetups with other designers from time to time, and have a couple of groups of great people who help me out when they can, but I just can't get as much playtest time as I would like.  So I need to make the most of the playtesters I do have.

Methods to increase the effectiveness of playtesting include solo testing before involving other players, having several games on the go so there is more likely to be a game that can make use of whatever playtesters I have available, getting cleverer at observing tests and questioning players, and using maths or computer simulations to analyse the games and focus aspects of games from a statistical point of view.

Most of the games I have worked on to date haven't really lent themselves to maths and simulation, but my wargame, currently codenamed Craghold, absolutely does.  And, more to the point, early playtests have revealed a question that I need answered.  Combat in the game involves each player rolling a bunch of six-sided dice depending on the situation of their unit in the engagement, and counting the number of dice that roll at least a set target number.  Assuming the general mechanism is OK, then what is the best target number to use to get the sort of combat results I want to see?

A chart of some of my results. I'll explain a bit...
I'm not a great mathematician, so I don't feel confident about doing an analysis of the game by manipulating the various probabilities. I'm not a great computer programmer either, but I know enough to be able to code up a quick simulation of any given battle: the number of dice used by each of two players, and the target number they are rolling against.  I could then, in a matter of seconds, choose the relative unit strengths and run a thousand simulations for each possible target number. I'm not considering a target of 1, because in that case the more powerful force always wins.  A little bit of coding to produce numbers which I fed into a spreadsheet meant that I quickly had charts representing the outcomes of several different situations.

The resolution of an engagement is basically to find the difference between the number of "hits" scored by each side: whoever has the most wins, and the loser is penalised according to the size of the difference (being driven back, "shaken", or destroyed).  On the charts, the bars of each colour indicate the number of times a result occurred for the target number matching that colour. Positive numbers on the horizontal axis mean that player A wins, while negative numbers mean player B is victorious.

Fewer dice in the combat tightens the results up.
Armed with these charts I was able to use an entirely unscientific method of deciding which set of bars looked most like what I wanted the results to be.  For instance, with a target number of 2, the results went overwhelmingly in favour of the stronger force, and with more dice the results would end in absolute carnage.  This is actually probably a good choice for a game like this, rewarding the player who can bring large masses of force to bear where it counts, but I want the game to be a bit looser and lighter than a true strategy game.  On the other hand, a target of 6 makes engagements extremely unpredictable, but generally only marginal outcomes occur, which seems both boring and frustrating.

I'm planning on going with a target number of 3 as it gives the sort of profile I was looking for.  We shall see how this works out in actual playtesting when I next get a chance...


The Return of the Invaded

Just a quick post this time to celebrate the return of Invaded to the playtesting cycle after spending pretty much the whole of this year working on other projects.  This is not a good thing for me as, of the projects I have on the go, Invaded is probably the most advanced and the closest to being publishable. I mean, the prototype is currently version 16.

Anyway, I was expecting to not have a chance to playtest this week, but I received an email from a friend, saying that he and his wife had a change of plans, and asking if I wanted to do a playtesting session.  When testers are a very limited resource, having people actually volunteering to help is a gift horse whose mouth should not be looked into.  So they came along with another friend, and I was able to watch a 3-player game of Invaded, managing to keep out of the way most of the time other than to act as an interactive rulebook and to give a reminder or two here and there.

Three players have been invaded. Halfway through round two, and red is about to feel the pain.

I don't often sit out of playtests, sometimes as I want to increase the numbers in the game, and sometimes because I find it useful to play and get a feel for the game as it develops.  With a game in a relatively late state of development, though, it becomes increasingly useful to be able to just observe, and to be free to make notes without interrupting the flow of play.

I do miss playing though. Despite playing 20-odd times myself, I do still like the game, which has to be a good sign.

The output from the playtest was good: I have some data about scores, choices made at various times, and turning points in the game, which should all help me find the imbalances and wonky parts. Aside from a few clarifications to some rules, I don't think I need to change anything of substance before next play. And I definitely need to get in a load more tests...


Some Games I Wish I'd Invented

When I play some cool game, I often end up thinking, "I wish I had invented that," but with some games that thought runs way deeper, and a game exudes some sort of perfection, where the designer has absolutely nailed something and I end up dreaming of being a good enough designer to come up with something as wonderful.

I've been thinking about the games that have this effect on me, so here is a list of a few of the games that I wish I had invented, or even was capable of inventing. Maybe one day I'll get there...

No Thanks!

Image credit: mikehulsebus @ boardgamegeek
So this one is the big one for me. It's a game that consists of 33 cards with numbers on and a stack of counters, and that's it. Each turn you have one decision to make: do I take the card from the middle of the table, or do I put one of my limited supply of counters on it? Collect the lowest total score and you win. The genius here is the simplicity of that decision, while it still carries so much weight, the fact that runs of numbers only score the value of the lowest card in the run, and that nine of the cards are removed for each game, giving just the right amount of uncertainty for a satisfying game. Why nine cards? I can only imaging vast amounts of playtesting resulting in the perfect number. When I teach the game to people, there is invariably a general, "OK, is that it?" when I explain, and then a few turns in an unmistakable expression on their faces as the emergent subtleties start to dawn on them.

I have, on more than one occasion, said that if I had a time machine, I would use it to go back in time and "invent" No Thanks! before Thorsten Gimmler does. I am totally serious about this, it is my ultimate aim in life. Failing that, I want to make sure that as many people as possible buy the game, in the hope that Thorsten can afford to buy a yacht with the royalties.


Image credit: aldoojeda @ boardgamegeek
You place a tile, you move your "dragon" along the line on the tile, you try not to get forced off the edge of the board.  I can teach this game to pretty much anyone in seconds, thanks to its rules being pretty much intuitive from the components, and it always results in laughter and a great time had by all. There is player elimination in this game, which is usually a bad thing in modern game design, but games usually last only about ten minutes and my experience is that defeated players generally want to come back and get their revenge.  With two or three players, Tsuro is a mellow, relaxing game, but with the maximum eight players, there is chaos and carnage from the start.

The real genius of this game is that most people pretty much intuitively know how to play as soon as they are shown the components, and while it won't satisfy someone wanting a deep strategic challenge, it is a box full of beautifully presented fun.


Image credit: kalchio @ boardgamegeek
Quite a lot deeper than the previous games, Coloretto is about collecting sets of colours.  When it is your turn, you either take a row of cards from the middle of the table and end your involvement in that round (there'll be another in a minute, until the deck runs out...) or you draw a card from the deck and add it to one of the rows.  It's a really simple concept, but I think it has two little bits of genius: the way you draw and fill the rows of cards and have to do so in a way that, ideally, isn't too advantageous to the other players, and the fact that at the end of the game, three of your sets count in your favour, while any others count against you.  The implications of the simple rules are beautiful, and make this a really challenging game, despite its basic appearance.

Coloretto has spawned other, bigger, games with the same basic mechanisms, like the very enjoyable Zooloretto, but for my money, this little card game beats almost everything else for me and is another perfect game that I wish I could have thought of.

Deep Sea Adventure

Image credit: Skombie @ boardgamegeek
At first glance, this is a great big nope. You roll dice, move your diver, then decide if you want to pick up a piece of treasure or not. What is there to like in a roll-and-move game like this? Well, quite a lot, as it turns out.  The genius of turning the roll-and-move diving game into a tense, press-your-luck game by having a shared air supply which is depleted more quickly as players pick up more treasure makes this into a really compelling game. And that there is a once-and-done decision to turn back just makes the whole thing sweeter.  You get to take part in three dives, and only make a few meaningful decisions during each, but the sweet pain of having to live with your bravado or cowardice makes Deep Sea Adventure so much more than the sum of its parts.  This is a game where a lot of the enjoyment comes from egging your opponents on to take greater risks, from the schadenfreude you feel when they fail, and from the buzz you get that one time you manage to get back to the submarine, heavily laden with treasure.

I totally wish I had thought of this one. Who would have thought it could work so well?

Flamme Rouge

Image credit: aldoojeda @ boardgamegeek
Racing games are an old staple of boardgaming, but they are not something that usually gets a lot of attention among "hobby" gamers, but cycling race game Flamme Rouge quickly captured my heart. At a basic level it is straightforward: you have two cyclists in your team, and for each of them you draw a hand of cards with movement values on them and select one to use; selected cards are gone forever, and the rest will be recycled in a future round.  The genius here, though, is in two simple rules that somehow manage to represent and distill the essence of competitive cycle racing. First, after all bikes have moved, a group of cyclists that is exactly one space behind the group ahead gets a free move to catch up (slipstreaming).  Secondly, any rider at the front of a group adds a low value card to their deck (exhaustion), meaning that later on they will have options reduced and may have to ride slower at some time in the future in order to recover. There are some neat rules about hills too, but these two are enough to leave me in awe. Capturing the theme so neatly in just a couple of easily understood rules is something I can currently only aspire to.

Final Thoughts

I find that, while I wish I could design an intricate and complex ludological artifact like Anachrony or Terra Mystica, or some smooth and satisfying middleweight Euro like Concordia or Calimala, I find that the games I am most in awe of are those small, lightweight games that just do one or two things but do them so well that I can't imagine a better way to do it. I am so often amazed by the creativity and resourcefulness of other game designers that I wonder if I will ever be able to create something that can come close to matching them, but right now I can't stop making my own games, so I just have to hope that one day I will be worthy enough to join these greats.


A Change of Plans: Wind, Snow, and Drafts

This weekend I had planned to take a trip to London for a Playtest UK meetup, as is my wont, but our more-wintery-than-usual winter came back and did its thing, so I decided that it would be more sensible to stay at home for the day than risk the roads. So that was a general scuppering that I would have been happier with, but I did get the opportunity to spend a chunk of the afternoon discussing various projects (via a Google hangout) with a friend had also been planning to go playtesting and had opted to stay warm and safe for the day.

Anyway, this friend and I had previously discussed the possibility of designing games based on multiple types of drafting mechanics.  Drafting is basically where players select resources from a shared pool, and this can take many forms like the system we used to have at primary school for picking teams where each team captain took it in turn to choose one player from those so far unselected (I was invariably in the last few chosen), or a "pick and pass" system where players simultaneously choose a card from a selection they hold, and then pass the rest to the next player. There are many other mechanisms that could be broadly described as drafting.
As I keep telling people: stop thinking about making a game, and just make a damn prototype,
even if it is not a complete one. Sometimes I do take my own advice!

After a load of chat about this type of mechanism, we each had an idea for a game that could exploit the multiple draft concept. If either of these games comes to anything in the future, I think we can be clear that they were "mechanic first" designs, in case anyone asks.

My idea was based on the not-massively-exciting concept of settling and developing an area of land, building production facilities and exploiting them for profit.  Each round would consist some event or action that would allow for a different variant of drafting to resolve. In other words, each round there is something to distribute between the players, and that distribution is done in assorted ways.

I made a load of notes about this after our original discussion (and we kept the discussion going online for a little while) but I moved on to other things before I actually built a prototype.

Our discussions again this weekend did a good job of reminding me of this project and set me off again. A short while with some index cards, Sharpies, and assorted components from stock, and I had the beginnings of a prototype. It's not yet enough to play, but once I start handling physical components, new questions and answers start presenting themselves, and I start needing to make decisions which will inform how the game will develop.  Like, for instance, how do I handle resources? There are many ways to do this, but I have decided to use a short track on individual player boards to mark the quantities of each commodity held by each player rather than, for example, having tokens to represent quantities.

I don't quite have enough made to allow me to play a full round of the game, but I know what I need to do next, so once I've finished blogging about it, I'll get back to construction for a couple of evenings, and solo test parts as I am able.

Kinda related, Toucan Play That Game recently shared a good video of a panel at the recent Airecon on how to teach games to people. Paul Grogan (of Gaming Rules!) talked about the method the CGE team use for demonstrating their games at conventions by explaining just enough to get going and revealing the rest of the rules as it makes sense during play. This may be terrible if you want to construct and execute a winning strategy on your first play, but it can be a great way to learn the game.  Similarly, last year, a friend and I played our way through the card game, Fast Forward: Fortress, which doesn't has a rulebook but instead gradually reveals the rules as you work your way through the deck over the course of a dozen plays. This works well and we really enjoyed playing that. 

The reason I bring that up is that my drafting game now looks like it will involve a series of rounds, during which, players each choose one of a selection of available event cards.  These events then trigger the main actions of the game, so one gives everyone an opportunity to build production locations, another allows locations to produce goods, and another allows everyone to sell to the market.  Because of this, it looks like the game will be playable by simply explaining each of the events revealed in each round as they come up, and learning the game could be an organic experience where play can start almost immediately after sitting down for the first time.  I rather like that and hope I can pull it off.


Trying to Find a Balance

Over the last few years of learning to design games, I've picked up all sorts of tricks and techniques, but possibly the most interesting things I have learnt have been about my own processes and how I design games, as well as how those processes have changed over the years.

Many years ago, back in the 80's and 90's when I occasionally dabbled a little in tabletop game design, the games I came up with worked OK but were invariably duller than ditch water.  I never really got very far with any of those designs.

More recently, as I have been making a more concerted effort to develop my game design skills, I have come to realise that one of the reasons I had previously failed was that I obsessed too much about balance, and almost certainly misunderstood what balance is about in the context of tabletop games.  I probably still don't really have a complete handle on it, but I think I'm moving in the right direction.

My current feelings on the matter are that balance does not mean making everything in a game equally powerful, but rather to mean that there are no strategies and no individual components or elements that as good as guarantee victory.  And similarly, there should be no component in the game (I'm talking cards, units, etc) that is never any use in a winning strategy.
I have some confidence that these two cards are reasonably well balanced.

So to make things a little more concrete, in the example of Scurvy Crew, it is totally fine for some crew cards to be more powerful than others, but there should not be any combination of crew that you could acquire without other players being able to stop you, that would make your ship into an unstoppable, loot gathering juggernaut.  Similarly, every crew card in the deck should be of enough utility that experienced players would at least sometimes choose to recruit them.

Incidentally, in this case, having crew with special abilities and skill icons, as they do, is a decent way to help this: if an ability proves to be too powerful, I can reduce its effectiveness, or decrease the icons provided by the card; conversely, a card with a weaker ability could have an extra icon added.

Thinking about this has brought be to a realisation about how my game design process has developed. Where once I worried about balance from the very start, I now leave such matters until very late on, when most of the game is settled into what I think is close to a final form.  This seems to work well for me, as it allows me to concentrate on getting the flow and the experience of the game where I want it, and it also means that I don't waste too much effort on balancing elements of the game that might change dramatically, or even disappear from the game.  See, it all comes down to constructive laziness.

I only recently started working on the balance of Invaded, after it had been in development for more than a year, and the main focus of my balancing efforts, the strategy cards, didn't even exist for a lot of that time, though they are partly based on the objective cards that I had in some early iterations.  Stressing about balance much earlier would have led to wasted effort.  And, going back to my earlier point, as I balance these strategy cards, the aim is not to make them all equally useful, but rather to make all of them compelling in some situation, even if that situation only comes up in the occasional game.  Some will get chosen most of the time, while I hope the others attract "remember that time when..." stories for those moments when they were perfect.

This delayed balancing approach does have its down sides though, primarily for me when dealing with playtesters.  When testing a game, players give their feedback based on how they perceive the game and how things go for them, so it is not unreasonable that they focus on issues that they see as being wrong with the game, and that is quite often when they see that a particular strategy or decision is stronger or weaker than they expected it to be.  One data point does not necessarily mean that there is a problem, but it can muddy the waters when, for instance, I am wanting to see how the game flows and if there are any parts of the game that cause cognitive hiccups for the players.

This sort of issue is actually more about how I handle the testers than about them, and while I have been working on games for a few years now, I still consider myself relatively inexperienced, particularly at running playtests with a wide variety of players.  As such, I am trying to learn the best ways to brief testers on what to expect from the session, and how to read their reactions and respond to them.  I feel that it is fine to tell the testers that, in this particular test, I am not looking to concentrate on balance, but when they come up with these points, it is best to just write the concern down and move on if possible. After all, knowing about the perceived imbalance may help later, and it may be easy to fix for the next prototype iteration.

Oh, and this whole "balance later" thing is, as with so many things, more of a guideline than an actual rule. Sometimes it's worth tweaking and balancing along the way, if only to remove a distraction. But remember: a little imbalance makes a game far more interesting.

Credit where credit's due: I've been thinking about this subject for a while, but it came to the front thanks to an as-always interesting post on Bastiaan Reinink's Make Them Play blog.


Scurvy Treasures

The game of the moment is definitely Scurvy Crew, and I have managed to get another playtest group assembled to test the changes I have made over the last couple of weeks. The main changes involve the way treasure is handled, with custom treasure cards, plus a treasure bonus for the player who sinks each merchant ship in addition to the "area control" rewards.

Towards the end of the game, with treasure and tea nearly run out.

So, some of the take-aways from this play included:

  • The game took 70 minutes to play, with several pauses where I needed to clarify some rules. Without those pauses and bits of confusion, the game would have been within an hour, and almost certainly a load quicker with more experienced players. This I take as a win.
  • BUT those pauses for clarification are a huge problem. Part of the problem is that the terminology I have on the cards is woolly and inconsistent, so fixing that should reduce confusion significantly. I will also have to think long and hard (and observe more) to see what complexity in the game is unnecessary and should be cut or simplified. There is bound to be something.
  • The bonus treasure for actually sinking a merchant was an incentive for people to jump in and actually finish them off, but when the final scores were reckoned, it turned out that these bonuses didn't effect anything and were in practice disproportionately small. Shouldn't be hard to fix that.
  • The set collection aspect of treasure collecting didn't really pan out as hoped: there was a feeling that you were getting random rewards and then you ended up with some sort of a score that you had little control over. 
  • Balance is terrible.  I know this, and am slowly chipping away at it, but my style of play is to not worry too much about balance until late in the development process. The players were aware of this, but it can be hard for them to not worry about it. Maybe I should rethink my process a bit here.
  • There was general agreement that there should be parrots, monkeys and rum. :/

I ended up with plenty more notes than this, so I have a lot to be working with. Big thanks to the Some-Mondays group for some great feedback.  My next opportunity to playtest is likely to be next week, so I'd better get to it...


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...