Board game design: Three ideas inspired by heist movies

I tend to have ideas for game mechanisms most days – and of course most of them are terrible. Others hang around long enough without being dismissed for me to want to write them down, while still fewer make it from my phone’s note-taker app into my ideas document at home.

These few borderline cases kind of shared a heist theme, so I thought I’d write about them here just in case anyone else can make something useful out of them. Maybe I’ll get round to them, maybe I won’t – or maybe they’re terrible after all. They’re far from fully formed too, but maybe they’ll inspire someone.

batman jokerA co-op with evolving roles

The first idea came to me when watching the Batman movie where The Joker is getting all the people involved in the heist to kill each other off once their particular job is complete – but could equally be applied to any fast moving and dangerous situation. The game would be a co-op (although wouldn’t need to be, I guess) in which every character starts with a roll – in this example it could be the muscle, the safe cracker, explosives expert etc.

As the game goes on, players will need to decide when to change to their other roll – perhaps the getaway car driver, the van driver carrying the lot, the guy causing a road block/distraction, or tampering with traffic lights. Once you switch roll your old character is still in play, but becomes a hindrance – slowing down play and getting in the way.You’ll get a better final score if you get everyone home, but can you succeed while dragging along this dead weight…

Safe-cracker

In my mind this is a very simple mechanism requiring two players that would be used in a role-playing type scenario – say in our co-op heist game above. Both roll the same amount of dice of different colours, lets say three – red, blue and green – but one of them roles them behind a screen. The person playing the safe-cracker has to match their dice, by colour and number, to those rolled behind the screen.

The safe-cracker would’ve been able to spend skill points on raising their skill at the start of the game – with each point letting the second player give them a clue (say, ‘blue higher’). The safe-cracker can opt to change any dice as much as they likes, then asks if they have the right number for each dice. The player with the dice behind the screen will say ‘higher’, ‘lower’ or ‘cracked it’ for each dice – and then the safe-cracker goes again. Each failed attempt will use up time units.

Lie detector

This feels more like a party/werewolf-style game idea, where one (or maybe two) of the players are questioning suspects and trying to get to the truth. The potential felons all have a few parts of the story, which could potentially save their skin – but of course one of them did it (and knows it).

The questioners will have a limited time scale to grill the suspects for information, and will then have to decide who to charge – you could even have people in different rooms. The suspects can give up as much info they like, or lie as much as they like, to try and work out who did it or just frame someone at random. Maybe one of the questioners could have a preferred victim to throw to the wolves – or a prisoner could be under cover…

Happy & poor: One month into ‘game design Mondays’

Go Play Listen business card 2015I started my attempt at making a living from my hobby six weeks ago (initial aims here), so thought I should post an update on the early progress.

It’s been an odd start as there have been three Bank Holidays in the first six weeks, meaning I haven’t had full days off from my ‘real’ job. But while frustrating, I have made progress.

First up, business cards (pictured). While a little pricey these seemed like a good idea, as I’ve been asked for them quite a bit – especially at Essen – and they seemed like a strong statement of both intent and professionalism.

The website

I spent my first couple of weeks researching and then actioning my transition to my own domain for the blog, which was a lot less hassle than I’d feared. Having sourced a good amount of feedback I went with TSO Host and everything has gone well so far.

Next I signed up with the UK Gaming Media Network (linked on the right) and created a logo that fully reflected my site’s shift in emphasis to almost 100% board games. It felt important to get the ground work up and done early, and it feels like a gaming site now – but is there anything more I can/should do? Any feedback welcome.

While I’m yet to have any success with sponsorship or similar, I’ve recognised the fact that ‘income’ in terms of the site doesn’t need to be in the form of actual cash. Clutching at straws? Maybe, but I’ve already received a free game to review (and a good one) and a press pass for an event I would’ve had to pay to get into, which between them have more than covered the cost of the business cards and the hosting for the year. It’s a start!

Unfortunately several other publisher approaches have met with deaf ears, but I’ll persevere – at least one is looking hopeful if I can get my rankings up (and that’s happening). And while I haven’t yet looked into AdSense (not that I’m getting the traffic to make much money), otherwise I think I’m making good on my initial goals.

Game design

UK Games ExpoWhile I’ve made a few small inroads into two new games – one collaborative and one of my own – new design work has largely been on the back burner due to some positive feedback from a publisher on a game I was pushing last Essen.

This is potentially great news, and at worse good news – so either way it’s a positive.

It would obviously be great to get the game signed, but even if it doesn’t happen the work I’ve been doing on it over the past few weeks has really improved it. I’d be much more confident putting it in front of other publishers in future if this one doesn’t bite.

The lack of progress on other titles is frustrating, but its easy to forget just how long game design takes – and how much writing up is as much as experimenting, especially in colaboration: doing it in this kind of programmed environment really brings that home. When I was just tinkering it was something I did of an evening without a care for what was really achieved. Now I’m on the clock I’m realising just how long something like writing rules or cutting out some cards really takes!

I’ve also realised I need to get more organised: get a list of game ideas, with a sense of each one’s progression and what I feel I should be prioritising. But also a list of publisher contacts, with an eye for already starting to think about a strategy for Essen.

But before then there’s just a few weeks to go until the UK Games Expo, so I need to really prepare for that – both in getting a prototype ready in case I get in on the play-test area and seeing about starting to build a network of contacts. While it isn’t yet the kind of internationally important event it could one day be, it’s the best the UK has to offer and I’d be foolish not to see it as a big opportunity.

So all in all it feels like these are exciting times and – so far – I’m glad I took the decision to try this out. I’ll check back in at the end of the quarter.

Reclaiming Mondays: Board game design and website targets

creativity is intelligenceI recently wrote about going to a four-day week to pursue my ambition of making money out of the things I enjoy doing creatively – or at least helping ends meet enough to get by. This becomes a reality this week: as of April 2015, this chapter begins.

In the past I’ve found listing my goals and challenges here to be a real motivator because even if no one else reads/cares about them, I know they’re here. So what better way to start the project than with some objectives and ideas?

Monetising the website

This may seem a little pie in the sky, but even if I can get a small regular income it could make a difference. And this doesn’t have to be as straightforward as cash in hand:

  • Explore possible sponsorship: As the site is now getting more than 2,000 views a month it would be great to get a relevant banner ad or two up here – maybe a store.
  • AdSense: It also seems sensible to get an unobtrusive Google ad panel on here too, as such clearly targeted traffic has to be worth something.
  • Explore my own domain name/hosting: What can I do in terms of advertising while this is still a free WordPress site? Do I need my own URL to up my game?
  • Review copies: If I can get publishers to send me games, I can review newer titles and get more views – while free games equals competition prizes, sale items etc.
  • Get more into the community: Who else is out there? What can I join, share links with, bounce ideas off? How do I extend my reach while making friends?

Game design

2015 has started slowly on the design front , but I feel I’m starting to get my mojo back. We’ve been sent the contract for game number two (hopefully a 2016 release) which I hope proves Empire Engine wasn’t a fluke, so again it’s time to kick on:

  • UK Games Expo: I need to see if there will be any opportunities to sit down with publishers, or with prototypes, at the event. May have left this too late.
  • Push War!Drobe: I put this in front of a few publishers at Essen 2014 and didn’t get a bite, but I think its good enough to make the grade so I need to go again with it.
  • Take the lead on collaborative projects: I’ve started on games with both Matthew Dunstan and David Thompson in 2014 and need to get back on track with them.
  • Empire Engine 2.0: I have an idea. I have a theme. I have enough to start fiddling with a prototype – so it’s time to get it made and to the table.
  • Football prototype: A good action-based football game is possible, I’m sure of it. It’s time to take my initial thoughts to the next level.
  • Revisit my old ideas: I’ve had ideas that have either gone into notebooks or been dropped after early failures. I know more now, so they’re worth another look.

Right – better get on with it then. As always, any and all feedback is most appreciated.

Game design: In search of a half decent football (‘soccer’) game concept, Part 1

SubbuteoBeyond the flicking genius of Subbuteo (pictured), the collective game design minds of the world have so far failed to create a compelling football game. But it must be possible.

The reason oft trotted out is that its impossible to emulate the excitement and energy of a team sport in which so much individual flair and energy is played out; while retaining the higher level of strategic thought that pre-match planning and management bring to each match.

But computer games have got around both of these issues, making either football management sims or fast-paced action games such as FIFA. But we have nothing of either that have made a splash in the board and card game arena. And what about skirmish board games and battle card games? How are they not emulating an exciting tactical situation with an underlying strategic edge?

Then there are commercial concerns. Hobby gamers have for years been earmarked as nerds and geeks only interested in basement games of fantasy battles and space ship combat. But the hobby is throwing off those shackles at a pretty decent rate now; surely there would be a big publisher ready to take a punt on a game with such huge crossover potential into the mainstream?

Football simulation problems: The pitch

sensible soccerAny sensible (pun intended) design conversation needs to start with the ground itself.

Minds immediately turn to hexes or quadrants, with each player represented with a meeple, card, detailed plastic minis (Kickstarted, natch) etc.

And so we run into our first problem: 22 players on the pitch. Controlling 11 people seems too many – especially when you take into consideration that only two or maybe three people will ever be directly affecting play. Positioning will become way too much of the game, making this very much a manager-level sim and losing too much of that all important feeling of energy.

Designers have of course gotten around this but tend to do so in one of two ways (and often both); which I have dubbed the Nintendo and Dilithium approaches:

  • The Nintendo way: Chibify the game, set it in the ‘street’ or the jungle or a school playground, and make it five-a-side – immediately alienating the vast majority of your original target audience and losing any semblance of ‘proper’ football in the process.
  • The Dilithium way: Give them swords! Make them robots! We can set it in the future or the past to get around those awkward offside rules and allow full body contact to make it exciting!! And then add EVEN MORE EXCITEMENT!!!

Note: There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing these things – it’s just not football.

In my mind, this situation harkens back to my original analogy of squad combat. That tends to have fewer than 11 pieces per side, and they can of course interact with each other far more often: that damnable ball is the problem. For me, this rules out the idea of a pitch, or board, or minis – sorry (we shall briefly pause to let the Kickstarter publishers slope out of the room).

Football simulation problems: The players vs the manager

BergkampThe real joy of football – as with many team sports – is that while both teams head out onto the pitch with a plan, set out by the manager and coaches, this needs to be executed by human beings: and with another bunch of human being trying to stop them.

Football is a chaotic sporting mash up of strategy and tactics defined by flawed individuals: and fans have an opinion on every single one of them. Players have strengths and weaknesses, both physical and mental, which are the absolute essence of the game. You can’t have a ‘proper’ football game without them.

It’s not easy to create a game system where 22 individuals will be different enough on paper to have a significantly varied effect on the outcome of the game. Where do you draw the line with stats? You can have attack, defence, midfield, goalkeeping – but what about stamina, temperament, ‘special powers’ – free kicks, penalties, leadership, flair…?

And that’s just two teams. Any football game worth its salt will want a good 8 teams to start with – and if things went well, more like 20+. That’s more than 200 players now. And what about referees, linesmen, pitch conditions, the effect of the fans?

And of course the manager. Beyond picking the team the manager should be having an effect on the pitch – will they encourage long ball, wing play, 4-4-2 or 3-5-2 – and what about substitutions, or reshaping the team after a sending off, or an injury? Oh yeah, I forgot about injuries. And can we really give up on the pitch idea completely?

Football simulation ideas (so far)

Brady top trumpA card game seems the obvious way forward. While dice feel like a good idea, the idea of random on top of random always turns me off in a game that should be at least 30 minutes long – and I feel a proper football game should go that distance or more.

To take it one more step, a collectible/living card game again seems obvious. Building a deck of 11 players chosen from a larger pool (perhaps 20 for a squad) would give the individuality required. Attack and defence stats may well be enough, with individual player ‘powers’ adding the all-important individuality.

These player cards would be bolstered with manager cards: tactics and special plays learnt on the training ground. And finally there can be situation cards, used to represent those moments you just can’t legislate for: the terrible tackle, the ‘bobble’, the amazing drive from 30 yards. And of course those contentious refereeing decisions.

I’m aware these three types of card are falling easily into stereotypes made so popular by the hugely successful Magic: The Gathering card game: the players are the ‘creatures’, manager cards the ‘enchantments’ and situation cards the ‘instants’. Frankly I’m comfortable with that, as I feel there will be divergence enough from this starting point.

The real challenge will be the elephant in the room: that bloody pitch. I’m thinking it could be represented by a single card or play matt, split into three simple areas – the two ends and midfield. A marker will show where the game is currently being played, with each turn ending with a battle for supremacy in the current area: a midfield or defensive win moves you forwards, while a win at your opponent’s end results in a chance.

But how will chances be resolved? Will there be some kind of cost to put cards out? And once out, how will they be removed from play – if at all? How about weather, or home advantage? All decision for another day.

How to design a board or card game: 10 prototyping tips

Frontiers prototypeIf you’re getting into the idea of creating your own game it can be hard to know where to start.

Having dabbled with prototyping game ideas for several years now I’m far from being an expert, but I have discovered some pretty useful free programmes and been given some great steers from established designers on everything from testing to design.

This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means, but hopefully it will inspire a few people to get started. In fact it’s 2,500 words but only really scratches the surface – so please do add your own design thoughts in the comments below: I’d love this to be as useful a resource as possible.

10 game design prototype tips

1) Get testing!

This may seem a weird comment, but the biggest barrier to your game design’s future is you. If you have a kernel of an idea – a mechanism you think will work (whether it has a theme attached or not) – then you need to get it to the table.

Don’t do too much in your mind, or even on paper (such as rules and fluff), before really testing your gameplay ideas. Later it will be great Lord Doom was fashioned by the evil wizard in the lava pits of Kzafghyk, but now you need to know if your idea for a tricky Ludo/Mousetrap combat idea will translate into something that’s actually fun – or at the very least might work in a few months when you’ve perfected it.

Here’s the kicker: The more you do without testing, the more time you’ll have wasted when you realise – after five minutes of testing – that it doesn’t work. At all. Or that it’s deathly, deathly dull. Or someone says, “Oh, they use that exact concept in Chess”.

It’s very hard to look at three full books of notes and think, right, let’s try that again. It’s a different story when it’s ten cards written in hand with numbers on. Which leads me to…

2) Keep it simple at first

The first playtest cards

At this stage you’ll be inflicting your monstrosity (sorry, testing your prototype!) on your best friend, partner or gaming group.

These people know you, love you and will take the piss no matter what you put in front of them – they are not expecting Fantasy Flight components and will not be offering to publish your game at the end of the evening.

Most first prototypes for board and card games can be made with a pad and pen. You don’t need figures, a board, even wooden cubes – cut out bits of paper if you have to. Once you start to want the game to last 30 minutes because the basics are working you can move to the next stage, but for those first short tests you only need basics.

And plan for a short test; there’s no real need to print/write out out all 150 cards you can see in the final version. Star with 20 of the simplest cards (cut up bits of A4 or use note cards for something more sturdy) and see if they work in the way you want them to for a single round of the game. Again if (read: when) you hit problems, it’s so much less to get miserable about! Pop them in the bin and go again.

3) Build your component kit

So you’ve realised the game may be a winner, played a few rounds, and want to take things to the next level. You can print some cards (more on this below) but you also need money, wood, sheep – and player pieces in four or five colours.

The obvious answer is to rob your own board game collection for components. This can work fine – if you’re designing one smallish game. However if the designing bug bites what you’ll end up with is a cupboard stacked with half finished prototypes and a shelf full of unplayable games.

to keep yourself from this predicament, remember charity shops, pound shops and bargain bins are your friends. Some truly terrible (and some great) high street games are brimming with cards, dice and bits you can rescue for your own nefarious means.

Examples: Skip-Bo (numbered cards), Perudo/Liar’s dice (dice), Monopoly (houses), Risk (cubes), poker sets (cards and poker chips) – the list is endless. Just make sure it is super cheap, as otherwise you may be better off just buying the components.

Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and do the right thing: keep component stores in business. There are so many choices out there, but recently I’ve been very pleased with Magic Madhouse for card sleeves and Spiel Material for cubes.

4) Designing and printing cards

Serif PagePlusIf you’re rich, buy the full Adobe suite of programs including InDesign. Simple. You’re not rich? Me neither. Which is why I use the fantastic free version of Serif PagePlus.

If you’ve ever used a desktop publishing (DTP) program you’ll find PagePlus instantly familiar. And the suggestions that you buy it every time you open or close it are a small price to pay for what is an (almost) fully functioned piece of card making software.

If you haven’t used this kind of thing before, it’s actually very simple – a little playing around should see you up and running in no time at all. It opens an A4 blank sheet as default and the create rectangle, text and image insert tools on the left hand side are exactly what you’ve seen in the likes of Word for years.

I’d suggest making a card-sized rectangular box, copy/pasting it until you have a sheet of nine, then saving that as a template. That’s it – happy card making! Even if you don’t want to use the program further you can print these blank cards to cut out and write on.

Of course there’s a downside to most free programs and PagePlus is no exception: but you can easily get around its big issue. Several advanced options are greyed out and only available in the paid version – including saving your files as PDFs. However, you can simply download a program such as FreePDF and choose ‘print’ rather than ‘save’ – choose FreePDF as your ‘printer’ – and it will save your file as a PDF.

5) Making boards

This can be trickier, but essentially the rules outlined above apply. First, your board doesn’t need to be a board at all. Most boards are simply a place to put a collection of game mechanisms – you may find it easier to simply make each part in paper and worry about joining them up into a ‘proper’ board for later versions.

score track 1-100Again, charity shops are your friend. Most game boards are blank on the reverse, so you can move forward by sticking your bits of paper onto the back of an old Monopoly board (or similar).

Alternatively, head back to PagePlus and create your board on four bits of easily printable A4. Selotape them together into a rectangle and you’ll have an A2 board – which is a great size for most tables and standard for many games.

It’s also worth avoiding fiddly board bits, such as score tracks, which are more trouble than they’re worth – especially early on. It’s much better to just Google something: it took me five seconds to find this, for example (pictured). Remember, right now, you’re not selling your game – you’re testing it.

6) Images, fonts and icons

Once your game feels worthy of spending more creative/visual time on, icons can be a great step forward. Any text you can remove (from cards especially) is a good thing, but only if you’re sure the icons help rather than confuse players.

Again, Google is your friend. An image search for ‘icons’ will give you thousands of results, while there are many sites dedicated to listing icons. Some examples are: Game-icons.net, The Noun Project, Icon finder and Vector Stock.

In terms of a prototype, you can use any images you can find – just remember you’ll need permission to use any images if you intent to then commercialise your game yourself (perhaps through a crowd funding platform).

But again only add images that don’t detract from gameplay. Of course some games rely on visuals for the gameplay itself, but remember early on you are usually testing the mechanisms, not visual appeal, so make sure everything is readable in any light. The quicker/easier people can pick up the game, the more useful your testing time will be.

For the same reason, stick to very readable fonts. There are plenty of free font sites out there and a good one can really add to a game’s feel – but can you read it upside down through the murk across a table in the pub?

If you get to the point where you’re showing a game to publishers, there are no hard and fast rules in terms of flashiness of prototype. Most will probably tell you they want them clean, crisp well laid out (not on the backs of cigarette packets) but that art etc doesn’t matter – but then it can’t hurt either.

A bad game is a bad game and no amount of polishing is going to sell that turd. But if there are two great games and one of them is prettier, which is likely to stick in a publisher’s mind? Unfortunately, that simply depends on the publisher.

7) Grow some balls (that includes you, ladies)

dragons-denThe only way your game will flourish is by getting feedback and because games don’t splurge onto the page fully formed, much of this is likely to be negative – or at least deeply suggestive of change – early on.

Don’t be defensive; you’ve asked people to test your game and have to expect things to go wrong. Your skin will soon thicken up, although it can feel really tough at first.

But equally, don’t take feedback at face value. Note it all down, but put it in context. People can’t help themselves but want to win – and their feedback will be from their gameplay perspective. The winner will think it was their skill that did it, not the lack of balance, while the loser may not have enjoyed the game because they got hosed – but because the strategy they tried was underpowered.

That said, you’ll also want to make sure you know the kinds of game people usually like to play. It shouldn’t be surprising if a person who hates auction games doesn’t like your auction mechanic…

Don’t always play. Even better, see if someone else can explain the game while you watch. You can learn a lot watching from body language, the learning curve, ‘aha’ moments – or boredom, disinterest, laughs, tension. It’s a good way to spot where your game shines, or if it has a soggy middle or slow beginning.

If you can find the ‘min-maxers’ amongst your gaming buddies, you’re onto a winner – get them playing your prototype and let them try and break it. Min-maxers are gamers that look for the ultimate way to win and exploit it for all its worth. They don’t just want to win – they want to CRUSH YOU and then tell you how they did it. This makes them great testers, as they can often spot exploits or holes in balance that you missed.

Finally, try and mix up your feedback by letting people speak freely at first – but then directing their thoughts with questions about the things you think you most want to know about. how was game length for example? Was there enough interaction? Did you feel the need to do A, or was B simply too tempting? If you’re trying to home in on one element, you could tell people beforehand what kind of feedback you’re looking for.

8) Hi. My name is Chris and I’m a game designer (“Hi Chris”)

One of the best things about boardgaming is the community – and within it, there’s nothing better than the game design community. People are friendly, happy to help and love testing each other’s games and giving advice.

The obvious place to start are the design forums over at Board Game Geek. Help, chat, competitions, inspirations, theory – even ways to find testers. It’s all there. You may also want to check out Meetup to see if there are any groups in your local area – this is how I got involved and there are more of us out there than you might think!

Discussion and collaboration can be invaluable; especially with more experienced players as well as designers. I’ve played hundreds of different games now but I’m fully aware than many people have played thousands – and even they’ve only scratched the tip of the iceberg.

There are also a good number of international board game competitions you can enter, but I’m working on another post on those so will pass over that area for now.

9) Don’t give up the day job

uncle moneybagsRemember kids, games doesn’t pay. Yes, some game designers make a living out if doing it full time – but they are either the best, run their own companies or work for someone like Hasbro or Wizards of the Coast. Most do it as a hobby.

If you go into board game design looking to make your fortune, or for a career change, you’re likely to be disappointed. However it’s a fantastically rewarding past-time that could at least pay for itself over time – and even give you the odd holiday! And who knows? Maybe you will become the next big name designer.

But whatever else happens there’s the sense of achievement, the camaraderie, the friendships you’ll forge, the problems you’ll solve, the knowledge you’ll acquire. All in all, as long as you don’t want to get rich quick, it comes highly recommended!

10) Ignore all of the above

But of course the most important thing is that you enjoy the process. If you love whittling individual wooden pieces, or 3D printing elaborate robots made of titanium, knock yourself out – all I’m saying is that to make a game you don’t have to.

I have no idea how many published games use the artwork that was on the prototype the publisher saw when they commissioned it, but I would guess the percentage is infinitesimal. More will keep the theme you thought of, but not all – and you can probably wave goodbye to your lava pits of Kzafghyk story too. But if that drove you to make your game it was all worthwhile.

In the end what’s important is that you do whatever it takes to get your game played – even if it’s only by a few appreciative souls. Much like they say everyone has a novel in them, it’s probably the same for board games. And few things beat the feeling of seeing someone else enjoying something you’ve created. Good luck!

The Empire Engine: one year on

Empire Engine screengrabIt’s been a year since my first (generally accepted to be) finished card game design crawled tentatively into the world.

I’m pretty proud of it, and it may be the only one that ever makes it past prototyping, so you’ll have to forgive me for going back to talk about it some more (if it’s new to you, the designer diary is here).

In brief: I started the design, Matt Dunstan helped bring it to a playable state, Seb Antoniou added his artist skill and finally Brett Gilbert polished both the rules and graphic design; a stupendously rich team for a very small and humble game. It had been put up on Brett’s Good Little Games print and play website – but what happened next?

The Geek

Seeing the game up on Board Game Geek was a tremendously proud moment – but also a terrifying one. As a journalist I’ve written thousands of reviews; now I was on the other side of the divide with my baby out there at the mercy of all you miserable bastards.

They say never read your reviews, and definitely don’t take them personally. Right. Good luck with that. I subscribed to the page immediately, determined to read everything as it came along, as well as being around to answer queries. Luckily Brett’s popularity meant his site was getting some traction and the involvement of Matt also raised the profile; but it was still ‘just’ a print and play in a world of posh published games.

To date, comments and questions have been polite and each gives me a thrill. As for ratings the way BBG’s are worded I’d decided 6 or above was fine; even 5s for people who don’t like this style of game. But I’d be a liar if I said the first 4 didn’t hurt! It was actually a 3.8, and (last look) was still listed by them as ‘owned/want to play’ – and as they also rank Kingdom Builder a 3.8 I’d say we’re in good company!

And beyond

Good Little GamesI’d essentially designed The Empire Engine for Brett’s website, using his 18-card restriction as a way to try and fuel my game creating juices. This has proved really successful in terms of reach; in just a year The Empire Engine has been downloaded more than 2,000 times!

But with my Essen trip for 2013 booked, Matt and me decided it was worth trying it with a few publishers while there – especially as he had arranged meetings to show off some other games anyway. What did I have to lose?

I only went to one, with Stephen Buonocore at Stronghold, which was as exciting as it was terrifying. Despite Stephen being really nice it was somewhere between a job interview and a first date; luckily Matt did most of the rules explanation as I’d have probably made a massive cock up of it. Stephen didn’t bite, but to my immense pride somebody else did.

We found out the day after Essen, on the Monday. I was halfway home in a bar in Cologne with friends when I heard the news – and duly celebrated with some of the world’s best beers. If things went to plan, my little idea was going to be in the shops!

The slow (but awesome) BGG burn

Empire Engine IlyaAnother highlight was getting a nomination for the BGG Awards 2013 in the print and play section.

Unfortunately it was a crossover year in terms of eligibility, while the rules allowed games that had been P&P but as part of successful Kickstarters to be included, so we didn’t really have a chance of winning. But a nomination was enough!

And it started to become clear people were really digging the game, or at least the idea of it. The P&P community is a truly brilliant one, as well as amazingly resourceful. Both the cards and rules had soon been translated into French, German and Russian – and then Ilya Baranovsky did an awesome sci-fi redesign of the cards (pictured). All of this work was totally unsolicited and hugely humbling.

The first proper Empire Engine BGG review was exciting, getting ranked even more so (4,345th like a bullet!) – as have been the first few bits of podcast coverage (On Board Games, The Game Pit and Printin’ & Playin’). And all this before it has been ‘properly’ announced in any shape or form.

The next year…

So as we approach Essen again, a year later, we know the cards are with the printer and the publisher is hoping to have a copy in its hands in time for showing to some folks at GenCon. I’ve booked a six-day trip to Essen just in case it happens and am determined not to miss a single moment – this could be the one time this happens to me. If there was any way I could afford to go to GenCon too, I’d be on a plane.

Of course so much can still go wrong. A similar game may come out next week and the publisher may cut its losses; it could get printed but the boat sinks; zombie apocalypse. Or worse still Tom Vasel might hate it – or more seriously, most people might hate it. Today we had our 50th rating on BGG – an inglorious ‘5’ to mark the occasion…

But I’m still playing ‘my little game’ and enjoying it and whatever happens, I know that something I created has brought a bit of enjoyment to some people in a hobby I love – and that’s good enough for me.

The board game design buzz

back-to-the-futureFor the past few months I’ve been working on two new card game designs; one with Matthew Dunstan and one on my own. Due to Matt having a busy schedule things have gone slowly on our follow up to Empire Engine, so I’ve mainly concentrated on my own little card game, currently titled War!Drobe.

Without going into detail, it’s a two-player combat game played with a small shared deck (20ish cards) that lasts about 20 minutes. Each player is a wizard controlling their warrior in a training battle with their opponent; with the ‘wardrobe’ idea seeing you changing the armour and weapons of both warriors as you clobber (sorry) each other.

I ended up being very lucky with Empire Engine. The game popped into my head almost fully formed, with the devil being very much in the detail (you can read about designing Empire Engine here). With War!Drobe, I haven’t been so lucky. Hopefully this will give anyone interested a glimpse into the frustrating world of game design; and remember, this is a very light card game with just a handful of components and rules!

From brain to bin; do not collect £200

  • 1.0: Each warrior has two stats (health and energy) and three card positions (armour, weapon, helm). This seemed a great idea, as it meant that while a heavy weapon could do a lot of damage it would also tire you – giving you something to think about. In a turn you’d flip two cards – one would have to go onto each warrior, replacing any old item. Then the player on turn would choose which warrior hit the other. In practice, while it worked, it wasn’t fun.Combat involved too much maths for a light game, while on the other extreme their weren’t enough decisions.
  • 1.1: I removed the energy stat and allowed players to draw three cards, discarding one. To make up for the simplicity I added more complexity to the cards; some ‘classes’ so they’d react together, while adding ‘special’ cards instead of helms to let me have a bit more fun with more one-off abilities. Again, the balance wasn’t right. The extra card info simply moved the maths, rather rather reduced it, while drawing the extra card helped a little but didn’t move far enough away from luck to judgement.
  • 1.2: More tweaking later, I removed cards that ‘did nothing’ (basically weak cards that had funny names but no real purpose) and let players draw two and choose one; then do the same again for the second item. I also reduced the health stat to shorten each game. It was definitely the best version to date, but still lacked decisions – the complexity had gone, the silliness had gone, and I wasn’t left with enough to make an interesting game out of. At this point, I almost shelved it.
  • 1.3: To try and fix the card draw, I turned to a designer staple: wooden cubes. Each player got a few cubes to spend on seeing extra cards, plus an extra cube if they finished their round with a particularly bad card. To alleviate the amount of overcomplicated cards, I added ‘arena cards’ that affected the whole play area when they came into effect. The arenas added confusion and again just moved the maths, but the cubes worked a treat, giving players another level of decision making. They also opened up the design space; what else could players spend these cubes on?

By Jove, I think he’s got it (well, something at least)

lego awesome1.4: Two weeks later, the fifth version of War!Drobe went into my bag for playtest night. Arenas were gone, but more cards had cubes – which could also be spent to heal and in some situations do damage.

A combination of simplification and card icons helped make the maths more palatable, moving more decision space to the cubes.Three players who’d played before got another bite at it, as well a someone totally new to the game. This time, universally and unbelievably, it got the thumbs up.

It’s hard to describe the buzz I had on the way home; I just sat on the bus with this massive grin on my face. Conversely, when the testing is going badly, it’s such a huge downer. You hear comedians talking about ‘dying on stage’; at least they don’t know the people that are staring blankly at them – plus they’re looking out on a sea of faces, rather than one to four of them who are also sitting at your table and it’s your round.

I’ve done creative writing courses, which are equally scary, but there’s something disposable about fiction; you’re often writing a piece each week and it’s really practice – you don’t expect them to go anywhere. Designing a game is a different animal; if it goes well and gets published, it could be something people are playing for the rest of their lives. You’re trying to make something permanent, perfecting it over time. It’s more like a novel – but one you have to keep reading to your peers out loud as they pick big holes in it.

It’s only just begun

And of course all this really means is I now have a ‘proof of concept’ in place. The positive vibes led to the next questions: what’s the format? Is there enough cards? how do you think it should be packaged? What about design – what kind of art and graphic design do I need to think about for these cards?

And even when/if I get that far, it’s time to start thinking about which publishers might be interested. How do I contact them and how/where can we meet? And if we do arrange meetings, it opens up the door for those inevitable ‘its not for us’ conversations, and the very real possibility it will be rejected by anyone and everyone – all over again! You may get through the first tier of rejections, only to be defeated by the next.

But there is a silver lining to that rejection cloud. There is a brilliant ‘print and play’ community out there always looking for new games. And who’s to say your game may not rise from there to the gaze of a publisher you’d never though of, to finally find it’s way to the shelves? Every little game can dream.

And of course another idea for a game popped into my head on the bus on the way home from playtesting, but that’s another story…