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…

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.

Kickstart me baby! (sorry, no minies)

uncle moneybagsI’m putting myself on Kickstarter*. I reckon a £20,000 target should do it. And you’re all going to back me. Why? Because I’ve got a plan.

About 90 per cent of the games you’ve bought on Kickstarter are crap. And worse they have no resell value, because everyone knows they’re crap. So what’s the solution to all this wastage? It’s not as if you can STOP spending money on Kickstarter now is it?

That’s where I come in. For a mere £20,000 I could, just about, give up the day job. Sure, I’d be on the poverty line, but maybe things such as ‘food’ and ‘clothing’ could be bought if stretch goals were reached. Not that there would be any stretch goal rewards.

So what’s in it for you, I hear you ask? Because that’s what board game related Kickstarters are about, right? They’re not about taking a risk and helping someone try and fulfil their dream (and who might possibly fail). No. They’re about cold. Hard. Gain. But let’s for one minute pretend we’re not board game Kickstarter people – let’s pretend we’re normal Kickstarter people, who see the potential in something and take a (cheap) punt.

Here’s the deal. For just £20,000 (one 73rd of what Zombicide 2 made on Kickstarter, or one 31st of Sedition Wars) I could become a full-time game designer for a year. Instead of spending a few tired evenings each week after work trying to work on prototypes I could spend 40 or 50 (maybe more) hours each week dedicating everything I’ve got to design.

Of course I’ve not got much in the way of credentials to back me up right now. I’ve got one published game, Empire Engine, which has been pretty well received (well, it’s currently ranked higher that Sedition Wars on Board Game Geek); and another game is with a published and should be out in 2016 (too early for more details, sorry). But that’s one or two more games than many of the designers you backed on Kickstarter had, right?

The games I design will be put in front or real publishers with genuine track records in getting high quality games to market; publishers with experienced rules writers, graphic designers, game developers and playtesters – as well as strong relationships with manufacturers and distributors. And while some may take the games to Kickstarter anyway, at least they’ll be companies you know you can trust.

Of course there’s a risk that none of the games I design within the year get publishing deals: I’m not arrogant enough to guarantee success, but I could guarantee that I’d put everything I’ve got into making it work – my heart and soul. If you go in knowing that, so not expecting a physical product, how could you be disappointed if I give my all?

I’d be happy to blog regularly on my progress, the process and involve people in testing. I could even put questions out to backers when I had interesting problems or decisions to make. And imagine how great you would feel if I did get some games published: you’d really be a part of it, rather than just backing a game that’s already (allegedly) finished.

I expect I could even sort our some sort of discount on the games that did (in theory) make it to stores: I could probably sell them at little over cost to backers. But then I wouldn’t want to guarantee that, because then it’s all slipping back to commerce; about expecting results; about capitalism over creativity. Which is why this will stay a dream, rather than a reality. And that’s a shame.

I genuinely think this could work. I think it would take a designer with more clout than me to pull it off, and I think it would need cast iron guarantees of physical results for backers if it games were published. But as the success of Patrion, and Kickstarters for publishers such as The Dice Tower have shown, paying creatives a monthly wage is something some people are willing to do (for an end result).

As there’s little money in it for the average board game designer, people who want to make a living from it are essentially forced into making their own company and self-publishing – that’s where the most potential profit is. I doubt most of these people want to be dealing with manufacturers in China and shipping games out of their garages, while trying to price cards and chits and dice. They want to design; they have to sell.

Maybe in a generation or so the hobby will be popular enough to sustain the full-time development of game designers – either through increased revenue through higher royalties on sales, or from game publishers becoming cash-rich enough to take more designers onto staff (as Plaid Hat is now successfully doing). Until then, I guess I’ll stick with the day job.

* I’m not really.

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!

A board game designing diary: The Empire Engine

Empire Engine screengrabWhen I started getting back into the board game hobby in 2009 I had no idea how much I would fall back in love with it.

I’ve gone from owning just Blokus and Ingenius back then to having a collection of over 100 games less than five years later; from never having heard of Twilight Struggle to it now being the only game in the Top 20 (on BoardGameGeek) I haven’t played in one form or another. Quite a journey.

But just playing wasn’t enough. Oh no. I stumbled on the Playtest UK group on Meetup and from there the more local Cambridge Playtesters* – and started on my game design journey. And while I don’t think Reiner, Uwi, Friedermann and the rest have too much to worry about for now, I have now at least got my first design into a playable – even downloadable – form. The Empire Engine has left the building.

The concept

My first printed rules sheet

My first printed rules sheet and (below) playtest cards

The mainstay of the Cambridge Playtest group is Brett Gilbert*, a published game designer whose fantastic Divinare was on the recommended list for the Spiel de Jahres this year (the undisputed worldwide king of board game design award).

One evening he told us about an idea he was hatching for a website that would be full of ‘microgames’ from a whole host of designers and that we were all welcome to submit things if they fit the criteria. The games needed have no more than 18 cards, plus a few extra bits (dice, tokens etc) that players could provide easily themselves. While he didn’t intend it as one, the challenge (for me at least) had been set.

I went away and thought about the types of mechanisms I liked best in games, and how they might fit into such a limited number of cards. My first thought was worker placement (an idea I still haven’t completely given up on), but I ended up settling on the rondel mechanism so beautifully realised by Mac Gerdts.

First steps

The first playtest cards
If you’re unfamiliar with it, Gerdts’ rondel is a static wheel (drawn on the game board) that is divided into eight sections, each of which represents an action.

Each player has a single piece they place onto this wheel in the first game round, then take the appropriate action. In future turns they move their piece around the wheel  to take different actions – the catch being they can only advance up to to three spaces clockwise around the wheel without paying a penalty. As you can imagine, this makes decisions decidedly tricky as you weigh efficiency in time versus efficiency in expenditure.

This actually translated quite easily in my mind into card form; cards have four sides, so that’s two clockwise-turning ‘rondel’ cards each per player (rather than placing pieces on the cards) – which also meant two actions each per round per player; not much of a diversion, and hopefully an interesting one – especially as there wasn’t going to be a board to add a spacial element to the game.

If I worked on it being up to a four player game, this was about half (eight) of my 18 cards gone: what of the rest? I needed a way for them to be turned which emulated the difficult decisions you had to make in a Gerdt’s rondel game; and so the movement cards were born. Alongside their two rondel cards, each player would also have two movement cards – a ‘1’ and a ‘2’. Each turn they would have to place one next to each rondel, so turning one a single 90-degree turn clockwise and the other 180 degrees. This might just work…

The actions

I do love a good theme in a game and up until this point every game I’d tried to design had been theme first (and they have since too). The Empire Engine was totally mechanics first, with theme pasted on afterwards, and is the only one I’ve finished. Note to self: learn this lesson? Discuss.

I centred on a simple and proven action structure, taking three sides from the classic ‘4X’ gaming standard: expand, exploit and exterminate (I left explore out, thanks to the lack of board!). This led me to arm/attack/defend; harvest/export; and invent/salvage. I’d decided each rondel would point at a different opponent, so seven actions meant ‘attack’ could be on both rondel cards.

The actions offered themselves to a simple system; you’d either be drawing tokens/chips to represent resources you’d collected (arm, harvest, invent/salvage) or turning them into victory points (successfully attacking or exporting). This also lent itself well to three scoring types – military, export and technology – which could be totted up to decide a winner. I drew some actions on some bits of paper and headed to the pub for playtest night.

You might have something there…

Matt's version of the cards using clip art, used through most of testing

Matt’s version of the cards using clip art, used through most of testing

Putting something you’ve created in front of your peers is an extraordinarily nerve-racking experience. I’ve been doing it for years with writing, so that’s water off a duck’s back now; I’m much newer to game design.

But the Cambridge playtest guys are a supportive yet critical and thoughtful bunch; the perfect combination, really. It’s usual to find the post-game conversation going on miles longer than the playtest itself.

The other Cambridge Playtest organiser* is Matthew Dunstan. Back then he was a prolific yet unpublished designer; now he’s the man behind Days of Wonder’s 2013 release, Relic Runners. Luckily I talked him into co-designing this game before the fame, loose women, and custom meeples went to his head. He could see the design had promise and I was eager to enlist the help of someone who had been down the design path many times.

It’s hard to quantify what Matt brought to the process without it sounding a bit trivial, which it was anything but. What I had was an idea that worked on paper, just; what Matt had was an analytical/numerical brain, experience, patience and an eye for gaming detail that were beyond me. Between us, following his lead, we started to refine my ideas into a better game.

The nitty gritty

A few early attempts at playtest cards featuring Seb's background image

A few early attempts at playtest cards featuring Seb’s background image

Over the following six months we tinkered and tinkered and tinkered some more. Luckily much of the initial game fell straight into place: the very first game document simply read: “Arm: Gain 2 soldiers, Produce gain 2 goods, Invent increase tech level by 1, Export ship all goods to score pile, Attack (use 1 soldier), destroy a good).”

But the devil was most definitely in the detail and for a while this was amazingly frustrating for me; I’d had no idea you could be so close to being happy with something, but have so much trouble putting the damned thing in the can! One action in particular (that ended up as ‘Salvage’) changed pretty much every time we played. Or what seemed like a great idea on the way to test night actually broke the whole of the rest of the game, rather than fixing a small issue.

Moving actions between the rondels until we had the right combination was critical and took a lot of tries to get right (something Matt nailed), balancing the risk/reward of some of the harder actions and trying to stop an obviously more powerful combination emerging.

Timing was also a big concern, as I wanted as much of the play as possible to be simultaneous once cards were revealed. This for me was very important as I think it adds that element of ‘poker face’ to the game, which I enjoy watching most when others play. And a key part of this was hidden information – in what order would action choices be revealed, and how much could players either side of you deduce from this? Luckily Catan-style timing (used in setup for initial placement of settlements) fitted perfectly, but took a long while to get into the thought process.

Fairness was also crucial, as we needed players to feel all mistakes were equally cruelly punished! For example initially you failed an attack action if you had no soldier, but if you tried to do an export action and had no goods you gained a good – which left an attacker feeling pretty hard done by in comparison.

The other big challenge was the scoring system; something I don’t think I’ll ever be totally happy with (I expect for every game design there is something, but sooner or later you have to let go!). I think in the end we at least reasonably balanced the likelihood of gaining each type of scoring cube – and the hidden scoring really helps the game zip along.

The finished product

Sleeved versions of the final cards available (free to download) from Good Little Games

Sleeved versions of the final cards available (free to download) from Good Little Games

Once I was sure we would be definitely be finishing the game (at some point), I asked a talented artist friend (Seb Antoniou) if he might be interested in helping out with a few images – although I couldn’t pay him. Just what a struggling artist with a young family wants to hear…

In terms of theme, stream punk had been obvious. Conflict, cards working as gears/cogs – it simply made sense (I came up with the name as a riff on Gibson & Sterling’s ‘The Difference Engine’ – which I really need to get round to reading). Luckily it was a genre comic fan Seb loved, which made his decision easier – plus the fact he only had to design one image (although he also did a brilliant job on the icons)!

There is of course scope for more art (I’d love an image per player, for example), but one background image was the only real necessity. After a little to and fro, it was done (Brett did the final layout, which made a massive difference).

I’d written a blog post previously entitled ‘Am I a board game designer?‘ in which I concluded that the answer was ‘no’ – something I’m still convinced is true today. But when the game went live on Brett’s Good Little Games website – and then on BoardGameGeek, the whole debate did start up in my mind again. I still feel a proper published game or two is the criteria, but I do get a (sad and pathetic I know) warm glow when I see the ‘Game Designer’ logo under my BGG avatar.

The final score

I’m immensely chuffed to have gotten this far with a game design; even one as small as this. It has been a totally absorbing experience and although it’s on a very small scale it does give me a pretty strong sense of achievement. I’ll certainly continue to tinker with game ideas and hopefully one day something bigger, brighter will hit the table and again go beyond the initial idea and rules write up.

I’m not sure if this is the end of the road for The Empire Engine, or the mechanism of the cards as rondels. I certainly think we’ll tout the game to some publishers and after a break I’m going to think about extending the idea to a bigger format, including a board for that spatial element. But if it never gets beyond Good Little Games I’ll still be more than happy with what we’ve achieved.

*Note: The Cambridge Playtest MeetUp Group

I’ve only mentioned Brett and Matt by name here because it was Brett’s idea/website and Matt is the game’s co-designer. But the playtesting and insightful input, as well as banter and general camaraderie, of the rest of the group can’t be overemphasised. We’re lucky to also have the Terror Bull Games (War on Terror, Crunch) guys along regularly too.