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.

Game mechanisms I hate: Randomising randomness

three diceI’ve been thinking about ways to vent my frustration on certain board and card games without outright starting to do ‘bad’ reviews. The main reason is because it seems like a lot of effort to go to (my reviews are loooong) just to say – I don’t recommend this.

When thinking about some of the games I really don’t like, it began to dawn on me that they often shared similar characteristics. So in an attempt to water down the process, I’ve decided on the occasional ‘mechanisms I hate’ post.

First out of the pit is randomising randomness. You see, I like random in games – I love card shuffling, dice rolling, even spinner spinning. But while luck adds fun and tension, too much of it can be a bad thing. What I’m talking about here is adding randomness to more randomness until it quashes any chance of strategy, tactics or fun.

Memoir ’44 (Richard Borg)

This is a game I expect to catch flack for criticising, so before going on I’ll say that other opinions are very much available: and I’m certainly not saying Memoir ’44 is a bad game, because it isn’t. I’m simply going to outline why I personally don’t enjoy it (and I’ve played a lot of games online) and don’t want to play it again.

It’s a cleverly designed light war game, in which the logistical struggles of troop movement are abstracted through a card system. The play board has three areas (left, right, centre) and several types of action and unit. You’ll draw cards into your hand, with each showing particular combinations you can do if you choose it; ie, attack with three units on the left.

This card randomness works well; it can be frustrating as you wait for the right card, but in a brilliantly tense way. Finally you work yourself into that awesome position, leaving your opponent with what should be no chance, and roll the dice…

War gamers love that stuff and you need luck in this type of game; but for me Memoir gets it all wrong – ie, one infantry unit vs four of the same unit in adjacent squares roll exactly the same amount of dice vs each other (three), so 4 vs 1 becomes 1 vs 1 on a lucky roll. The online implementation proves it too, with all the damning stats in great detail – I’ve had games with a hit rate below 20%, where my opponent had more than 70%. No chance.

Thunderstone (Mike Elliot)

The first time I sat down to play Thunderstone I was excited. Really excited. I was then loving Dominion and was super excited about a fantasy themed version that added a little bit extra to the deck-building genre. And for the first two plays, I was hooked.

The problems came when you started to get the hang of it a little and started to build something of a strategy. Now I new my deck was being built in a way that should be able to deal with the monsters that would come up in the dungeon – so why was the game feeling just as random as before?

Simple. What Dominion does is pretty dry, but it works on a strategic level. It sets you a kind of puzzle (how can I best achieve success with the mix of cards available to buy?) and adds the random element of shuffling to mean that even if two people go the same way, there is an element of chance and replayability.

Thunderstone took this concept (wholesale) and just added a dungeon – or another level of random. You try to build the best deck you can, shuffle a random selection into your hand, then hope the right monster happens to come up at the right time so that you happen to be able to defeat it with what you happen to have drawn. To me, that’s simply a crapshoot.

Quarriors (Mike Elliot & Eric Lang)

Never before has a game screamed, “not for me!” quite as much as this one. And while I’ve never played it (unless you count the app, which was more than enough), I can say with a very reasonable amount of authority that I would hate it and never will.

Again, it’s a dice game – thumbs up; and it has a deck-building element – thumbs up number two. But if you hadn’t already guessed it, it mixes the two standard random pots into one enormous one. You first pick your dice blindly out of the bag each round, hoping to get the dice you want – and then you roll them, hoping to get the side you want! Ye gods.

But it gets worse – because you can’t really mitigate it either. I won’t sully the word ‘strategy’ by even attempting to shoehorn it in here, but you can wave thoughts of tactics out of the window too; because you roll and have to deal with what you get. This puts it well below Yahtzee on the tactical scale, leaving you with nothing.

Even more depressing is that this system has spawned several other games, including a ‘collectible’ dice gaming system that hits right at the heart of another of my big bugbears – the return of collectible game frenzy in usually sensible people with Marvel Dice Masters. But more on that next time…

NOTE: The quote in the above meme is from an episode of Parks and Recreation, featuring fictional game ‘The Cones of Dunshire’…

AND ANOTHER THING: Designer Mike Elliot seems like a lovely chap every time I hear him interviewed, and I liked his game Fleet Captains. But generally I think it’s fair to say his design style doesn’t really appeal to me (although it does to thousands of other gamers).

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…

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.