The best of 2014, part 2: My top board and card gaming experiences

Empire Engine AEG main picThere’s no doubt 2014 was another big board-gaming year for me. What I’d thought about as an obsession has just become the norm, but I’m comfortable with that. I’m loving and contributing to the hobby, so who cares? It’s a brilliant community and I’m proud to be part of it.

My 6 best gaming experiences of 2014

In no particular order:

  • Paros 2012 041Paros: Our second trip to board gaming paradise to this beautiful Greek island was very different to our first, but I found it equally enjoyable. There wasn’t the same sense of adventure and exploration, while some bad news leading to an absentee made it a little sombre, but t the same time we totally relaxed and just swam, gamed and ate/drank. Our hosts were again amazing, we played 20+ games (many off of my ‘to play’ wishlist) and I really hope we can go back again – hopefully in 2016.
  • Essen: I’ve written plenty about my third trip to Essen in previous posts, so won’t say much here. I certainly hope to get some kind of pass (press/exhibitor) again in future as it was a major advantage in traversing crowds; and with the promise of the Empire Engine German edition in 2015 I’ve already got my hotel booked for next year! I won’t stay beyond the Sunday though – it proved a bit much, even for me.
  • Oxford: Empire Engine also gave me, Zoe and Matt an excuse to go to Oxford for a weekend to try and promote the game at the UK’s premier board game cafe, Thirsty Meeples. While we didn’t do much with the game, it was Zoe and my first proper touristy trip to Oxford, which was lovely, and the cafe was amazing. We’ll definitely be back to both, hopefully next year some time.
  • France 2014 the gangFrance: LoB buddy Tom invited a group of fellow gamers to stay at his family’s cottage in the south of France for a few days of country air and gaming – and lovely it was too. I ended up playing 36 games in four days, which included plenty of breaks for great food, booze and a lovely walk to find a TV and watch some World Cup footie. Would be great to do this again one day soon (if you’re reading Tom…).
  • Home and away: While I failed to get much game evangelising in this year, we did at least have some really nice weekends of gaming with like-minded gaming couples – namely Karl & Ann and Paul & Donna. This proved to be a lovely blend of walking, boozing, eating and gaming both in St Ives and London and are they very much on the agenda for 2015. I only wish I’d thought about things earlier and arranged something for New Year’s Eve – again, it’s firmly in my mind for the end of next year.
  • Eastbourne: Once again, my two trips to Eastbourne for gaming weekends-on-sea with the London on board regulars were great fun. Zoe only came to the Easter one this year, leaving me to fend for myself in November. Both were great in different ways and I think the plan is now set for following Eastbourne trips, as long as we keep getting invited.
  • St Ives Board Game Group: While Zoe and me have enjoyed our first full year in St Ives, we haven’t exactly integrated into the community. Generally it’s your typical town and people seem to have known each other for years, so while friendly enough it never feels very open. So it was great when this board game group started up and I got to meet some like-minded individuals – and they’re the ‘normal’ kind of folk too, not the weirdy nerdy ones (well, mostly). Long may it continue.

My top individual game plays of 2014

Deus boxI stopped doing my gaming year blog on BGG in October as it was taking too much time; but I’m still recording my plays there and including a little bit of extra info on each play. Here are my choices of month-by-month playing highlights:

  • January: It’s nice to be reminded how much you like  game, and doing this list has brought Manhattan Project back into my mind through all those shiny new Essen releases. Andy, Carl and me had a great close and tense game back in January that I won on 62 points – but both the other guys would’ve won on their next turns.
  • February: It was a year liberally sprinkled with great couply games weekends, but the gaming highlight was a game of Concordia with Ann, Karl and Zoe at ours. I won a wonderfully tight game that saw the four of us separated by just 12 points.
  • March: Sci-fi behemoth Twilight Imperium, bought for Andy’s 50th, took the March crown. I somehow talked people out of beating me to a pulp while sneakily lining a few points up. Just when I thought the game was up I survived another round unmolested and walked into the last territory I needed. It won’t happen again.
  • April: Finally getting my own copy of Brass, getting it to the table, then Zoe enjoying it, was brilliant – but a more typical game of ours stood out: A really close two-player game of Castles of Burgundy on a quiet evening in with a bottle of wine. The new games, the holidays, the get-togethers – all awesome. But that’s what it’s all about.
  • May: Our trip to Paros was lovely, and we played plenty of thinky games, but the stand out experiences were silly games of Cash ‘n’ Guns and Tumblin’ Dice. The former was purely daft fun, while the latter shows that it’s not impossible for me to be good at the occasional dexterity game. 
  • June: Another title was knocked off my ‘classics I need to play’ list in Manhattan – a beautifully nasty and stripped down area control abstract that was the first board game in ages I demanded back-to-back goes at after loving it the first time. Honourable mention to outdoor game Molki, which I bought after falling in love with.
  • July: I’d wanted to play Lords of Vegas for years – and when I finally did, it blew my mind. I played against two seasoned vets (Martin and Rocky) who showed me the depth the game can go to; I was purely along for the ride. Luckily both helped me along, I’m sure to their own ends, but Martin won out. And a mention for a great game of Letters to Whitechapel at the St Ives Board Game Group, where we failed miserably to capture a very sneaky Dan but had great fun trying.
  • August: Two great début experiences, with Formula D just beating off Dead of Winter for top spot. I was down and out going into the big final corner, second last of seven. But as it transpired I was the only player who could get into the outside lane and had luckily got the gears just right, letting me sling shot around the outside for an unlikely win. Shake and bake!
  • September: The beauty of Ra is its unpredictability – and September saw the perfect example. I had a strong looking tile set going into the last round, but not much could make it better. I grabbed things early but thought the time left would let Carl and Andy prosper – only to see a crazy string of Ra tiles scupper them both.
  • October: Essen and Eastbourne – what a month and so hard to pick a winner. My first games of both Deus and Caverna were amazing, but it was my plays of ebbes and First to Fight that stole the show. Both were played wit the designers, both were both fun and funny, while both were also fantastically entertaining games that I subsequently bought. Absolutely what Essen is all about.
  • November: Two variants of games I’d looked forward to a lot shared November’s prize. Basari: Das Kartenspiel was everything I’d wanted it to be (Basari in a little box while losing nothing), while the finished version of Snowdonia: The Necropolis Railway was everything Zoe and me had helped make it become in testing. Mage Wars with LoB friend Paul was also a very close contender and if I hadn’t been counting the minutes before I’d had to go home, rather than enjoying a relaxing beer, this may have taken it.
  • December: Matt Dunstan does, compared to me, have a big fizzing brain and I think he expects to beat me at any strategy game we play. At Thirsty Meeples in Oxford I taught him and manager John Deus – a game I’d played twice before. Matt started getting pretty smug half way through as the points rolled in, but I had a pretty good engine of my own going. In the final tally I’d beaten him into second by three points and oh boy, was his face a picture. I just wish he’d said, “does not compute” in a robot voice. He was genuinely surprised and yes, sadly enough it made my day.

My most played games in 2014

Race for the GalaxyIt was another year of experiments, as out of more than 500 total game plays in 2014 more than 130 were games I only played once.

When you add more than 100 plays of unpublished prototypes, that’s almost half my plays.

Only a few games made double figures again this year, with two games holding their places in the top three – but being separated by one cheeky new entry…

  • 18 – Race for the Galaxy (22 in 2013 and ‘most played’ every year ever)
  • 16 – Empire Engine
  • 12 – Ticket to Ride (13 in 2013 and still my go-to gateway)
  • 10 – Can’t Stop 

While this looks a bit grim for my top titles, lots of my favourite euros games were on or around five plays including Deus, Snowdonia, Bora Bora, Copycat, Terra Mystica and Concordia. With such a big collection, it stands to reason I’m having to spread them thin! But no, it’s not something I’m totally happy with – especially when I look at some of the crap games I was subjected to in 2014!

I really don’t think this will look the same next year. I already feel as if I want to spend more time playing the games I really like, while I’ve got a lot of ‘must play’ titles off my wishlist in the last couple of years. I’ve also signed up to the ‘33×3 Challenge‘ on Board Game Geek, which aims to get you to play 33 games 3 times each during 2015. This will hopefully encourage me to get a bunch of my favourites to he table more often.

Looking back to 2013

Merchant of VenusAfter 10 plays of Kingdom Builder in 2013, I only played twice this year. Lost Valley again failed to hit the table in 2014, while Merchant of Venus and Tikal – two of my favourite new games last year – were played a lot less than I’d predicted. But these are all on the aforementioned ’33×3′ list, so should see some more love this year!

Cuba and Earth Reborn had also gone unplayed through 2013 and I’ve since traded Cuba, while Earth Reborn won’t be far behind. They’re both good games, but the former feels too much like work while the latter I simply can’t see myself playing – I’d need a regular partner and that’s simply not going to happen. At least I managed four games of For Sale – I still can’t quite believe I didn’t play it all in 2013.

Bring on 2015!

As I mentioned above, the German release of Empire Engine this year already has me excited about next year’s trip back to Essen. It may even arrive in another language or two, which would be amazing. Also, as we’re not off to Paros in 2015, I’m hoping to go to my first UK Games Expo in Birmingham in May – even if only for a day to check it out and maybe give Empire Engine a little push there too.

I also have a couple of 2014 prototypes still with publishers, so there’s also the chance  follow up may also be at Essen too – but that would probably be too much to ask for! I do intend to stick at  designing games though; but I’m not ramping that up at all, as much as I’d like to (although working on an expansion for someone else’s game is a distinct and exciting possibility). It just doesn’t seem financially viable right now.

I’m also hoping to leverage the ‘designer’ tag a little, especially in terms of getting myself onto some podcasts in 2015. I have spoken agreements to get on as a guest for two already and if they go well, who knows? Maybe I’ll look to start doing something a little more permanent. I’ve enjoyed radio when I’ve done it in the past, so why not?

As for new purchases I really am going to try and rein them in, but when I haven’t I said that? But I may actually keep the promise this year. If nothing else, this year has taught me that I have a lot of awesome games on my shelves that I don’t play enough and that i’d love not to be rubbish at!

Part 1 here!

* For previous entries, see my 2012 and 2013 posts.

Good Little Games: Five fabulous print and play micro games

Good Little GamesGood Little Games was set up in 2013 by Brett Gilbert (designer of the Spiel des Jahres Awards recommended Divinare) to showcase free print & play micro games.

Each game has a maximum of 18 cards, so can be printed on two sheets of A4 (plus the rules), although they may need a few extra bits (chits or dice you can easily cadge from other games).

The site hosts the game I created with the help of Matthew Dunstan, The Empire Engine. I won’t talk about that here (you can read the design diary if you like), but I did want to spend a bit of time looking at some great games on the site.

Below you’ll find my favourite five of the first batch to go live there, all of which are well worth a few sheets of paper and a bit of printer ink! So, in no particular order (and with apologies for the crappy photos – I had terrible light)…

The Other Hat Trick

The Other Hat TrickDesigned by Brett Gilbert, this is a fast and clever little game for exactly three players. There are seven ‘prop’ cards, two of which are variously needed to perform the 10 tricks (the rest of the cards). Each of you has two cards, but who has what – and what’s the one left in the middle?

Three props are carrots, but the other four are unique. The tricks range in value from one to six, depending on difficulty. On your turn, you’ll try to perform a trick (one will be face up, or you can choose another at random). But before you do, you have to swap a prop with one of your opponents’ – which are face down on the table…

And therein lies the game; what do you need – and where is it? Sometimes you get lucky, normally not – and yes there’s a memory element, but it’s very small. I don’t like memory games, but I thoroughly enjoy playing The Other Hat Trick. And even if you don’t, it takes as long to play (about 10 minutes) as it does to print out!

Pocket Imperium

Ramping things up a bit, David Mortimer’s Pocket Imperium lasts longer (30+ minutes) and will need you to grab a pile of counters (in three colours) to go with the cards. It also needs exactly three players, but if you’re a fan of 4X (empire building) games it’s well worth making it happen.

Nine cards make the 3×3 map, plus each player gets a set of three identical cards; expand (get 1-3 ships), explore (move 1-3 fleets) and exterminate (kick 1-3 butts!). Each round, you will pre-program the order in which you want to do these actions, but you need to balance the order you want with the order you think your opponents will choose. Why? Because you act simultaneously and the fewer people who turn over the same action card at once, the better the action will be. If you all pick expand, you get one ship each; but if only you choose it, you’re going to get three.

Each round you’ll each choose a map card to score, so it’s very much about conflict and area majority. The game really ebbs and flows, and scores can be very tight, so you really have to pick your targets carefully. Again, this wouldn’t usually be my kind of game, but I’d always be happy to play Pocket Imperium. And even better, it should be getting a commercial release from LudiCreations at Essen 2014.

Muses

MusesThis is a solo game from London on Boarder and P&P game designer Adam Taylor. Muses needs just 10 minutes to play, one sheet of paper to print (as there’s only nine cards, the muses) – plus a couple of dice and three tokens.

One muse is randomly drawn each round. Each has a ‘claim’ condition on one-to-four of its sides; you’ll roll two dice and if you’ve met these conditions (eg: total higher than 9; both dice are even; odd pair), you can claim a muse of your choice. Any you don’t claim are rotated; and if they rotate to a side with no claim condition, they’re gone for good.

Muses are worth points (you need a total of 20 to win), but those with lower point values give one-shot modifiers to your dice rolls which can be invaluable. But they only total 23 total points, so you can’t miss many if you want to win! This is a great little solo filler game.

Bicycle Race

Oddly not called Keydefrance, this fun little racer comes from renowned designer Sebastian Bleasdale – who has managed to make an 18-card game that plays four to six players (there are six bike cards) and still manages to last about 20 minutes.

Each round starts with the player in last place in the race challenging the player in front of them by playing one of their two race cards (12 in total, numbered 0-11). Usually the highest number wins, but certain combos see lowest win, so it’s all about bluff and counter bluff. And whoever wins the challenge grabs a new card and faces the next player in line – so you could go from last to first in one round.

There’s a little more to it than that (you can add mountains and sprints to spice things up, for example), but you see the idea; it’s a simple game of luck and out-thinking your opponents which is a good laugh in the right crowd and doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Shape Up!

Shape UpThis is a really clever little abstract game for two or three players from Mo Holkar. All you need are the cards and rules, with a game again lasting about 10 minutes (although I expect it’s one you’ll play a few times back-to-back; we certainly have).

There are 18 cards representing a mix of three shapes, three colours, plus sold or hollow (red solid triangle, blue hollow circle etc). One is put aside, one given to each player as their scoring card, and the rest make a draw pile. Then you take it in turns to flip a card and slowly build up a 3×5 grid (you may also move one card on your turn). When all cards are flipped, you score for complete lines in the colour/shape/shading on your scorecard.

It makes for some interesting decisions throughout, but it gets even better if you play the advanced rules. Here you don’t get a scoring card; instead you’ll have a hand of three cards from the start, with the last card left in your hand at then end being your scoring card. If you like abstracts, this is a fascinating little brain burner.

My board gaming life: 2013 highlights

This time last year I did my first blog post in this style, featuring my 2012 gaming highlights. Thankfully I think I’m still in minor (rather than major) obsession territory, as my collection grew about the same amount (up by around 40 games) and I played about the same amount of games (total plays went from 444 last year to around 400 this).

I again had three game related trips away, with my second trip to Essen and a couple of trips to Eastbourne. Unfortunately we failed to make it to Paros, but the flights for our May 2014 visit are already booked and paid for.

I’m sticking to last year’s ‘highlights’ format, with the addition of a bit of looking back to last year’s predictions – but the word count is lower, promise! If you’ve got any comments or suggestions please add them below.

My 4 best gaming experiences of 2013

In no particular order:

  • Empire Engine screengrabThe Empire Engine is a very small game, but it’s mine and I made it and it’s finished and I’m proud (along with Matthew Dunstan of course – but I’m sure he’d tell you that, deep down, it’s my baby). Seeing it go online was chuffing; playing it with friends and them enjoying it was brilliant; showing it to publishers was pant-wetting in more ways than one; and who knows where things will go in 2014…?
  • Essen was, again, brilliant. I spent a similar amount of money (£150) on a similar amount of games (13), while getting to show The Empire Engine to a few publishers – which was ridiculously exciting, especially when they didn’t hate it. It was nice to go with old friend Matt too, who had a great time – and also gave the opportunity to turn it into a bit of a road trip on the way home. We took in Cologne and Brussels, but mainly for more beer and board games. Good times.
  • Space! While moving from Cambridge to St Ives did more to hinder my chance of playing games than help it, moving away from the people I play with most often, it did give me the chance to turn the kitchen-diner into a games room-kitchen-diner! Zoe is very patient with my minor obsession, probably because it isn’t really bad for me and she doesn’t hate it. And no matter what you think of them as a hobby, they certainly fill a wall rather handsomely.
  • Eastbourne (with London on Board) was brilliant fun, again, twice. We’re already booked in for Easter too, which is lovely to have to look forward to. November’s was a bit different, as we played quite a lot in couples with some really lovely people. It meant I missed out on playing some big releases I really want to get a go at (Francis Drake, Amerigo, Pathfinder, Caverna, etc etc etc…) but what I missed in hype I made up for with a fantastically relaxed weekend.

My top individual game plays of 2013

Blueprints finishedI looked back through my gaming year blog on BGG and picked my most memorable individual plays.

  • January: I unexpectedly received the card game Uruk: Wiege der Zivilisation from my Secret Santa and instantly fell in love with it. I played the hell out if it that month and I’m now into double figures. Great game.
  • February: My first ever game of Basari was a real highlight. This was a début win, which is always good, and over Lloyd, which is even better – but I did genuinely fall for it on the spot. Having played since I still love it, but haven’t found a copy yet.
  • March: It was the month I thought of The Empire Engine as my game’s name, but a big win at Ra on 62 points (about 20 points clear) had to be the gaming highlight.
  • April: Being taught any game by London on Board’s Rocky is always a treat, but a game as thematic as Dungeon Lords – and while at LoB-sterCon in Eastbourne? No contest.
  • May: A new tweak of the rondels from Matt finally saw all of The Empire Engine parts fall into place – and what better location to come to this conclusion than on holiday in Prague with Zoe? Good times.
  • June: The wonderful Copycat was often one of the highlights of my gaming month, so this might be here purely on countback. A great four-player game saw us all separated by five going into the final round, with Andy sneaking the win on 97.
  • July: Its the final play of the game. I’m three points down, a distant 38 yards from the end zone. I go long – and roll three sixes! The crowd go wild (Zoe still has nightmares today)! Touchdown! 16-12! Only Pizza Box Football can do this.
  • August: A draw between finding an original version of Merchant of Venus on eBay for £20 and falling in love at first play; or losing Ingenious to Zoe for the first time – a game she thought she’d never get good at.
  • September: This had to be my first game of Rialto, which I thought I was doing well at right up until I came third. I’ve wanted it ever since, and got it for Christmas, so hopefully it’ll be seeing the table a bunch in 2014.
  • October: A hilariously protracted game of the rather wonderful Blueprints with old friends (Matt, Keith and Clare) and new friends (the design/booth team for Cornish Smugglers) alike at a random bar in Essen.
  • November: While lots of ‘couples’ games with both Karl & Ann and Donna & Paul came close, the one stand out game was my début at Twilight Struggle. Both Martin and me were new to the game, and it showed, but it was truly magnificent.
  • December: A Boxing Day game of Can’t Stop! with Zoe and her parents, who had bought it for me for Christmas. It was probably the only game I played all year with non-gamers, which is a real shame. Must try harder!

The best 12 not new but ‘new to me’ games of 2013

Merchant of VenusA slightly shorter list than last year, but it was just as good a year in terms of quality. I still don’t feel like a board gaming expert, or even a well seasoned player in comparison to my peers, but I’m happy with that – discovering all of these brilliant older games was once again a highlight.

Bought

  • Merchant of Venus: The grand daddy of space exploration is still the best, because the cleverness of the mechanisms still haven’t been bettered. Fact.
  • Rosenkonig: Probably my favourite abstract game, as well as my favourite two-player game, this is a one-on-one masterpiece.
  • Uruk: Wiege der Zivilisation: The best small box civ game I’ve played. Fantastic card combos and strategy in a small box.
  • Nefertiti: A quick and clever bidding/set collection game with a closed economy that really ramps up the tension.
  • Manila: Is it a racing game? A dice game? A push your luck game? All of the above? I’m still not sure – but I love it.
  • The Castles of Burgundy: A clever and puzzley use of dice in a game that’s all about efficiency. That doesn’t make it sound good… but it is.
  • Tikal: I’m not normally keen on area control, but the action selection and score timing randomness really made it shine for me.

Not bought (yet…)

  • Twilight Struggle: A truly remarkable card-driven two-player war game that perfectly captures the history of the Cold War.
  • Dungeon Lords: Thematic, funny, nasty and hard: a brilliant combination that perfectly hits the spot.
  • Arabian Nights: A storytelling/choose your own adventure experience more than a game, this is a fun and beautifully realised change of pace.
  • Basari: A great quick-and-dirty game of chance mixed with set collection, I’m looking forward to checking out the new version in 2014.
  • Lady Alice: Cluedo, made into a ‘proper’ game with something closer to real deduction, with bluffing thrown in.

Of last year’s ‘not bought… yet’ list I only actually picked up Kingdom Builder, which I’ve had a lot of fun with. Glen More, Galaxy Trucker and Die Macher are still on my wishlist but more to look for cheap than to reach the top of it. Cards Against Humanity I’ll pick up soon, now the UK version is out, while Fairy Tale has fallen out of favour as I’m sure there’s a better card drafting game out there – even if it’s still in someone’s head!

2013 really wasn’t a year of expansions for me. Kingdom Builder: Nomads is very high on my wishlist, while Ticket to Ride: Nederland looks like a lot of fun. And it looks like we’ll finally get Race for the Galaxy: Alien Artifacts

My most played games in 2013

Race for the GalaxyIt was another year of experiments. Out of around 400 total game plays in 2013 some 80 of those were games I only played once – many of which I wish I’d never played at all! When you add more than 60 plays of unpublished prototypes and 18 games played just twice, that’s almost half my plays in odds and sods. Only a few made double figures:

  • 22 – Race for the Galaxy
  • 13 – Ticket to Ride (various maps)
  • 13 – Uruk: Wiege der Zivilisation
  • 10 – Kingdom Builder
  • 10 – Snowdonia

Just below these were Ra, Copycat and Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar.

But what’s really sad is the games that sat unplayed in 2013. Cuba was the biggest surprise, while Earth Reborn, For Sale and Lost Valley also failed to hit the table – all games I’m really keen on and another reason why I need to curb my spending in 2014.

My 7 favourite new releases of 2013

CV Essen promosI don’t feel qualified to talk about the ‘best’ games of 2013, as I’ve been trying to catch up on classics more than chasing new releases. Of the current hot 10 releases according to BGG, I’ve only played one!

But here’s a few of my favourite 2013 releases; they may not be the highest rated, but I’ve really enjoyed them (and bought all except Bruges and Sail to India):

  1. Bruges: Tons of individual cards means masses of variation in this really thinky euro, while there’s also room for chaotic and nasty player interaction.
  2. Rialto: A really clever card mechanism made this area control/card drafting/bidding board game an instant favourite.
  3. Concordia: A fantastic resource and hand management euro game, with fast gameplay but a multitude of tricky decisions.
  4. Blueprints: A clever use of dice makes this super filler endlessly replayable, with a nice dollop of push-your-luck and deduction thrown in.
  5. CV: My family game of the year. Its a cute take on the Yahtzee mechanic, with wonderfully evocative artwork that really helps each game tell a story.
  6. Sail to India: The first of the Japanese microgames to really pack a lot of game into a small package. A complex exploration game in a tiny box.
  7. The Little Prince: Make me a Planet: Another great filler, this time with cute artwork and a clever take on the tile laying genre.

Alongside these, honourable mentions go to: A Study in Emerald (bonkers Cthulu themed randomness), Coal Baron (a by-the-numbers yet compelling euro), Relic Runners (a great route building family game), Händler der Karibik (a lovely push-your-luck card game) and Enclave (a sci-fi euro I wish I’d had time to play a full demo of at Essen).

Best forgotten…

Last year I had a good whine about Kickstarter – sadly a recurring theme this year, as nightmares I’d backed dragged on. I don’t intend to mention them again after today though; true to my word I haven’t backed a game on Kickstarter since and neither do I intend to – if a game is good enough to be released, it will find its way to market.

Race for the Galaxy: Alien Artefacts didn’t make it out in 2013 but I’m reliably informed it is in stores now – just not in the UK. How on earth does this happen? It’s going to have to go some now to live up to two years’ worth of high expectations!

I did play some real turkeys this year, but I don’t want to dwell on them: all I’ll say is, I suggest you avoid Packet Row and Mauna Kea like the plague…

Bring on 2014!

Paros 2012 041With flights to Paros paid for in May; the hotel for the next London on Board trip to Eastbourne booked, and a visit from gaming buddies Karl and Ann in the calendar for February, its already shaping up to be a good year. And of course I’m already looking forward to Essen in October…

I’ve also promised myself I’ll play more games with casual gamers this year, as well as gaming friends further afield. An extremely protracted house move (aren’t they all?) made it a bit of a chore to make arrangements, but now we’re settled I hope to make amends and get back on the evangelical trail!

I’ve started work on several more gaming prototypes, including a new one in collaboration with Matthew Dunstan, so I’m hoping the game design and playtesting also continues apace. And it was a real privilege to be involved in testing one of the recent expansions for Snowdonia; hopefully I can keep myself in that loop too.

As for new purchases I really am going to try and rein them in, but when I haven’t I said that? But I may actually keep the promise this year. I’m only really in the market for Bruges, Dungeon Lords and Basari at the moment – but there are so many of those lovely 2013 releases I haven’t tried yet – Francis Drake, for one, looks amazing. And there will be so many bargains in the sales…

See you in 2014!

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.