Reclaiming Mondays: Board game design and website targets

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

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

Monetising the website

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

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

Game design

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

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

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

Choosing creativity over money: One small step…

creativitySo today I got confirmation that my adequate five-day-per-week salary is going to be reduced to a squeeky-bum-time four-day-a-week salary, starting on April 1.

Its going to mean cutting back on luxuries, but you know what? I think it’s for the best. Well, I certainly hope it is – as it was my stupid decision to ask for it in the fist place.

Truth be told, I’m not the well-est person on the planet. Its all my own fault I’m sure, but the net result is I don’t have the energy I once had – and I don’t sleep well (my brain simply doesn’t switch off). The net result is evenings tend to be short-lived things in terms of productivity much of the time, which isn’t much use when you have a hobby such as game design.

So, being the genius I am, I figured one solution would be to give myself an extra day a week: use it to be creative and try to make back a bit of money in the process because you know what? I’d rather have less on the table than think about what might have been.

I recently received an invoice for a payment for Empire Engine (hopefully some actual money will follow reasonably closely behind). It’s not much, but it’s proof I can make a little something out of this. But I feel I need to dedicate some proper ‘9-5’ time to it, so that’s what I’m going to do. Oh my.

Coincidentally, it was great to listen to ‘Mice and Mystics’ designer Jerry Hawthorne on the Plaid Hat Podcast today. That man oozes enthusiasm and I wish I had his drive and dedication – but not at the cost. There he is on the show saying he works two jobs and the only game he’s played in weeks is his own new prototype.

When I get home I usually want to play a good game (or watch TV. Or crash out. Or have a beer and a chin wag. Or play computer games. But then there’s the washing, and the washing up…). I mean I’d back a few of my prototypes to be good games one day, but not tonight! I LOVE playing games, as well as designing them – I want to do both.

Then there’s this website, which I could probably monetise a little. And I should be able to chase down some leads to get some free games to review. And I’ve seriously contemplated writing a book for years now. But when do you have the time? Well, now I have the time. No more excuses.

Something had to give – and frankly, disposable income is the thing I’ll miss least. Thankfully I’m a man of inexpensive tastes and my better half is much the same – time is more important than new this or new that. We’re lucky to be in good jobs in a first world country and I don’t want to take that for granted by wasting it – so I’m taking a little gamble.

Wish me luck, eh? I’ll just pass this hat around.

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.

Designer and critic: Does one have to give?

reality checkAs a journalist and all-round gobshite I’ve spent my career (and social life) ‘generously’ giving my opinion to anyone who would listen.

This is fine when you’re a third party; when I was reviewing music, for example, all I had to worry about after writing a scathing review was the occasional poorly spelt threat from the bass player. I wasn’t in a band, so reputation wasn’t an issue. If anything, writing something controversial was likely to get you noticed – often a good thing.

Of course nowadays I’m all about the board games. I’m 30+ reviews and lots of opinion pieces in; but now my first game design is out there, with hopefully more to come. So should I draw the line on reviews? Or what might I lose by carrying on?

Taking it on the chin

I was chatting with the Cardboard Console guys the other day (check them out of you like board and computer games) and they asked about reading the comments made about our game, Empire Engine, on Board Game Geek. They said, if it were them, bad reviews would make them super angry: did I read them all?

The truth is yes, I read them all – good and bad. and I watch the videos and listen to all the audio (which is tricky, as it might be a two-minute brush off in the middle of a poorly edited three-hour podcast). And do they make me mad? Nope, not at all.*

It would be contrary of me to criticise others for having an opinion when I’ve earned a living out of spouting mine; and having spent my working life in creative environments, I’m used to criticism. But any design process can be a hard, long and personal and its easy to see why some people find it hard to separate emotionally from that.

So lets say someone has a bad review and they’re pissed. Some will internalise it and have hurt feelings; but others will take that anger and run with it. This can take us back to our angry bass player, threatening scenarios you can just laugh off; but its the smart ones you have to worry about – especially when you’re starting to put some tentative paws into the very industry you’re biting the hand of.

There is no law

You’d think a well balanced review, explaining its reasoning while critiquing opposite opinions, would put you on safe ground. Don’t kid yourself. There are some vindictive, nasty bastards out there. I’ve seen people go on personal crusades to rubbish someone they’d heard criticise them, even if it was an unarguable truth.

One bad review can see you struck off the mailing list of a PR company or manufacturer. You’re then left with the dilemma of integrity versus acceptance; the right versus the easy way out. As a new member of the designers club, this comes even more into focus.

Let’s get hypothetical. I criticise Game A by Designer A, from publisher A – and both take vindictive exception. Designer A goes and gives all my games a 2 out of 10, writes bad reviews and starts to bad mouth me to his designer friends. Publisher A refuses any meetings with me to see my prototypes, while suggesting to other publishers I’m trouble. A bad rep can spread like wildfire in a small community; soon I’m pariah number one.

I’ve seen how friendly this industry is – and it genuinely is exceptional. But then I also listen when people have a few beers, and read between some of the 140 characters on Twitter. Yes it’s a nice industry, but the people in it are only human.

Right and wrong

So what of the moral side? Forget personal consequences – what’s the right thing to do? I mean, why would you want to upset someone in the first place? Especially your piers.

I’m probably not the right person to ask, as my moral compass has been called into question on occasion, but I believe if you think something sucks and people listen to you, you have a duty to say so. Alternatively, you can simply bow gracefully out of the game.

Personally I’m going to stick to writing nice reviews here, while writing pithy 20-word criticisms on BGG when something gets my goat. As I do about one review per month and haven’t been sent a single freebie (bastards) its hard to write a bad review – I don’t buy games blind and if I do play a crap game I tend to play it once then run for the hills.

But if free games start turning up (please!) I’d feel duty bound to review them all – and honestly. At that point, I’d have to think again; do I really want to be that guy?

* OK, maybe they do a bit; but ironically it’s only really the rating number that annoys me, not the words: every 3 or 4 rating brings the average down significantly right now and is hindering the game rising up the rankings. So stop it. Please 🙂

What does the rise and rise of Asmodee mean for the board game industry?

Logo_AsmodéeI listened to board game industry commentators largely gloss over the recent acquisitions of Days of Wonder and Fantasy Flight by Asmodee Group with interest.

The vast majority of responses seemed to be, “Well that’s good huh?” with very little actual thought put into the topic. Naysayers tended to be brushed off as fear mongers, seemingly due to the fact Asmodee is seen in the industry as a good egg.

On a superficial level, you can simply read the press release and agree with the publishers that this is purely a US/EU buyer/gamer win/win – everyone will benefit from increased resources, distribution channels etc etc on their opposite side of the pond.

Now I’m no expert, but I’d like to put a few things out there for debate. I don’t think this is something we should just accept and move along from without digging a little deeper into the possible ramifications.

Euraze-who?

While everyone and his meeple announced this as the gaming news story of 2014, very few spoke about the fact 2014 also saw French private equity firm Eurazeo buy an 83.5% stake in Asmodee for €98m – making it just another portfolio company in its €6bn stable of assets. While we were innocently talking about the possibility of slightly cheaper Star Wars minis on our local games store, the business press were talking about a possible new contender on the high street for Hasbro and Mattel.

I recently read an old article from the Harvard Business Review titled The Consolidation Curve. It looks at new or deregulated industries and how they have a “clear consolidation life cycle” with your average successful industry taking around 25 years to move through it fully. And this is every every industry, so there is no reason to suggest board (or should I say hobby) games will be any different.

Very briefly (I’m no business grad), this curve moves through four stages:

  1. Opening: After one or a few companies start the industry, their market share quickly drops to between 10-30% of the market as competitors arise – start-ups and spin-offs, plus consolidating companies from other industries.
  2. Scale: Major players emerge and buy competitors. The top three grow back to 15-45% market share as the industry consolidates. It’s all about protecting a core culture while taking and keeping the best people and products in the industry.
  3. Focus: Aggressive expansion sees the top three empires grow to control 35-70% of the industry, while there will generally be 5-12 players in the market. It’s now about global deals, profitability and the eradication of under performers.
  4. Balance and alliance: The big three now have 70-90% of the profit and concentrate on alliances, as there’s nothing left to grow into. It’s about defending their position, while looking for areas to branch out into – while avoiding regulation.

I think there’s an argument that says we have just moved into phase 2, ‘Scale’, and that our third industry ‘major player’ has begun to put its stall out.

Is it fair to say we now have Mattel, Hasbro and Asmodee?

The wrinkle point in these four stages, in terms of hobby games, is it was very much a cottage industry – but it has always been a little brother to a giant: high street toys and games. But now we can see the rising tide in terms of sales, boosted by a mainstream media softening towards nerds thanks to smartphones and tablets. It was only a matter of time before a big investment firm took a punt on the industry – and is it any surprise 2014 was also the year we saw Mattel dipping its toe back into euros at Essen with Bania?

Using the UK as an example, where Mattel and Hasbro had things sewn up was the high street; but even this has started to change. Non-traditional stores such as book shops have started to take hobby games seriously, while board game cafes and bars are starting to appear – let alone booming online sales. So where are people getting these games from? Well the UK hobby games distribution market has been sewn up by Esdevium, but don’t worry – it’s in safe hands of its owner, Asmodee.

The quote you hear all the time from the board game media is “you don’t go into the board game industry to make money” – but what they don’t add on the end is, “unless you’re going into manufacturing or distribution”. These firms employ creative people, of course, but they’re first and foremost businesses: just like film studios or record companies, they rely on exploiting (as in – making full use of) the talents they sign to make profit.

Mattel and Hasbro work in the same way. Designers are employees, not people worthy of having their names on game boxes. They work within the confines of a business remit for a product, rather than having total creative control, and work to deadlines. None of these things are intrinsically bad; they’re just not ideal for free spirited hobbyists, or people doing these things for the love rather than to pay the mortgage.

When will me move from ‘scale’ to ‘focus’?

There are so many questions. Will Asmodee work towards a similar structure to compete with these two gaming behemoths on an even footing? Will other conglomerates of gaming companies form to try and compete with them on a global distribution scale, creating the 5-12 ‘focus’ stage players? Is the upward trend of hobby games too slow to see this happen in the next five years – or is it actually a blip, that will see sales decline and enthusiasm wane from such big investors (which could of course have its own ramifications)?

From both a designer and customer perspective, these will be interesting times. An obvious move would be to see a smaller range of games being released each year from a shrinking number of players, but these games being released in bigger volumes as the popularity of the hobby increases.

This would drive price-per-unit down and force games on lower print runs into niches or bankruptcy – which, judging on the quality of many one-and-done Kickstarter projects, wouldn’t be a problem and will probably happen anyway as people come to their senses. But then of course there is the rise of the digital space and the possible love-love relationship that should blossom between 3D printing and print-and-play. There are just so many possibilities!

Of course I’m sure this article will be labelled naive, and I’ve already admitted I’m no expert – but if helps create a bit of debate on the subject that goes beyond giving this news a ‘Story of the Year’ award then I’m happy with that. I’m keen to learn more on the topic, and about the industry, so here’s to healthy debate.

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

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

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

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

10 game design prototype tips

1) Get testing!

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

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

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

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

2) Keep it simple at first

The first playtest cards

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

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

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

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

3) Build your component kit

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

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

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

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

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

4) Designing and printing cards

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

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

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

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

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

5) Making boards

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

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

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

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

6) Images, fonts and icons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9) Don’t give up the day job

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

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

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

10) Ignore all of the above

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

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

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

The Empire Engine: one year on

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

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

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

The Geek

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

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

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

And beyond

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

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

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

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

The slow (but awesome) BGG burn

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

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

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

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

The next year…

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

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

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

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…