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.

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.

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.

Am I a board game designer?

divinare

Brett Gilbert’s ‘Divinare’

Last night at our regular board game prototype/playtest Meetup, a guy Richard I hadn’t previously met asked quite innocently if I was a game designer.

It’s not the first time this has happened at the group, but the response is always the same; I stumble over my words and fudge an “I dabble, but erm not really” kind of answer.

Interestingly, the same guy runs a creative writing Meetup group and when asked if I write, the answer was an unequivocal “yes”. It’s what I do for a living, after all. But even if I didn’t, I think my previous incarnations as fanzine writer, college paper contributor and blogger would still make me feel qualified to answer in the affirmative.

I’ve been attending the group for some time now and I think some of the suggestions I’ve made for other people’s games have been useful, so I certainly feel I’m contributing. But even as a game I’ve been working on (The Empire Engine) nears completion this, “Am I a game designer?” question continues to be problematic. Quite simply, if I answered yes, I’d feel like a fraud.

Earning the right?

The ‘Game Designer’ tag over at BoardGameGeek is certainly part of the problem. Because of the way the system works, it means the likes of Reiner Knizia (and his eight gazillion published games, some of which you can get in WH Smiths) has the same ‘designer’ status as Bob from Texas who self-published three copies of his ‘Noughts and Crosses Made Easy’ variant; the only difference being Bob would probably list himself as a ‘Game Publisher’ too.

The BGG ‘designer’ functionality itself is great and I’ve found it very useful to track down games by designers I’ve liked. But the fact anyone can put their game up on the site and become a designer does muddy the water and I’m a little loath to become part of that, especially if I’m part of the problem on the faux designer side.

On the other hand The Empire Engine is turning into something I’m proud of, so why shouldn’t I hang up a little bunting if it gets out of the door – even if it’s just to a ‘print and play’ website (which was always the intention anyway; and it’s looking like being a bloody good website too)?

Is that a flash in your pan, sir?

war-on-terror-boardgame

Terror Bull Games’ ‘War on Terror: The Boardgame’

Another part of the problem is the other games I’ve tried to put together to date. Even after quite a bit of work they have without exception been flawed, flaky and generally funny looking – but worst of all derivative.

They say everyone has a novel in them; maybe everyone has a game too – but does it make you a game designer?

I’m blessed with a very strong playtest group, especially for a place as small as Cambridge (although as a city it clearly has more than its fair share of large, fizzing brains). Designer Brett Gilbert has been practically buried by the praise he has received for last year’s Divinare, while Andrew and Tom from Terror Bull Games gave us both ‘War on Terror’ and ‘Crunch’.

Matt Dunstan (my co-conspirator on The Empire Engine) is on the verge of his own triumph, while both he and Brett have also shown well in a variety of national board game design competitions. And that’s before mentioning occasional visitors such as Jonathan Warren (creator of the highly regarded, and rightly so, Inspector Moss: House Arrest) and Alex Churchill, whose ‘Space Dogsbody’ game really deserves a publisher.

When these guys are all around I have a great time and feel privileged to see and experience their designs as they slowly come to fruition (or sometimes crash and burn). And of course there are others who attend, regularly or not, who are also bringing along ingenious and interesting idea and designs. I feel part of the group, for sure, but do I feel like a game designer? Not really, no.

Stop fishing for sympathy/compliments, you old windbag

I’m acutely aware this could start to read as a desperate cry for a hug from mumsywumsy; believe me, that’s not my intention. And I’m also aware that, in the great scheme of things (or indeed any scheme of things), this isn’t one of life’s great unanswered questions. However, I’d be fascinated to hear any opinions you may have (not on me, on the topic!).

When I picture a game designer I see someone published, or as at least recognised by the industry/their peers in some way (perhaps a competition win, or high placing). What I certainly don’t see right now is me.

Maybe when I see our game up there on the website, or read the first trashing review of The Empire Engine, I’ll feel differently; or if I start to feel a second game I’m working on is going to come to something. Perhaps we can enter this game into a few competitions as well and see how it compares to its rivals.

But for now,  the next time someone asks I’ll be able to look them squarely in the eye and say, without a stammer or stutter, that no, I’m not a game designer – and that’s fine.