Shameless board game podcast self promotion ahoy!

me me meThis is a tad overdue, but I’ve been on a couple of podcasts over recent months that I really should’ve given a plug – so here goes.

First up was my début appearance on The Game Pit, A UK show all about board games, card games and tabletop gaming.

It’s a great podcast which I hope to be on again in the not too distant future. I was on ‘Episode 40 – Council Chamber Mega Review of 2014‘ in February with hosts Sean and Ronan, plus contributors Teri, Nathan and Paul. We all picked our board gaming highs and lows of last year and I thought it all turned out pretty well.

Also in February I was honoured to be the first ‘special guest’ on relatively new podcast The Cardboard Console. I expect the fact I met hosts Matt and Andrew at my local game group probably helped, but it doesn’t take away from the fact its a really good show.

The usual format sees them cover both computer and board/card games, as well as a section on anything from TV shows to apps to weird fighting disciplines I’ve never heard of. Episode 15 was largely about the design and publication process of Empire Engine, but I did get to witter on about Deus, Divinity: Original Sin and Person of Interest too.

Both shows are on iTunes and if you like board game podcasts you should certainly check them out; its really nice to hear a growing podcast voice from the UK. Both shows are also covered in my ‘Guide to board game podcasts‘, which covers all the best shows out there (and some crappy ones too, just for balance).

If you’ve got your own podcast I’d love the chance to spout off on it. I’ve got the interwebs, Audacity installed, a reasonable mic and an opinion on everything – you know where I am!

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.

Essen guide: Travel, hotels and Essen Spiel itself

Essen 2015 logoEvery year tens of thousands of gamers descend on the German city of Essen’s huge ‘Messe’ convention centre for its annual celebration of all things board gaming, the Internationale Spieltage – or Essen Spiel to most English speakers.

As the biggest board game convention in the world* people travel from across the globe to visit it – many for the first time. If you’re one of them, especially if travelling from the UK, hopefully this run-down will give you some useful tips.

Go: Travelling to Essen

Essen trainsBy air: Unfortunately Essen doesn’t have an international airport, so unless you intend to fly in by light aircraft you’re going to be looking at arriving in Essen by train.

Düsseldorf International Airport is a 40-minute train ride from Essen, with regular flights arriving from Europe (including Birmingham and Manchester). Cologne is also less than an hour by train, with Dortmund about two hours from Essen.

By rail: Seeing as you’re going to have to get on a train anyway, another solid option (especially from the UK) is to go via Eurostar. Brussels is just over two hours from London Kings Cross, which has occasional direct trains to Essen and a regular service to Cologne (three to four hours more). I personally use the SNCF site to book tickets.

This is now my chosen mode of transport. While five hours on the train sounds like a lot, you need to remember you don’t have to be at the Eurostar terminal as early and there’s no waiting for luggage as you have it with you – and far fewer luggage restrictions. If you have a few going, you can book a table too – and game all the way!

By road: If you intend to pick up so many games that rail or air won’t cut it, or if you simply like driving, jumping in the car is of course an option. You have to be 18 to drive in Germany and (of course) abide by its road regulations but I’m reliably informed that it is an easy country to drive in.

This also then gives you the option to stay a little further from the Messe itself, as well as the option to drive to in each day (perfect for those who drag a pallet truck, with pallet, around all day). Parking (5,000 spaces) is just five minutes from the halls, costs five euros, and you can stay as long as you like (pay in cash as you exit).

Stay: The city and accommodation

It’s fair to say that while Essen isn’t the most appealing city you’ll visit, it’s very welcoming to the annual invasion of the gaming community.

On the plus side the city centre is compact and the railway station is at its heart. It has a good number of shops and restaurants and an inability to speak German isn’t much of a hurdle.

On the downside, it has very little to offer the tourist – this is not a convention I’d suggest bringing a non-gaming spouse to, unless you stay outside of Essen (see below) or book a very good hotel indeed (and they like staying in).

But again on the plus side, one of the main roads joining the town centre to the Messe, Ruttenscheider, is now a real hub of bars, cafes and restaurants. From the trendy to the Irish to the traditional, there’s a bar along here for everyone.

If you are from the UK and staying in Essen itself, its worth popping into the town’s Toys R Us just to get jealous of the kind of things the average German can expect to find in a normal toy shop!

Near the Messe: If you’re just here for the games, have a good budget and get your booking in VERY early indeed, there are several large hotels in close proximity to the Messe itself. You will be a good 30-minute walk from the town centre, but there is a regular metro service (just four stops on the U11) which will get you there in just a few minutes.

The Atlantic Congress Hotel is practically on the Messe’s doorstep, while several others are within a very short walking distance (less than 10 minutes). I’m yet to try any of these, but will be in the Mercure Plaza this year (20 minute walk to the Messe). I love a walk in the morning, and it also makes me think twice about buying more than I can carry!

You can find an Essen Metro map here.

ippCentral Essen: The most common option is to stay in the town centre and travel to the Messe each day via the Metro (about five minutes once you’re on and moving). You can get on the U11 at the central station (Essen Hbf) and get off at Messe West/Sud Gruga.

Walking is another option, taking just over 30 minutes from the central train station – or up to 45 from some central hotels.

Large chain hotels including Ibis, Movenpick and Holiday Inn are all present near the station offering the typical big hotel experience, alongside many smaller, cheaper options.

I’ve enjoyed stays in both the Movenpick and Ibis – you simply know what to expect. But my one experience with a small budget hotel did not end well and I’ll avoid that option in future. Hotel breakfasts tend to be continental and overpriced. There are many bakeries in the town centre and I personally prefer to grab something on my way in to the halls each day.

Further afield: If you travel to Essen by car, or are on a holiday with non-gaming friends or partners, there are cheaper, more picturesque and more interesting locations to stay if you don’t mind travelling in each day. As mentioned above, Cologne and Dusseldorf are both less than an hour from Essen by rail and have much more to offer in terms of tourism.

Play: Essen Spiel itself

Essen balconyEssen Spiel is unlike any other big board game convention. Its all about retail, which means the vast majority of space is dedicated to taking your money, with small bits set aside to let you demo new releases. Don’t expect talks, competitions etc.

On the plus side, this makes it cheap. It’s only a few euros to get in each day, with a discount available for the whole four days – and additional discounts if you can buy in bulk, so its worth getting a group of you together (even if you make friends outside just to get the tickets). I’ll post prices nearer the time.

There is no – I repeat, NO – open gaming areas for you to play inside the Messe. Luckily the local hotels are very amenable to letting gamers use their often vast breakfast areas for gaming. People scuttle home from the Messe with their purchases, hurriedly read the rules over dinner and are in the hotel bars and restaurants playing a while later – and late into the night.

It’s actually a really nice part of the experience, once you get used to it. People are friendly and it’s usually easy to find a game, and I personally enjoy the idea of going shopping in the daytime and then playing my new purchases in the evening. All the big central Essen hotels are very amenable (I’ve played into the small hours at the Ibis, Movenpick and Holiday Inn), as are the smaller ones I’ve popped into to meet friends.

If you have heard talk of 10+ small halls that are a nightmare to navigate, this is in the past (at least for now). Due to refurbishment of the smaller halls, Essen Spiel currently uses the largest four halls in the Messe which makes it much easier to find your way around.

Wednesday to Sunday: When should you go?

  • Thursday and Friday: These are definitely the best days to go if you can travel over to Germany midweek. The halls are quieter, meaning you’ll have a better chance of sitting down at some demos – as well as picking up those hot titles that sell out in the first day or so (it happens every year).
  • Saturday and Sunday: Saturday is the day to avoid if you’re coming for the whole weekend, as people travel in from across Germany and its absolutely manic throughout the day. Sunday morning also tends to be busy, but it thins out a lot in the later afternoon. However don’t expect too many ‘last minute bargain’ rewards for hanging on until the end, as I’ve seen little evidence of it happening.
  • Wednesday: Since 2011 there has been an Essen Warm Up Day organised by Spiele Gilde. It costs 30 euros but is open 10am to 11pm and includes free food and non-alcoholic drinks all day. It’s a great opportunity to extend your stay and get to play some of the new releases a day before heading into Essen Spiel itself, while being easy to get to in the centre of Essen.
    Wednesday is also Essen press conference and manufacturer set-up day, so you’ll find plenty of gaming types in the city on the Wednesday evening – many toting new gaming swag picked up early from the halls. And even if you don’t want to do much after arriving, it’s worth coming on Wednesday just to be able to get into the Messe first thing on Thursday morning.

The new games

Essen is primarily about new releases, but you’d be amazed at how many companies fail to get enough copies to the show.

Much of this is blamed on production issues and shipping, but its not as if those are surprises in the board game industry. Anyway, the point is if you really want something you’re normally best off pre-ordering it.

Depending on the size of the manufacturer, pre-orders may be handled through a prepaid service via their website – or via names written on the back of a cigarette packet after sending the designer an email and keeping your fingers crossed. Either way, the best way to find out about them is directly via the website of each game you’re interested in – or more conveniently through Board Game Geek.

Each year the site runs an amazingly detailed Essen preview page which lists pretty much every game that’s coming out and any appropriate links. This is the 2014 link to give you an idea of what to expect – I’ll try to remember to come back and update it here when the new one lands (or please remind me nearer the time!).

If you are the type who wants to check out every game before you go, another great website is Essen Geek Mini. This takes the Board Game Geek list and lets you rank how interested you are in each game – and then brilliantly plots all the manufacturers onto printable maps, along with your games listed by rank. Geek heaven!

Language dependency can be an issue, as you’ll often find different versions in German and English, but also perhaps French, Polish and others. The biggest issue can be differences in pricing – German editions at the show are often cheaper, so it can be easy to grab one by mistake thinking you’re getting a bargain. And you might think there are thousands of copies of a game at the show – when there may only be a very small number in the language you need.

Another issues is demos – and how difficult they can be to get. While companies such as Days of Wonder have huge stands demoing a single game, many smaller companies – or those releasing multiple titles – have much less room. You may even find just a single demo table for a game you really want to try (or worse none at all).

While some booths will let you book a demo time, many won’t. In these situations you have the choice of waiting for a spot (a bit boring) or hoping for the best (less boring, almost guaranteed to be unproductive in terms of the demo). Your way of dealing with this is up to you – I just want to let you know so you won’t be (as) annoyed and disappointed!

The old games

Manhattan boxWhile Essen is largely about new titles, you’ll find a good number of secondhand games traders in the halls – as well as large sections dedicated to older discounted titles.

These can be brilliant for those of us outside of Germany who only ever see discounts in online stores, and have never seen a living, breathing secondhand board game shop!

But do be on your guard for the obvious pitfalls – the big two being missing pieces (for secondhand) and language dependency. If you’re thinking about picking up some titles, do your research and see if they’re language independent – and if so, whether the rules are freely available to download and print. If so, you’re golden.

You may find staff on the secondhand stands don’t have great language skills beyond German, while there can be a lot of individual games that are hard to sift through – or behind the counter where you can’t get at them. If there are specific titles/editions you’re after, its well worth printing images of the covers and taking them with you – its the simplest way past any language barriers.

I’ve found these stands most useful for older Spiel de Jahres winners, which get massive print runs in Germany when they win the award and many of which are still very popular today. You’ll find piles of old copies of games such as Elfenland, Manhattan, Tikal and Thurn and Taxis for 10-15 euros – all of which are language independent.

And finally… some other stuff

  • As well as board games, one of the halls is dedicated to other geek culture habits including comics (ithe Comic Action convention is included in your ticket), RPGs, miniature gaming, CCGs and even a bit of costume/LARPing. But these are squeezed into one hall and very much a small part of the overall show.
  • The food selection is far from brilliant, especially if you’re a healthy type. You should be able to find a beer, a sausage (apparently the currywurst is particularly good – I’ll report back this year!) or a pretzel – with varying degrees of cheese attached – all of which are actually excellent. But I’d suggest a good healthy breakfast pre-con and a proper meal on the way home!
  • I’d also suggest you bring cash (very few stands will accept cards and there aren’t many cash machines inside) and bring water – as well as wearing comfortable shoes. The convention space is massive, you’ll be on your feet a lot, and it can get pretty hot inside. Water and good shoes are essentials. On the plus side, Essen has great tap water so you’re quite safe filling up your bottle from the tap rather than spending a fortune on bottled water.

What have I missed?!

I want this guide to be as useful as possible, so please comment below or contact me directly if you have anything you think I should add or update. Cheers! (Thanks to Louise McCully and Christian Gienger for their contributions.)

* There are bigger conventions that include some board and card games, but Essen is comfortably the biggest that concentrates almost entirely on the hobby.

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.

For Sale: A four-sided game review

For Sale boxFor Sale is a light family card game designer by Stefan Dorra. It takes 20-30 minutes to play, accommodates three to six players well and can be picked up for well under £20.

As the name and box suggest this a game about buying and selling properties but don’t worry – there’s nothing to be scared of here, even if you don’t usually like auction/bidding games. As the game length suggests it’s not a brain burner: instead it’s light, fun and fast.

Inside the box you’ll find two decks of cards (properties and cash) and a set of coin tokens. Everything is high quality, the cards linen-finish and the tokens chunky, while the cartoon art on the property cards is really charming.

Teaching

For Sale round 1For Sale is a game of two halves, but both are simple to teach and learn. Even better you can teach each half when you get to it, giving players less to process and remember.

Everyone starts with a handful of coins and during round one these are spent to buy properties. Once all properties have been bought (every one will finish with the same amount) they’re sold for money in round two. The aim is to finish with as much money as possible.

Before each turn of round one a number of properties equal to the number of players is placed face up on the table. From their secret stash of coins players choose in turn to either up the current bid or take the lowest value card on show (and taking back half of any coins they’d bid so far). The ‘winning’ bid pays full price, but gets the best card.

Once all properties are bought, round two begins. This time a number of money cards equal to the number of players is placed face up on the table; players bid for them with the properties bought in round one. There is an identical number of property and money cards; each round players bid one of their properties and everyone flips them over at once (called a ‘blind bid’). You take a money card in ascending order, the best property taking the highest value money card.

The system is extremely elegant. All the property cards are valued differently (1-30) and there are two of each money card (two of each valued $0-15), meaning there is never any confusion over bids – while all the players get something each round. When all the properties are spent, you add up your money cards and see who won.

The four sides

For Sale componentsThese are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: While this may look like an overly simplistic game with an uninspiring theme (pretending to be an estate agent isn’t my idea of fun), For Sale is actually one of the best ‘filler’ games I’ve played. It ticks all the boxes: good player range, easy to teach, plays fast and keeps everyone involved throughout.
  • The thinker: I’m not prone to enjoying filler games as by their nature they tend to lack depth and strategy. If it were my choice I’d play something a more challenging, such as Hive or Blokus, but there’s no escaping the fact this is a well designed game and I’m happy to play when the occasion arises.
  • The trasher: You mean I get to buy and sell houses?! Goodie! But seriously there is some fun to be had with For Sale, as any bidding game is an opportunity for table talk. You can also try and psyche people out a bit in the second half and I’ve seen some real silly card-slapping-the-table action when the mood is good.
  • The dabbler: While I don’t like auction games, I do quite like this one as it has a few things going for it. First it’s great that you get something every round so never feel out of it or under pressure. Also the art is cute and for a game that plays ages 8+ that’s important – they’ve even gone the extra mile adding a different animal to each card for the younger ones (and the young at heart!) to find and talk about as you go.

Key observations

The most important thing to note is  this is an extremely highly regarded game. With more than 3,300 players giving this a comment and an ‘out of 10′ rating on Board Game Geek you have to get past 3,150 before you find rankings below 6.

Criticisms from those who really don’t like it label For Sale as “too simple” or “uninteresting” with “no hard decisions”; “too light”, or as just a “simple auction game”. To the wrong player For Sale will be all of these things, but as the numbers above show these people are the minority. I’d suggest avoiding this game only if you have a very severe reaction to one of these gaming ailments!

My only real issue, and it’s a small one, is price. The current edition is well produced and nicely packaged, but at 60 cards and 72 cardboard coins the price tag seems a little steep. It has been put in quite a large box to fit into Gryphon Games’ ‘Bookshelf Series’ but could live in a box half the size (and has previously). However similar games (such as recent release Diamonds) have a similar price point and I don’t see it as a barrier to entry.

Conclusion

For Sale round 2I was introduced to For Sale at a London on Board gaming meetup and fell for it on my first play. It went into my collection soon after and had regular plays for a long time after.

But in 2013 it didn’t see a single play, as my regular gaming groups didn’t really do old fillers; then in 2014 it returned to the table with a bang when I got involved in a local group which includes a lot of less rabid gamers. It has gone down a storm with gamers and newbies alike, rekindling my own enthusiasm for the game.

No game is truly a ‘must have’, as opinions and tastes vary so much, but For Sale would certainly be a contender for a top 10 ‘Swiss army knife’ of titles that would meet all your gaming needs. I’ve played a lot of fillers before and after, but very few have the staying power of this classic.

For more filler and family games check out my board game ‘Where to start‘ guide.

My Essen Spiel Wishlist 2014: The follow up

So, it’s time to compare before and after; to look back at my pre-Essen itinerary and see how many of the games I managed to get played – and how they were. Were my pre-Essen instincts sharp, or shambolic?

What did I get played from my pre-Essen ‘top 10’ wishlist?

First to FightBetween Essen and a London on Board trip to Eastbourne a week after my return, I’ve managed to get more than 20 Essen releases played – not bad. And that included seven of my pre-Essen top 10 ‘want to play’ list.

I unfortunately managed to miss out on Red 7 (sold out – but I could’ve got a copy if I’d remembered. Grrrr), Progress: Evolution of Technology (was always packed – want to try it) and Versailles (overheard a rules explanation and watched a bit of play, but wasn’t inspired – I’d still like to get a play).

Johari and El Gaucho featured in my ‘Biggest hits of Essen‘ report – while sadly Imperial Settlers, Amber Route and Madame Ching all featured in the ‘misses’ section of the same post – so I won’t go over that ground again here.

Which leaves two. If I was a lot newer to gaming, or didn’t have many gateway games, I probably would’ve come home with a copy of Mangrovia. It’s a really pretty and well designed light euro game with an interesting turn order/action selection mechanism – but not enough else to make it stand out for more experienced gamers.

But I did pick up First to Fight after a fun demo with one of the design team and one of his friends. My initial concern was, will it work? And if I’m honest after two plays I’m still not 100% sure. But I’ve seen enough so far, and had enough fun, to warrant it having been my one slightly risky buy.

What did I purchase from my ‘will purchase’ list?

Romans Go Home boxI had six games and four expansions on my ‘will purchase’ list, and managed to come home with all but two of them.

Sadly Pocket Imperium didn’t make it to Essen, while I was only going to buy Bakerspeed as a set with Paititi if they had a deal on – which they didn’t, so I stuck with just getting the latter (I’ve downloaded the English rules but not yet played it).

Romans Go Home and Sail to India were games I’d played before and wanted my own copy of. Both came home with me, and both were better than expected for different reasons: Sail to India was free (thanks AEG!), while the new rules and art for Romans Go Home made it even better than the version I’d played previously. Again, Steam Donkey featured in my ‘biggest hits’ post linked above.

The expansions for CV, Can’t Stop, Snowdonia and Stone Age all made it into the suitcase too, but none of them have been played yet – too many hot new releases to get through first! But as they add to four of my favourite games it’s only a matter of time before they hit the table (although I helped test the Snowdonia one, so I’ve played it really).

Did any ‘also rans’ turn out to be winners?

Kembles Cascade boxI mention a raft of other games at the bottom of my Essen preview post, which turned out to be a right mixed bag. Unfortunately I managed to totally miss The Battle at Kemble’s CascadeLeague of Hackers, Ucho Krola and The Golden Ages but had more luck tracking down the rest.

Having had a rules run-through or watched demos of Planes, Essen 2013 the Game and Onward to Venus I didn’t pursue them any further; none of them seemed like my kind of games and with limited time I set my sites elsewhere. I also ignored La Isla as I know several people who bought it; hopefully I’ll get a game in soon.

The big pluses from this list were Deus and Ancient Terrible Things – but without wanting to sound like a broken record,  may I refer the honourable gentlefolk to the ‘core blimey Charlie weren’t they marvellous’ post linked above. The latter I picked up at the show, the former will be mine by Christmas or I may blub like a baby.

Office 21 is actually pretty charming and if I didn’t already have Love Letter in the ‘five minutes of nonsense’ category I’d probably grab a copy. The choices seem a little more involved – you have three cards instead of two, for a start, with no cards that force you to do anything. But at the same time the right move is usually pretty obvious – and games can be brutally, ridiculously short and scripted (but in a funny way).

Castles of Mad King Ludwig boxWhich just leaves The Castles of Mad King Ludwig – the game I’ve been most on the fence about from this year’s crop of releases.

One thing’s for certain – it’s a good game. The rules are simple, the puzzley aspects engaging and it seems well balanced. It doesn’t outstay its welcome, has plenty of variety and keeps you guessing to the end. And I won my first play – and I’d play again. So why don’t I like it?

Personally, my problem with Ludwig lies in the one interactive element of the game. If you’re start player (which changes clockwise each turn), you get to draw some random tiles and place them in an order of your choosing – going up gradually in cost, with you getting all the profit from the round when other player’s buy things.

It’s important to say here that the game needs this kind of element – otherwise it would be a totally heads-down solo experience. However, the final result just doesn’t work for me. First, I didn’t enjoy making these decisions when they came to me. Second, I felt that poor decisions by other players probably led to my victory – putting tiles in cheap spots that gave me easy points. This didn’t feel satisfying, but is certainly a personal opinion – many enjoyed it and I’d certainly recommend people to play it and make their own minds up.

Essen Spiel wishlist 2014: My board and card game top 10

spiel-14With Essen Spiel 2014 just a week away, I thought it was time to boil my wishlist down to a Top 10 games of interest – or games I’m hoping to demo/play in Germany with a view to purchasing. But before that, here’s what I will be purchasing if available:

  • Steam Donkey: A card game about building a Victorian seaside resort – steam punk style. How can I possibly resist?
  • Bakerspeed and Paititi: This year’s offerings from the Austrian Board Game Museum; cheap prices and a good cause equals no-brainer.
  • Romans go Home, Sail to India and Pocket Imperium: All relatively cheap games I’ve played before and really enjoyed.
  • Expansions for CV, Can’t Stop, Snowdonia and Stone Age: All current favourites of mine where a bit of extra variety can’t hurt.

First to FightBeyond these, it was a small task of whittling the other 500 games being released this year (yes, 500) down to 10. Did I read about each and every one of them? No. I’d say I’m not that sad but in truth, given unlimited time, I probably would’ve done. However instead I whittled many away using the following criteria:

  • Any mention of: dexterity, party, children, trivia, real-time, humour: I know I know, I’m absolutely NO fun.
  • Games that don’t play two-player, or that go more than two hours: I like a lot of these games, and seek to play them, but the ones I own sit largely unplayed on my shelves.
  • Abstract, anime, horror/zombie, war games: These are usually a big turn off for me, with the occasional exception – so if a classic rises to the top I’ll look into it, but won’t seek them out as new releases.
  • Games with an Essen listed price of 50+ euros: Yup, I’m tight as well as absolutely no fun. Why are you still reading this?

That left me with 100 or so games, but many more fell by the wayside after watching videos or reading rules, as they brought nothing new to the party. It’s a sad truth that, right now, it’s so easy to publish board games everyone seems to be doing it (even me). It doesn’t push the bar up – it just puts loads more games into the middle ground.

The 10 games I most want to play at Essen

  1. MangroviaMangrovia (€30): This family game looks lovely and has an interesting action choice mechanism, plus a good price. I have high hope for it from the rules, but do want to see it in action.
  2. Red 7 (€10): This looks like a great light filler and at this price it’s an almost definite purchase. It has a really clever mechanism, where you have to take the lead to stay in the round on every turn.
  3. Progress: Evolution of Technology (€35): A hand management card game which is all about building tech trees – something I’ve always loved in both board and computer games. Some doubts raised about replayability.
  4. First to Fight (€37): The Puerto Rico action selection mechanism is one I like; and this adds an interesting scoring mechanism where you’re all using the same cards to try and fulfil missions. But will it work? Could go either way.
  5. Imperial Settlers (€40): Great art, tableau building and a little bit of messing with other players puts this high on my want to try list – but it’s essentially a card game in a big box with a big price tag.
  6. El Gaucho (€27): Worker placement and set collection, dice and tiles, nice components and art style, reasonable price – many boxes ticked. But there are a lot of euros out there – will this stand out enough?
  7. Amber RouteMadame Ching (€30): This looks an interesting mix of styles, but essentially it’s a 30 euro card game which seems a bit steep for the level of gameplay involved. But if it’s fun enough, it may be worth it.
  8. Amber Route (€tbc): While I’ve enjoyed the app on iOS it is much too luck dependent; but the board game version looks to have made significant changes.
  9. Johari (€25): A low price, set collection and simultaneous action selection pushed this way up my wishlist; but I’m not sure it’s going to be that interesting to actually play – hence needing a demo.
  10. Versailles (€30): Yet another interesting looking family level worker placement game, but with the usual caveats – will it be interesting enough to stand out from the crowd? I have my doubts.

More details of all of these can be found on my Essen Geek List over at Board Game Geek. While I’d be totally remiss if I didn’t mention the fantastic Essen Geek Mini tool that helped me plough through all of this year’s releases.

Just behind those were: Deus, Planes, Essen 2013 the Game, The Battle at Kemble’s Cascade, Office 21 and League of Hackers. And then there was Ancient Terrible Things, Castles of Mad King Ludwig, Onward to Venus, The Golden Ages, La Isla, Ucho Krola

It’s going to be a long week!

6 Nimmt! (AKA Category 5): A four-sided game review

6 nimmt 20th6 Nimmt (also known as Category 5) is a light family/party card game for two to ten players (but generally considered best with four to six).

It’s lightweight (just 104 cards) and plays fast; it says 45 minutes, but as the scores are counted at the end of every short (5-10 minute) round you can play for as long as you like.

You should easily find it for less than £10 and don’t be put off if you can only find it in German; there is no text on the cards, gameplay is super simple and English rules are easily available.

6 Nimmt was originally published in 1994, so the latest edition (above) celebrates its 20th anniversary in print – what better time to review a game that has sold more than a million copies in Germany alone? It was created by Wolfgang Kramer and has enjoyed a string of offshoots (11 Nimmt, 6 Nimmt Junior and, oddly, The Walking Dead card game). The rest of my images are of a standard version.

Teaching

6 Nimmt is a very simple game to set up and teach. No matter the player number, the cards are shuffled and everyone is dealt 10 (cards are simply numbered 1-104, with each card additionally having a score value of 1-7 represented by a number of bulls heads).

6 Nimmt in playFour more cards are then turned over to start four rows in the centre of the table – cards remaining (if any) won’t be used that round.

On a turn, each player picks a card and these are flipped simultaneously. Starting with the lowest numbered card chosen, these are added to the most appropriate row – being the one with the closest number down from the card you played (so if the rows ended 33,68,79,92 – and you had played the 82 – it would have to go on the 79).

The trick is not to play either a card lower than is possible to add to a row (so in our example above, the 1 through 13) or the sixth card in any row. In either case you will have to pick up a row of cards, which are added to your score pile. The lowest score wins – so ideally you won’t pick up any cards at all, or at best ones with just one bull’s head.

And that’s that. A round lasts until all 10 cards have been played, then you score and go again. I’d be surprised if anyone took more than a third of a round to get the hang of it.

NOTE: There are several variants available, but I’ll just mention the 20th anniversary one here. The new edition comes with 10 extra cards, numbered 0.0 to 0.9. These can be placed after a number on any row you choose (so a 0.9 after the 17 becomes 17.9), as long as another 0. card isn’t already in that row (so it could still bite you in the ass).

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: I enjoy a light filler and this has been around  for 20 years for good reason. There’s a lot of random, but crucially some tactics;  and it comes quickly, with the second game enough to get most people up to speed. And if it’s so random, why do I always finish in the first few placings?
  • The thinker: While I will play 6 Nimmt while chatting or waiting for the next ‘proper’ game, there’s little to no strategy here. Unfortunately player number doesn’t help; its hugely random at anything up to the high numbers, at which point it just gets tedious. A total luck-skill ratio fail.
  • The trasher: Sure this is crazy random and themeless, but with four to six players it has some brilliant ‘screw you’ moments. The only downside is you don’t know who you’ll be screwing – or if, even – you just know you’re safe as you have the perfect card (the next in a row to make that row five long). That’s a sweet feeling.
  • The dabbler: 6 Nimmt does what I want a little card game to do. It invokes laughter, can be taught in seconds and takes a good range of players – in age, experience and numbers. And all the while you can chat and be sociable; hell, you can even sit out of a round and not worry – the essence of what a ‘filler’ should be.

Key observations

6 Nimmt rules

All of the rules…

The most common complaint is 6 Nimmt! is totally random and chaotic. Some people genuinely go so far as to talk about flipping cards at random and ‘occasionally’ winning.

And there’s the flaw in that argument; you randomly flip but only occasionally win; so I guess the players who are playing properly usually win, kind of throwing that theory out the window? I’m not claiming this is rocket science, or even a light strategy game, but there are tactical decisions that bring the game above these insults.

The fact it’s ‘hit and miss’ in many groups is impossible to argue against, but what’s universally liked – especially when you have this big a player range? sure, gamers gravitate towards people with similar tastes; but based on the evening’s ‘big’ games, not the fillers. There are only a handful of games with higher average rankings in the light filler category.

Finally there’s the lack of theme; but 6 Nimmt! is unapologetically an abstract card game? Accusations of no theme could equally pointlessly be aimed at a standard deck of cards. If you do need theme, try the Walking Dead version (which adds character cards, as well as pasting pointless second rate zombie pics on the cards – enjoy).

Conclusion

6 Nimmt cards

You don’t want the 55 – the only card worth a nasty seven points

I’m a big fan of 6 Nimmt! I embrace the chaos, love the tension it can create around the table and love to watch everyone agonising over their decisions.

Sure, it can fall flat in the wrong company and the game isn’t for everyone – but what is? At under £10 and coming in a small box I’d suggest it’s worth the risk.

I rank it in the same category, and as highly, as For Sale and Love Letter. It’s a bit less fiddly than the former and there’s a bit more to it than the latter, while it lacks a little personality when compared to either – but for me it’s their equal.

I’ve linked to the anniversary version here and I’d certainly consider it. While I haven’t played the variant rules I really like the sound of them and even if they don’t work well you can simply leave those 10 cards out. If I were buying a new copy today I’d get the new one, but do bear in mind it costs a little extra; the original is available on Amazon and elsewhere.

My top 50 board and card games

Race for the GalaxyWhen I started this back in October 2011, I wanted to write about travel, games and music; but over time one of these three has risen to the top.

In terms of both how much I want to write, and how popular the posts are, board games is the clear winner. So as I’ve now reached 100 blog posts, it seems well past the time to list my current favourite board and card games.

I’ve done the first 20 in order, then grouped the rest in chunks of 10. I could easily make this a top 100, or more; the games in the bottom bracket here are still some of the best I’ve played (out of hundreds). Down beyond the top 20 things change almost daily – so I’ll certainly be revisiting this list, you lucky people…

My Top 20 board and card games

  1. Race for the Galaxy (2007) An easy choice, and almost 250 plays proves it. Its a quick (30-minute) tableau building card game which really is a race for points. Every game plays differently, while a rash of expansions let you mix things up even more. The iconography is hard to get to grips with, but once you do there’s an endlessly rewarding game underneath. An absolute tactical masterpiece.
  2. Ra (1999) In almost every round you have an agonising decision to make; do you start the auction or continue to sweeten the pot? Then once the auction begins, what to bid? It’s so simple, but I haven’t played a better game that so perfectly forces players to bluff and psyche out their opponents. Ra is a simple game mechanically, but so much more is played in the mind – and the one-hour playtime is perfect.
  3. Terra Mystica (2012) Finally, a deep civ-building brain burner for non-combat oriented board gamers. The board and bits are as elegant as the game’s mechanisms, while variable set up and a raft of player powers guarantees oodles of replayability. This is a game I totally lose myself in and I can never believe a few hours have past when we get to the end. A euro gaming classic already.
  4. ticket_to_ride_boxTicket to Ride (2004) My go-to gateway game of choice; not only because it has a great new gamer conversion rate but also because I still find it fun after 100+ plays. It’s not big or clever, but nor does every game need to be. You can play with a few beers, while the inoffensive theme and familiar mechanisms (set collection, route building) make it highly accessible. The best gaming evangelism tool around.
  5. Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar (2012) Some say gimmick, I say nonsense: the clever cog mechanism makes what would be a tedious, fiddly affair into a perfectly streamlined worker placement game. It’s tricky as hell, and always seems to end before you’ve quite got things going, but therein lies the challenge. And it’s gorgeous too, with a great theme and fantastic production values.
  6. The Downfall of Pompeii (2004) This was a close contender for best gateway game, especially as it has a fantastically fun ‘take-that’ mechanism built in and a great theme. Crazily chaotic with four, fun with three and surprisingly tactical with two, I’m always happy to get this to the table; what’s not to like about sacrificing your friend’s citizens to the volcano with dramatic howls and shrieks?
  7. Concordia (2013) This was my favourite game of last year by a distance; short snappy turns, lots of decisions to make and you’re involved throughout; in each other’s faces constantly, while keeping it non-confrontational. Exploration and hand management blend beautifully with resource management and deck building to show that there’s more to Mac Gerdts than the rondel.
  8. Copycat (2012) Easily the least likely title on the list, Copycat is one of only two games in my top 20 outside the BGG top 500. Sure, it’s not for everyone, but most people I’ve played with have been charmed by its combination of deck-building and worker placement. It takes some of the tight board tension of Agricola and the card track of Through the Ages, while distilling Dominion to its core.
  9. Through the Ages (2006) Easily the longest playing game in my top 10, a full game of Through the Ages is totally draining; and completely brilliant. It’s remarkable how designer Vlaada Chvatil has managed to make a totally convincing civ building game without a map – or even a board to speak of. But it works beautifully, as the ebb and flow takes you on an amazing journey every time.
  10. Merchant of Venus (1988) This may be the elder statesman of the top 20, but for me no game has come close to taking its sci-fi exploration and pick-up-and-deliver crown in 25 years of trying. Every game is different, with new route plotting puzzles to solve as the various races are revealed; while the luck of the dice throws in the perfect level of chaos if you’re willing to leave your trip in the lap of the gods.
  11. downfall_of_pompeii_boxNotre Dame (2007) While no designer has more games on my shelves, or on this list, Stefan Feld just failed to crack the top 10 (I’m sure he’ll be distraught). This was my first and is still my favourite, cleverly mixing action card drafting with worker placement and making almost every decision an agonising one. Simple to learn, quick to play, but packed with both tactical and strategic dilemmas.
  12. Ingenious (2004) This was one of the gems that got me back into the hobby and is still my favourite abstract game. A simple tile-laying game is taken to the next level with a simple yet clever scoring mechanism; your lowest score across six colours counts. This makes for a fascinating game of ‘where’s the tipping point?’ every time, as you try and pick the perfect time to flip from scoring to blocking.
  13. The Manhattan Project (2012) What could’ve been ‘just another euro’ initially shines thanks to a brilliant theme and art direction (both rules and components); but there’s a unique blend of mechanisms too. Not only can you really screw with people, but the unusual end game condition of first past the post really ratchets up the tension towards the end – which is perfect for a game about building ‘the bomb’.
  14. Snowdonia (2012) Another beauty from 2012, the ‘year of the euro’ for me. An original take on the train game theme sees you battling the game itself for points, let alone your opponents. Then there’s the damned weather, and that lazy worker in the pub – and should I bother buying a train? A great worker placement game that, despite playing differently every time, still never seems to go the way you want it to!
  15. Rosenkönig (1997) It’s old, it’s abstract and it’s ranked worse than 700th on BGG – but I love it. A tight two-player game that gives a clever spin to area majority, introducing card driven placement to a classic format. This means you can’t learn strategies, you can only react with tactics – a pleasant change for this style of game. The best thing to come out of the hours I’ve spent playing games at Yucata.de.
  16. Twilight Struggle (2005) This is the only game in my top 20 that I don’t own; something that will hopefully be rectified on my birthday (hint hint). I’ve only played twice, but have been blown away while feeling totally out of my depth. Simple card play and area majority influence are easy concepts; but the depth and theme on every card makes it fascinating. This will only go up on this list with more plays.
  17. Merchant of VenusCan’t Stop (1980) This is the first of several push-your-luck dice games on the list, with the old Sid Sackson classic still being my favourite of its kind. It really strikes at the essence of the genre; it’s a race against time, with all the odds out there in front of you to try and defy – and your friends there to screw over as you overtake them and claim each number as your own.
  18. Thebes (2007) There’s a mass of contradictions here: the theme is perfectly met, as in it’s a total luck fest whether you’ll find anything. And it seems no matter how much you may perfectly plan your moves, you can be scuppered by luck – so why is it still so much fun? Simple – because shouting “dirt dirt dirt!” as your opponents try and pull treasures from a bag is fun; and it has a very satisfying turn track mechanic.
  19. Stone Age (2008) While many now deride this worker placement euro game, I still love it. Sure, the luck of the dice seems a little out of place and the huge swingy scores aren’t in keeping with the genre. But I love the theme, love the stinky dice cup, love the tactical blocking – and yes, I love the dice. I much prefer it two-player, where the tactics really shine, but I’m always happy to play with any number.
  20. Pizza Box Football (2005) Some of my fondest childhood memories are of making up pen-and-paper football leagues and rolling dice to get results; primitive, but brilliant. This is a step up from that, but deep down it’s just a bunch of dice and guesswork and over excitement. Say what you want, but it just feels right; few games can absorb me like this one, and tell as many stories. There was this time…

21-30 (alphabetical)

  • Ingenious board game 03Acquire (1963) The oldest game on the list and the second from the late great Sid Sackson. The definitive accessible economic/stocks game.
  • Basari (1998) An odd mix of simultaneous action selection, set collection, racing and negotiating; but somehow it works in this quick, fun little game.
  • Brass (2007) One of the heaviest brain burners on my list, this economic hand management/route-builder fascinates me. A heady mix of strategy and tactics.
  • The Castles of Burgundy (2011) A great tableau building game with a clever use of dice. Lots of decisions to make, but way less complex than it at first appears.
  • Endeavor (2009) I love how this clever area control/tableau building game gives you the feeling you’re exploring, despite being very abstracted.
  • Händler der Karibik (AKA Port Royal) (2013) A fabulous little 30-minute push-your-luck card game that sets up and packs down in two minutes.
  • Macao (2009) There’s so much going on in Macao I really don’t know where to start. Roll dice, draft cards, deliver goods, control areas, manage resources etc etc…
  • The Boss (2010) A small, cheap and quick card game which beautifully blends bluff and deduction. Agonising, but wholly satisfying too.
  • Tikal (1999) Area control and action point allocation as you explore the jungle. A game that’s clever, fun and beautifully illustrated.
  • Uruk (2008) The game that proves you can distil the essence of civ building into a small box card game that only lasts an hour.

31-40 (alphabetical)

  • pickomino_boxBruges (2013) The classic Feld point salad meets chaotic tactical tableau building; and somehow he makes it work. A fun, quirky and random experience every time.
  • Hamburgum (2007) While this is the simplest of Mac Gerdts’ rondel games, there are still plenty of agonising decisions to be made in each quick round.
  • Kingdom Builder (2011) A very divisive game, but I’m firmly in the ‘yes’ camp. It turns area majority on its head in a fascinating way.
  • Le Havre (2008) A fascinating ‘turn X into Y’ manufacturing game which nicely ramps up the decision space turn-by-turn.
  • Manila (2005) This is a very light bidding/racing game with some really clever ideas and a bunch of randomness; but not too much for its length.
  • Maori (2009) A seemingly simple tile-laying game that has something to offer for all ages and abilities; play simple, nasty, tactical, or strategic – or a mix of them all.
  • Nefertiti (2008) A bidding game, yes, but it feels like worker placement. And set collection. A unique and clever mix of common mechanisms.
  • Pickomino (2005) Pure push your luck ‘take that’ dice-based silliness. One of Zoe’s favourites, so automatically one of mine too.
  • Reiner Knizia’s Decathlon (2003) More push your luck, more dice, and another Zoe favourite; this time with a little more going on tactically.
  • Rialto (2013) The fifth and final Feld game on the list. Really interesting drafting/auction mechanisms blend beautifully with area control.

41-50 (alphabetical)

  • Alhambra 004Alhambra (2003) An endlessly expandable tile-laying city builder with clever use of different currencies and area majority scoring.
  • Archaeology: TCG (2007) For a long time this was my go-to quick push-your-luck card game; but deposed by Händler der Karibik (above).
  • Arkham Horror (2005) A crazy, bloated, over-long co-op game where you spend your time going mad. But really great fun once a year or so.
  • Blueprints (2013) A clever puzzley deduction/dice game that everybody likes but nobody loves. A great filler for all-comers.
  • Cards Against Humanity (2009) If you’re enjoying adult beverages and want a very adult-themed and politically incorrect party game, look no further.
  • CV (2013) Takes the Yahtzee dice mechanism and makes a properly fun push-your-luck game that tells a great story every time. Light and accessible.
  • Escape From Atlantis (1986) This classic ‘take-that’ board game is still a lot of fun today, although if I could only have one I’d choose Pompeii (above).
  • Power Grid (2004) This bidding/route building classic has a unique theme which initially seems dry, but inside the box lies a lovely, if tricksy, game.
  • Puerto Rico (2002) I love the combination of empire building and action selection here, which Race for the Galaxy (above) ‘borrowed’ and, for me, improved on.
  • Revolution! (2009) It’s stupid, chaotic, random and a little long, but I always enjoy this blind bidding/area majority game.

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…