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.

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.