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.