Monday, February 20

Concrete Progress

I'm off to Boston this week for work (posting this from the airport!) so it's been a busy few days, but I've not let that get in the way of progress. Last week I was mostly focused on implementing some of the things recommended by my German language app beta testers and adding a bit more vocabulary in preparation for sharing it with another private beta tester. I'm hoping to have that ready to go not long after I get back from Boston.

The big news is on the Codename: Vacuum front. I placed an order for some wooden pieces from Spielmaterial.de which arrived on Friday (in my office, while I was working from home :-( ), and during my home day lunch break I made a new box for it (I gave mine to Konrad in Berlin when I was over there nearly two years ago). On Saturday I popped over to the office during a trip out and collected the Spielmaterial order and then bagged and stowed that in the box.

I've done most of the cards for the next version, I've just got the event cards left to do. Fortunately, I've got the jet lag hours of 3-6am every day this week to finish off the cards and get everything ready for printing.

I get back Saturday lunchtime, and then I've booked Monday off work to help recover from my jet lag. I can use that day to print out the cards, player mats and boards and then cut all the cards out. For the first time since I gave my copy to Konrad I'll have a copy of Vacuum ready to playtest again. And it will need testing - I've made some sweeping changes, which will likely need a decent chunk of fixing before they are ready for sharing with others.

I'll also try to get a blog post done in the jet lag hours, spelling out how the game works in a bit more detail.

Monday, February 13

Codename:Vacuum - The Premise

I started work on Codename: Vacuum back in November 2011. I wanted to make a fairly quick sci-fi card game - something like Race for the Galaxy but with more direct interaction (don't talk to me about the conflict rules in the Rebel vs. Imperium and The Brink of War expansions - or you're dead to me).

The Wife and I talked about the popularity of deck-builders (we liked Thunderstone for the theme - Dominion not so much) and the speed of Race. And a sci-fi deck builder started talking shape in my head. I bought and tried a couple of the competition (Eminent Domain and Core Worlds, neither of which stayed in my collection for long).

At some point, to keep things simple and different, I decided to set it in our Solar System and then the crazy idea of a Steampunk sci-fi deck builder popped into my head. What if you were playing a sci-fi game set in our solar system over two hundred years where humanity expanded off Earth and filled the solar system with people. But not quite our solar system, the solar system of Jules Verne, HG Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. You start in 1898 with a world not unlike our own in 1900 - a world ruled by the British Empire, the German Empire, the Russians and the Qing Chinese. A world on the brink of World War One. Where 20,000 leagues under the Sea, The Lost World, Deepest Africa and the North and South poles are yet to be explored. A world where the discovery of cavorite allows man to leave the Earth at the turn of the 19th Century, not in its second half. Those intrepid explorers head off to a Moon that could be our dry, dusty moon, or HG Wells' inhabited one. Mars could be the frozen Red Planet, or Edgar Rice Burroughs one swarming with Martians. Is Venus a hellish hot-house? Or is it a balmy university world? Will the asteroid belt be full of untold wealth or ravening hordes of aliens hell-bent on the destruction of mankind?

The only way to find out is to go to those places and explore them. All the while you are trying to build a fleet to protect your population from each other and the ravening hordes. Build your wealth to support development and military, build your population and advance your knowledge.

The game has five different score tracks: military, exploration, population, trade and knowledge. In each game only two or three of those count towards your final score - the players choose which ones during the game. So you are trying to build points in your chosen tracks, ensure you are keeping an eye on your opponents so they don't crush you on their chosen tracks as well as fighting space battles and land wars against each other and the aliens as the game unfolds. Each time you play the locations will be different. In one game the Moon is like ours, in another full of vast mineral riches, next time it's swarming with aggressive aliens.

That's the premise. Early versions fulfilled a lot of that promise, but took a bit long. Hopefully this new version I'm working on will be a big step forward (once I've ironed out the inevitable kinks).

How does that sound?

Monday, February 6

To The Internet!

Libraries are so old school.

With Zombology V2 all done except for the billions of playtests required, and my German language app awaiting beta testing feedback (it's taken me three attempts to get it my mate Mal), I've moved on, like a grown man with the attention span of a four year old, to Codename: Vacuum.

Over the last couple of months I've been considering coming back to Vacuum, and over the last week or so it's taken shape in my head. So much so that I was drafting cards towards the end of last week and designing a board in my head on the weekend. The weekend also involved quite a lot of research about country and continent populations in 1900 (it's set in a steampunk universe) and projections through to 2100 (it's a sci-fi game).

I originally wanted Vacuum to be a pure deck-builder (i.e. only cards) that played in about 45 minutes. I slowly weakened my resolve and some play mats and score tracking cubes crept in, but it was still pretty card-focused. The downside - with play mats, lots of card locations (that moved around!) and the decks spread out in the middle of the table it covered a lot of table top. A lot.

This time round I've relaxed my personal rules for what the game can contain in terms of components and I'm embracing a board (smallish), plastic ships (which I'm substituting wooden discs for at the moment) and a metric ton of wooden cubes (or 50,000,000 people as I like to think of them).

I've not made any bits for this version yet - I've not printed anything or tried anything out. When I do, it will inevitably be spectacularly broken, as all significant re-writes always are, but I've got a good feeling about this. The board for locations, the ship movement and conflict and the probes for exploration all work much more 'realistically'. The core mechanics (deck-building, direct conflict, multiple possible end game conditions of which only a few count) are all the same, but it just feels more right.

I'm off to Sheffield on Wednesday for a check up for my clinical trial. I'll use the four hours of train journeys to start knocking together the cards (with so many of them it's actually quicker to edit the pretty ones from the last version on the computer rather than scribble them all by hand).

I'm feeling pretty excited about Vacuum again after the two year break, maybe a fresh approach was what was needed...

Monday, January 30

Productive Couple of Weeks

It's been a productive couple of weeks since my last blog post. I've started playtesting in the office (still focusing on checking the balance of Zombology 2nd Edition at the moment), done a bunch of work on my German language app and made it to a second consecutive Newcastle Gamers!

The Zombology playtesting has been going fairly well. I'm recording the number of players, and which round we won in (or whether we all lost). Ideally, the distribution would look something like this:

Regardless of the number of players. To see how close the game actually is to this, I need to play it a lot with each number of players. The chart above is for 128 games! And there are six possible numbers of players (3, 4, 5, 6, 7 & 8). That's 768 games. Clearly, Zombology is going to outstay its welcome long before we've played it nearly 800 times. But I'd like to get as much data as possible. So far I only have this:

Which isn't looking too bad, but is clearly pretty sparse on the ground and very uneven between numbers of players. This could be because the game is very different with different numbers of players, or it could just be a sampling error due to the small number of games played. The solution? Play the crap out of it and hopefully get enough data to make a call.

Zombology hasn't been my main focus though, I've been trying to finally get my German language app (two years in the making!) finished off. I've got enough in there to gather some feedback and made it available in the store (last night!) for people in the private beta (you'll only be able to see it if I sent you the link). Hopefully I'll get some useful feedback and be able to make a better version available more widely in a month or two once I've made some improvements.

Finally, I made it to Newcastle Gamers again on Saturday, that's two consecutive ones for the first time in years. Last year I only made it once all year! It's been great to get along and play some of the games I play less frequently, and it also gives me another chance to playtest Zombology and get some feedback from other people.

I'm in Manchester today and tomorrow for work, I might be able to do some work on Codename: Vacuum in the hotel now that I've got the app off my plate...

If you have a Windows Phone and fancy having a look at the German language app or you want to playtest Zombology, please leave me a message in the comments.

Monday, January 16

Newcastle Gamers!

2017's strong start is continuing :-)

During the week I spent time on Codename: Vacuum, working out a new card mix and designing a new version in my head which will hopefully improve on some of the problems with the last version (from early 2015!). At the same time I was continuing to work on my German language Windows Phone app and got a five-star review for my BGG Last Plays app (now the new version is in the store). I think I'm close to the point where I can put out a beta version out for the German language app for feedback - I'm going to run a private beta first to see if I can work out some of the kinks. That's probably only a week or two away. I've been meaning to finish this one for a couple of years, so that's quite a big deal!

But that's not the best bit, on top of all that I made it to Newcastle Gamers for the first time in six months! Newcastle Gamers is on at least twice a month and yet last year for a variety of reasons I only made it along once, in July. When I turned up on Saturday it was the busiest I'd ever seen it and I had to wait a short while for a game. When a table finished they invited me to join them and then asked what I wanted to play. I was happy to play anything in the cupboard (except Fluxx!) or I could teach any of the games I'd brought along: Ave Caesar, Gipsy King, Hansa Teutonica and Zombology.

The group wanted to try Zombology, so we played a game and after that they felt like they understood it, and wanted to play again. After John sank our desperate attempt to save humanity from the ravening hordes we opted for a third game to try and win and then Deji from the adjacent table wanted to try it, so we played a fourth time (and finally won). It wasn't until they'd had enough and wanted to move on to something else that I told them I had designed the game. The last couple of times I've played with strangers I've tried this approach, it's not blind playtesting (since I'm teaching the rules) but it does give you more honest feedback during the games, since the players aren't afraid of hurting your feelings as the designer.

They were all surprised and impressed and were asking where to get it, at which point I had to say: 'It's only available print on demand in the US and shipping is pretty expensive', which kind of killed the enthusiasm a bit.

I did ask if any of them wanted to give me their email addresses in case I made another version and they were all very keen - so I now have a mailing list of potential Zombology pre-orders. Their enjoyment and excitement was also very encouraging. I'm considering another run again!

Saturday, January 7

Promising Start

Last week I set myself some aspirations for this coming year and so far, so good. I managed to get to Newcastle Playtest on Tuesday and try out the new Zombology rules again. We played three five-player games and managed two wins and a loss. The wins were in rounds 6 and 7 out of 8, much better than the slightly freakish win in round 3 that happened last time I tried it. Generally, people thought the new rules were an improvement and Paul went so far as to send me two emails of ideas which I've yet to respond to. The new rules have the advantage that they work with the existing cards, so anyone who bought the original hand-made version from me or the print on demand version from Drive Thru Cards can play them without having to print new cards. The only thing which is wrong on the old cards is that the initial card distribution as shown on the round one turn marker has changed.

In fact, here's the new rules. Please feel free to read them, provide feedback, try them if you own the game or just comment on them in the comments section below. Any feedback gratefully appreciated! If you do get a chance to try them I would love to know the following:

  • How many players?
  • Won or lost?
  • If won, in which round?
  • How many winners?
It was my first Newcastle Playtest in months, so it was great to catch up with everyone, meet a couple of new members and try out a few of their games. Hopefully I can make it next month too!


In addition, I also made the changes I've promised a guy on BGG in my Last Plays app and published them to the store. The app now has the ability to ignore expansions (which is really useful for me), hide unplayed games (which is really useful for him) and also to filter the list of games by game name, which should be good for both of us. One of the main things I use the app for is its ability to link to the BGG page for a game so that I can quickly record a play. Filtering the list to the game I'm interested in can only make that process quicker!

Sunday, January 1

2017 Aspirations!

For the last few years I've set myself some goals at the beginning of the year (2014, 2015, 2016), I've never aced them, but last year was weak, especially where games design and blogging were concerned.

2016 In Review

My new job, which I started in October 2015, took up a lot more time than I was expecting. It was my first time leading a team of any reasonable size and so I had a lot to learn in terms of leadership, budgeting, strategy and people management. On top of all that I ended up doing a lot more travel than I was originally expecting (four trips to the US, 20-30 to Manchester - often overnighters, and a frantic week-and-a-half long tour of Taiwan, China and Japan), which sounds great if you're not doing it, but it's very tiring and all you really see is offices, airports and hotels. This led to a double whammy of less free time and wanting to spend that free time with my wife and daughter, so I had a lot less time for games design-related shenanigans. I only made it to Newcastle Gamers once (out of at least 24 opportunities) and Newcastle Playtest probably only five times our of twelve. I've not played a prototype since September!

I failed both my blogging goals, giving up regular blogging as I had very little progress to report, most of it about designing mobile apps rather than board games (I've been coding since I was ten, the lack of coding in my new day job meant I fancied doing more of it in my limited free time, to the detriment of my games design) and doing nothing in November for NaGa Demon.

Gaming was the one area I aced, I played a lot of games in 2016. This was helped by starting a games club in the office on Wednesday lunchtimes (when I'm in the country!) and my weekly games night, plus a few trips with Ian (including to the US twice and round Asia) and my trusty iPad full of games. I even played 24 new games in the year (three of those on Dec 29th - games I got for Christmas!).

I did get the hand-made limited edition of Zombology finished in January and the print on demand version up on Drive Thru Cards in March/April (copies sold to date: 3!), so that was Games Design passed, but other than thinking of some rules tweaks to Zombology I did very little games design after that.

I didn't even finish my German language app that I wanted to wrap up. I made a lot of progress on it, but it's still not even ready for a beta release. I did tweak BGG Last Plays at the end of the year though - someone on BGG with a collection of 3,500 games tried it out and found it crashed on a collection of that size, so I fixed that and tweaked a couple of other things. He's got another couple of requests and so I'll do another version of that shortly. It's still my most popular app (150 downloads - on Windows Phone!), and if you've got someone keen enough to engage with the creator you should try to keep them happy!

2017 Aspirations

Seeing as I did so badly last year I'm going to change things up this year. No goals. Just some more vague aspirations:


  • Get back into Games Design. Maybe Codename: Vacuum (I've a few ideas floating around in my head - it's probably been a couple of years since I last touched it, so maybe that distance will help when I come back to it)
  • Blog when I have something to say. No regular weekly schedule, just talk when I've something worth discussing. Hopefully at least once a month.
  • Code. It's been a passion of mine since I was a little kid and my day job for 13 of the last 16 years. Release apps. Enjoy it.
  • Game. I only managed 36/52 possible Games Nights due to my travel schedule, but I want to game on Wednesday evenings at home, at work during Games Club, on the iPad on trips and also try to get to Newcastle Gamers and Newcastle Playtest more.


Fingers crossed...