Friday, July 31

Translation Woes

A while ago I mentioned how I had created translation grids for the rules for all my games to make it easier for volunteers to translate the rules of my games into other languages. It seems to have worked. I've had a lot of translations done of my rules and this week I've received a couple more (Sumeria into Hungarian and Carpe Astra into Spanish).

So far all well and good. The translation grids work a treat, and make the layout of a new version pretty straightforward. Until everything goes wrong!

Several weeks ago I received a translation of Carpe Astra into Russian. Great! The same guy (thanks Yegor!) had done the other games too, and I'd already done Sumeria, so I started on Carpe Astra.

The translation grids make it really easy to just drop the translated text into the original Adobe InDesign document, using the same images and fonts. At least they do until you pick a stupid font. I'd used Agency FB Condensed, a narrow font that looked vaguely sci-fi, for the Carpe Astra rulebook and cards. Sadly this font did not support the cyrillic alphabet - when I pasted the translated text into the document all I got was little empty rectangular boxes where each character should have been. So I switched to Arial (it's not that important that the font is correct after all).

While this fixed the initial problem (Arial supports the cyrillic alphabet) it's a much wider font than Agency FB Condensed and the Russian translation was normally longer than the corresponding English text - so the translation no longer fits in the same number of pages. My first attempt at fixing this was to drop the font size from 12 point down to 11 (and fix all the layout problems this caused). But after a bit more cut-and-paste it was clear that 11pt wasn't small enough so I went down to 10pt (and fixed all the layout problems again). Guess what? Still not small enough. Running out of patience I shelved the translation and I admit it has been a few weeks since I last made any progress.

The arrival of the new translation grids forced me to go back to it however, and today I finally nailed it. The solution was finding out that InDesign allows you to change the width of a font - effectively allowing me to create an 'Arial Condensed' - a narrower version of Arial. This meant I could change the font size back to 11pt and nail it. It still took a bunch of work and a lot of fiddling to get the diagrams and their captions laid out correctly but the job is finished and off to the translator for proof-reading. This means I can concentrate on the other two translations over the weekend.

The moral of this tale? I'm not really sure, other than learn the abilities of InDesign so that I can fix this problem the right way first time!

Wednesday, July 29

Sumeria V0.1

Well, the whole trying to run this through BoardGameGeek thing didn't work very well - it's down at the moment :-(

So I'll do it here instead. The first version of the Sumeria computer game is now available (ish!) on my website: Sumeria computer game with any luck if you download that MSI file and then run it, it will install Sumeria on your computer.

First a few provisos. This is a very early version to get some feedback about the user interface - very little actually works yet. What does work:

  • You can install it
  • You can start a new game from the Game menu
  • You can choose the number of players, their names and the colours they play.
  • You can highlight a state by moving the mouse over its tile
  • You can set up the game by seeding the board with the appropriate number of traders.

What doesn't work? Anything else! Most notably you can't play the game. There's no AI and you can't get the game to work across the internet with remote players - it's three or four humans around the one computer.

The next release will incorporate feedback on this one and allow you to play the game on a single machine with no AI.

I'd really appreciate any feedback you have on what I've done so far - in the comments here for until BGG is back up.

Monday, July 27

Sumeria Computer Game

The first bit of work I did on the Sumeria computer game was a bottom up approach, write the code which kept track of the game mechanics and state. Though it was great to get it working there was very little to show for it, apart from a test suite that told me all my tests were passing - there was no UI at all.

The last couple of days I've been concentrating on getting some UI written so there's something to show for my efforts. There's not much, but enough to show you what I've achieved so far. Initially I've been working on getting the beginning of the game set up and displayed and the basic UI coded. The next step will be to get the game playable, but at least it visibly does something now!

Initially, the game shows an empty window (I'll put a splash screen there eventually), and allows you to read the rules (from the Help menu) and start a new game (from the Game menu):

Starting a game creates a game and shows the players position and the board and tiles as at the start of the game:

Although you can't do anything yet, I've included a couple of UI feedback mechanisms. When you move the mouse over one of the state tiles at the bottom of the board, that tile and state tile it corresponds to are highlighted:

Similarly, when you move the mouse over a settlement, that settlement, its state and state tile are all highlighted:

It's not much, but you can already see where I'm hoping to go with this.

I'm intending to run this as a semi-Agile development effort. I'll be releasing early versions for feedback from members of the game-playing public. I hope to post the first version (with basic UI but nothing working game-wise) on Wednesday. If you'd like to take part in the testing, or just look at what I've done, please subscribe to this BGG thread where I'll post release announcements and download instructions.

Friday, July 24

BoardGameGeek and Game Ownership

BoardGameGeek allows people to keep track of which games they own. It's a useful feature that I use myself, and when meeting up with someone else you can always say 'Look at my BGG collection - is there anything of mine you fancy playing?' which is pretty cool too.

I know exactly how many games I've sold to distributors, but I don't know how many of those the distributors have sold to shops, nor how many of those the shops have sold to gamers. They same follows with direct sales to shops. A tiny fraction of my sales are direct to a gamer, so I know those have gone to gamers, but that's not much as a fraction of total sales.

Why am I interested? A game sold to a distributor that ends up sitting in their warehouse for months isn't doing me any favours at all. The distributor will be less inclined to buy more stock as it's costing them money (in the initial outlay to me and warehousing space) but not making them any. Similarly a game that ends up sitting on the shelf for a long time in a shop won't convince the shop to get more stock in. In the ideal world the game is in the hands of a gamer who loves it and plays it regularly with their friends.

It's hard to work out where the games are. I can ask my distributors how much stock they have left, but that still leaves me unsure whether the games are in the hands of shops or gamers. In the case of direct sales to shops things are a little better as I can ask them how many they've got left, but in that case again it's only a small proportion of the total sales at my end.

Here's where BGG's stats come in handy. The people listed as owning the game are gamers. So I can get some indication of how many of my sales to shops and distributors have reached actual gamers.

Of course, as with anything statistics they can't be relied on as a final number, but they are indicative. There will be people who've bought one of the games and don't have a BGG account, and others who do have BGG account but don't bother keeping track of the games they own. However, almost everyone who lists themselves as own a game will have it (some people might do it by accident or forget to remove it from their collection if they sell or trade it away).

Because I made a couple of small runs of Border Reivers and It's Alive! which almost entirely sold directly to gamers, I've got an idea about the ratio of gamers who list themselves as owning a game to the number of end customers I've sold it to.

If you look at the stats for Border Reivers (100 copies made) then it lists 42 people as owning it - 42% of the copies in circulation. Similarly, when I had sold out of the limited edition of It's Alive! about 110 people listed it as owned of the 300 copies made (37%). So I reckon I can extrapolate that about 40% of the copies in gamers' hands are listed as owned on BGG.

Assuming that 40% figure is evenly vaguely accurate, then approximately half the copies I've sold of the second edition of It's Alive! are in gamers' hands, and it's also about half for Carpe Astra. Sumeria (which is still fairly new) is around one third. Not sure what to do with this information, but it's interesting nonetheless.

Wednesday, July 22

Designing Again

For the first time in ages I actually did some work on one of my own board game designs yesterday.

Yesterday was a weird day. I was up at 6am, and then on the road before seven for a hospital visit in Cambridge (about 60 miles away). It was a morning of strange neurological tests while they determine if I'm a suitable candidate for a new treatment. I then rushed back home as my friend Mal was stopping in on his way back home from the Latitude music festival down here in the South. I got a text from him upon my arrival home to say he was still about an hour away, so I rushed into town to pay in a cheque from a late paying distributor. It turns out my walking isn't so good at the moment, the 2 mile brisk walk left me very tired and I was really struggling by the time I got home. But I did make it back in plenty of time for Mal's arrival.

We spent the afternoon playtesting a few games including a couple of changes to Border Reivers - my first games design.

For those of you who don't know it, Border Reivers is a light civilisation/wargame themed around the border squabbles between the clans of Northern England and Southern Scotland in the 13th to 16th centuries. Each turn, you can plays cards, recruit more cards and armies (through gambling some of your funds on a die roll) perform an action with each of your armies and then claim income from your settlements. Armies can build fortifications, settle down to create new settlements, mine gold from a mine location or move.

Two of the biggest problems I find with the first edition are the recruitment die rolls and uneventful turns.

At the beginning of your turn, you get to roll a ten-sided die twice per city, once to recruit a new army and once to recruit a card. If the die result is less than the amount of money you gambled on that die roll (e.g. a result of 0 will always get you a reinforcement even if you spend 0, a spend of 9 will guarantee you a reinforcement and a spend of 4 will get you a 50% chance - 0, 1, 2, 3, 4), you get the army or the card of your choice from a deck of cards. You lose the money whether successful or not. Since you can have up to three cities, you could be doing up to six of these rolls at the beginning of each turn. But it gets worse! A couple of the cards give you an extra roll for armies and an extra roll for cards, so if you had all three cities and all six cards, you'd be getting a staggering 12 reinforcement rolls a turn. I can't ever see that happening, but certainly three cities was not uncommon in the games I played. Most of those rolls you wouldn't spend money on, so it would be a lot of die rolling, hoping for 0s.

The other big problem was uneventful turns. In the game you had very few armies (by design), so there were often turns when you didn't want to move them unless you got another army or a particular card. So you'd make your reinforcement rolls - fail, not do anything and then claim your income and that was your turn done. Not much fun :-(

I like the rest of the design of the game, but I think in hindsight (and based on the feedback I've received) these are the two biggest problems in the game.

I'd had a bunch of ideas that might help fix these problems, but I've not tried them out as yet, so when Mal came round for the afternoon we wanted to give it a try. Mal and I have played a lot of Border Reivers over the years, at first I always used to win, but recently Mal's started beating me :-(

Time to change the rules ;-)

In his scientific way, Mal had wisely suggested we try one of the changes at a time, rather than making sweeping changes to everything. So first of all we tried a fairly simple change:

Cities give you one roll for army reinforcements and a free card every turn.

What I had hoped was that this would reduce the number of turns in which you had nothing to do, as you would always be able to get a card each turn. Since cards allow you to attack your opponents indirectly (stealing their income, ambushing their armies in the field or causing their settlements to rise up against them) or aid with direct attacks (reducing the effectiveness of their fortifications) I had hoped the game would be more aggressive as a result.

Initially, things seemed to be going well, we used the cards a lot and did start attacking other other fairly early. The game see-sawed a bit, like it often does and there were lots of nail-biting fights.

However, after a promising early start the game didn't go anywhere. Fights in Border Reivers are brutal, the most likely conclusion is that everyone dies :-) As a result by the time you had broken through your opponent's outer defences you almost certainly didn't have enough troops remaining to attack his city. This was additionally hampered by the fact that he was getting a card (or more) each turn, and hence would almost certainly have a militia card ready to defend his city from attack. The game continued like a couple of punch-drunk boxers unable to land a blow on each other for way too long (maybe an hour and a half - usually our games lasted twenty to forty minutes). Eventually, we gave up, convinced it was never going to end :-(

Mal mentioned that this just went to show how well balanced the original version was.

I think the next thing to try is replacing the die rolls with a fixed cost for armies and cards - this will definitely fix problem A and might help to fix problem B if the cost is low enough, but clearly there is a point where the cost is too low!

Friday, July 17

More Advertising

Until now my advertising has been limited to three places:

Each of these has their pros and cons as you'd expect. BoardGameGeek has a huge number of hits each month and is mostly targeted at the customer. The downside is that one of their revenue streams is to get people to pay money to 'join' the site, and this allows them to block all adverts from the site (I do this!). Since the most hardcore users are likely to be the ones who join, they're the least likely to see my ads, but the most likely to buy games :-( Plus, it's expensive.

Boardgame News comes in a bit cheaper, and in previous campaigns I've had more enquiries from people who saw an ad there than those who saw the same ad on BGG. Again, it's mostly targeted at customers, and the more hardcore ones at that.

The Greater Games Industry Catalog is as you'd expect from the name targeted at industry - shops and distributors. It's pretty cheap to get a page ad in there and they give you a listing every quarter for free so that's good. I've no idea if advertising in there has helped at all though - I've not had anyone mention they've seen my ads in there.

Now that I've got a pretty good distribution network, my next aim is to get more shops stocking and customers buying my games. How to reach that audience? A good question.

A couple of my distributors offer services to their suppliers to market games to their customers (the shops). So customers of mine want me to be a customer of theirs too. Weird.

Alliance Game Distributors the largest distributor in the US have a monthly trade magazine, Games Trade Magazine which they send out to their customers - the US shops. I can give them a wad of cash to place an advert for one or more of my games in the magazine, which would hopefully lead to more sales to the shops and then more customers noticing the games in the stores. It's pretty expensive though.

ACD Distribution, another large US distributor are offering me the chance to place flyers in every order they ship for a few weeks. I can even make the flyers like posters so they serve a triple purpose: raising awareness of my games with the store staff, giving the store owners something to decorate their store with and raising awareness of my games with customers in the store. It's a bit cheaper than the Alliance option and it hits both the shops and the customers. Sounds good. But to be most effective the posters need to be put up in the stores and I've no control over whether or not they will.

Just to make things even more bewildering, I've no experience designing adverts or posters so I've no idea how to make them look good, or even what information to include. I've asked for a back issue of GTM to get a better idea.

Any suggestions of which route is the best to go down, or what information to include?

Wednesday, July 15

Market Research Results 2

Back in April I ran an official BoardGameGeek competition. It cost me a bunch of money, in addition to the cost of seven games for the winners and postage.

Having never done anything like this before, I was wondered whether it would be a good way to spend my meagre marketing budget. At the time someone suggested that I do a questionnaire before and afterwards to judge the effect of the competition on awareness of my company and my games.

To encourage feedback, I ran the questionnaire as a mini competition, if you answer the questions I'd enter you in a competition to win a copy of the Reiver Games game of your choice and free worldwide postage. The first questionnaire ran several months ago and got 399 responses. For a description of the results you can see a previous post.

The second (post-competition) questionnaire I ran in the same way, and it finished at midnight on Monday. I spent pretty much all of yesterday collating the 291 results and figuring out who had won. Running two competitions allows me to remove some of the bias of the questionnaire as I hope similar people would have answered both.

In this post I'll be comparing the results of the two questionnaires and trying to interpret the results. Was the competition worth the cash?

Reiver Games

The first question was about awareness of my company/brand. The question was: Have you heard of Reiver Games?

  • A: Reiver what-know? Never heard of them
  • B: I've heard of them, but I've not played any of their games
  • C: I've played one or more of their games, but I don't own any of them
  • D: I own one or more of their games

For each question I'll show the two graphs - before and after the competition and then discuss what I think that means. As with anything statistical, there's multiple ways to intrepret the data - feel free to wade in in the comments if you disagree with my take on things.

The graphs will all show the results of the pre-competition survey in blue and the post-competition survey in red. Obviously, my ideal answer is D, then C, B and A in that order. Before the competition, 35% of respondents had never heard of my company, afterwards this was 11%. The remain three categories had all improved, but the most noticeable improvement was in the 'I've heard of but never played category. For this first question at least the competition seems to have been successful.

It's Alive!

The second question was about awareness of my first professionally manufactured game: It's Alive! The question was: Have you heard of It's Alive!?

  • A: Never heard of it
  • B: I've heard of it, but I've not played it
  • C: I've played it, but I don't own it
  • D: I own it

Before the competition It's Alive! was my best known game with only 23% of respondents unaware of it. After the competition this had dropped to 15%. The questions in the main competition required a little knowledge of It's Alive! and Carpe Astra - to stand a good chance of winning you needed to look up the answers in the rulebooks of both games so that makes sense. The remaining three categories all improved, with C showing the largest proportional increase. I've also noticed the the number of people who list themselves as owning It's Alive! has dramatically increased since the competition.

Carpe Astra

The third question was about awareness of what was at the time my newest game: Carpe Astra. The question was: Have you heard of Carpe Astra?

  • A: Never heard of it
  • B: I've heard of it, but I've not played it
  • C: I've played it, but I don't own it
  • D: I own it

Before the competition Carpe Astra was less well known game than It's Alive! with 42% of respondents unaware of it. After the competition this had dropped to 15% - same as It's Alive! The remaining three categories all improved, with B showing a massive jump.


The fourth question was about awareness of Sumeria, which was not yet released at the time of the first questionnaire, but had been released by the time of the second. The question was: Have you heard of Sumeria? The options differed between the two questionnaires due to the game's status.

  • A: Never heard of it
  • B: I've heard of it / I've heard of it, but I've not played it
  • C: I want to play it / I've played it, but I don't own it
  • D: I want to buy it / I own it

Before the competition most people hadn't heard of Sumeria - a whopping 72%. With the game still in development and little information available though, this wasn't that surprising. Looking at the second survey, Sumeria wasn't really mentioned in the competition either, just a throw-away line in Chad's introduction, so I expected awareness of this to still be lower. However, Sumeria has only just come out and is getting good feedback. 28% of respondents are still unaware of it. The remaining three categories all improved, with C showing the largest proportional increase.

Overall, 22% of people have either played or own It's Alive!, it's 9% for Carpe Astra and 8% for Sumeria. Ownership of the three games decreases in order of time available - fewer people own Sumeria (the newest game - still not available in many shops) than any of the others.

In terms of awareness-raising, this seems to have been a great success, the awareness of my games and company has jumped much higher after the competition than it was before. Unfortunately, most of the awareness is now in the 'I've heard of X, but not played it' category. I need to get more people playing (and hopefully buying!) my games if I'm going to be successful.

Official Competition

I wrapped up the second questionnaire with a new question: Did you see the Reiver Games Giveaway official BGG competition?

  • A: Yes, and I entered it
  • B: Yes, but I didn't enter it
  • C: Nope, that one passed me by

I didn't know what to expect here. The competition was entered by about 3900 of BGG's hundreds of thousands of registered users. It sat in the BGG News section of the front page (at the top of your screen by default) for two weeks so people who check BGG frequently should have seen it. People who joined in the couple of months since the competition obviously won't have seen it, and infrequent users may well have missed it.

The number of Bs and Cs surprised me. I thought more people would have at least noticed it, but 35% of respondents hadn't. As for the Bs, I wonder why they chose not to enter? Already got all my games (I wish!), not interested in the prizes (i.e. my games), questions too hard? I'll never know... Unless I ask them :-)

In summary, I'm pretty happy with the results of the two questionnaires and the competition. The big challenge now has to be to get people from category B in questions 1-4 into category C or D. I'm not sure how to do that.

Thursday, July 2

Computer Versions of Board Games

Last night I started working on a computerised version of Sumeria. Why invest the time and effort to make a computerised version of an existing board game? What's in it for the (potential) customer?

  • It allows people to quickly and easily see if it's a game they would like without the expense of a purchase.
  • It's a chance to learn the rules where they are constrained and don't rely on someone's interpretation of the rulebook.
  • It allows you to play when you can't get a group together.
  • Some allow you to play offline - i.e. each player takes his turn and then notifies the others it's ready for theirs - this requires much less player time in one go than a full face-to-face game.
  • In a thinky game, perceived downtime is reduced since you're not sat waiting for an opponent to have a go - you're just notified when he has.

Sounds good so far. So why don't all publishers make (or allow to be made) computerised versions of their games?

  • It might lead to fewer sales: why buy a game if you can play it online for free?
  • It's expensive in terms of time and effort. Programmers aren't cheap - I know - I used to be one.

You can do essentially three different type of computer-based board games:

  • Real-time against the computer (AI)
  • Real-time against human opponents
  • Offline against human opponents

Each has their pros and cons. Against the computer only means you don't have to worry about network programming or database interaction - the whole thing can be done more simply. In one sense - you need to come up with some AI that the computer players use, which is more difficult. Real-time against other people means you don't need to write any AI, but the downside is you need to write all the code necessary for client-server interaction. Interactive games are probably better for simpler, quicker games, where there is little downtime waiting for an opponent to have their go. You will probably need to provide some form of instant communication too - a chat window or voice communications. Finally, the offline method is like an old play-by-email game, but with a better interface. On your turn you get a notification (via email for example) that it's your turn. You get to see what has changed since you last looked and then you take your turn and the next player is notified. This method will turn a short, fun game into a very long experience, but for the more complicated games it might take the pressure off a bit, allowing players to concentrate more on their strategies without the pressure of the other players leaning over the board asking you to hurry up!

I'm thinking I'll try to get version for Sumeria against the computer working first, if that works ok I can always look at getting the offline version done afterwards. I'm working in C#.