Monday, February 27

My Juices Are Flowing...

Creative juices that is, before you get any ideas.

Reiver Games, my previous games publishing effort was formed after I got into games design. After years writing tiny bits of computer games I was in the mood for doing something that I could start, work through and finish. I'd played Mighty Empires with some friends for a weekend (and I mean a weekend - we played for 36 hours over three days!). I thought I could create something similar that was a bit less random (I'd been wiped out in a dragon attack after 24 hours of play!) and that played a bit quicker. Border Reivers was the game I created in that vein. On the back of Border Reivers and the perceived success of it (I sold out of the 100 hand-made copies within a year) I was in the designing mood, I started probably five or ten new games ideas, all sorts: an abstract game, an empire game, a beach-combing game and card game about the development of York.

After a year or so, I had another game out, designed by another designer and it was selling much better than Border Reivers had. With a little distance I'd realised that Border Reivers wasn't as good as I'd originally thought. In fact, I was beginning to think it was pretty weak. I'd played it with a lot of people by that point, and some loved it, some liked it and some were distinctly unimpressed. I could see there were flaws in the design, but as both the designer and the publisher I had no distance. I'd not played many games by the time I'd finished Border Reivers: Carcassonne, The Settlers of Catan and Citadels, maybe a couple of others. As I played a wider range of games I got a better grip on what a good game was. At this point I was trying to position Reiver Games as an independent publisher, and I was receiving more and more submissions to publish. The quality of those submissions varied enormously and it was clear that some designers really struggled to understand just how unfinished their designs were. As an independent adjudicator, I could clearly see these games were weak, but as the designer they were too close, too invested in their designs to see the flaws.

Seeing this from the other side made me re-think my own designing. I was that designer too, too invested in my own games to see their weaknesses and flaws. I start to be much harsher on my games, equivocating, second-guessing myself and struggling to make any decisions. Aware of the flaws of Border Reivers and the problems a lack of impartially brought I stopped designing my own games, afraid I'd publish games of my own design, after blinding myself to their flaws. After It's Alive! I published Carpe Astra (with some design input from myself) and Sumeria, neither of which sold very well. As Reiver Games slowly crawled towards the grave I lost confidence in myself, even to choose other designers' games.

Needless to say, designing was far from my mind for all this time. Now, a year and a bit after I went back to work I'm in the mood again. I've got two different prototypes ready to go: Codename Vacuum a Steampunk/Sci-Fi deck-building and tableau driven game, and Proteome: The Drug Discovery Card Game, an idea that sprang into my head after a joke from one of the marketing team at work. What's next? I've a tile-laying game knocking around in my head too, themed around Lewis & Clark's exploration of the American west.

What I really need to do now is get playing them, so I can start the improvement/design/development process. I've a weekly games night that I don't really want to become all about the playtesting (as the games will be broken a lot of the time and not much fun to play), and there's a bi-weekly games club in Newcastle which I don't make it to very often. I'll be going to Beers and Pretzels in May, but before then I could do with a few playtesting nights to get the games into some sort of shape before showing them to the discerning public. I need to find some time in my busy schedule.

Sunday, February 12

Codename Vacuum Gets an Overhaul

As I've mentioned in my last few posts, I've started designing games again. It's been a long time (for most of the time I ran Reiver Games I wasn't designing myself, just developing other people's submissions), but I've really caught the bug again.

I'm investing pretty much all of my games design free-time in Codename: Vacuum a tableau-driven, deck-building steampunk space opera (trying saying that ten time quickly!). The first playable prototype was finished a couple of weeks ago and saw action at one of my weekly games nights. It kind of worked how I'd intended but was too complicated and way too long (around two hours!). I'm aiming for the under-an-hour sweet spot that lots of games I really like (and a few I don't) hit. I'm thinking: Race for the Galaxy, 7 Wonders, Eminent Domain, Dominion.

It turns out that my design principles are to start off with something way too complicated and then simplify over time - which reminds me of something Grant Rodiek designer of Farmageddon tweeted last week:

If my rules don't get shorter after I incorporate my changes from a playtest, I immediately assume I took the wrong path.

It starts off well in my head: Steampunk!, Space Opera, with spaceships, and combat and trading ..., and then gets a little bloaty: ... and locations, and science, and tech trees and pirates and the passage of time ... and then gets ridiculous: ... and you can choose what weapons your ships have, and what clothes your admiral is wearing and and whether you are going to trade bauxite or Martian elephant leather.


In the carefully controlled environment inside my head the game works like a charm - fast paced, fun with just the right amount of player interaction and decision making.

Then you play it with real people and you realise that the world in your head has no connection to reality at all. The game is slow, there's too many options, too many rules, whole chunks are non-intuitive, overly clunky or just pointless.

So you try to take what you've learnt and start again. You simplify things, take bits out, reduce the options, streamline this and cleanse that. Make a new prototype and try again.

That's where I am now with Codename: Vacuum. I've spent a good chunk of this week redoing all the cards on the computer, ready to be printed out again. Pretty much every card has changed, whether removing options, stripping out unnecessary complexity, trying to get things to make sense or have a purpose or just trying to improve the balance between all the various options. I hope to have the second prototype ready for testing towards the end of the week, either at my games night on Thursday, or at Beyond Monopoly! a games club in York that I used to attend when I lived there and will be visiting again for a first time in several years on Saturday.

Fingers crossed I'll find time in this hectic week to get it finished, printed and cut out. Then get it to the table (I've already had a few people requesting a chance to playtest it for me :-) ). At which point I'll find out that this new, streamlined, balanced version incorporating everything I learnt from playing the last hideously-broken version is way too complicated, too slow and hideously broken. At which point I'll have to start all over again!

Playtesting and developing a game is a long hard slog, at the beginning it's a case of four steps forward and three steps back. But, hopefully, over time you make progress and get to the point where it still mostly fits that vision you had all those months or years ago, but is slick, interesting, fun to play and you have people clamouring to play it when they see you. Will Codename: Vacuum make the grade eventually? I hope so, but only time will tell.