Monday, October 29

My Gaming in Newcastle

Eleven years ago this month, The Wife (then The Affianced) and I moved to Newcastle upon Tyne in the north east of England. The Affianced went off to University again and I started working with my current employer.

At the time, I wasn't in to boardgames (I know, hard to imagine, considering how obsessed I am with them now!), instead, in my spare time, I wrote bits of computer games. All that changed eventually, when I started designing my first game: Border Reivers.

There's only so much fun you can have playtesting a board game by yourself, so I enlisted friends from work to try it out so I could work out what worked and what didn't and tweak it accordingly. I chose the theme (and the name of my company) from local history and Newcastle became a favourite city of ours.

However, we move around a lot and three years almost to the day after moving to Newcastle, we found ourselves heading south to York where I joined Beyond Monopoly and made friends through gaming for the first time. York is only 100 miles south of Newcastle, and for the first year we lived in York I continued working for the same company, three days a week at home and two days a week up in Newcastle. I made some great mates at my employer and even after I got a job a bit nearer to home in York I remained in contact with them, occasionally hosting events in York or heading up to Newcastle for a weekend.

With gaming now such a large part of my life I introduced my friends in Newcastle to other games and frequently playtested games with them, and in fact when I decided to attend Essen for the first time, Mal (the world's second most capped Border Reivers player, and Reiver Games proof-reader extraordinaire) came out with me.

After four years in York it was time to move on again, this time another 150 miles further south to near Bedford, where again I made my friends through my passion for gaming. Newcastle was a four hour drive away now, but we still popped up a couple of times, and Mal made a couple of trips down.

By this point I'd been running Reiver Games as a full-time concern for two years and it was clear that it wasn't going anywhere, so I was looking for paid work again. I was looking for work as a Software Engineer as it was the only thing I knew how to do, but I was a bit rusty after three years out of the business and I was struggling to find work. I contacted the guys I had worked with in Newcastle for four years, five years previously and they agreed to take me back four days a week one summer as a contractor to get some recent experience on my CV. It was not like starting a new job at all, more like coming home! Most of the same people worked there (in fact there was only one face I didn't recognise on my first day!). After that summer, I found a job down south that didn't excite me, so The Wife and I decided it was time to stop saying 'It would be nice to live in Newcastle again' and actually do it instead, so I contacted my old employer again and they offered me employment there for the third time.

View of the Tyne at Newcastle by Wilka
Photo via Wilka again

It took The Wife a couple more months to work out her notice down south, so there was a couple of months where I was camping inside the rental place we'd let for while we found a nice house to buy. I had an empty house with no furniture and very few belongings to myself during the week, so I made sure to take up several of my favourite games and with some collapsible chairs and a folding camping table, set up my own Games Night for the first time (previously I'd always had mates with larger collections than me, and just gamed at their houses).

I invited several of my friends from work and some ex-colleagues, and Gareth who ran Newcastle Gamers. To begin with it was just Mal and I, but slowly more people became interested and it has now grown to the point that we regularly have six or seven attendees and once we had ten! (that camping table comes in handy again most weeks!). Pretty much all the attendees are either friends from work, old friends who used to work there or partners of people who still work or used to work there - my gaming life revolves around the only employer I've ever had in Newcastle.

Why is all this relevant? It's not really, but I've been working on a new game idea for a year or so and was having difficulty finding the time to get it to the table (more so, now that I have a two month old daughter). I'd been avoiding getting it to the table at Games Night for fear of spoiling people's fun with a crappy half-arsed game. Then it struck me: I'm at work all day every day as are half the attendees of Games Night. Let's put them to work! So I invited them to join me of a lunch time for a game of Codename: Vacuum. I've played it 5 times over the last few weeks and still have more games booked up in the future. I've had to limit myself to one or two games a week so that it doesn't knacker my hours too much (a game at the moment lasts around an hour either for me and a newbie or three players with at least one game behind them). This is working really well, a great chance to play regularly and build up the information I need before I can make the next version (which is nearly ready!). Long may it continue.

Monday, October 22


The end of last week saw the yearly Spiel trade show in Essen, Germany. Over 4 days 150,000 people descend on the Ruhr valley to see the latest releases from the world's game companies. Held in an enormous convention centre, the show fills 9 of the 12 halls with booths ranging from the glitzy, spacious efforts of the largest German publishers at the front down to small, unbranded stalls of guys trying to flog copies of their hand-made game at the back.

Wandering the halls you can buy (for cash only usually) the latest games, hot off the presses as well as play the games and often meet the designers, artists and gaming luminaries who wander the halls between meetings.

The show is very busy, especially on the weekend - the front halls can be literally elbow-to-elbow at times - but it's still a great way to try out a bunch of new games before all your friends get them (or they go out of print briefly!).

I have no intention of visiting the show as a punter - I don't buy enough games to make the trip to Germany worth it, especially as I can buy the games in the UK shortly afterwards at a similar price, however I did enjoy attending twice as a publisher while I ran Reiver Games.

I thought it might be interesting to share what I learnt about attending Essen as a publisher.

Both years I had the same booth in Hall 4 where the smaller publishers hang out. I had 10 square metres (5 metres wide by 2 metres deep) with 9 metres of plain white walls on three of the sides. I paid for a carpet and the hire of tables and chairs (which are all pretty expensive from the venue - I saw some guys opposite from me in the second year nip to Ikea, buy cheap tables and chairs and they even sold them on at the end of the show to another exhibitor!).

Me at Spiel 09

In 2008, I shared half my stand with Peter and Melchior of Geode Games, in the second year they had moved next door to a stand of their own. Both years I had three tables at the front of the stand with a wall of games in shipping cartons along the back - I got several games out of the shipping cartons and faced them out along the top so that people walking past could see what it was I was selling and I had games easily accessible in case of a sale. It sounds obvious, but you need somewhere to be able to play your games: get (or bring) some tables and chairs.

Both times I took three friends to help out, in 2008 Duncan, his wife Lucy and Mal joined me (and in fact Dunk drove) on the ferry from Hull to Rotterdam and in 2009 Dunk, Lucy, Andrew and I flew to Dortmund or Düsseldorf and then got the train to Essen. Seeing as they were friends attending purely out of good will, I paid for the ferry/flights and their accommodation (both times in Apparthaus Arosa self-catering apartments). Four people sounds like a lot, but if you've got three tables of gaming it means you can have one person explaining on each table and someone selling games/taking cash. Although what we mostly did was let people have some time off. I did the majority of every shift and it's really hard work - if you're getting paid overtime it's not too bad, if you're doing it as a favour for a mate it's a bit much without a break. It also meant that we could have someone leave early and go and cook us some dinner - if you've been flat out from 8:30am to 7pm talking almost non-stop and with very little for lunch, that is worth its weight in gold! I tried to give the others one morning/afternoon in three off, though they didn't always take it!

In the first year I took one pallet's worth (800 games) of It's Alive!, the only game I had at the time. A friend (Dean of Ludorum Games, now sadly also closed) drove my games to Essen in the van he was taking his games in for the bargain price of £50 in petrol money. I sold about 150-200 copies to punters and the remainder to Fred distribution in the US (though I think they sold them on to ACD or Alliance a while later). I came home with 4 copies! The second year I paid £200 to get a couple of pallets shipped there by a local distribution company (500 Sumeria, 500 It's Alive! and 200ish of Carpe Astra) and from what I remember, I sold about 150 Sumeria, 100 It's Alive! and 50ish Carpe Astra. I then had to pay DB Schenker (the distribution company who have a concession at the venue) £400-500 to ship one pallet back. Ouch!

In hindsight, I'd have been better to man-up, hire (or buy cheap) a van and drive it there. Then I'd have been able to take cheaper furniture that I could reuse the next year too, and no crippling return shipping fees.

In my second year I also invested in some plastic banner signs. Two 3 feet wide and 2 feet high with my company logo on for the end panels on the sides so that people walking down the aisle would see them, and one each for my three games (3 feet wide and 4 feet high) with pricing information on for the back wall. Three feet wide banners fit nicely in the one metre wide panels and a couple of S-shaped metal hooks from Ikea over the top of the panels and through the holes in the banners held them securely in place. The banners would have been nicely re-usable had my company not run out of steam by 2010.

So, I think in summary, attending Spiel is expensive for a small publisher, so try to amortize costs as best you can across multiple visits, rather than paying again and again for the same thing each year. I'd also recommend that if you're trying to sell to shops and distributors rather than just directly, that you try to arrange meetings with as many distributors as you can beforehand to tout your wares. Oh, and have a price in mind for shops and distributors who are buying in bulk, they come round with surprising frequency and it's nice to just be able to sort it out without having to pause the game you're playing.

Monday, October 15

A Matter of Taste

Some people like a fine red wine (we'll call them 'wrong uns'), some prefer a warm, ruby ale ('ladies and gentlemen of taste and distinction'). Like everything in life, games are a matter of taste.

Some people like wargames with a rulebook as thick as a grown man's waist, some people like miniature games where the painting is as much part of the game as the combat. Some people like 'Ameritrash' games where the fun comes from beating your opponents to pulp through the medium of your own bodyweight in dice and some people (we'll call them LaGoTaD) like euro-games, where pushing an array of coloured cubes around more efficiently than your opponents is considered a good time.

As a designer, I tend to design games that are the sorts of games I like to play: fairly short euro-games with an occasional dice-fest thrown in for good measure. I thought it might be interesting to discuss my favourite games, what about them I like and how that affects my design.

My Favourite Games

  • Carcassonne:
    Carcassonne was one of my first euro-games and is still one of my favourites. It's fairly quick (~30 mins), the card draw brings randomness so each game is slightly different and there is direct player interaction through trapping meeples and stealing cities and farms from your opponents. A good euro-game sells tens of thousands of copies. Carcassonne has sold millions. It's easy to see why. Weaknesses? Not much, though I suppose there aren't many strategies available.
  • Race for the Galaxy:
    With a cool space theme and quick play time, Race has been a staple of my gaming for years. It's fairly complex to learn (thanks to the pictography) and there's not a huge amount of interaction between players, but there are many strategies available and the simultaneous player actions mean you can play pretty quickly if you know what you're doing.
  • 7 Wonders:
    Another quick game with simultaneous player actions. There's a little trading between players, and the end of age scraps but it's mostly do you own thing again. Several strategies available, but you have to play the cards you're dealt so there's some randomness there and some interaction as you choose which cards to pass on.
  • Thunderstone:
    I was really not excited by Dominion, I found it bland and featureless, but Thunderstone really grabbed me because of the theme and the tighter theme integration. And that's despite a significantly longer play-time. Thunderstone is the only deck-building game in my top five, and doesn't have any simultaneity, which probably contributes to the longer play time. As with many deck-building games, the selection of types of cards has a big effect on the game - it can make it great or painful.
  • Puerto Rico:
    A classic euro-game. Very little downtime between turns (as everybody gets to act on everyone's turn) and an interesting role-selection mechanism. The longer play time means this doesn't get to the table as often as the others.

My Most Played Games (excluding ones I published!)

The games I've played the most is a similar list, but with a couple of notable differences:

  1. Magic: The Gathering is an incredibly addictive card game. Again it has fairly quick game play (~20 mins) and a wealth of strategies (mainly because the manufacturer bring out new cards continuously with new rules). It's got a fun theme and the game is all about direct player interaction - to win you have to crush all your opponents into a fine dust.
  2. Carcassonne
  3. Race for the Galaxy
  4. 7 Wonders
  5. Hive: A very simple (in terms of rules) but engaging 2-player strategy game that feels a little like very quick chess. Terry and I could play this in around 10 minutes, so it was a common filler while waiting for others to arrive at games night when I lived down south.

As you can see there's a few things that tie my lists together: fast play time, multiple paths to victory and some player interaction. How does the current early incarnation of Codename: Vacuum measure up?

Codename: Vacuum

Codename: Vacuum is a deck building card game (similar to Thunderstone) with a tableau element (similar to Race for the Galaxy) and a space theme (again, RftG. I'm aiming to get the play time down to around 30-45 mins for players who know the rules, which has similarities with most of the games on my lists but without simultaneous player actions that might be tricky. So far no-one but me has played it more than once, so every game is a learning game and it's hard to tell how well I'm getting on towards that target. Vacuum has 11 scoring conditions available per game, of which only 1 per player plus 1 are scored in any game. The players choose which conditions will score - so this can vary from game to game (and in fact there are fifteen in total of which only ten are available in any game). So once I've balanced the scoring conditions, multiple paths to victory should be assured. Finally, there is direct player interaction (if you so choose), you can waltz over to your opponent's territories with an armada and capture them. Player interaction often slows things down though as one player stops to think how to respond to an unexpected assault from an opponent. I need to balance my desire for player interaction with my desire for short play time. On that note, I'm trying to think of ways to make the trade actions more interactive between players, but all my ideas so far would slow things down a lot :(.

It's getting to the table a lot now, at least two or three times a week, so hopefully it'll really start to take shape over the next couple of months.

Tuesday, October 9

Getting Codename: Vacuum to the Table

First of all, a quick 'Hi!' to those of you who found this blog through Boardgame News or Reddit and decided to stick around to see what happens next. Welcome! And I hope I prove worthy of your attention :).

Those of you who aren't new however will be aware that despite talking about it a lot, and re-designing bits of it a lot, I haven't actually been playing Codename: Vacuum much at all.

Part of that is because I'm tweaking it at such a prodigious rate that I rarely have a prototype ready to go with all the latest changes I'm considering, and part of it is lack of time, and part of it is lack of opportunity and part of it is probably a lack of commitment on my part.

Since moving back to Newcastle last August I've only made it to the local games club (Newcastle Gamers) twice, and I've not been to been a convention since I used to run Reiver Games a couple of years ago. I nearly made it to Beer and Pretzels last year, but it ended up coinciding with a work trip to Vancouver, and TCAD coincided with the birth of my daughter, so that was out too.

I also used to have a regular playtesting session while I ran Reiver Games, where all the attendees knew that they'd spend their time trying games that might be badly broken. Whereas attendees to my regular Games Night are coming to play real games, so I feel awkward foisting half-finished games on them that might be joyless experiences.

Enough with the lame excuses! Time to pull my finger out. At last week's Games Night a couple of attendees offered to help me playtest Vacuum, so we sat down to a game of it. Again, it took longer than I was hoping, but that included a couple of breaks and me explaining how to set up the game to them while holding a baby! I guess it was around an hour and a half all told. I'd still like it to be comfortably under an hour, but maybe with experienced players that's still a possibility. I've also arranged some plays during lunchtime at work with a couple of friends this week, and one of the guys who played it at last week's Games Night wants to play it again next time, so there's every chance it'll get played four times(!) in a couple of weeks. That's more like it!

Vacuum in play

Photo via Wilka

Of course, I've already got a bunch of ideas ready from last week's playtest that I'm in the process of incorporating into yet another version. Some things that I put in, and took out are probably going back in (removed to simplify it, back in for thematic purposes and to boost several of the cards) and I'm making a few tweaks to try to encourage more player interaction (by which I mean fighting!). It won't be ready for this week's games though, so I've a chance to try the old version out a few more times and try to confirm my suspicions that these changes are necessary.

Tuesday, October 2

Prototype Decay

It's alright, I'm not talking about prototypes made from raw meat, disappearing ink or short-lived radioisotopes*, but the life-span of components as the prototypes of a game march on.

I recently read a New Scientist story about how truth decays over time (reg. required).

Before Copernicus, everyone knew that the Earth was the centre of the universe. It was a fact. Then, the sun was the centre of the universe. Now we know that we live on an uncharted backwater at the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral Arm of the Milky Way, one of billions of galaxies in the observable universe.

Similarly, there used to be four elements: earth, air, fire and water. Everything was made of those in different quantities. Then there were modern elements, made of indivisible atoms. Then it turned out that you could divide atoms: into protons, neutrons and electrons. But they were indivisible. Now it turns out that protons and neutrons can be divided into quarks. But they are indivisible, honest.

This got me thinking about how the components of a game have a half-life during the prototyping process.

During the prototyping phase components come and go. You try something, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, even the things that work will likely evolve over time. The half-life of a prototype component is related to how many versions of the game you expect it to remain unchanged through. Obviously, this can relate to physical components, rules, designs, keywords, in-game text, even rules.

Through the development of Codename: Vacuum, there have already been lots of changes and it's probably only on it's third or fourth version (I really should keep better track of these things!). Some cards have had superficial changes (the name has changed, for example), others have been completely re-designed. Sometimes I add a keyword to a whole class of cards, that in no way changes what they do, but makes the explanation easier in the rules. But it affects each of those cards, requiring reprinting and cutting out.

The half-life of a component can vary from under one (not likely to survive to the next version), through one (50% chance of making it to the next version) up to a very large number (will remain unchanged through many versions).

Recognising that components have a half-life, and trying to make an educated guess as to what it might be enables you to invest a reasonable amount of time in a component. It doesn't make sense to pay an artist hundreds of pounds to create some art for a card entitled 'Boffin' if the next version of the game has replaced that card with a card entitled 'Calculation Engine' that does exactly the same thing.

As time goes on, the average half-life of your components should increase as the game begins to settle down and the changes between versions become less sweeping. That's why my early prototypes are scribbled on paper, but later ones can include art and hand-made FIMO pieces:

Border Reivers final prototype

At some point in a game's life cycle you've got to get it in front of other gamers, probably by sending it out to volunteers. I've already got people volunteering to try out Codename: Vacuum for me. Using the estimated half-life of prototype components could help you make the decision of when to start that process: if you're going to have to send them new components after every play - it's probably not ready for remote playtesting yet!

* actually, that's given me an idea for a game!