Monday, June 19

Feedback Wanted on New Zombology Look

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I've been working on the Zombology artwork for the next version I'm making. The picture below shows the art for the version I released in November 2015 as part of NaGa DeMon. Along the top are an example of each of the therapy cards (one of each number and suit) and along the bottom are the Guru, Pay Rise, Overrun, Army Perimeter cards and the back images for the two decks:


There were a few things I wanted to improve for the next version. The art was pretty rushed for the NaGa DeMon version - it was essentially prototype art, compounded by the fact that I'm not actually a very good artist and I couldn't afford to hire one either. In particular I was unhappy with the Army Perimeter card and although I quite liked the scientist icon on the back of the Epidemic cards, it was not in keeping with the rest of the art.

In addition, a few things came up during testing:

  • the Homeopathy background was a bit too dark, 
  • the Guru cards were too similar to the corresponding therapy cards, 
  • it was easy to confuse the Pay Rise and Overrun cards,
  • the Psychotherapy suit was confusing as it was the only real therapy included.
To address these issues, I've spent a decent chunk of time over the last few weeks trying to improve the art to fix these problems and just give it a better look:



I'd really appreciate any feedback on the new versions. Are they better or have I made things worse? Anything specific you like or don't like?

Monday, June 12

Zombology: A Game in Three Acts

After reading very positive reviews on BGG and getting agreement on Twitter I bought the Kobold Guide to Games Design by Mike Selinker. It's a series of essays by gaming giants (Richard Garfield, Steve Jackson, Dale Yu, Rob Daviau, Andrew Looney and several more I'd never heard of, but should have!). I've only just started it, but already I've coming across an essay by Jeff Tidball (designer of Pieces of Eight) about how games should be formed in three acts, like a story, book or film.


Jeff's conceit is that the three stages of a game correspond to:
  1. Setting the stage: The first act sets the boundaries of the conflict, allowing players to work out how and where to focus their efforts,
  2. The meat of the gameplay: The players will be competing trying to get into position for a push for victory,
  3. The push for victory: The player's will be attempting to strike for a game win, or stop others doing the same.

It struck me while reading the essay that that description neatly fits the way a game of Zombology plays out, despite the fact it only lasts ten minutes!

The first act is the first couple of hands - you're playing the game blind at this point - you've no idea which therapies the players are supporting, or even which ones could possibly lead to a victory. At this point you have a crazy optimism of a crackpot scientist who believes it is possible to cure the Zombie Plague with Homeopathy, or A Nice Cup of Tea. With everyone in the same position, it feels like a co-operative game - we can do this! We can cure the plague.

This phase can last a different length of time for different players - in a game with fewer players someone might start with the Cure for Healing Crystals, and hence know this is a good therapy to back, while others might not see a high valued card for several rounds.

As new and better cards come into the draft you start to build an understanding of what is possible in this game - which suits are being backed and, as you start to see the 4s, 5s and 6s going round, which suits have the potential to lead to a victory. In the next five or six rounds the battle lines are drawn. It's very unlikely that you can win the game as the only player to have played the winning therapy - you have to work together to get the evidence required to cure the Zombie Plague. As the game develops you start to see teams forming, as two or more players back one therapy while others back different therapies. Some therapies may not have been backed at all, or only by a single player - these will wither and die as the players focus on the therapies most likely to effect a cure.

You now have shifting alliances - it has morphed into a team game (where the teams are changing as people get into therapies that have potential). Players will work together to help a cure they can win in, or fight tooth and nail to scotch a cure that will lose them the game. Players will be keeping track of who has the Cures they've seen and whether a player is likely to play one this turn. If so, can they share that victory? Or do they need to try and stop it?

As the game nears the eighth round and the prospect of total annihilation of humanity looms the pressure builds - is it possible to cure the plague? Can you win, or must you doom seven billion souls to save face?

The final act is the when a player has the Cure in hand and is in a position to play it and win. They may have already done what they can to protect themselves from another player's spoiling, or they may be relying on others to help protect them for the shared victory. Others might be trying to stop them, ride on their coattails to victory or trying to see if there's a double (or triple) Cure that they can back sufficiently to also share in the success. The player with the Cure is excited - can the card be successfully played? Is there too much risk (you might know who has the ability to stop you with a well-timed zombie attack)? Could you even feint and play a different card, trying to draw out the attacks early while passing the Cure to the next player who would also play it?

The three acts analogy is an interesting lens to view a game through, and I'll definitely be considering it when I return to working on Vacuum.

Monday, June 5

Zombology Art Upgrade

So I'm one week into my paternity leave and one week into parenting a newborn (again). This week has been school holidays in the UK, so The Eldest (nearly five!) has been off school all week and we've had my parents here for the week to help with the new baby (and childcare during the birthing hospital visit).

As you can imagine (or if you're a parent, vaguely remember through the sleep deprived haze), we've been pretty busy, but in the evenings I've managed to snatch a few minutes to work on improving the Zombology artwork for the second limited edition.

To my mind, the priorities were:

  • differentiate Pay Rises from Overruns
  • improve the Army Perimeters
  • and, make the Guru/scientist more in keeping with the zombie.


I started with the first two of those and this is the progress I've made so far:

PayRise
Army Perimeter

Any thoughts or feedback?

Monday, May 29

Levelled Up!

I'm now a father of two :-D

Dad Level Two

Last Thursday The Wife gave birth to our second daughter, Elina Sophie Pope. She weighed 5lbs 13oz (2.64kg) and everyone is now home and doing well. She is currently nocturnal, and with The Eldest off school during the days this week, I'm going to be way too tired to achieve anything games design related.

All I will say is that before she arrived I did a bit of work on the Zombology v2 graphic design and started a new AI for the Zombology test harness. It's currently winning 25.6% of the games it plays, so it's better than my two demo players (risky and conservative). I've a few more things to implement in it though - I think I can push that win ratio up. No other takers so far in the AI competition, looks like I might win it myself :-/

Monday, May 22

Zombology AI Competition

There's been some interest in the AI competition, so I'm going ahead with it - thanks very much for your offers to help me test the balance of Zombology.

Purpose

I'm trying to test the balance of my card game Zombology after some rules changes in the second edition which I will be releasing later this year. To properly test the game I need to play it hundreds of times, which I'm struggling to do in the flesh around a full-time job, young family and imminent second child! So I've written a game harness that will play the game on a computer and I want to test it using reasonably realistic human-mimicking AIs. The aim is to write a AI to play Zombology, and have it be the best at winning the game across numbers of players. Your AI will not be used for any purpose other than the competition and the testing of the game's balance.

Rules

The test will be based on the Zombology second edition rules.

You will need to download the game solution and then implement a subclass of the Player class in the solution in C#. You can use the ConservativeSciencePlayer and RiskySciencePlayer examples for inspiration. Your class must obey the following rules:

  1. You must implement all of the abstract methods on the Player class which describe your choices and return your chosen option.
  2. You cannot change any game state (the base Player class will do this on your behalf).
  3. You cannot share state between multiple instances of your player in a game (i.e. no static members).
  4. You can only use information that would be available to a human player in your position (this should be enforced by the GameState and PlayerState classes - feel free to remember things from previous rounds, but no looking at cards you haven't seen, etc.).
  5. All entrants must provide their Player-derived class to me by the end of 30th June 2017 BST (UTC+1), entrants received after this time will not be included.
  6. In the event that a bug in your class results in the game harness crashing, I will give you as much information as I can about the crash and give you one week to fix it before re-running the test.
If you need to make any changes/fix bugs to my existing classes please detail them in the comments to this post and I'll incorporate them and re-share the solution so everyone has the same information. Please comment below and subscribe to the comments on this post if you are entering, so I know who you are, how many entrants there are and you get notified if I have to change anything. I will copy your player class (and any ancillary classes you've created) into my solution for the test, any changes you've made to the existing classes will not be preserved.

The Test

I will have the harness play 60,000 games, 10,000 each with 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 players. For each game the harness will pick a random player from my ConservativeSciencePlayer, my RiskySciencePlayer and all the entrant's players for each slot in the game. I will record each player class' total games played and games won stats and will sum these across all sizes of games. The class with the best win/play ratio across all games will be declared the winner. In the event that the top two or more entrants are within 0.01% of each other, I will repeat the test just using the 'tied' entrants - the winner of the second test will be declared the winner, even it if is still within 0.01%.

Remember it's a semi- co-op game: the best result is you are sole winner, the second best result is you are a shared winner, third best is everyone loses and the worst outcome is that you lose but others win.

Prize

The winning AI gets huge kudos, plus I'll give you a free, signed and numbered copy of the second edition of Zombology, including free postage worldwide.

Monday, May 15

Bot-Loads of Data!

As I've mentioned over the last couple of weeks, I've been working on a framework to play Zombology automatically, with AI players making all the decisions. On Friday night, I finally got a basic version of the application working.

The whole point of this is that I need more data about the relative difficulty of the new rules of the game and how well they scale by number of players. I drew a graph a couple of months ago of how I wanted it to look, with the chance of winning in each round being twice as high as the previous round, and the chance of all players losing being 50% (when the game is won there are winners and losers - it's semi-co-operative):

To build a graph that looks like that I need to play at least 128 games with each number of players (3-8), so 768 in total. So far I've managed 33:

While this is looking alright, there's still nowhere near enough data - I've not lost a 7- or 8-player game yet with the new rules (but we've only played it twice each with those numbers of players). Clearly waiting around for me to play it enough with real people is a non-starter.

The AI idea was a way to get more data, but with very little free time (and soon to be even less with Daughter The Second at most 10 days away) I'm not going to be able to come up with a hyper-realistic player AI. So I've opened it up as a competition, which I'll elaborate more on next week.

For the moment, I've started collecting data with an entirely random player - it figuratively rolls a die for every decision it's faced with. I've run the simulation 60,000 times, 10,000 times for each of the numbers of players from three up to eight.

The good news is that Random McRandomface is pretty crap at Zombology. The chances of a single instance of him winning a game varies between 0.2% (in a 3-player game) and 1.5% (in an eight player game). The chances of the game being won varied between 0.5% (3-player again) and 11% (8-player again). Both of these are way south of the 50% I'm aiming for, but I'm very happy that the game is usually lost when played at random. Out of 60,000 games, only one of them was won in round 3 (of 8). Also, if you exclude the loss bar (it's so large you can't see the others!), then the wins by round graph looks pretty good too:

The bad news is the variation by player count. 3-player is hard. 4- and 5-player pretty hard, 6- and 7-player much easier and 8-player twice as easy as 6 & 7. This might disappear once I have a more realistic AI, but it's a potential concern.

My (and your?) next task is to write a more realistic AI...





Monday, May 8

AI Competition Early Info

So I had a few takers for the Zombology AI competition, so here's an early cut of what I'm thinking. I will write a game harness that plays the game and calls into the Player class periodically for state changes and decisions. I will write an abstract Player class that does all of the state change stuff - the entrants will need to subclass the Player class and implement the decisions however they see fit. I will try to make it so that they only have the information a human player would have at that point, so it's fine to remember cards you've seen earlier in the draft, but you shouldn't be able to see cards you've not yet received in the draft. If you wish to remember any state between decisions and turns, that's fine, but you are NOT allowed to make any state changes at all (I've implemented all of that in the base class).

Here's a link to the latest rules of the game, and a link to a zip file containing all the classes you need to implement your subclass of Player, including an example subclass RandomPlayer that will just act entirely at random! In a couple of weeks I hope to share the full code of the solution (once I've written it!) including unit tests for the methods you have to implement in the derived class.

That should be enough to get started with, and is enough for you to get thinking about it, and ask any questions you have (and potentially spot all my bugs!).

Thanks to everyone who has shown an interest in this!

Monday, May 1

Interest in an AI Competition?

As I mentioned a couple of months ago, I need to play Zombology a lot to work out whether I have the balance right for each different number of players. At least 768 times, probably many times that number. At the moment I'm at 29. Clearly, there's some work to be done!

This week I've started another programming project - I'm going to make a very simple app which can play thousands of games of Zombology and record the win/loss ratio and the round in which the game was won.

It will let me quickly find out whether the game is balanced by number of players and potentially tweak the rules to make it more balanced. To play thousands of games it's going to need some AI - I don't want to be playing thousands of games by hand (especially not soloing trying to pretend I don't know what's in the other hands and what the 'other' player is going to do. So I'm going to need some AI that can play Zombology. 

Thankfully it's a pretty easy game - there's only four decision points per round:
  1. If I have a Guru, and there are matching Science cards in the central display, do I want to swap a Science card from my hand for one of them, and if so, which for which;
  2. Choose a card from my hand to play this turn;
  3. If I chose an Overrun, which player do I want to overrun;
  4. If I chose a Guru, which Guru do I want to claim;

So, the first thing I'm doing is writing all the plumbing that runs the game - then I need to write some AIs that can play the game. My current thought is that I'll write an entirely random one first that just lets me test that the plumbing is working. Then I need a few different AIs that play the game with different styles to see how the game works out.

Seeing as I know there's a bunch of programmers who read this blog I'm wondering if there's any interest in a competition to see who can write the most successful Zombology AI? Let me know in the comments if you'd be interested in that!

Monday, April 24

Hand-Crafting Games

So I mentioned in my last post that I'm thinking of making hand-made games again. It's been a long time since I properly made hand-made games, so I thought I'd post on how I go about hand-crafting a game.

It starts by getting the cards professionally printed in a 5x5 grid on a sheet of A3 card. I get the printers to professionally laminate the sheets too, so each side is covered in an incredibly thin layer of plastic that gives the cards a nice smooth finish and protects the ink from damp fingers and wear. These sheets look like this (note the crosshairs at the corners of each card):

The sheet ready to be cut

Before I can move to the next stage I need some tools - I use a craft knife with snap off blades and steel ruler (I've just bought a new ruler - a Maped Linea shown in the picture below about which I am very excited!) to cut out the cards. Although it's more work than a guillotine, I find it give me more precision, and doesn't kink the edge of the cards so much. The new ruler has three benefits over my old steel rule: a clearer scale for measuring, a non-slip backing and it's longer too. Also pictured is the corner rounding tool I bought back in my Reiver Games days. It can round the corners of a pile of cards that's about a centimetre deep, so you can quickly get through an entire deck.

Tools of the trade

With trusty craft knife and steel ruler in hand I use the crosshairs in the corners of the cards to cut the A3 sheet into five strips of five cards:

Into strips

At this point I can still see half of the crosshairs, so I've still got guides to cut the strips into individual cards:

Into cards

The last task then is to use the corner-rounding tool to punch off the corners, leaving me with a fairly professional-looking finished product:

Finished game

And that's how I make a hand-crafted game. There's a little more to it (making the box and the box wrappers) but I can cover that in another post.

Monday, April 17

Unique, Hand-Made Games

I've been thinking more and more about making games again and, in particular, returning to the glory days of Reiver Games when I made games by hand, selling out of print runs within a year.

The first couple of years of Reiver Games were very successful by any margin - my print runs sold out and I doubled my stake each year. With the sudden influx of cash from my life insurance I was able to reconsider my position so I quit my job and starting trying to run Reiver Games as a real publisher. I spent a couple of years doing that full-time, not drawing a salary and publishing games professionally. The games were manufactured by professional companies and I started selling through shops and distributors. In many ways I continued to be successful, getting my games picked up by twenty-one distributors on three continents, and selling thousands of games. But the sales were coming in too slowly and I hadn't invested enough capital to make two simultaneous print runs, so when the second edition of It's Alive! was delayed at the manufacturers I took out a bank loan to fund Carpe Astra. The bank loan fees, along with the costs of warehousing my games, were such a constant drain on my finances for the next few years that I eventually ran out of cash. In hindsight I should have delayed Carpe Astra, it needed more work and ended up being the least successful of my games.

The first couple of years of Reiver Games spanned July 2006-2008. Way before Kickstarter and the boom of social media. Many things have changed beyond recognition in the last eleven years. Not least my personal situation, I've gone from being a carefree young man to a father of one with another child on the way and from being a fit martial artist to having an incurable disease to being essentially healthy again thanks to a clinical trial of a new treatment.

Clearly I'm unable to just give up my job for a laugh these days - so that is not an option. With a baby on the way I'll have very limited time around my full-time job to spend on running a company - I'll certainly not be making games that take three hours to construct by hand like I did with Border Reivers - my first game.

I've learnt a lot about game design over that time, and I'm sure that both Zombology and the current version of Codename: Vacuum are better games than my other efforts (Border Reivers and Carpe Astra) and possibly even comparable to It's Alive!, the most successful game I published. I sold nearly 3,500 copies of that, so surely selling 100 copies of a hand-made run wouldn't be that difficult?

Eurydice Logo

With all these changes, especially the changes in the marketplace that have occurred since Kickstarter overhauled the way games are made, I wonder whether there's still a market for small runs of hand-made games. The biggest problem I foresee would be how do I make people aware of my games? How do I be heard over the endless clamour of Kickstarter announcements? With a young family and a full-time job, I'll have very limited time for marketing activities and I'll not be shlepping round shops and cons like I did the first time round. What about me and my games will pique peoples' interest enough to get them to take an interest in (and possibly buy) my games?

That's the question I would need to answer before I set things in motion. Any advice or help would be greatly appreciated!

Monday, April 10

More End Game Ideas

Last week was fairly busy, but I did manage to make it along to Newcastle Playtest after missing March (and possibly February?). It was a great night with a good turn out and plenty of games to try out. I ended up just playing my own games: initially a five player game of Zombology and then a three player game of Codename: Vacuum with Olly and Alex.

It was the first of two games of Zombology that week (we also had a three player game at the end of Games Night on Thursday) so I'm still slowly collecting the data I need to feel comfortable that the win/loss ratio is more or less where I want it in the new version and that it's well balanced across different numbers of players. I'm still considering a second hand-made run, though realistically this will have to wait until after the arrival of Daughter The Second at the end of May.

Vacuum also went well. I tried out the fixed number of rounds for the first time and as a result it went a big longer - the three player game with two first timers probably lasted a couple of hours including rules explanation. It worked as expected, Olly choose an end game condition fairly early in round 11 which allowed Alex and I to both adjust our strategies mid-game. In the end all three of us scored within one point of the maximum in that category, so it didn't contribute meaningfully to the scores. I chose in round 14, but that was still early enough for the others to catch up with my weak showing in that category. I'm still messing around with the end game and the scoring. I've had another idea over the weekend - allow each player to choose a (possibly non-unique) scoring condition and then score those conditions (possibly multiple times) at the end of the game. Maybe even give the person who chooses it a small bonus too (since they are giving up the chance to score more points in that category at the point when they choose it).

This week I'm unlikely to get much done - today I'm off to Manchester for work again and then Thursday we head down to Bristol for a big family get together. I'm all set when we get back though, I've bought replacement inks for the broken cartridge which stopped me printing a new version of Vacuum in time for Playtest last week (which in hindsight was just as well as I now have more changes to incorporate).

I've a load of work to do on the train this morning and probably this evening, but I'm hoping to tweak the Vacuum board before I get home.

Monday, April 3

Lots of Gaming!

It's been a fairly busy week again, with loads of gaming, if not much design and playtesting. March has been my joint best month (with last May when I went Beer and Pretzels with Terry) since I was stuck at home on my own during my radioactive period in January 2014. And this week contributed a lot to that - we played Taluva a couple of times at lunchtime games club, then another six games at Games Night on Thursday - when we also had our joint best attendance. We also had a game of Zombology. It was the first recorded game with six players, so now I've got at least one data point for each number of players. In a perfect world I'd have tens or hundreds of plays for each number of players, currently I have between one and eight plays per number of players. Three and six are least represented and four is most. Clearly I still need a lot more plays.

6-player Zombology

Finally, on Friday, a few of us ended up spending six hours on trains on the way to meetings in Manchester. We managed another eight games on those trains on my iPad.

I also spent a little time one evening working on some improvements to the Codename: Vacuum cards that were required after the last couple of weeks' tests. I intended to get those changes printed out over the weekend and cut out ready for Newcastle Playtest tomorrow. Sadly, the replacement ink cartridge I needed for my printer was broken so I couldn't print it out, let alone cut it out. I'll just have to take the last version along with me. I've missed the last couple of Playtests and obviously I'm going to struggle to make it along during the summer after the birth of daughter number two. I'm really looking forward to getting along tomorrow.

Unfortunately, ahead of that I've got to have my other wisdom tooth removed tonight. The other one was taken out about a month ago, so I know what to expect. Tonight is going to be not much fun.


Monday, March 27

All Good Things...

It's been a hectic and pretty stressful week at work, but once all the visitors left I managed to get another playtest of Codename: Vacuum in at the end of the week with Ian, who played it last week too.

We played exactly the same version (though with different decks) and the game came in under an hour including set-up, rules refresher and explanation of the new decks. So far so good. The game went well, we got into space, there was a couple of clear strategies being followed and at the end we both scored well. For the second time Ian beat me at my own game (need to change the rules again! ;-p).

One of the things I like about Vacuum, and one of the core tenets of the game is the scoring. There are five core decks in the game that you play with every game (in addition to a few extra decks that change every game). Each of those core decks (Military, Exploration, Population, Trade and Knowledge) has a victory condition that will score each player 0-30 points depending on how well they've followed that strategy. The game ends at the end of the round that the second (with 2-3 players) or third (with 4-5 players) victory condition is selected. Selecting a victory condition is key to the game - you want to hone your deck so that it will score big in a couple of conditions (particularly a lot bigger than your opponents!) and then select the appropriate condition. Since only two or three get chosen, it's very important that you get your choice in, so there's a lot of pressure to quickly get to the point where you can afford to select a condition and then select it - thereby hastening the end of the game.

Selecting a condition uses some of the cards that gain you points in that condition, so each turn you choose whether to gain points in your chosen condition (and risk leaving it too late to select a condition and missing your chance) or selecting a condition (thereby hastening the end of the game before you can maximise your score in that condition). It's part of what I like about the game.

Unfortunately, I think the pressure is too strong, at the moment the fear of missing your chance to select means that you rush the game to an early end, before it really gets into full swing.

I'm considering making the game fixed length - 15 turns (Ian and I have played 12 and 10 in our last two games). Everything else stays the same, except now selecting a condition doesn't prematurely end the game. This will have two effects I expect: the game lasts slightly longer and the game end dynamic changes.

Now you're not rushing to end the game, but to choose the scoring. If you select early, you guarantee that your chosen scoring will happen, but you give your opponents more turns to respond - adapting their strategy to maximise points in that condition. Choosing late means that you might miss your chance, but you keep your opponents guessing and can wait until the endgame and pick the one that finally ends up favouring you the most.

It'll be interesting to give it a try and see how it works...

Monday, March 20

It's All Go!

Another busy week. This time it's been Codename: Vacuum, Zombology and crazy ideas.

I didn't have any travel this week, so I managed to get a lunchtime playtest in with Ian on the new version of Vacuum. I'd made a bunch of changes since the fairly broken play at Games Night a couple of weeks ago, and we tried them out over lunch. I was pretty sure we could get a 2-player game done in under an hour, so I did a quick canvas and Ian signed up. He'd not played it before, so we had a 20 minute setup and rules explanation followed by a 58 minute game. Considering that was Ian's first play I was pretty happy with it coming in under an hour. He picked it up pretty well and ended up beating me 30-18 (time to change the rules!). The improvements I'd made last week fixed most of the problems, though there were a few graphic design/wording issues that I spotted during play. I'm happy to play that version again without changing it though, so a big step up on last time.

playtesting new Vacuum

Games Night was pretty epic, with the first visitation of Mal so far this year and an amazing six different games played. It was a great night, and we finished up with a Zombology (which we'd not played for a while) and I was telling them about the recent pre-orders I'd taken and how I was considering another print run - at which point I took another pre-order.

I'm really torn about it. I think Zombology is the best game I've designed, and with its silly theme (mad 'scientist' hippies trying to cure the Zombie Apocalypse), wide range of players (3-8) and short play time (10 minutes) it's also my most accessible game. I'd love to see it get a wider audience and the pre-order rate for a second edition (despite the fact I'm not yet making one) has been pretty high the few times I've introduced it to people recently.

I could try pimping it to publishers, but it turns out that I really enjoy the graphic design and hand-crafting of games, so I'd rather self-publish again.

The big stumbling block is time. I travel quite a lot for work, have a young family and I'm two months away from becoming a dad for the second time. I know from last time what a wreck that leaves you, and how little free time you have when you've a new baby and are so hideously sleep deprived that 7:30pm sounds like a reasonable bed time.

What to do?

Monday, March 13

Ding, Ding, Round 2!

After testing the new version of Codename:Vacuum a couple of weeks ago, I clearly needed to make a raft of minor changes. The game was so broken that the rules were evolving as we played (always a bad sign!), but I was generally pretty happy with the new version (once fixed!) compared to the last version of 2015.

My travels continued last week, with a trip to Manchester on Monday after work that concluded on Wednesday night, and despite being incredibly busy (I was working late into the night Monday and Tuesday), I did manage to get make some progress on Vacuum. Firstly finishing off the board on the train on Monday night and then printing and cutting out a new version on Thursday morning (which I had off work to go to the doctor). I finished the final cutting out on Saturday night - after the mental week and a few bad nights' sleep I was too knackered to make it to Newcastle Gamers unfortunately.

What I need to do now is try out the new version (and buy some more ink!), to see if the changes I've made improve things. I'd rather not play on Games Night on Thursday as the guys played it last time and they deserve to play something that works. That leaves a lunchtime playtest session or an additional evening for a playtest (either with Games Night mates or Newcastle Playtest chums). Next week is pretty busy (we've a big company meeting with a couple of evenings out) so it's this week, or not for several. I'll have to see what I can fit in.

Here's a sneak preview of the new board:

Monday, March 6

Gaming Extravaganza

It's been a great week for my gaming. Monday went exactly to plan with me printing and cutting out all 350 cards for new Codename:Vacuum, and hand-scrawling a quick board too - for the first time in two years I had a Vacuum prototype. Admittedly, Monday ended slightly worse with my dentist extracting a wisdom tooth that's left me eating very gingerly all week!

I got a lunchtime gaming session in at work on Wednesday (Coup) and then at Games Night on Thursday we played Vacuum! The lads had all played Vacuum before many years ago, so it wasn't complete fresh to them, but they'd all forgotten how to play.

New Vacuum in Action

It was, as I expected, fairly broken - we hardly got off Earth due to a poorly shuffled deck and a far too slow explore mechanism, so there was no colonisation of the Solar System or vast space battles. There were a couple of other things that clearly didn't work as intended, so the rules were evolving as we played. In a perfect world the game would take around 15-20 mins per player once you know it, so I was reasonably pleased with just under 2.5 hours (including set-up and rules explanation) for a four player game where 3/4 of us were effectively beginners. Hopefully that will significantly shorten with experience (and rules that aren't in flux during the game and cards which accurately describe what they do!).

I was frantically scribbling notes during the game, so that on Friday night I could spend the 3.5 hours of train journeys to Bedford updating the cards and working on an improved board. Of course I now need to print and cut out another version!

Saturday I was in Bedford seeing Terry, Andrew and Graham who I used to game with weekly when I lived there during 2008-11, the latter half of my Reiver Games days. There were eight of us in total, so we started off with a couple of games of Zombology (five of the eight owned a copy), playtesting the new rules with large groups. It went well, with a couple of late wins and I ended up taking a couple more pre-orders from David and Richard, both of whom have bought a Reiver Game in the past I think. That's now five pre-orders from seven possible customers in the last month or so. That kind of conversion rate is filling me with a greater optimism than I previously had, if I can get to thirty-ish I may well push the button and make another hand-made run of a hundred or so. The clock is ticking though, The Wife and I are expecting a little sister for The Daughter at the end of May, so the amount of time I'll have for hand-crafting games in the evening will be severely limited by extra parenting duties and sleep deprivation!

After Zombology, we played another eight games, of which four were new to me, so it was a great day's gaming as well as a great chance to catch up with friends I see far too infrequently.

Saturday evening was also spent on trains (and replacement bus services) so I got a chance to do more work on the Vacuum board. I think the board brings a new element to the game that focuses you more on the exploration and conquest side of the 4X game, so I think that part is working as intended, what I need to do now is print out another version and see if my changes fix the issues we found. Thursday's playtesters are at least interested to play again!

Monday, February 27

Back in Boston: Naked but Productive

Oh, so not naked exactly, but unclothed. I spent last week in Boston, MA for work. I lived in Boston for the winter of 2000/01 and hadn't been back since. Despite many trips through Boston (my employer's head office is about 40 miles outside Boston), I'd not set foot in Boston since we lived there. So I was quite excited to be going to a meeting in the Boston harbour, a short water taxi ride away from old haunts.

The reality was a little different from what I expected. My luggage turned up 84 hours after I did (and only 11 hours before I left), so while I did get to go into Boston and Cambridge, the majority of that time was spent shopping for clothes.

On the other hand, as it often the case when I travel to the US, I was awake early most mornings, so I had a decent chunk of time each day to work on Codename: Vacuum.

I finished off the cards and got them all laid out ready to print today (I've a day off to recover from my travels). I'm hoping to have a playable prototype by the end of today. I'm sure it'll need a big chunk of improvement after I've tested it once or twice, but I've got a good feeling about this version at the moment.

Exciting times!

In other news, I'm off to Bedford this weekend to spend Saturday gaming with Terry, Andrew, Graham, Johan and a bunch of other gaming chums. I used to play weekly with Terry, Andrew and Graham and now see them once a year if I'm lucky - so it'll be a great chance to catch up.

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...