Monday, October 16

Choices and Long Term Goals

A couple of weeks ago I talked about how I was forming a Board of Advisers to help provide input on my plans and give me advice on how to be more successful. I sent the first report to them last week and got some really useful feedback, including a long email from Brett Gilbert, designer of Divinare, Elysium and Professor Evil and the Citadel of Time. I've know Brett since my Reiver Games days when he submitted one of my favourite prototypes to me. He lived fairly locally, so we met a few times to discuss it, but sadly it went no further. In the meantime, Brett has co-founded the Cambridge Playtest UK group, been recommended for a Spiel des Jahres for Divinare and nominated for a Kennerspiel des Jahres for Elysium. So he struck me as a perfect candidate for the Board, and I was delighted when he accepted. His response to that first report was great, it really made me think about why I'm doing this. I've reprinted (with his permission!) an excerpt from his email below, along with my response - since I figure you guys might be interested too!

Perhaps the biggest question that this report doesn’t answer is what your long term goals are. You have a clear focus on hand-crafted games (and that’s a noble aim!), but you also raise the threat that a crowded internet space, in which other creators are drowned out by the noise of big Kickstarter campaigns, puts on your ambitions. KS is here to stay, and it has completely changed the landscape.

The best thing about the internet, as someone once observed, is that it makes everyone a publisher; and the worst thing about the internet is... that it makes everyone a publisher.

So. I'm just going to put something out there, just to see how it sounds…

Why are you laboriously hand-crafting games if your finished product is designed to look just like something that’s mass-produced? Zombology seems to be a POD product, just with *way* more leg-work for you. There are few exemplars of artisanal game-makers; indeed the only one I can think of is Gavin Birnbaum (Cubiko, Jam Sumo) — but he literally hews his games from lumps of wood, crafting objects with the spirit of a piece of art. That’s his thing, and he does it really well (and Jam Sumo is an absolutely cracking game), but every single one of his ‘pieces’ are unique and literally unattainable by other means — and buyers know that; they *feel* it. It takes him all winter to make 30 games. Their preciousness is *why* they are sought after — but also the thing that limits his success. Do you expect — *can* you expect — your buyers to have the same reaction to a box of Zombology?

This may feel like too harsh or too profound a judgement, but if you want to become an artisan rather than just a designer or a publisher, then the soul (for want of a better word) of your product has to be the thing that sells it. But if your goal is to make games — rather than crafted objects that are *also* games — then it seems as though hand-crafting your games will only slow your ambitions down.

I appreciate that this may not be the sort of feedback you were hoping for. But I hope there is something here to inspire you!
Hiya Brett,

You’ve raised a couple of great questions and ideas there, ones that deserve a reasoned response.

I’m a maker of things. At times it’s been (bits of) computer games, game designs, painted miniatures, mini scenery, hand-crafted games, mobile apps and hand-crafted games again. I’m much happier making something that I can be proud of than reading a book or watching TV or a movie. In the words of Race for the Galaxy I would rather Produce than Consume.

I enjoy designing games, I enjoy playtesting them. I love doing the graphic design (though I’m not great at it) and will give doing the art a go too (I’m pretty bad at this though, see Border Reivers and Zombology). I also love physically making games. Yes, it’s hard work and yes it’s time consuming, but I enjoy doing it, and doing it well so that I can look at the final product and be proud of the quality I’ve achieved.

You describe three different routes: the standard publisher/Kickstarter, my halfway house with hand-crafted games that aim for almost professional quality and hand-crafting works of art like Cubiko. Why have I chosen the route I have, and where am I aiming to take this? I’ll answer the first one first!

I’ve got previous self-publishing games. One of the things I learnt during my Reiver Games days is that I’m a pretty bad judge of what makes a popular game, more so if it’s one I’ve designed myself and I don’t have the distance to be able to judge objectively.

To Kickstart a game successfully you need great art (which I can’t do, so I’d have to pay for) and to be a great marketer (which I’m definitely not). I could easily throw a few grand at trying to Kickstart Zombology and fail due to my own shortcomings as a marketer, regardless of the quality of the game. I’m also uncomfortable with the ‘money up front before the product exists’ model of Kickstarter. The effort required to fulfill a Kickstarter quanity of orders and then try hawking the remaining stock to distributors and shops is also more time than I’m prepared to invest around a young family and a busy job with a reasonable amount of work travel.

Hand-crafting takes time

The route I’ve chosen is also quite a lot of work, but I know exactly how much (it’s going to take 150 hours to make the print run) and it’s something I’m good at and enjoy. Sure, the fact that I’m only making a few games a week is slowing me down, I could sell the games faster if they were in boxes filling my garage (like the good old days!). But this is a halfway house and I’m reasonably confident I can sell 200 games (I’ve sold 300 hand-made games in a year before, though admittedly before Kickstarter).

The true artist’s route would require a different type of game, maybe I’ll design one of those in the future, but the only way I could do that with Zombology is to hand-paint the cards and I don’t have the skills for that.

To answer your second question (what are my long term goals), I want to continue sharing my games with gamers and hopefully bringing some fun to their lives through my games. I've invested £1,000 in the company. That's a chunk of money: not so much that I'd cripple myself if I lost it all but nor is it enough to do much in the games business. I've a plan I think I can deliver in 2017/18 to turn that into a slightly larger pot of money. If Zombology does well, I'll have more money to invest in my next game and so on. The hand-made print run is small enough that I believe I can sell it all, but large enough that the economies of scale mean I can do it at a reasonable price and still make a profit. Over time maybe I can build up enough reputation, brand awareness, customer loyalty and cash on hand that I can do a larger, professional print run, but unlike last time I do not want to rush it and end up losing money. If Zombology is hugely popular then I'm happy for someone else to publish it via Kickstarter or whatever, but that's not what I'm good at or nor what I want to spend my evenings doing.

I've got a day job that pays a decent salary and a family that I have a responsibility to help support. I'm not looking to quit my day job and start a publishing company again. Last time I invested a huge chunk of my life insurance payout and lived off another chunk for a couple of years. I didn't earn a salary for two years and managed to recoup only a third of what I'd invested in the company. Two years without any earnings, pension contributions, etc. I'll not be doing that again. I want to create a company that lets me fund my games design hobby, slowing growing over time while allowing me to share my designs with gamers so that those games can live outside of my games room and hopefully bring some fun to gamers I don't know and will likely never meet.

Monday, October 9

Quarterly Update

Eurydice Games is just over two months old and has completed its first calendar quarter. It's been a busy one, with most of my focus (unsurprisingly) on Zombology.

Zombologys ready to ship

At the very end of July I officially formed the company and requested a bank account. During a busy August I spent a week in the US for work, then ordered and collected the Zombology artwork from the printers and then went to The Netherlands for a week's holiday. When I got back I could finally crack on.

The website went live, I shipped the proof copy to Derek (who didn't get either of the versions I had previously sent him due to the vagaries of the South African postal service) and I began making copies in earnest.

September was all go. I had intended to make 23 copies (which I did with 1.5 hours to spare!) and ship the first 20 pre-orders. With a busy first couple of weeks (four evenings written off by work travel, friends visiting for a weekend and preparing for Daughter the First's birthday party), I got off to a slow start, but things soon picked up.

It turns out the 4.5 hours I need to make six copies equates to three or four post-bedtime evenings (by the time we've got the kids to bed, eaten and tidied up there's not a lot of time before I need to go to bed, seeing as I can be up very early with Daughter the Second). So the second half of September felt like I hardly saw The Wife, but I got it done. I think that now I've nearly fulfilled all the pre-orders I'm going to slow my construction down to six copies (the number of boxes I can make from a single sheet of SRA2 greyboard, and hence my batch size) every ten days, rather 6 copies every seven days - that way I should be able to cram in some time with the family too.

I didn't quite hit the target of 20 sales (I had enough games and enough pre-orders but a couple of the pre-orders have gone dark and probably won't actually buy and I was trying to only email people when their copy was ready to post, so it moved quite slowly from my end).

Things are looking pretty good for October, I've already sold five of my target of 12 and have another six pre-orders I'm confident that I can sell to and deliver this month. By the 20th I hope to have built up stock for the first time, at which point I can make it for sale on my website and the BGG marketplace.

I'm also hoping to get a couple of reviews in the next few weeks, which might lead to some sales if I'm lucky!

Monday, October 2

Board of Advisers

One of the advantages of running a larger company is that you have people around the office to bounce ideas off and a corporate board to whom you are accountable. As a sole trader, I have neither of those things.

So I've decided to form a board of advisers instead. I've invited a group of friends whose opinions I respect, plus designers and publishers I know and a couple of people with business experience. Unlike a corporate board these people have no legal responsibility and will not get vast wealth through share allocation - they are just doing this as a favour to me, for which I am extremely grateful.

Bristol Ruinart Boardroom Meeting by Hotel du Vin Bistro
Bristol Ruinart Boardroom Meeting by Hotel du Vin Bistro on Flickr

Obviously I don't want to take the mick, so I'll just be sending them a quarterly report of my progress, successes, failures and challenges and hopefully I'll get some other perspectives and great advice as a result.

The first report goes out this week, I'm excited to see how their different viewpoints can help me be more successful.

Monday, September 25

Working in the Cloud

Back when I started Reiver Games in 2006 there wasn't a lot of cloud functionality (I had GMail, that was about it). I didn't own a smartphone or a tablet. My bookkeeping was done on paper (in a physical ledger book), all the spreadsheets I had of game manufacturing details, orders, sales tracking, etc. were OpenOffice (it's free!) spreadsheets on my laptop.

As someone who traveled a lot for work it made running the business quite awkward. I would only be able to update things properly at home. Doing my books turned into a weekly, then monthly and then yearly nightmare. I could only respond to emails when sat at a computer with a physical internet connection. It made things harder and less productive.

This time round I'm approaching things differently. I've a smartphone with a decent data plan that I can use in the UK, Europe and the US. So I can check and respond to emails at home, on the move, at lunch or even while travelling abroad.

Clouds by theaucitron on Flickr
Clouds by theaucitron on Flickr

I've made a concious decision to host as much of my Eurydice Games stuff as possible in the cloud. My books are online, so I can update them as soon as I receive an order or incur an expense, keeping them up to date like this removes the horror of the 'my taxes are due. Quick! Let's catch up the months of bookkeeping I've been putting off!'. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, my task list is in Trello which I can access from my laptop, from my iPad and my phone. If I think of a cool idea I can just write it down.

I use Evernote to record information about the game ideas I have in flight - so I've got notes, rules, ideas all written down and accessible from all my devices.

I even use the CC (Creative Cloud) version of InDesign and Illustrator for the graphic design of my games, so I can work on them while travelling too.

Having all this data and information available while out of the house, on a trip to the US for work, on the train to Manchester or at lunchtime means I can be more productive and have to keep less stuff in my head. It's a great way to work and I really appreciate the improvement over the first time round.

Monday, September 18

I Need Data!

This time round I want to do a better job than I did with Reiver Games. Reiver Games was actually pretty successful during the first couple of years when I was hand-crafting Border Reivers and first edition of Its Alive! It wasn't until I tried to make the jump to professional publisher that it all went wrong.

There are a large number of reasons why it went wrong, but one of the most egregious was my inefficient use of my time in the professional phase of Reiver Games. To compound matters, I kept very little data on the things I was doing and how well they worked, so it was difficult to determine what was the best thing to be doing anyway.

This time round I'm trying to keep better information so that I can use that to inform decisions, especially around how best to use my limited time. I'm keeping track of what sources lead to Zombology orders, web traffic to my blog and website and twitter analytics. I'm even trying to get very accurate information about how long it takes to make each part of the games too (a set of cards take 21 minutes to cut out and then another 4 minutes to round the corners and pack them in the box!).

I'm not making much use of this data yet, but once I've collected a decent amount of it I can start using it to drive some of my decision making - hopefully leading to higher productivity or better marketing efforts.

In other news, I've started shipping Zombology to my pre-orders. Only three so far, but I've now got a stock of games so I can start working through the list. I'm hoping to make at least twenty copies this month, so hopefully a decent chunk of my pre-ordering customers will get their games soon!

Monday, September 11

Habitual Game Designer

Daniel Pink (author of Drive) sent me to the Farnham Street blog this week and I ended up reading this blog post about Habits vs. Goals. It got me thinking about my approach to running Eurydice Games.

This time round I'm far more organised than I was during my Reiver Games days - I've written a business plan and I've a Trello board with all my tasks in. I set myself deadlines that are aggressive (I hit most of them in July, but missed a lot in August due to work travel and holidays).

What I need to do to be successful is to maximise the impact I get from the very limited amount of time I have to work on this around my day job and my family life. I need to build a set of habits that enable me to get loads done without stressing me out. Making them habits means they just become a natural part of my week rather than something I'm straining to achieve and stressing about.

I've already got habits in place for social media (twitter, BGG and Google+) plus blogging, hopefully these will allow me to raise enough awareness for me to find the 197 customers I need to sell out of Zombology. The next most obvious thing to add is actually crafting the games I'm trying to sell. If I habitually make five games each week I will finish building the print run for Zombology in nine months - i.e. the end of May next year. That would be great.

As part of my approach of continuous improvement I'll be reviewing my achievements each month and I can adjust my habits accordingly.

Monday, September 4

Small Print Runs are Liberating

Most people designing and self-publishing board games are turning to Kickstarter to share them with the world. There are a lot of advantages to this (not least getting a good idea of the market size and not having to front the all of the production costs yourself), but I've chosen a different route. I've mentioned before why I don't like Kickstarter (see here, here and here).

But there are distinct advantages to the opposite approach too:
  • Knowing what you're getting into up front
  • Personal connection with your customers
  • Personal connection with the games
  • Freedom to do the unusual

Knowing what what you're getting into up front

I've not done a Kickstarter and I've only backed two, but reading Brandon the Game Dev, you need to have art ready to go before you start your Kickstarter. So unless you are or you know really well, an artist you're already a few thousand pounds out of pocket before you start. Then, with pledges and stretch goals you don't really know what you're getting into until the day the campaign finishes, when you have hundreds or thousands of people out of pocket awaiting you to deliver on your promises. That's stress I could do without.

I knew before I spent any money that I was risking £785 of my own money on Zombology. No more, no less. I've spent that £785 and now I'm just waiting to see how much of it I can recoup/will I make a profit to invest in my next game. 80 odd orders and I break even, 100 odd and I fund the other things like website costs and other game development costs. All 200 and I make a small profit to reinvest in my next game.

Because I've funded it myself there's no-one out of pocket but me, I'm not taking money from my customers until I have their games ready to ship, so it's no risk for them, which eases the pressure a bit, seeing as I'm not sitting on a pile of other people's money with obligations to deliver.

Personal connection to the customers

Lots of the pre-orders I've received so far are from people who bought games from Reiver Games. They are people who've supported my games designing and publishing over the last thirteen years. I've never met many of them (they are worldwide), but I feel like we have a connection and I hugely value their support.

Selling hand-crafted games direct lets you form a bond with the customer in a way that selling to distributors who sell to shops who sell to customers really doesn't. Plus, hand-crafting the games lets you personalise them a bit too - with signed and numbered copies each of which can have a personalised message inside.

Personal connection to the games

As awesome as it is to walk down the aisle of a dusty warehouse surveying the pallets on which your games are piled, it's not the same as making the game yourself. Personally cutting the box net, folding it, taping it and then applying the label. Folding the rules sheet and the individually cutting out each card and then rounding their corners gives you a close bond to each and every copy. Time is money. Doubly so when you have a busy job and a young family. That I've devoted 45 minutes to the construction of each and every copy makes them more valuable to me and hopefully to you.
Zombology before I start crafting it

Freedom to do the unusual

I've got 200 copies of Zombology to sell, probably 195 after review copies and a copy for myself. Of the 7.4 billion people in the world I need to find only 195 that are willing to part with a tenner for my game. In that position, I can afford to make a quirky game that appeals to a niche within the strategy gaming niche market. If you're kickstarting a game it needs to appeal to as many people as possible to increase its chance of funding. Glorious art, loads of minis, popular mechanics. I can afford to try something a little more off the beaten track (e.g. semi-cooperative) and do the art myself (with crowd-sourced art direction!).

It's liberating doing small print runs and now I've started making the games I'm really appreciating the route I've taken once again.

Monday, August 28

Learning From My Mistakes

One of the advantages of starting a second board game publishing company is that you have previous experience and in particular, lots of previous mistakes from which you can learn (if you didn't you still be running the first one!).

I had a lot of successes with Reiver Games and I'm proud of what I achieved, but the errors outweighed the successes over time and they came to define the company and eventually kill it. According to Carol Dweck, how you respond to failures is a key part of your mindset - some people treat failures as judgements on their abilities, others as lessons from which they can learn. I like to think I'm in the second camp, but you never know.

So what went wrong with Reiver Games? It was all going well while I ran the company as a hobby, hand-making games, it wasn't until I made the leap to professional publisher that things started to come off the rails. I can think of five major mistakes that I really don't want to repeat:

  1. Jumped to professional too soon
  2. Artwork is critical to retail success
  3. Carpe Astra rushed out
  4. Taking a bank loan
  5. Losing momentum/motivation

Jumped to professional too soon

When my Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis led to my life insurance paying out I had a choice to make, keep working in full-time employment, running Reiver Games as a hobby in my spare time or invest heavily in Reiver Games and go pro. I chose the latter, far too soon. I had maybe ten true fans, and a whole heap of people who had heard of Reiver Games - enough to be able to sell 300 hand-made games within a year, but not enough to sell 3,000 games through retail channels. I should have waited until I had more experience and a better market presence. This time round I have no plans to go pro - I've a family to support now, I can't afford to go without a salary or take a big pay cut.

Artwork is critical to retail success

When you're making games by hand and selling them at conventions and games clubs you've a lot on your side - you're selling the games, and people like to support the little guy or the designer of a game who's excitement about their project is so palpable. When you're selling through retail channels no-one is selling your game. The store will stock it (if you're lucky!), but it will just sit on the shelf amongst hundreds or thousands of others - the staff won't know how to play and won't be pushing your game over any other game. So your game has to sell itself, whether through hype, word of mouth or shelf presence. A beautiful box will really help here, as it will draw people in to learn more. With both It's Alive! and Carpe Astra I got a friend to do the art, and he did me a great deal, so it was very cheap. But he didn't have board game art experience. I loved the art of It's Alive!, but the box was weak, so the second edition had a new box, which was weak in a different way. The art for Carpe Astra was also weak - especially the box. But when it's a mate doing it dead cheap it's very hard to ask him to redo it, especially when you can't clearly articulate what's wrong with it. This time round I'm not aiming at retail, so I can side-step a lot of this, and I'll be mostly selling the game face-to-face with people who have played it, which makes the box art less critical to its success.

Carpe Astra rushed out

If you want to make a living selling board games through retail channels you need to sell a lot of games. Let's say you want to earn £30K. The usual pricing for retail is that you sell to distributors at 40% of retail and aim to get it manufactured at 20% of retail. So your profit is 20% of retail (if you sell them all!). It's Alive! retailed at £15, so my profit should have been £3 per copy (I overspent, it was nearer £1.50). If It's Alive! was the only game I made I would need to sell 10,000 of them every year. That's excluding money for warehousing, attending conventions and advertising. One way to make things easier is have multiple games, that way you can do several smaller runs, and it makes it easier for shops or distributors to place an order with you. To try to get to this point I rushed Carpe Astra out. It had some nice ideas, but it wasn't ready for prime time, and as a result I was left with a lot of games that I couldn't shift. I should have had the balls to delay its release until I though it was ready, rather than rush to be a 'multi-game' publisher. This time round I'm not trying to go pro, so I'm very happy to only have one game on the books at a time, or even none if I've not got the next one ready to go.

Taking a bank loan

A couple of things went wrong with the launch of Carpe Astra, as well as rushing the game out before it was ready, I'd hit several delays when trying to get It's Alive! to market. I'd taken the £4,250 I'd made on the hand-made games and invested £12K of life insurance to fund the £13,500 cost of It's Alive! It's Alive! was months late, so when I wanted to launch Carpe Astra (too early!) I'd not recouped enough of the It's Alive! investment to fund the £10K cost of getting Carpe Astra manufactured. I could have waited, building up funds and giving myself more time to improve the game, but instead I went to the bank and got a loan. For the next three years I would be paying the bank £330 a month. In a good month I'd bring in a lot more than than, but in a bad one I'd bring in a lot less. So my cash on hand slowly dwindled and eventually I ran out. This time round I'm going to be very careful about recurring monthly expenses. At the moment it's just the bank account fees, that don't start for 18 months...

Losing motivation/momentum

It's easy to be excited and motivated when everything is going well, less so when sales are slowly tricking in and your bank loan and warehousing costs are draining your bank account before your very eyes. How you perform under those circumstances says a lot about your character and your likelihood of success. I'm sad to say that I lost faith and gave up - I was spending my days largely watching television on one, then two, then six hour 'lunch breaks', supposedly researching game ideas based on my favourite TV shows. I was pretty pathetic and had I manned up and hustled at that point it might have still been possible to turn things around. I didn't and I paid the price. Reiver Games went under. This time round I hope I'm a better man, I've seen what that leads to and know the warning signs to watch out for. The reduced pressure from not trying to make it a salary paying job will also make it less demoralising if things don't go to plan.

I really don't want to make same mistakes again. This time round I'm taking some things from my day job to help me keep on top of things. I'm adopting a process of continuous improvement and taking regular checkpoints when I ask myself what's going well, badly and what I should start doing that I'm currently not. This step back will hopefully let me spot problems before they become too entrenched and fix them, leading to more success than last time...

Monday, August 21

It's Alive!

Nope, I'm not talking about a reprint of the game I published back in 2007 (and again in 2008), but instead Eurydice Games, my second board games publishing company.

Over the last couple of weeks I've been doing the various things I need to do to make it a reality (getting a bank account, telling HMRC, creating a website and then buying a domain name and some web hosting and setting up a PayPal account ready for accepting web payments from the customers I hope will flock to buy Zombology from me :-)

This has been a curtailed week, I didn't get home until Monday, from a work trip to Massachusetts last week that was book-ended by stays with my parents down in Bristol. Tuesday I was in Manchester for work and then Wednesday I was in Sheffield for my biannual MS check up as part of the clinical trial on which I'm registered. Thursday was my only day in the office because I'd taken Friday off to get ready for a family holiday to The Netherlands which started on Saturday (I wrote this blog post last week and then automatically posted it during my holiday).

The other exciting thing about this week is that I collected the printed materials for Zombology from the printers on Friday. I've now got everything I need to hand-craft 200 copies of Zombology. The first order of business when I return from the holiday is to start making and shipping the pre-orders, I don't want to start accepting money until I have the games ready to ship, so making and shipping the pre-orders is a necessary step to complete before I can put the games up for general sale on my website, BGG and potentially other marketplaces.

Monday, August 14

Jet Lag Hustle

I've spent the last five days in Massachusetts for work - it's somewhere I visit a few times a year as our corporate headquarters is based there. Despite being a fairly frequent traveller I'm pretty bad at it and I suffer from jet lag every time. But being an optimist I view it as an opportunity, rather than a hindrance.

While in the US I woke around 4am every day (except the last one when I was finally on US time, just in time for my return to Bristol). I used the jet lag hours of 4-7am to work on Eurydice Games, cracking on with a bunch of tasks that have been sat in my todo pile for quite a while now.

I had hoped to be able to do a few things that required spending money, but the business bank account wasn't opened until I got to the US and my bank card was delivered to my house while I was away, so I'm not able to spend any money until I return home on Monday.

That didn't stop me making progress though. I've done a load of work on the website (nearly finished!) and also tweaked the Zombology artwork, ordered another proof with the new art and made a laser cutting file for my new dexterity game idea.

Kobold Guide to Board Game Design

In addition, I've written a couple of blog posts and finished reading the Kobold Guide to Board Game Design, which is excellent - I highly recommend it. It's a series of essays written by really experienced game designers, developers and editors providing really sound advice from their years of experience. Several of the essays made me think about games design in a different way, so it was a very worthwhile read.

This week I've got a lot of train travel (more opportunities to make progress!) and then we go on a family holiday to The Netherlands at the end of the week during which I'll be focusing on my family and will make next to no progress on anything. Hopefully I'll get a few things done before I go!

Monday, August 7

Ship It!

I'm writing this blog post in the Departure Lounge of Bristol Airport, shortly before a work trip to Boston that will eat up the whole of the coming week. Why Bristol? We came down here for a school friend's party and spent the weekend with my parents (I'm coming back here afterwards and The Wife and The Daughters are staying the week). So I'm away from home for 11 days.

That gets in the way of a whole bunch of Eurydice Games things (I can't make games while on the road!) but it isn't a total wipeout as I'll be awake with nothing to do during the jet lag hours of 2-6am while in the US. I'm planning to spend those hours finishing the first version of my Eurydice Games website, tweaking the Zombology files a little before ordering the print run and doing a laser-cutting file for a prototype of a new game idea I've had.

Last week has been focused on getting things ready, not done :-/ I made some progress on a few things - I got a proof done of the new artwork by the printers:

There was a problem with the cards (printed on the wrong stock), but the box and the rules were fine and having those done, in combination with the cards from the previous version, meant I could price up shipping costs (one of the last remaining unknowns).

Shipping prices have increased hugely in the 11 years since I started Reiver Games (I know, inflation!), and the small and fairly cheap (£10) game means that shipping makes up a significant proportion of the total cost:

  • UK: £3.70
  • Europe: £4.40
  • Aus & NZ: £5.95
  • Everywhere else: £5.50

I also told HMRC that I was starting a company and applied for a company bank account. I was hoping that the bank account would be completed before I left so I could order a few things while in the US, but it's not completed yet, so it'll all have to wait for my return unfortunately. Progress in August is going to be less impressive than last month, especially since we're off on holiday for a week shortly after we return from Bristol. 

Monday, July 31

Let's Get Organised!

One of the things that will be critical to the success or failure of Eurydice Games is my ability to focus on what's important and get it done in a timely fashion. At work I use Trello extensively to keep track of and prioritise myriad tasks, so it makes perfect sense to replicate that for Eurydice Games.

So I have set up the Trello board shown above for Eurydice Games. For the moment it's a single board with all the tasks I'm aware of on it. As and when I think of something else I add it to the board immediately, rather than trying to remember it (and inevitably forgetting).

This provides several advantages:

  • I don't have to rely on my notoriously bad memory for important tasks,
  • I can access the board from my phone, iPad or laptop,
  • I can get a quick view of everything on my plate.

Trello brings several other benefits: I can label tasks and then filter them (I've currently got labels for the three games I have in active development, company stuff and blog post ideas), I can give tasks a due date and get reminders when they are approaching. I can also see tasks moving through the process and get the dopamine spike from incremental achievements. You can also include notes and checklists on tasks too.

I use Trello in a Kanban-esque fashion, with lists for future tasks, tasks to do in the next month, tasks currently in progress and tasks completed in the last month. Weekly and monthly maintenance keeps those lists up to date so I can focus on what is most urgent which is particularly important around a full-time job and a young family - I've little time to devote to this effort, so I want to make sure I'm using it effectively.

One of the reasons Reiver Games failed was that I lost focus when things got difficult. As sales came in slower than expected (hard to see as I didn't have a business plan with sales projections!) I became disillusioned and to some degree gave up. I had no idea how to drive sales of my games in far flung shops, so instead of spending every minute hustling to drive awareness and sales of my games (and I was doing it full-time at that point, so there was plenty of time available) I slumped and started watching more and more TV each day. Clearly with my limited time this time round that is not an option, I need to stay laser-focused on bringing my games to people's attention and finding those customers who would be interested in buying my games. I still don't completely know how best to do that, but with 200 (instead of 3,000!) copies to sell it should be easier this time.

I give almost all my tasks an aggressive (yet achievable) due date, and then work hard to achieve them. There's loads to do at the moment (I'm setting up the company, designing a website and organising the printing of my first game) and, with upcoming family holiday and work trip to Massachusetts, even less time than usual to do them. I'm doing a bit most evenings and also often during my lunch break at work. Once those things are out of the way the next focus is hand-making the pre-ordered games which take 45 minutes each.

Monday, July 24

Eleven Years Wiser?

Eleven years ago this month I founded Reiver Games to self-publish my first game: Border Reivers. Then, as now, I was intending to make a small print run (100 copies for Border Reivers) by hand and to try to sell them via my website, BGG and by attending games clubs and conventions.

A lot has changed since then, both personally and professional and in the world in general. It'll be interesting over the next year to see whether my plan to essentially try to repeat the early successes of Reiver Games still works in the world of 2017, rather than 2006.

So what's changed?


The month after I founded Reiver Games I experienced my first Multiple Sclerosis symptoms. It took another seven months to get a confirmed diagnosis and then I had a pretty unpleasant couple of years of frequent relapses and constant fear over what my future would hold. Thankfully, I was lucky enough to get on a clinical trial of a treatment that has worked wonders for me - I've now been relapse free for eight years.

When I started Reiver Games I had a job that involved a reasonable amount of international travel, and the 300 hours of hand-making games in the first year, and then 450 in then second year was a struggle to fit in around the travel and wanting to spend some time out of work with The Wife. So I jumped at the chance of investing some of my life insurance money (yay MS!) into the company and quitting my job and going full-time. Of course I now have another job that includes a reasonable amount of international travel and I've still got a (the same!) wife and now two daughters under five too (one's only eight weeks old!). I'd like to spend some time with, so I'm back in the same boat as the beginning of Reiver Games. Thankfully Zombology only takes 45 minutes to make, so I'm looking at 113-150 hours of construction in the first year, assuming I can sell them all within a year, so that burden is lower at least. I'm hoping I can get this done in one or two evenings a week after the daughters have gone to bed.


Skills-wise I've learnt a lot in the last eleven years, not least having five years of board game publisher experience that I didn't have last time round. I also now manage a decent sized budget at work now, so I'm a lot more finance-savvy than I was the first time around.

I've also got a lot of contacts in the board game business and enough people know me that I can say 'I'm getting back into self-publishing' on BGG and get a few pre-orders purely based on my previous reputation!


This is where things get interesting. I founded Reiver Games three years before Perry Chen, Yancy Strickler and Charles Adler founded Kickstarter. Since then the number of board game publishers has exploded, especially people self-publishing their own games on Kickstarter. Back in 2006 I was pretty unusual as a hobby self-publisher, now everyone's doing it. Furthermore, everyone else is funding games on Kickstarter without risking their own money, and making games that are professionally manufactured and have professional art. Is there still a market for hand-made limited edition runs of games? Especially those with, what I'll charitably call, amateur art? I'm betting a chunk of my savings on the hope that I can find 150-200 people who would pay £10 for a simple-looking hand-made game. Only time will tell whether it's a dumb wager to make...

Monday, July 17

Final Zombology Art Review

My parents have been up this week, so I've had a chance to pick the brains (how appropriate!) of my dad, a retired art teacher. I've been trying to finalise the artwork for Zombology ahead of getting a proof copy done by the printers to check the colours look OK and that the lamination works on top of the new art (if there's too much ink the lamination doesn't adhere). Over the last couple of weeks I've been crowdsourcing advice on the art/graphic design, from dad, The Wife, BGG, Google+ and twitter.

First up is the box designs. I've run three polls on BGG (1, 2 and 3). In the comments of the first and second I got some other ideas and JPotter came up with something that looked like this:

Which I really liked, so I tried to mimic it (see above). I've also adopted a similar style for the back of the box:

In addition to that, I've also updated the card art (after my last attempt here which got feedback here and on Google+). I tried to incorporate all the feedback I got, reducing the number of colours, swapping the icons on the Guru, making the text bolder on the sides of the cards, getting rid of the gradient fills and generally tidying things up a bit:

What do you think? Let me know any comments you have in the next couple of days - that way I can act on them before it goes to the printer.

Monday, July 10

A Gamble And A Plan

I've spent this week (and by this week I mean the hours of 9-11pm, holding an almost sleeping baby in one arm while) trying to finalise the art for the new version of Zombology taking into account the feedback I received here and on Google+ for the last version I posted. With the exception of the box art, it's almost done.

With it almost done, I don't want to share what I've got until I've finished, so instead I thought I'd talk about my business plan instead this week. When I ran Reiver Games my initial business plan consisted of 'Make games by hand, without taking any salary and sell them for twice the printing/pieces cost so I've got some money to cover expenses, trade show attendance and to invest in new games'. Seriously, that was it. It's a wonder I was at all successful. 

But I was. Fast forward two years and I'd nearly quadrupled my initial stake and I had my life insurance payout to partially invest. This was the moment when I needed a rock solid business plan, but again I had none. The result this time? Losing a bunch of money, selling games to liquidators at 19p each and two years with no salary earnt at all. That'll teach me.

This time round I'll be trying to replicate the first half of that, not the second one! But, I also need to ensure that I learn from my mistakes. I'm older and hopefully wiser this time, and with experience now of managing a large budget in my day job. So I need to make sure I've though out how this could go down.

As with any investment, this is a gamble: I could win big, or I could lose it all. I'm intending to invest £1,000 in the company to fund the setup costs, stationery, website hosting and printing of Zombology. So I've potentially lost a grand. Which would be bad. I've already got a bunch of pre-orders, so assuming everyone who has pre-ordered actually pays for a copy, that's down to £840 at risk. Still a significant chunk of cash.

I'm still hovering between making 150 and 200 copies of Zombology v2 and to take advantage of the economies of scale I need to decide this before ordering the printing next month. If I sold them all (I'll be giving a few away to reviewers) then the potential payout is £1,500 to £2,000, so at worst I lose £840 and at best I gain £1,000 on top of my original stake. Now that gain also has to pay for a bunch of things: website hosting, stationery, travel and expenses for attending conventions or games clubs, so it'll be less than that, but that's an upper limit on my payout in the first year.

I've drafted out what I think will go down:

  • Sales of 20 copies in September (pre-orders, currently at 17)
  • Sales of 10 copies in October (launch buzz)
  • Sales of 10 copies in December (Christmas pressies!)
  • Sales of 50 copies at the UK Games Expo next June (there were over 16,000 unique attendees this year and a 15 minute game for 3-8 players can be shown to a lot of people over three days)
  • Other than that, just five copies a month through my website and the BGG Marketplace.

That's 135 gone in the first year at an average effort of 2.5 hours of game manufacturing a week (should be just a single night a week of effort on average). If sales dropped to two per month in the second year with another 10 at the UK Games Expo in 2019 then that would be another 35 taking me to 170 in total.

Now obviously there's quite a lot of risk in that. Is there still a market for hand-made games in this era of Kickstarter? 17 people say yes, but that's a shed load less than 200 or even 150. Are my sales estimates accurate? Can I shift the games through BGG? My website? Is 50 copies at £10 each reasonable at the Expo? The numbers I'm basing this on are 11 years old, and pre-Kickstarter.

Pretty soon I'm going to have to make a decision about 150 vs. 200. It'll be time to put my money where my mouth is. Literally.

Monday, July 3

I Need Your Help, Please!

If you read this blog regularly you are among my biggest fans - thank you very much for your support over the last 11 years of my game design career. As a regular reader (you're not? Ok, start here and then continue until you're up to date!), you'll know I'm about to get into self-publishing hand-made games again. I've got previous for this - the first two very successful years of Reiver Games from July 2006 until July 2008 when I made 400 games by hand (Border Reivers and It's Alive!). But things have changed. There was no kickstarter back then, and certainly in year two I had built up a bit of a fanbase and had a mailing list of interested gamers.

This time round there's a lot more competition through kickstarter and as the father of two young (one's only five weeks old!) girls I'll be busier than I was first time around. So I need your help to be successful. If you're interested, here's a few ways you can help my second board games publishing effort be a success:

Do you own Zombology, and have played it?

Please provide an honest rating and comments on BoardGameGeek, please also download the second edition rules and introduce it to new people and let them know I'll be making another hand-made run of it shortly if they'd like a copy of their own.

Do you own Zombology but you haven't played it?

Please also download the second edition rules and introduce it to new people and let them know I'll be making another hand-made run of it shortly if they'd like a copy of their own. Then please provide an honest rating and comments on BoardGameGeek.

Do you own one of my hand-made games?

If you have a copy of Border Reivers, It's Alive! first edition (grey box) or Zombology, please could you provide a quote I can put on my website about the build quality of my hand-made games?

You don't own Zombology?

You can still provide feedback on the new rules, if you know anyone who likes zombies, mad scientists, fillers, semi- co-operative games, card-drafting, and/or hand-made and rare games to the Zombology BGG page or this blog. Tell them there's a new version coming shortly and they can pre-order a copy of the world's only game about curing the zombie plague using healing crystals and magnets from me for only £10 + P&P.
Thanks in advance for spreading the word!

Monday, June 26

First Steps Again

It's been another busy week as I embark on setting up my second board games publishing company. I've a Trello board of all the things I need to do as part of that process, and this week I've ticked a few of those off (and added a few more!).

Last week's post about the Zombology art garnered some good feedback, so I'm incorporating that, I also ran a couple of polls (one on twitter and one on Google+) about what people would want or expect from a hand-crafted game as market research. There were some interesting differences between the two results (although the sample of Google+ was much bigger, so it might be closer to the truth).

On Thursday I'd taken the morning off to go to register Daughter The Second's birthday, so I squeezed in a trip to a small business adviser and the bank too. I prepared a business case for year one in preparation for the small business adviser, but he wanted me to send it to him in a different format, so I'm now re-jigging it - still a worthwhile effort as I have to add in some extra information that makes it more useful.

On top of all of that, I've been obsessing about a game idea that Paul and I had last summer. This week I've had another idea for that (as yet un-prototyped) game. My sister-in-law and her husband visited on the weekend, so I tried a very rough test using a few cobbled together components including toy food made out of MDF! I think the game has loads of potential - I just need to start prototyping and testing it properly!

FlickFleet early prototype

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:

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.


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.


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.


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...