Monday, December 31

The Year in Review

2012 has been a momentous year for me in a number of ways. I became a father back in August and that's been very hard work, but also very exciting and great fun already with the promise of lots more fun to come. I moved back to Newcastle at the end of last year so it's been my first full calendar year in Newcastle since 2004 and my first full calendar year in full-time employment with same employer since 2007. We bought a house in March and a car in December. And I visited Canada for the first time. But probably the most relevant thing in this forum is that it was the year I re-kindled my love of Game Design.

Games Design

I had the idea for Codename: Vacuum during a discussion with The Wife during a long car journey at the end of November last year. In just over a year it has gone from concept to a fairly solid prototype (with another almost ready to print), and interestingly it hasn't changed a huge amount. The concept is still the same (though the setting has changed very slightly) and the main mechanics and actions are still as originally envisaged. I'm pleased with how Codename: Vacuum is progressing and hope to get it to a print-ready stage by the end of next year when I'll have to make a decision about whether it's good enough to
proceed with and, if it is, whether to try KickStarter or hawk it to established publishers. Exciting times once again.

Back at the beginning of the year had an idea for a little card game (Codename: Proteome) to make as a conference giveaway from my current employer. After an initial burst of interest in the office this one completely fizzled out. It's a shame but, especially now that I have a daughter to look after, I'm very pushed for time so focussing on a single game is a way to ensure that something gets done rather than negligable progress on half a dozen things.

Finally, in November I had an idea for another game (Codename: Vengeance) which co-incided with NaGaDeMon. It was to be a worker placement/area control game conceptually based on the old Populous computer games. The announcement that Peter Molyneux was going to KickStarter to fund a re-imagining of Populous put paid to that idea too, but silver lining: I've only really got time for one game anyway, so Vacuum benefits from that idea falling by the wayside too.

General Gaming

From a general gaming point of view it's been a surprisingly good year. I've not got to any conventions or trade shows, but I've managed a fairly regular games night that suffered only minimal disruption around the house move and the birth of our daughter. I've played 328 games, a large number of which were on the iPad while travelling for work (I've decided rather arbitrarily that games on an iPad against human opposition count towards BGG play stats). My five and dimes were:

  • 25: No Thanks! - One of our favourite fillers at Games Night
  • 24: Race for the Galaxy - A perennial favourite at Games Night and with The Wife
  • 23: Ingenious - All played on the iPad with Mal on our trip to Denmark
  • 22: Codename: Vacuum - Getting somewhere with this
  • 22: 7 Wonders - Still loving this, simple and quick, but still interesting
  • 15: Carcassonne - One of my favourite games for nearly 10 years
  • 15: The Resistance - Battlestar Galactica, but playable in an hour - awesome!
  • 13: 11 nimmt! - Popular at Games Night
  • 13: Hey, That's My Fish! - Mostly on the iPad on planes to and from Vancouver
  • 11: Hol's der Geier - I'm loving this very simple, yet devious, filler
  • 10: Stone Age - Popular at Games Night and with The Wife
  • 9: 6 Nimmt! - Another Games Night filler
  • 7: Ave Caesar - Vicious and quick race game
  • 7: For Sale - Another Games Night filler
  • 7: Guess Who? - With my niece over Christmas
  • 6: Army of Frogs - All on the iPad
  • 6: Coloretto - Bought in Vancouver at Starlit Citadel
  • 5: Guillotine - Bought in Vancouver at Starlit Citadel
  • 5: Lords of Waterdeep - Very popular worker placement lite game with a D&D theme
  • 5: Lost Cities - Huh? I don't remember playing that 5 times!
  • 5: Thunderstone - much prefer this to Dominion, themed up to the nines (and I've a boatload of expansions)

With the bigger house and my own Games Night for the first time, I've bought quite a lot of games this year: Coloretto and Guillotine in Canada, Cleopatra and the Society of Architects, Clans, Tigris and Euphrates and El Grande cheap from a friend plus: The Resistance, K2, Hansa Teutonica, Village and Divinare. I've also bought Army of Frogs, Ingenious and Through the Desert on the iPad. A disappointing number of the real games have yet to hit the table.


After the fallout of Reiver Games, my blog had slowly withered and died over the last couple of years. I started it back up last November after having the idea that became Codename: Vacuum. I posted a few times through January and February, and then it went quiet again during and after our house move. I started it up again in August (the week before my daughter was born) and have been posting pretty much weekly ever since. I've managed 27 posts this year, including one that was picked up by BoardGameGeek News and then Reddit and went on to become my second most read post ever. That month (October) went on to become my month with the most page views ever, eclipsing the early days of my blog. Of course, after the Reddit storm died down page views are back to normal, but still ticking over nicely. My most popular posts this year have been:

Here's hoping that next year will be as good! Until then, Happy New Year!

Monday, December 24

Merry Christmas

Just a short one today to wish you all Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Thanks for taking the time to read my blog and get involved in the discussion, there'll be one final post before the end of the year and then normal service will hopefully resume in the New Year.

Monday, December 17

Artists! How does this sound?

If you've been reading my blog over the last few months you'll be keenly aware that the one thing Codename: Vacuum is missing is art. The cards have some rudimentary graphic design done, but no illustrations whatsoever.

Card lacking artwork
Needs some artistic love, methinks.

The main reason behind this is that while I have limited graphic design skills, I have no art skills and at the moment my money is going on tiny clothes and nappies rather than hiring artists. Having said that, it would be great to have some art on the game before I send it out for playtesting. How do I reconcile these two positions?

I've been considering that question for a while now. I mentioned it to my Dad when he was up a few weeks ago (he's a retired art teacher and artist, though in a completely different style) and he started sketching out a few things. In addition, an old friend from junior school offered to help, but he's a professional animator and has a young family and needs to focus on earning a living not helping out a mate he's not seen in 25 years for free. So what to do?

I've had a slightly bizarre idea over the last couple of days, and I've no idea how it sounds so I'm going to run it past you guys to get some feedback before I actually try to implement it. So what's the idea I hear you ask?

I get aspiring board game artists to do it for me for free!

And there's my problem. How much of an exploitative arse do I sound about now? I'm thinking an unacceptable amount. But maybe not. I'll flesh out my idea, and then you can let me know in the comments whether I sound like an arse or not.

The problem of no art is compounded by the fact that I need a lot of it. I need:

  • A card back design
  • 50 location designs
  • 7 location back designs
  • 65 card front designs

That's an enormous job for one person, especially when I can't afford to pay them, so finding people to share out the work between would be a more realistic way to go. But I don't know many arty types, and certainly not enough to get that amount of art done for free out of personal goodwill.

Clearly, I would need to offer these generous hypothetical artists something in return for their hard work, even if it can't be real folding money. Otherwise I'd appear like an arse and I'd end up with an unenviable reputation and still no art.

So the idea I've been tossing around in my head is this:

I post on BGG a list of all the art I'm looking for and ask for aspiring board game artists to knock something up for some of those briefs for free. In return, they would get: an artist credit on the card(s) they've illustrated and a link to their portfolio in the rulebook. I'd also do artist profiles here on Creation and Play of the artists whose submitted work I most admire.

I'm hoping at some point to get Codename: Vacuum into print. If that never happens (a reasonable risk), then that would be the end of it. But if I decided to hawk it to other publishers then the artist's work and their portfolio link would go to those publishers in the setting of a real game. Alternatively, I might decide to try to KickStart it myself, in which case the artists whose work I like the best would stand a reasonable chance of getting their art into the finished game, and more importantly, I'd be paying them for it at that point (the KickStarter budget would include paying for art). If I end up publishing the game myself, I would only use art submitted for the prototype with the artist's permission if we could agree a price that I would pay them for it.

What do you think? Does that sound like a promising idea? An exploitative idea? An idea which is extremely unlikely to work?

Monday, December 10

Codename Vacuum Reaches Second Country!

Until recently, all the games of Codename: Vacuum that have ever been played were either at my house or at work. The game has never been played without me, and never outside Newcastle.

At some point, if I'm serious about getting it to market, it will have to spread its wings and fly the nest - it'll need to be played by other people, in other countries, by playtesters who have never met me and won't be biased by friendship with me when they come to give feedback.

It's been a quiet week or so, I went to Denmark with work last week (and missed Games Night) and we had our office Christmas party this week (on Games Night) so I've not played games much at home. In addition, we've a visit from my parents and I've had a couple of hospital trips this week and my main Vacuum playtester has gone to Australia for three weeks and so there hasn't been much time or opportunity for games at work either.

But despite all this, Vacuum reached an interesting milestone of sorts last week. It was played in a different country! The Denmark trip was with Mal, a friend of old who was my main Border Reivers playtester, so I took Vacuum (along with several smaller games and a few on my iPad) to while away the time we were spending travelling. Vacuum takes up a fair amount of space, so we couldn't play it on a plane, a train or in an airport waiting lounge, but we did find ourselves last Friday in a bar in Schiphol airport in Amsterdam with five hours to kill. So out came Vacuum (which Mal had only played once several months ago) and I proceeded to teach it to him again. We ended up playing a couple of games, while drinking very pleasant Belgian beers. The first game took a good hour and a half if not slightly more, the second was definitely less than half an hour!

Photographic evidence

Obviously, this isn't getting the game playtested in other countries by people unknown to me, but it felt like a milestone none the less. I've got a list of a few playtesters set up for when Vacuum is a bit more stable - but I don't want to send it out while it's still changing rapidly, because that shows that the game isn't yet good enough in my mind, so there's not much point in investing a lot of time and energy in sending out copies to other people who are also unlikely to think it's good enough.

Things are getting back on track now though, Games Night should be back on for the next couple of weeks in the run up to Christmas, and I've a three-player game of Vacuum lined up one lunchtime next week. I also need to find some time at home to concentrate on getting the layout done for the new version of Vacuum so that I've got something to test in the New Year.

I'd really like to get Vacuum stable enough by the end of March to send out playtest copies - so I've got my work cut out!

Monday, December 3

Design Lag

As I mentioned last week, I'm converting the art from A3 pages to card size ones. As part of that, I have to admit to myself that I'm actually creating a new version at the same time. It started out as some layout/design improvements, then a couple of card tweaks crept in, based on playing the new version several times during lunch break at work and at Games Night. As I get more plays of the newest version under my belt, I'm thinking of other things I could be adding, which cards/decks are weak and could do with improvements, which cards could be changed to better fit their theming, etc. I've now got to the point where almost every card will change in some way, again.

In the dim, distant past, before I became a father, I would knock up a new prototype whenever I had a new idea, so the cycle would be pretty much: play the game once, have an idea, make a new prototype, play it once, have an idea, make a new prototype, etc.

Now I want to spend my free time with my family, especially my daughter who I only get to see in the evenings and on weekends. But I also want to make progress on Codename: Vacuum. It takes time to do the card changes required when I have a new idea, and more time to print them out and cut them out. Probably about four or five hours in total and this time it's taking even longer due to the time required to change the document page size and re-layout all the cards.

I fit in making new versions when I've a bit of time when The Wife and The Daughter are asleep, usually early in the morning while I have my breakfast, but as you can imagine it takes several weeks for this time to add up to the several hours I need for a new version of the game. So new versions of the game are several weeks apart.

Of course, I'm still having ideas at the same rate - a few every time I play the game and I'm playing the game two or three times a week. So the ideas are stacking up. I'm going to call that 'design lag'.

As with anything, this has its pros and cons. To my mind the benefits are:

  • I spend less time making prototypes that are only played once
  • I get a good feel for the strengths and weaknesses of a version from 5-10 plays of it
  • I don't rush to snap decisions based on a single bad experience
  • New versions feel quite different, often like a big step forward

However, I think these are the downsides:

  • I get to play a version that's got a particular problem several times, aware that I have a potential solution in my head/in my notes
  • It's frustrating to have to wait a few weeks to find out if a potential fix works, or not
  • I don't get to test changes in isolation which makes it difficult to find root causes to problems

On balance, I think the design lag I'm currently experiencing is a good thing. I'm focused on testing things not making new things all the time, and each version is more thoroughly tested as a result. Plus, it frees up time for important things like spending time with my family and trivial things like blogging.

One final thing. Codename: Vacuum is just that, a nickname to describe the game while I think of a real name for it. It's a game that conceptually charts 200 years of history, starting in a steampunk alternative universe circa 1900 to approximately 2100. How does: "Full Steam to the Stars" sound? Thoughts? Surely someone has got a better idea?

Monday, November 26

Changing Form Factor

In the early stages of making cards for a game I do the art on A3 sheets of paper, with the cards in a 5 x 5 grid. I've got a blank document ready in Adobe InDesign which already has all the document guides to line things up to and the cutting guides ready prepared on a separate layer.

Having the document with A3 print size is convenient for printing, and works fine at the beginning when the card count and mix is changing regularly, but once things start to settle down it is good to move to a new format.

For Carpe Astra and Sumeria I got the printing done by LudoFact one of Germany's big games printers. They want to receive the cards as a print quality PDF or PostScript file, with one card per page, each page the size of the cards themselves. So I had to make a document where the page size was 56mm x 87mm (a standard card size, apparently). This is actually pretty convenient for doing the rulebook too, as it's easy to place a page of another InDesign document as a graphic in a document, so I could place page 40 of the cards document to get a particular card for illustrating an example.

A single card as a document page

Switching to the smaller form factor too early makes thing awkward as you now have two documents to update before printing: Make the changes to the single cards document and then go to the A3 print document, update the links and delete pages and re-add them to make the changes to the card counts. But once the card balance is steady it's not bad at all. All you need to do is open the A3 print document, update the links to the modified single card-per-page document and then click print. In fact, in some ways it makes things slightly easier, as while working in the A3 print document I keep the cutting guides layer hidden so that I don't accidentally drag some of the cutting guides around with the card art. On at least two occasions I've forgotten to show the cutting guides again before printing, which means I need to either mark the guides on with pencil (a real arse when there's 36 of them per page and 14 pages) or print it again and waste loads of card. Having them separate means that I'll no longer be doing anything in the A3 document, so I can leave them permanently enabled.

Of course, seeing as I'm moving things around, I'm taking this chance to tweak a few of the cards again and do a little bit more layout/pictography improvement too. Barely a week goes by without me making some small changes to the game. Fortunately, I'm not thinking of backing out the bigger changes between my current version and the previous one - just improving the balance of some of the weaker sets of cards.

The next step after changing the size of the document and getting the print document to link to the new one is to do a proper rulebook. Initially the rulebook was just a set of notes for me. The current rulebook is a complete description of the (previous version of the) game (but without examples or any illustrations/clarification). I need to update the rulebook to the new rules and get it into a finished enough state that people can learn the game blind from it. Then I hope to send it to a couple of my previous gaming groups (which obviously requires making a couple of extra copies) and possibly to some of my far-flung Reiver Games playtesters (or I might wait for that until I've incorporated feedback from my ex-gaming chums).

The other advantage of the single-card per page version is that it allows me to set up an A4 print document that's easy to keep in sync as things change so that I can provide print-and-play copies to selected others (seeing as most people don't have an A3 printer).

Monday, November 19

(Lack of) Art in Prototypes

A couple of weeks ago, I posted some pictures of a few cards from the last three versions of Codename: Vacuum. The pictures showed small incremental changes to the cards over time with functionality disappearing to later reappear, or subtly changing over time.

But what was probably most noticable about all three versions was the lack of artwork. The cards were 90% white. Why the lack of art?

Art-free prototype cards
The name's Bland, James Bland

It's a combination of reasons, but the most relevant is that I don't have the skills, and nor do any of my gaming buddies in Newcastle. I enjoy doing the layout and pictography, but I just can't draw to any reasonably level. I could download some vaguely relevant clip art from the internet, but I'm not a fan of copyright infringement and for a lot of the cards I have a pretty good idea in my head what they should look like, and finding those images through a Google search would take days - time I don't have to spare.

For some designers, doing the art is as much a part of the game design as coming up with the rules and components, but not for me. Nor do I have anyone who can do the art for me as a favour or for fun.

As a workaround I could rustle up some home-drawn crappy art, but I figure that would look worse than none at all - at least a compelling name and a blank page will conjure up a picture in the players' mind's eyes, whereas a badly drawn and coloured picture that would cause my dad to disown me (he's an artist and retired art teacher, though sadly not in a relevant style) would just turn the players' stomachs.

I could get someone with the chops to do the art for me, but there's a lot required, and I don't have the funds to pay someone for that work (my money's going on nappies at the moment). I can't expect an artist to work for free, or for the promise of future funds if I publish the game because that's not fair to them - especially as the game may never get published and they may never get paid or get to see their art get published. I don't mind working for free for something I'm passionate about (as evidenced by five years of running Reiver Games), but I can't expect the same from others.

So Codename: Vacuum languishes in its stark, white beauty. I've had a chat on Twitter with an old friend from my childhood who I've got in contact with again recently, he's a professional animator (and hence artist) and has offered to lend a hand in his limited free time, but again, I don't want to abuse his generosity - he has a family to support too.

It's important to get art in there before phase 3: i.e. testing and blind testing in front of real gamers.

Something else to think about is:

  • if the game ever reaches a 'finished' state
  • and, if it meets the required levels of awesomeness
  • and, if I decide to self-publish it
  • and, if I decide to use KickStarter or IndieGoGo to raise the funds for that

I'll need at least some teaser art before I start the campaign to raise the funds, I'm sure seeing awesome art on the KickStarter page helps people to decide to part with their hard-earned dough.

Monday, November 12

The Reddit Effect

I've been running this blog since February 2006 when I started to gear up towards self-publishing my first game: Border Reivers. Since then, I (and my fellow bloggers during the community blog phase) have notched up over 650 posts.

However, I've only got blogger analytics stats going back to early 2008. During those four years, the blog has had around 2,000 page views a month on average. Recently it's been lower than that (there was a year or so during which I only posted twice, after the death of Reiver Games) and once it got as high as 3,400 hits in a month (when, bizarrely, linked to it!). My posts have generally been fairly quiet: only three have broken 500 page views with one (linked by Microsoft!) over 3,000 views.

Since I can only assume the Microsoft thingy was a typo on their site, I never imagined I'd be getting back to those heady heights of popularity again, my goal for last month was to hit the 1,800 views that I'd had the month before and to try to post weekly. Then I wrote this post about what worked and what didn't with Reiver Games. It's fairly innocuous, I think you'll agree, but W. Eric Martin felt it was worth of a link on the Board Game News section of BoardGameGeek. Off the back of that link I had 500 (yes 500!) views of that page in a single day, shunting it immediately into my top three posts of all time. The month was looking pretty good too, with nearly a thousand views in the first few days.

But that was nothing. Someone decided they liked it enough to post it to the Reddit sub-reddit on board games the next day. That day I got over 2,000 views on that one page, almost all of them coming from Reddit. That page is now firmly ensconced in second place among my most popular posts and last month leapt to my most popular month of all time with 4,700 views.

Page views graph for October

When I started this blog it was to publicise Border Reivers, and then after the community phase I ran as a marketing tool for Reiver Games. In neither capacity was it particularly successful, but I'm still learning what it takes to attract traffic. Of course, now I'm not using it for anything really, more as a vanity project to record my new design efforts and to (hopefully) provide useful information for people who are considering or have just started setting up a publishing company. I've not got anything to sell or a company of my own to promote.

Getting links from the likes of Reddit can really transform the reach of your blog (if only for the one post that was posted to Reddit), so if I was trying to sell something, getting the attention of Reddit would be something I'd be trying hard to push.

Clearly, this is an anomaly, and my page views will be back to a pedestrian 2,000 or so a month from now on, but I hope some people who found the blog through BGN or Reddit liked it enough to carry on reading...

Monday, November 5

Codename: Vacuum Shaping Up

As I mentioned last week, I've finally got into the habit of playing lots of Codename: Vacuum.

Initially when creating a new game, I playtest solo (pretending to be two or more players), until I'm fairly sure I have something that could charitably be called a game. I don't enjoy this phase: for me, gaming is a social pastime, a way of spending some time with your friends. Sitting in a room pretending to be Jack, then Jacques, then Jaime and finally Jackie, before pretending to be Jack again, all the while knowing exactly what cards everyone has and what strategies they are all pursuing is not my idea of a fun evening in. But by the same token, I don't want to trot out some total crap that I've not even tested with anyone else in case they disown me and start blanking me in the street - a prototype has to at the very least work as a concept before I try it out with other people.

So then I start playing it with friends, or a dedicated cadre of hardened playtesters. They either like me, or enjoy playtesting (or, conceivably, both) and so are willing to cut me some slack if the game is a bit weak. Which it will be. But the only way to find out what the weaknesses are is to test it, and that's what friends are for. As you play it a bit more with other people who try different strategies and have different ideas you find out the flaws and have a chance to fix them. The game goes through more iterations, some better, some worse, but hopefully on an upward trend.

Eventually you are going to want to trot it out in front of real gamers, to get an idea of whether you game is awesome. If it's not, it's back to the drawing board, there's a boat load of mediocre games out there, and KickStarter has just lowered the hurdles to publishing, so it's easier to get a game to market than ever before. You don't want to be one of the dregs, you want to be one of the cream. At this stage your game still won't be awesome yet, but it has to pique enough people's interest to warrant further investment. Gamers playtesting your game have to at least see the potential awesome, otherwise they won't bother playtesting it instead of playing this week's new release. The sooner the game is in front of real gamers the better, but, if you do it too soon, instead of the word on the street being 'I playtested that, it was neat, and it's probably even better now' it'll be 'I playtested that last year, what a dreadful, boring, totally unbalanced waste of time'. Word of mouth is great as long as it's in your favour, so you have to time the exposure right.

Codename: Vacuum is currently still firmly in Phase 2. I'm playing it regularly with friends to work out the kinks before it hits the real test in Phase 3. But there's already some information available:


  • Thematically it fits together nicely, the cards make sense and I like the Steampunk to Sci-Fi transition. People get excited when they see certain cards, which is great.
  • It's a working game. You can play it with a strategy in mind from the start and there's plenty of strategies available. You have to interact with your opponents and modify your strategies to respond to them.
  • It's fairly quick, two player learning games are taking 45-70 minutes and three player games once we've all played it at least once are coming in around an hour.
  • It works across the player range. I wanted it to be 2-5 players, and having now played it with 5 players, I know it works across the whole range.


  • The game is still a bit longer than I'd like, ideally it would be playable in under an hour and around 30 minutes if you've a lot of experience.
  • There's a trade mechanism in the game, but it only really makes sense if you're trading with yourself (or at a push between yourself and the neutral player), I'd like it to be a more inter-player thing, but that will probably slow things down further.
  • It's still hideously unbalanced, and will remain so through the next several iterations I imagine as I make fairly sweeping changes between versions.
  • One of the cool things about Dominion is trying to work out which combos of cards from the set you're playing with this time will be the most powerful, having something like that feeling in Vacuum would be really cool. It doesn't have it yet.

In slightly better news, I've got a new version now, it's mainly addressing balance issues I've found so far, but it will inevitably introduce some more of its own. In addition to finding and fixing those, the other things I still need to work on are a more interactive trade mechanism and reducing the game length.

In starting to run before you can walk news, I'm now rather optimistically starting to think about how I can get the game to market (if I can get it into a great enough state). There's some small publisher interest or I could tout it to the big guys or even go it alone via KickStarter. I need to get it finished first though!

Monday, October 29

My Gaming in Newcastle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 22


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

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

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

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

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

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

Me at Spiel 09

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 15

A Matter of Taste

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

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

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

My Favourite Games

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

My Most Played Games (excluding ones I published!)

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

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

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

Codename: Vacuum

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

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

Tuesday, October 9

Getting Codename: Vacuum to the Table

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vacuum in play

Photo via Wilka

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

Tuesday, October 2

Prototype Decay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Border Reivers final prototype

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

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

Thursday, September 27

The Changing Face of Codename: Vacuum

As I've mentioned before, when designing a game, you start out with a vision of what you want your game to look and feel like when you play it. You make a prototype (which turns out to be rubbish!) and then start making incremental changes trying to improve the game while keeping in mind your original goals.

My original idea for Codename: Vacuum was a deck-building card game set in space. Over time the theme has been tweaked slightly to being set in a steampunk-esque version of our solar system between the years 1900 and 2100. That's not a big change though, It's Alive! went from collecting different coloured candles to light a Menorah to being about collecting different body parts to build Frankenstein's Monster!

But the game components have changed during that time too. The initial plan was to have a pure card game (like Dominion), but as the game idea was fleshed out in my head I thought it would be good to add some wooden tokens. I added some coins to allow a more interesting trade mechanic, and some 'Explore tokens' to introduce another scoring mechanism/path to victory.

This box for an early version just about fits the cards and wooden bits, but is obviously not designed for getting pride of place on a shop shelf!

Box for my first prototype

In the latest version that I've just finished assembling over the weekend I've got rid of most of those tokens, and replaced them with with player mats and coin/explore tracks instead. The player mat allows me to reduce the numbers of wooden tokens by quite a lot (reducing cost), but also to justify a large box size (which makes sense for the game as it brings the box size in line with Race for the Galaxy, a game with a similar number of components.

Standard box sizes help for a number of reasons:

  • Cheaper manufacturing - the manufacturers already have all the tools for that size
  • Easier shelving - for gamers and shops alike
  • Expected MSRP - much as I don't like it, people expect a certain price based on the size of the box, not the number of contents, so small boxes rammed with stuff look expensive because they are in a small box compared to a gamer with the same components in a larger box

Also, making a proper size box with a normal looking box insert makes the game feel that much more real :)

New box for my new prototype

My initial plan was to have a turn overview, coin and explore token tracks and spaces for all your cards on the player mat. There's not really enough room for those things without the turn overview though, so that's had to go. Maybe I'll add some turn overview cards instead.

First stab at a player mat - very full!

Friday, September 14

Vacuum: The Inconstant Phase

Codename: Vacuum is the game that is infecting my brain at the moment. It's always at the back of my conscience, thinking of ideas for tweaks, improvements and major changes.

The game is in the early stages where I'm thinking much more about it than I'm playing it so it's not unusual for me to make three or four sets of changes between plays - in some cases they are all changes on the computer before I print it out for testing, in others, no sooner have I printed a copy than I've had another idea and started making another slightly different prototype on the computer before I've even had a chance to play the copy I've just printed and cut out!

What am I hoping to achieve with all these changes?

  • Fun! The game should be a fun experience to play. There should be interesting decisions at every turn, the chance to surprise or stiff you opponents and a enough randomness and luck that it doesn't feel dry and samey.
  • Fast! I want to game to have a similar play time to Race for the Galaxy, i.e. experienced players can play it in around half an hour.
  • Consistent: I want the game to be easy to learn and easy to play because things make sense, the various bits of the game are consistent with each other - the rules aren't a mess of special cases and exceptions.
  • Well themed: The theme is consistent with itself and the game works with respect to its theme.
  • Streamlined: The game is as simple as it can be while maintaining an interesting challenge and great experience.

Obviously, you don't start with something that perfectly meets those criteria, you starts with something that captures an idea in your head, and then through multiple tests, feedback and iterative changes you move that initial version towards a final game that meets those criteria.

When making changes you need to hold that initial idea of how you want the game to work in your head and then tweak the current version incorporating the playtest experiences and feedback using those criteria as yardsticks: if I make this change will it make it faster? Or slower? Does it improve the consistency? Would this change make it more fun? Sometimes you'll have an idea that improves it against one of the criteria but makes it worse against another. Is it acceptable to streamline the game if it reduces consistency slightly? It depends, but you've got to make that call on all the ideas you have.

So what is the overall idea that is driving Codename: Vacuum development? I wanted to make a game that plays in around 30 mins with experienced players. I wanted a deck-building game with a tableau element (like Race for the Galaxy) but with direct interaction between players. I wanted a steampunk game that evolves through the passage of time into a proper sci-fi game. I wanted multiple paths to victory.

Sounds like a tall order? I've set the game in a fairly standard steampunk setting (imagine the works of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs) but unlike the majority of steampunk games there's a passage of time from around 1900 through an alternative modern day to a hundred years in our future). It's set in our solar system, but a solar system with men in the moon, Martians, Jovians and lots of other extra-terrestrials. The game is a deck-building game, but you can play a few cards to your tableau where you can make use of them every turn, driving the shape of your strategy. You can explore the solar system, trade with other players and neutral locations, use your military to attack and claim the neutral locations or those claimed by an opponent and you can research technologies to improve your strengths in various areas. Come the finale, you get to pick from ten scoring cards to determine on which criteria all the players will be scored. As with most deck-building games, there are several sets of cards and you play with a subset of them, so each game will be slightly different depending upon the randomly selected subset chosen for this game.

Hopefully that description piques the interest of a few people and everyone's not sick to the back teeth with deck-building games. In the meantime, I need to keep testing it out and making the tweaks until it's in a position where I can send copies to blind playtesters for the all-important feedback about whether it's worth pursuing.

I also need a name...

Monday, September 3

Reiver Games - An Analysis

As many of you know, I ran a board games publishing company for five years: Reiver Games, from July 2006 to July 2011. I ended up selling off 3,000 games to a liquidator for 12p each, and lost about £8,750 (thankfully of insurance money and not my life savings!). Clearly something when very wrong.

And yet, I managed to sell 5,500 games and the company started off very successfully. So where did it all go so hideously wrong? What would I do differently if I was starting now with the knowledge I've gained the hard way?

After years trying to write tiny bits of computer games and a bad experience with Mighty Empires, I started designing Border Reivers at the end of 2002. I spent a couple of years playtesting it with a close group of not-really-gamer friends then I shelved it, and didn't come back to it until 2006 when I had the idea of forming Reiver Games and seeing if I had what it takes (and Border Reivers had what it takes) to sell a game.

I tried the game with real gamers in York and got pretty good feedback, so I convinced The Wife (using only fast talking and The Dummies Guide To Hypnotism) to let me invest £1,250 of our paltry savings in setting up a company to sell my game. I did all my sums and reckoned I could at a stretch sell 100 copies, and figured that £30 was a reasonable price for a home-made, limited edition game. One year after forming the company I has sold all my stock of Border Reivers, and my bank balance read £2,500 - a 100% ROI! So far, so awesome. During that year, I'd been extensively pimping my game on BGG and had been approached by another designer (actually several other designers, but only one that made the cut) and had decided that I should do a similar home-made, limited edition of his game: It's Alive! With the benefit of hindsight and a lot more gaming experience under my belt at the various cons and games clubs I'd attended, it was clear that Border Reivers wasn't actually a very good game. It's Alive! was a tighter game with much broader appeal (who doesn't love body parts?), so I took another punt and decided to hand-craft 300 copies of It's Alive!

By July 2008 I had sold all of those, and my bank balance read £4,500, nearly another 100% ROI. This was awesome! If I'd stopped there Reiver Games would have been fantastically successful - beyond my wildest dreams.

Then everything changed. During 2007 I'd been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, and despite the treatment I was receiving I felt that my condition was worsening fairly quickly. I had a good job, but wasn't overly enamoured of it, and both The Wife and I were getting fed up with the amount of my 'free' time and holiday allowance I was spending on the company, cutting out and assembling games, checking and responding to emails, doing PR and blog posts and endless trips to Post Offices the UK over. This was not sustainable. Something had to give.

Conveniently, about this time, we checked my life insurance policy, and it turns out the critical illness cover I had taken out covered MS. A few phone calls and forms later, and I was in the frankly bizarre situation of being able to spend my own life insurance payout (without the fear of fraud charges that usually accompanies it!). We paid off the vast majority of our mortgage and (with more fast talking and liberal resorting to The Expert's Guide to Hypnotism) The Wife agreed to invest a chunk of the insurance money in Reiver Games (with another chunk put aside to live off while I had no salary income).

This was a turning point in lots of ways. It's when I started selling to shops, online stores and distributors, when I started getting the games made professionally, when I started attending Spiel in Essen and when the company started to fail.

I was keen that the company take off to the point where it could provide a salary for me and be a genuine job, not an excuse for bumming around. To do that I figured I would have to make and sell a lot of games. While the hand-made games had been a huge success for me, making them was a real chore. I wrecked our coffee table, was frequently cutting my hands and they often ached. Each copy of Border Reivers took 3 hours to assemble, It's Alive! one and a half - and that wasn't counting things and putting them in a box, it was cutting the box and tiles out of 2mm greyboard, folding, gluing, labelling, cutting the cards out and counting and sorting. I didn't fancy doing this day in, day out (plus I'd have ended up with RSI in no time!).

My first mistake was to price It's Alive! Second Edition at the same price as the hand-made edition, rather than the price dictated by the manufacturing cost. The second: getting a loan to publish Carpe Astra that I would spend the next two years paying £330 a month to service. This was compounded by manufacturing too many copies of those games. I made 3,000 It's Alive!, 2,000 Carpe Astra and 3,000 Sumeria. I should have done 2,000, 1,000 and 1,500 respectively - that's what I sold in a sensible time.

I tried to move from being a small hobby publisher with a dedicated, but small, army of fans to being a full-size pro publisher with professionally manufacturer games and sales and distribution channels. And I tried to do it too quickly. If I was a marketing genius, it's conceivable that it could be done, but it was a long shot and I didn't have it in me.

Of course, things have changed since then. KickStarter is a game-changer in the games publishing market, not only has it helped smaller companies like Tasty Minstrel flourish, but even big players like Eggertspiele and Steve Jackson Games have used it recently. It's a great combination of funds raising, market research, pre-order management and just listing a game there gets you loads of advertising to help you attract customers.

Although my first couple of years as a pro publisher were technically profitable, I was making very little money and it was clear that I had way too much inventory left. The loan payments were eroding the money I was getting back from sales and I didn't have enough cash to publish a new game - so, as with most businesses, it was cash-flow that killed me.

In hindsight, what I should have done was a halfway-house. Getting the games made professionally, but in small runs that I could sell directly to gamers and at cons. Going through shops and distributors, while it got me lots more sales, meant I had to make a lot of copies to get the costs low enough to sell to distributors and I had to squeeze my margins to unworkable levels. Maybe a thousand at a time would have been a sweet spot, but without shops and distributors on board even that may have been too many. And, had I waited a couple of years, I should have used KickStarter!

Thursday, August 30


Last week The Wife gave birth to our first child: a beautiful, healthy girl called Anya Janette Pope. As you can imagine I'm going to be a little distracted over the next 20-odd years, but I still hope to make some progress on my games design (especially Codename: Vacuum at the moment). I'm on Paternity Leave from work for the next couple of weeks and I've already bought everything I need to print and cut out the next set of cards, so hopefully I'll be able to find a couple of hours when I can accomplish that (around staring in wonderment at the baby The Wife and I - mostly The Wife! -have made).

I'll also try to keep posting here as I make any progress, but as you can imagine it will probably be a bit less frequent!


Look what I made!

Tuesday, August 21

Making Progress

Since I wrote that last post a few weeks ago, I've been thinking about Codename: Vacuum quite a lot and trying to work out the kinks in this early incarnation of the game. In essence the game works, but it's probably slightly over-complicated, and there are definitely a lot of balance issues to work out.

The first step is to play the game over and over and over again, making copious notes about what works, what doesn't, who scored what, which cards were played, which victory conditions were used and any ideas I've had.

Normally, the first tens of games would be played by myself, trying various strategies, getting the game basically working and trying to iron out the worst of the balance issues to ensure that when I start playing it with other people, it's a working game that won't be an entirely joyless experience for my playtesters.

It's a nice idea in principle, but I struggle to find the time for playtesting, and I really hate playing a game against myself: for me, a lot of the enjoyment of game is pitting your mind against friends in a structured competition. Playing against myself, where I know what cards my opponents have, what strategies they're following and what they are going to do next sucks all the fun out of it.

So I played a very brief test drive against myself early on before making a first prototype, and then I tested it with my games night several months ago. Since then, after a long hiatus I played it with my mate Paul, one of my key Reiver Games playtesters, and I've played it against myself again recently trying to judge whether the ideas I had during and after the game with Paul worked.

While living in York, and running Reiver Games, I had a weekly playtest session with some friends from the local games group (including Paul) where we'd try out several of the over a hundred prototypes I had received. After moving down South to near Bedford I set up a similar arrangement with my games group down there, which slowly migrated from being a playtesting session, to a playtesting session with a few real games, to a games session with a little playtesting and finally to a games session as Reiver Games ran out of steam.

Although I have a regular games night up here on a Thursday, I'm missing the chance to get some proper playtesting in - it doesn't seem fair to subject my games night chums to a half-arsed game that might not work at all, so a semi-regular playtesting session would be great.

I've spent the last week or so doing new versions of the cards using Adobe InDesign on the computer (that's the software I bought to do the real layout for Reiver Games - the final art that I sent to the printers in Germany). Just as I was finishing that I finally snapped the power lead to my laptop so I had to quickly save everything off to an external drive and uninstall InDesign before the battery ran out so I could set it all up again on this machine (The Wife's old one).

On my way home from work last night I got the card I need, so the next stage is printing and then cutting out all two hundred-odd cards. Then we're off to the races again...

The main focus at the moment however has to be preparing for the birth of our daughter, and then after that, raising her! Everything else will have to take a back seat for a while (or until she's off to university!).

Wednesday, August 15

Back Again

Another long hiatus! I actually wrote this blog post a couple of weeks ago, before I lost my home internet connection, now that's back up here it is!

It's been several months since I last posted here. In the meantime, We've bought a new house and moved into it and moved ever closer towards the due date of The Mini Pope.

With all the distractions I've done nothing on any games designs since the end of February - five months ago! Recently, now that most of the baby preparations are pretty much done and we're just waiting around for the big occasion my mind has started to wander back towards Codename: Vacuum, my steampunk/sci-fi deck building and tableau game.

I'd only played Vacuum once, with my regular games group back in February. The game didn't go well, not just because the game was a disaster (though as you might expect for a first play it was pretty bad!), but also because of the test. There was lots of discussion about things that could be changed and other ideas on every move, which dragged the game out over two and a half or three hours. I was hoping for a game that could play in 30 minutes with players who know it well, so two and a half hours felt disastrous, and the wealth of other ideas and suggestions (most of which would have changed the style of game dramatically) sapped me of my enthusiasm.

In the early stages of a game's design, you've an idea in your head of an awesome game, and scribbled on paper in pencil you have your first stab at that awesome game. Sadly, it's not awesome. It doesn't work like it did in your head. It's slow. Very unbalanced. Bits of it are clearly broken.

What you want to do, is play the game, find out which bits are broken, which are unbalanced and what is too complicated or too simplistic, and fix them. Then play it again. And again. And again. Each time making a few small changes. Some of your ideas will improve things, others will make things worse. It's an iterative process, culling the bits that don't work and thinking of some new ones that might. But, by the same token, you want to make incremental changes, not sweeping ones. Change something. Is it better? Worse? Change it again, or change something else. Slowly, over time it will get better. Then, strip it down to minimise the unnecessary clutter in the rules.

Now that things have settled down with the new house and we're nearly ready for the baby, my mind has wandered back to games design, and Codename: Vacuum in particular. After the first playtest I made some notes about things to improve, and printed a new set of cards that I thought addressed some of the problems that first game had. Last weekend, my friend Paul came up for the weekend and we played games late into the night on Saturday. Paul had been one of my key playtesters for Reiver Games, so I offered him a chance to play Vacuum.

The game went much better. We played the game in less than an hour and it went much smoother than the previous test. Most things worked. Several of the cards were unbalanced, but you only find that out by playing with them, so that's not a problem.

Paul enjoyed the game, and so did I, so now I'm enthused again :). I've spent the week since Paul's visit writing the rules up properly for Vacuum, so I don't forget things when my brain becomes addled due to new baby-related sleep deprivation. Next step is to print some more cards to fix the worst of the balance issues, then it's ready to go again.

Thursday, March 1

Proteome: A Designer for Hire?

As I've mentioned recently, I've started designing a second game: Proteome: The Drug Discovery Card Game. I've mentioned before that I got the idea after a joke from the marketing department at work. We were discussing my games designing past and Beth mentioned that I should make a game for our company to giveaway at scientific conferences that we attend. We all had a laugh about it, but it sparked an idea in my head.

To make a game professionally, you need to make 500 copies at a bare minimum - 1,000 is a more realistic number. Making a board game, with several components, a board, cards wooden pieces, etc. is not cheap. A small run - 1,000 copies or so could be very expensive - £15 or more a copy, which would mean a £15,000 outlay. Clearly a lot to be spending on conference giveaways. The next morning, in the shower I had an idea for a card game that fit the bill. A card game is that much cheaper to manufacture - plus easier to pocket as you wander the convention trade show.

If the game is to be given away at conferences the audience is not going to be hardcore gamers, there might be a few gamers in attendance, but it'll be almost entirely people who've played nothing but Monopoly and Cluedo. The audience will be smart, but not into complicated games. Of course, being me I don't want to produce something rubbish that I'd be ashamed of if a hardcore gamer saw it - I'm looking for a fairly simple filler that is engaging and appropriately themed. Appropriately themed in this case means collecting and publishing data on proteins that could be a target for a new drug, while robustly refuting the discoveries of your competition.

The more I thought about it, the more I thought it would be a good idea - both the game concept and the giveaway idea. So over the last couple of weeks I knocked up a prototype for my game idea, and took it to work (where I dropped it on the desk of Paddy, a vocal encourager, and said 'Done!'). We played it this week and it's not there yet, but the basic idea works. It's too complicated (a perennial problem with early prototypes of mine!) and could do with simplification, but there's something there. It gathered quite a lot of interest while we were playing it during lunch in the office :).

Marketing seem to be taking the idea of a game as a giveaway quite seriously. Who'd have thought that I'd stop working in games, go back to work and then still get to do games design as part of my day job? Of course, even if I can get the game finished there's no guarantee that management will go for the idea, so it may all come to naught. But it's fun while the idea is still a possibility.

Monday, February 27

My Juices Are Flowing...

Creative juices that is, before you get any ideas.

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 12

Codename Vacuum Gets an Overhaul

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 31

A First Look at Codename: Vacuum

As I've mentioned over the last few blog posts, I'm working on a new board game design, under the moniker: Codename - Vacuum. It's been a slow process, I first had the idea back in December, but finally, the game has seen the light of day as a finished first prototype:

This is a very early prototype, the first one to be played properly (though I did start a game of an earlier version made out of torn paper!). This one will hopefully get a run out at Games Night on Thursday and this weekend when I'm down south seeing several of my gaming buddies and previous playtesters.

The first idea I had about the game was a deck-building game with a Race for the Galaxy-esque player tableau set in a classical space setting. About a week later, once I'd had a chance to think things over, I realised there were too many of those floating around at the moment (I'm thinking Core Worlds and Eminent Domain which I got for Christmas "for research" ;-) ) and other big name sci-fi games (Eclipse I'm looking at you [... on my shelf ;-)]). So it was time for a slight theme-tweak. Instead of sci-fi, I was thinking Steampunk Space Opera. Sounds great doesn't it? I have my mate Ben to thank for that one. He asked me what it was about. My answer?

[long pause] Um. I don't really have an elevator pitch for it. It's steampunk. In space. Forming an empire in our solar system.

Ben's "Steampunk Space Opera" is a lot punchier!

The original idea was typical space opera, locations spanning multiple star systems, large scale battles. This one is a little different - the locations are real/fictional places within (and just outside!) our solar system, and with all the funkiness that steampunk brings: brass! gears! monocles! cavorite! The idea is that you take one of the great powers of the world in an alternative 1900 (set in a world where all those cool things in fiction are real: Martians! Men in the Moon! Cavorite! Dinosaurs! - I've been raiding Conan Doyle, Burroughs, Wells and Verne for ideas :-) ). Unlike most steampunk games I'm aware of, there will be a progression: early techs are pure steampunk then things will evolve during the game to modern and then futuristic technologies.

Again, in addition to the theme changes there have been changes to the mechanics as well. These changes have happened more recently. Like this week, while printing the prototype! Initially I was thinking a pretty standard deck building game, but with a tableau in front of you where you kept the locations you had captured.

I'm now thinking a combination of hand-management of your tableau and deck building. I'm thinking four types of cards: locations, units, population and technologies. Cards can be played into your tableau or into your deck. Cards in your tableau can be used every round, those in your deck will be available some rounds and not in others. The tableau is of a limited size so you need to choose which cards to keep there. There are some restrictions of course: locations can only go in your tableau, population in your deck or attached to a location, only one of each type of technology can be used in each turn.

This is of course a very early prototype. It will be unbalanced and probably broken. The cards might not make sense, definitely have typos and the rules are way too complex and will need simplifying. The reason I've not invested much effort in the card art yet is that I expect these cards to be changed frequently. New titles, new rules, new mechanics, the version I have in a few months is likely to be completely different from this one, so I don't want to invest too much effort in it. After a few plays it may turn out the whole game is a write-off. Only time will tell...

Here's a little teaser for you until I've played it a few times and got something to report: