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?