Monday, April 29

Holidays! Yay!

I'm back now from my week's holiday in Norfolk (which it turns out is a very long way from Newcastle when you've got a baby in the car!).

We went with the entirety of my in-laws, which was great as my brother-in-law, my sister-in-law and her husband are all often up for games. We played a lot of 7 Wonders (including my 100th play!), plus Thunderstone (including my 75th play!), Carcassonne the Castle and I finally got my teeth into all the X-Wing Miniatures stuff I'd bought at the beginning of the year :) I also got a couple of late night games of Codename: Vacuum in with my sister-in-law's husband (aside, is he a brother-in-law too? A brother-in-law²? Something else? I've no idea).

I was keen to play Vacuum of course, and he's a big steampunk fan, so I thought the theme would appeal to him. He plays games less than my regular playtesters, he'll play games when I'm around but doesn't attend a regular weekly Games Night, so I thought he'd be an ideal candidate for trying out the simple, first-play rules I had in mind.

One of the main criticisms I'm getting at the moment is that the first few times you play Codename: Vacuum you're not really sure what to do or why - it's too complex. There are thirty different cards available to you in a standard game of Codename: Vacuum. Like most deck-building games some of those are constant and available in every game, but some change from game to game. There's a lot to take in, and the second time you play, there's a lot more. Confusing.

I thought a way to simplify the game for the first time you play would be to reduce the number of cards. Just keep the twenty that are in every game, and not use the additional ten that change from game to game. But I had no idea whether it would work, or whether it would feel anything like the real game. So I turned my brother-in-law? into a human guinea pig.

The good news was that it felt like the real thing, and Matt picked it up quite quickly (he even won that first game). He then requested a second, and we played the full game which he also seemed to pick up quite quickly. Good stuff. I won that game (good stuff too ;) ).

Matt enjoyed it, it's a reasonably good game. Now I need to do the work required to make the jump from good to awesome. Still aways to go.

In other news, I've started tweaking the border artwork a bit more. I'm starting with the first age cards, trying to make them look a bit more steampunky.

In still further news, through judicious application of wicca, neuro-linguistic programming, voodoo, jedi mind tricks and hypnotism, I've managed to get The Wife to arrange to a weekend pass swap. Which means I get to go to Beer and Pretzels in three weeks time. It's a games convention in Burton-on-Trent in May each year. I've been two or three time before while I ran Reiver Games. I'd spend the day demoing and trying to sell copies of my games and then the evenings on general gaming. This time I get to do the general gaming all day (and evening :) ). It'll be good to catch up with people I knew back in the day, and also get to try out some new games. We play my games on Games Night, and I don't often buy games without trying them, so new games often pass me by.

Monday, April 22

I Need To Buy This Game!

Aside: I'm on holiday at the moment. I've posted this automatically and I'll respond to comments on my return.

Back to the matter at hand. 'I need to buy this game!' is how the exposition for a game should make you feel. The exposition of a game is what I'm calling the short description of the setting and mechanics that you use to summarise a game.

When I ran Reiver Games I used the exposition for many purposes:

  • A brief summary of the game at the beginning of the rulebook
  • A description of the game on the back of the box
  • The first paragraph on the game's webpage
  • The summary of the game on its BGG page
  • On posters at conventions
  • In adverts in trade magazines
  • Sellsheets to send to shops and distributors

If I decide to KickStart it, the exposition would be the first paragraph of the KickStarter page too.

Clearly, it's important. I've agonised over the exact wording of each of my games' expositions. They've been through several drafts trying to get them to a honed sharpness of hook. The exposition should leave you thinking:

That sounds fricken' awesome! I need that game. So badly that I'm willing to sell my family to fund its purchase.

Writing them is very hard. I'm not a copy-writer, or a master wordsmith. I'm just a software engineer and occasional board game designer. Moulding the English language to my will does not come naturally. I did an average job on the Reiver Games ones (scroll down a bit in the links below to read the Description sections):

They're functional, but not particularly exciting. They didn't work very well either. The number of you who sold your families to buy the games was considerably less than the number of games I bought from the manufacturers.

For Codename: Vacuum, I've got an early draft that tries to cover the steampunk to sci-fi transition and the deck-building nature of the game. But it's not very exciting yet:

It’s 1897 and the discovery of the anti-gravity metal Cavorite has the world powers are poised on the edge of a Space Race to claim the Solar System. Lead your nation to victory by building a deck of strategy cards that will shape your empire for 300 years. What will be the defining features of humanity at the dawn of the 23rd century? Conquest? Exploration? Reproduction? Greed? Technology? Choose a strategy. Advance your technologies. Race to ensure your choice is scored.

Upon reading that, I'm decidely meh. My family are safe. Needs some work methinks!

Monday, April 15

An Interesting Conversation

It's been a busy week at Pope Towers. We had a friend's wedding (Chief, one of my core Codename: Vacuum playtesters), The Wife's birthday and then a busy weekend of among other things homebrewing. Despite all that, I've managed to get a game of Vacumm in, and made some more changes.

The April version of Codename: Vacuum is proving... transient. The last couple of versions have lasted a month or so without any changes, but my attempts to simplify things (addressing a common criticism) have been fairly sweeping, and fairly bad. I've tried a couple of things and they've come out incredibly un-balanced. I've had to quickly swap them out with new versions that rein them back in. Having said all that, I'm now feeling fairly confident about this new third version of the April edition - I think this one might be the best version yet. And, I think, the simplification attempts are bearing fruit too.

So anyway, to the subject of this post.

At Chief's wedding I was having a conversation with Gav (another Codename: Vacuum playtester). I don't remember exactly what we said, but I think I can piece together enough of the conversation (corrected for drunken blathering and weak memory). Gav was chatting to me about Games Design (my hobby) and iOS app design (his). He asked me a couple of interesting questions:

Is the Games Design itself what you enjoy or is the goal of a published game what drives you?

It's an interesting question and one that I answered in a more drunken, slurred version of this: I really enjoy the design. I love spending time crafting the hand-made prototypes and doing the layout and graphic design on the computer. I loved making the hand-crafted versions of Border Reivers and the first edition of It's Alive! - it was great being able to look at those finished copies and know that I'd made them, from scratch. Having said all that, I've given myself some goals and I'm working to get Codename: Vacuum finished. I want to get a game on the shelves, an awesome game that people will sing songs about in years to come. I want to be able to look at it and know that it brings hundreds or thousands of people pleasure. Which brings me on to the second question:

Why don't you think Codename: Vacuum is an awesome game yet?

Gav has played Codename: Vacuum five or six times. He seems to enjoy it, but he's not clamouring to play it. For him it's not gaming crack. And that's true of most of the other people who've played it too. They enjoy it. But they'd not play it for forty-eight hours without sleep or food. It's alright, not awesome. I think it's getting towards a good game (which is a curse in itself), but there's still a way to go before it's awesome. That's brought us on to the subject of why Gav is not clamouring to play it. As far as my hazy memory recalls, Gav said that he enjoyed it, but it found it hard to spot where he went wrong in a game and how to improve for next time, hampered further by the fact that each time he's played the game has been different with new cards and tweaked rules. There were aspects of the game he loved (like being really excited to take his next turn after the last one finished and the way your shape your strategy by crafting your deck and play area), but even after several games he didn't feel like he knew how to play better or what he did wrong.

I'm hoping that the newer simplified versions will go some way towards alleviating this problem and that if or when Gav plays again, things will have improved to the point that he can craft a strategy and then see what could be improved next time, or how someone beat him with a better strategy (not just the un-balanced game favouring someone else's strategy). Maybe what we need to have is a dedicated playtesting night when we can play it a few times to really get a feel for it without changes in between. I'll have to try and arrange one for after our upcoming holiday.

But also, I want to introduce Gav to some other deck-building games so he can see what Vacuum is competing against and note that the bits of the game he loves are not anything original or unique, others got there first. On that note, we're going to play Thunderstone (one of my favourite games) at my next Games Night on Tuesday.

P.S. Gav: I hope my poor memory and correcting for drunkeness haven't misrepresented you!

Monday, April 8

Moving the Goalposts

Back at the beginning of the year, I set myself some goals. My next major target according to those goals is to get copies of Codename: Vacuum to playtesters around the world by the end of May. Which is just over a month away.

That's not going to happen. Not even close. The last couple of weeks we've had my parents up for a week and now my father-in-law up for a week. In two weeks time we're off on a family holiday for a week and we've another long weekend family holiday at the end of May. For the last couple of weeks I've not made much progress on Codename: Vacuum for all these reasons (excuses again!) and it's clear to me now that I'll not get those playtest copies ready by the end of next month. In fact, after the rulebook disaster, I'm not even sure I'll manage to get the rulebook re-written by the end of May, let alone the playtest copies constructed.

So, I'm moving the goalposts. I've got a work trip to the US in June, so it's unlikely to be done by June either, but maybe July is achievable. In the meantime, I've just printed the April version for myself which I now need to cut out and I'll need to make update packs for Terry and Paul who have the March version. I can also be making boxes and box inserts for the playtest copies already. The other components will change between now and the end of July, but the boxes won't so I can make them ahead of time.

The other thing I need to be thinking about is who gets the playtest copies. I want people who can give really good feedback, people who like deck-building games and people who are prepared to play it several times to make the cost of sending them a copy worthwhile. I've a few ideas, friends I made during my Reiver Games days. But I think I want to send out maybe fifteen copies, so I'll need to find a few more playtesters. I feel a BGG post coming on, nearer to the time...

In other news, I've been having some more ideas about Codename: Proteome. Maybe it's time to make another version of that and get that tested too.

Monday, April 1

TableTop Day @ Newcastle Gamers

I moved back to Newcastle about a year and a half ago. We'd lived here for three years between 2001 and 2004 and ever since we left we'd being saying to each other 'I loved Newcastle, we ought to move back there at some point'. Since we moved back things have been pretty busy. The first two months I was here on my own during the week, then going home to the south on weekends, then The Wife joined me. We rented a house for six months, and spent a decent amount of time trying to find one to buy. Then we moved house again. And on top of moving house twice, we had a baby seven months ago.

All these excuses go some way, I hope, to explain why in the eighteen months since I moved back to Newcastle I've been to Newcastle Gamers (which is on twice a month) not 36 times, but 3. That's right, I've been less than 1/10th of the available opportunities. Can I refer you again to the excuses at the beginning of this blog post?

The third of those attendances was this Saturday just gone. Newcastle Gamers usually runs from 4:30pm until late, but since someone had declared Saturday International TableTop Day, Newcastle Gamers started at 10:00am, which coincided nicely with a kids birthday party The Wife was taking The Daughter to, so I got a pass!

I took Codename: Vacuum along, hoping to playtest it with a few strangers and get some feedback not coloured by personal affection. On arrival I was invited to join a game of Munchkin with Gareth and a few others. Gareth used to run Newcastle Gamers and used to come to my Thursday Games Night too, until he moved down south. I wasn't expecting to see him there, so it was a nice opportunity to catch up, and it made Munchkin a little bit more bearable (I'm not a fan!).

Afterwards, Gareth wanted to play Codename: Vacuum, so the two of us sat down to a quick game. I had to leave before too long, so we didn't have time for a learning game for 5 people, so the other players of Munchkin started another game and Gareth and I just did a two-player game. Gareth hadn't played before, and was keen to try it out. We set off after a brief explanation (which I hope makes more sense than the dreadful rulebook that I still haven't gotten round to re-jiggering) and got cracking. Gareth is a proper gamer, so despite the fact that he's a friend and so won't be able to give entirely un-biased feedback, his feedback will be very useful. He's much more experienced than the mates I've been playing it with at Games Night and at work, so his knowledge of other games will be useful as a yardstick to compare it with.

As it was, Gareth seemed to enjoy the game, and I'm hoping he'll get a chance to give me some more considered feedback once his play has sunk in. He said some very positive things and gave me a few nice ideas to work on.

After Vacuum, I had very little time left, so we had a quick game of The Boss, which was new to me and reminded me of Brett Gilbert's Divinare. Interesting.

Seeing as I've not been to Newcastle Gamers in ages, I wasn't expecting to know many people there and for there to be little knowledge of who I was or Codename: Vacuum. As it was, I recognised more people than I expected, and knew a couple of them very well. Plus someone (whom I'm sorry to say I didn't know/remember, or think to ask his name) came over and asked if we were playing Codename: Vacuum! When I said yes, he asked about progress on the new rulebook! Apparently, he lurks here! I'm famous! Yay! (Anyway, please introduce yourself, dear lurker, to make up for my poor manners/memory!).

It was a nice trip, and my first Games Club visit since I went to Beyond Monopoly last summer. It reminds me that I need to get out more!