Monday, May 27

Beer and Pretzels

Last weekend I went to Beer and Pretzels, a games convention in Burton on Trent in central England. The convention is held in the Town Hall, a grand old building, and fills the main hall and a couple of other function rooms. There's a cafeteria serving hot and cold food and a bar serving drinks (including beer) and the organiser, Phil who owns the Spirit Games FLGS in Burton puts some pretzels on each table.

I had attended B&P twice before in, I think, 2008 and 2009. Those times I treated it as business as I was running Reiver Games at the time, so I arranged in advance to co-opt a table (and bless him Phil gave me a good one at the entrance to the bar/cafe) where I sat during the day trying to find people to demo my games to and then hopefully close a sale. I spent the evenings just hanging out playing games though, and then spent the night at a pub nearly which had single rooms over the bar for £20 a night!

This time things were very different, I had nothing to sell or demo so I was just there to play games and catch up with people from my Reiver Games past. Instead of two carrier bags full of stock I was hoping to sell, I took only one game: Codename: Vacuum for playtesting and showing to anyone who was interested, but I wasn't on a hard-sell mission, it was available if people were up for it.

I decided to push the boat out and stay in the Holiday Inn up the road (if I'm away from The Daughter, the last think I want is a night's sleep broken by the sounds of drunken revelry from the bar below!) and at the penultimate minute I heard the my friend Terry from Bedford would be attending too - a great opportunity to catch up - I'd not seen him since last July.

Saturday morning I was woken by The Daughter at 5:30 (bless her cottons), and was just about to drag my sorry carcass out of bed when The Wife asked: 'Are you taking the car?'. 'Yes...?', I replied lsightly quizzically. 'Can you not?'. 'Yes', I confirmed slightly pained. Cue 45 minutes of frantically running round trying to get ready, organise a taxi to the station, find out train times and pack a bag.

Aside: After taking a couple of short holidays with an eight-month old baby, there is something really liberating about going away with a washkit, a change of clothes, a laptop, a game prototype and nothing else. You really appreciate travelling light once you have kids.

I spent the three hour train journey working on a new version of Codename: Vacuum inspired by feedback from my friend Tim the weekend before. On arrival I did a quick lap and said hello to a few people (including Phil who I'm pretty sure didn't remember me) and was just settling down to a game of Race for Adventure with Paul when Terry arrived. Terry joined us, and so every game I played all weekend was with Terry (and others).

Saturday ended up being a marathon 12 hours of gaming, featuring 9 games, five of which were new to me: Race for Adventure, Police Precinct, Terra Mystica, Tzolk'in and Snowdonia. I enjoyed them all, but Snowdonia was my favourite new game - a fairly quick worker placement game with an unusual theme and some nice ideas and mechanisms. In addition, Patrick, who worked for a company that my previous employer (Travis Perkins) bought out while I was there, came and found me and wanted to try Codename: Vacuum, so we gave that a 5-player run through. Patrick and his friend Rob seemed to enjoy it (Patrick's wife Jo less so) and even 5-player, with three new players it only lasted about 1 hour 45 mins which wasn't too bad.

Sunday was a shorter day as I needed to get a 4pm train back, but I still managed to squeeze in another five games including another Snowdonia, the new-to-me Love Letter and another game of Vacuum with Steve and Neil (and Terry). This Vacuum play was over amazingly quickly. I'd explained something badly, so Steve raced to finish the game expecting to score something that he couldn't. I was just getting going and it suddenly came to an end. I still managed to win, but it was Steve and Neil's first play and only Terry's fourth so that's not that surprising. It lasted 35 minutes. One of my goals for Vacuum is a short play time, so I've got to see what I can get from that game to help me speed it up - a recent game with three experienced players lasted over an hour by comparison.

As ever I enjoyed B&P, it was great to catch up with people who I'd not seen for 4 years or so and Terry who I'd not seen for several months. It's rare for me to play games that aren't in my collection (which usually only contains games I know and like before purchasing), so it was also great to try a few games that I'd not played before.

The return journey was split between more graphic design on the next Vacuum and writing last week's blog post. All in all a great weekend :).

Monday, May 20

The Joys of Critical Feedback

And I'm not being sarcastic!

So last weekend as I mentioned last week, my mate Tim was up for a long weekend with his family. During the day we all hung out together and entertained the kids, but once the sun had set and the kids were in bed it was gaming time. We played a few games with our wives and then, later on, just Tim and I burnt the candle at both ends. Included in that were a couple of games of Codename: Vacuum.

We discussed the game and how it was taking shape, but by that point it was very late and some beer had been consumed, so I asked Tim to let his plays sink in and send me some feedback via email in a few days once he'd had a chance to pause and reflect.

I've known Tim since we were fifteen, we were best men at each other's weddings. He knows me well enough to let rip without fear of offending me, so it was great when an email arrived on Wednesday lunchtime with a brief note about how he liked the game, it had some novel elements that made it interesting and then two or three pages of criticism of the bits he didn't like and some ideas of how to address them :).

The current version of Vacuum has been un-changed for over a month, I've played it ten or fifteen times, it works, it's reasonably good and I was beginning to get stuck in a rut. It seemed reasonable, there were no glaring problems or imbalances and I had no idea what I could do to help it progress from reasonably good game to frickin' awesome game of legendary-ness (that's a word right?). Nothing. I was drawing blanks.

Tim's email fixed all that. He sent me some ideas and his criticism has given me some more. I've spent the two train journeys to and from Burton on Trent for Beer and Pretzels doing the next version of Vacuum that will encorporate some of those ideas. I'm firing on all cylinders again. Thanks, Tim!

On the subject of Beer and Pretzels, it was a great weekend. My friend Terry from down south made it at the last minute so it was great to catch up with him, plus all the other people I knew there: Steve, Neil, Paul, Nick and Patrick. It was also nice to meet some new faces: Barry, Nick, Richard and Jo. I think I'll post a proper convention report next week...

Monday, May 13

Short Term Goals

A brief post this week as we've had friends up for a long weekend, so I've not had much time to write this - too busy playing games :).

Next weekend I'm attending my first games convention in three or four years - I'm off to Beer and Pretzels in Burton-on-Trent. It'll be my third time attending B&P, so it'll be a great opportunity to catch up with the friends I made there while running Reiver Games. It'll also be nice to be there without a 'day-job' of demoing the games I was trying to sell, though I will have Codename: Vacuum with me for testing on some more hardcore gamers.

I've got just under a week before the convention, and only three free evenings: Tim, one of the Best Men at my wedding, and his family have been visiting for the weekend and head off home tomorrow morning and then there's Games Night on Thursday. In fact, it'll be less than three free evenings as I desperately need to catch up on some sleep after a few late nights! I'm hoping to get a new version of Codename: Vacuum printed and cut out to take with me. I had wanted to try to get Codename: Proteome done too, but there's no chance :(.

The main difference for Vacuum is some new artwork (see below), a couple of wording tweaks to the strategy cards and some changes to differentiate the locations from each other. Proteome would have been a complete re-write since the version I made over a year ago, so I really don't have time for that too. It's destined to be a small filler card-game in the vein of 6 Nimmt! but with a tenuous science theme.

Here's the new 1900s card art for Codename: Vacuum. What do you think? It's still a word in progress - I want to improve the paper area in the middle further.

New style 1900s cards

Update: It turns out that after sorting out a few things that got put off over the weekend I've only got one free night before B&P, and there's a bunch of things I'd like to go into the next Codename: Vacuum, so I'm going to try to get Codename: Proteome knocked out on Friday instead. The best laid plans and all that.

Monday, May 6

Winning Against The Odds

There are a few things I like to see in a game:

  • The most experienced player usually wins - the game rewards time invested in it as an experienced player will learn the available strategies and play them better than a newbie
  • It's not clear from early on who the winner is - it's no fun playing a long game if you know in the first ten minutes you're gonna get hosed
  • A spirited after-game conversation - if the game was fun you'll want to discuss what went well or badly or how you could have done better if you'd made different decisions

I've been getting a good feeling about the latest version of Codename: Vacuum for a number reasons related to the points above. In this version, there are five possible end game scoring conditions:

  • Conquest: Points awarded for capturing or otherwise absorbing locations into your empire
  • Exploration: Points awarded for exploring the solar system
  • Reproduction: Points awarded for the size of your population at the end of the game
  • Greed: Points awarded for having amassed wealth through trading
  • Knowledge: Points awarded for developing futuristic technologies

In each game, the players pick which three of those they wish to score in that game. In an ideal world, each player would score their chosen strategy - but it's always three that are scored. That has a few implications:

  • In a two-player game, one player will chose more conditions that their opponent
  • In a four- or five-player game, some players will not get their chosen strategy scored
  • There's a race of sorts to ensure the strategies you want are scored, which curtails game time

The biggest worry I've had about this is that if your chosen strategy isn't scored, you've lost. Game Over. But recent evidence hasn't borne out that fear. We've played a few games where the person who choose the fewest conditions has won!

  • A few weeks ago I play a two-player game with Dave, my chief playtester. I raced ahead and chose two of the three conditions, while he mopped up the third one. In the very last turn of the game he made a gambit for some extra bonus points and pulled it off (with slight luck of the draw) and ended up winning the game by a point :)
  • At the last two of my Games Nights I've played a game with Hoops and Gav, both of whom have a few plays under their belts. In both games I won, despite choosing none of the conditions!

After the last of those games, the whole of the Games Night crew had a fairly long discussion about winning strategies and how I'd pulled a win out of the bag (I was still fairly sure I'd lost going in to the final scoring).

These games have also been fairly tight score-wise (a good thing in my book) and if I'm playing against anyone other than Dave (who has played about 25 games) I (who have played about 50) almost always win. So the most experienced player thing is panning out nicely too. Dave has a win ratio of about 50% against me, or possibly even slightly higher.

It's results like these that give me a good feeling about the current balance of strategies and cards. The next step is to simplify things further without ruining that balance and find the certain je ne sais quoi that moves it from being a reasonably good game into an awesome one.