Monday, August 26

Parenthood and Games Design

This Friday just gone marks a year to the day since The Wife and I passed our genes on to future generations (it was The Daughter's first birthday :) ). The last year has been a lot of fun, and a lot of hard work. The Daughter is in every way awesome (said like a true parent). There's nothing as cool as being able to say: 'Give Daddy a cuddle' and feel her tiny little arms reach round your shoulders, her head rest on your shoulder and then her give you a squeeze!

When it comes to sleep however, The Daughter still has some skills to learn. Some babies apparently sleep. We've some friends whose daughter has slept through the night since she was eight weeks old. The Daughter, on the other hand, has only slept through twice in her first year, and both of those were in the last couple of weeks. Why do I bring this up? I've decided to make this week's blog post about fitting designing games around life as a new parent.

As many of you know I started designing games in 2004, I started publishing them in 2006, I quit my day job in 2008, went back into full-time work in 2010 and shut Reiver Games down in 2011. When it comes to designing and playtesting games, I have some experience: I've sold 8,500 of them. Parenthood however was new to me. All my friends with kids told me it was life-changing, and I expected that. Your child becomes the most important thing in your life (as they should!) and you want to spend your time very differently. During The Daughter's waking hours we spend our time entertaining and playing with her, plus feeding, changing and bathing her. I had imagined, before she arrived, that once she had gone to bed I would have my evenings much as before: to spend hanging out with The Wife or working on Codename: Vacuum. As such, I had expected that I would make pretty good progress on Vacuum this year.

That's not quite how it's turned out! A year of getting woken a few times during the night, coupled with frequent early starts, means that early nights are a survival strategy. As such, I have limited time in the evenings, and I've chosen to prioritise regular blogging (to try to build up an audience here) over working on Vacuum - hence letting the rule book re-writing slip from April till the end of August!

Now that she is starting to sleep better, The Wife and I have started to get out a bit more. Games Night has been running the vast majority of weeks since three weeks after she was born, but other than that, we've not been out much. Now that we're getting more rest, I've been trying to make it along to Newcastle Gamers a bit more often and we've set up the Newcastle branch of Playtest UK. I imagine, that over the next couple of years, as The Daughter starts running around she'll sleep better, and so will we - and as a result I'll get more time in the evenings. A few years after that my evenings will be running her to Brownies and Guides, music, sport and dance lessons (plus Tae Kwon Do!), and then a few years after that I'll have long evenings to fill with games design, while I wait by the phone for the call asking me to pick her up from the pub!

I'm loving being a dad, it's great fun - watching The Daughter change from a baby to a little person with a personality of her own is an amazing experience. It gives you a new appreciation for your own parents (I'm one of four - I've no idea how my parents survived!). I love games design too, but some things are more important :).

In other news, it was my quarterly trip to the hospital in Sheffield this week, so I had a couple of hours on the train to work on the rulebook re-write. I'd have had another two on the way back too, had I not bumped into my parents on their way up to visit us. I've also been trying out the new rules at work in my lunch break. The changes I'd made to speed the game up worked, in that we played a two-player game in under 35 minutes (about 17 minutes per player, close to my target of 15 minutes per player). However, Dave whom I played it with wasn't enamoured of new rules. He's a massive fan of Vacuum usually, and very excited with it too, but he found the game too short to be satisfying. In the game I had to react to a strategy he'd chosen, change my plans and then race to end the game before he could crush me utterly. I succeeded, and won, but he felt the shorter play time meant that several of the strategies might not have time to really get going. He wants to get a few more plays in with the new rules to get a bigger sample size - but on first blush, he preferred the longer game.

Monday, August 19

Playtesting Success and Mobile Development

After missing last week's inaugural Newcastle Playtesting session due to a tough week last week, I arranged with Dan (the real organiser, I'm just a dilettante) to hold an impromptu one on Tuesday so I wouldn't have to wait until October for my next fix (it's on the first Tuesday of every month, and I'll miss the September one).

It started at eight, an hour later than the last one, which caught Paul and John out (they turned up at seven, and didn't know each other :-( ), I arrived, met John and had a look round for Paul, whom I didn't know, but knew was there from his message. Then Dan and his mate Mark turned up, and Dan knew Paul, so we were all set.

We tried to settle on a game to play, there were five of us, and Vacuum goes to five, but it would be a slow game with four newbies, and I knew that Amo was turning up fairly soon, so we opted for two three player games instead. Our table (Paul, John and I) sat down to a game of Vacuum. We played the basic rules to keep things simple, using just the five standard decks, not some of the advanced ones as well. The game lasted about an hour and ten minutes (so about 23 minutes per player - not too bad for a first game). John seemed to grasp the strategies very quickly and was playing a good game, Paul seemed to find it a bit heavier going. I asked the guys for feedback afterwards, and there was a conspicuous silence. So I asked them to email me with some feedback once they'd had a chance to digest their play. John has since posted a review of the evening (including a complimentary discussion of Codename: Vacuum).

After Vacuum, we played Paul's game 'Mad Monks', it was a much lighter game about monks racing through the abbey to get a barrel of beer back to their cell. The prototype was beautiful, the art had been done by someone with real comic-style art skills, and the player pieces were laser-etched wood. I enjoyed it, but it was a bit lighter than my usual fare. I made a few suggestions to Paul, it'll be interesting over the next few months to see what (if anything) he does with them.

I really enjoyed the evening, and I'm keen to increase the frequency of the meetups, so that if I miss one, I don't have to wait two months been attending. Maybe twice a month?

With a game of Vacuum under my belt, I skipped playing Vacuum at lunch this week. Instead, I've been making a Windows Phone app for Codename: Vacuum in my lunch breaks for my Nokia Lumia. First I made it pick a random selection of advanced decks for a game of Vacuum, then the second thing was to set it up to record the length of a game. The next step is to get it recording the information I current scribble on a sheet of paper after a game into a database instead so that I can start easily querying it. I'm inordinately pleased with the little progress I've made so far.

Windows Phone Codename: Vacuum App

Monday, August 12

A Tough Week

As I mentioned last week, Tuesday was the inaugural Newcastle Playtest UK meetup at The Bridge Hotel. "How was it?", I hear you ask. By all accounts, very good. "Wait, what now? Weren't you one of the organisers?", I hear you ask. Yes, and therein lies a story.

Monday night had been tough, The Daughter wasn't well so we had all been awake for a good chunk of the night. The next day she seemed a little better, and despite hideous sleep deprivation, I was determined to make it along to the Playtest meetup. I soldiered on through work mainlining coffee directly into my veins, but all for naught, as we ended up having to take The Daughter to the out of hours GP that evening instead. A far more 'exciting' evening than either of us had been hoping for, and one with far fewer games than I had anticipated.

The Daughter's fine now, thanks for asking.

In other news, it was Newcastle Gamers' 100th meeting on Saturday, so there was all-day gaming for free :) I managed to make it along about 7:30pm, and got three games in. I'd taken Die Speicherstadt, K2, X-Wing Minis and Codename: Vacuum. I ended up teaching Die Speicherstadt to John and Christine, followed by K2 to Michael (with Michał) and then Die Speicherstadt again, this time to Michael and Michał. A great evening's gaming plus a chance to catch up with Gareth, who used to run Newcastle Gamers and come to my Thursday games night :).

I've also arranged an impromptu Playtest meetup at The Bridge for next Tuesday to make up for missing the last one (and in fact I can't make the next official one either - we're away in York that night). I'll take along Vacuum, but play what people fancy. I've changed the number of endgame conditions you score back to similar to how they used to be, in an attempt to reduce the play time and add some urgency (and rushing as a valid strategy), Paul's talk of 45 minutes per player game time has spurred me on to speed things up - simplifying things will help there too, so I also need to keep that in mind.

Monday, August 5

Reaching a Climax

The last few weeks have been exciting, with several things, both games related and not, coming to a head. On the gaming front, I've had the combination of my mate Paul from York and his family up this weekend, and Tuesday is the first Newcastle Playtest Meetup at The Bridge Hotel from 7pm.

On the subject of the Playtest meetup, it looks like we're going to have around 8 people, with at least four designers trialling games on the night. I was hoping to take a new version of Codename: Vacuum (the July version) and possibly Codename: Proteome too. Sadly, what with visitors and everything else, I've not got a new version of Proteome ready to go. But the July version of Vacuum was finished off and then corrected last week (with a couple more corrections to come tomorrow night I hope!). I'm really looking forward to introducing Vacuum to some more people, and getting the feedback of other designers. It's at a point where I think it could benefit from an injection of new ideas.

On the subject of Paul's visit, we got a few games in on Saturday night and during The Daughter's Sunday afternoon nap. I introduced Paul to X-Wing Minis and Pergamon and he introduced me to Hanabi. Hanabi's a great fun little game, I can see it being popular as a starter for ten or a closing game on Games Night, so it's going on my wishlist. I loved both the 'cards in your hand are hidden from you but visible to everyone else' mechanism, and the way you have to try to inform the other players while imparting only very limited information. I also got a second chance to try Love Letter. Definitely still interested in that one too...

We played until one in the morning, which considering I'd been up since five am with The Daughter was a late night! I was practically falling asleep during Pergamon, so I had to stop there. On Sunday I asked Paul if he'd like to receive another playtest copy of Codename: Vacuum. He'd received a copy back in March at the same time as my friends in Bedford. He'd acknowledged receipt of it, but then I'd not heard anything - no feedback forms or reports or anything, so I'd assumed it hadn't been played, so I didn't want to send him another copy if he was just going to shelve it.

Paul said that he was interested in another version, that the version I'd given him back in March had been played a few times. People weren't wowed by it, but they didn't hate it either. Yay! More ambivalence :(. He gave me what criticisms he could remember from the games they had played (not all including him). It was really useful stuff, even though the version they're playing is very out of date now. They liked several of the mechanisms in the game, but found them a bit too much all in one game. The wealth of cards (meant to introduce re-playability) was too confusing and made it harder to learn. It took too long to play. Military was overly strong.

Several of those points I've addressed in subsequent versions, but the most telling one was that their games last 40-45 minutes per player!. Ours, with very experienced players, last about 20-25 minutes per player. But I think I'm aiming for 15 minutes per player once you know the rules and the cards. Still more work to be done on that front, even in the latest version. Back to the drawing board.

In other news, I'm going to stay with Paul and his family in early September for a couple of days. I'm going to set myself that as a deadline to get the August version done, printed, corrected and the rules finally re-written. There. I've said it. You can hold me to that!