Monday, May 26

Next Steps

It's been a fairly quiet week. After last week when The Wife was away and The Parents were up and then last weekend when I was down at Beer and Pretzels gaming I wanted to take a few days to think about what needs to happen to Zombology to take it to the next level.

A few weeks ago I asked for blind playtesters for Zombology. I warned the volunteers that I wanted to try out some changes I'd just come up with before making it available to them. I took the version containing those changes to Beer and Pretzels and tried it out with a few friends that I only get to see at Beer and Pretzels. It didn't work as I had hoped and left me wondering whether the problems were due to a bad shuffle of a new prototype or fundamental problems with the new version.

I'd made the first deck more positive, getting rid of some of the events and adding more science cards. The extra science cards had higher values which meant that in the first half of the game you had something to aim for. The downside however was that the second half of the game became too easy. Starting the second half of the game with some value three cards in play meant you could cure a suit in one or two of the remaining four turns. This made it too easy for the players to win, taking the game back towards the previous version which had been too easy.

So I've spent most of this week thinking of ideas to address the comments from Beer and Pretzels and the previous Newcastle Playtest while not knackering the game difficulty. I've got some more ideas to try out now:

  • Add another value card to move the goalposts for curing back
  • End the game immediately after a cure (which will mess with whether or not to play a cure)
  • Take the twos back out of the second half of the game (making it harder to resurrect dead suits)

As usual, I've no idea how these changes will work until I've made a prototype and tried it out. We're away visiting friends this weekend, so it'll have to wait until next week before I can try things out.

Monday, May 19

Let's Convene

The focus of this week has been Beer and Pretzels. Oh, and parenting. But mostly Beer and Pretzels.

My parents came up last weekend so that I would have some help looking after The Daughter while The Wife was away for work. It's been great having them up, I'd not seen them since January and they were incredibly helpful, making my period as primary care-giver much easier. I even managed to get a new version of Zombology ready for this weekend in the evenings after The Daughter went off to sleep.

The Wife got back on Thursday so I could head off to Beer and Pretzels on Saturday morning. I've been to Beer and Pretzels four or five times now, initially as a publisher trying to drum up interest and trade for the games I was making and for the last two years as a punter, just playing games with friends while drinking a small amount of beer and eating the odd pretzel.

The venue: Burton Town Hall

Saturday was an early start, up at five (though actually 4:30, The Daughter was waking up early all week with her cold), then a 6am departure to get a train to Burton to arrive in time for the 10am convention start.

On arrival, I came across a few old friends, Paul, Carole and Nick and then Terry, one of my gaming buddies from the South, arrived. We started with a quick game of Zombology, using the new version I'd made last week. I think the new art was much clearer (except accidentally missing out the requirement information from some of the cards) but the new version seemed way too easy. Though this may have been at least in part to a poor shuffle of a newly printed game leaving the aggressive cards out of the deal. People seemed to enjoy it, but in a low key way, there was no-one clamouring to play it again or buy it. More work required methinks.

After Zombology we ploughed through another 9 games, mostly with the same crowd. At home we play games at my house using my collection. I rarely buy games I haven't played and enjoyed, so we mostly play games I know. Conventions (and Beer and Pretzels is the only one I go to these days) are the main way I have to come across new games. Saturday was the first time I'd played Elder Sign, Las Vegas (which we played twice), Il Vecchio, Gear & Piston and Istanbul.

Particular favourites were:

  • Las Vegas - like a simple, cleaner version of Alea Iacta Est, with plenty of opportunities to screw each other over. Terry had apparently owned it for ages but only played it for the first time recently, after which he's racked up a bunch of plays.
  • Las Vegas: Simple, yet vicious and fun
  • Istanbul (just nominated for the Kennerspiel des Jahres) - another of Terry's purchases, you're racing around the city trying to be the first to collect five (or six with two) rubies to win the game. I enjoyed its simplicity and the speed at which things proceeded and the ability to lay the tiles out differently each time you play, increasing its replayability.

We called it a night around 9:30, half an hour before the venue shut. I was knackered, twelve hours of gaming on top of the 4:30am start had done for me. Terry and I were staying in the same hotel so he gave me a lift and then I had an awesome night's sleep.

Sunday started at ten, but we arrived a bit early (as we had the day before). They weren't letting us in early though, so we sat in the sun for half an hour and played half a game of Stone Age on the iPad.

I'd brought two versions of Zombology with me, so I asked yesterday's victims and Neil if they'd try the other version and compare and contrast. This was a noticeably more vicious game that proceeded more quickly since almost everyone had played before. Most people enjoyed it, but Nick found he rarely had a good card to play and Paul would have liked higher cards in the first deck to aim towards.

Sunday was a much shorter day, I wanted to get the 3:30 train so I could be back in time for the daughter's bedtime, so I only had five hours of gaming. After Zombology, we played a couple of longer games: Euphoria: Build a Better Dystopia and Praetor. I think Euphoria was my favourite game of the weekend a 60 minute worker placement game with loads going on, plus nice art and fantastic wooden pieces (I admit it, I'm a sucker for nice bits!).

Euphoria: a very fluid worker placement game

All in all, it was a great weekend. Great to catch up with Terry and everyone else, great to learn some great new games and play some old favourites.

The only downside was that Zombology wasn't as well received as I had hoped. Needs a bit more tweaking I think, time to consider some new ideas.

Monday, May 12

Newcastle Playtest

Back in August, Dan, Michał and I started up the Newcastle branch of Playtest UK. In the beginning we expected it to just be Dan, Michał and I, the three of us were all designers, all struggling to get our designs tested enough. We advertised it in the local FLGS, Travelling Man, and at Newcastle Gamers and as a result it grew.

We've now got a hardcore of five designers, excluding Michał who moved to London in the New Year. A few extra people come along occasionally, mostly from Newcastle Gamers, but sometimes from Travelling Man and we once had nine attendees! Despite the relatively small numbers I really find it an invaluable resource in my game design efforts and I've been meaning to post about it again for a while. I play my games most weeks, either at my Games Night on Thursday with friends from work or during a lunch break in the office. It's great, it lets me try things out and fail fast, quickly iterating my designs. But the monthly sit-down with a group of other designers has led to so many step changes in the quality of my games that it's made a huge difference.

This week was the latest meetup, on Tuesday night at The Bridge Hotel from 6:30. The usual five of us were there and four out of five of us had brought games: Alex had a couple of copies of his brand new two player game of bank robbery: Swag, Blag and Goons; I'd brought Zombology and Codename: Vacuum; Dan had three games: Mainframe, Samizdat and his entry in the UK Games Expo redesign competition and Paul T had half a prototype of a new idea he'd had. We started with a really good discussion about Paul's half a prototype, he explained how he thought this part would work and then some ideas he'd had about the rest of the game. The discussion led to a whole bunch of interesting ideas and I particularly liked Alex's question:

"What's the funniest thing that's going to happen in the game?"

After discussing Paul's game we played a few games of Alex's game, two side by side games, played twice each. Considering how new it was it was a remarkably stable game, with some interesting ideas and neat mechanics. We followed those four games with another discussion before moving on to three games of Zombology. About which I feel slightly guilty, since at the last meeting all we played was five games of Zombology, so it should really have been Dan's turn, but time was tight and Dan's games were longer games and Zombology is dead quick. People seemed to enjoy Zombology quite a lot and in the ensuing discussion we discussed some small tweaks to further improve it. I'm going to try to get them done this week in time for Beer and Pretzels next weekend, but my parents are visiting this week so I might well struggle to find the time. After that the focus has to be getting the blind playtesters' copies ready for them. Exciting times once again :-)

I've found the Playtest sessions really useful, so I'm delighted that it's spreading its wings further afield. It had already reached Cambridge before we started up and since August it has since also spread to Brighton, Cardiff and Leeds. I just hope the other designers find it as useful as I do.

Monday, May 5

Print on Demand

One of the questions I get asked a lot is what am I going to do about getting Zombology published. In this day and age most people assume I'll KickStart it, but as I've mentioned before I have some misgivings about KickStarter.

Another option would be to self-publish it, either as a short hand-made run, or as a full professional run using my own money - both of which I have previous for. It's a card game, so it would be less effort to make by hand or much cheaper to manufacture than the games I published as Reiver Games. But my life has changed beyond recognition since I started Reiver Games. I'm now a parent to a wonderful little girl who needs and deserves a lot of her daddy's time (plus I genuinely want to spend as much time with her as I can, especially since I spend so much of her waking life at work). As a parent, risking most of our savings on a venture that I've previously failed at to the tune of several thousand pounds is also pretty irresponsible. So both of those are looking unlikely too.

That left me with a third option: find a publisher. It's notoriously difficult to get a game picked up by a publisher - hence everyone turning to KickStarter with such gay abandon. I think I've a slight head start over a newbie designer in that I know a bunch of publishers personally from my Reiver Games days. But it will still be a struggle and I'll have to find one who has space in their publishing schedule and for whom Zombology would be a good fit. So that's been my thinking and what I've been aiming for.

This weekend we've been away for a long weekend (hence the late posting) but earlier in the week, before we left, I came across Daniel Solis' monthly sales report for the games he has manufactured through Print on Demand (POD) company DriveThruCards. Which got me thinking about POD as an alternative publishing method. It would effectively be self-published, so I wouldn't be at the mercy of another publisher's schedule, tastes or editing. I wouldn't need to devote hours of my free time to hand making copies and trips to the Post Office, since they handle manufacture and shipping. I wouldn't need a boat load of cash upfront since they print copies as and when they are ordered and they just give you your royalties out of the profit they make from the sales. You'd get some free marketing just by being listed in their marketplace (though nowhere near as much as being listed in KickStarter's). Daniel has an easier job of it since he's an artist by trade, so I'd need to either seriously up my game, splash out on a (cheap!) pro artist or release it ugly.

But it's now an option I'm seriously considering...