Monday, February 29

Out of the Closet

I started working for my current employer back in 2001, when it was a smallish independent company. I was working for them when I started designing Border Reivers and several of my friends and colleagues were among the Border Reivers playtesters. In 2005 I left the company and it was during my years in the wilderness that I finished Border Reivers, set up Reiver Games, self-published Border Reivers, went into full-time publishing and eventually gave it all up for a salary.

After a couple of years out of software development I came back for a summer as a contractor while winding down Reiver Games and eventually I rejoined as a full-time member of staff in 2011. Since then I've been running a weekly Games Night (known as Wizard Night in the office - one of my colleagues thinks we all dress up and play D&D), largely populated with friends who are current or former colleagues from my current employer.

In August 2012, my employer was bought by a large American corporation, and I've spent the last week in Milford, MA visiting the corporate head office for a meeting.

As part of that meeting we had a networking exercise where the 65 attendees had to provide a unique fact about themselves and then you were tasked with finding out which unique fact belonged to each of your 64 colleagues. I chose 'I have designed three published board games' as mine, since most of my corporate colleagues didn't know about my inner geek - it doesn't come up in conversation much.

Ok, so that's a slight stretch, the three games were all self-published, and Border Reivers and Zombology had a very small print run. But it's technically true.

As a result of discussions around my games publishing past (and current!), I found three gamers out of the group (including my boss's boss!), got invited to go and play Netrunner in Boston one evening (which unfortunately I had to miss due to a prior dinner engagement), played Netrunner in the hotel bar with a colleague and sold and delivered my first copy of Zombology to the US to another colleague.

My secret is out!

Off the back of this I've been invited to Tabletop Manchester if I'm ever staying the night there on a Monday night by my Netrunning colleague and have been approached by another colleague about an educational board game design project he's been considering for a number of years!

Finally, in the taxi back to the airport from the office I got chatting to my driver and it turned out he was a keen gamer and game artist (with 33 games listed on BGG) who had been to Essen a couple of times and GenCon too.

I also got to spend the hours of 3:30-6:30am most mornings working on the Print on Demand version of Zombology and getting the art uploaded and a proof ordered. For a business trip it was surprisingly game heavy!

Monday, February 22

On My Way to the US of A

When this post goes live on Monday morning I'll be en route to Milford, MA for work. Last week was pretty hectic with preparation for my trip, so I didn't make a huge amount of progress on anything, but I did manage to get Adobe Creative Cloud installed on my work laptop, so I can work on the Print on Demand version of Zombology during the very early mornings in the States when I'm likely to be awake with nothing to do. I might also get a chance to tweak Dragon Dance too, once I've had a chance to think how I'd like the tweaked version to look.

The best thing about the Creative Cloud install was that no sooner than the apps were installed all my files appeared on my machine too. The files I'd created on my laptop were backed up to the cloud and automatically copied down with the new install - mint!

The print on demand version is mostly done - I've done the game cards and laid them out in a print document - now I've just got to do front and back 'packaging' cards (the deck of cards comes in a clear deck box, so the first and last card are effectively the box lid and box back). I'll put box art-y things on those, but then I've got the reverse of those cards free for extra information.

I'm also going to do a re-layout of the rules so that they fold nicely to fit within the deck box.

Once that's done, the last stage is to order a copy to ensure I've got everything right and then it can go live.

Monday, February 15

Dragon Dance Art and Playtesting

I've mostly been focussed on Dragon Dance again this week. After a busy January finishing off the physical copies of Zombology it felt good to crack on with Dragon again.

I made a second version which replaced last week's hand-scribbled version on the train on Tuesday on my way down to Sheffield for my now six-monthly hospital visit. It was pretty much the same as the hand-scribbled version, with a couple of tweaks based on the games I had at Newcastle Playtest and then again with Gav in the office.

On Thursday I got to try out the new version with Amaury, who had played the 2014 version a couple of weeks ago. Unlike Gav (who preferred the new version), Amaury preferred the old one, he found the new one less strategic. In a good discussion after our three games we came up with some ideas, in particular to give the dragon more exciting options (the dragon cards are the moment are all pretty similar).

Interestingly, giving the dragon more exciting options was some of the feedback I received back in November 2014 when I was making the first few versions during NaGa DeMon. Clearly, I need to pay more attention to the feedback I'm getting.

Later in the week I had an evening to myself while The Wife was out and I started getting to grips with some artwork for the new version. With separate cards now for long and short range I can make the card backs a bit more informative, so I want the cards to represent what your opponent sees when you initially play them face down. So the short range cards are a knight's helm (see below) with the eyes peering out, and the dragon's eye up close, while the long range cards are a full view of the knight and the dragon.

Knight's Helm

Obviously this is a very early work in progress version, but I'd like any feedback you have.

In other news, I'll be in Milford, Massachussetts all of next week for work. I've set myself a goal of getting the Print on Demand version of Zombology finished in February. Thanks to being up around 6am (or slightly before) most days in the UK, I'm likely to wake very early while I'm in the US, so I reckon I can finish off the graphic design on the computer in my hotel room between the hours of 3/4 and 7am every day, so hopefully that might be a second goal successfully ticked off this year! I've not got any travel this week, so I can try to either do another version of Dragon or get a headstart on the Print on Demand Zombology one night this week.

Monday, February 8

First Dance of New Look Dragon

This week I made it along to Newcastle Playtest for the second month on the trot (pretty good effort - since my new job started there's been a lot more travel and hence fewer nights out). Of course, it wasn't straightforward, as I was in Manchester for work that day, so rather than heading over from work at 6:30, I turned up at 7:45 from the station. Several of our regulars were even more inconvenienced by travel, so it was going to be a fairly quiet night until a couple of new people (Hello Michelle! Hello Bart!) turned up - in the end there were five of us with Paul and Alex. Alex had brought his two player game: Swag, Blag and Goons, Paul had brought his two player game: Kick, Punch, Stomp! and I'd brought two two-player games: a new version of Dragon Dance and Border Reivers Second Edition. We ended up splitting up and playing a couple of side-by-side two player games, but not before playing three games of the copy of Zombology I'd delivered to Paul at the start of the night. Both the new people seemed to like it, which was encouraging.

I'd spent a couple of hours on the train that afternoon designing and constructing a new version of Dragon Dance, using the idea I'd had a few weeks ago. For once I'd followed my own advice and not over done the prototype, as this was effectively a new game, so likely to be hideously broken:

New Dragon Dance

We played a couple of games that night, one with Paul and one with Bart and they flushed out some problems, and also some weaknesses, Bart had not played the previously version, and it had been a couple of years since Paul had last played so neither of them could compare it to the previous version (which I'd foolishly left in my desk and then failed to collect in time for the session due to delayed trains).

Initial feedback was that it was interesting and worth pursuing if clearly in early development.

On Friday lunchtime I also got to try it out with Gav, immediately after a game of the previous version so he had a useful comparison. Gav preferred it to the previous version, which means I'm probably heading in the right direction (at least for Gav!).

The new version is still a Good Little Game, i.e 18 cards and things you can expect to find around the house, but each card now does one to six things depending on the tokens available to you. The bluffing still works (Gav caught me a few times on the hop) and he really liked that each card is now named with a tell that you're reading and trying to interpret.

I need to make another version now (this one has some inevitable flaws) and then start gathering more data. I want it to be slightly easier for the dragon, but at the moment it's very easy for the dragon - I'll need to tweak things to try to balance that out too.

Monday, February 1

The Art of the Matter

Back when I ran Reiver Games I made four games. The first Border Reivers was a hand-made limited edition, and I did almost everything myself, including the art (except the box cover, that was an original painting by my dad, a retired art teacher and artist). It was ... basic. Very basic. But back in the days when a self-published game was a fairly novel item, it was enough to get me by, and didn't put off the 100 customers to whom I sold a copy of Border Reivers too much.

For my second game, I got a friend who was a computer games artist to do some really cool Frankenstein-themed art, and because he was a friend, I got it dirt cheap. It still added a £1 per copy to the total cost though, a not insignificant amount. While I loved the art on the It's Alive! components, I was less enamoured of the box art, and it received some criticism from punters, so when it came to making a second print run, this time aimed at shops at distributors, I asked him to do another box. Sadly, I don't think that box was any better.

My third game was Carpe Astra, and again I got the friend to do the art, again at mate's rates (though with a print run of 2,000 I could afford to pay a bit more this time, despite the fact I was aiming to sell to distributors and hence was pitching at 40% of retail for a manufacturing and art cost. Again I was a bit mixed on the art, I loved bits of it, but I think the box art could have been better, especially with the target market in mind.

For my final Reiver game I splashed out and hired bona-fide board game artist Harald Lieske to do the art. Harald's done the art for several games I own (Vikings, the Spiecherstadt, Puerto Rico) and several other famous ones (Dominion, The Settlers of Catan), so clearly a big name with loads of board game experience. He knows what looks good on a box and how to do all the art ready for printing. I was doing a relatively small print run (3,000 copies), so my budget was limited (but many times what I'd paid for the previous games!). We eventually reached an agreement where he'd meet my budget in return for simpler art than he was originally planning. I was delighted with how Sumeria turned out, it's still my favourite art associated with one of my games by quite some distance.

What brings this to mind is two things: Zombology and Kickstarter. With Zombology (which I've finally finished - one of my goals for the year ticked off already!), I went back to my roots and made a short hand-made print-run doing everything myself including the art and cutting out boxes and all the cards by hand. Actually, that's not strictly true, I took some of the icons from, either as was, or slightly tweaked.

Complete Zombology prototype

But the point still stands, the art is mostly mine and pretty basic, this is not a beautiful game. While I hope it's not so distracting as to put off the 28 customers I need to cover my costs, it's not winning any art awards.

In these days of Kickstarter, games need to be beautiful to attract punters, and despite the vast wealth of games on Kickstarter, generally the art is of a very high quality - it's almost expected. My friend Tim's game Toast is a great example of that. To set up a games company these days you need to either be a great artist (Daniel Solis, I'm looking at you), have a wealthy good friend who's an artist (do they exist?) or to fold a large art cost into the manufacturing cost of the game. I can't help but think that life would have been easier as Reiver Games or Zombology would have sold faster if I was a great artist or if I'd set up a partnership with a wealthy, games-loving artistic genius.

As I continue with my own game designing (and conceivably self-publishing), I want to work on and improve my artistic skills. Practice might not make perfect, but it's definitely going to improve my skills, which can't hurt in making my games easier to sell.

In other news, January was a staggeringly good month, 59 games played, Zombology construction finished and a weekend in Coventry with Tim and a weekend in York with Paul. I wish February would be as great, but a work trip to Boston, MA is going to get in the way of things, so I'm not expecting much. At least I'm hoping to finish off the print on demand version of Zombology as I planned in my 2016 goals.