Monday, April 24

Hand-Crafting Games

So I mentioned in my last post that I'm thinking of making hand-made games again. It's been a long time since I properly made hand-made games, so I thought I'd post on how I go about hand-crafting a game.

It starts by getting the cards professionally printed in a 5x5 grid on a sheet of A3 card. I get the printers to professionally laminate the sheets too, so each side is covered in an incredibly thin layer of plastic that gives the cards a nice smooth finish and protects the ink from damp fingers and wear. These sheets look like this (note the crosshairs at the corners of each card):

The sheet ready to be cut

Before I can move to the next stage I need some tools - I use a craft knife with snap off blades and steel ruler (I've just bought a new ruler - a Maped Linea shown in the picture below about which I am very excited!) to cut out the cards. Although it's more work than a guillotine, I find it give me more precision, and doesn't kink the edge of the cards so much. The new ruler has three benefits over my old steel rule: a clearer scale for measuring, a non-slip backing and it's longer too. Also pictured is the corner rounding tool I bought back in my Reiver Games days. It can round the corners of a pile of cards that's about a centimetre deep, so you can quickly get through an entire deck.

Tools of the trade

With trusty craft knife and steel ruler in hand I use the crosshairs in the corners of the cards to cut the A3 sheet into five strips of five cards:

Into strips

At this point I can still see half of the crosshairs, so I've still got guides to cut the strips into individual cards:

Into cards

The last task then is to use the corner-rounding tool to punch off the corners, leaving me with a fairly professional-looking finished product:

Finished game

And that's how I make a hand-crafted game. There's a little more to it (making the box and the box wrappers) but I can cover that in another post.

Monday, April 17

Unique, Hand-Made Games

I've been thinking more and more about making games again and, in particular, returning to the glory days of Reiver Games when I made games by hand, selling out of print runs within a year.

The first couple of years of Reiver Games were very successful by any margin - my print runs sold out and I doubled my stake each year. With the sudden influx of cash from my life insurance I was able to reconsider my position so I quit my job and starting trying to run Reiver Games as a real publisher. I spent a couple of years doing that full-time, not drawing a salary and publishing games professionally. The games were manufactured by professional companies and I started selling through shops and distributors. In many ways I continued to be successful, getting my games picked up by twenty-one distributors on three continents, and selling thousands of games. But the sales were coming in too slowly and I hadn't invested enough capital to make two simultaneous print runs, so when the second edition of It's Alive! was delayed at the manufacturers I took out a bank loan to fund Carpe Astra. The bank loan fees, along with the costs of warehousing my games, were such a constant drain on my finances for the next few years that I eventually ran out of cash. In hindsight I should have delayed Carpe Astra, it needed more work and ended up being the least successful of my games.

The first couple of years of Reiver Games spanned July 2006-2008. Way before Kickstarter and the boom of social media. Many things have changed beyond recognition in the last eleven years. Not least my personal situation, I've gone from being a carefree young man to a father of one with another child on the way and from being a fit martial artist to having an incurable disease to being essentially healthy again thanks to a clinical trial of a new treatment.

Clearly I'm unable to just give up my job for a laugh these days - so that is not an option. With a baby on the way I'll have very limited time around my full-time job to spend on running a company - I'll certainly not be making games that take three hours to construct by hand like I did with Border Reivers - my first game.

I've learnt a lot about game design over that time, and I'm sure that both Zombology and the current version of Codename: Vacuum are better games than my other efforts (Border Reivers and Carpe Astra) and possibly even comparable to It's Alive!, the most successful game I published. I sold nearly 3,500 copies of that, so surely selling 100 copies of a hand-made run wouldn't be that difficult?

Eurydice Logo

With all these changes, especially the changes in the marketplace that have occurred since Kickstarter overhauled the way games are made, I wonder whether there's still a market for small runs of hand-made games. The biggest problem I foresee would be how do I make people aware of my games? How do I be heard over the endless clamour of Kickstarter announcements? With a young family and a full-time job, I'll have very limited time for marketing activities and I'll not be shlepping round shops and cons like I did the first time round. What about me and my games will pique peoples' interest enough to get them to take an interest in (and possibly buy) my games?

That's the question I would need to answer before I set things in motion. Any advice or help would be greatly appreciated!

Monday, April 10

More End Game Ideas

Last week was fairly busy, but I did manage to make it along to Newcastle Playtest after missing March (and possibly February?). It was a great night with a good turn out and plenty of games to try out. I ended up just playing my own games: initially a five player game of Zombology and then a three player game of Codename: Vacuum with Olly and Alex.

It was the first of two games of Zombology that week (we also had a three player game at the end of Games Night on Thursday) so I'm still slowly collecting the data I need to feel comfortable that the win/loss ratio is more or less where I want it in the new version and that it's well balanced across different numbers of players. I'm still considering a second hand-made run, though realistically this will have to wait until after the arrival of Daughter The Second at the end of May.

Vacuum also went well. I tried out the fixed number of rounds for the first time and as a result it went a big longer - the three player game with two first timers probably lasted a couple of hours including rules explanation. It worked as expected, Olly choose an end game condition fairly early in round 11 which allowed Alex and I to both adjust our strategies mid-game. In the end all three of us scored within one point of the maximum in that category, so it didn't contribute meaningfully to the scores. I chose in round 14, but that was still early enough for the others to catch up with my weak showing in that category. I'm still messing around with the end game and the scoring. I've had another idea over the weekend - allow each player to choose a (possibly non-unique) scoring condition and then score those conditions (possibly multiple times) at the end of the game. Maybe even give the person who chooses it a small bonus too (since they are giving up the chance to score more points in that category at the point when they choose it).

This week I'm unlikely to get much done - today I'm off to Manchester for work again and then Thursday we head down to Bristol for a big family get together. I'm all set when we get back though, I've bought replacement inks for the broken cartridge which stopped me printing a new version of Vacuum in time for Playtest last week (which in hindsight was just as well as I now have more changes to incorporate).

I've a load of work to do on the train this morning and probably this evening, but I'm hoping to tweak the Vacuum board before I get home.

Monday, April 3

Lots of Gaming!

It's been a fairly busy week again, with loads of gaming, if not much design and playtesting. March has been my joint best month (with last May when I went Beer and Pretzels with Terry) since I was stuck at home on my own during my radioactive period in January 2014. And this week contributed a lot to that - we played Taluva a couple of times at lunchtime games club, then another six games at Games Night on Thursday - when we also had our joint best attendance. We also had a game of Zombology. It was the first recorded game with six players, so now I've got at least one data point for each number of players. In a perfect world I'd have tens or hundreds of plays for each number of players, currently I have between one and eight plays per number of players. Three and six are least represented and four is most. Clearly I still need a lot more plays.

6-player Zombology

Finally, on Friday, a few of us ended up spending six hours on trains on the way to meetings in Manchester. We managed another eight games on those trains on my iPad.

I also spent a little time one evening working on some improvements to the Codename: Vacuum cards that were required after the last couple of weeks' tests. I intended to get those changes printed out over the weekend and cut out ready for Newcastle Playtest tomorrow. Sadly, the replacement ink cartridge I needed for my printer was broken so I couldn't print it out, let alone cut it out. I'll just have to take the last version along with me. I've missed the last couple of Playtests and obviously I'm going to struggle to make it along during the summer after the birth of daughter number two. I'm really looking forward to getting along tomorrow.

Unfortunately, ahead of that I've got to have my other wisdom tooth removed tonight. The other one was taken out about a month ago, so I know what to expect. Tonight is going to be not much fun.


Monday, March 27

All Good Things...

It's been a hectic and pretty stressful week at work, but once all the visitors left I managed to get another playtest of Codename: Vacuum in at the end of the week with Ian, who played it last week too.

We played exactly the same version (though with different decks) and the game came in under an hour including set-up, rules refresher and explanation of the new decks. So far so good. The game went well, we got into space, there was a couple of clear strategies being followed and at the end we both scored well. For the second time Ian beat me at my own game (need to change the rules again! ;-p).

One of the things I like about Vacuum, and one of the core tenets of the game is the scoring. There are five core decks in the game that you play with every game (in addition to a few extra decks that change every game). Each of those core decks (Military, Exploration, Population, Trade and Knowledge) has a victory condition that will score each player 0-30 points depending on how well they've followed that strategy. The game ends at the end of the round that the second (with 2-3 players) or third (with 4-5 players) victory condition is selected. Selecting a victory condition is key to the game - you want to hone your deck so that it will score big in a couple of conditions (particularly a lot bigger than your opponents!) and then select the appropriate condition. Since only two or three get chosen, it's very important that you get your choice in, so there's a lot of pressure to quickly get to the point where you can afford to select a condition and then select it - thereby hastening the end of the game.

Selecting a condition uses some of the cards that gain you points in that condition, so each turn you choose whether to gain points in your chosen condition (and risk leaving it too late to select a condition and missing your chance) or selecting a condition (thereby hastening the end of the game before you can maximise your score in that condition). It's part of what I like about the game.

Unfortunately, I think the pressure is too strong, at the moment the fear of missing your chance to select means that you rush the game to an early end, before it really gets into full swing.

I'm considering making the game fixed length - 15 turns (Ian and I have played 12 and 10 in our last two games). Everything else stays the same, except now selecting a condition doesn't prematurely end the game. This will have two effects I expect: the game lasts slightly longer and the game end dynamic changes.

Now you're not rushing to end the game, but to choose the scoring. If you select early, you guarantee that your chosen scoring will happen, but you give your opponents more turns to respond - adapting their strategy to maximise points in that condition. Choosing late means that you might miss your chance, but you keep your opponents guessing and can wait until the endgame and pick the one that finally ends up favouring you the most.

It'll be interesting to give it a try and see how it works...

Monday, March 20

It's All Go!

Another busy week. This time it's been Codename: Vacuum, Zombology and crazy ideas.

I didn't have any travel this week, so I managed to get a lunchtime playtest in with Ian on the new version of Vacuum. I'd made a bunch of changes since the fairly broken play at Games Night a couple of weeks ago, and we tried them out over lunch. I was pretty sure we could get a 2-player game done in under an hour, so I did a quick canvas and Ian signed up. He'd not played it before, so we had a 20 minute setup and rules explanation followed by a 58 minute game. Considering that was Ian's first play I was pretty happy with it coming in under an hour. He picked it up pretty well and ended up beating me 30-18 (time to change the rules!). The improvements I'd made last week fixed most of the problems, though there were a few graphic design/wording issues that I spotted during play. I'm happy to play that version again without changing it though, so a big step up on last time.

playtesting new Vacuum

Games Night was pretty epic, with the first visitation of Mal so far this year and an amazing six different games played. It was a great night, and we finished up with a Zombology (which we'd not played for a while) and I was telling them about the recent pre-orders I'd taken and how I was considering another print run - at which point I took another pre-order.

I'm really torn about it. I think Zombology is the best game I've designed, and with its silly theme (mad 'scientist' hippies trying to cure the Zombie Apocalypse), wide range of players (3-8) and short play time (10 minutes) it's also my most accessible game. I'd love to see it get a wider audience and the pre-order rate for a second edition (despite the fact I'm not yet making one) has been pretty high the few times I've introduced it to people recently.

I could try pimping it to publishers, but it turns out that I really enjoy the graphic design and hand-crafting of games, so I'd rather self-publish again.

The big stumbling block is time. I travel quite a lot for work, have a young family and I'm two months away from becoming a dad for the second time. I know from last time what a wreck that leaves you, and how little free time you have when you've a new baby and are so hideously sleep deprived that 7:30pm sounds like a reasonable bed time.

What to do?

Monday, March 13

Ding, Ding, Round 2!

After testing the new version of Codename:Vacuum a couple of weeks ago, I clearly needed to make a raft of minor changes. The game was so broken that the rules were evolving as we played (always a bad sign!), but I was generally pretty happy with the new version (once fixed!) compared to the last version of 2015.

My travels continued last week, with a trip to Manchester on Monday after work that concluded on Wednesday night, and despite being incredibly busy (I was working late into the night Monday and Tuesday), I did manage to get make some progress on Vacuum. Firstly finishing off the board on the train on Monday night and then printing and cutting out a new version on Thursday morning (which I had off work to go to the doctor). I finished the final cutting out on Saturday night - after the mental week and a few bad nights' sleep I was too knackered to make it to Newcastle Gamers unfortunately.

What I need to do now is try out the new version (and buy some more ink!), to see if the changes I've made improve things. I'd rather not play on Games Night on Thursday as the guys played it last time and they deserve to play something that works. That leaves a lunchtime playtest session or an additional evening for a playtest (either with Games Night mates or Newcastle Playtest chums). Next week is pretty busy (we've a big company meeting with a couple of evenings out) so it's this week, or not for several. I'll have to see what I can fit in.

Here's a sneak preview of the new board: