Monday, September 15

Zombology: Evolution

As most of you know, Zombology started life as my attempt to do a NaGa DeMon game. In November last year I set myself the goal of designing a game in a month!

Of course, I knew it wouldn't be finished by the end of November, but I wanted to make something playable in that time. I decided on a quick card game as that would be the easiest thing to make. With only a month I wanted something that I could iterate quickly: both the rules and the components, posting new versions of the rules, playtesting the game frequently and incorporating the feedback quickly into new versions that could then be tested too.

By the end of the month I'd been through five versions of the rule book and I'd played it sixteen times. And, as a bonus, it kind of worked as a game. But that's not the end of it. In the following ten months I've played it another sixty odd times, there have been another five major updates to the rules and the components have gone from incredibly basic to slightly more polished (with basic art and everything!).

The games has morphed from an every-man-for-himself drafting game for 3-10 players to a semi-co-op drafting game for 3-8 players. It's morphed from sensible science to ridiculous science (Vegan Diet as a potential cure for Zombies!?). But at its heart it's still the same game - a quick, silly, science-themed drafting game with some take that and some collective suit building.

It's now at the point where I've got to make a decision what to do with it. I think it's a fun little game for playing at the beginning or end of a night - perfect filler material. The options I'm considering at this point are:
  • approach one of the publishers I know from my Reiver Games days
  • or, make it available print on demand through Drive Thru Cards or the Gamecrafter

There's a few publishers that I'm comfortable approaching, though I've no idea whether it's the sort of thing they are interested in. Perhaps that needs to be my first step.

On a related note, before I sent my new phone off for repair (the camera stopped working when I upgraded to Windows 8.1), I starting working on another app for my phone. This one is for personal use: it's to record games I've played of Zombology and the win-loss ratios by number of players. Now the game is settling down I need to get a better idea of how well balanced it is. I've also invested in a Windows 8 laptop to replace our archaic, glacially-slow one. This means that I can now do Windows Phone app development at home, rather than just during my lunch breaks.

Monday, September 8

Reavers! Incoming and Heading Straight for Us!

Bonus points if you get the title source. Most of this blog post isn't actually about that kind of reaver though, it's about Reivers. With an 'i'. Border Reivers to be precise. In 2002, after an incredibly long and unsatisfying game of Mighty Empires, I had an idea for a light civilisation/wargame that eventually became Border Reivers. Published in 2006, I made 100 copies by hand and sold them all over the world. It was the first game I designed and the first game I published, and while it obviously holds a special place in my heart, it was one of the weaker games I published, which partly explains why I never reprinted it. Over the years (as this post attests) I've toyed with the idea of doing a second edition, with some changes to fix the reported weaknesses, but nothing ever came of it. After the poor sales of Carpe Astra I lost confidence in my ability to design games and decided that I needed a checkpoint between designer and publication which I could provide for other designers but couldn't for my own designs, since I didn't have the required distance to objectively critique my own games. So Border Reivers II withered and died.

Until a month or so ago. As part of my goal to play all my games at least once this year, I played a game of Border Reivers against my boss at the end of one of my Games Nights. He crushed me like the proverbial grape, in part assisted by some lucky reinforcement dice rolls - which relates to one of the criticisms I had received about the game.

So that got me thinking about Border Reivers again and, now I'm not looking to self-publish and have the excellent Newcastle Playtest resource available to me, I've decided to brush BR2 off again and see if I can do anything with it. On Tuesday it was the aforementioned Newcastle Playtest so, as well as a new version of Zombology, I took Border Reivers along. There was lots of interest in playing it, but one of the changes I'm keen on is to switch it from 2-4 players to 2 player only, so Paul Scott and I had a game. We played the good old-fashioned rules, and then at the end I asked Paul for ideas on how to improve it, before a lengthy discussion about the criticisms I'd received from players/owners of the first edition.

Border Reivers is a light wargame with some civilisation aspects, set on the English-Scottish border during the late middle-ages. It was a time of continual skirmishing along with frequent livestock-rustling (or reiving as it was known). In the game, you start with a city and five armies and have to cultivate your territory, raise armies, build fortifications and settlements as well as going to war, ambushing and reiving your opponent. In the original rules there were two ways to win - either by annihilating your opponents (which only really happened in a 2-player game) or by being the first to accumulate 40 cash. Each turn you got to gamble on reinforcements, either armies or cards that gave you several interesting hidden tactics to assault your opponents. You spent an amount of cash between 0 & 9 and then rolled a D10, if your die roll was less than or equal to your spend, you got a reinforcement. Lots of people really didn't like this and, in fairness, lucky dice rolls early on could really swing the game. One of the ideas I've had is to keep this mechanism, but take away the chance of a free reinforcement and reduce the variability - i.e. roll a die with fewer sides. I'm also considering replacing the cash victory condition with a victory points one, where you get victory points for a variety of things throughout the game. I'll need to try some of these ideas out over the next few months and see which of them stick. Mal, I'm assuming you're up for a game?

Border Reivers prototype from back in the day

Back to the title, after the crazy success of my BoardGameGeek collection Windows Phone app (now up to 9 downloads, that's got to be almost everyone who owns one, right?) I've now published my Firefly: The Game app too. This one is designed to streamline the Full Burn movement action in the Firefly board game by reducing the number of 'move a piece, draw a card' cycles you have to go through. It's called Keep Flyin' and is available in the Windows Phone Store now.

Keep Flyin' my Firefly: The Game Windows Phone app

Finally, we played a couple of seven-player games of Zombology at Newcastle Playtest on Tuesday. The new version has another card type removed, more of the new style art and a few informational changes requested by testers. It went pretty well and on the train on Wednesday down to Sheffield for my quarterly MS check up I made some more cosmetic changes to the cards. This is feeling pretty finished now, so I ought to step up my efforts to contact some publishers.

Monday, September 1

I'm Published!

But not in the way the you might think. On Friday I submitted my first app to the Windows Phone Store. It was accepted within the hour and was available to download two or three hours after that. A twitter, BoardGameGeek and Google+ announcement later and it's got 5 downloads! 5! As far as I can tell that means that about 80% of the worldwide Windows Phone ownership have installed my app. How's about that for market penetration?

The app, BGG Last Plays, is available for WP8 and 8.1 from the store as we speak. It's a Windows Phone port of the excellent http://lastplays.herokuapp.com, with a couple of improvements that I wanted from the web original: it caches your BGG collection, so you don't need to wait for the download every time and it allows you to set a date, any games that you haven't played since that date are highlighted in the UI and on the live tile. More info is available here.

In addition to publishing that at lunchtime, I also finally got the next version of Zombology finished on the computer on Friday night, plus got it printed and cut out. I didn't get it done in time for a potential Playtest session on Thursday, but it is ready for Newcastle Playtest this coming Tuesday. It's been ages since I last made a prototype, it felt good to be crafting something again.

Talking of Newcastle Playtest, I'm thinking of taking Border Reivers along with me this week. I've had some ideas for things I could do for a second edition, so it would be good to try those out with the team and get some fresh ideas from them for further improvements.

I've also got four hours of train journeys on Wednesday for my quarterly hospital check up that I'm going to spend on the laptop writing blog posts and probably doing some Codename: Vacuum work. After a week of nothing gaming related the week before last, I'm back!

Monday, August 25

Iconic

This week I've done nothing particularly relevant to the blog at all. This weekend (today is a Bank Holiday in the UK) we've had lots of family up for The Daughter's second birthday and we spent most of last week preparing for the visitors and the party.

So, what to talk about? I've arranged a playtest this week on Thursday with my colleagues at lunchtime, as much as anything to force me to finish off the next version of Zombology ahead of the next Newcastle Playtest session on the following Tuesday. There's a bunch of graphics stuff to do in InDesign ahead of printing that out, so that's how I hope to spend the beginning of next week. It's been several weeks (maybe even a couple of months) since I last played it at work, so there have been a few changes since my colleagues have last played it. It'll be interesting to get their feedback on the changes and see what they make of the new version.

The new version also features some artwork that I've actually got permission to use. The previous version featured a hotchpotch of random images culled from Google, which seeing as it was just for personal use, I figured was alright. But the game looked a bit of a mess and the lack of rights concerned my puritan views on copyright, so I've finally got around to sourcing some legitimate artwork. Seeing as it's all come from the same place it all looks similar too, which ties the game together nicely.



So what is this source of free art I hear you ask? www.game-icons.net. It's got over 1,300 icons that are freely available for use under Creative Commons, that you can even modify to better suit your particular project. These files are available as pngs or SVG vector art which make them easy to modify in a tool such as Adobe Illustrator (which I got as part of the InDesign Creative Suite while I was running Reiver Games for laying out and submitting art to the printers). I've tweaked almost all the art I've got from there, but without the starting point they provided I'd never have ended up with anything that looked half as cool. It's plenty good enough for prototyping, playtesting and submission to a publisher.


Monday, August 18

What a Blinder!

It's been a really busy week this week, both gaming and non-gaming. We're having a load of family up next weekend for a birthday party for The Daughter, so we're trying to sort the house and garden out a bit in preparation for all the visitors. On top of that, I've done a trip to Manchester for work and we've been to York for the weekend to see Paul and his family.

The week got off to a great start with some really detailed feedback for one of the two people who signed up for blind playtesting Zombology a couple of months back. He'd asked some questions about the timing of various things on receipt of the rules, which I'd given a really crappy answer to (the low quality of my answer was one of the things that encouraged me recently to address the timing resolution in the game). After that I'd not heard anything from him, so I'd assuming the shoddy response had put him off trying the game. This week I got a response from him detailing the four times he'd played with different groups and what everyone thought of the game along with some identified weaknesses and some ideas. He apologised for the delay getting back to me, he'd wanted to leave it until he had a bit more data. This was exactly the kind of feedback I was hoping for when I requested play testers, so it was very gratifying to receive it, especially as he's keen to continue testing it with the recent changes.

I took Thursday off work to wait in for a tradesman, and after exhausting myself in the garden I got an hour or so to update the Zombology rule book to the newest rules that I have in my head. Now all I need to do is update the cards as well and then print out the new version. In the evening we had a great Games Night with eight (!) games played, but the late night hurt me the next day when I had to be up at 5am for a trip to Manchester. Fortunately there was copious coffee to keep me conscious and Steve (a former Games Night attendee) and an iPad full of board game apps to keep me company on the six hours of train journeys. We chalked up another nine games!

This weekend we went down to see Paul and Lisa in York. Paul was my main playtester during my Reiver Games days, so I took Zombology again. We played it twice with his friend Chris along with six other games, so another great day's gaming. 24 games in 3 days! It was a great weekend catching up and playing games, plus hanging out with the kids.

I also started knocking together the cards for the new version. I doubt I'll have time before the party to finish them off, but hopefully next week in time for the next Newcastle Playtest.

Monday, August 11

Rush Job

This week was Newcastle Playtest again on Tuesday, but with guests visiting last weekend, I'd had no time to prepare for it so I went along with Zombology and Vacuum with none of my intended changes made to either. Newcastle Playtest is going from strength to strength, we had seven people, six of whom were regulars and designers and Olly, who's been a few times before as a tester.

To begin with Paul T wanted to try out a few mechanic ideas he'd had that he wanted to test. He'd brought a load of brightly coloured dice and matching Hot Wheels cars, which made it much more fun! We tried a few ideas, and suggested a few of our own, which hopefully will help.



After that, there were five of us, so someone suggested Zombology. I'd not made the changes I wanted to try out, but Graham had a pen and I had 100 cards, so I quickly put the two together and scribbled a small number on the top of each card, allowing me to test the idea that Dan had suggested the previous week. No sooner had we finished that game than Dan arrived, so we played again with six players. We won both games, and in fact in one of the games two players tied on points, needing the Cure as a tie breaker, so reducing the cures to value eight meant the scores were much tighter.

The timing thing seemed to work, there were a few suggestions for how to make it more obvious that all cards with the same effect happened together and that number was there only to break ties. I've had another of my own for clarifying that too.

Afterwards we split up and I finally got play Graham's flower nursery game, which was very interesting, and extremely well crafted considering how few times it has been played.

Over the next few weeks I'm going to struggle to find time to update my games as The Daughter's second birthday is fast approaching and we're having a bunch of family up for a party. The house and garden need a bit of attention so that's taken priority over games design.

In other news, I've 'finished' my Last Plays Windows Phone app, in the sense that it does everything I want it to do now. It need polishing before I could put it in the Store, but essentially it works. Unlike my new phone. I updated it to Windows Phone 8.1 and the camera stopped working. Everything else is fine, but the camera won't work from any app. I've tried rebooting the phone and even a factory reset, but to no avail, so I guess I'm going to have to send it off to the shop :-(

Monday, August 4

Timing Is Critical

As I mentioned last week, when I discussed an idea I'd had for Zombology with Dan (the other Newcastle Playtest organiser) he promptly countered with another idea which blew my idea out of the water. So, I'm going to steal his idea shamelessly. Here it is:

I've had a few problems with timing in Zombology. Each round the players simultaneously choose a card to play in secret and then simultaneously reveal them. The cards then get resolved in a rough sort of order: Upgrades, then Events and then Science cards. But within those groups it kind of all happened semi-simultaneously. Most of the time this was fine, but I'd come across a few problems with particular situations, and by far the longest part of the discussion about Zombology at the last Newcastle Playtest session was about one of these edge cases where the semi-simultaneity meant that the rules got really complicated and a little bit broken. I've also had a rather awkward conversation with one of the blind playtesters about how a particular card works if multiple people play it in the same round.

As a result of these types of problems the rules explanation is either not descriptive enough to cover edge cases, or so ridiculously wordy that it feels more like a legal agreement than a simple card game rule book.

Dan's solution? Number each card and then resolve them in number order. That's so simple that I can explain it in ten words. Ten. One of the games I've been considering as a guide while I design Zombology is 6 Nimmt! It's very quick, has simultaneous card selection and can get quite brutal as the cards are actioned and someone inevitably gets shafted. How does 6 Nimmt! solve the card resolution? You resolve them in number order. Genius! Why didn't I think of that? Seriously, why did I need Dan to point that out?

It solves all the individual problems I've been having and in a way that is simple to explain and understand and that cannot be debated during gameplay or lead to rules lawyering. Card 3 happens before card 5. Full stop. It allows me to be prescriptive about the order in which particular cards happen (if the Fatal Mistakes need to happen before Pay Rises to make sense, all I have to do is give them lower numbers) without bulking out the rules explaining that you must do A before B. In fact, it will take a lot of words out of the rules, making the explanation shorter and easier to understand.

Timing is critical to so many games - actions must happen in a particular order to make sense and to frame the game in a way that is fair to all players. I'd been focussing so hard on making the individual cards work alone and in conjunction with each other that I'd neglected to take into account the flow of the game. There had been warning signs in the form of awkward email explanations and long discussions about which cards relied on which others, but I'd brushed them aside. I really hope that when I finally get round to making a version with this improvement in it will be another leap in game quality - making things much smoother and simpler to explain.

It's Newcastle Playtest again this week, but due to the busy week last week and then guests over the weekend I've not had a chance to incorporate my new ideas into either Zombology or Vacuum :-( I'll just be going as a playtester this month instead.

In other news, my boss Ian and I played Border Reivers at the end of Games Night on Thursday. I'd not played for four or five years and it was Ian's first game ever. I was a bit rusty on the rules, but that was no excuse for the absolute beasting Ian delivered, crushing me at my own game in fairly short order. It highlighted a few of the flaws in the game that I was already aware of, and now I've got Border Reivers Second Edition in my head too. And also in Evernote. I need to finish something off and work on fewer games at once!