Prep-Airecon

With Airecon just around the corner (a week away, unless you’re reading this in the future) I’ve spent a load of time getting prepped for Airecon. And not just pre-arranging a game of Sidereal Confluence and looking at what games I want to sell. This is the first time Forks is going to be really displayed to the public and reviewers. It’s gulp time. So what have I done to prepare:

  1. Volunteered to run the playtest UK stand rather than have a stand purely to demo Forks.

Yep, probably the least wise decision I’ve made. When I finally got to the stage when I was happy booking a demo table (at the end of last november) all exhbition space was gone. Luckily Mark suggested running the Playtest UK stand, and demoing my game there (within certain parameters). So completely not ideal, but it’s something! It also means I get to give back to the Playtest UK community, after they have been fantastic and supportive, so I’m happy with that.

As a result I’ve gone to town on what to have when I’m there. Promotional copies, prearranged times to speak to games press, fliers, a Forks t-shirt, and promotional cards to entice people to sign up to the newsletter and back it when it’s released. The shebang and then some. I’m still pondering how I’m going to get people to play it when I’m helping out on the stand most days, but I’ll try and think of something. The biggest concern for me is that I’ll get sidetracked by all the other fantastic game offerings and lose focus completely.

So all in all it’s going to be interesting, and hopefully fruitful. No matter what happens I’ll have something to write about for the post-mortem!

And if you see a chap wearing this:

Then that’s me! Come and ask for a demo or just say hello!

Forks Designer Diary 2: Making it Rain with 18 cards

Often the best way to help promote creative fecundity is to restrict things. My boss used to blinfold people and get them to describe polyhedrons to help with their use of descriptive language (note: he was a teacher). So it’s no suprise that 2017s BGG 18-card microgames competition got me thinking. Make a game with only 18 cards. Including rules and tokens in that 18. I love challenges like this, that make you rethink your ideas and conceptions, and trim down all that’s unnecessary. I wasn’t going to enter, but during the day my mind kept on coming back to it, and to my previously thought of as-yet-unamed-not-quite-social-deduction game.

As I mentioned prevoiusly, I got rid of the role cards, so the only things left were a tracker and the values. The tracker could be put onto three of the cards, along with the rules, leaving 15 for play. Obviously 15 cards is nothing, games would be over in a heartbeat, so how to extend? Recycle the discard pile. A small change, but one that leads to more complex situations. Now every card you discard has the opportunity to affect the score multiple times, whereas the ones you keep are out the game for good. The restriction had bought about an interesting predicament for players.

The system was set, now for a theme. I needed something strictly binary which players could push for, and settled for Rain or Sun. Players now had to take payment for the weather, but by doing so were making it less likely for that weather to happen.

 

So I entered, and got joint best game! Which naturally I was delighted with. Looking back, it is a fun little thing, but the main issues were: the lack of cards in the game, even with recycling the discards it was too few and the number of cards needed to make the recycling have a big impact was massive. The second was choosing any other player. A lot of downtime was coming about from this decision, which also resulted in some players having very few cards in their hand and fewer decisions to make. I loved that central mechanic and decision point, but it was just slightly lacking and I wasn’t sure why (until another competition some time later).

You can tell I'd just discovered photoshop filters

If you want to try Rainmakers it only needs 2 sheets of A4 and can be downloaded here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/19rUsTvn6RS3Gr_Llx_J83RIrm3Obobnm/view

Forks Designer Diary 1: Choices

Forks started out as a social deduction game. It’s moved away from that in its various iterations, but the first idea, borne from playing a lot of resistance, was one of shared problems in which you need to work out who you can trust. At it’s most basic:

Begin with 32 cards, ranging from -8 to +8

Draw 3 cards keep 1, pass 2 to any other player.

That player keeps one and discards the other.

A tracker in the center records the total value of cards discarded. If total is negative the bad guys win, otherwise the good guys win.

Immediately there are a couple of issues with this. Whilst in theory this allows for deductive logic- Give someone a negative and a positive and you’ll know from which they discard which team they’re on (unless it’s a bluff); in real life it falls down in a fair few places:

Well actually one place really- where are the choices?

You’re good? Keep the lowest value card and pass /discard the others.

Bad? Do the opposite.

The only choices come from choosing who to trust, which players have little information about to begin with, and really players only need to trust one other player.

And a game without interesting choices is not much of a game.

So instead it became a semi-coop. Whoever kept the highest value cards won if the discarded total was positive, otherwise only the bad guy(s) won. In this case, with an added incentive for players to keep the high value cards, fewer baddies were needed to even things out. But this still has problems:

Are there really interesting choices for the baddies here? If every player is now wanting high value cards, what’s to differentiate the baddies from the goodies in how they play? And, more importantly, the semi-coop problem:

If players aren’t going to win, what’s to stop them throwing the game to the bad guys?

I’ve found this is a key issue for many semi-coops, and have never seen a solution I’m 100% satisfied with. I play games with loads of different people with different views, and the question of is it okay to sink a game you’re losing just so someone else doesn’t win is still unanswered. There have been 100+page threads on forums about it, and it’s not something I want here. The fix: give people a legitimate reason why they want the value to be negative, make it a possible way to win outside of being on the bad team.

Now, if the final discarded score was negative, players with the lowest possible score won. This turned out to be a really elegant solution, but it meant one thing- there was no use in the traitor anymore. Now players could switch allegiance depending upon which cards they had, in fact it didn’t really make sense to think of them as teams or allegiances anymore. The choices of what to do were never obvious and always impactful. And so, the game was no longer Social Deduction.

Why this blog? (Fear of Failure)

This will be an introspective post, fair warning to any readers- although that’s my first question, why would people (you) read this? I know why I wanted to write it: I was thinking of self-publishing a game, and wanted to write about it. Additionally, all* advice is about putting yourself out there to make connections etc. However, there’s that nagging feeling- what have I got to offer? Why will people want to read what I write? Especially when I have no real experience in games publishing. Designing, a small amount. Pitching to publishers, a tiny amount. But this’ll only be a success story (or klaxxon-filled warning!) in retrospective, not now.

I’ve written about cons I’ve been to, which was fun but not really the plans for this blog, and I’ve been thinking about writing reviews- which would then give people a reason to read, but that feels like a trick to get people interested in my games. I could write about teaching maths (hmmm….). Nope, I want to write about my experiences designing and self-publishing and just hope that anybody who reads it gets something from it.

So the plan! A few months ago after quite a bit of playtesting I realised my other game wasn’t ready. So rather than push ahead with it, I went back, worked on another design, playtested it to the point I was extremely happy with it, and I’m going to try publishing it. Which is incredibly intimidating, frightening even. But the only thing I have to fear is the failure to fulfill. Which is nothing, really. Yet the whole thing is still fearsome, which is the thing with trying new challenges- you (I) have to push past that fear of failure.

And this blog will now become a designer diary for Forks. Stuff that’s happened in the past, stuff that’s happening now. Why some choices are the way they are, lessons learned and lets just see how it all falls.

Knowing when to park

When I started this blog I had a good idea what game of mine (apart from Newspeak) I was excited about. Something I, and everyone who played it, enjoyed. A worker placement game, but one with lots of player interaction, where you build up your tableau, but use other people’s as well! Something I wanted to be simple enough to be considered a gateway game, but with enough depth that seasoned gamers could enjoy it. Sounds great, right? And in my head it was.

However, the best laid plans never survive first contact with the playtesters, just as they shouldn’t. Despite the enjoyment there was always something which should be tweaked to make it better. Some of which I did- reducing initial randomness, increasing rewards for players whose cities are used, reducing the word count. But there existed throughout a constant thorn of ‘simplicity’ vs ‘depth’.

Streamlining and making things simpler is normally a good thing, as it allows the pure mechanics to create the interesting choices, and that happened with this, but feedback from a number of playtesters, and my gut, told me it wasn’t streamlined enough. Essentially there was too much information on the cards. Each card has a cost to build, a type, a level, some VPs, a cost to visit, a reward for the person visiting and a reward for the owner (and not a cost to purchase, which confused people by not being there). Another game designer said it was simply too much, and I agree. But as I tried to remove them, I realised I was removing something which created some of the interesting decisions, a way of balancing cards so any of them could be used depending on people’s strategies. But I had to remove something.

So I hit a bit of a brick wall, and a bit of a low. I felt so close to a fantastic game, but I knew in my heart it wasn’t at that level yet. Enjoyable, but I don’t want to ride the enoyable-if-there’s-nothing-better pony. I want to make things which are the best they can be, which don’t have a nagging ‘almost great’ feel to them. I also realised that I’d involved myself so much in the game that I was overthinking pretty much everything about it.

So, for my own sanity, I’ve parked it. The change it needs to elevate it to that level has eluded me by my being so wrapped up in it. I truly feel some distance and time will help, and it’s definitely something I want to return to. And in the meantime? Well, a certain competition has kept me sane and made me re-evaluate a game I’d been working on before, giving me a breakthrough I’m super excited about. Something which I want to talk about when it’s ready, but which has been a smash hit whenever it’s hit the table. One which knows what type of game it is and gleefully runs with that mantle. I can’t wait.

Stop getting Britain wrong!

I saw a game advertised yesterday, Walls of York, which prompted me to write this. But I want to emphasise, for all of this post I’m just talking about theme, not mechanics (but I will explain why it’s important).

I live in York. Love the city, probably one of the best places to live in the UK, or even the world. Steeped in culture and history, it’s a fascinating place, and would make a great thematic setting for a game. If anybody sets a game in York, I’ll be interested. So when I saw “The Walls of York” advertised I clicked through to see what it was about. I’m not an expert in the city walls, but I know they have a fascinating history (originally Roman, which were left to ruin when they left, palisades were built upon those foundations by the Vikings, and finally massive medieval walls were built on those foundations and beyond), and those walls you can walk around today, looking at the Bars (gates) and Gates (streets) with pubs (bars) on them. They’re ripe with thematic and mechanic possibilities, so someone making a game about them is a good thing, yes?

Well it should be, but I’m really disappointed with what Cranio Creations has done. Not mechanically, I haven’t played it so don’t want to comment on that, but thematically it’s really lazy. Watching the video I’m not sure if anybody involved has even been to York. Where are the rivers? The construction of the wall is lacking without the rivers, and the fact they damned the Foss to make the Kings Fishpool and changed the City is a lovely bit of history which would fit in. But nothing. And even worse, why are we walling out the Vikings? That bit makes no sense. The Romans didn’t wall against the Vikings, the Vikings certainly didn’t, and the famous medieval walls in the game, which really are ‘The Walls of York’ were constructed much later. It feels either lazy and ignorant, or jumping on the waning popularity of Vikings. In fact there’s nothing here which ties it to York at all. Could be the Walls of *insert literally any place*.

Some people are probably thinking this doesn’t matter, a game lives and dies on its mechanics but there’s a couple of reasons why I feel this matters. If a designer puts no effort into a theme, how much effort are they putting into the rest of the game? If they can’t even be bothered to do any research into where there game is set it doesn’t bode well for the effort put into the rest of the game. It’s not zero-sum. Effort in one reflects in the other.

As someone who knows and likes York, this lazy rewriting or ignorance of history put me off the game. You’re using the setting without delivering on the promise. I’d rather it had a fictional theme, than a butchered one.

And finally, I don’t want to have something which spreads ignorance, or doesn’t care about facts or history. If it’s not important to the designers, than don’t use it in your game. If it is important then get it right.

There are a couple of other games which just have a weird idea of Britain. Cornwall, a tile laying game in which you build Cornwall, has you placing all the mountains and swamps of Cornwall for points. Now as someone who spent just under 20 years in Cornwall, I’m not sure what Cornwall they’re thinking of. Trencrom Hill and Brown Willy do not a mountain range make. Again, just lazy and ignorant. Why not towans? Cornwall has them and other places don’t. Just a simple name and art change to actually make the theme sing. And the less said about Ticket To Ride UK not having York the better.

Also, it’s worth bearing in mind that these are nice places easy to visit. I can’t imagine how mangled some of the games about cultures and places further afield, designed by people who’ve only seen it in photos, must be.

So if you’re making a game set somewhere, please actually set it somewhere you know (Cornish Smugglers did this), or research it (see Feast for Odin for a fantastic almanac of research, or the upcoming Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr, in which Michael has told me they spent hundreds of hours researching the real life places and events which occur in the game). It’s just showing some respect to the consumers, showing them you actually care about all of the game.

Teaching Maths with Games

A bit of synchronicity the other day when I listened to a really interesting podcast (http://thespiel.net/node/1159 ) about teaching using games, and then immediately read a post on the Shut Up and Sit Down forums about using games to teach maths. Here I have some experience (about 10 years of teaching maths and an accredited PD Lead for maths teaching. Running chess and boardgames club (or both) throughout this time. Also some games experience, a lot playing, some designing. Not as much as teaching maths though). So rather than a blog post about pretty much nothing, here’s the best blog post I’ll do given it’s about something I actually know.

Read the mug
see?

So, what’s the key to using modern boardgames to teach maths?

 

To not do it.

A qualifier here: I’m specifically talking about maths. Games can definitely be used to help teach soft skills successfully, and I’m not an expert in other subjects. Indeed, listen to the podcast above to hear how games are used successfully in other parts of education. Secondly, there are some games I use for teaching, but these are in no way modern boardgames or even in the style. And there are some games I play which are in a modern boardgames style, but they don’t teach maths.

Why not? Well I’m speaking from experience here. These are some of the games I’ve tried to use to teach concepts:

  • A Puerto Rico style game about factory production to teach negative numbers.
  • A dividing up a cake game to teach fractions.
  • A worker placement game about dividing into a ratio for baking.
  • A tile laying game for polygons (names and angles).
  • An area control probability game.
  • A quarto variant with number properties

There are probably more. These games had varying levels of success with engagement, but consistent levels of success with learning: little to none. There were two reasons for this:

  1. they relied upon a level of procedural fluency which meant that the students were already confident with the topic, and whilst they were engaged with its application, there was no depth or stretch. These students were learning how to win the game, which was wholly irrelevant to the topic at hand.
  2. the games themselves were too complex. As a games designer I tried to make games which had interesting choices, but this is completely counter-productive when trying to teach. It introduced significant amounts of cognitive load, reducing the students ability to focus on what was really important: the maths. (For more information on cognitive load theory, start with Greg Ahsman’s blog here: https://gregashman.wordpress.com/2017/09/06/new-report-on-cognitive-load-theory-aimed-at-teachers/).

Now stepping back, it’s obvious from the outset that both those issues would occur. How could they not? If I’m playing a good game I’m focusing on winning that game, and I wanted to make good games for the students. But it was because I was chasing the elusive beast that is engagement. But as Professor Robert Coe argues here: http://www.cem.org/attachments/publications/ImprovingEducation2013.pdf   engagement is a poor proxy for learning (aside: I love the title ‘A triumph of hope over experience’).

Engagement is easy to observe, and learning isn’t. So when I had lessons with a lot of engagement that the student’s loved I thought I’d succeeded. Clearly, as described, I was wrong.

I was wrong to use modern style boardgames to teach maths, but that doesn’t mean I don’t play games. But there are two different situations when I do this:

  1. Extremely simple luck based games to assess fluency or to draw out some deeper thinking.
  2. Interesting games used as a reward at the end of term. I don’t even pretend to myself that I’m teaching maths during these.

The extremely simple games are just as described. Games like Bingo, the decimal ladder game (ordering random decimals on a ladder), the Factors and Multiples game or even the Ten Ticks roll and move substitution:

 

These can be used to draw out students understanding with pertinent follow up questions (which square do you want to roll a low number on? On which square does it not matter what you roll?). But the key thing here is the games are simple. They don’t introduce cognitive overload and as a teacher I know what understanding I want the students to draw out from playing them.

The final one is spending an entire lesson playing a game. There are a few I’ve created (the Smoothy Game, which is a worker placement game with resource conversion; an Elf Game which uses simultaneous action selection on the iPad; and a variant of Masters of Commerce for a class of 32). These all go down incredibly well, enjoyed by all students and I even have fun running them. But they’re not about teaching maths, they’re just about having fun playing games.

All of which isn’t particularly nice. As a gaming maths teacher it feels as though there should be a game which can be used to teach maths whilst also being a great game. But then perhaps if there were all we’d end up doing is putting kids off playing games, rather than enticing them into learning maths.

“Why are you doing it?”

It feels like a long time since I posted here, and I guess a month is long (work and games. Playing lots of games), but I got asked this question the other day about why I design games. A fair question, it’s not like I’m launching onto kickstarter will an ill-thought out clone for $$$, so it’s not for money. It’s also not for praise- although don’t get me wrong, sometimes praise sustains me. Hearing playtesters and publishers say your game is exciting, or puzzles are some of the best they have seen, or witnessing professional critics enjoy your design is a phenomenal feeling, a high I could ride for days. But that’s not why I do it, it would be odd if it were- the praise follows the design, the design doesn’t chase after it.

It’s an intrinsic motivation. I simply find the practice of designing a game enjoyable. Designing a game is akin to solving a puzzle which you also set up. Of course it gets harder the further in you go, and sometimes you end up with a puzzle that can’t be solved, a game that’s just not fun no matter what. Sometimes a thought will get stuck in my head (a 4X game based upon Alpha Centauri *cough cough* ) which I feel compelled to work on to the detriment of everything else, which I’ll accept is an unusual proclivity, but I’m useless at working on anything else when I’ve got that bug. So that’s it. I do it because I enjoy it, and like all things worth doing, as it gets harder it also gets more rewarding. In fact, I don’t understand why people don’t design games. Now you may be thinking this is a completely obvious point, but it does make me question why I get asked it.

In other news, had a fantastic playtesting session earlier this week, looking forward to doing it again in a fortnights time (if anybody is in the Yorkshire area come along- super cheap pub prices as a sweetener). Shout out to all playtesters everywhere- you are great.

The Shorter Variant

I played two games last weekend which had an alternative time length variants- Civ: A New Dawn, and Lords of Xidit. Whilst I really enjoyed both of them, the optional time changing variants seemed odd to me. I’ve written about pace for a while now, the length of time a game takes is more important than just being how much time until the next game. It changes everything about how the game feels. That both the games have a time altering variant in the box is odd enough, that one is shorter and the other longer is more unusual still.

With Civ we played the normal variant. It’s a really efficient Civ game, and although the first time you play you perhaps miss a little something in the efficiency of it all, that’s a better feeling than one of the game dragging out. In fact, because of it’s brevity we managed two games in one sitting, something which would be unheard of with Nations, Through the Ages, or even the original Civs. It’s a streamlined game and knows it’s a streamlined game, even if the board felt a little too big (going to try with only a couple of pieces in the middle next time). So the optional ‘epic’ variant is a bit baffling to me- it’s the same game, but played a little bit longer. Whilst I’d be happy with some expansions which add to the experience, the thought of just playing longer doesn’t appeal to me- the elegance doesn’t do to be drawn out.

Lords of Xidit, by contrast, comes with a shorter variant. Now that’s usually a red flag screaming ‘the first time you play this game it will take 7 hours’ and it was our first game so we opted for the shorter variant. Probably a mistake. The game was quick, incredibly quick, by the time I figured out what I was doing there were only a couple of turns left. Whilst I feel I experienced the game, and could tell I enjoyed it, I didn’t experience the game the designers had intended. Rushed through 3 fewer rounds may not sound like much, but the tempo was much quicker and there was less time for strategic play. Essentially it became a semi chaotic mad dash for points, no matter where they came from. It left me wanting more, but I hadn’t felt I’d actually played the game proper, more a demo version. Really didn’t think the shorter version was necessary here.

 

That said, I’m still sticking to the shorter variants when I first play a game. Both Le Havre & Dominant Species play differently without them, but I’d never have got them to the table for the first time without that introductory game in there.

Shorter version of this: designers have faith in the length of your game and refrain as much as possible from putting in a longer or shorter version unless it’s a 4 hour epic you’ve baited with a 2 hour variant.

Monotremes! Cardboard! Pins! Betrayal! Letters! Codes! All in the tune of the post-Expo Blues.

I’m pouring my brain out from the recent Expo so I don’t forget and to help me move on. Hi everyone, what an Expo. Seriously, what an Expo. If you were there and you came to the SUASD stand on Friday you probably even met me, I was the one who wasn’t one of the famous ones you wanted to see (unless you were picking up Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, in which case enjoy it!) and I probably sold you some pins. That was my Friday, and it was brilliant.

Oh and I bought Wibbell++ from Stuff By Bez, actually from Bez as he passed the stall, and it’s great fun. Wibbell++ is really just a really cleverly thought out card system for playing all sorts of games. Each card has one of the more popular letters at the top, and a less popular letter at the bottom, meaning you’re never really stuck with a shoddy hand of letters, and the possibilities spiral out. We played Wibbell and Phrasell, but we’re already coming up with new ways to play. Definitely a recommendation.

Saturday! Some more pin selling and then I got to play Lifeform from Hall or Nothing productions, with SUASD. I had a great time, not because of the game (although that sounds too dismissive, it appeared fun, but with so much overhead by the time the designer had finished teaching it we only got to play a few rounds. Also everyone wanted to be the cat), but because I got to play a pre-release game with SUASD. Woop woop! Then it was straight over to enter the Tinkerbot Games Arts and Crafts competition and playtesting From The Ground Up.

 

As always the playtesting was time well spent, but unfortunately during a discussion with Foxmind games the vening before, I’d already decided upon a few changes I wanted to make, and playtesting with the non-current setup always feels worse. However, I still got a lot out of it, and the people playtesting all had a great time and gave valuable feedback, so thanks to them and to the volunteers and Rob Harris for making it possible.

Whizzed off early because SUASD were going to play NewSpeak, but due to timings that didn’t happen. Instead I had a rest and caught their show, played a couple of games of Kingdomino (perfect filler gaming. Still waiting to see if I need Queendomino at this point). Then off for an incredible evening- drinking with SUASD listening to Martin Wallace tell anecdotes, none of which I can repeat, followed by meeting the Heavy Cardboard group- incredibly friendly, I hadn’t heard their podcast before and now I subscribe, they are just that nice- and getting them all to play NewSpeak. My weekend was made when Quinn said he was having fun then. Poor Matt though, Paul and Jess broke him through simplistic codes.

Sunday! The first day I really had to play games and not shill various things! The games were:

Echidna Shuffle. We all know echidnas and platypuses are the only two monotremes (egg laying mammals) on earth, but what you may not have known is that Echidna Shuffle from Wattsalpoag is a lovely family game with satisfyingly chunky echidnas. Players move echidnas out of the way trying to eat bugs, and the whole thing plays like a competietive car park exit simulator but cuter. Unfortunately Wattsalpoag have a habit of selling everything at the UKGames Expo for ridiculously cheap, and they’d sold out by the time I could play (the perils of Sunday gaming).

Also played House of Danger. Imagine an old school Fighting Fantasy gamebook, but all the pages have been torn out and shrunk into cards, and instead of writing down equipment and status you have cards and markers. Now you’re imagining House of Danger. I had fun, I really did, but I’d honestly balk at the price point given when I asked, considering the best FF gamebook of all time, House of Hell, can be bought for pennies from most charity shops in the country (I would also accept Creature of Havoc, or Legend of the Shadow Warriors (side side note, I’ve just googled these and they appear to have gone up in price massively, maybe the suggested price of this game isn’t too bad)).

Finally it was the Tinkerbot competition. If you were the guy with the bee box then congratulations, and we were the people behind you who kepton shouting ‘Betrayal!’ everytime you put something on it and opened it. That shouldn’t have kept us as entertained as it did. To the lad with the safe cracking game- you were robbed, no pun intended. As for me, I was really happy with my entry. Really happy. It’s something I’m definitely going to work on and take as far as it will go. As for entering another one of these? Not for me. Luckily my game took about as much time to explain as it did to create, but I really felt for some of the groups who had spent ages making stuff, but for naught. If you do enter next year my advice would be to make the gosh darned best arts and crafts project you ever did make, and use all packaging materials for decoration. And then write down some game thoughts.

Other stuff- my mates played Ghostel and really enjoyed it, so that’s one to watch, but unfortunately I didn’t get the chance. Holding On- the Life of Billy Ker, was vetoed by one of our group on account of theme, but I managed to sit awkwardly close to Michael Fox when he was running a game and vicariously feel part of the experience. I can understand people’s personal reluctance given the theme though. And the designer speed dating was really good fun. Useful no matter what, but as always fingers crossed. And I late pledged Chronicles of Crime after seeing it in action. No Regrets!