UK Games Expo for designers

This started more as a to do list for myself, but figured it’d probably be worth blogging about. So after the last post about (possible) great games at the Expo, here’s some stuff for designers to check out/ do:

Playtest! Playtesting your game is always the most important yet often most troublesome thing to do. Playtest UK will have tables and signup forms. This is a really valuable opportunity for all designers- get your games in front of people and find out what they really think. Better still, those nice volunteers will find people to play your game for you, and everybody understands it’s prototype time. Obviously, after (or before) having your game playtested, try and playtest someone else’s!

http://playtest.co.uk/

In addition, Playtest UK are running the Speed Dating, Networking and Wyvern’s Lair events. Whilst the dating and lair are way (way) too late to enter, you might still be able to join the networking event. Most designers will want to pitch to publishers, but not whilst they’re trying ot market their own games. The networking event (and the speed dating obviously) are the perfect times for this).

Seminar’s. Here’s the design seminar timetable from the Expo’s website itself:

There’s a lot of great information and advice there, being doled out for free. Obviously you can’t make everything, but I always find it worth going to one or two seminars and talks.

Tinkerbot Hackathon (2-T8). Sounds fun. If you’re one of the 10 who manage to make it, good luck! The redesign contests in the past were really popular, so I predict a queue for this. Will probably be proved emphatically wrong now.

Manufacturers, distributors and artists on the floor. Thinking of going down self-publishing and/ or kickstarter? These people are the ones you need to speak to. I’ve made a quick list here of just the manufacturers and distributors (no judgements, just c&p from the expo programme), but if you are self publishing you will need good art. Don’t neglect it:

  • Burley Games 1-A4
  • Spiral Galaxy Games 1-J6
  • Gamesquest 1-H16
  • Grand Prix International 1-K20
  • Fabryka Kart 1-E18
  • BoardGamesMaker.com 1-M1
  • Gibsons 1-B20

(there are probably others I’ve missed- Wingo have tweeted about being there, but I can’t find them on the list for example)

Let me know if there’s anything else I’ve missed, and I hope this expo is a fruitful one!

UK Games Expo 2018 preview- a few new things which stand out…

It’s the UKGames Expo 2018 soon, and as always this time of year I can’t wait. It’s the oasis of calm within exam season, and by oasis of calm I mean even more frenetic bargain hunting, demo playing run-around-as-many-stalls-as-you-can chaos. Love it. This year I’ve actually looked ahead to avoid the headless chicken approach, and thanks to this geeklist on BGG:  https://boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/240841/uk-games-expo-2018 I’ve found a number of things which interest me.

So, in no particular order!

Chocolate Factory!

https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/240567/chocolate-factory

As much as I like chocolate, theme wouldn’t swing me to a game, but this apparently has “a physical conveyer belt mechanic and wooden chocolate pieces! Although still at an early stage of graphical and art development, the game is a great blend of physical tactile pieces and euro mechanics.” I love the idea of a conveyor belt style logistics game with tactile pieces, so I’m intrigued to see what this is all about.

 

Escape Tales: The Awakening

I’m a sucker for escape room games, and I’ve been saying (and prototyping) for a while that Escape Room games shouldn’t mean no theme or story, but in fact should be smashing them. Again, only heard of this from the publisher, but I want to see what they’ve got.

 

Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr

https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/245444/holding-troubled-life-billy-kerr

“All you know is this: His name is Billy Kerr, he’s 60, and he was admitted to your hospital following a massive heart attack on a flight from Sydney, Australia. Doctors give Billy days to live, but he’s hanging on as if he can’t, or won’t, let go.

Piece together Billy’s troubled past to finally reveal the three hidden memories that keep him holding on. Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr is a co-operative worker placement game featuring a compelling storyline that will be revealed as you play time and time again, but also allows players to replay all previous scenarios to learn more and improve upon past attempts.”

Really excited about this, a worker placement story game lives and dies by its story, but I have faith here. Not only that, but it sounds so refreshing, and I’d love to see boardgaming story telling mature into non-traditional realms. Super excited to play this.

 

Newspeak

https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/221298/newspeak

“Newspeak is a tense game of dystopian subversion in which you take the role of either the ‘dissidents’ or the ‘moderators’ in a mind-bending battle of wits to determine the reality around you.

Will you challenge the status quo and shatter your fragile reality or seek to protect the safety of what you know?”

Apologies for the shilling, but if you haven’t had a chance to play this yet you’ll be able to at the Expo! Fantastic new setups to help ease players into it at a gentler pace, come along and give it a crack. Code making and breaking with hilarity and some really beautiful artwork.

 

Chronicles of Crime

https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/239188/chronicles-crime

I purposefully didn’t join the Kickstarter for this, which was difficult because I love the idea so much- a detective game with so much replayability without needing new cases. However, I wanted to try it out first, to see if I would find the QR scanning annoying. This is my chance to probably regret not backing that Kickstarter in the first place.

 

Stuff by Bez

No particular game here, but if you haven’t encountered Bez and played any of his card games I encourage it. I understand he’s drawing cats now, although I have no idea what’s actually going on there.

 

A couple of other things- apparently there’s a big box of Agricola All Creatures Big and Small, which I love, but one of the reasons I love it is because of the small box so that’s out. And I’ll be there playtesting, and also manning the Shut Up and Sit Down stand somehow. More of that nearer the show!

So let me know if there’s anything I’ve missed, especially anything new, that scratches a different itch.

Accelerating Through the Finish

I’m still talking about pace*, and the third thing developers can do to make sure a game’s pace is on point:

  1.  Reduce downtime
  2.  Structured turns
  3.  Make the game evolve <—- we’re here

A common refrain from a disappointing game is the feeling that the gameplay at the end was no different then the gameplay at the start. It feels the same, or perhaps even is the same. Engine building games in which the engine sputters out before it really has the chance to shine, or games which don’t empower the player in any way. I have played some published games, as well as prototypes, in which the game settles into a rut, barely breaking out of it except for random event cards. No sense of urgency, just repeat until fade. So what can we do to prevent this from happening in games?

Have options change for players throughout the game. Something Agricola does to amazing effect is ramp up the efficiency of the available actions as the game progresses. You might still have to go back for wood, but really the fight is over growth without a room. Those later actions make the game exciting, and every turn begins with a new one. Important here is the idea that the actions are better, worse actions would slow the game down towards the end (and that can happen with pure random selections).

Empower the player, whether through engine building or power ups, make them feel constantly more powerful than previously. Agricola does this again masterfully- as your farm improves you are able to do more- whether take more actions, improved actions, or set up your feeding engine, players are rewarded for good play by having stronger rounds. Similarly, all Civ games are based upon this idea that your civilisation gets more powerful, and everything starts ticking along like clockwork (unfortunately, so does your opponents, but there’s the game). Ideally, a player should see a future action and consider it utterly impossible, only to find it more than possible by the game’s end.

Understand where in your game the key turning point from engine building to point scoring is going to be. Some of the best engine builders, whether deck or tableau based, have a key tempo change where players switch from engine to points. Switch too early and you may run out of steam, too late and you miss out on points. Dominion and Through The Ages, amongst others, have a key difference between experienced and inexperienced players being when to chase after the points. And when that tempo switches you don’t want to be behind on the curve.

In “From the Ground Up” (new name for 3 Districts, until I change my mind again),  I’ve tried to meet all three of these things. Player’s are in charge of the options available, but the higher victory points for the more powerful buildings means there should be a natural progression into more powerful actions. The engine being built is a relatively simple one- a money producing based upon the number of cards, but it works effectively to push players forward. The jump from Level 1 to 2 to 3 is decided upon by players, but it needs to be considered- too soon and you may not bring in enough money, too late and you’ll leave points on the table.

So there’s all my thoughts on pace, and hopefully a great deal to explain what I’ve done to make sure From the Ground Up is a well paced game. Making a number of changes to it which will need to be tested, but luckily I’ve got a playtesting spot at the UKGames Expo! New icons will need a bit of explaining, but I’m hoping to bring something which looks good and plays fantastically. If you’re going I hope to see you there.

 

 

 

*Although, saying what I’m going to post about so far in advance has really hurt my pace here ironically enough.

Keeping Turns On Point

At the moment I’m talking about pace in games. Last post was about making sure there’s not massive gaps and doing whatever we can to reduce the game killer- downtime. Today I want to write about something else- the structure of a player’s turn.

The structure of a player’s turn has a massive impact on the pace of a game. If you’ve ever played a game where someone has sat around not knowing if it’s there turn, that’s a pace issue caused by either a lack of structure to a turn (or player’s not paying enough attention). I know from playtesting some of my old designs, if a player could do too many things during their turn, or rounds weren’t structured enough, the game can dissolve quite rapidly. Some of the causes are: excessive admin during a turn, being able to do multiple things in any order; & spending resources/ action points to do an action, but also being able to do multiple additional actions on top, or stockpiling resources to have an exceedingly long turn when they choose. Now unfortunately I don’t want to turn this into a slagging blog where I criticise other games, so I guess I’m talking in abstracts here when highlighting the bad, but hopefully I can illustrate excellent turn structures in (non-simultaneous play) games.

The ‘you can only do one thing’ turn. In so many superb games. Agricola- place one person and do the action, Splendour- either take some tokens, a card, or buy a card, and so on and so forth. A quick an easy Euro mechanism to make sure everyone can stay on point. You’ll know it’s your turn because the player next to you has just had there’s. The structure will game the game progressing smoothly, provided no AP, and makes it simple for people to see what’s happening.

The ‘you do these things in this order’ structure. Think any game which comes with a list of instructions for players to follow, such as Cosmic Encounter or Good Cop, Bad Cop. Or even the finality of buying a card in Dominion. Clearly less intuitive the first time then just giving players one thing to do, but with a clear list and order to follow, players can understand the flow of a game, and get to the point where it’s not needed. In Dominion the importance of buying a card is emphasised through it’s place in the turn structure- everything you do is to build up to this action. The changing of the aim in Good Cop, Bad Cop, is cleverly placed at the end of the turn, catching out most new players who want to change and then shoot, but that delay gives the game a lot of its tension. Not only does clever turn structure elegantly draw attention wherever the designer wants it, but a final full stop to a turn lets other players know the turn is finished without having to announce it to the table.

In 3 Districts* I have tried to follow the second of these structures. I’m toying with the idea of only allowing players one action, but even with that restriction there still needs to be a ‘tax’ phase at the beginning of every turn. But the turn structure is written on the player mats and allows for clear progression from player to player.

*thinking of changing the name to ‘From the Ground Up’, which I’m growing fonder and fonder of.

You can always go…

Downtime.

(AKA Maintaining the Pace pt 2)

In my last post (before I lost the internet for over a week. What a calamity!) I talked about why pace is so important, and that I’d revisit the three things I consider key to maintaining a good pace. So here’s the first one from the list: Downtime (as well as some stuff about 3 Districts because that’s what’s compelling me to write all this stuff).

Downtime is, at best, an unfortunate necessity in a lot of games. If there’s meaningful choice there has to be meaningful time to consider the options. But there are things games can do to alleviate the downtime.

  • No cards filled with text. If most cards have an array of new rules, conditions, events etc, then every time a card is drawn the game comes to a halt whilst people work out what it means. If the mechanics are too complex to describe with symbols or a few words, then question whether they’re worth disrupting play for. It may be the case that some exciting cards are needed to make the game what it is- but make sure when playtesting that you measure the downtime induced by these cards, and always look for ways to streamline their explanation.
  • Keep player’s turns as short yet meaningful as possible. A players’ turn should never consist of just boring admin, there should always be a decision to make. But if there are several then split them up, interleaving each player’s actions. Better to wait 3 minutes to make a 1 minute move, than 15 to make a 5 minute move.
  • Ensure the players are involved on other player’s turns. Even if you love solitaire Euros, there’s still some element of interactivity (I hope). The more there is, even if it’s passive, the more engaged players will feel on other players turns.
Some icons designed by Mike Brown on BGG for prototypes of 3 Districts.

In 3 Districts I’ve worked hard to get the amount of new information on cards down to a minimum. There are a few which are still worded- special cases which only occur once, and iconography would be overkill. The card effects have become simpler, but are no worse for it. The game now moves a lot faster and is much more fun, as well as being better balanced. Is there room for more complex cards? Probably, but only a few, no more. As for the other two points, the game is definitely interactive, people visiting you can be advantageous or disadvantageous, and your city stays open for everyone else’s turn. And the turns are short and sweet, yet meaningful.

As always, let me know any thoughts or even just rant about the plain wrong things I’ve said. Next time: the other things I said on the list.

Pace Yourself

 

In any lesson, pace is one of the biggest issues for early teachers. Starting with high engagement, allowing time for deep thinking, changing things up when students are flagging, keeping a sense of progression going- it takes a good few years to get a natural sense of what your pace should be to enable these things. However, this isn’t a blog about teaching (although how we teach games is intrinsically important), this is a blog about boardgames and boardgame design. So what has pace got to do with boardgames?

Answer: everything.

Ironically faster than certain Euros

At a simplistic level I feel these three questions reveal the pace of a game:

  1. Does the game induce massive amounts of downtime?
  2. Is a player’s turn clearly structured?
  3. Is there a natural sense of build up and progression toward the end game?

There are more things which affect the pace of the game (any amount of negotiation or bidding), and clearly the people we play with will have a huge impact, along with they style of the game, but any designer needs to consider their game’s pace and what they’d like it to be. When playtesting games it’s usually clear when players are flagging, or repeating actions. We’ve all played and playtested games where it becomes clear the ’10 minute first round’ has no sense of when it should have shuffled off to make room for the second round; or the final round is identical to the second round; or every new card revealed needs a 10 minute break to decipher what it’s trying to tell us. Or the game suddenly ends oh well. Whilst I don’t think anybody can say exactly what makes a game fun, we can say a poor pace stops it being fun. My next few posts will be on what I’ve done to consider each of those when designing games, but if anybody has any thoughts or comments let me know! Especially if my three questions are ridiculously oversimplified.

Airecon- some sort of report.

So after a heady weekend full of boardgames, itching to see all the wonderful things around, and then more boardgames, Airecon is over for another year. But apart from a wonderful pun which still gets points despite moving away from the river, what else has Airecon got going for it?

Well, a lot actually. Here are some lessons from Airecon…

  • It’s just so damned friendly! And I’m not just saying that to embellish us Yorkshire folk our reputation. The first Friday evening strangers quickly became friends over a game of Fear, the boardgame pub quiz was a room of smiles, even when the entire room realised they’d forgotten to take one of the bags for the feel-a-piece round. People were able to just turn up and join teams for that and the escape room games. All in all I think it’d be the games con I’d feel most comfortable attending alone.
(excuse the poor photo)
Villagers
  • There are some great games coming out:

Villagers, designed by Haakon Gaarder and published by Sinister Fish is a nice little card drafting game/ set collection game. Lovely artwork and an intriguing cascading sets system, where each card can only be played if you’ve played the prerequisite card first (I’m sure there’s a better reference, but if not think evolving pokemon in the card game). I want to play it again, to check occupational balance, but definitely one to keep an eye on.

Flicky Spaceships by Room17 games is the winner of the UKGamesExpo 2015 redesign competition (the first design competition I entered, but not the last). What might appear as a simple dexterity game has a lot more to it with resource collection and power-up cards. I played two player, which was fun, but I imagine this really shines with more players. Especially as you collect resources at the start of your turn based on where you are, leading to some bowls style nudging.

Newspeak was there! Clearly I’m going to be biased here (designer), but ITB have knocked it out the park with the production on this. It was a real shame about the Kickstarter issues (more information on the We’re not Wizards podcast), but rather than resting on their laurels they’ve made it even more accessible to all. If you can get the chance to play this I urge you to do so and let me know what you think.

 

Gloom of Kilforth’s Tristan Hall is one of the nicest designer’s you could meet, and his game is beautiful. Also I actually learned it has nothing to do with Gloomhaven, which was a mistake that’s been lodged in my head for some time now. And really, I’ve no excuse for it.

Gloom of Kilforth
  • People who playtest games are awesome. I owe a massive thankyou to all playtesters for not just playing 3 Districts, but for then playing it again to really delve into what makes it tick and where to focus ideas. As always it’s a privilege to have such people giving up their time to help improve mine, and I hope I helped out back in some way.
Thanks to Kaleidocards for helping me playtest!
  • When I give a group of boardgamers an Escape Room puzzle to do, never promise a prize for beating the quickest time. I’d need to buy a lot of prizes.

 

  • At some point I’ll actually have to make time to do the things I planned to do before I get there, and speak to the people I only know from consuming their media (such as the Unlucky Frog Podcast or Rodney Smith).

 

  • People love playing games. Obvious perhaps, but whereas most cons have a tiny space for gaming and then ‘sales!’ Airecon was the other way around. It was incredibly hard to do anything other than play games where everyone you look someone’s setting up a new game of Snowdonia or Captain Sonar. Actually playing games really was the order of the weekend*.

Overall an absolutely fantastic weekend. Brilliant to see this convention gain traction and I can’t wait to see what next year brings!

*For the record I played Cockroach Poker, Beastie Bar, Snowdonia, Professor Evil and the Citadel of Time, Enigma, Fear, Hab & Gut, Deep Sea Adventure, Nyet, and I’m sure some more that I just can’t remember. More games played in one weekend than at all UKGamesExpos I’ve been to I think.

FODP (Fear of Disappointing Playtesters)

I’ve had my games playtested plenty of times. By friends, family, colleagues, Fiona, club members, random people at cons, folk at Playtest UK, other designers, Fiona again, and more. And every time there’s a fear that I’m going to let them down. Not that the feedback will be bad, I can take that. Or that they’ll have plenty of recommendations, that’s great (even if they’re not). No, instead I have a horrible feeling I’m about to waste 30-45 minutes of their life. Time they could have spent doing literally anything else. It’s a redundant fear- even with my worst games I’ve never had people have a less-than-enjoyable time. Sitting down playing games is naturally fun, and given my games are diametrically opposed to any kind of take-that victimisation, even if it turns out a little underbaked, we’ve still sat down and had a good time.

 

An underbaked disappointment

 

I write this, because I’m about to head off to Airecon and give this new improved version of 3 Districts its first proper playtesting outside in the big world. Whilst there are still a few things I’d like to change (work commitments have meant the iconography isn’t complete, and some cards have been removed whilst being balanced), but otherwise I’m extremely happy and excited for how it plays, even if the art is still all prototype. Playtesters should have a fun time playing my game (and if not that’s the most important thing for me to find out).

Now I just need to stop being so apologetic when I’m trying to encourage people to play it…

And the game is…

The reason I started this blog (and everything along with it) is because of a game. 3 Districts (name subject to change). I’m going to explain it in broad terms here, and use future updates for reasoning, changes, influences and everything else. There won’t be a full rules explanation here, or finished art, just the ideas I think are important, enough to give you a flavour of the game.

3 Districts is a city-building worker-placement game for 2-4 players. Each player builds buildings and visits buildings, either their own or other’s, until one player has built a set number. At that point, the player with the highest quality city wins. The game takes around 45 minutes to play, and is designed to be straightforward, but with interesting choices and plenty of player interactivity.

Key ideas:

Build your own actions– at the start everybody has the same basic action available to them. All other actions need to be built first. But something you build is available to all other players (at a cost). This means the other players aren’t just blockers, like in traditional worker placement games, but facilitators as well.

But the actions keep changing– it would quickly get overwhelming to have every action space built be usable. Therefore each player only has two spaces to build buildings. When a third is built, one of the previous two are replaced. They still count for victory points, but they’re not longer an action space. This prevents there being too many options, but also takes all players on a journey, and guarantees no two games will be alike.

Pace from an engine– each building pays tax at the start of a player’s turn. As more buildings are built they get more money. This results in a natural progression from the level 1 buildings through to the more expensive level 3 buildings.

The option to jump ahead– The buildings at level 3 are worth more VPs than level 1. Do you build up your tax base by cheaply building a host of level 1 buildings, or use certain building’s to make sure you can afford a level 2 or 3 building, changing the dynamic of the game. Different paths to victory.

All of this done with minimum randomness, genuine options, high interactivity and elegant gameplay. Hopefully you’ll eventually be able to tell me if I’ve succeeded!

What is Radical 8 Games?

I’ve been designing games for a while now, as a hobby, a weirdly enjoyable and stressful hobby, and wanted to blog my experiences, processes and also detail what games I’ve been playing or have influenced me. This is for a couple of reasons, but I guess they’re all really fallout from one reason. I’ve had some great experiences with publishers, even ones who have rejected my games (can’t blame them in some cases), but I think I fancy giving it a go myself. Obviously this is sheer lunacy, why take on all the work, risk and even more work yourself? Because, in spite of everything, I think I’ll like it. I’m not the best at relinquishing control, and whilst publishing in the UK is better than a lot of other countries for accepting submissions, there’s still very few with long wait times. So this blog is a taster for me- do I actually enjoy the non-designing side of the boardgame industry, and a taster for everyone who reads it- If my game hits kickstarter, this blog should give a good idea of whether or not you’ll like the game, and/ or trust me as a person to get it to you.

Well, that’s the rambling intro. I intend to update this every fortnight of so, with details of my game, design decisions, games which I love (or have influenced me in other ways), probability theory- because that’s something I know I can actually do, and anything else that takes my fancy.

Until then, thanks for reading.

Mark

Radical 8 Games.