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Game Design Diary – Part Three: Back to Square One

It’s been a little while since I last wrote about the game that myself and Mark Rivera (from the splendid Boardgames in Blighty) are working on. While we’d not forgotten about it, it was certainly on the backburner as other stuff took precedence, most notably the UK Games Expo. The pair of us (and Chris from Unboxed!) worked like dogs as we interviewed the cream of UK designers, ran a wide range panels, talked about games and (shock) even got to play a couple. We also managed to coerce a few people to try out the prototype version of Espionage (the working title of our project) and got plenty of interesting feedback. Other folks playing your creation is always a weird thing. It’s like sending your child out into the world and worrying that everyone thinks it’s an ugly idiot.

Espionage wasn’t an ugly idiot, thankfully – but it wasn’t as good as we wanted it to be. Looking at it objectively, there’s far too much going on that’s utterly superfluous while other areas need more added. Money, which we reckoned was an important aspect of the game, turned out to be quite redundant as it was far too easy to come by and there wasn’t actually much to spend it on. On the other hand, many players thought that it didn’t feel like there were enough locations to move around on the board. This was something I tried to fix by adding spaces between the actual locations but again that didn’t feel quite right. Game design is hard.

People who tried out the game also had plenty of good things to say about it, but these issues needed dealing with – and that’s a lot of work. Now, we’ve not binned the project, but Mark and I have decided to aim for something a little more stripped down, I suppose. Looking at what we had, it feels like we’d bitten off more than we could handle. There was an awful lot of stuff going on in Espionage, but there were certainly plenty of aspects we liked. It’s time to take a step back and aim for something that we’re happy with, that works well but won’t melt players’ brains.

A couple of weeks back Mark came to me with a concept for a card game. We’re still going for the cloak and dagger theme of spycraft in the early 20th Century, but as we’re working strictly with cards instead of several million pieces we’re having to take an entirely different approach. The new idea (codenamed Ace of Spies) is a game were you’re able set your own targets. You decide what Missions you’re aiming to complete, done by collecting various necessary components. Agents, Tools, Intelligence and Locations are all needed to complete Missions of varying difficulty – and the more specific the mission, the harder it will be to collect the cards required. Easy Missions will – of course – be simple to complete but will only get you a small amount of points. The more difficult the Mission, the greater the reward – and there’s also plenty of bonuses out there too. However, if you fail to complete the mission by the end of the game, you’re penalised and points are taken away from your total. We’re looking to have a couple of different ways to approach the game as well that will hopefully provide different playing experiences.

There’s also the ability to scupper your opposition with the inclusion of Intervention cards (another element from our original idea). We’re aiming for a truly interactive experience with as much opportunity to attack others as possible. All we need to do it playtest the thing into the ground and make sure it’s as good as we hope! The next few days will see me working on basic card design (the text of which has already been written up on The World’s Biggest Spreadsheet – and I hate using Excel), spending far too much money on blank playing cards and ink cartridges, and swearing at typographical errors. Then it’s on to playtesting, honing and – inspired by the words of Tim Gunn – making it work.

Game design, hey? Like I said, it’s hard – but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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The Story of Espionage – Part Two: Coming Together

So here’s part two of me and Mark’s Designer Diary for our new project, Espionage. This time around, Mark takes the lead and explains exactly what our game is about… If you’ve missed Part One, click here to read it!

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As you would have noticed from previous posts here and on Michael Fox’s Little Metal Dog Show, he and I are designing a board game called Espionage.

We have been putting in a lot of time and energy into the design and are now at the point where we can begin the process of play testing. Thankfully we already have volunteers to do this and I have already sent out files to them.

Its all very exciting and frightening as we open the doors to others to have a peek! Is the game perfect? Not at all. But play testing will help us to get it into (hopefully…) a condition to interest publishers. We are confident that we have a good theme – pre-World War 1 spies in London. We also are very focused and committed that Espionage will be a gateway game, suitable to all types of gamers and non-gamers with, simple, concise rules. A game to be played in roughly 30-45 minutes. Most of all, we think it will be fun!

Main premise of Espionage

Espionage is a light-hearted team based game for 2, 4 or 6 players, set in London in the period prior to the breakout of the First World War.

The players take on the roles of German Intelligence Agents or British Counter-Intelligence Agents who carry out various “Missions” to gather or prevent the gathering of military intelligence in one of the world’s most important cities. To win the game, Players gain victory points by completing missions as described by Mission cards they collect.  There are two types of victories.

Team victory – the team with the most victory points wins

Ace of Spies – The individual with the single highest total of victory points is proclaimed Ace of Spies!

Missions are completed by traveling to different locations in London using travel cards that indicate how many locations can be travelled through in a single turn.  Players can use Intervention cards to prevent other players from accomplishing their missions.  There are only 10 rounds so the players will be under pressure to complete as many missions in their hand as possible, also knowing that any uncompleted missions will count against their victory point total.

Game Process

A game of Espionage consists of 10 Rounds where all players each take their turn

Each Round has the following steps – All players

Choose the starting player

Draw Mission/Intervention cards

Draw up to three Travel cards from the Travel Card deck

Draw FIVE Shillings for Agency Travel Expenses

Individual Players in turn order do the following

Move your Hansom Cab player token and Place Start and Finish Mission Tokens as appropriate

Players can end movement on a Special Ability space to collect a Special Ability

Other players can play Intervention cards during another player’s turn

Play then passes to next player.

Last turn is at the end of 10 Rounds when the last player completes their turn actions.

End Game Phase – All Players turn over their alignment cards to reveal which alignment will be rewarded with Mission Victory Points

The winning team has the highest total of Victory Points.

The Ace of Spies is the player with the highest total of Victory Points earned.

I’ve included some images created by Michael here of our play test, in other words, very rough draft materials to give everyone a sense of the look and feel. Of course, this will change as we move along but for now, its a prototype.

Prototype London Map

Mission Card - British players complete the green missions, German players the red.

Character card - each one has a little flavour text and start location.

So far, we are generally happy with our rules as a starting point. Its been hard work and very interesting and enjoyable. We have also managed to find how best to collaborate in terms of using our strengths, skills and experiences.It has been really a rewarding exercise and who knows, we may just have something here!

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Michael here again!

So, this is pretty much the sum of what we’ve been working on these past few months. Obviously both Mark and myself have full time jobs so this is something we’re plugging away with in our spare time. There’s been lots of early mornings, especially at the weekends, where I’ve dragged myself out of bed and huddled over the computer armed only with coffee and BBC Radio 5 Live attempting to get things rolling.

As you can tell from the images above, graphic design is far from my strong point. The basic look that you see is actually much better than the first shambling attempts I made – these are at least legible. However, every time I do something different on Photoshop, it’s a learning experience – slow learning admittedly, but I’m making progress nonetheless. I’m quite sure that other stuff is being forgotten as I make room for these new skills, but that’s the tradeoff I make!

Mark has been amazing. The idea originally came from him and the rules are kind of his responsibility, so blame him if they’re broken! Seriously though, he’s rewritten and rejigged them more times than you know. The original ruleset has, through our regular discussions, morphed into something that actually feels like a solid engine – but now the fun begins: playtesting. Frankly I’m bleedin’ terrified. I get worried enough about sending each episode of the show out into the ether, so having people check out something real and solid that I’ve had a hand in creating is utterly horrifying… Here’s hoping the feedback is OK. If you see a copy of Espionage around and you get to try it, please be constructive!

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The Story of Espionage – Part One

Wherein Michael reveals a desire to create but an inability to see it through. However, good fortune is just around the corner…

The cat is out of the bag – I’m co-designing a board game alongside Mark Rivera from Boardgames in Blighty. I have no idea if it’ll be any good, but I thought it’d be nice to tell the story of what’s happening. Essentially a designer’s diary, I plan on putting regular-ish updates here on the site to keep you lot appraised of what’s happening. We’re actually a fair way into the design process but didn’t want to even announce anything until we had something tangible. The game has a working title of Espionage and – at the moment – is in the ‘nearly a fully working prototype’ stage. More information will be available soon, we promise! In the meantime, here’s part one of the diary.

The old cliche is that everyone has at least one book in them. Look into the world of board games and that changes slightly as everyone and their dog reckons they’re capable of creating something that they’re sure other people would enjoy playing. Of course, who am I to buck the trend? I’ve been playing games since I was a child and reckon I’ve got a decent enough handle on them. The only issue – a complete lack of experience, ideas and resources. Never stopped me before, mind.

Flash back to October 2010 and the BoardGameCamp event that took place in London. Prior to the day, organisers announced that there was to be a special strand – a design competition, the winners of which would have their game published. This was far from your normal print run though – the victorious game would actually be put on the back of the Christmas 2011 Selection Box released by Cadburys. For those of you outside the UK, the selection box is a long running tradition, a bunch of chocolate bars and sweets put in an oversized tray, boxed up and given to people as a filler gift. I recall playing simple roll and move games that were printed on them when I was young – far from the things I love to play now, admittedly, but they were a diversion and kept me and my brother entertained.

The question that hit me was would it be possible to cross the two parts of my life? Could a game be made that appealed to the market that selection boxes are aimed at? In other words, could I put together a game for kids that was a bit more that the usual throw-a-dice, move-a-piece you’d normally get on the back of the box? Well, no. I’m not that good working on my own, but if I had a group to work with… maybe we could do something.

After putting a shout out on twitter, a group was formed. Neil from Thru the Portal, Mark from Boardgames in Blighty, my friend Chris and myself would form a team to create something. We had no idea what would come from this meeting of minds, but there was little harm in finding out. After all, what did we have to lose? Come the day of BoardGameCamp, we were run through the rules along with everyone else. I all honesty, there were a lot more teams there than I expected. Perhaps the lure of the potential glory was more than I thought…

Ideas were bounced around, and after not very long we had a basic idea for a game – up to four elves would run around a board grabbing presents for Father Christmas to deliver. These were represented by tiles that would be randomized and placed face down on the board. Most were a single present, some were double (woooo!) and some were nasty surprises, allowing you to steal from another player – after all, what’s a game without a little nastiness? A couple of playtest games later and we were happy – we had achieved a decent enough ruleset that worked, a game that was easy to understand and set up, and a playtime that wasn’t too long but still felt substantial.

The only problem though? It didn’t look too great. None of us considered that it needed to look amazing to catch the judges eyes – after all, that was what an art department would do if we were lucky enough to win. We hoped that the quality would shine through and – strangely enough – it seemed to capture the attention of the playtesters. Come judging time, we knew we’d be happy enough if we even got a mention, but as the games were picked off one by one… well, we were getting more than hopeful. It was down to the last two and – our game was announced. Our little design team had come second. Not bad at all considering that none of us had ever tried such an endeavour previously.

Cadbury, bless ’em, sent us all massive hampers of chocolate a few weeks later to say thanks.  Our game is officially theirs so we can’t say much more about it – secretly we’re all hoping they realise that it’s actually a work of genius and they’ll use it anyway – but the thought was always in the back of my mind. Is it a one off or could I make something that could potentially be published. Again, I dismissed the thought. I don’t work well on my own. Then, however, an email arrived.

“It’s Mark. I’ve had an idea for a game, but I think I need your help…”

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Go Speed Racer! – An interview with Rallyman designer Jean-Christoph Bouvier

I blame Mark from Boardgames in Blighty! He recently mentioned a new racing game that did things a little differently and blew him away. You can check out his review of Rallyman right here, but in true Little Metal Dog style I wanted to find out the story behind the game. I got in touch with Jean-Christophe Bouvier, the game’s designer, to talk about his first steps into the world of designing…

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So, Jean-Christophe, is Rallyman your first game design? How did you come up with the idea?

Yes it is, my first and the only one so far! But I think I am a bad designer because I actually started to design Rallyman back in 2001. There have been a lot of tests, lots of prototypes, discussions with editors… and the final edition arrived only at the end of 2009 ! I am not a gamer but I am a racing car fan. I knew of Formula Dé, because it’s my favourite theme, and that game inspired me to create a game about rally driving. To create a game as good as Formula Dé but for rallying became my aim. I also wanted to make a little money with this game to buy a new rally car of my own because I wrecked my first in a crash! Anyway, when I lost my job two years ago, I had just one idea on my mind: to publish Rallyman!

So it’s truly a passion of yours! Rally driving is an incredibly exciting sport – do you think you’ve managed to capture the thrills of rallying in your game? How have you done this?

I tried to put in as many of the elements of rallying as I could. Some gamers will love drifting (or skidding!) into the corners, but in reality if you skid too much it’s bad for your time. Jumps and short cuts are important as well. I liked to see the fear on the faces of the players before they went over a very fast bump or dived into a short cut, and the enjoyment after they were successful. It was also important for me to have a lot of different roads so I invented a track system which has thousands of possibilities (and more with snow or mixed roads). The biggest thing though is the timing system – time differences can be down to the second and this is very exciting, I think. At the end of each stage when you are waiting for the other drivers to finish it can get nerve wracking! Sometimes you can win or lose over the matter of a few seconds! I’ve seen players crying, another one jumped for joy!

Some Rallyman fans take great care in modding their games to an incredible degree...

So how does the game work then? The sport is all about you and your car going from point to point in the quickest time possible, so does Rallyman approach this?

It was important in this game to give each player their time at the end of each stage. It needed to be in minutes and seconds but without the need for a real stopwatch. The movement system is simple: you roll your dice one at a time and for each pip, you advance one space. There are five dice for each of the gears and two for gas to continue moving without changing your gear. Each die is only playable once each turn but you can stop whenever you please. You then take a card corresponding to the last gear engaged and the higher your speed, the lower your time (from 10 to 50 seconds). Of course the gears you can use depend on the track, especially when there are corners and bumps to deal with.

Rolling the dice determines your speed but it may show a “!” symbol which could put you in danger. If three “!” are displayed, you risk your car spinning off the road, resulting in loss of time (a full minute instead of the allotted time on your card). You could also damage your vehicle depending on the type of landscape you roll into. You can also try to scrape a few extra seconds by throwing your dice together instead of one by one, but this is riskier – you’re more likely to spin!

Does everyone go at the same time?

No, like in a real rally you don’t start together. The first turn is only for the first player, then two go on the second, three on the third and so on. It’s still a race though, you can overtake your opponents, but only on straights, not corners. It’s a rally simulation: you must get the best time without crashing into anyone, but you can put the pressure on other players by using time attack (by rolling all your dice at once).

Interesting! You’ve mentioned that Rallyman has been well received – do you have any plans for new games? Is there a game you dream of developing?

The next game will actually be an expansion for Rallyman in a few months: Dirt! There will be new tracks and rules for the new terrain. It will be more difficult to get good times, but testers have enjoyed it. I also hope to create other rules for driving on sand tracks in the desert for a new expansion or even a completely new game. I have a lot of ideas to simulate that and I have to test out all the possibilities. My dream is to create a game about “24 heures du Mans” [a 24-hour duration race that takes place annually in France]. There have been games based on that event in the past but I have never played them. The important factors would be managing your tyres, brakes and fuel – the fastest player wouldn’t necessarily be the winner, like this year with Peugeot and Audi. I think it would be a management game. If someone is interested in working on it with me we could share our experiences! It’s very interesting to try to translate the feelings inspired by sports in games rules, I love it!

We’ll be watching out for that then! Can I ask what the games scene is like in France? There’s always talk of how popular board games are in Germany, but how does France compare? Are there game shops on every street?

It’s difficult for me to speak about that, because this is still very new to me! I was not a gamer and I hadn’t even been into a game shop before last year! In France there are some game shops, but it’s not as big a hobby as it is in other countries. In France I have heard that there are perhaps 400 game shops. I don’t know how it is in our German neighbours: I have heard it’s fantastic but I think it’s difficult to sell Rallyman there. Perhaps there are too many games there and it’s difficult to let them know that Rallyman exists! I know some German players love it but shops are slow to order – not very hot at the moment!

How can you not love this?!

One final question: as you’re relatively new to the whole world of board games, what do you really like and dislike about gaming?

I like meeting people and seeing the enthusiasm of gamers when I see them at conventions: look what they do with my game! I also like that this is an international hobby – there are some Rallyman fan in Australia, it’s fantastic! My game leaves my home and goes around the whole world, I can’t believe it! And to do interviews with anyone is incredible – it’s a very open world where you can speak easily to professionals, be they authors, publishers, whatever. I also love the community websites: they are indispensable for spreading the word that Rallyman exists! For a little publisher, free advertising always helps!

What I dislike: consumerism! Too many games are released, almost every day! It’s very difficult for a game to have a long life expectancy. Also, the level of hype around some games is bad – often people talk and promote games which do not even exist. It is annoying for the producers of existing games: it feels like it’s a race for novelty, not for quality. Finally, when games promise a great adventure, with fantastic pictures but you must remember – you can’t judge a book by its cover! When you play it, you may not get quite what is promised…

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So that’s it – you can get more information on the game from the official Rallyman site. I’ll be posting a review of the game as soon as I can get my hands on a copy, so stay tuned!

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Episode 11 of the podcast – now available!

Moving house meant a little delay between this episode and the last, but at last Episode 11 of The Little Metal Dog Show is available! The direct link is right here (right click to save) and it’s available on iTunes, of course… why not leave a review? 😉

The usual combination of interviews and information, we open with a mini round-table (triangular table?) discussion on the UK gaming scene with the guys from Boardgames in Blighty and Thru The Portal – we cover a fair bit, including our thoughts on conventions and the view of gaming by the general public. (As a side note, if you’re a writer or podcaster here in the UK, you may be interested in the newly formed UK Gaming Media Network – check out the guild over at BoardGameGeek for more details.)

Following that, I chat with Brian Gregory and Mike Lawson from the relatively new Game Night Guys podcast. One of my favourites, the pair play a game and chat about it (or at least attempt to, they often meander off) and… well, that’s it. They really bounce well off each other and have a great rapport, playing classic board and card games that you may well have forgotten as well as curios that they’ve picked up along the way. Check them out!

As always, there’s a few notes and queries to tackle, which is done (as always) in the company of Chris (@RallyIV on Twitter). If you’d like to drop me a line, email littlemetaldog@gmail.com or poke me at @idlemichael – it’s always appreciated!

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