Saturday, December 12, 2009

Rottweiler: Coast-to-Coast

I see I've been lax about blogging lately. That's mostly because I haven't been doing much that I felt would be of interest: some gaming, some music, a nice Thanksgiving with the family. Recently we've begun remodeling the house, and that may prompt some commentary at some point.

But last weekend, Helen and I pushed the Rottweiler map edge-to-edge with its matching previously-published map, and we played our first "continental" game. I'd cobbled together a rule set for what would clearly be a long game, and knew that it would need playtesting to get right. The results were mixed: some good news, some bad.

The good news is that it was an interesting game. It definitely felt different from any other RotW game we've played (and we've played them all), and the new strategies it evoked were challenging and fun. I also felt that it wouldn't need much tuning to really get it right—although that may be unjustified optimism. But there were a few issues that will have to be addressed.

One issue is the income/score track. RotW and Railroad Tycoon veterans know that your income goes up as your score goes up, until a bit after mid-game when your income begins to decline as your score continues to rise. Thematically this represents the overhead of running a large railroad; from a game design standpoint it's to keep cash scarce and make players budget. If you perform well, you can wrap the scoring track and your income begins to rise again. Normally this happens late or not at all, but in the continental game it will happen at about mid-game. It's a bad time to be short of cash.

In our one playtest (Helen and I managing two players each) one player hit the trough just wrong, with no saved cash and no cheap prospects for getting out of the trough; that player finished last. Another player had to build track aggressively, to delay entering the trough until he could rush past it in a sudden flurry of deliveries; that player finished second-to-last. The other two players were either already past the trough or had enough cash on hand that it wasn't an issue; they finished first and second.

The continental game is long, and I don't want miring players in the income trough to be a frequent occurrence. They'd have to spend a couple more hours finishing the game with no prospect of winning. But it may be that it's never necessary for an experienced player to be stuck, if you know to plan ahead. One simple solution is an optional rule for beginners: once your income first climbs above $10 or $15, it never falls below that level. Experienced players can use the unmodified income/score track for a more challenging game.

The biggest actual problem we encountered was a shortage of pieces. There are simply not enough goods cubes, track tiles, or even control locos in a single base set. I'll be talking with the publisher about how to handle this. The decision will be up to them, but the obvious possibilities include putting the extra bits in the expansion, making a "Continental Pack" available separately, or simply requiring the bits from two base games.

Progress! I hope to try the continental game again soon with real players, but Christmas may intervene. When it happens, I'll post again.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

JRJB Now Available Online

As I'd hoped, the new album I recorded with Ted Shafer's Jelly Roll Jazz Band can now be purchased online. You can find it at Worlds Records Music Store, and you can click here to go straight to its page. (Links to product offerings can change over time. If that link stops working, go to their main page and search for "Ted Shafer", then find the album with my name in the personnel list. Ted's other albums are good too!)

There's been a bit of back-and-forth about the album's title and cover art. The title used to be just "New Orleans Jazz"; but Ted and Leon decided that the album just looked too much like earlier JRJB albums with similar covers and titles. Now the band is billed as the "2009 Jelly Roll Jazz Band" on the front cover, and under that, "with Guest Artists Leon Oakley and Ray Skjelbred". The cover art is also different. Some of my, ah, more elderly and/or better educated readers may recognize the source of the new artwork.

The World Records store Web page shows the original cover art, and lists the CD under the name "New Orleans Jazz Volume 3". I don't know which cover you'll actually get if you order from them. All very confusing: but it's still the same album with the same music!

I've just learned that the pianist on the album, Ray Skjelbred, has a Web site which lists the recordings he's made over the years, and has links for purchasing them. Ray is an amazing performer. It's a real thrill for me to hear his distinctive piano style on the JRJB album after listening to it for years on recordings by Turk Murphy. Ray has recorded several solo albums as well as sessions with Turk, Bob Schulz, Hal Smith, Clint Baker, Bob Helm, and more. His range includes bluegrass and western as well as trad jazz. Head on over to Ray's Recordings page at and check them out. The new JRJB album will be listed there soon, too.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Rottweiler: Linking Up

Hints have been dropped here and there, so I suppose I won't get in hot water now for mentioning that the map I'm working on is designed to link up with other maps. For the last couple of weeks, I've been redrawing it because the hex size on the original was slightly too small. It was good enough to play on, but when set edge-to-edge with a published map, the hexes wouldn't line up.

The new map is a hex or two narrower, so I also needed to adjust the locations of some cities and features. Today I got a full-size printout, and brought it home. I am pleased to report that it lines up quite nicely. I should be able to try some combined-board games sometime soon.

But I did need to make more changes. With the maps joined, it was apparent that some cities at the edges are poorly placed. I had to move a few cities, and rename two of them so that their names would be more appropriate to their new locations.

I did a solo playtest last night on the previous map. The current iteration of the rules and new features held up well, and I liked the way the session played out. But I'm now starting to notice some subtle things about the map: I may change the color of a city or two. Since I print the maps in grayscale and hand-color the cities, I think the new map is ready to be printed. I can think about city colors in the meantime.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

"New Orleans Jazz"

Back in May, I posted about recording with Ted Shafer's Jelly Roll Jazz Band. I was terrifically excited because the other band members are all excellent musicians—some are among the best in the genre. I don't often get to perform with so high-powered a group, and the thought of actually getting a CD of the occasion felt almost overwhelming. Since doing the recording I've been on tenterhooks, waiting for the arrival of the finished CD. Yesterday it arrived!

I'm very happy with the album. The sound quality seems excellent, with good definition and stereo separation, and the voices are well-balanced. I can hear the two cornets as a blend, but I can also "focus down" and hear my own performance, even in the full ensemble parts. The individual performances of the other musicians are wonderful. For my own part I think I managed not to embarrass myself too badly.

Here's an excerpt, the final out chorus from "Ostrich Walk". (Sorry about the cheesy Ken Burns video, but this blog site won't let me post pure audio clips! The artwork is the cover of the CD.)


Purchasing the CD

A few folks have asked, so here's how to get it. (Rest assured, I will not be offended by anyone who doesn't rush to buy a copy. This is a niche music; not everybody loves it like I do!)

The CD is currently available only by mail order. There are a couple of Web sites that offer some of the band's other albums, and I'm hoping they'll have this new one soon. If so, I'll post a link to them. In the meantime, if you want a copy you'll have to do the following:

Make out a check for $16.00 to "Merry Makers Record Company". Send it to the following address, and specify that you want "Ted Shafer's Jelly Roll Jazz Band: New Orleans Jazz -- 50th Anniversary". Be sure to specify this product code: MMRC-CD-38, and of course, don't forget to include your postal address. The $16.00 includes shipping within the continental U.S. If you are not in the U.S., the price is 19.00 USD and includes overseas shipping. Here's the address:

Merry Makers Record Company
926 Beechwood Circle
Suisun City, CA 94585

About the music

This is a two-cornet band in the style of Joe "King" Oliver's Creole Jazz Band (KOCJB), which played in Chicago in the early 1920's. I like to think of the KOCJB as the band that was so hot, they had Louis Armstrong playing second cornet. The Jelly Roll Jazz Band is also influenced by Lu Watters' Yerba Buena Jazz Band, which was the first revival (post-1920's) traditional jazz band, and which established the West Coast style of trad jazz.

My cornet partner in this band is Leon Oakley, possibly the finest living trad jazz cornetist. It is tempting to remain silent in order to claim, by implication, more of the credit than I deserve for the cornet work. But the vast majority of the lead cornet parts and cornet solos are Leon's. (And with good reason!) I mostly play the second (harmony) cornet parts. I do get some solo choruses and breaks, and occasionally an arrangement would call for us to switch parts so that I play lead for a while.

Once you're used to Leon's powerful and assured playing, it's pretty easy to recognize my own lesser efforts. However I will mention that on one number, "Chimes Blues", I do play lead throughout and also play the cornet solo. I was happy with the way that one came out. Also on "King of the Zulus" the first 16-bar cornet solo is Leon's, and the one immediately following is mine; and I play lead on the first chorus following those solos. Leon returns to lead the final out chorus.

Personnel: Leon Oakley and Rick Holzgrafe, cornets; Glenn Calkins, trombone; Pete Main, reeds; Ray Skjelbred, piano; Tom Downs and Howard Miyata, tuba; Bert Thompsen, drums; Ken Keeler and Ted Shafer, banjos. (This band has two cornets and two banjos, but not two tubas! Tom Downs played tuba for one of the two recording sessions, and Howard Miyata played the other. The liner notes specify which tunes each of them played.)

Tune list:
  1. Ostrich Walk
  2. Aunt Hagar's Blues
  3. Alligator Hop
  4. Terrible Blues
  5. Tiger Moan
  6. Snag It
  7. Grandpa's Spells
  8. King of the Zulus
  9. I'm Going Away to Wear You Off My Mind
  10. Chimes Blues
  11. Buddy's Habit
  12. Of All the Wrongs
  13. Krooked Blues
  14. New Orleans Stomp
  15. Jazzin' Babies Blues
  16. Tears
  17. Room Rent Blues
  18. Midnight Mama
  19. Sorry
  20. Bay City
  21. Here Come the Hot Tamale Man

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Librarians Say More Than "Shh!"

My friend J.C. Lawrence passed this along via Twitter: Uncle Bobby's Wedding, a blog post by librarian Jamie Larue. It is an incredibly well-reasoned (and well-written) response to a library patron who wanted a particular book removed or sequestered. I find it remarkable not only for its defense of free speech, but for its respect for the differing points of view found in our heterogenous and contentious society.

(As a side note, Mr. Larue's blog site gave me a little moment of deja vú because it is formatted almost identically to my own. But that's a coincidence.)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Free Games Friday at Tasty Minstrel Games

Tasty Minstrel Games is gearing up for the release of its first two games, Terra Prime and Homesteaders. I'm excited about both of these games: I helped playtest Terra Prime, and Homesteaders just looks like the kind of game Helen and I will love. The photos (and video!) of the games look great; Tasty Minstrel went all-out to produce a pair of quality products. Both games are currently available for pre-order at great prices (I've already placed my order!), and TMG hopes to ship them in mid-autumn of this year. (To pre-order, follow the video link and scroll down.)

As part of their startup promotions, TMG is hosting Free Games Friday: every Friday they give away a free board game to someone randomly selected from their email newsletter subscribers. The games are from TMG founder Michael Mindes' own collection, and there are some good ones in there. I'd be participating in that, but I already own most of them myself!

I'm posting about all this for several reasons. First, I think these are going to be fine games, well produced, and as I said above, the pre-order prices can't be beat. Second, if they continue as they have started, TMG will be producing a line of games of similar quality, and I want to see that happen. Third, the TMG developer (and designer of Terra Prime) is my good buddy Seth Jaffee, so I'm doing all I can to help Seth and Michael promote their business. And finally... well, Helen wants one of their plush dragons, and apparently I can get one for her if I post about Free Games Friday in this blog!

Now, I wonder what the expiration date is on that old bag of Dragon Chow that's stashed in the garage...

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Battle of the Bands!

Last weekend was pretty busy. On Saturday I had a three-hour gig with the Mission Gold Jazz Band down in Monterey. That went very well; the band had fun, and the audience did too: we had people dancing whose ages ranged from the teenagers manning the food booths up to the senior citizens.

Sunday I drove back to Monterey again, for the Monterey Dixieland club's "Battle of the Bands." Monterey holds a three-day jazz festival, the "Jazz Bash by the Bay", every year in March. Bands appear by invitation only. For their 30th anniversary in 2010, they decided to hold a competition to select one "wild card" band to appear at the Jazz Bash in 2010. Four bands competed, and I was in two of them.

One of my bands was brand-new: Valerie Johnson and her King Bees. Sunday was our premiere performance. But I have played with Val and nearly everyone else in the group before, and it's always good music and great fun. Val sings songs ranging from naughty novelty songs, to the blues à la Bessie Smith, to gospel. She's the best jazz singer I know. You can hear Val sing with the Creole Syncopators here: Valerie Johnson: Good Tunes.

My other band was the Mission Gold Jazz Band, a group I've been performing with for over 15 years. We've had our ups and downs during those years, but bandleader John Soulis has always tried to keep to the King Oliver / Lu Watters two-cornet style. After 15 years I can play a lot of these tunes in my sleep; but I don't, because a really rockin' two-cornet band is (in my opinion, anyway!) considerably more exciting than, say, the SuperBowl.

Sunday's challenge for me was that I was playing trombone with the King Bees, and cornet with Mission Gold. Now, I'll tell you a secret: playing a brass instrument is an unnatural act. It takes considerable development of the embouchure (the muscles around your mouth and in your lips) to be able to do it at all. Switching between a low-register instrument like the trombone, and a high-register instrument like the cornet, adds a whole new layer of challenge to it. I've been asked how the hell I do it, more than once, by other brass players. (Usually I answer, "Badly.") On Sunday, I had fifteen minutes to jump off the stage after the King Bees' set, run and change my yellow-and-black shirts for the MGJB's button-down shirt and tie, run back and move my stands and horns around, and tighten up my chops for cornet work. Twice. Believe me, I was tired when it was all over.

I'm sorry to report that the King Bees seemed to be under a curse that day. We didn't get to rehearse because we come from scattered areas around California; Sunday was the very first time we had all played together. Half the band was late to the first set—well, we started only a minute or two late, but they literally ran from their car onto the stage, pulling on shirts as they came; no chance to settle down and focus on music. Then the sound system went bad on us; we couldn't hear each other and nobody but me could hear Val (I was standing next to her).

Nevertheless the band performed well, on the whole. I think the audience didn't realize what level of musicianship they were hearing, some of the time. One tune finished with a spot-on ending that most bands would have had to write out and carefully rehearse; the King Bees just pulled it out of the air. And in the second set we played a tune that the reed player had written out during the break for the benefit of the rhythm section. It was "Never Swat a Fly", in honor of the swarms of bugs we all endured. That tune came off perfectly, again as if we'd rehearsed it. (Side note: I actually did suck down a bug at one point, and had to spit it out again before I could continue playing—bleah! It really wasn't the best conditions I've ever performed in!) The King Bees will be making appearances at other festivals in future, and as we settle in I expect great things.

Mission Gold, on the other hand, had a great day. We did get to rehearse beforehand, for weeks, and we'd had that three-hour gig the day before. We were in top form, and if I may say so, we blew the audience away. Mission Gold won the Battle of the Bands by count of ballots, but I think we could have won it by simple acclamation: we were the only band for whom the audience broke into applause simply because the judges mentioned our name.

So that means that the Mission Gold Jazz Band will appear at Dixieland Monterey's Jazz Bash by the Bay, March 5-7, 2010, along with a host of other fine bands. I expect to have a blast.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Pacificon 2009: Other Games

We got to try several new (to us) games at Pacificon, and some of them were noteworthy. Here's a quick rundown on the good ones:

Endeavor: I'd been hearing buzz about this game, and it seems to be justified. Endeavor is an appealing combination of worker placement and area control. That's not an unusual set of mechanics these days (see Royal Palace below), but I usually enjoy this genre and Endeavor had some interesting additional mechanics. It is also a "building" game, where you start with few resources and capabilities and try to build them up over the course of the game, and this is another pattern that Helen and I like. In that regard Endeavor felt much like Through the Ages: you need to develop in several different categories at the start of the game, but it's difficult to do so in a quick-yet-balanced fashion. The start-up process is slow, but there seems to be a powerful snowball effect that isn't apparent in the first couple of rounds. Endeavor hasn't leaped to the top of my must-have list because other games we own (especially Goa) offer a similar experience. But it is also different enough from those other games to stand on its own, and we may well pick up a copy one day.

Royal Palace: This is another game of worker placement + area control, but this one reminded us more of Louis XIV. Partly it's the theme, since both are set in the courts of France. But both offer bonuses to the player with the most workers in each location. An interesting twist is that workers are removed from some areas when they are used, so the area control aspect is very fluid. It is possible for every player to have the majority in a given area in succession, as each takes their turn. But unused workers remain, and in some areas workers remain even if used, so it's also possible to build up a big advantage and keep it. Helen commented (and I think I agree—it didn't hurt my opinion that I won our four-player game!) that while she prefers Louis XIV, Royal Palace has the strong advantage of being a good two-player game. I think we will want a copy of this.

Glory to Rome: Helen tried this one and enjoyed it so much, she practically dragged me by the collar to have me try it. I think she was right. This is a card game similar to San Juan and Race for the Galaxy: the salient feature is that every card has multiple uses, but you can use only one of the options for each card. In GtR the cards can be used as resources for building buildings, to trigger actions (such as building, acquiring resources, or cashing them in), or simply stashed away for their face value in victory points. Also as in San Juan and Race for the Galaxy, when a player chooses an action all the other players have a chance to take that action as well. The bottom line: this game has fairly simple rules yet offers many options. Player interaction is high and can lead to a certain amount of chaos, but in a shortish game like Glory to Rome that's okay. Copies of Glory to Rome are rare and are currently expensive. But rumor has it that many more copies exist and are waiting to be delivered into retail channels, so we'll be patient. We will definitely acquire this one when we can.

The Stars Are Right: We are not usually fans of Steve Jackson's card games, which are far too light and chaotic for our taste. The Stars Are Right looks like a typical SJ game, with irreverently cartoony artwork of Cthulhu and his sanity-threatening buddies from H. P. Lovecraft's horror stories. But this game was not actually designed by Jackson, and it has some genuine depth to it: it's what Helen calls a "chewy" game. Like Glory to Rome, the cards have multiple uses; unlike Glory to Rome, there's an array of tiles on the table (the "constellations in the sky") that can be manipulated with your cards, and this gives the game an element of spatial thinking that's missing from most card games. We bought a copy in the dealer's room, and we've been enjoying it.

Martian Rails: We're fans of the Empire Builder crayon rail series, and we could not resist adding this new entry to our collection. It's notable for its "spherical" map: Lunar Rails also has a spherical map, but the one in Martian Rails is easier to deal with. The designer combined the areography of the real, modern Mars with Schiaparelli's illusory canals and with locales and references from classic science fiction: Burroughs, Weinbaum, Clarke, Bradbury, and more. It's practically worth the price of the game just to study the map, but it is also fun to play. The extreme terrain of Mons Olympus and Valles Marineris are there, and pose some unique and entertaining challenges.

Pacificon 2009: Rottweiler

This Labor Day weekend Helen and I trekked off to Pacificon for three days of intensive gaming. Happily, Pacificon really isn't much of a trek for us: it's about 10 minutes from home, so we could spend all day and half the night at the con and still sleep in our own beds. But because we did game late every night, we we're pretty bushed by the end. (That, and an unexpectedly busy week, makes this a late posting.)

A primary goal for me was to get in a few live playtests of Rottweiler. I'd hoped for three, but got two, which wasn't bad at all. (Lesson learned for future: schedule stuff like this in advance. Trying to get pickup sessions together is unreliable and time-wasteful.) Both sessions went very well, all things considered. I had some experienced players and some newbies; some but not all of the experienced players had seen a prior version of the Rottweiler map. Overall, both sessions "worked": nothing was clearly broken. The balance of the various starting positions wasn't perfect, but of course I don't expect or need it to be; I just need it to not be too horribly unbalanced. Game lengths were a bit shorter than I expected, lasting about two hours or a little less each. I am considering adding a few more empty city markers to extend the game another round or two.

There were some parts that didn't work as well as I'd like. One new feature continues to be troublesome. I've tried a number of variations for it. One such sounds good on paper, but is rarely used in practice—and given that, why bother having the feature at all? Another does get used simply because its rules pretty much require it; but it does not foster competition or interaction among the players, so again it feels pretty pointless to me. I would happily abandon the whole notion, but it's something the publishers are interested in, so I feel that I must make a strong effort to make it work. Then if I fail, I can at least list all the reasons why the feature should be dropped.

A few other items need tweaking or abandonment. There are some Rail Baron and Railroad Operations cards that I added for historical theme; there I may be trying too hard. Some are specific to certain historical locations and events, and wind up feeling like unjustified gifts to those players who build in the area. That's okay as a general rule—Service Bounties are like that—but I have to be careful not to make them too powerful (which is unfair) or too weak (which is pointless). It's surprisingly difficult to balance these things: the granularity of VPs and achievements seems too coarse at times. If I lower the difficulty, the reward is suddenly too great. If I raise the reward, it's too much advantage for the player who achieves the goal. Argh! But I have some other knobs I can tweak, so I think I may yet be able to salvage these items. The map itself seems to be much improved. I didn't find anything in these sessions to suggest any urgent changes, although I did find a couple of "typos" to fix up.

I think the next step is to run a few more solo playtests, to try some tweaks to the troublesome issues. If I can make significant improvements, I'll look for more opportunities for live playtests. The publisher has some groups they want to sic onto Rottweiler, and they seemed to want to start this process in September, so I'll try to get something together for them soon.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Rottweiler: Learning to Heel

Last night was the first live playtest of Rottweiler, following four solo playtests over the last couple of weeks. I learn more with every play.

Although I've been playing RotW games (under their original "Railroad Tycoon" name) for several years now, this is the first time I've done so while taking a global view. Instead of concentrating on my own plans and paying attention to others only to the degree that they might interfere with me, I am now watching what every player does, and why. It's been very instructive.

I've learned what should have been obvious from the beginning: that the various bonus-scoring opportunities—Major Lines, Service Bounties, and Baron cards—have a large effect in shaping the game. (Major Lines are bonuses for laying track between specified pairs of cities; other bonuses may have similar effects.) For my first cut, I set up the bonuses to motivate players to re-create the historical rail routes. Two plays showed me why that was wrong: it allowed as many as five players to each carve out a separate empire, with little need to get in each other's way. This makes for a boring game.

So I've had to throw out some of the history. I re-worked the Major Lines, removing a couple that routed around the edges of the board, and adding some to draw players together at a couple of central nexuses. The improvement in the game was immediate and marked: suddenly there was contention in these targeted areas, and players had to start worrying about their opponents' plans and activities much earlier in the game.

Last night's playtest went very well. Everyone seemed to enjoy the game, and there was nothing that was clearly broken. But there is certainly room for improvement, and I happily received some good analysis and a number of excellent suggestions. My next steps are to extend some mountains here, reduce some cube counts there, and tweak the Major Lines some more. Then print the new map and run some more solo tests before taking taking it to Pacificon over Labor Day weekend for more live playtests.

The news is not all wonderful. Part of the motivation for Rottweiler is to add a couple of the innovative features from my Hammer and Spike game to this RotW expansion. One of those features is working well, but the other one is not throwing the same kind of sparks. I need to find some way to improve it. I'd like to have a better revision in time for Pacificon, if I can swing it.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Code Name Rottweiler!

It's not much of a code name if everybody knows what it means, but I've taken to thinking of my expansion for RotW (the abbreviation of "Railways of the World") as "rottweiler". This comes purely from the letters; for the record, I see no particular parallels between the dog breed (or any dog breed!) and the game system. And I wouldn't have bothered mentioning it here, but I couldn't resist the hyper-dramatic "Code Name Rottweiler!" title for the post. Sounds like a bad spy movie!

I should make up for the preceding blather with some meaningful news, so here's the current status of... Code Name Rottweiler! (Okay, I'll stop now, I promise.)

I have a first cut at the map nearly complete. I just need to add starting cube counts to the towns and cities, and make sure it will print okay in black and white. (Why? See below.)

I have a first cut at the Railroad Ops cards designed. I still need to make the deck, either by laying out some mocked-up cards on the computer and printing them out, or by just scribbling on paper. Either way, I'll stick the EUS deck into card sleeves, then slip in the paper cards over the real ones. I've also finished the first cut at the Rail Baron cards. I have a good selection of Barons and (I hope) a good set of bonuses.

I'll need to tune a VP/income track for the game, but I can start with the one from the main game. I can use the modular scoring track boards that Helen made for our copy of the original Railroad Tycoon until I decide what tweaks I want to make. (If you play RRT on the big board and hate that scoring track, you can download Helen's modular scoring track from BoardGameGeek. Be sure to give her a thumb if you like it!)

Acting on a tip from an experienced developer, I discovered that I can print out a full-size board on a single sheet of paper at Kinko's, for just $0.75 per square foot! That comes to all of $6 for one copy, which is dirt cheap. I'd always looked at the color prices which are significantly higher, and I had never realized that black and white is so inexpensive. A RotW board doesn't need much color; what little it needs can be added in five minutes with a set of felt pens.

The bottom line: I plan to print my first board tomorrow and be doing my first solo playtests this weekend! That's an exciting thought.

Monday, August 3, 2009

J.C.'s "On Drowning in Games"

In case any of the gamers who read this blog don't also read J. C. Lawrence's blog, here's a post of his that I particularly liked: On Drowning in Games.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Getting Rolling

It's been three weeks since my last post. The major reason for this is that I've been asked not to be too forthcoming with details about the Railways of the World expansion I'm working on. This has put a crimp in my blogging style.

But I suppose I can get away with some generalities. For one thing, I was mistaken in thinking that the expansion would be mostly designed by others; turns out it's mainly in my lap. The board, the cards, the variant rules, all of it. I'll have help and advice from the publisher's developers, of course.

This is not how I foresaw my first publication contract! I thought I'd design a game, get it mostly finished, then get it licensed. After that, just playtest and tweak until the publisher is happy; the rest would be the publisher's problem. I didn't expect to have much left to do at this point. Instead I have to start almost from scratch!

Okay, it's not really "from scratch." The RotW system is well-defined and so are the Hammer and Spike features that I will be adding in; I'm not inventing a whole new game. But I still have to draw the map, define the cards, tune a scoring track (the scoring track in RRT/RotW is also the income track, so it affects the whole game economy), and fine-tune the H&S features (which, after all, were not originally designed for RotW). That's a lot to do. Fortunately I think it will be tremendous fun, and I've definitely been enjoying the process so far.

I've been told what part of the world the map must cover. Given that, I've been studying the history of the region, to see how the railroads grew there and what special conditions obtained. RotW is not a simulation game, so most of the historical detail is pretty useless; but I've gotten some ideas for the cards, and some notions on how to lay out the map (for example, the towns that were important to the railroads back then aren't always the ones that are largest or most important now). In fact I have more ideas than I'm going to be able to use. That's a good thing: it's better to have too much than to not have enough!

I've also been asked to try to make the H&S features into an optional variant that can be used with any RotW map, if you've got the rules and bits from my expansion. I've been testing that out on the Europe map, and I'm pleased to say that I think they will work.

Working on the board is going to be interesting. I've never made a prototype board this big before, and my usual cheap-and-dirty technique of printing it out on 8.5x11" sheets and taping them together may be too big a pain. I think this time I'm going to spend some money and have a print shop do it as a single big sheet, and then maybe have them laminate it so I can draw and erase on it easily. (No, it will not be as big as the original gargantuan RRT board. But it's not small either.)

Finally, and just to head off the questions: no, I don't know when it will be released. I just started working on it a couple of weeks ago! All I can tell you is that it will be a good long while, so there's no point in being impatient.

But yes, when I have it sufficiently developed, some of you will be able to playtest it. In fact, I'm counting on it!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Publishing Update

Spatial Delivery
The publisher who has been reviewing Spatial Delivery has (after a year!) finally tested it, and tells me that they are currently looking for lighter games. They haven't quite said "get lost" and the prototype will be tested further at their main office, but the news is not encouraging.

I have contacts at a couple of other publishers who may be interested in Spatial Delivery. My home and life are going to be in some disarray over the next few weeks (we are remodeling) but after that, and if the current publisher hasn't changed their mind, I will build yet another prototype and see if I can get someone else to look at it.

Hammer and Spike
This one got licensed! It's not quite what I had envisioned, because it will not be published as a stand-alone game the way I designed it. Instead, some of its unique features will be folded into a game already being designed by some of the publisher's other developers. But I am not too disappointed: the license is the same as it would have been for a stand-alone game; my name (among others) will be on the box; and the combined product sounds very exciting. I am sure I will someday see a game of my own published, and this is a good first step in that direction.

By the publisher's request, I am giving no details about the combined product for now. I'll post more information when I can.

Update to the update: I can now speak a bit more freely. Hammer and Spike will become a new expansion for the Railways of the World (RotW) game system. RotW is the new (and re-named) edition of Railroad Tycoon being published by FRED Distribution. I've been asked to design an expansion that will merge the unique features from Hammer and Spike with the familiar RotW system. If you've been following this blog, you know that Railroad Tycoon is my favorite game, so you can imagine how excited I am to be given this project!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

JavaFX: Looking even better

I was surprised to get a quick response to my forum post, on a Sunday afternoon yet. The response contained a solution for my unresponsive-objects problem (see below), and almost completely fixed it. I've seen the symptom recur now just once or twice in a 90-minute session, and it never persisted for more than a minute. I suspect that these remaining minor glitches have a different cause, and quite possibly are just due to my system being busy doing something else for a moment.

My virtual gameboard is now actually usable, and I played a complete game of Hammer and Spike with it in just 90 minutes. I am very pleased.

I still have more work to do: adding features, cleaning up minor bugs, and finishing the documentation. But one of these days, hopefully soon, I will make it available for others to use.

JavaFX: Looking better, but...

I took vacation last week, and spent some of it working on my JavaFX virtual gameboard app (still inadequately named "Placer"). I've resolved some of the problems that were worrying me at the time of my last post: the exceptions are gone, the design and code are cleaner, the feature set and UI of the app itself have improved. I've figured out how it can be deployed, too, although unhappily it must use Java Web Start and requires the user to have a fast Internet connection (at every launch! Why won't Sun give us a better option?).

But my biggest problem remains unsolved. Sometimes, some of the objects in the window (cubes, banks, other clickable or draggable things) simply stop responding to mouse clicks for a while. This is mystifying because of the apparent inconsistency of the behavior. For example other objects in the same window remain perfectly responsive and well-behaved while the frozen ones continue to ignore the mouse. And a frozen object will often spontaneously unfreeze later on; but the period during which it remains frozen can be anywhere from a few seconds to many minutes. I have circumstantial evidence suggesting that a frozen object is more likely to unfreeze soon if I drag some other (and obviously more responsive) object over the frozen one; but this certainly does not always work, so it may be coincidence.

Until this issue is cleared up, the app is not viable. When objects freeze up like that, the app becomes effectively unusable. (It's okay if objects freeze up when you don't want to manipulate them. But you only notice that they're frozen when you do want to manipulate them, which means that your game is stopped until you can unfreeze the things you need to move.)

I've joined Sun's developer network, and posted in their JavaFX forum about my problem. And now I have yet another thing to wait for. I'm spending a lot of time sitting by my virtual phone these days, waiting to hear from game publishers, CD makers, and now helpful JavaFX gurus. It's getting old.

Saturday, June 6, 2009


JavaFX is yet-another-scripting-language. It promises that you can quickly create Java applets and applications with fancy visual effects by writing simple little scripts instead of miserably complex Java code. Does it deliver?

I was sic'ed onto JavaFX at my day job, charged with whipping up some cool new UI mockups. I quickly became fascinated. You can accomplish a lot with a little, using JavaFX. But that's not enough; I need to find out whether it can create industrial-strength applications, and if so, whether the code is readable and maintainable, and whether the UI it produces runs quickly and is responsive to the user.

I won't go into my day-job's proprietary stuff here. But (just in order to learn, you understand) one of the first things I did was start building a virtual gameboard. It went so well and so quickly that I've kept working on the project at home on my own time.

What is a virtual gameboard? I wanted a tool to quickly prototype a new game idea on the computer, without having to spend time and money assembling physical pieces. I wanted to be able to play the game (by myself, as I always do with new game ideas), change the rules and pieces, then play again, with rapid turn-around time on the changes. I also wanted play to go at least as quick as it would with real materials. I called the tool "Placer" because it will let me place things on a virtual gameboard. (A lame name, but it doesn't need a better one at the moment.)

Placer lets you specify an image file for the gameboard, which it displays in a window. A tool-palette area is automatically provided to the left of the board. In the palette are templates: If you see a red cube in the palette, for example, you can click-and-drag on it. It will produce a copy of itself (another red cube) that gets dragged away under your mouse. You drop the copy (called a "token") anywhere you like on the board. The template stays put, in the palette, and can be used again and again to make more tokens. A template is therefore a sort of virtual, limitless pile of its particular kind of token.

Placer is configured from a text file, in which you can specify a wide variety of templates for the palette: squares and rectangles, circles and ovals, cubes, disks, and more. Each one can be given a color, so you can have (say) four templates for the cube supply of four different players: one template each in red, yellow, green, and blue.

Tokens on the board can be moved around as much as you like. They can also be rotated, and each has a little popup menu that lets you delete the token or get a little information about it.

There are a couple of fancier kinds of tokens. One is the Bank, which displays an amount of money. Click on it to make a withdrawal: a small text box appears, you type in the amount to withdraw, and the Bank creates a new Cash token under your mouse. The Cash token displays the amount of money that you withdrew, and you can drag the Cash off to wherever you want it to go. The Bank stays behind, now displaying the balance that remains after your withdrawal. If a game uses money, you can create a master bank for the game, and then give each player a bank of their own. When you drop a Cash token onto a Bank, the Cash disappears and its value is added to the Bank's balance, making it easy to transfer money among the players. (The image shows a $13 bill ready to be dropped onto the Red player's bank, which currently contains $42.)

So has it been all kittens and rainbows? Nope, it hasn't. As is always the case with Java or anything Java-related, layout (that is, getting everything to be in the right place) is a major pain. JavaFX features coordinate-system manipulations that you must use to get anything significant done; no doubt they are very powerful and carefully thought out, but it gets very difficult to keep it all straight in your head (and your code) when you're writing something complex. Event handling is a bit tricky, and seems not always to work as advertised: sometimes my tokens simply ignore clicks and drags, with no clue as to why. (I suspect the garbage collector, at the moment.) And then sometimes JavaFX just throws a huge exception, stopping my app cold. It seems to be because I've coded something wrong, but I don't (yet) understand why I can play half a game of Hammer and Spike before it suddenly decides it doesn't like me.

Another issue is deployment. Suppose I finish up Placer, and want you to use it: how do I give it to you, and how do you install it? JavaFX isn't really designed for building stand-alone apps. You're supposed to access JavaFX programs via the Internet: as browser applets, or mobile device apps. It does provide a way to use WebStart files to deliver a desktop app, but these may have Java sandbox problems, which would be a killer for Placer: it has to be able to read your config file and board art.

But we'll see. I'm not done playing with it yet!

Monday, May 25, 2009

My Designs at KublaCon 2009

Hammer and Spike suffered a setback recently, when we found a strategy that was successful, simple, and dead boring to play. To fix it I've adjusted the scoring. The bad news is that the scoring is now even more complex, but the good news is that the fix seems to be working. I hosted a four-player game at KublaCon that included a couple of new players and a couple of experienced train gamers, and I liked the way it played out. The winner was JC Lawrence, who also pointed out a problem I hadn't seen before (but which will be easily fixed, I think) and who gave some good feedback and advice.

And there is finally some news about the fate of Spatial Delivery. In our last episode (and the one before that, and the one before that...), the prototype had been sent off to a publisher shortly after winning the KublaCon game design contest in 2008. There followed nearly a full year of dead silence. I restrained myself from attempting to contact the publisher, reasoning that publishers were busy, they'd get to it when they had a chance, and there was no point in making a pest of myself. But this weekend I spoke to a company rep and learned that they'd recently had to fire a clerical worker for incompetence. This worker had made any number of bad-for-business mistakes, and one of them was losing my prototype (along with my contact info, of course). Fortunately the rep I spoke to was the very person who should have received the prototype in the first place. I had just built a new copy and had it with me hoping to play it, but instead I gave it to the rep. He told me it would be played next weekend and that I would hear something back within just a few weeks. So Spatial Delivery is back on track!

Now I just have to hope that the publisher actually likes it. But if they don't, I have a backup opportunity. The KublaCon contest director tells me that she has been talking the game up to a second publisher. I'm going to stick with the first until they make up their minds (at least, if it doesn't take another year for them to do so), but I would be perfectly happy to go with the second publisher if things fall out that way.

The lesson learned is obvious: keep in touch. I still think it's a bad idea to be a pest, but from now on any such publisher who hasn't contacted me within the last three months will hear from me. I don't intend to lose an entire year again.

And now I have two designs being actively evaluated by two publishers, and backup publishers for both. Cross your fingers for me! I'm hoping to have at least one game on its way to market, maybe two, by next year's KublaCon.

KublaCon 2009

Whew! We're back from KublaCon, four days of delightfully intense boardgaming. And we're tired. (And my wallet is huddled in a corner, curled into a fetal position and sobbing.)

The high spots included scoring an inexpensive copy of Santa Fe Rails at the flea market, attending the game design contest awards, and playing two games designed by friends: Dylan Kirk's Genji, and JC Lawrence's Corner Lot. I also enjoyed a three-player game of Silverton (only the second time, I believe, that I've beaten Helen fair and square) and our first five-player game of Union Pacific, which confirmed our opinion that it is a great game.

Genji is a game about competitively wooing Japanese princesses by writing beautiful poems. I purchased it because I know the author (via Web) and, well, because it was cheap. Now that I've played it, I consider it a great bargain, because it's delightful. We're looking forward to more plays. The designer also did the artwork, which is thoroughly Japanese in style and theme and very lovely. It's almost worth owning the game just because it's so pretty. Unfortunately the publisher had some production problems and we had to ask for a replacement copy. One was given to us instantly, and we're happy now; but I hope the game gets republished soon with better quality.

Corner Lot has not yet been published, but if JC pursues it, I think it will happen before long. It's a card game with a theme of acquiring and developing real estate. The goal is to finish with the most money, which you accomplish by collecting sets of cards. The heart of the game is the unusual auction process by which you acquire the cards, and the tight budgeting that JC has carefully designed in. I liked it a lot.

I attend the game design contest every year, even though I don't always enter a design of my own. (I didn't enter this year, partly because I won last year, and partly because my current design is already being evaluated by a publisher.) But two games designed by friends were entered: the aforementioned Corner Lot, and Candy Weber's Coronets.

Both games fared well. The contest director was full of praise for Coronets, saying that she always looked forward to Candy's designs and that this was the best yet. They had a couple of nits to pick (no game gets away without a few nits being picked) but they found nothing wrong with the game that couldn't be fixed, and even the couple of things they recommended changing are not necessarily wrong. Corner Lot was judged to be "Knizia-like" (which is a compliment) and publishable, needing only a good player aid.

The winner was an abstract two-player game called "Kiva" with a really innovative idea. Its only real flaw seemed to be that the innovative idea makes it very expensive to publish, so finding a publisher willing to take it on will be difficult. I'm not going to specify the innovative idea because I don't know if the designer wants it broadcast on the Internet. But it looked very cool, and I'd like to try it myself.

The next post will include a bit of news about the progress of my own designs.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Recording Artist

In my previous post I mentioned that I was gearing up to record a CD with Ted Shafer's Jelly Roll Jazz Band. After a week of home practice, three-hour rehearsals, and four-hour recording sessions, we "recording artists" are done with our part. I was tempted to say "finally done" because it feels to me as if it was a long haul, but really it was just that one tiring and overwhelming week.

And now all my friends are asking "when can I hear the CD?" and the answer is, "I don't know." The actual recording is finished, but much editing remains to be done before the disks can be printed. The editing is being done by the recording engineer, the bandleader, and at least two other members of the band who want a vote on which bits are used and which are tossed. I asked how long it would take and was unsurprisingly told "as long as it takes." So now I'm twiddling my thumbs and wondering if I'll have to wait a couple of weeks, a couple of months, or a couple of years. I'm guessing that the right answer will include the word "months".

I'm not sure I can honestly say it was "fun". I found it a bit too stressful to be considered "fun". There were some really good musicians in the group, and I was nervous and anxious. I just wanted not to screw up too badly in front of them, and especially not in front of the microphones which were pitilessly waiting to enshrine my every mistake for eternity.

But I think I got away with it. Fortunately my every mistake will not be enshrined, because of course we recorded at least two takes of nearly every tune. Any parts that gave us trouble were recorded multiple times, and part of the editing process is splicing together the good bits. There were a few solos I wish I could have done better, where even my best take was none too good. But that seemed to be true for everyone in the band, so I'm trying not to let my neurotic perfectionism get the better of me.

There were two tunes in particular that I was worried about. One was called "King of the Zulus". I'm very familiar with this piece, but it is a difficult one for the cornets. Playing second cornet, I can usually kind of hide down in the ensemble, and if I fumble a bit, people mostly won't notice. But in King of the Zulus there's no place to hide. Each cornet gets a full solo chorus, and both of them should be played hot and high. And my solo is immediately followed by another hot, high chorus in which the lead and second parts are swapped, so I'm playing melody for that time. It's a chop-grinder, and I wasn't sure I could play it twice in a row, so I was relieved when everyone agreed that the first take was a keeper and we didn't need to do it again!

The other piece didn't worry me at all until we got to it. It was late in the evening, Leon Oakley (the lead cornetist) was justifiably tired, and he asked me to take lead on "Chimes Blues". Fortunately for me it's not a difficult piece and it's one I know very well, but I was startled to suddenly be playing lead. We did two takes, and since I was tired too, I didn't play as well the second time through. But I was pleased with my solo on the first take, and I assume (and hope!) they'll use that one for the CD.

That was the only piece in which I played lead throughout; the rest of the time I played second, with an occasional chorus or half-chorus of lead because (I guess) the arranger wanted to give the lead a break. I just want to take a paragraph to say that this is a good thing, because the lead cornetist was Leon Oakley. I don't know of a better living trad jazz cornetist. Leon's chops are great and his musicianship is outstanding. He plays with a power, an authority, and a presence that are simply overwhelming, especially when heard live. I've been admiring (and trying to imitate) Leon's playing for 40 years, and it was a great privilege being asked to record with him. Stress notwithstanding, I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

Okay. Back to waiting for the CD!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Fires and Recordings and In-laws

I've felt all this past week as if I should be blogging, but I've been too busy and too distracted. The Jesusita Fire in Santa Barbara has occupied much of my attention. The fire not only devastated the foothills, but threatened the town itself. The neighborhood where I grew up was within a mile or or of the fire's perimeter and was under mandatory evacuation for a while; some friends of mine were also prepared to evacuate. I am saddened by the damage to the Botanical Garden, which was one of my favorite places; but it wasn't completely destroyed and I hope the damaged areas will be rebuilt and replanted. The fire is still in progress and is less than 50% contained, but the threat now seems to have lessened and the fire has moved north and west rather than south towards the town and suburbs, so things are looking up.

The in-laws paid us a visit on Friday and Saturday. I'm always happy to see them, and this brief visit was in part to deliver a car we bought from them for our son to use at college next year. We had a couple of nice dinners, some good conversation, and some excellent games with Joan. Although I was feeling a bit overwhelmed and wished the visit could have come either last weekend or next, it all worked out. I even found time to practice.

Why practice? Because on Monday and Tuesday, I'll be recording with Ted Shafer's Jelly Roll Jazz Band. For most of the group, this is a "ho-hum, another recording" event, but for me it's a very big deal. I have recorded before, but never in such professional surroundings; and I have only rarely been privileged to play with such a fine group of musicians. I definitely feel like the junior member of the group (my actual age notwithstanding) and am mostly hoping not to embarrass myself. Fortunately for all concerned I'll be playing second cornet, and for good or ill my efforts won't be too prominent. This, along with the fire, has been the main thing on my mind all week. I've been working hard on it, both at rehearsals and at home.

On the game design front there is little news. I now have two designs in the hands of publishers, and I'm back in the "hurry up and wait" mode. I have nearly completed the Spatial Delivery prototype (still have to paint the spaceships) that I'm building just to have handy, and I finally got off the dime and sent Seth his promised copy of Hammer and Spike. I'm looking forward to his group's feedback on that one.

And that's all for now. I gotta go practice!

Saturday, May 2, 2009

A Word About Tasty Minstrel

My friend Seth Jaffee has joined his friend Michael Mindes to create a new boardgame publisher, Tasty Minstrel Games. I think they will bear watching.

It may seem injudicious to start a new business venture in the current economic climate. But this may be a very good time to do it, because in contradiction to most of the rest of the economy, sales of boardgames are rising.

Veteran gamers are not surprised. We know that to take a family of four to the movies, you will spend $40 on tickets, plus $10 to $20 on munchies, plus whatever it costs to flog the family car to the theatre and back. In return for your $60 investment, you get the hassle of driving, the joy of parking, and the giddy fun of standing in line (sometimes two lines, one after the other). You do all this in order to sit in the dark and be silent for two hours. And when you're done, you're done.

Or you can spend the same amount of cash on a boardgame (sometimes two), and spend an hour or two of quality time with your friends and family, having face-to-face fun and actually talking to each other. And when you're done, you put the game on a shelf... and next week you can get it down and have all that fun all over again, and this time it doesn't cost you an extra cent.

So I think Tasty Minstrel has a shot, just from that. But obviously they'll need some good products, and here again I think the signs are hopeful. They'll be starting with a good strong design, Seth's Terra Prime, and with another game I haven't played but which I'm eager to try: Homesteaders. Tasty Minstrel has engaged Josh Cappel to do the graphic design for Terra Prime; his work is always excellent. (If I'm a very good boy, maybe he can do the art for a game of mine someday!) Homesteaders is being handled by another artist of my acquaintance; having not seen his name in print in connection with Homesteaders I'm not sure if I should name him here. But I've seen some of the artwork, and it's good stuff.

Obviously I'm biased here. Seth is a good friend and I wish him well; and I have a nodding Internet acquaintance with the two graphic designers as well. You folks out there in Readerland are welcome to wait until you read a review or two before deciding whether to invest your movie money in a Tasty Minstrel game. But I've already played Terra Prime, and followed some of the development of Homesteaders. I am entirely ready to give the latest X-Men epic a miss, and I will be in line to purchase copies of both games as soon as they're available.

Progress Report: Not Much

It's been a while since my last post, so I thought I'd issue a brief update, to wit: not much news here. After the excitement of GameStorm and the rush to get a copy of Hammer and Spike off to certain interested parties, little has happened. I've made two new copies (one for me, one for Seth), but haven't had much time to actually play or work with the game.

I've also been building a new copy of Spatial Delivery. I haven't had one since I sent my last copy to a publisher, last June. Having heard nothing since then, I figure it's time to give it some attention. I have no immediate plans for it except to start playing it again, but I should at least have a copy of my own, yes?

Hammer and Spike did get another playtest today, at the Los Altos Games Day. The day was great fun, as always. Helen and I particularly enjoyed a session of Age of Empires III, an excellent game that we've neglected for too long. I finished the day with the four-player H&S session, which seemed to go well on the whole. It did run kind of long, but perhaps that can be chalked up to having three newbies in the game. They all picked it up pretty well, and by the end were building fuel depots and switchyards and making the long deliveries like veterans. Two of them said they would happily play it again sometime, which is always nice to hear (although you have to make allowances; sometimes people are just being polite to the game designer who, after all, is standing right there). A couple of folks who stopped by to watch also expressed interest in playing the game, so I can hope to have more guinea pigs playtesters soon.

It was a good day!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Terra Prime at GameStorm

Seth Jaffee brought a prototype of his game Terra Prime to GameStorm. Seth's been a real supporter and contributor to my own designs, and it's high time I said a word about one of his.

Terra Prime is a fun blend of the European and American styles of game design. (Those distinctions are really starting to blur these days.) In the game, Terra Prime is a station on the edge of explored space. Players are explorers who load their ships at Terra Prime with weapons, shields, and colonists, then head out into the unknown to establish colonies, placate or defeat hostile aliens, and bring goods back from the colonies to Terra Prime.

On the European side, Terra Prime has a nicely-done economic engine, where goods brought back can be exchanged for money, ship improvements, and Victory Points (VPs). Decisions about how best to spend your goods are a key part of the game.

On the American side, the game's mechanics are faithful to the theme, and include some fun dice-rolling and direct conflict (although the battles are against aliens provided by the game, rather than against your opponents).

There is no board per se; instead individual hex tiles are laid out in a spreading fan from the large Terra Prime tile. The hexes are face-down so that players initially can't see the hazards and opportunities on the tile faces; but the backs are color-coded so that the more dangerous (and lucrative) tiles are the farthest away. To see a tile's face, you must either visit its vicinity with your ship, or view it from a distance (costing an action but granting you an exclusive, secret peek).

The tiles plus the economic engine give the game a solid development arc. Players start with basic capabilities, and at first only need to cope with the easier neighborhood near Terra Prime. While the near neighborhood is explored and its potential realized, players improve their ships and become ready to head out to the dangerous, distant edge of space, where the real profits are.

I first played this game two years ago, at KublaCon 2007. Seth has been working on it steadily since then, and the game has acquired a lot of polish. It plays quickly, offering good depth in just 90 minutes or so. Players are given plenty to think about, and their decisions are important (as shown by the masterful way Seth trashed his opponents, including me, at GameStorm!), but the dice allow for push-your-luck opportunities for adventurous (or desperate) players.

Seth posted recently that Terra Prime will be published, and I'm delighted to hear it. I've been wanting a copy for two years, and now I can look forward to actually getting one!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

GameStorm Photos

Chris Brooks posted a great report on his experience at GameStorm 11, and published quite a few photos on Flickr. Someone let me know that the photos included a shot of one of the playtests of Hammer and Spike — that's me on the right.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

GameStorm Fallout

GameStorm was a lot of fun, but I haven't had a chance to relax or breathe until now. Although I brought along Hammer and Spike mainly to show it to Seth, it wound up attracting a good deal more attention than I expected, and some of it was industry attention. The upshot was that after driving 13 hours to get home yesterday, we spent most of today frantically assembling another copy to send to someone who had requested it, and who needed it this weekend. We just got that done and shipped about an hour ago. Another person has also requested a copy, but less urgently, so we'll be making and shipping another in the near future.

This is all very gratifying, and quite astonishing to me. I simply did not expect it, and wasn't prepared for it. It was Helen who saved the day. She invented an amazing new way to make certain prototype bits, and got up this morning and drove around town collecting supplies and packing materials; then returned home and sewed up a couple of drawstring bags (emerging victorious over a cranky sewing machine), reviewed and corrected the rulebook, and finally drove us to the shipping office, just in time. We literally watched them slapping the last stickers on while the UPS guy held the box for them. I could not possibly have done all this without her, and would not have dared to try.

So now it's hurry up and wait again, I guess, just like it's been with Spatial Delivery for the last eight or nine months. If anything comes of it, I'll let y'all know. In the meantime I have to make two more prototypes (one's for me, as I cannibalized some of my original) and get in a lot more playtesting... oh yeah, and I have to run off to a rehearsal tonight.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

GameStorm 2009 at Halftime

This weekend I'm at the GameStorm boardgame convention, ostensibly in Oregon but actually just over the border in Vancouver Washington. For me the high points so far have been seeing my in-laws (Joan is an avid gamer), gaming with my design buddy Seth Jaffee, and presenting Hammer and Spike.

GameStorm has a "GameLab" track for game designers and playtesters. I got an appointment to present Hammer and Spike to a panel of local game publishers, not so much in hopes of getting it published but in order to get feedback on the game and its presentation. It was a good session, maybe 20 to 30 minutes. I got good advice and answers to a few questions I had about the industry. (For example, I learned that the game duration shown on a game's box is for new players, not experienced ones! I didn't know that.) There wasn't time to play the game so the panel doesn't really know if a game is any good. But they were impressed with what they saw, which was very gratifying; and I got invited to bring Hammer and Spike to an invitation-only playtest session on Sunday (tomorrow, as I write this) for the best of the games they have reviewed this weekend.

I had one informal playtest yesterday with Seth, his friend Jeremy, Joan, and myself. It went well, but we all agreed that it went too long. I currently set the game at a constant 20 rounds, but the game was definitely "over" after 17 or 18 rounds. This is a point I've been dithering over, and I now think that 20 really is probably too many. I'm going to try 18 for a while: a bigger cut than it sounds like, since the last rounds are analysis-paralysis festivals and take way longer than earlier rounds. I still want a typical game to come in at 2 hours or less.

It's now Saturday morning, and I'm looking forward to playing some of Seth's designs: Terra Prime, Homesteaders, and/or Brain Freeze. I played Terra Prime two years ago and I'm eager to see the changes he's made since then. Homesteaders (designed by Alex Rockwell, but Seth helped with development) and Brain Freeze are games I haven't played yet, and I'm eager to see them.

I'll update this post with a few links later on, but right now it's time to gather our aggies and head for the con. Game on!

P.S. Saturday evening—I've added those links, and here's another: Seth's GameStorm reports.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Adventures in Prototyping

My game design blogging has a split personality; much of it goes here, but some also goes up at the Board Game Designers Forum. This weekend I made a more durable board for the Nameless Rail Game, and chronicled the effort in some detail in my journal there. I felt that the content was of more interest to hard-core designers than to the more general crowd that reads this site, but if you're interested, follow the link.

I made the board because a flat, stiff, foldable board is a lot easier to transport than the taped-together big sheets of paper I've been making for home use. Helen and I are about to head up to Oregon to visit family and attend GameStorm, where I hope to get more playtesting done.

And the beast may finally have a name. The new board is labeled Hammer and Spike, which may not be great but is not in use by any other games. It will serve until and unless I hear a distinctly better suggestion. My thanks to all those who suggested alternate names, but I have to live with Helen and she didn't like some of them, so Hammer and Spike it is.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Picking Up Steam

Two more live playtests, at the Los Altos Games Day! The game was well received, and I was quite pleased with the results.

The changes I made after last week's session worked well. Playtime came in at about two hours, and I suspect would be a bit shorter with experienced players. Players successfully built transcontinental networks and made coast-to-coast deliveries by the end of the game. A few switchyards were built in each game, but never all six. That all seemed just right.

On the down side, my long-standing worries that the scoring system is badly balanced were borne out. The reward for connecting all six cities is so high that a player who fails to do so is almost guaranteed to lose. This would be okay except that it's usually clear which players will fail by around halfway through the game. It's no fun being the goat in a game in which there is almost always one designated goat.

The way to fix that is probably to raise the VP reward for building switchyards. The trailing player has an advantage here, in a way: if he is flexible enough to give up on the six-city goal early enough, he will save several actions and a fair amount of cash. He can then devote those resources to switchyard building, and remain competitive with the six-city players.

I have also recently revised the simulator to play by the new rules, and run another couple hundred thousand simulations or so. These were, as before, mostly explorations of balance. It has become quite clear that an intelligent first player has a huge advantage over his opponents, because the choice of starting locations is not even remotely balanced. This isn't unusual for rail games. The simulations show that it can be balanced by giving the players differing amounts of starting cash. In the game rules, I expect I will express this in two ways: a "standard game" in which the starting cash is simply dictated by the rules, and an "advanced game" in which the players hold an initial auction for turn order. Players will use the standard rules until they feel qualified to judge fine differences in starting positions, and can then advance to the auction rules. (Unlike Age of Steam and Railroad Tycoon, I don't think this game needs a turn-order auction every round. One at the start of the game should be sufficient, and the turn order need not change after that.)

Finally, I came away with a clear understanding about the current inadequacies of the board graphics and the player aids. This is not part of game design (since I have no plans to self-publish), but a well-made prototype really helps newbies concentrate on the game instead of on decoding the board and remembering the rules. I have some ideas for improvements, and I will be playing around in Photoshop to try to turn those ideas into clear graphics.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

I Got Game

Saturday the long-awaited live playtest of the nameless rail game finally happened, and I'm pleased to report that it went very well. My playtesters were Candy Weber, John Portley, Helen, and myself. (John and Candy brought designs of their own that we also tried, and those went well too. But I don't know if they want Internet coverage, so I'm just going to talk about mine for now.)

There was good news, and bad news. The good news was that all players agreed that the game presented interesting and difficult decisions; it wasn't just a matter of turning the crank. (I was worried about that.) The bad news was that it took over three and a half hours to play!

Everyone was very nice about the length of it, and pointed out that it was a learning game for everyone except me, and that we also stopped periodically to discuss the design. True, but I think those excuses only go so far. I don't want the game to last more than two hours. In my playtesting it usually takes only two hours. But you have to allow time for people to chat, and I also don't want a newbie's first experience to be a marathon. So I'm going to give some attention to speeding up play. This probably means reducing the number of rounds and tweaking things to allow players to get stuff done in fewer turns. I received some very good suggestions about how to accomplish that, and I intend to try them out. The best idea I heard was to change a couple of actions into non-actions, so that you can get a bit more done in your turn. I think that will not only speed things up, but also remove some of the major sources of player frustration that I observed.

Between those suggestions and a few tweaks of my own that I've been thinking about for a while, I have a laundry list of things to experiment with. But none of these items are major changes; they all amount to streamlining of one kind or another. I'll try them out in solo play over the next week or two, to see which ones help and which don't. In two weeks there's a Games Day, and I'll probably bring the latest version to that and see if I can get another live test. After that I can bring it to GameStorm in Portland at the end of March, and eventually KublaCon at the end of May. I can hope that by then it will be pretty stable.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Know the score!

A game's scoring system is what motivates the players. It's the carrot that the designer dangles in front of the players, to entice them to go where he wants them to go. A large part of the work I've put into the nameless rail game has been tweaking the scoring system. I want players to build wide, continent-spanning networks, and use their networks to make long deliveries. I want them to compete with each other for the best routes and for connections to cities that not everyone will be able to reach. I want to inspire track-building races.

The scoring system has to reward this kind of behavior. But to be really good, it needs to do more. Jonathan Degann has written about the "big bomb" notion in scoring. A "big bomb" (put simply) is a high-scoring accomplishment that more than one player can strive for, but only one can achieve. Ideally the competition to claim the "bomb" involves some commitment from the competing players: the player who succeeds will see his investment pay off big, while the others will lose whatever they invested. This makes tension during the competition, and a big emotional pay-off when it's over: triumph or tragedy. Drama!

In the nameless rail game, I have been motivating players to build wide networks by designating six widely-separated junctions as cities (as opposed to mere towns). Players are rewarded with victory points for the number of cities in their network at the end of the game. Each additional city gives a bigger bonus than the previous. The first three or four cities are easy to get to, and the rewards are small. The fifth is harder, and gives a big slug of points. The sixth is hardest of all, and yields a really big slug of points. The board is laid out so that not every player can connect to every city, so the competition for fifth and especially sixth cities is fierce. This is one form of Degann's big bomb: for much of the game, players are racing to get to all six cities. Getting there first not only guarantees that you get the big reward, it also virtually guarantees that somebody else won't get there at all.

But I didn't want that to be the only way to get a big score, so I added another kind of bomb. This notion took me longer to come up with, and many iterations to refine. (I'm probably still not done with it.) It is the switchyard. Each of the six cities may have one switchyard built there. The player who builds it gets a big VP reward. This counts as a bomb because only one player can do it (per city), and because of the obstacles that must be overcome before the switchyard can be built.

First, you can't even start trying to build a switchyard until at least two players are connected to the target city. That guarantees competition. Second, you can't build a switchyard until you have made at least one delivery to that city of each of the four different kinds of good. Therein lies the race and much of the tension. Finally, after finishing the prerequisite deliveries, you need to come up with a big payment. Often two players will both finish the deliveries, and then it's a matter of who comes up with the cash first. The player who does will roughly double the value of his cash, while any who don't have wasted much of their effort.

I'd like to make that race more poignant if I can. There's more tension if the players have to invest something real in order to compete for the bomb. Currently, the only real investment is that players may forgo more lucrative deliveries in favor of ones that fill their switchyard prerequisites. And maybe that's enough. But I am considering making the players pay a piece of the switchyard cost up front, every time they "record" a delivery. The total cost of the switchyard is still the same, but you would have to pay some of it just to try to build the switchyard; and if you fail, you won't get any refunds.

What worries me about this notion is that it may become a disincentive: the potential loss may frighten players away from trying to compete for switchyards. If so I might try to lead them into the commitment gently: charge only a little for the first delivery, so it feels safe. But now the player is invested and wants to protect the investment, so if someone starts to compete he may be willing to pay a little more to keep up, and so on. I dunno, I'll have to try it and see how it goes!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

How many players?

I have a habit of designing my multi-player games for a "sweet spot" of four players, and then testing and tweaking to see whether they will also gracefully support more or fewer players. While I don't recall this being a conscious decision, it makes sense to me. Four is a nice, balanced number: two couples, or a family with two kids. It can mitigate the excessive downtime that some games suffer with more players, and avoids the two-against-one dynamic that can ruin a lot of three-player experiences.

But I don't want to design exclusively for four. Any game will sell better if it can be labeled for "3 to 5" or "2 to 6" players. And any game will be more popular if it actually works for the given range. (All experienced gamers have seen games that really don't play well at the low or high end of the claimed range.)

So recently I broke from my usual simulated four-player rail game sessions, and tried a five- and a three- player to see what would happen. I'm pleased to say that the game survived, and seemed playable. But unsurprisingly the game gives a different experience with different numbers of players.

With four, I've tried to tune things so that the winning player will likely connect all six cities, and build a switchyard: the two highest-scoring achievements. Usually two of the remaining players will get one or the other goal, but not both; and one player will get neither. This makes for vigorous competition to link up the cities, which is one of my design goals. It also often results that most players have little money left at the end of the game: although money is also worth victory points, you're usually better off spending it on connectivity or switchyards if you can. The losing player may actually finish with the most money, having been unable to spend as much of his income on connectivity and switchyards as the others; but sometimes such a player prospers so well just making deliveries that his cash hoard pulls his score up into the middle of the pack.

In the three-player game, there was much more elbow room. All players were able to connect all cities, which soaked up more time and money than in the usual 4p game. It was a less competitive, more open game. I found that I prefer the four-player experience, but some players may enjoy the easier, free-wheeling nature of the 3p game.

In the 5p game, the board was crowded and tight, and competition for connectivity was fierce. Only one player connected all six cities. Also the board filled with track rather faster than in the 4p game, so players could tell early on when (for example) it was clearly impossible for them to reach New York or Seattle. That meant more concentration on switchyards: five were built, and one player built two. This game ended with a lot of money in circulation, because more players were simply making deliveries in the late game rather than building.

Unsurprisingly, the game seems to have a different character depending on the number of players. With three, it's relatively open and easy-going. With four, competition is tight but most players are going to be able to do well. With five, money is tight in the early game as players race for connectivity, then piles up in the late game as players concentrate on lucrative deliveries.

J. C. Lawrence says a game should end when the winner is clear. I think he's right, so I was watching these games to see whether they ended too soon or too late. In the 4p game, 20 rounds seems exactly right. (I originally had a variable end-of-game trigger based on running out of goods, but decided it didn't work well.) I'm prepared to alter the 20-round figure for the 3p or 5p games, but so far it seems to hold up. The 5p game, for example, might have ended at 17 rounds; but then some serious new delivering and building took place in round 20, enough to convince me that the final three rounds weren't empty activity.

Another way to balance the game for different player counts is to alter the map. A smaller map for a 3p (or 2p) game, a larger one for 5 or 6. I haven't gone there yet, but of course I have the possibility in mind. Completely different maps is one way to do it, but it might also work to vary the main map by adding or removing junctions and connections. But before I go there, I want to shake down the current design some more. When (if!) I'm really comfortable with the 4p game, I'll look harder at variations to improve the experience with other player counts.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Rails: Ready to Roll?

This weekend I put in some more hours on the rail game (now code-named "Iron Horse With No Name" until I settle on a new title). I'm pretty pleased with the results.

It continues to surprise me how much difference a small rule tweak can make sometimes. I recently introduced the notion that deliveries can only go so far without "refueling." You refuel at Stations, which hold Fuel cubes. Each time you refuel, you consume a Fuel cube and your delivery is able to continue for up to another three towns. With multiple refuelings, very long (and very profitable) deliveries can be made. Refueling from your own Station is free; to use someone else's Station, you pay them $2 (equal to a little less than half a Victory Point). When a Station is emptied of Fuel cubes you can pay to refill it.

But a solo playtest with this mechanism produced a game that moved too slowly, and that bogged down at the end. There was not enough incentive to build Stations—every player wanted to wait for the other players to build them—so the long, high-paying deliveries could not be made.

I reworked the costs and benefits to make Stations more attractive, but then I started to worry: maybe the Fuel cubes were unnecessary mechanism. Why not get rid of them and simply always allow refueling at every Station? So I tried that next, and it almost worked. I got the wide networks and long deliveries I wanted. But the players' decisions were not challenging enough. Stations with exhaustible fuel added complexity and interest to those decisions.

So I tried again, putting Fuel back in the game but with the new costs and benefits I'd worked out. And that, thankfully, seems to work. The latest solo playtest had interesting and challenging decisions, players were able to build the big networks and reap the big profits I was after, and the game never bogged down.

Well... I think the decisions were interesting and challenging. I find that very hard to gauge when all the players are me. But I believe it's finally time for some live playtests. (Huzzah!) So I'm going to spend the next week or so re-drawing the board and creating some good player aids, and then I'll start bringing it to local game days and nights and see what other folks think of it.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Concerning Rail Games

I've made more progress on "The-Rail-Game-Formerly-Known-As-Rails-Across-America". The biggest problem I've had with it lately is just that it seems uninspired overall, and perhaps doesn't offer enough interesting or difficult choices to the players. Recently a friend made an encouraging comment, and that gave me some new ideas, and the latest iteration is looking better. It's still a live design.

But it set me to thinking. How interesting, and how difficult, do the choices have to be in order to have a fun and playable game? I tried a wargame design once; it was judged by the KublaCon playtesters to be boring because the decisions were obvious and easy to make. I don't want to repeat that mistake. On the other hand, while it's good to have ambitious goals, as a fledgling designer I can't expect to design the next #1 game at BoardGameGeek. So how good is "good enough"?

For an answer I am looking at my own favorites among the published rail games. These are:

* Ticket to Ride
* The crayon rail games (Empire Builder and its sequels)
* Railroad Tycoon
* Age of Steam
* The 18XX games
* Silverton

What kind of game experience do these successful games offer?

Ticket to Ride has simple rules and simple play, and is over in an hour. At times you spend move after move simply drafting cards into your hand. Your decisions are mostly of the push-your-luck variety: should you grab that route now, before someone else does? Or wait until you can grab several connected routes in quick succession, so as not to tip your hand too soon? The fun comes mainly from the tension of that basic decision. And it is fun, without a doubt. The Ticket to Ride series is far and away the most commercially-successful rail game ever. So we learn this: Tension lends interest and excitement.

Empire Builder and its sequels are straight-forward games of building track and making deliveries. These are flawed games, in my opinion. They take too long to play, especially if you make the mistake of playing with more than four players. There is little player interaction: you don't have to worry very much about what your opponents are doing. And the decisions are simple: which of my nine potential deliveries is the best to do next? Where should I built my next track? Is it time to upgrade my locomotive? The answers are usually fairly obvious, once you've done the gruntwork of figuring out sources and destinations for your potential deliveries (which usually is a lot of work: another flaw). And yet the crayon rail games are fun anyway, popular enough to have spawned a dozen or so sequels, and due to be re-issued this year by Mayfair. Lesson learned: A game can be fun even if its choices are not difficult. Sometimes the activity itself is entertainment enough.

Age of Steam is an amazingly good game, at least if you enjoy high levels of competition. Often described as "a knife fight in a phone booth", AoS crowds players together and forces them to compete viciously for routes and deliveries. A tight economic system makes budgeting a challenging and crucial exercise, and an auction system that controls both player order and access to important actions adds tremendous tension. Lesson learned: Holzgrafe, you will never design a rail game this good! More seriously: budgeting and pacing issues add interest to a game, and player interaction is important.

Railroad Tycoon is my favorite. This game has the same basic notion as Empire Builder (build rail, then make deliveries) but avoids the flaws in the crayon rail system. Spotting viable deliveries is easy and quick; the choices are interesting and difficult; and the game does not outlast its fun factor, even with six players. It has excellent player interaction, because players must compete for track routes, deliveries, and bonuses. It's really more appropriate to compare RRT with Age of Steam because it is directly derived from AoS. RRT is less competitive than AoS. But if Age of Steam is "a knife fight in a phone booth", Railroad Tycoon is still at least a barroom brawl: more spacious and forgiving of errors, but still highly contentious and with plenty of chairs and tables to swing. Lesson learned, from both AoS and RRT: Competition for scarce resources makes for tough, interesting choices.

The 18XX series adds a new element: a stock market. In an 18XX game players build rail and make deliveries. Players compete mainly to acquire stock, drive up the value of companies in which they are heavily invested, and sell high-valued stock to reap the gains and ruin the stock's value for others who still own shares. 18XX games are complex, long, and deeply strategic. I have played only once and I'm not competent to discuss them in detail, but there is a lesson learned: A volatile, interactive market adds a whole new level of interest to a game.

Silverton is the rail game that has most recently grabbed my attention, although it's now over 15 years old. Silverton features a volatile market, but it is a goods market rather than a stock market. Players compete not only to lay track, but to claim mines. Mines are worked to produce goods, which you then convert to money by delivering to market cities. Market prices vary, partly at random and partly influenced by recent sales. Taking a big load to market can drop market prices ruinously for anyone who shows up late. Silverton combines a fairly standard build-and-deliver mechanism with features such as the market, the high-risk nature of mining, and the difficulties of winter operations in the Rockies, resulting in a fascinating game with good levels of player interaction. Lesson learned: Volatility forces pacing, making players choose between urgent actions and important actions.

So what does this all imply for my own design? I'm still evaluating that, but I'm encouraged. My latest rules revision (with the compelling sobriquet of "Straw Man 6") adds complexity in a way that improves player interaction and gives players more to worry about. I think the game is now at least as interesting as a crayon rail game, because it has more interaction, more complex decisions to make, and more tension. But maybe not—maybe the decisions, for all their complexity, still have obvious solutions. I need to work with it some more to find out whether that's true.

And then there's this whole business about volatility. There isn't much, in the current design. I need to think about adding some, and I have a few ideas to play with. I'll keep y'all posted, and I may even post the latest rules sometime soon.