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!