My Year In Games: 2017

January: SeaFall

The beginning of the year was spent finishing our SeaFall campaign. It’s hard to talk about any legacy game without risking spoilers, so I’ll be fairly brief. The game got a bad reputation, which it doesn’t deserve. I filled half a notebook with detailed plans for how I would get revenge for my stolen colony, and started planning three games in advance for how I could find the final island. I genuinely don’t think I’ve ever spent this much time thinking about a game between play sessions. If you can find three players willing to forgive the game’s flaws, I strongly recommend trying it.

In terms of my own work, SeaFall had a massive influence on my designs this year. I think part of this is due to it being more thematic than the games I usually play, and seeing how my friends interacted with the theme of the game made me want to work with stories more. In particular, I liked the choice between raiding and exploration.

This was one of the main motivations for my game about the labours of Herakles. The core idea was there, and a trip to the British Museum with my parents gave the idea a solid form. I spent a few days sitting in a local cafe researching Greek myths. I was a little worried about focusing on content before the game itself, but actually, getting a better idea of the story I wanted to tell really helped me come up with interesting mechanics.

February: Time Stories

After finishing SeaFall, we were still on a legacy high, so decided to try and fill the void with Time Stories. It was fairly successful- we played through quite a few of the expansion scenarios, and we were always excited to start the next.

As I said before, my friends tend to play a lot more Euro-style games than story driven games, so it was interesting to see how the group handled it. In particular, there were some situations where the rules weren’t totally clear, and we needed to make a judgement for the sake of the story. In many ways, it was quite refreshing to play in a different style, but took a while to adjust.

March: Red7 (and a lot of Zelda)

Board games took a back seat in March. The new Zelda game took up a good chunk of my life, but it was reassuring to see how many other game designers on twitter were in the same situation.

However, I did discover one new game: Red7. I bought it to take on a trip to Vienna with some friends. I was expecting a fairly light, forgettable card game, but it turned out to be incredibly thoughtful and innovative.

The biggest surprise was how well it works both as a standalone, five minute game, and a long session game where cards are removed from the deck over time. This was originally how I imagined Rules Inc. would work, but I eventually realised the base game just isn’t simple enough to support the mechanic.

April: Terraforming Mars, BGDevCon and 24 Hour Contest

I very quickly gave into the hype and bought Terraforming Mars. I only played a few games in April, but I went back to it quite a few times throughout the year, and I like it more every time I play. I hear a lot of bad things about the production and component quality, but I really like the multi-purpose cubes. In general, the fewer components a game has, the more I’m drawn to it. Terraforming Mars does a lot with very little.

April was also a really good month for getting involved with the design community. The designer day at the Museum of Childhood was great- the talks were inspiring, and the game jam was a really fun challenge. I also went to the second BGDevCon, where I met loads of great people, and learned a lot about the industry as a whole.

Inspired by Rob Harper’s talk at BGDevCon, I decided to try out the BGG 24 hour design contest. The theme for the month was puns. I took the theme with a fairly large grain of salt, and made a cocktail themed drafting game named SuperColada. It’s a worthwile exercise in game design- I often have a problem with my games bloating, and I always want to add extra ideas, so imposing a time limit really helps to keep things simple.

May: Pyxis

May saw a return to a longterm project I’ve been working on for several years: Pyxis. It’s a co-operative puzzle game, which started out as an entry in a redesign contest. It’s a slightly strange idea, but one I keep going back to.

I decided to try and get it totally finished before the games expo in June. I was happy with the core mechanics, and needed to balance it. To make testing easier, I made an app for my tablet which could simulate a board, so I could test it on public transport. The app worked well. However, I invested hours getting the win percentage to where I wanted it to be, when the project wasn’t ready for it.

I put too much of myself into one idea, and got pretty disheartened when I wasn’t chosen for the publisher speed dating at the games expo. I’ve come to accept that if this game ever finds a home, it’ll take a long time, but it’s not an idea that’s likely to go away anytime soon.

After a slightly rocky month, I ended with some amazing news. A game I’d entered for a BGG design contest in January was going to be published! Jellybean Games were looking for variants of their game The Lady and The Tiger to be published as part of a collection, and they chose my game. The kickstarter was already successful, and it will be coming out sometime in 2018. It was a really weird feeling, and it still surprises me to think of it sometimes. I’m looking forward to having a box with my name on the back.

June: UK Games Expo and Fabled Fruit

June saw my fourth visit to the UK Games Expo in Birmingham. It’s one of the most exciting weekends of the year for me- I have a childlike sense of wonder about the event. The expo keeps getting better every year, and I also keep learning how to optimise my time there. I often struggle to commit to one stall, and just end up wandering around for hours.

The playtest area was a definite highlight. The monthly city testing sessions are great, but tend to cater towards designers rather than players. At the expo, you get a lot more groups of players, just looking to play a fun game. I brought two games to test: Pyxis, and Rules Inc (at the time known as The Expanding Bureaucracy). Pyxis received decent feedback, but the real star was Rules Inc. It’s a slightly weird idea, so I often worry that people won’t get it, but each group really got into the spirit. Best of all, I had two groups ask to stay for a second game, which is pretty much the best feedback I could hope for.

One thing that made the expo even better this year was knowing more people in the design community. I’d met most of them for the first time at BGDevCon a few months before, but it was great to have a few people I could chat with while walking around. I’m constantly impressed by how supportive and inclusive the game design community is.

I discovered a few interesting new games at the expo. Firstly, I was incredibly impressed with the demo of Champion of the Wild. The idea was solid, with great artwork, and a really well thought out implementation. I signed up for the mailing list, and kickstarted it on launch day- a first for me. Secondly, I bought a copy of Fabled Fruit. We had a friend from India staying at our house for the month, and played through the whole deck with her. It was one of my favourite gaming experiences of the year- we had sessions of six or seven games in a row. It’s been a long time since I was so taken with such a simple game.

July: Show and Tell

Around July, I started playing a lot more games during my breaks at work. One of my colleagues was also a designer, so we started by bringing in prototypes to try out. When neither of us had anything new, we started bringing in published games with interesting ideas, or things where we particularly liked an aspect of the design. After playing, we’d spend a while chatting about what worked and what didn’t, from a design perspective.

The first game I brought it was Onitama, because of both the simplicity of the game, and the quality of the production on it. My colleague brought a wide variety of different games- I’m pretty stunned by the scale of his collection. In particular, it was interesting to compare Daniel Solis’s games Kigi and Kodama. They both have very similar core mechanics, but a slight rule change leads to the two games having completely different feels.

I would strongly recommend that if anyone can set up sessions like this, they should. When I play games, I usually tend to play more of the things I know I’ll enjoy, or things with a strong recommendation. It’s really valuable to try and expand your horizons, and play flawed games which have one particularly innovative idea.

August: Wits and Wagers

In summer, we had a lot of barbecues. This seemed like a good excuse to expand my party game collection, so I bought Wits and Wagers. As a designer, I’m pretty amazed by it. It solves so many problems that I hadn’t even realised were problems. Everything about it works really well, to create a great experience for lots of different kinds of player.

September: Barenpark

In September, I finally convinced my friends to play Barenpark with me. I’ve always been a big fan of puzzle games, and really enjoy things with lots of spatial reasoning. It’s interesting to see how the game can come naturally to some players, but other players really struggle to visualise how the pieces lock together. Several of my friends played the game once, and swore never to play it again.

Around this time, my Herakles game graduated from ‘game idea’ to ‘actually fun game’. It was one of the first times I’d designed a game heavy enough to support multiple different strategies, and like Barenpark, it was interesting to see how my friends handled it differently.

The biggest difference I notice is in short versus long term planning. Some of my friends can easily see the game as a whole, and want to build up their character over time. Others only look two or three turns ahead, and just want to maximise their score in the short term. Generally, I tend to think in the long term far more, so it’s a challenge to make a game which is still enjoyable for people who prefer to think in the short term.

October: NMBR 9

Around October, I started going to Thirsty Meeples more as research. There were a few big designers I’d listened to numerous podcasts by, but never played their games, and I needed to fix that. I discovered loads of great new games in this time, but one stands out in particular: NMBR 9.

As with Barenpark, I’m a big fan of shape and space puzzles. I’m also not a particular fan of confrontation- the term ‘multiplayer solitaire’ has never seemed like a bad thing to me. NMBR 9 is a true multiplayer solitaire game, where each player independently solves the same puzzle. When I showed a few of my friends the game, they sneered at the idea, but the popularity of NMBR 9 in Thirsty Meeples showed there’s a lot of people who really appreciate it. As a result, I decided to try adding a multiplayer solitaire variant to Pyxis. It took twenty minutes to come up with the idea, and I think I might like it more than the main version.

November: Pandemic Legacy Season 2

November was incredibly stressful. We played the whole campaign in a couple of weeks. I can’t really say anything without spoiling it, except for a few general comments. After one game, I felt it was a worthy sequel to the first- it was different enough to justify its existence. After finishing the game, I thought it was better.

December: Deep Sea Adventure

With Christmas parties, I spent quite a lot of time teaching new players lighter games. I wrote another blog post about this, so won’t go into many details here, but the absolute highlight was Deep Sea Adventure. It tells such a good story, while requiring so little from the players.

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