The Dutch tabletop games podcast ‘Het Ludieke Gezelschap’ contacted me to chat about the playtesting Guild ‘Spellenmaakgilde’ and discuss our activities. Especially now a 3rd location will start with events in Ede, in the center of the Netherlands. It is in Dutch, check out episode 73.
In the first weekend of July once again the yearly game designer convention was organised in Göttingen. The SAZ has taken on the organisation and the location changed to the Lokhalle. Together with a fellow designer and a game illustrator we participated on Saturday. Time to look back (for more tips and tricks see this blog on a visit 2 years ago).
Some rough numbers: around 160 designers were present and around 80 publisher representatives. Some publishers were represented by 3 or more, while other publishers had 1 scout that stalked the hall. There were also agents, who scout for prototypes they then pitch to publishers all around the world. It was a very productive event for us, getting interest in many of the prototypes we brought.
Some personal impressions:
- We talked to publishers and agents from Germany (most were), Switzerland, Austria, Lithuania, Belgium and Russia.
- The SAZ indicates who will be there (some companies were not mentioned but still were present). Emailing those companies in advance helped with making appointments. I was a bit late (1 week in advance), and should have done it sooner. Luckily, compared to big conventions like Spiel Essen, it was still possible to make some appointments. Publisher have a full focus on meeting (new) designers at this event.
- Making sell-sheets, to pitch concept(s) works really well. These can be used to place on your table, hang on the pin-board and put into publishers’s folders they will look into. This year I made them just before the weekend and not emailed them
- Sunday is relatively less busy with publishers and this year we decided to be only present on Saturday. That did feel a bit short and rushed. Sometimes it was asked whether we would be there Sunday as well, to play a concept or talk more. For next time, I will consider going the full weekend again.
- When being present on Sunday: the event is then open for the public and they might love to play your game. People enjoying your game is great advertisement, but do keep check if publisher would also like to talk to you.
- I brought 2 published games that are available for sub-licensing outside the Netherlands. While most publisher look for new concepts I did get some interest in these and could then introduce them to the original publishers.
- Another Dutch designer could not join, but send me demo-copies of his kickstarted game (Rollecate). 5 publishers were interested in checking it out and accepted a copy to take away. Whether this results in anything we will have to see, but this does seem to work to a degree.
- Going as a team makes it much more fun. We had experienced this prior and is true still. And we could help each other out with playing a demo and by referring publishers to each other.
- Some designers had a prototype in a rough state, not much playtested or developed yet. They got useful feedback but I heard one publisher also say they were being polite and not see these talks as useful for them. Seeing how making games takes a lot of effort and time I get that. It is stating the obvious perhaps, but do playtest and bring fleshed-out games. They certainly do not have to be finished, however. Some concept I brought I could indicate what still needs to be done (or how to improve it). There should be a good core of a game that can be assessed.
- Note to self: make better conversation notes. After 15 talks some scribbled down key words is not ideal to remember what has been discussed and what follow-up has been agreed upon (extra nice: a spreadsheet with names, contacts, summary of talks and what actions you need to to next).
In short: preparation and representation will lead to better meetings!
Based on our experiences this is a really good event to pitch and to network. Once you have established a lot of contacts with publishers it might be less needed to go there. However even ‘big names’ are there to pitch (Friedemann Friese, Michael Kiesling). That is actually what makes this event more special: first time designers and veterans are there, all passionate about games and their newest concepts.
This was our 3rd visit and we each brought more different concepts and improved our preparation. In the end all our prototypes got some publisher interest, actually. Of course, the path from interest to publication is perilous, so we’ll see what comes out of it. It is encouraging for sure.
Beginning of June we had another playtesting sessions. It was a small crowd that showed up. However, it was great to see students playtest their year 1 to year 4 projects! After the summer break we will be back with events. Until that time students, the Makerspace is a great spot to setup a playtest! 😉
To contribute more to the community I started a series of interviews at the Spellenmaakgilde (Dutch Game Design Guild) with people involved in the tabletop industry. Focussing on Europe and more specific the Netherlands. A lot is happening and I think it is nice to get some insights. Plus each guest has their own unique perspective to share and tips for designers to share. Whenever possible I ask guests to share pictures of their prototypes. It might be me but it is really cool to see a concept in development and then see how the final published product looks!
So far topics that have been discussed include kids games, community building (with inclusivity), serious games, agent work and what a game design association offers. Check out the interviews here. The goal is to post a new one every 3 – 4 weeks.
If you have a suggestion who to interview as well, contact me. I have a shortlist that longs additions…
During the May holiday break a few students took on the challenge to create a game in 24 hours (!). My colleague Sean kicked of the event at our ‘makerspace’ with 3 random generated themes to be used for inspiration (1 at least): regression, x-ray and affection.
Three student worked solo on a game and managed to create a thematic experience. First of all: an idle game in which you numb the masses as a tv station with bland content, advertisements and indoctrination:
Another one, a break out game in which the hairline is actively regressed and the designer confronted himself with his future boldness, Red Hair Redemption:
Special kudos to the next game, which felt it could be published with some further development: ‘Regression to the Middle’ showcases this statistical phenomenon with a cute 1-button game. This felt as the most polished game, by also having a self-made music track:
Together with some non CMD students there were 2 bigger teams that created impressive games.
One is a local-coop game in which up to 4 players can’t see which avatars are npc’s and who are player controlled. Players score points by taking the 1 rose that is controlled by someone and then bring it to the 1 lady on the dance floor. Really smart was how players got feedback whether they have the invisible rose: their controller gives haptic feedback:
Another team wanted to integrate all 3 key words. In the end they presented a tabletop game with integrated AR (eh x-ray vision!), which help you check what secret desires anime ladies have. Then players secretly or openly offer gifts and try to successfully date a lady. All this to earn the most charm points. Gameplay was still a bit rough, but the AR integration was well done:
We closed off the event with some snacks and drinks and playing the games. And had some playtesting of a card game of mine, grateful for the feedback guys.
Impressive jamming, well done!
Tuesday afternoon 2 April we had another playtesting event at our study, supported once again by the study association Glitch. This time we had around 25 students showing up, most of them looking for feedback. On top of that we had a few external guests: a VR game company that wanted input on their VR multiplayer survival game and a tabletop designer who playtested a board game.
Check out the picture below. In a few week we will have the next event!
In my work as a lecturer at the Hanze Applied University we focus on the digital games industry. To showcase more where this industry stands in the north of the Netherlands, they made a video with interviews of many participants in this field: students, company owners and lecturers. If you want to know more about the industry and see me appear, check it out:
There is second video which showcases some work, including Studio Bleep’s Augmented Reality Storywall: awesome wallpaper in a hospital that ‘comes to life’:
Overview of the video’s and read more about the local game incubator association, go here.
Premise of Heroes is the title of a creative storytelling game I am developing. A few years ago I started fooling around with an idea: a roleplaying card game (rpg) in which players create interesting characters and have an adventure. In rpg’s I always liked coming up with characters and the defining part that makes them unique and interesting. Could that be a game in itself?
Another intriguing part of rpg’s is how a group of characters become a party, a team, how unlikely it would be. Heck, unlikely parties are the standard. Rare are the player groups that create characters to form the most probable teams, say a bunch of dwarves going on expedition. Could coming up with the story how an unlikely group of characters became a party be fun to create as well? As the second act of a game?
After many playtests and iterations the answer to those questions is yes! For sure. And based om the recent plays it is fun as heck. I am amazed how much creativity and fun I see each and single time when players play the game. It did take many versions of the rules and card types to hone in on the sweet spot in which the game is now.
In the beginning the game did outstay it’s welcome, but now it is snappy and enjoyable. The game is inspired by traditional fantasy rpg’s, like Dungeons & Dragons. However, no experience in such games is needed. A bit of knowledge of fictional fantasy stories like Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter or Game of Thrones is more than enough to be able to play. When a race or class is unfamiliar to a player, either the group solves that easily, or that concept will get a new temporary meaning.
Looking for story prompts emotions did not work and character traits were meh. The current use of icons that are black and white work very well. And the more ambiguous the picture and open to interpretation, the better. For example a beard that also seems like a mountain upside down. Mad props to game-icons.net, the icon are their creations!
Early in development it became clear that playing the unusual races makes this game really fun. Instead of ‘playing’ a regular Human or Half-Orc, it became clear that it is awesome to come up with a description of a Demon, Zombie or Cyclops for example. Especially if paired with classes (roles, professions) that are regular or seem at odds with the race. More and more the regular races were dropped and more unique ones were added.
Freedom versus Guidance
While considering optimal production value I made the cards double sides. This way with 40 cards the game offers 1600 unique race + class combinations to play out. A pleasant side effect of that is it added the possibility for choice in the character creation round. And that is liked a lot. Players can now choose which out of the 4 different combinations the player would like to describe. To ensure choice and variability another iteration was to combine races that are regarded as equally cool or extreme but still different together on the same card (e.g. Angel and Demon). The 2 classes on each card are now designed to be different enough: not two fighting or magic oriented classes on both sides. This is subjective, yet seems to hold up and every play session the feedback of players is they like the choices offered.
The other phases of the game took many more tries. How can the players get a sense of direction, be steered in their creative storytelling, yet still not force a particular type of story? A milestone in development was adding the rule that uses the technique of having a group look back on an adventure. It is used in regular rpg games, as a way to still play when only a few of the players that are essential for the campaign can meet up. The players that are present imagine themselves sitting in a tavern, chatting and collectively recollect how a certain adventure happened, making it up. The added benefit is that player could talk about what another player did, instead of only their own character.
Letting players decide freely how long the story can take and how many cards can be used never worked. Even though a group felt that it took too long, they had a hard time wrapping up the story and kept adding. Yet then the stories do become much more interesting with some sidesteps or plot twists added.
Game versus Play
At first the game played around 45 minutes to an hour, overstaying its welcome by a margin. However, doing just the character creation part felt like an incomplete game. There should be something happening with all the heroes (or villains) created. Finding the proper play length has been an adventure (badum tsss). Having a round that is about forming the party and then another round to describe an adventure was taking too long. Now the second round is looking back at and adventure, which optionally is about the party formation (and meanwhile there is a list of cool other scenario’s). Doing another adventure or using more cards is completely optional. Again it is about guaranteeing a good experience by the basic rules, while offering suggestions how to adapt the game to you own groups liking.
There is no real win or lose state, no competition offered by the game or by your fellow player. The rules do offer structure and direction and I have made more explicit what the challenge is. How well that challenge is met is not scored or defined in other ways by the game. The players do not seem to miss that. Leaning into a party game vibe seems to ensure that even more. Still it won’t be for everyone. Some will like it less for that or feel it is a very good activity but not a real game. Seeing game versus play as a scale instead of binary I do think it lies more towards play. However, my search was to find the minimum in rules and structure to create a consistent but very open experience. It seems the game is getting there 🙂
Some players see Premise of Heroes as a great tool for getting inspiration for regular storytelling or rpg’s as well. That is a great bonus! A few player fear that the experience of this game is too dependent on the player group even while they had a good time. While the play certainly is depending on the input of players, the consistency really seems there: so far I only saw 1 playtest be mediocre, the rest of the time groups enjoyed it a lot and there was surprising, enjoyable storytelling. Even people who feared they are not well versed or felt they are not creative or playful did well and reported feeling they were able to contribute in a good way. The gains of the high player agency in this game seems to outweigh the downsides.
While playtesting the game at a Narrative Design Meetup at the Game Bakery, a local game dev hub, there were multiple suggestions on potential different ways the game could be different. I added a bunch of suggested and new challenge modes as add-ons to the game. Testing these is the next step. As is continuing playtesting with diverse groups of players.
The game icons work well. One publisher was quite critical on these, players like them a lot. However, this way there is no unique selling point in distinct art, which usually is a great way to increase the perceived value of a game. It also means it can be created for a very friendly price, though. Still, I will test what other types of art does for the experience (art on cards like in Dixit, Mysterium or Muse). If the game icons stay, the selection of these is next: some spark more diverse stories than others, others are really iconic but straightforward (a sword). This needs further testing and selection to ‘balance’ well.
The races and classes in the game have been through multiple sorting selections with players and the current set seems to be in a really good spot. There have been good new suggestions, but probably these are expansion material (e.g. what might spark extra humor is adding mundane roles like tax collector or their modern day equivalent, accountant). The development continues, and I want to check with rpg publishers if they would be interested.
Are you curious about the development of this game? Or did you play and have an opinion about it? Then please sign up for updates by filling this form below.
Game on! -Arjan
On Tuesday 22 January we had a rather impromptu playtesting session. The moment was right after the project deadline of 1st year students and just before the deadline of 2nd year students of our CMD study. So the turnup was a bit lower than usual. Still there were multiple groups getting feedback on their prototype.
Stay tuned, soon we might have an event with students from other studies participating…!
A year ago my game concept Capo Della Mafia was published by 999 Games in the Netherlands. It is my first published design and in this post I reflect on the design process and the game itself. If you can read Dutch, in this article the publisher wrote about their in house process of development of their games.
Capo della Mafia is a mafia themed bluffing game for 3 to 7 players. Players are a low level bosses aiming to get promoted by collecting Respect (victory points). The first one to accumulate 15 respect wins the game. Each round players need to allocate mafia members (cards on hand, each with unique skills) to the new mission flipped, which requires specific skills. Each mafia member also has a certain amount of ‘heat’, aka the amount of police attention that they add to your crew. Missions states a maximum amount of heat that can be present.
Every player needs to fulfil the mission individually. Or more correctly stated, each player needs to give the impression they fulfil the mission. After placing cards face down on the table every player decides simultaneously whether want to actively suspect another player of bluffing. If a player finds a bluffing player, they earn 2 respect (the boss is grateful). However, falsely accusing another player makes results in losing 1 respect. Doing the mission correctly (or seeming to do so) earns a player 1 respect. When a player gets caught, they earn no respect for the mission.
Choosing which cards to play and choosing whom to suspect is all done simultaneous, making the game last not much longer with a bigger group.
What makes it interesting
Players get 5 cards at the start of the game. The only way to get new cards is to play 4 or 5 of them. So players need to do some hand management, and time their plays well. A player always has a team of mafia members, and 1 or 2 cards is not a team anymore. So when 1 or 0 cards are left, a player draws up to 5 again. In an earlier version players needed to have played all cards, but the publisher felt this was too hard and not fun. A nice bonus of the current version is that you feel like you can ’save’ a card for your next set. Sometimes you just don’t play a bad card. Other times you can keep 1 really good card.
Each round players are completely free to choose how many cards they put down. As the mafia is ‘one big family business’ each player is a bit aware of what is going on. Translated to mechanism: Players have to reveal half of the cards they played, rounded down. This offers great opportunity to mislead other players: to appear like you are succeeding the mission when you are not, or appear to fail while succeeding. Or double bluff. Players also need to plan ahead a bit: what cards do you keep and what you could do with then during the next mission (which is unknown).
The ‘revealing half of the cards played’ mechanism was actually added late during the design process. A lot of fun was already had with playing cards face down and suspecting someone. But, rightly so, during a test a player commented that just seeing how many cards were played is not enough information to go on.
Another critical iteration was the scoring in the game. I tried many different ways. A first version made you win or lose respect based on how many players suspected you (you got respect for being falsely suspected). This was too swingy and made it hard to guarantee a consistent play time. Imagine how first versions played in which some cards doubled respect losses and gains…
Having a relative short -and consistent- playtime was one of the demands the current publisher 999 Games had when they showed interest for publication. They wanted to gear this game geared towards mass market. They liked the core idea, but at that point they also stated the game needed more development. It did for sure. So with the target audience in mind, the gameplay needed to be streamlined, together with the scoring.
In the end it seemed most clear and fun to be able to keep respect for doing your own mission simple: get +1 of 0 Respect. While suspecting someone should feel as a small risk, but with potential gain: get +2 or lose 1 Respect. This makes suspecting very rewarding, unless a players accuses blindly. Falsely suspecting others can take away the near victory.
The defined target audience guided my development of special mafia cards and events: they should be simple enough, not too complicated. It meant I added some randomness (a card that let’s you steal 1 Respect from every player suspecting you). And ensured I did not add more complexity even though playtesters accustomed to heavy games were requesting that. This also inspired adding rules for a first play (not using some of the special cards), so learning the game first time would be a bit shorter and easier.
Players who are really into bluffing games might find this game a bit too tame. However, players who usually never played bluffing games liked the way Capo della Mafia played. The game forces you to bluff, but players learn quickly what they can get away with it. If you have a hard time bluffing, the good news is your score is more determined by reading other players and making proper accusations. This ensures interaction, as players keep an eye on each other. And, because play is simultaneous, playtime does not increase much if the game is played even with the maximum of 7 players.
In the beginning I tried varied amounts of different skills offered by the mafia members, represented by icons on the mobsters and mission requirements. The first version had 4 different types, with a card offering up to 4 of them. In the end 3 different skill types could offer enough variability and hand management, without resulting in too complex puzzling. Being inspired by a book about the ‘Ndrangheta mafia helped me defining the skillsets that are fitting: intimidation, bribing and smuggling.
The quantity of a skill offered was at first higher, and a mission then required quite a lot of total skill (say even 5 of one type). This made for more ‘math’ work and more puzzling. This was distracting and got in the way of the fun of this game, managing your cards, bluffing and reading players. In the end only a minority of the cards offer multiple skills, which make them feel special.
Spicing it up some more
To spice up the game some more, we wanted to add more special feeling cards. Having variability in the amount of heat *police stars shown) on a card was also something that had many iterations. In the final version there are usually multiple mafia members offering a skill with each a different amount of heat shown. This creates cards that are really good and some that are bad (but still useful to bluf or often enough can be played to fulfil a mission). Having skills and heat to consider makes managing your hand of cards more interesting. Two aspects are to be considered when playing, bluffing and analysing what others have played.
From the early start the prototype had corrupt cops as special cards. These do not offer mafia skills, but help you reduce the amount of heat of your play. These are quite common, so it is hard to keep track of them whether they are all have been played or not. If you keep track you might know it is improbable, but I felt it should never be a sure thing. This is also the reason all the action cards were added in multiples.
Other card effects include cards that offer a skill of choice (joker), a card that lets you collect 1 extra Respect if you were player respectfully and a ‘rat’ card that potentially increases the played team of all players with +1 star. But only if the player with that card gets suspected! (under pressure he talks and rats out all the mafia players to the cops). That last card ensures that even if you play truthfully you are not a 100% sure whether you get a respect for the mission. This card is uncommon, a few are enough to make it interesting often enough.
Event cards, really?
Another way to add spice to the game was by adding event cards. A standard for many starting designers, but it often does not help a game concept. With this game though, it seemed a good fit. Many effects did not survive testing. Either they were confusing or not fun. In the end the current set were clear and they change the game for a round. How they would show up and how often was something that took several tries. I did not want to have multiples in 1 round (very confusing) nor a long time before even one happened. The publisher suggested to have the back of the mission card indicate whether an event would take place. This way the events are random, and not happening every round, but a few will show up every game. With the backside of mission cards indicating an event, ensures they are not directly linked to a specific mission, which was the case at first.
Going through the Design Cycle, it took some time
The total process took about 5 years. I got the idea in 2012, during a holiday when I was thinking what to do with another game concept that was not going anywhere. Somewhere in 2013 I made my pitch to the the publisher. I pitched quite a rough version and I got a bit lucky they were looking for a bluffing game, because it was clear it still needed a lot of work. In the next years it went through many iterations, while several major live events also happened. These days I try to have a prototype be more finished before pitching it and our test group knows better when a prototype is ready for pitching.
Playtesting was done with a lot of different players, including panel testing by the publisher itself (where I was not present). I also did a lot of ‘goldfishing’: a term from Magic: the Gathering players where they take a constructed deck and see how it performs without a real opponent or opposition (“play against a goldfish”). I used this to get a feel for the types of hands players would get and to determine how much players would need to bluf on average. I simulated hundreds of plays while watching movies and tv series. The goal was to have players bluff roughly 50% of the time. While it is cool to have some variability, turns in which noone bluffs or everyone does, should be rare. In early versions having such extremes often was an indication that the balance of missions and the mafia cards was not correct. Whenever I made some card changes, I would –again– do some more manual simulation. Maybe a computer program could have done this as well. However, doing it manually gave me a lot of insights on what kind of sets of cards players get and whether those are offering interesting choices.
In the end I added cards players can to use to indicate which player they suspect. For a long time players just used their hands to point at someone. This felt tedious, as you need both hands when you are having drinks and holding cards. Plus it required that you kept your hand up until all the accusations are resolved. Another player card was added to indicate whether you are bluffing or playing (seemingly) honestly. And the icons on those are used on the special mafia cards, so effects could become textless. An added bonus of these accusation cards is that a group can freely choose to point accurately or just throw their card in front of another player to suspect them. However, there is one event card that lets players suspect an additional player. But it is for 1 round only and the mayhem is quite worth it.
At the beginning of 2017 I felt I could not improve the game any further and said so to the publisher, inviting them to say so if they felt otherwise. 999 Games agreed and suddenly it was time to arrange a contract. They found an artist team and started up the production process. I got shared the art concepts, box design and helped out with checking the printing files.
At the end things moved fast. If you work with a relative bigger publisher they schedule a time line, reserve a moment for printing and that sets deadlines! Be ready to act fast. I had half a day to review the final rules version. Luckily they knew what they were doing.
The publisher took the game and made a product out of it. This means art, graphic design, component choices, font. I am very grateful what they managed to do. The box looks awesome and has a stylish insert. The yellow coloured tokens for scoring respect points are fancy. To be honest I was quite critical on the art pieces. However, the publisher and I have gotten a lot of enthusiastic responses to it. So they made a good call. And the box design really makes it shine. Some parents were less happy with guns drawn, but the comical look does redeem it for many.
The publisher had a brainstorm and came up with some nice Italian inspired names for the characters. And the characters are reused in a decent way (combining characters on a card when it offers multiple skills, adding a moustache). I did hear the critique that the game now has cards with identical names and skills but different amount of stars now all have the same title. Technically it does make no sense, but no-one seems really bothered by this.
The name of the game changed at the very last minute. From the start of the game I came up with the title ‘Capo di Mafia’. The mafia theme stayed, so the title did as well. When I shared the box art on Facebook a former Italian student of mine was quick to point out that this is not properly phrased. It should be ‘Capo della Mafia’. Whoops! Before I could even contact the publisher, they send me an email that they saw the social media discussion and contacted an Italian relative to double check. The title got changed just in time. 🙂
With a product to sell, the next steps are to do promotion, marketing and ensure distribution. 999 Games does distribution themselves and have good contacts with hobby gaming retail stores and online platforms. They have a fanbase that gets their newsletter and made an animated promotional video! I am not sure how much impact the local attention had on sales, but it was cool to demo the game at a local game store, do an interview for local newspapers and a student magazine.
So far the game is only available in Dutch. Whether it will be sub-licensed (foreign publisher selling it at their region) is still work in progress. With the influx of games these days the odds of this seem to wane. As I understood the theme -mafia- is not helping, as many publisher already have a game with that theme or do not think it is trendy enough. I am happy with the sales of 2017 and early 2018: 4300 were sold, which is quite nice for a small country like the Netherlands. I am now waiting their decision to reprint or not. One international edition is in the works!
The final product looks good and I loved demonstrating it at conventions. I would still be happy to play it anytime, after all the testing and solo playing. The publisher was really nice to work with.
It is never done
There are some little things in the design that keep bugging me a bit. The events work, but this still feels a bit fiddly. I ponder whether it might had been possible to create events that would change each game (rather than 1 round during a game). However, players have no issues with it.
The prototype had the amount of respect points gained or lost indicated on the player cards. These are not there in the final printed version. I feel the game could have benefitted from this, as it improves usability. It only takes a few turns, but beginning players need to check a few times what amount they gain or lose.
The game has many male characters, but only 1 female. And they all have the same skin color. This is a missed opportunity to showcase more diversity. Something I am more aware of now. I address this in the concept art I borrow for my prototypes, as I have learned that this already sets a creative direction for publishers and artists.
The design and development of this game really taught me a lot about game design and I am proud of the final product. During its development I founded the game design guild, Het Spellenmaakgilde, and shifted to different career becoming a lecturer at a multimedia study where I also teach in game design (and organise playtesting events). A second game has been published in 2018 and I am working on many concepts. It was a great journey, and still is.