Thursday, January 23, 2014

Unpub 4 - Day 2

Well, Day 2 of Unpub 4 started with even less sleep than the previous day.  When we got to the site, we were treated a pancake breakfast and a panel discussion with a group of publishers - I won't try to name them all here because inevitably I'll forget someone...

After the panel, I headed over to try Nate Levan's New Bedford - I'd heard some good word of mouth about this game and wanted to give it a try.  I'll give a further review below when I comment on all the games I played - but I'm certainly glad I did play it. 

Santa's Workshop Day 2

I should mention that towards the end of the con on Saturday night - around 9:00 or so, I had a young lady named Tierna stop by my table and eye up my game.  When I asked if she was interested, she nodded yes, and I gave her a quick explanation.  Since it was getting a bit late, I promised her a game on Sunday.  After playing New Bedford, I found Tierna at Daniel Solis' table, and she agreed to come over when she finished up.  Not only did she come over, she brought her sister Becca and her dad Mike with her, and we got in a 4 player game of Santa's Workshop.  Tierna was 10 years old, and I was eager to see how she did, as I originally conceived of the game as a more "family game".  It took us about 1:15 to finish, and I got some good feedback.  Tierna did ok - she jumped out in the lead, but faltered towards the end.  I think the full game may be a bit much for the under 12 crowd.  Becca, who I'm guessing was about 16 or so, had an interesting quote at the end.  She told that when they decided to come to the con, she marked every game in the program on a 1 to 5 scale.  She had my game marked as a "1", which meant she had no interest - and she only played because her sister begged her to.  She then stated that she really enjoyed it, and had no idea that it would be such a fun game.  This, of course, only served to back up Game Salute's point that the theme might drive away "serious" gamers.

After some more time at other games, I saw two folks eyeing up my table and hurried back to see if they were interested in player.  I recognized the woman as long time owner of "Our Game Table", Kathy Stroh.  I convinced Bill and Kathy to sit down for a 3 player game.  We finished our game in under an hour, and again I received valuable feedback.  We found a couple of cards that needed tweaking, and Kathy opined that she thought the game play was a little too deep for the theme.  Hmmm...familiar territory here. 

That was it for SW for the weekend - a grand total of 4 playtests.  Between the playtests and the Game Salute session, I got great feedback.  So, where do I stand with Santa's Workshop now?  I feel like I have a bit of a mixed bag.  I got nothing but positive feedback from playtesters.  My aggregate scores on from my feedback forms were as follows: 

Game Length:  3/5
Learning Ease: 4/5
Decisions: 4/5
Downtime: 4/5
Interactivity: 3/5
Originality: 4/5
Fun: 4/5

My lowest grades on individual feedback forms were a 2/5 on game length and 2/5 on interactivity.  The game length doesn't surprise me, as I know the game is too long.  I should also mention that my scores may be skewed a little high as I got one sheet that was all 5/5 (thanks, Tierna!) .  But all in all, I think I got good scores for my first ever game, with only 3 playtests ever coming into the con.

In terms of mechanics, I need to tighten up the game for play length.  I originally wanted a game that could hold 6 players just because I don't think there are a lot that do that well.  Unfortunately, I think I'm going to have to scale back.  I think I'm going to cap it at 4 players.  Perhaps if some other tweaks bring game length down, I'll revisit that.  But the other reason to go to 4 players is that makes it easy to limit # of spaces per # of players -> n-1, it's that easy.  When you get to 5 and 6 players, only taking one space per room away isn't enough, and I'm having a hard time figuring out where to make that transition from n-1 to n-2.  And it seems like it should differ per room, which is complicated.  The other play length decision to make is to cap the game at 9 turns.  I originally wanted 12 turns for the "12 Days of Christmas" theme - but that's just too long...and I'll talk about theme in a minute.  As far as other mechanics...there are some coal cards that need tweaking, I need to simplify the "magic mirror" card, and I need to play with the Reindeer track - tweak the scoring, and perhaps add some more theme to that somehow.'s the big question...what about the theme?  Game Salute didn't really think the theme would work.  Several comments and feedback I got seemed to reinforce that - "I wasn't expecting such a deep game with this theme", etc.  However, some folks seemed to think with the right artwork and box presentation, that might be able to be overcome.  I think I'm going to stick with the general theme for now, but with a bit of tweak.  Instead of building gifts leading up to Christmas Eve, I think I'm going to set the game at the South Pole, with the teams of elves competing to see who gets called up to the "Big Leagues" of the North Pole.  I did have a little issue, theme-wise with wondering if Santa would really let the elves get away with shenanigans as they were actually building toys for children.  By making the game be about a "boot camp" of sorts, I can get away with that.  I can possibly also work in more theme with the reindeer - such as teaching them to fly or somesuch.  I think this could lead to more "edgy" artwork as well - maybe Santa painted as a sort of drill instructor or somesuch, and some sort of tagline "Before they made it to the North Pole, they had to claw their way up from the South".  Ok...that's terrible.  But you get the idea.  I talked to Chris Kirkman and Darrell Louder about giving it a try at Prezcon - I'm interested to hear what they say.  Maybe get it in front of some publishers at Cons later this year and get more feedback.  If theme is a continuing issue, then I bite the bullet and try to retheme it later this year.  Maybe competing toy factories, or something like that.  I just don't want it to lose any of it's charm. be continued, I guess. 

Other Games I Played

I have this terrible nagging feeling that I'm forgetting a game I played, but I'll press on.  In Part 1 of my recap, I talked about Ben Rosset's Brew Crafters Card Game, so I won't repeat that here.  The first game I played at Unpub was Ohalo by Andrew Lenox and Jason Kotarski.  Jason is the designer of Great Heartland Hauling Company, which I talked about here and hereOhalo (named after the archaeological site) is a card game, with the unique mechanic that to start each game turn, you take the resource cards and kind of throw them up and let them land in a pile - some face up, some face down.  You, as a hunter-gatherer, have a few different action you can take.  You can gather various fruits & mushrooms - which entails trying to slide together resources of the same type using one finger and not disturbing the rest of the pile.  You can hunt for various animals - the more of which you gather, the better your score.  You can collect wood...which is then used to build various buildings - those which allow you to store resources for points, or do actions more efficiently, etc.  We only got to play about a half a game, because I had to demo SW, but I must say, I really enjoyed it.  The sliding of the cards in the pile was my favorite part - and a very fun mechanic.

Ohalo - I managed to move some berries around the entire edge of the pile!

Next I'll talk about another Jason Kotarski game, Sunset Shuffle.  This is a dice rolling game that consists of 6 turns.  On each turn, that turn # is wild.  In other words, on turn 1, all 1's are wild, etc.  Three more card are flipped up, which will number between 1-6, and your job is to put pairs of dice on each number card (the dice matching that number).  The catch is, the first two people to place dice get a "lifeguard" die, which they have to roll as well, which does things like block their numbers, although it can be passed on.  This was a fun frantic dice rolling frenzy, and all through the con, if I heard lots of shouting and yelling(in a good way), it tended to be coming from that table.  I like the lifeguard die mechanic, although with such a fast and furious game, it can be hard to tell who placed dice first.  Maybe a lifeguard die on each card, and the first person to place on a specific card gets that die.

Brew Crafters The Card Game was not the only Ben Rossett creation I tried at Unpub.  On Sunday I sat down for a game of Building the British Royal Navy.  In this game, you are bidding on contracts from the British Navy to build their warships.  This game is all about bidding and auctions - which I understand is a departure from how the game first started out.  In addition to bidding on the warships themselves, you have to bid on materials, and then the services of the subcontractors to build the hull and armaments.  Ben had the game limited to 10 bidding chits per player, all at pre-defined values.  By the third epoch, in our 4 player game, we were finding the services of the sub-contractors to be in high demand - too much so, in fact.  We were also a little frustrated with the specific values on our limited tokens.  I think we gave Ben some valuable feedback - we talked about still limiting the number of bidding chits, but letting the players decide how much each was worth.  I think there's a gem of a game in here - I like the theme, and I like the idea of a game that is exclusively auctions.  But, it's a bit raw now - but that's what Unpub is for, and I expect next time I have a chance to play it, Ben will have made substantial improvements.

I mentioned New Bedford at the top of this blog, and this was one I heard some rave reviews about.  I was happy to discover that designer Nate Levan is a fellow Hokie - Aerospace Engineering, even.  Go Hokies!  New Bedford is a game about building a coastal town around the whaling industry.  Starting with a town base and docks, you send your two workers out to collect resources, build new buildings and launch your whaling vessel to hunt.  Each building that is built will provide new actions, but to use them you must pay the building owner.  For the whaling, how far out to sea you launch depends on how much food you pack on board.  Each turn your whaling vessel draws closer to shore, and you draw chits from a bag.  They will be one of three different types of whale, or open ocean.  When you get back to port, you pay to have the whales processes - either $1, $2 or $3 depending on the whale type, with the more expensive being worth more VPs (I know Wright Whales are the cheapest, and Sperm Whales are the most expensive, but I'm blanking on the "middle" whale).  The game lasts 12 turns, and the player with the most VPs wins (you can also get VPs from money and certain buildings).  Our 3 player game lasted less than an hour, and that felt like about the right amount of time - maybe a little too quick!  This is a very polished game, and it was easy to see why it was getting some buzz.  I had very little in the way of suggestions - I thought maybe it would be neat to have more than 20 buildings in the game, and you could just draw 20 randomly at the start to get some variability - Nate was way ahead of me, already having more buildings in development.  We talked about some of the chits drawn from the bag having "events" such as storms - I think that would be a nice addition, if not overdone.  We talked a little about getting players access to a 3rd worker - but my fellow players were more interested in that than I was.  So...a very impressive game, one that I feel is essentially "done", and I wouldn't be surprised to see it on store shelves this time next year.

Final Thoughts

So, my first Unpub...with my first was the overall experience?  In a word - fantastic.  The convention is clearly outgrowing it's roots.  Next year it will be at a different location (as yet undisclosed), and Darrell tells me it will be more like a "traditional" con - the con in the hotel where everyone is staying, vendors, more traditional con hours, etc.  I'm really looking forward to seeing where he takes it.

I mentioned in Part 1 that there was some raffles.  Darrell had a ton of games to raffle off, dontated by companies that weren't even there in person, such as Stronghold Games.  (I'm guessing more and more publishers will start showing up in person in the future.).  Anyone who playtested a game could get a raffle ticket for each feedback form they turned in.  Randy gave me his as he left on Saturday.  I kept just missing by a few numbers.  Paul won twice!  There were lots of good games, and I admit I was a little jealous of the winners.  Then right before we left on Sunday, Darrell called for a kid to come to the stage.  As it happened, Tierna, who playtested for me went up.  Darrell asked her for a number between 1 and 52 (the number of designers registered).  She picked "36", and Darrell calls out "Is Keith Ferguson here?"  I proceeded to the stage, thinking I had just won a game.  But no...I was getting a different prize...the first official (and free) registered Game Designer for Unpub 5!  Wow!  I was still a little down after my Game Salute feedback, and I have to say, this really made my day!  It definitely motivated me to come back next year with something even better.  Maybe it will be a re-worked Santa's Workshop, maybe something different (I've had a flash of inspiration on a new game in the last day or two).  Either way, I'll be happy to be there - one of the things I haven't really touched on is how nice it was to meet a bunch of fellow designers (I'm not sure I can really call myself that yet...).  It's a great, friendly, supportive atmosphere, and I definitely look forward to meeting those that I missed this time, and playing more of their games!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Unpub 4 - Day 1

Well, as was mentioned in my last post, I spent this past weekend in Delaware at the Unpub 4 convention.  The short version is - what a fantastic event, I loved going, I'll be back next year (more on that in a bit) - but I came out of it with mixed feelings for my game, Santa's Workshop. One big regret is that I brought my camera...and proceeded to take very little pictures.  So, I apologize for the scarcity of pictures in this post.

I drove up with my friend Paul Owen, and after checking into our hotel, we headed over to the local pizza joint for the Unpub "designers dinner".  This was basically a meet and greet and a chance to network with some folks, with a raffle thrown in (idiot that I am, I lost my raffle tickets within 5 minutes of getting them and had to beg for more).  I sat with Nathaniel Levan and his wife Anna and got to know them a little bit (although we didn't figure out until the next day that Nate and I are both Hokies).

After the dinner, we headed back to the hotel, expecting to get in some gaming with various folks.  Although at some point, we heard someone talking about their "sell sheet" - which is basically a 1 page sheet that highlights your game with a basic description and pertinent information (game length, # of players, things like that).  Basically, an ad for your game.  Paul and I looked at each other - neither of us had thought to make up one of those.  So we spent an hour or so in the hotel room furiously throwing something together...and then found that the hotel only had black and white printers.  Oh well, better than nothing, I guess.  After that we did head to the lobby for some gaming, and ran into Ben Rossett, who gave us his Brew Crafters Card Game prototype to try out.  Paul and I played a 2 player game and found the game easy to pick up, and interesting to play.  The gist of it is that you can play each card in one of two ways - as an ingredient in a recipe, or face up in front of you as a piece of equipment or worker that will allow you to brew future recipes more efficiently or for more points.  I ended up playing 10 cards face up in front of me, though in the end Paul beat me by 2 points.  We then played a 3 player game with Ben, and I claimed victory by focusing on brewing Special Reserves.  Inspired by the Dice Hate Me 54 Card Challenge, Ben created this game with only 54 cards, 8 of which were recipe and scoring cards.  My biggest concern in the end was having enough cards to support 4 players.  There may be a few other tweaks, but otherwise I think it's a solid card game.

After not enough sleep, on Saturday morning we headed over to the convention to get set up.  My family has a log cabin advent calendar, which I brought along and decorated with elf meeples in order to try and attract some attention.  That may have been more trouble than it was worth to haul along, but it did get some comments.  In any case, my first actual playtest of Santa's Workshop at Unpub ended up being with my friend Randy, who's a regular at our Tuesday night game nights at Game Parlor.  He had played a few weeks ago when I brought it to GP, and had really liked it.  When he learned about Unpub, he convinced his friends Kurt & Elizabeth to join him there for the day.  We played a 4 player version of SW, and everyone seemed to like it.  I got some feedback on a few minor things like the wording of a few cards.  We talked a bit about the # of players, and how best to restrict the number of spaces in the rooms.  We also only played a 9-turn game, as opposed the 12-turn games I originally envisioned (themed to the "12 Days of Christmas").

I spent some time playing some other designers games (I think I'll detail those in a separate blog post), before getting a group of players together for a 5-player test that afternoon.  I had Anna Rutledge, Andrew, Duane, Rob and Josh (other than lack of pictures, I also really failed on writing everyone's full name down - and getting cards from everyone).  Their 5 player game took about 2 hours, with Duane winning in the end after building and scoring the swing set.  This group used the coal cards the most out of any group that played all weekend.  Everyone seemed to like the game, and I got a lot of good feedback.  Game time was definitely an issue (2 hours, and again we only played a 9 turn game).  There was the interesting suggestion to perhaps have some of the coal cards be used for positive player interaction (instead of just "screw your neighbor" cards).  Anna in particular had a quote that resonated with me later - she said something to the effect of "I wasn't expecting much from this game, but it turned out to be really good."

Shortly after that playtest, I was scheduled to give a 10 minute pitch to Game Salute.  Paul had gone in earlier, so I knew a little of what to expect - about 3 minutes to describe the game, 3 minutes or so for questions from them, and then 3 or 4 minutes of feedback.  I brought just the game board, a player tableau, and some sample gift and coal cards.  I was a little nervous, but I think I did a pretty good job in getting through most of the rules and play style of the game in 3 minutes or so.  The rest of the "interview" took me a little by surprise, as they almost exclusively focused on the theme I had chosen.  In a nutshell, their concern is that with such a "light" theme as Santa's Elves building gifts, a family might buy this game expecting something that very young kids could play, and be shocked when they got home and found a more complex game.  That is, if they bought it in the first place, because with all my pieces and such, the game would probably retail in the typical $40-$50 euro game price range.  On the flip side, they thought gamers - who would likely enjoy the complexity - wouldn't pick it from the shelf because they would think it was a light family game.  On the positive side, they did say they liked a couple of the mechanics of the game, and I should perhaps think about re-theming it.

So, I was understandably a little disappointed coming out of the sales pitch.  My first reaction was to think that they were wrong, and there was room for a game that could satisfy both families and gamers.  (I have plans to include rules for more family-friendly play).  But I couldn't help but think that Anna's reaction to the game only backed up their point - she didn't think there would be much to the game, and was pleasantly surprised when it was deeper than she anticipated. 

That was it for playtesting SW for the day.  I played some other games(more on that later), and then
 we headed back to the hotel for some more late night gaming that night.  Paul and I got in a few 2-player games -
Mr. Jack Pocket and 1955:The War of Espionage.  Mr. Jack Pocket has become one of my favorite games to play on my tablet or phone, and I wanted to introduce Paul to it.  I've not played the original Mr. Jack, though Paul has, and he said it had a similar deduction feel, if much different mechanics.  As for 1955, Paul brought it because he don't get a chance to play it at home much.  This is a sort of "tug of war" game as you try to gain influence in various countries.  I thought it was a mildly interesting game, with some interesting card play, but ultimately too long for the type of game it is.  I had picked up Gravwell at the Unpub vendor, after hearing a bunch of rave reviews.  Ben Rossett joined us, and explained the game, as well as a 4th player who's name is escaping me (must. write. down. names.)  It is indeed a very elegant game, with easy to learn rules, and a depth of complexity that has you trying to get in the head of the other players at the table.  For me, I think it may be a victim of it's hype - I very much liked it, but I'm not sure I would rave about it as much as others have.  At the very least, it serves as a good reminder that an excellent game need not be Agricola-like in complexity.  Lastly, we got in a couple of 5-player games of Coup with myself, Paul, Ben, Matthew O'Malley, and Doug (Who's last name I can't find for the life of me).  This was my first time at Coup - I don't know if I like it better than The Resistance, but it is a very fun game.  And I think Ben Rossett is lying when he says he never lies during the game.

Next up- Day 2...a few more playtests of SW, and my overall thoughts on Unpub...

Monday, January 13, 2014

Getting Ready for Unpub, what happened to December?  I haven't posted a blog since November 24th, and I'm way overdue.  Perhaps I'll go back in a future installment and revisit the games that were played over the holidays.  But for now, I want to talk a little about the big event that's starting in just 4 days :

That's right, this Friday, January 17, is the start of Unpub 4.   In a previous post, I talked about how I thought I'd missed registration, and then got in when Darrell Louder opened up some new seats.  Well, now the time is almost upon us, and I find myself frantically getting ready.  I've had a few more play tests of Santa's Workshop since that first one back in November - my brother and sister tried it out over Thanksgiving.  My buddy Tom came up for a gaming weekend in December and we got in a 3 player game with my wife.  However, up until that point it had all been my family and Tom, who is one of my oldest and closest friends.

Last week at our weekly game night at The Game Parlor in Chantilly, Virginia, I had a chance to get it in front of some of the regulars there.  Now, these folks aren't exactly strangers, and some of them I consider close friends, but I thought there might be a little more "honesty" than I get from my family.  We only had time to get in half a game (and that does play to my game length fears a bit) - but it was a pretty good success.  Everyone seemed to like it, my friend Paul Owen wrote a bit about it in his blog, and I received a very nice email the next day from Traci, one of our regular gamers about how much she enjoyed the game.  That was all a very nice boost of confidence heading into Unpub.

I've been spending the last few days making last minute changes - updating some cards, updating the board, adding some more dice to the game, so we're not just reliant on one set, etc.  I've never been one to sleeve the cards in my games - however I need to do that for Santa's Workshop since I'm just printing them out on card stock.  I'm on my 4th or so iteration of the "Coal Cards" in the game...and let me tell you unsleeving and resleeving 50ish cards that many times is a freaking chore.  Not to mention cutting the cards out.

Cards Cards Cards!  At this point, my next design will be card-free...

So, right now the major thing that I have left to do is a rules re-write to have a decent document to bring to the con, and to upload to the Unpub site.  However, I've taken a few steps besides just working on the game itself.  I've heard on a few different podcasts that it can be "unprofessional" to give out an obvious personal email such as "" (that's not my email address, by the way) - so I went to the effort to set up my own domain - "", and get an email address there.  Then I went and had business cards printed up with all the pertinent information.  I figure that the networking at Unpub will be at least as important as the actual game testing, so I thought I'd best be prepared.

For an extra fee, I was able to add my portrait to the card.  I think it turned out well.

I've got a note with a list of things to bring with me - I'm living in fear that I'm going to forget something important.  But really, I'm just looking forward to getting there at this point.  I've talked to Paul a few times, and I think the hardest part may be balancing demoing my own game, and play testing others.  The list on the Unpub site is impressive, and I want to play way more than I'll have time for.  Unpub has also set up a "Speed Dating" sort of thing for designers to meet for 10 minutes with Game Salute - I'm a bit nervous about that, but I hope to get some honest feedback, good or ill.  Well, that's about it for post will likely come on the flip side of Unpub - if I rage quit this whole blog, you'll know things didn't go so well...