A Paper Prototype, or a Quick Break from Larp.

As work continues on the 4x Larp, let’s take a little break to look at a prototype game. When I first started this blog digital game design was the focus where pretotyping and prototyping was big parts of that process. Here is a game idea which reached the prototype phase and is going to TempleCon with me to play test. I’m looking forward to reconnecting with an old acquaintance from larp who started a new game company, Gooder Games.

The general idea is that we have two groups exploring and settling a lush green land. The winner is the player who controls the most terrain by placing huts. Each player has three huts. There is one tile (lower right quadrant of the picture) which is a Mountain with a spring. This is the start tile. Sound like Carcassonne? Yup. I made this game because I wanted more Carcassonne. I also wanted to capture the feel of D&D maps.

Shuffle all the other tiles. Each player draws a concealed hand of three tiles. Choose who goes first. That player may either place a tile or place a hut. Huts can only be placed on Hill tiles or Plains tiles. They may not be placed on River or Mountain tiles. Play continues until all the tiles are played.

The winner is the player who controls the most contiguous terrain. Contiguous Terrain is an tile of a similar terrain type touching a hut. So if a hut is placed on a hill, count all hills connected to it as one group of terrain. Like Carcassonne you cannot play into a group of tiles already controlled by another player. You could merge fields or hills together. Its pretty bad if you do it to yourself (it means you wasted a hut), but forcing another players terrain to merge is a pretty potent strategy.

This is a terrible description and covers no edge cases whatsoever. Part of showing off the game and having people play it is to find the emergent strategies, make sure there are a couple and they are fun, and to practice telling people the rules. Eventually that will happen enough times that they can be written clearly.

A surprisingly large amount of game design is communicating clearly. Creating the concept, building a prototype, and testing the game are all easy compared with communicating the rules. There are so many reasons why I’m looking forward to TempleCon, working on a game design for fun is one of them. My wife suggests I do a kickstarter, and shoot for 2 million like Exploding Kittens. A full TempleCon report when I return. But until them more 4x larp.

P.S. Note to self: Do not write blog posts at 9:00 pm. You accidentally publish rough drafts.

3 Game Production Resources

A quick post today with some links to resources for producing a physical game.  Having started making a card game, which has the potential to be a physical game, it would most likely be a good idea to have some resources around for physical production.  Maybe my game will never make it that far, but maybe yours will.


Game Crafter
This company can help you produce your game.  Or they have resources for prototyping.  Buy a la cart bits to build your own.

Game Salute
A small company in NH which helps wrangle the psychical goods from Kickstarter campaigns.  They help produce and distribute card and board game supplies.  Almost a publisher, but not quite.

Board Game Geek
More links to all kinds of supplies and resources for board and card game publication.

Play Test Round 1

The Design of my card game is going well.  This week the call volume is high which means time to buckle down at the day job.  Working on this is going to get put on hold.  Lunch breaks are 30 minutes, and I’m picking up extra hours.  No downtime to spend working on Dormouse Games, let alone a personal side project like this.  But over the past couple weeks some play tests were done, and some lessons learned.

Previously I had locked down the card list.  But then decided not to make all of the building cards.  In retrospect this was a good idea.  Of the game concepts the ‘blueprints’, aka building deck, seems to be working out the least well.  Keep that in mind if you’re play testing as well.

The initial play was by myself and produced a ton of edge cases, and specific thoughts on the rules.  Unfortunately I did not record them adequately.  So take this as a lesson, and dont make the same mistake.  When play testing, either by yourself, or with others, make sure to have a way to record the specifics of what you want to change.

That being said, the biggest change to make is to the worker deck.  The way the cards are constructed at present, card draw is SUPER easy.  Playing cards is SUPER difficult.  You can get a ton of cards into your hand, but getting them back out is a bottleneck.  This is very frustrating.

There are two adjustments that come to mind.  The ‘higher level’ workers, the ones which cost salt to play, will get decreased card counts going forward.  This will change the chance the regular workers are drawn. Drawing those cards early sucks because salt has a lower draw rate.  These cards tend to just sit in your hand. Additionally cards like Logger, are going to lose the ‘draw again’ mechanic.  Which is going to be replaced with ‘play one’ instead.  This will prevent the build up of additional cards and make them come out of the hand easier.

There is tons of polish left, and lots to do, and these are just the macro changes.  There will be plenty of time later for the specific polish and edge cases.  Right now the Buildings deck needs a lot of work.  Although I’m not sure what exactly will change.

I accidentally a…

So I accidentally made a card game prototype recently.  My assigned task was to work on the GDD for Steam Scouts: Alchemy.  Which I did work on (GDD’s are never finished).  However, inspiration does not follow the plan.  The prototype is a castle building, tactics card game.  After playing a lot of Disruptor Beams great Game of Thrones: Ascent, the card game came to me. I wanted to play stone block cards and build castles a bit quicker.


 Although the paper prototype is a playable card game, it would make a much better electronic CCG.  The deck of cards consists of 300+ cards for two players which are sorted into four piles.  In today’s environment of Dominion and Ascension a 300 card count boxed card game is not very daunting.  But for two players who want a quick game…  That’s a lot of logistical issues.

An encounter with Joshua AC Newman inspired me to give it away and see what happens.  The Card list and rules will be free, but you have to actually hand make your own cards (no mass production please).  I’m going to slowly pursue testing, feedback, and later stages of game development.  The goal is to enjoy the process of creating, testing, and releasing a card game.  This is really my attempt to test the ideas which Amanda Palmer so frequently espouses, and for which Josh  is also extremely enthusiastic.  For me it’s an attempt to unlearn my business degree, and rebuild it.  Call it an experiment in deprogramming.  I’m going to make a thing, put my heart and soul into it (enjoy every minute of its creation for its own sake) and then set it loose in the world and see what happens.

This game is being created for fun, the point of which is the process more than the product.  While this game shouldn’t take off the learning has been valuable and enjoyable.  It will be a hobby and a labor of love.  If I get a few people that want to play a couple rounds with me, it will be a success.  Maybe it will take off.  Maybe I can make a full art electronic version.  Maybe even a boxed card version.  If people really like it, who knows?

What would it feel like to sit down at a table at Pax East and play a couple rounds with complete strangers?  Playing my own card game… At a convention.  Positive or negative feedback, that would feel awesome.  But doubly so if people were passionate about it.

One bit of the game design that I really need your help with is naming the game.  What should I call it?

Blog post meta blog post.

The Dormouse Games website is looking a lot more professional these days.  The blog aspect is basically going to be my domain.  We’re going to be posting information specifically about the games we’re making the and thought process that will go into them.

This blog is going to stay active.  The tone here will more personal, rather than business related.  Talking about events I go to, talks I like, etc.  But there might be some crossover.  So if you enjoy the stuff I post here, follow the blog at Dormouse Games as well!  Just in case.  Wouldn’t want to miss anything, right?

For the company website I rewrote some concepts and ideas about Paper Prototyping because we used it recently.  You may see some revisions and changes in thinking.  This represents the things that I am learning through the process of starting company and applying all the lovely theory.

"The Lean Startup" vs Spaghetti Sauce

Our investors suggested I read “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries.  http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=thzopr-20&o=1&p=8&l=as4&m=amazon&f=ifr&ref=ss_til&asins=0307887898

I’m glad they did.  The book is well written and filled with examples from either the authors own experience or companies operating under similar circumstances.  All suggestions came from practical experience and are immediately relevant to my current experience as a start-up.  If you’re starting a company, or running a project with vaguely defined goals, it will be relevant to you too.

Overall this book is really about applying the scientific process to business; specifically the product development cycle.  This book helps you understand what to measure and why.  Although the focus of the book is mostly on new businesses the process presented could be used by project managers to create small scope projects in existing organizations…  Assuming they can get autonomy.  As my Project Management professor said “Get permission in writing.”

In a way Malcolm Gladwell: Choice, Happiness and Spaghetti Sauce is a better argument for a lean startup in established organizations then the book Lean Startup is.  There are very similar themes running through this book and the presentation.  Gladwell’s discussion of large companies finding the perfect products through metrics driven iteration might sell the strategy, while The Lean Startup elaborates on the specific tactics which might otherwise scare an established corporate machine.

If you’re an entrepreneur starting a new venture, of just about any kind, giving The Lean Startup a read will get you started off on the right foot.  Your scope will shrink, your costs will decrease, and your chance of success will increase if you take his lessons to heart because you will realize that bloated scope, high costs and high risk aren’t necessary for making big changes in today’s world.  Iterative design fits in very well with the work of paper prototyping, and right before (and during for best results) all the marketing that needs to happen.  But really Lean Startup is a methodology for how to behave as a company in the modern world.

Paper prototyping… At work

My new day job is going well.  I’m really enjoying being in the operations side of Financial Services.  Six months in sales has taught me that I am not a sales guy.  Call volume was slow for my first two weeks, so I’ve had some time to paper prototype a card game.  Entrepreneurs always say you have to quit your day job, but there might be a case for not doing that under specific circumstances.  The game is intended to be an HTML5 online CCG.

Online CCG’s are surprisingly fun, although there’s room for improvement.  And I say that as a former M:tG pro tour hopeful.  I’ve been playing Clash of the Dragons on Kongregate.  The single player game seems like a bit of a grind, but if you want to draft you have to endure it or spend money.  I think the intent is to have a big PVP focus, but like most MMO’s, I’m just playing the single player campaign.  There seems to be some needless complexity in terms of having a game world, player stats, and inventory.  After playing four or five other Kongregate card games, Clash is the best of the bunch in my opinion.

Wireframing for Game Design

Dave and Ralph over at The Tap Lab created an awesome game called TapCity and gave a great presentation about it at Mobile Monday Boston #momobo.  They also talked game startups at Boston Indies. But before building TapCity they built a binder called BigCity. This binder is a ‘wire frame’ of the game. The intention was to be able to sit down with the binder, and like a choose your own adventure game, play TapCity.  Of course like all projects, the scope had to be reduced to get things moving.  Unfortunately BigCity did not turn into a playable iOS prototype. Despite not being what they dreamed, BigCity is a tremendous resources and is worth learning from.

This post has some rather large graphics in it.  More after the break…

Yes, they really are goofy in person.

Wire Frame vs Playable Prototype

Less involved then a paper prototype the wire frames demonstrate the look, feel, and layout of the product.  They act
as a map for a web page or application.  Generally they show off the user interface.  For example on the website wireframe wikipedia page ‘the back end’ is completely ignored for the purposes of wireframing.

In the context of game design what you get from wire framing a game idea is a sketch of the look and feel before it’s made. This prevents confusion about GUI when the coders sit down to make it. This ended up being a problem on The ZoRTS Project.  It is also a great communication tool which expresses thoughts often missing from the Game Design Document.  A good creative lead in training is going to have at least a few screens done before the project starts.  Ultimately the level of completeness of the wire frame is going to depend on the project.

To create a paper prototype, on the other hand, you need a little bit more of your ‘backend’ in the frame work.  The mechanics have to be in place in order to have a functional paper prototype. Almost like playing a board game version of the game you eventually want to make.  Start with the wireframes of the UI with the paper mock up of the game and then begin adding game play loops, decision tree’s, and the individual game mechanics like mob stats, inventory, combat, etc.

On a hobby project, where you have all the time in the world if you can do this, DO IT.  The ability to play around and figure out what works and what is compelling about the game before writing a single line of code will be worth every minute or every dollar spent in averted disasters based on ineffective communication.  However, for a game with deadlines to meet, or experienced developers, either the wire frame or the paper prototype will be sufficient.  Alternatively some amount of both could work.  Much like a Game Design Document, mostly complete is usually close enough to get started.  Just don’t forget to update as the project changes.  As Rules for Revolutionaries says ‘Don’t worry, be crappy’.  As long as you ‘Churn baby churn.’

Wire frame Resource Kits

Ralph was kind enough to post a .pdf file of the mock up they used for the iPhone.  You can find that on his blog.  This document is great for printing out and hand drawing your game.  If you want something a little more digital, or for the iPad, check out this post on speckyboy which contains a Wireframe kit for the iPad.  Or perhaps this one with an Android kit and iPhone kit.  These resources are provided under a ‘pay what you like’.  If you do some serious development with them, please provide the author some remuneration.

Conclusion

As a hobby game designer looking to become a pro, you absolutely should build a game design document and a paper prototype of your game before coding begins.  Should you do this before assembling a team or after?  Honestly I have no opinion on that yet.  It can go either way.  You might need a paper prototype to convince a team to work with you…  Or you might have a team of passionate friends that would enjoy taking the time to make the prototype.  You could even start a monthly prototyping session just for the fun of it.

Some professional game developers note that there are limitations to paper prototyping and pit falls associated with creating a game design document.  Their warnings should be heeded.  For example making a paper prototype could cause your game to feel like a board game.  Players are going to be able to detect remnants of the foundation during play.  My advice is to wire frame and prototype anyway.  Especially if you are just starting out.  Polish the process until it’s an art form, and then you can start to move beyond those foundation documents.  Besides you might actually want to make a strategy game.  In which case, feeling like a board game is no problem.  Feeling like an award winning board game is not a bad thing for your first game.

Of the many things that BigCity did for The Tap Lab, increasing Foosball skill was not one of them.

Dave showing off BigCities ability to teach Foosball.
There were a lot more pictures taken from my visit to Tech Stars.  Check them out on imgur.  Including a full view of the TechStars Logo!  Sorry for cutting it off earlier.

Images are all © Jeremy Springfield 2011 – I made them myself! Please ask permission before using them for any purpose.