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Half Way

It has been a busy few weeks so I want to take a moment to reflect. Running a Kickstarter campaign is intense, there are so many messages, enquiries and questions to answer that it becomes very easy to become obsessed by detail and loose sight of what you are really trying to do.

Half way through the campaign for Metro Maps I want to return to the big picture. Lincoln Game Company is all about making games and sharing them with you. This means that I need to take every opportunity I can to reflect on the projects Lincoln Game Company will work on in the future. I was recently on BBC Radio talking about game development and ideas generation, I spoke to the presenter Melvin about the challenges of identifying good ideas and where to draw inspiration from. To paraphrase that conversation I mentioned the six or seven ideas I had this year and that I had subsequently discounted. The truth is there are a few ideas that have been fermenting at the back of my mind that I believe have a real possibility of doing something different.

The diagram below reveals the project codenames and where in development these ideas are, ranging from early development and prototyping through to Kickstarter and production.

Most of these projects have taken a back seat for the past few months in favour of giving Metro Maps the attention it needed to get to Kickstarter. I can however reveal a few details about the projects that I am working on. Project Earl will have its teaser launch in a few months time so look out for that reveal in the near future. Project Cerberus has over taken Project Gemini recently as I am very excited about the idea, it’s based on something I am quite passionate about about and will hopefully take fast paced gameplay to a whole new level. Project Baron is in its earliest possible stages and may not be something we see for a few years yet. These projects are a mixture of board games and playing cards that will keep everyone involved in Lincoln Game Company busy for years to come.

All in all there is lots to look forward too. Metro Maps is still on Kickstarter waiting to be funded and I have a series of expansions for it waiting in the wings at the full prototype stage.

The Map that Inspired Metro Maps

I remember my first trip to London and to the mind of a little boy two things stood out the most. Firstly seeing the MI5 building (our secret service offices) and secondly the roar of hot air as the tube trains screeched onto the platforms of the Underground. Who needs the Natural History Museum?

London is full of fabulous sights and sounds and every visitor should try zipping about by tube. I was brought up in Leicester, if you were to point at the centre of a map of England you would be pretty close to putting your finger on my home town. Leicester is a large, ancient and former industrial city. But London it is not. So as a child, going to London really was like going to the big city, it was busier, noisier, taller and had trains that ran underground.

Fast forward several years to my time at college and university and I start to discover my love of modernist design. My first (and currently only) visit to the Bauhaus in Berlin (another terrific underground railway system) was eye opening for me. It was the first time I truly understood phrases such as “Form following function”. I loved every moment of looking around the museum and it’s exhibits. At university I started to explore De Stijl, Fauvism, Minimalism, Constructivism and many other Twentieth Century design and artistic movements.

But how does this relate to Metro Maps? The underground map as we know it was designed by Henry Beck who realised that actually where the lines of the London Underground were was largely irrelevant. His topological maps used only straight horizontal, vertical and 45 degree lines to connect stations. The map we see today is an evolution of his design of nearly 100 years ago. For me Beck’s genius lies in that statement of form following function. It is clear, understandable and you can see your route based on the clearly differentiated lines criss-crossing the river Thames.

When developing Metro Maps I was actually designing a game that involved players taking command of 19th Century sailing ships and drawing trade routes around a map of cards. That idea didn’t really work. But when I started working with long coloured matchsticks connected to similarly coloured circular trade nodes I had an epiphany. I was making a grid of coloured lines and circles just like the tube map.

This new theme worked much better. Randomised pre-defined routes, mechanics built on the limited space offered under London’s streets and the bold iconography of Becks modernist design. This was much more my style.

The London Underground Map is a style icon of the Twentieth Century and Transport for London is rightfully proud and protective of its map. When you get the chance to play Metro Maps and jostle for the win in your own Beck style world, give a thought to the man who first had to wrangle the lines and stations (now 11 lines and 270 stations) of London’s Victorian infrastructure.

The Countdown Begins

It hasn’t really sunk in yet but the the Kickstarter campaign starts now.

The decision has been made, the game is finished and the marketing material has been written. I now need to start generating a buzz before pressing the button and going live. Which is terrifying. What has been a project happening largely in my head, and amongst a relatively small number of people, is now in the public domain. All the plans that I have been making are about to be tested in the full glare of the public.

I have so much tied up in this project, both emotionally and physically, that I’m not sure I can remember what life was like before. So before I start, I want to thank everyone who has been involved so far and I hope that we are about to have a long and exciting journey designing and making boardgames together.

One Step Nearer

In my last blog post I spoke about knowing when to stop designing and the challenges of identifying when a game is complete rather than identifying what else could be included. This week I find myself in the position having set a deadline, having a feeling that the game is finished, and being on the verge of Launching Metro Maps on Kickstarter.

I have been working on the Kickstarter campaign video this week and my media production degree suddenly being my most useful asset. Not having access to all the equipment, software and cheap labour I had while at university has been frustrating; but I am still pleased with the results. It’s amazing what you can do with even the most basic free software.

Metro Maps Animated Logo

The video will launch soon, featuring my own dulcet tones and an animation showing the basics of playing Metro Maps. The video also briefly touches on my motivations for designing the game as well as showing the city I call home. I want the launch video to be about the game and about the person behind it. After all I think that’s what Kickstarter is really about, making a personal connection with creative people.

I’m working on an extended gameplay video next. The animations are complete, it just needs knocking into shape and narrating.

Slowly but surely.

The development of Metro Maps is slowly but surely reaching the end. In the last week there have been no shocks or gaping holes in the rules. The designs have been refined and until production templates are produced there is very little else to be done there. Final quotes have been requested and I’ve put the numbers into the spreadsheet. As my last act before going live on Kickstarter I will start recording and editing the video for the Kickstarter campaign.

But is the game ready?

Well, Metro Maps survived play testing. It has been positively reviewed by those that have played the game. The problem at this stage is me. As the designer there are always things you want to do. At the back of my mind I still want to squeeze in a mechanic for a different type of route (something that would fundamentally change the game play). I want to squeeze pieces for an extra player into the box. I constantly think that I need an extra couple of pages for the instructions to make things extra clear. I have ideas for variants that could be played; which makes me think maybe I could create two instruction booklets, one for the main game one for variants and alternative rules. The list goes on.

This is where game designers really start to earn their keep. At this point the good game designers identify when to stop. The bad, keep adding. It’s something that I look out for when I look to back Kickstarters myself, has the designer got carried away and put so many rules, variants and extras into the game that it just becomes confused. Unfortunately it is something that I see a lot in RPG’s. A designer develops a system that is elegant and understandable and provides the basis for an excellent game. Then they start adding exceptions because they really want to include this particular mechanic. Then, it’s a hand full of extra rules just to re-balance the game. Then there are two development trees for two ways of playing. It’s a snow ball effect that has ruined perfectly good games.

The problem is, you become so invested in what you are trying to do that you stop listening to other people. My experience so far is that people will tell you when the game is good. You just have to listen. The difficulty is that you will also get suggestions and advice for ways to improve the game. This is good, it helps you think about your game in a different way. But it’s very easy to find your self back on the path of adding more and more until the game you spent so long refining is hidden under a rule book three inches thick. I don’t know if I have found my time to stop just yet, but I think I’m nearly there. Only time and a Kickstarter campaign will tell.

So when to stop? Set yourself a deadline, work towards it and listen to the people around you. Remember that all those great mechanics and ideas can always be saved and used in another game. Or an expansion. Or as an extra rule book that players can download from the website. Or… you get the idea.

What is Kickstarter?

For the record, I love kickstarter. It is a great opportunity for creatives, and non creatives, to fund projects and make new things happen. For the moment I’m going to assume that you know what crowdfunding is, and generally how a platform such as Kickstarter works. So what is Kickstarter?

This question has been playing on my mind recently. As I started to dive deep into the minutiae of setting up a Kickstarter campaign, I have been thinking about audience expectation and what that means to me. Which set off a train of thought about the way a crowd funding platform like Kickstarter actually functions. That is, how does it work in the real world along side things like tax, mortgages, next day delivery and having enough phone battery to order pizza through the app. You know, the important things in life.

When I launch Metro Maps will kickstarters expect to place an order and get the game? or are they expecting to contribute to a project and get a reward of symbolic value? Those two statements are delicately different but Kickstarter themselves are very clear on this subject.

“Backing a project is more than just giving someone money. It’s supporting their dream to create something that they want to see exist in the world.”

https://www.kickstarter.com/press?ref=hello [Accessed: Jun 2019]

This means Kickstarter sees backers as people who contribute to projects in order to help people create new things. It’s very simple, and very honourable.

This is where we run into a little problem. Every Kickstarter offers rewards for contributing to the project, It’s exactly what I will be doing with Metro Maps. The problem is, this means that creators start promising goods in exchange for pledges. Which understandably starts looking like a transaction, rather than a gesture of support. In fact HMRC (The UK equivalent of the IRS) sees crowd funding as a new business venture and therefore taxable.

“Where a contributor receives goods or services that have an intrinsic value (e.g. clothing, tickets, dvd) in exchange for support given, there is a supply for VAT purposes. The VAT treatment will follow the liability of the goods or services provided.”

https://www.gov.uk/hmrc-internal-manuals/vat-finance-manual/vatfin5550 [Accessed: Jun 2019]

Having looked through the HMRC website (not the most thrilling way to spend time) the only only occasion when you are not liable for tax is if rewards are symbolic in value. For example, you get mentioned in the credits or we will send you a nice hand written letter to say thank you.

So in the context of our original question; What is Kickstarter?

Well I’m starting to think it’s two things. First and foremost It is a way for creatives to ask for funding towards a new project. Or as Kickstarter states, it’s a way of supporting an artists dreams. But Kickstarter is also a lower risk way for creatives to start a business and sell their stuff. Which one of those two categories your project falls into is entirely dependent on the rewards you offer. And I expect this will also influence the attitudes of your backers as well.

With that in mind, I’m off to call my accountant.

3, 2, 1… Play Test!

I completed the first three sessions of formal play testing this week. I wasn’t entirely sure how to approach this, as there are very few people who really go into detail as to how they complete this part of their game design process.

I have a background in marketing so I thought the skills I used and learnt professionally are probably a good place to start. I ran the play test sessions a little like focus groups. I presented participants with a letter that explained exactly what they were taking part in, and contained details about what elements of the game are production quality. I then sat back and carefully watched players set up the game and work out the rules for themselves. Making careful note of things that were confusing and things that were incorrect. At the end of play I gently interviewed them and started a conversation about the game.

Watching other people play a game you have designed is a strange experience. To see how other people interpret the rules you have so carefully crafted and then proceed to find as many ways as possible to break them is both terrifying and hilarious. One play tester quickly spotted a way of totally locking up the game with their first move in totally bizarre incidence of mutually assured destruction. I was aware that statistically this was possible but extremely unlikely. It’s instances like these that improve your game and show how important play testing is.

So if you have aspirations of designing a game this is what I would suggest preparing for your play test sessions.

  • Written introduction – This helps control the information available and the experience of different play test groups.
  • A way of recording observations – I used a note book and pen to record observations, it’s low tech and not intimidating.
  • Questions – Make sure you can start a conversation about your game that starts in an area that you know will be useful to you. Play testers will go off at useful tangents but make sure you get what you need as well.
  • Food – It never hurts to feed and water your play testers, remember that they are giving up their time to help you.
  • Follow up survey – This gives empirical data that you can use to identify trends.

It’s alive!

I have been working on a new project for the past six months and finally I have something to show for it. It’s amazing, as soon as you have something physical in your hands, it’s almost as if you all the hard work you have been putting in has paid off. Since the beginning of this project I have been working digitally, with designs on screen and bits of inkjet print outs where necessary. But when an actual box turned up with board and cards and pieces it felt as though the work had come to fruition.

So what is the project…

Metro Maps is the board game I have been working on. In the game, players build routes exactly as they appear on the cards by spending resources, and placing pieces on the board. The difficult bit is other players can interfere and block you at every turn, consuming your valuable and ever decreasing resources.

The designs aren’t final yet, the box and board both need tweaking and refining but I am so pleased that I finally have a product that I can get in front of a new group of play testers. I will update you all on the final round of play testing as soon as I start to get the feedback.