Cope

James Wallis levels with you

Fjord Escort: Hyperion and Hypercamp

I run a workshop on board-game design, paper-prototyping and the iterative process. It lasts between two and four hours, and involves small groups of people concepting and designing a game, watching others playtest it, listening as they critique it and—if there’s time—working through that criticism to create a revised version. I’ve run it three times already this year (once for a group of students, once at an academic conference, and once is under NDA—sadly, as it was a good one) and it always gets great feedback. Most importantly it’s always different: not just the type of games that people devise but their subjects and the ambition they bring to it.

At one university recently I watched a very talented group of student designers crash and burn because they couldn’t reconcile the game they wanted to make—an ambitious narrative card-game based around playing out a court case—with either the brief for the project or the amount of time they had: their prototype had literally nothing playable in it. I’ve seen the same thing happen several times and it drives one of the central messages of the exercise: if you don’t start with a core of good gameplay, a structure or a mechanic to act as your nucleus, then you’ve got nothing to hold it together and your parts will fly off in all directions.

And sometimes it produces a game that’s really interesting. When I was a lecturer on the BSc Computer Games Development course at the University of Westminster I’d make my students a standard offer: if I was sufficiently impressed with their board-game I would introduce them to a suitable publisher for it. It only happened once, and I couldn’t get a publisher to bite (I suspect the game was a bit component-heavy, to be honest) but still it was an exciting and fun result, and a very impressive day’s work.

Anyway, as you may have gathered from earlier blogposts and the fact that Nordic Larp won the Diana Jones Award last year I ‘m very excited by what’s going on in the Scandinavian games scene in the last few years. There are some really interesting schools of design (‘Jeepform’ is the one that everyone’s heard of but there are more), and their larps lead the world in terms of development and scope. Perhaps most interestingly, they’ve put a lot of time and work into making games a recognised and legitimate cultural form in their countries. Whether or not you believe games are art, you’ve got to see the potential benefits in making games companies and games events able to access government-backed cultural funding and resources.

There’s an organisation in Norway called Hyperion. It’s a federation of games clubs and players from all over the country, mostly covering tabletop games and larps. It has tens of thousands of members, and because of that it is able to receive around two million kroner (£220,000/US$340,000) in annual funding from central and local government to support its activities. It distributes these funds as well as organising activities that I can mostly describe as Way Cool.

The money mostly comes from taxes on gambling, and is given to gaming organisations in the same way that sports organisations are funded. Hyperion has offices and paid staff (though not many—it’s not a huge or rich organisation). And one of the things it does is to organise Hypercamp, an annual week-long summer camp for around a hundred young games designers and students, aged about 14-24, on Hudøy, an island in the Oslo Fjord about fifty miles south of the capital.

Hypercamp offers sessions on larp design, costuming and cosplay, make-up, e-sports, miniatures gaming, stage make-up and more. In the evening people larp or play board-games or roleplay, or swim or chat or sing. And the camp also runs workshops on designing and prototyping board-games and RPGs. Enter stage left, clutching a boarding-pass, me.

That’s what I’m doing as I type this: I’m travelling to Hypercamp as a guest of Hyperion, to run my board-game workshop. I am hugely honoured to be asked, and wild pegasi couldn’t have kept me away. An island! In a fjord! With the descendants of Vikings!

I won’t be able to upload this post until I’m back in the UK, so by the time you read this I’ll be in the bosom of my family again. Expect a post-mortem with pictures. A figurative post-mortem, I hope.

How was your week?


A tale of Tales of the Arabian Nights

Tom Armitage tries to become un-lost in Tales of the Arabian Nights

Last night Tom, Martha, Ed, Kevan and I spent three hours exploring the world of Tales of the Arabian Nights (3rd edition, Z-Man Games 2009). It was memorable. TOTAN is not a great game, it’s certainly not a gamey game, but it’s an extraordinary thing: a colossal, intricate and beautiful story generator with a board. It is the work of a mad genius, who you will encounter on table B and you should probably choose to beat him soundly.

Stories were told: comedies, tragedies, and a great deal of laughter at the misfortune of others. At one point I had become scorned, so I opted to undertake a long pilgrimage to serve penance for my deeds (and remove the negative status and its equally negative modifiers). The very next turn—having not yet started the pilgrimage—I became scorned again. Tom spent most of the game imprisoned, and having finally got out of prison he immediately became lost. Ed was simultaneously respected and scorned, and crippled, and envious which meant he had to rob everyone he met. Martha attacked almost everything which got her outlawed, and then she became accursed and grief-stricken, possibly as a result. People became amazingly rich and then astoundingly poor, often in quick succession. By the end Kevan was an ape with a flying carpet and I was insane. You may understand why.

It’s not a game that rewards tactical play. I’m not sure there are any tactics at all, it’s more a matter of keeping track of all your various skills and statuses. TOTAN is basically a collection of really, really clever mechanics and a brilliantly written book of 2600 individual storylets, and a lot of gorgeous components, that just about hang together to make a game. The main problems with the first edition—the lack of a sense of competition, the lack of interaction between players—are actually worse in this version, and the fourteen reaction matrices, mind-boggling in their complexity twenty-five years ago, seem now to beg for a nice bit of Javascript to sort it all out. But in the thick of play it hardly seems to matter, and it’s still got the rule that if you are grief-stricken (a bad thing), have the Storytelling skill and are in the same space as another player then you can make them grief-stricken as well. That more or less sums up the game: it’s kind of a pointless rule, and it doesn’t come into play very often, but it makes me grin every time I think of it.

Kevan snuck in a crafty win just as we were about to break for the evening, despite or perhaps because he had been turned into an ape. If there are tactics then I suspect he was the person who found them. I also suspect he may be keeping them to himself.

Would play again in a heartbeat, but then it’s a game that could have been designed for me and I played my copy of the first edition to death in the late 80s. Unique, quite bonkers, and delirious fun.


Games on Business Cards, part 2

I just ran out of business cards.

This is hardly earth-shaking news, I know, but I have a tradition that whenever I print a new set of business cards I put something new on the back. It’s always a game, it’s always about business cards and—obviously—it has to be small enough to fit on the back of a standard 85 x 55 card.

This is the kind of thing I do for fun.

The new game is called ‘Fill My Position’ and it’s based on a variant of the core mechanic of the Book Game, better known these days as Apples to Apples. The key difference is that there’s no hidden cards in play, and I’ve also built in a role-playing element and a borrow from the classic TV show ‘Blind Date’. In 150 words. Here it is:A game on the back of a business card, by James Wallis

‘Fill My Position’ replaces ‘Here On Business’, the game on my last run of cards. HOB is an actual RPG stripped back to its bare essence, playable in half an hour, and you can see it here.

I’m always amazed that more games designers, writers, poets, artists and other creatives don’t do this, putting examples of their work on their business cards. It’s a portable portfolio, a piece of you in your potential client’s pocket, a literal calling card.

Go on. Have a go.


Viva Alas Vegas

John Coulthart has delivered more of his amazing artwork for the Alas Vegas major arcana, and I can’t resist showing it off. As with the last set of cards, these aren’t the finished versions, but I am still overjoyed with how they’re turning out.

Click through for larger versions:

PrintPrintPrint


Diana Jones Award 2013 shortlist

I administer the Diana Jones Award ‘for excellence in gaming’. This is its thirteenth year, and we’ve just released the shortlist for the 2013 award. I think it’s an outstanding collection of items, and since I don’t have access to the actual DJA website to update it right now, I’m throwing the press release up here so there’s a URL I can link back to.

Enjoy.

The DIana Jones Award trophy30th May 2013

 SHORTLIST FOR 2013 DIANA JONES AWARD ANNOUNCED

A card-game, an RPG, a book, a convention and a web series vie for hobby-gaming’s most exclusive trophy

From a list of nominations that included traditional board-games, card-games, miniatures games and role-playing games, as well as events, books about games and gaming, and for the first time a PhD thesis, the secretive committee of the Diana Jones Award has built a shortlist of five items that it believes best exemplify ‘excellence’ in the field of hobby-gaming.

The Diana Jones committee is proud to announce the shortlist for its annual Award for Excellence in Gaming:

Dog Eat Dog, an RPG by Liam Burke, together with the Asocena supplement
Published by Liwanag Press
‘Dog Eat Dog is a game about colonialism that skilfully brings issues of violence and assimilation to the fore. A lightweight economy forces the native players to continually make agonizing decisions and the colonial player to be an utter dick. The Asocena supplement includes “setting hacks” that move the action from a player-created fictitious island to real-world settings – Italy under German occupation, for example – which shows off the game’s true potential as a tool for empathy and understanding.’

Love Letter, a card game by Seiji Kanai
Published by AEG
‘A game like a fine watch mechanism: tiny, intricate and beautiful.’

Metatopia, a games convention in Morristown, New Jersey
Organised by Double Exposure, Inc.
‘Metatopia is a sui generis experience, in which game designers pay the con to demo their games for alpha gamers (who pay less for tickets, as they’re the “attraction”) and/or experienced alpha designers. It’s half retreat, half academic conference, half workshop, half game convention.’

Playing at the World, a book by Jon Peterson
Published by Unreason Press
‘A thorough, scholarly account of the history of hobby gaming in general and Dungeons & Dragons in particular. It convincingly traces the roots of D&D’s core mechanics all the way back to chess, its tropes through fantasy fiction and mythology, and its community back to the wargaming societies that formed at the turn of the last century. Peterson’s book is a must-read for anyone in the industry.’

Tabletop, a web series created by Wil Wheaton
Produced by Geek ‘n’ Sundry
‘Tabletop has brought a new energy and humour to the board-game field: its blend of good humour and gameplay is pitch-perfect and has introduced a range of titles from modern classics to indie RPGs to thousands of new players. The games hobby could not want a better public face than Wil Wheaton.’

 

PRESENTATION

The winner of this year’s award will be announced and the Diana Jones trophy will be presented at the annual Diana Jones Party, which will be held at the Cadillac Ranch, 39 West Jackson Place, Indianapolis, at 9pm on August 14th – the night before the Gen Con games convention opens to the public. All games-industry professionals are invited to attend.

 

ABOUT THE AWARD

The Diana Jones Award for Excellence in Gaming was founded and first awarded in 2001. It is presented annually to the person, product, company, event or any other thing that has, in the opinion of its committee, best demonstrated the quality of ‘excellence’ in the world of hobby-gaming in the previous year. The winner of the Award receives the Diana Jones trophy.

The Diana Jones Committee is a mostly anonymous group of games-industry alumni and illuminati, known to include designers, publishers, cartoonists, consultants, and those content to rest on their laurels.

Past winners include industry figures such as Peter Adkison and Jordan Weisman, the role-playing games Nobilis, Sorcerer, and Fiasco, the board-games Dominion and Ticket to Ride, and the website BoardGameGeek. This is the thirteenth year of the Award.

More information is available at the Diana Jones Award website or at the Award’s Wikipedia page.

 

CONTACT
For more information you can contact a representative of the DJA committee directly: committee@dianajonesaward.org


Baron Munchausen rides again

Lock up your wine cellars! The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen is back in print, thanks to the good works of the Mayan god Chaahk and his representatives in the home counties, Lightning Source print-on-demand.

This is a reprint of the second-edition paperback, the so-called ‘Wives and Servants’ edition originally released in 2008, with a couple of typos fixed and a new ISBN. Copies of that and the first edition were selling for ludicrous prices on Amazon (seriously, $300+ wtf) and when an international media figure told me he couldn’t afford to buy the book I figured it was time to do something. The reprint is on sale at many online bookshops but I recommend the Book Depository: the price is decent, they ship all over the world, and I make slightly more per sale there than from Amazon and elsewhere. Cover price is £11.99/€13.99/$17.99.

Baron Munchausen 2e cover(The 2008 edition was released in three versions: the limited-edition hardback Gentleman’s Edition; the softcover Wives’ and Servants’ Edition; and the Difference Engine number 3 digital edition. They are almost identical, except for a salacious illustration in the hardback which does not appear in the cheaper versions, lest it corrupt and deprave any of the more sensitive genders or the lower orders who might glimpse it.)

Because it’s print on demand I’m not offering this to regular games distributors: the margins don’t make it possible. However if you’re a retailer who’d like to order some copies then get in touch and we’ll work something out.

Work continues on the third edition of Baron Munchausen’s immortal game, with new material co-written with Alexandr Munchausen, a descendent of the Baron who by an extraordinary coincidence I met at Spiel 2012—a story which you will doubtless hear more in the coming months. Publication: sometime after Alas Vegas. Which I haven’t forgotten.


Alas Vegas tarot cards—a first look

Here are the first four images that John Coulthart has created for the Alas Vegas tarot.

For some reason Kickstarter isn’t letting me insert images directly into my update posts, so I’m posting these here mostly so I can embed a link to them.

They’re all still works in progress. In particular we’re still discussing borders and typography. But this gives you a good idea of how the end results will look. I am a very pleased and excited man.

The Magician:

magician

The High Priestess: 

02

The Empress:

Print

The Wheel of Fortune:10

If you’re interested in getting the latest updates about Alas Vegas but you didn’t subscribe to the Kickstarter, there’s a mailing list you can subscribe to by sending an email to alas-vegas+subscribe@googlegroups.com.


Good things in small packages

At Tabletop Day last weekend I picked up a copy of Love Letter by Seiji Kanai, from AEG. If you don’t know it, it’s a lovely little game: just sixteen cards. It’s padded with some tokens and some reference cards, and it comes in an embroidered velvet bag, but it’s basically sixteen cards.

Needless to say, I love it. It’s like a fine watch mechanism: intricate, mysterious and beautiful. A jewelled movement of a game.

And it plays into my fondness for miniaturisation in game design. I like small games. I design small games. Smallness doesn’t have to mean simplicity. Baron Munchausen is a half-page of rules with a great deal of embroidery. There was that Cadbury Pocket Game thing a while ago, for which I took one of the heaviest games of recent years and condensed it into six counters and a stick of chalk. And of course I’ve been putting games on the back of my business cards since the late 2000s; every time I do a new business card I design a new game for it.

So it’s nice that my former office-mates Hide & Seek have picked up the whole idea of tiny games and have run with it. They did a whole campaign of excellent tiny location-based games around London last summer, and now they’re building on that with a Kickstarter to create an iPhone app filled with amazing tiny games and a very cool system for deciding which one you should play next.

And they’ve tapped a number of games figures and designers to create additional material and new games for them. I am happy to report that these worthies will include Eric Zimmerman, Jane McGonigal, Doug Wilson, Bernie DeKoven and me.

The Kickstarter has a week to run as I write this, and deserves your support. Plus if you pledge £40 you can get a beta-release copy of Hide & Seek’s epic Drunk Dungeon game. A bargain… though at 500 cards it hardly counts as tiny. Shame.


International Tabletop Day. Also headphones

This Saturday (30th March) is International Tabletop Day, which proves that Americans still don’t understand how the rest of the world treats the Easter weekend, and haven’t learned the lesson of Peter Adkison’s ill-fated Gen Con UK, held over the Easter weekend in 2003.

Putting that aside, it’s a worthy idea and a great way of publicising the new generation of games and gaming to a wider audience.

I’ll be starting the day at Leisure Games in Finchley, north London, where I’ll be joined by Quintin Smith, noted games journalist and host of the Shut Up and Sit Down podcast, and my fellow Black Library author Richard Williams. After a couple of hours of that I will be hot-footing it westwards, to spend the rest of the day chez Eclectic Games in Reading, where there will be playing of games and chatting of chats. It will be good. Come up and accost me and ask me to play something or explain something—the question of 2013 appears to be why the last two books of the Marks of Chaos series never came out, if you’re looking for inspiration. I’m the tall one wearing the headphones.

Headphones! For anyone who’s been following my quest for the ideal sub-£100 headphone—which I’m pretty sure is none of you—you’ll remember the saga began when someone nicked the pair of Plantronics gamer phones from my desk at work. They weren’t great but the boom mike made them useful for Skype calls and they’d survived having my old study ceiling fall on them, so there was a certain sentimental attachment there. From there I went to a pair of Audio Technica ATH-ES55s (really lovely full sound, comfy and aesthetically pleasing, broke two pairs in eighteen months), and from there to a pair of Phillips Downtowns (amazingly comfortable, good sound but quite bass-light, only available in white, purple or brown, look like they should be really long-lasting but broke in four months), and thence to Sennheiser HD202s which should have been a triumphant homecoming because I’ve liked Sennheisers since the late 80s when I took a pair round the world but they were just… they were what I expected a pair of no-brand £25 headphones to sound like, a bit muted, a bit dull, not special at any particular frequency range and not terribly comfortable, and the heavy 2m cord they come with is simply awkward, particularly on the move. Really, when the cable wrap is larger than the music player, something is wrong with your design.

So I ended up borrowing back the Sennheiser PX100-iis that I’d passed on to my wife when I bought the Audio Technicas, and that was a little revelation. A revision of a classic design, it’s a really small, light headset that folds up nicely to fit in a pocket but delivers an awful lot of sound for that. And I thought this was probably it, and I’d stick with them, even if they didn’t do a great job of keeping my ears warm in the recent inclemency. And then someone on a mailing list mentioned Koss PortaPros.

The PortaPro has been around since the eighties, and if you had to choose one word to sum them up it would have to be ‘ugly’. Ugly, ugly, ugly, even though I’m a fan of what we shall call alternative aesthetics. Plus really, how well can a pair of £25 headphones with a design unchanged since 1984 really stand up to modern music through modern technology?

Oh my lord.

I am aware that at the moment I look like a bit-player from an early cyberpunk movie, but I don’t care. Subtle when it counts but full of big sound when it matters, it’s like these things have a mind of their own—a mind that really loves music. They have a reputation for a lot of bass but I like that, and it’s not a big flat bass either, there’s a deftness in the response here that’s simply a joy to listen to. Twenty-five quid. Extraordinary. I am a man converted.

Just had to tell someone. I trust you understand.

Anyway, Tabletop Day. If you’re going to be in London or Reading then come along; if you’re going to be somewhere else then head to your local games store, or grab a box of something and a couple of mates and head to your local coffee shop or pub. Evangelise a little, maybe meet some new people. You’ll be glad you did.

While I’m writing, how’s this blog theme working out for you? I’m in two minds about it, to be honest. Let me know.

 


Headkick

A week ago I put up a post talking about the just-started Kickstarter campaign for Alas Vegas, my new RPG. I’ve just written a sober description of that week for the Spaaace front-page blog, inviting analysis. But this is my personal blog, so here are some personal opinions.

1. Kickstarter is as addictive as meth, and possibly as bad for your teeth. Certainly for your fingernails.

2. Alas Vegas hit its funding goal in seven and three-quarter hours. Before the campaign started I was honestly wondering if £3000 was ambitious for a first Kickstarter. We hit that target in a third of a day. Then we blew through the first two stretch goals in the rest of that day, and knocked down the third—Yet Already, a fantastic fractured-time setting for the game’s Fugue mechanics, designed by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, in a couple of days more.

If you’re one of the people who has pledged money to Alas Vegas, thank you. Thank you more than I can say. If not, then…

3. Things have slowed down a bit now, which is a shame as we’re just getting to the really interesting stretch goals—Allen Varney, Robin D. Laws and others have offered material, but progress has got bogged down in some additional-artwork funding. Which brings me to:

4. Keep your campaign focused, don’t let it pull in two directions. Alas Vegas has a lot of people asking for an official Tarot deck. Well, that would be great, but it’s equally clear that there are a lot of people who don’t care a sou for Tarot decks one way or another, and who won’t back the Kickstarter while we’re asking for money for Tarot art. I have got a solution for the Tarot fans, conditional on sign-off from a couple of people, but as soon as we’ve cleared this stretch goal (it’s to commission the rest of the Major Arcana from the amazing John Coulthart) then the Alas Vegas campaign will be back to cool new stuff for the game.

5. Seriously, Allen Varney’s pitch for his new Fugue mechanics setting made me spit assorted foodstuffs across my laptop. It’s genius. And before that we have John Tynes promising to write a selection of Vegas-style cocktail recipes for Alas Vegas, suitable for drinking while playing the game.

6. Did I mention that this is the most fun I’ve had in the games industry for a long time? Not counting Warpcon, of course.

7. Which leads me to a future post, which I will write when I have time, about gamification. It’s been fermenting for a long time, and I think you’ll enjoy it. But it won’t happen until you have pledged more of your money. Go on! You could get the game dedicated to you.