Last week, I posted about why making print and plays is a great thing for designers to do. This week, I navigate my first two creations and see what I can learn from the whole process.
My first time: Cutting stuff up with Barbers!
The first game I set-about printing and creating myself was Barbers!, a game designed to fit into a mint tin about cutting the head and facial hair of people in a barber shop.
I first discovered it when it’s creator Harshad Deshmukh was looking for testers for a solo mode of the game. Given it was small but had a quirky intriguing theme, lots of fun looking artwork and involved trying to do useful things with scissors, it seemed like a pretty good place to start. From the beginning though I knew it would something of a double challenge. Aside from the crafting involved, he was specifically looking for players to test the solo game. Solo gaming is something I almost also never do, but wanted to understand better in order to design a good solo mode for Magnate.
Producing the pieces was fairly easy. I could print them all easily using the HP colour laser printer (MFP M277dw for anyone who is interested) that I had already acquired for making my own prototypes. Given this was just for testing and there didn’t seem to be a physical need for any component to be especially durable during play, I opted to use normal quality printer paper rather than card. Given the small size of the pieces, there was also nothing bigger than A4 that needed to be created. Thankfully, this also meant no sticking sheets together. One of the things that gave me more trepidation than any other thing in PnP is dealing with large boards. With only a Pritt stick to help me I knew it would always look a bit rubbish; much the like rough and ready city playmat, I’ve been having to live with for Magnate so far.
Next came cutting-up. As well as board pieces (specifically the chairs in the barber shop and some help cards) there were lots of customer tokens that needed to be created here. Sadly, as usual, I got bored and sloppy pretty quickly; cutting-up all over the place. I also didn’t bother with making backs for the tokens that I assumed would be a required in a ‘nice’ version of the game. Given I was blind testing this only, I trusted myself not to try to peer through the thin paper to see what customer was coming next in the game. While playing I would just shuffle them, line, up and take the next one so I couldn’t subconsciously pick the customer that would have been easier to complete.
Even if they weren’t as well cut-out as they could be, they were functional. One thing that that did help here is that Harshad and his artist had been pretty careful to design them with simple white backdrops and icons, with no bleed off the edges of tokens. The art direction of these pieces would survive my particularly lo-fi DIY aesthetic better than something very densely illustrated. More practically, this approached both saved on printer ink and eliminated the risk that a small bad cut will see one token missing detail while it bleeds onto another. The only further improvement I’d like to have seen is the use of printer’s crop marks rather than full black lines between pieces so that my lazy cutting would have been less noticeable in the final version.
Lastly, there were other few pieces which I was not sure if I needed to cut-out or not. Given they didn’t appear to be necessary to cut-out (I may have been wrong) I left them as they were to keep the process moving.
With all the board / token parts done, I moved to find other parts. For cubes / 3D markers, I decided to raid my copy of Robinson Crusoe. I didn’t feel too bad about this as this poor game had already been part-cannibalised for my own prototypes. And while thematically wonderful, I already knew – even more now – that I would probably never play it again, owing to the many ways in which it had frustrated me (another post for another time). For dice I found some cute old dice, which I am pretty sure had been given to me by my mum; perhaps from a long lost game of ludo. Although their actual origin before being moved to my miscellaneous component box from a draw, is lost to the mists of time.
Lastly, I found a box for the game. Because I wasn’t going to practically use the backs of the customer pieces, I left those in a rather-fetching row and then sellotaped those to the top of an old laptop battery case. A simple trifold allowed the rules to fit into the box without needing to wrestle with the compact dimensions of a mint tin.
All the pieces ready, I was then ready to get going; working my way through Harshad’s rules to understand the game. After hitting a few snags and asking for a few clarifications, I was finally playing my first game of Barbers!
I am glad to say, I won – beating the old barber to more high value customers even with his team of lackeys. I can’t say I was thrilled by the game, but it was a nice way to pass an hour or so (including rules) and it had lots of fun thematic little touches like the placement of customers in the chairs and the particular interests they have. Not being more into it was no reflection on Harshad’s design. I have, so far, not found a dice drafting game that really grabbed me. Rather, it was for other reasons I learned in the process of playing it.
First I learned that Solo games are probably not for me in the main. Perhaps I will yet discover one I love. But if I am on my own, the immersive nature of computer games just gives me a lot more bang for my buck. Without other folk around the table, I think I am going to always feels like I am just pushing cubes around to some extent – I am a sucker for the social element. What that does mean though is doing a lot more research into the solo games people do enjoy so so I can create something workable for Magnate.
Second I learned that both sides of the blind test are tougher than they appear. When Harshad offered explanation of the rules, suddenly things clicked into place. But until then I would find myself spending a fair amount of time figuring out if I was right or wrong. Without other folk around the table to help brainstorm and problem solve the more ambiguous parts I was doubly uncertain if I was playing it right. After later investigation – I was almost certainly not! Normally this would not matter, but heree, given the testing it wasn’t good enough to make a quick call and move on. And of course, with this game being still pretty new, there was not yet anything on BGG to guide me about how to interpret them. Harshad, who was very helpful throughout the process, did his best to help me.
In the end, I decided to give up the fight with it as the solo aspect was not for m. I’m not sure beyond a point how useful my feedback was; I hope it was at least somewhat useful. But it give me a new found respect for PnP designers; not just in creating something shareable but the difficulty there is in writing rules that are instantly grokable; this seems like something you can never learn enough.
Round 2: The Old Hellfire club
The second game I decided to tackle in my PnP journey was Jamie Frew’s Old Hellfire Club: a storytelling game with some nicely story-independent mechanics for non-performative introverts and a wonderfully specific theme – supposed aging members of the Hellfire club telling preposterous (and almost certainly fake) stories about their youthful exploits.
Going into this experience I was already better prepared, on at least two levels to meet it with success. Not only had I had the experience of Barbers to cut my teeth on, I had actually seen the Old Hellfire Club demoed at UKGE: it was why I was so keen to try it properly for myself.
On the surface, it seemed like a much easier game to produce. For non-card components I only needed very generic counters for the “pennies” which the raconteurs are trying to win for gin. While a lot were required (the rules specify more than 70!), they were especially easy to find because they needed no precise dimensions; unlike the cubes from Barbers!. So given the game’s red theme, I simply choose a big stack of red counters I had once pilfered from a training package that my company was throwing out.
The cards, however, turned out to be a bit trickier than I thought.
For my own prototypes I tend to go for index cards first. They are horrible to shuffle but incredibly quick to work with. Their awkwardness and lo-fi nature generally doesn’t matter too much as my whole philosophy is to invest as little as possible in the look of the prototype at each stage of its development – even though it grates on my aesthetic instincts! After all, you don’t know if you even *need* cards at the beginning and you want to waste as little time as you can changing your rules until they are great; not messing around with artwork. But with the Old Hellfire Club, I would need to try a different approach. With artwork and gameplay elements (suits, numbers and names) printed onto paper, I’d need to stick them all to cards, which sounded super laborious as well as producing a rather unsatisfactory finish.
So instead I opted for the gold standard method for this kind of work I now see used by most designers: taking old playing cards (especially old Magic the Gathering cards), placing them in sleeves and slipping the cut-out paper versions of the cards in-front. All I would need to do is raid my old magic collection for decks and slip each piece of paper in first.
However, owing to a lack of forward planning on my part, I managed to screw this-up. Most of the spare deck protectors and cards I had were of the transparent kind. After printing and cutting out the Old Hellfire Club cards out at 100% size, I found that when they slipped in the front, you could still see the paper around the edges of the card from the back. This no only looked like total crap, it meant you might eventually see which cards are which; a problem for this game. Thankfully I had only printed one sheet to test.
My first solution was to re-print the cards smaller. This worked a bit better but I was now left with the opposite problem: they didn’t cover up all of the Magic card’s text on the front. While functional, this was simply too crap for me to put-up with it. So, somewhat reluctantly, I moved to my second and ultimately successful solution; delving much deeper into my Magic collection for the tiny minority of cards I had in heavy duty opaque sleeves.
First I re-printed the whole lot of Old Hellfire Club cards at 100% size and cut them all out while sat in-front of Netflix. Then I re-purposed whole Magic decks I had lovingly created as a child as decks for the Old Hellfire Club; slipping the paper versions in-front of every enormous green and black creature I had hoarded. Given the density of rare and foil cards in those decks, I suspect they are – currently – the most valuable prototypes of the Old Hellfire Club in the world!
After 2 hours or so of cutting out and slipping cards into three differently backed decks , I had my complete set of cards, ready to play. While there were two sets of backs were a little close in colour, overall they looked most handsome in their heavy-duty sleeves, as members of the Old Hellfire Club would no doubt put it. This was helped enormously by the excellent choice of paintings and thematic Victorian graphic design that Jamie had included in his designs. This PnP was pretty much like for-like with the version I had seen at UKGE, save for – very sensibly – a white border around each card with some neutral text which indicated what type it was. A clever addition that made standard backs unnecessary and again, provided a nice cleaning white background to cut on. Again, no bleeds and no fuss!
I am glad to report that the several games I subsequently played with this second PnP game were a roaring success. Physically, the prototype performed well (there was little to go wrong here once they were in quality sleeves) and we all had a lot of fun inventing various Victorian incidents: My personal favourite being the time my friend Rob saw Emmeline Pankhurst crossing Whitechapel with a maxim gun; before it was later installed in the British museum as a historical artifact of Women’s suffrage. If only!
What I have learned
With the two PnP experiences now behind me I am feeling more confident about printing and playing more in the future. I also have to admit I did start to enjoy the crafting by the end. Even if they weren’t the best executions ever, I was proud of my creations.
But there’s a few things I have learned which will change what I do in the future; some of which are very applicable to making my own PnP games.
This is what I now know:
- I need a guillotine to cut things-up, especially if I’m doing cards again – it will make everything so much faster
- I might not be the best person at crafts but it’s about the process not the result; so I will go forth, make and enjoy regardless
- I will never print and play a big game, I just don’t have the patience
- For similar reasons, if I ever do a PnP of my own, I am going to make it really small and really easy; utterly standard non-printable components, few prints required overall and as few cuts as is humanly possible
To the next project!