I'm conscious that my blog is pretty much only podcast scripts, at the moment. But there's new stuff on the horizon, so stand by for more exciting blogging content very soon!! And now, back to your regular scheduled content.
It’s Friday 9th October, my name is Robey Jenkins.
My name is Bernard.
And here is the news.
Blood & Plunder has a new period - 18th Century - for the popular Blood & Plunder range that began in the 17th Century. Firelock Games have made a big splash with Blood & Plunder, which is set across the Spanish Main and the earliest days of privateering made famous by the likes of Sir Francis Drake. But the new setting, Raise the Black Flag, brings it into the golden age of piracy, Jamaica, Tortuga, Blackbeard and the like.
They have already smashed their funding target on Kickstarter and are launching with a strong miniatures range. So if you want to yo-ho-ho your way across the seas and bottle o’ rum your opponents in the dead man’s chest, this is very much the game for you.
And as Firelock brings their Blood & Plunder Kickstarter to a close, Zenit Miniatures has announced one starting this very day! Takkure is a scifi sports board game pitched as cyberpunk rugby, which sounds firmly up my street. Zenit has often struggled to get its beautifully-realized games to a wider audience, being best known for Kensei, the medieval Japanese fantasy battle game, and with Aristeia! already sitting strong in the sci-fi sports game market it may be a hard sell. All the same, I will definitely be checking this one out. It looks like it will ship with metal minis, which definitely appeals to me, but if there’s any red flag it’s that the draft KS page has been pretty poorly translated and localised, which doesn’t speak volumes for the quality one might expect from the rulebook.
Seriously, people, have we not learned that Google Translate is not your friend? Employ a proper translator!
Splintered Light Miniatures is also launching a new game on Kickstarter: Mighty Armies: Invasion is a 15mm massed battle fantasy game that seems to be starting with Wood Elfs versus Undead. Although it’s exceeded its very modest funding goal, as it heads into its last week the campaign seems to have attracted little attention. But if your love is for old school fantasy wargames, if you think Games Workshop’s push towards ever larger and more intricate miniatures is selling out the genre, or if what you really want is enormous armies without the enormous expense, then Mighty Armies: Invasion is worth your attention. From the look of it, the miniatures are already produced so you’ve little to risk backing it at this late stage.
Finally, in another old school twist, Alternative Armies has released a digital edition of Hordes of the Future for 15mm. Hordes of the Future, known as HOF, is a sci-fi twist on fantasy wargame Hordes of The Things (HOTT), which is itself built on the same platform as venerable and respected historical game, De Bellis Antiquitatis, universally known as DBA. Long out of print, this digital re-release is a return to the tabletop for this classic and a useful adjunct to 15mm sci-fi wargaming. I’m a fan, in particular, because the game is designed for individually based miniatures, rather than squad bases.
The news this week is full of individual miniatures, previews, new crowdfunding campaigns and special editions, which you can see for yourself at the Tabletop Fix news blog at ttfix.blogspot.com.
But let’s move on to some discussion.
So just three weeks ago I did a podcast on the strategies around releasing a new game. Those strategies weren’t exhaustive by any means, but I think it’s worth mentioning Hordes of the Future, first, in that context, which is the quickest, easiest and usually least profitable way to release a game: that is, just write one and publish it digitally.
HOF has the advantage that it used to be a physical game that people own, so all the digital assets were ready to release. Plus, Alternative Armies has a strong presence in the old school gaming community that should mean it sells in modest volume - mostly, I suspect, to people who already own it but who want a digital copy to supplement their physical one.
But the reason I picked these items out this week wasn’t to re-hash a subject I’ve already gone over in detail. Rather, I felt like I needed something of an intellectual break.
It’s been extremely gratifying to pick up some enthusiastic followers and get some really positive feedback on the value of a podcast disassembling the commercial and strategic background of the tabletop wargames hobby. But, quite frankly, not every week contains a news item that provides quality content to tear apart for your entertainment and edification and, occasionally, it requires some exhausting mental gymnastics to find an angle I can report on substantively. Eventually, inevitably, I’m going to start repeating myself. But this week is not that week. Because this week is a bit of a brain-break when, instead of talking about the crunchy business of tabletop wargaming, we’re going to talk about a subject very close to my heart: the art of game design.
Now, this isn’t a topic I could feasibly cover in the 20 minutes I get here. And, in any case, there are more authoritative voices you could listen to. I recommend Jake Thornton’s Game Design Mastery Patreon campaign if you want to get deep professional insight on the subject of game design.
Instead, I’m going to look at the emotional roots of game design, because it’s a subject I’ve recently been discussing with friends and which I think is overlooked by many people wanting to get into game design as a hobby or as a profession.
In some ways, this is an incredibly simple topic. The emotional bedrock of game design is “write the game you want to play”. Don’t waste time worrying about whether the genre is already crowded or if there’s a more popular iteration already on the market. Don’t bother yourself with whether there are miniatures people can use, or terrain in the right scale. Don’t get wound up in the challenges of your route to market before you so much as put pen to paper.
Write the game you want to play.
There are some caveats. The first is that you should have a good look around, first, to see if that game already exists. This means articulating what it is you want from a game, as clearly as you can, to understand whether the work has already been done for you.
It may be that there’s a game that already comes incredibly close which, with a little fan-ruling, you could adapt.
This is a fantastic pathway into game design, by the way. It’s where most of us start in miniatures wargames design. There’s a game we like, but… it’s not quite the game we want it to be, so we add a few rules here, fix a few rules there and write up the results for others to play.
You’re unlikely to make any money from this kind of starting point but, if other players are excited by your work, it can still attract some attention and begin building you a reputation. And pretty much everyone in the Games Workshop design studio started this way: writing ideas for GW games which they either shared with the community or sent in to GW. These days, Games Workshop is a bit less cavalier about publishing fan-written rules than they were back in the 80s and early 90s. But that doesn’t mean they’re not interested in seeing what folks are doing - especially the guys in the design studio. They love seeing what players are doing with their rules.
The other thing to say is a word of warning: the game you want to play right now may not be the game you want to play by the time you’ve finished writing it. Developing, play-testing, running demo games and publishing a game, however you do it, takes time and energy. By the time it’s finished, your enthusiasm for your own game may well be waning.
It’s been a very long time since I last played a game of Horizon Wars.
That said, if anyone wants a game and you’re in the Cheltenham area, do let me know. I think the shock and awe of that publication process is pretty much done, now, and I would love to get my mechs back on the tabletop! Although, at time of recording, coronavirus cases in the UK are rising again so it might be a few months, yet, before I’m going to be meeting anyone outside my bubble.
If you do find yourself burning out on a game you’ve designed, it doesn’t mean the game is no good. Game design is a completely different experience to learning to master a game as a player, and burning out is normal. It’s a sign that it’s time to put the project to one side and focus on something else for a bit.
Speaking of which, another warning: game design is time-intensive. It is extremely difficult to sustain energy for design and to make time to play other miniatures games. Every game designer I know has accumulated a pile of games that attracted their attention but which languish unplayed because there isn’t the mental energy left to engage with them after being focused on their own designs.
These last two warnings create a level of irony feedback. Because we started from the guideline of “write the game you want to play” - only to lead to the point that you either no longer have the desire or no longer have the energy to play the game you wrote because you wanted to play it.
There are two solutions to this.
The first is to accept that game design is a hobby separate to game playing. If you write games for fun, you can either just write them and then move on to the next one, or you can simply take long breaks between designs. In many ways, the latter is the best solution. The long breaks are a chance to play other games and to learn what other designers are doing and how they are solving design problems you may have faced or might face in the future.
The other solution is to take it commercial, which brings us back to our news for the week.
If you take game design commercial, it provides a whole additional motivating factor that doesn’t crop up for the hobbyist designer: the need to make money. Whether you need to make money just to cover your costs, or need it to put food on the table and clothes on your back doesn’t really matter. If you design games to make money then it creates a whole new clause for our starting premise.
Now, don’t get me wrong. You should absolutely still be writing games you want to play. I am of the very sincere belief that writing a game you think has “market traction” because it fills a gap or offers a reprise on a neglected theme or does something innovative that you think will attract attention… these are all mistakes. That’s not to say that you can’t and shouldn’t do these things. But you have to start from the premise of writing a game you want to play, because that is the fundamental motivating factor behind good game design.
But, as I say, you have to add a sub-clause to that motivator: you are writing a game you want to play, but which you almost never will.
You’ll roll a lot of dice. You’ll move a lot of minis. You’ll play umpteen iterations of the game you’re writing but, once the game itself is written and published, you will almost never play it yourself. This is because either you’ll immediately be working on playing the next iteration of the game which is, itself, an unfinished work in progress; or you’ll be playing new cycles of your next game entirely. Because if you need a game to make money and be a commercial enterprise, you cannot stand still and wait for the cash to roll in.
Spoiler alert: it won’t.
Income in a meaningful sense from independent game design comes from establishing a reputation for consistent, regular delivery of new game products - either new ways to play established games, or new games themselves.
And - surprise! - we’re back to the news!
Blood & Thunder: Raise the Black Flag is a new iteration of an existing game. In a purely technical sense, it didn’t need to exist. The rules are pretty much identical to the rules for the 17th Century version of the game and the amendments and new characters and options aren’t anything that a halfway informed fan of Blood & Thunder couldn’t have made up for themselves. But the release of a new iteration for a game does two things: it draws in people who like the theme of the new iteration, and it re-kindles interest among those already invested in the first iteration. It’s like the nitrous oxide boost to your fuel supply that gives you that extra push of speed! A new iteration of an already-successful game concept is pretty much always a win for the designer.
By contrast, Tekkure is an entirely new product in every way. New setting, new rules, new aesthetic. Zenit Miniatures is like a car where the driver isn’t quite sure what fuel it needs. The car is chugging along on the things you’ve given it, but isn’t providing the performance you hoped for. A new game is a new kind of fuel.
This isn’t the world’s best analogy, I agree. You have to imagine that this is a car the driver built in his sleep, with no manual and no clear explanation on how it even works. Somehow, it’s held together with spit and duct tape and now it’s moving fast enough that one wrong move could tear the whole thing apart and you’re running out of options.
Zenit has been around for a long time, with some truly amazing miniatures designs in their range. Nemesis is a fascinating fantasy setting. Last Saga’s minis are, in my opinion, the only sci-fi miniatures on the market to equal the design standards of Infinity. But, other than Kensei, they are really yet to gain market traction outside Spain.
If their latest Kickstarter is anything to go by, then I suspect the reason may lie in a corner-cutting approach to translation. So, a quick divergence: let’s talk about translation and localisation.
First, getting a professional translator to translate your work into the target language is absolutely critical. That professional translator needs to be a native speaker of the target language. And if you’re dealing with a game, they ought to be a specialist in the translation of games. It is astonishing to me how many companies - even quite large ones that ought to know better - rely on a combination of Google Translate and one of their Directors who thinks he can speak fluent English. Bizarrely, this is something that English and American companies tend to get right more often than their continental cousins. I think it’s because, culturally, we already know we’re bad at languages and so are more likely to seek out an expert to help.
Second, you need to understand the difference between a translation and a localisation. A translation will take your text and render it in a form that reads naturally in the target language. But without localisation there is a good chance that it still won’t read like it was written by a native speaker. A really good example of this is the number of games translated from German that universally refer to the player as “he”. But it gets more involved than simple issues like not appreciating the international cultural sensitivity of gender.
German board games rules often come across to new players as dry, authoritative and unimaginative. A game like Race for the Galaxy has its rules perfectly explained, but with almost no consideration for the engagement of the imaginations of the players with the theme of the game. That’s because this is how Germans and German-speaking nations expect game rules to be written.
English speakers, though, have different cultural expectations of their games - especially ones with evocative themes, like the exploration and conquest of a galactic empire. They expect an effort to be made in the rules to engage with their imaginations and to lead them into the game psychologically as well as technically. For an example of the same thing done well, look at the latest edition of Catan.
Paying for localisation as well as translation is, I’m not going to lie, not cheap. And a game might sell without being localized. But it is always worth the extra expenditure to localize a game if you’re going to translate it. And it is always worth getting a specialist to do your translation if you want to get into a new international market.
And now, back to Tekkure.
The game is a great example, I think, of writing a game the author wants to play. The fact that there are already several modestly-successful sci-fi sports miniatures board games on the market isn’t going to stop someone from publishing a game that set their imagination on fire. As it happens, with Guild Ball having gone away, their timing might be good or, with GW releasing a new edition of Bloodbowl and the new supplement for Aristeia! just arriving on the market, it might be dreadful. But that isn’t going to stop them from trying anyway.
I wish them luck. But I also beg them to find a good translator.
And then there’s HOF.
The old-school market, I have to admit, is a bit of a closed book to me. I never played Laserburn. I’ve never been a historical gamer. I’ve always tended to be drawn to independent games that are designed for a more modern approach to tabletop wargames. But I’m also connected enough with the wider community to know that games like HOF have a strong appeal to a certain kind of gamer.
What HOF illustrates to the independent market is that a game, once published, is never without value. There is always someone willing to pay to own a copy of a game, however long ago it may have been published. And, frankly, the longer a game is left unavailable, the more people there will be who are interested in owning it. There seems to be something of an inverted bell curved about this. Once a game goes out of print, interest in the game gradually wanes to a low point but, after this, it gradually begins to pick back up on a combination of nostalgia, curiosity and the persistent enthusiasm of the hardcore of fans, still with the game, even at the bottom of the bell curve.
Of course, I think a game needs to have had a certain minimum level of traction in its original iteration for this to apply in any commercially useful way.
Finally, let’s take a look at Mighty Armies: Invasion.
My gut feeling on this game is that it’s neither one thing nor the other. It looks like a passion project, but it’s being Kickstarted like a commercial project. Now, admittedly, the KS target is low and it’s already funded. But that, too, kind of makes it look a bit half-hearted, because it has a list of stretch goals as long as my arm that I think would’ve been better off built into the original funding goal if the designer wanted to actually make a commercial go of this game.
I think 15mm fantasy is a great scale. It gives enough detail to be interesting at the level of individual miniatures but is small enough that you can build some really huge armies for some very impressive tabletop experiences. I know nothing about the rule for this game, of course, but it’s got that old school feel of HOF with the benefit of being an entirely new game, and the cult of the new is always an appealing siren song.
My impression is that this game is essentially a vanity project that the designer is hoping will be funded by friends and close contacts. I’m not saying that’s true, but that’s the impression that’s conveyed. And there’s fundamentally nothing wrong with that. But, if you want to make a commercial go of your design, this campaign is a good example of how not to do it.
And having comfortably filled up the discussion, let’s talk about Precinct Omega.
I apologise in advance because this week, this section is basically an advert. Feel free to switch off, now, if you’re not interested in what Precinct Omega does to make money. Or, if you’re interested in how a micro-enterprise diversifies its marketable skills to make money, stick around!
First, let’s go back to our tangent on translation and localisation because, if you want a game translated into English from French or German, Precinct Omega can assist. We are partnered with a professional translator with whom we work providing localisation services for games translation. So the translator does the translating and Precinct Omega does the localisation, making sure that your rules aren’t merely accurately translated but that the game is also optimized to appeal to native speakers.
If you’re interested, or know someone who’s interested, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you need a game translated from any other language into English, there’s also a good chance that we can find you a translator, but we can’t make any promises about cost for languages other than French and German.
Second - and I realize that I’m reaching slightly with this, but, hey, it’s my podcast - as most of our news items this week have had a Kickstarter connection, it’s probably time to tell you that Precinct Omega is going to run a Kickstarter campaign in early 2021 for a set of 28mm hard sci-fi special forces soldiers. If you’d like previews of what the designs are going to look like, you can either join the Patreon at patreon.com/precinctomega for the full view, or you can dig through my Instagram feed where I posted some spoilers.
I’ve talked in the past about how I was thinking of doing something like this and, well, the stars aligned and it seemed to make sense. I’ll release more news about this project over the next few months as it becomes relevant.
More imminently, though, Zero Dark: Operation Nemesis will be released in digital form at the end of October if all goes to plan (which, currently, it is). The print edition will be at least another month after that, as finalizing the print copy is a more complicated and onerous task.
This, of course, is an example of providing a new iteration of an existing game. Operation Nemesis offers some new rules, new heroes, new bogeys and a lot of new missions for both solo and versus games of Zero Dark, so my hope is that it will also encourage a spike in sales of the core rulebook as well as sales of the supplement to existing players.
However, I am also working on a new game.
Horizon Wars: Infinite Dark is deep into conceptual design and I hope to have a beta test worth calling that available for my patrons by the time the miniatures Kickstarter starts. Infinite Dark will take everything I’ve learned from Horizon Wars and Zero Dark and apply it to spaceship combat. Other than that, if you want to know more, you’ll need to be a patron.
But Infinite Dark is an example of the second kind of boost. It’s less about enhancing my existing product range and more about expanding it to create a more sustained and diverse revenue stream. Which, to be honest, would have been a nicer way of describing what Zenit Miniatures is doing with Takkure, but I got caught up in the car metaphor.
So with that admission, I think it’s time for me to go back to work. As always, thank you for listening and I’ll speak to you again next week.