Confessions of an Amateur Game Designer – Iteration is what you need

It’s been a little while since I updated you on the progress of Swordstory (name still to be firmed up) and much has happened. I’ve pitched to two different companies at Expo, iterated a few times and really started to feel the structure of the game come together.

Expo-cting the un-expo-cted

Wow that title really doesn’t work, but I’m oddly proud of it. You read it, you can’t unread it.


Quite by accident I managed to land a couple of pitches at UK Games Expo. I was taking Swordstory with me, but only to play with friends. It was still way too early consider pitching to publishers. A twitter conversation with Alley Cat Games led to a pitch session with them, and Stuart from Red Dice Games was nice enough to talk me up to Wotan Games as well. On top of that I agreed to be filmed giving my pitch for the Boardgame documentary that Elisar Carbera was putting together. I had absolutely nothing to lose at this stage so just decided to enjoy it and not worry too much about the outcomes.


Pitching to Alley Cat Games. Picture courtesy of Elisar Carbera

The game was still in a very rough state, something I made clear in advance to Caezar from Alley Cat but not to Lawrence from Wotan games. The pitch to Alley Cat was first up and Caezar and Robb listened, asked questions and were very polite in their feedback and suggestions. They are a company that tends to stay away from more traditional themes, like Swordstory’s fantasy, but their feedback was still invaluable.

I’d met Lawrence at the press briefing and he was a very friendly chap who had an obvious passion for his games. I definitely considered Wotan a better ‘fit’ for the game, as they’d already made games based on Norse Mythology which is replete with tales of swords and monsters. Lawrence was a lovely chap to have a talk with and seemed interested in the game, asking me to keep in touch with its progress. I certainly will do!

Pitching was a really fascinating experience and since I went in with no expectations I was not in any way disappointed by not getting snapped up on the spot. The game was in a rough state, and still is to be honest, though it has come on since. I am really grateful to both Alleycat and Wotan games for taking the time to meet with me and the practice these sessions gave me will hopefully see me well in future.

Sharpening the Blade

Although I did not end up playing Sword Story at expo, I have had two playtests at my local group:

The first, in June, was a 3 player game that included myself and went pretty well. I was trying out a new starting condition where everyone gets the same Blade, right down to the numbers. This was a good levelling factor for everyone and meant the probabilities were right from the off. However there was still an issue with it taking too long for people to build up the cash to start distinguishing their Blades. I also had some of the new Dungeon abilities in play and they proved interesting and something the players could manipulate. We discussed that both the Dungeon and Loot river should flow away from the deck so that you can predict more what a monster’s ability was liable to do.


Blades are probably a little long in this version

The other new thing I tried was a refreshed wound system: Sword parts had wounds on the back and you assigned dice after rolling with the correct number on them to heal wounds. It didn’t work.

I adapted that idea a bit for the July playtest, with 4 players, and it still didn’t quite work. This is one of the issues about the way I design sometimes, I tend to think of a solution and just try it with less analysis than others might do. I want wounds to be very much a risk/reward choice to reflect the rest of the game and I still have not managed to strike that balance.

In the July test I gave everyone money to start with, allowing them to quickly expand and augment their blades. This was great and everyone differentiated their Blade quickly. One problem solved! As the wound system was reliant on you taking more than the length of your blade for a threat, and everyone had longer blades from the off, the threat was much reduced. There were a lot of dramatic plays in this particular game, and that felt really good. However, it meant the Dungeon was being cleared out every turn and the monsters didn’t feel dangerous enough: not so good.

For the next test I am going to try a rule that every encounter in your story causes a wound every turn it is present. You can still take a wound per length of your sword and if you take more they count for -1 point at the end of the game. Wounds will no longer reduce the number of dice you roll, they will simply be a penalty trigger to manage. I think the effect of this will be three fold:

  1. It will make wound management more important and emphasise the healing blade parts more, I might even need to make more of them
  2. It will make the dungeon choice more interesting as anything you can’t kill straight away is going to wound you.
  3. It will allow for the creation of new dungeon abilities around this wound management system. I’ve already changed poison to make a monster not wound.

This may be too harsh and I would consider softening it by excluding traps from this rule. This will mean tweaking some dungeon abilities but that is fine and can be done without really changing anything on the cards. I really feel like this is a step in the right direction and giving the players another resource to manage doesn’t feel too complex. I’ll be using tokens for the wounds as well and removing the ‘laking’ mechanic I had copied from Suburbia. You turned the Blade parts over for wounds meaning you could deny parts to people. If the new wounds work my next step will be to make the manipulation of the central reserve more interesting.


Cutting out the new version

A lot of the other mechanics I tested out over the last couple of playtests seem pretty strong:

  1. I introduced a shop with basic blade parts.This allowed access to slightly more powerful tips, middles and hilts from the off and a pool of basic enchantment. I saw people change their Blades right from the first go which was great.
  2. Multiple enchantments on individual Blade pieces. This was an interesting thing to see tested, allowing for more creativity in how people build their Blades. I worry that it will make higher numbered more powerful pieces less useful as you can build a lower numbered part out with lots of symbols and triggers. I will continue testing this as I think the rising cost will make that unaffordable.
  3. I introduced the idea that many of the more powerful Blade effects consume magic and this seemed to make using those abilities feel more significant. I’m going to be manipulating the game around this framework a little more so that people can build a satisfying engine.
  4. The last round points are fine, except there is a disadvantage in the way that round plays out for the last player, so I need to think on exactly how the game wraps up.

Forward Thinking

The core of the game is still proving to be fun but there is still a lot of work to do. What I am working towards now is the correct balance of risk and reward, making each throw feel exciting and rewarding for every player around the table. I’ll do a complete reprint for the next version, tweaking monsters and adding some graphical changes to make things more understandable. I am so grateful to everyone who has given me feedback on the game so far and I really hope that I can take an almost completed version to Expo next year.

Iain McAllister

Tabletop games reviewer and podcaster based in Dalkeith, Scotland.

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