How to Host a 1930s Murder Mystery Party (and get away with it)

(Guest blog post by Jessica Andrews, author of Death on the Rocks.)

Death on the Rocks

Death on the Rocks

Ok, I’m just going to tell it like it is: hosting a 1930s party, murder mystery or otherwise, is not that easy. Twenties is obvious – just cover everything indiscriminately in feathers and strings of pearls – and for fifties you can just bust out some pineapples and stick c
ocktail umbrellas into everything.

But the 1930s were a little sleeker and a little subtler; that’s why it’s my favourite decade and why you should definitely give it a chance too.

#1 Candles

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: you cannot host a vintage party without enough candles to potentially burn your house down. Of course, you don’t actually want to incinerate your home or anyone in it, so I would suggest a) keeping the candles away from arm level to protect them from the wild gesticulations of your guests and b) putting something non flammable underneath them.

A good tip to maximise the light from your candles is to place them where possible in front of mirrors.

#2 Greenery

I know, not necessarily something you would imagine a necessity for a 1930s soiree, but believe me it
makes all the difference. Every Agatha Christie I’ve ever read seems to contain a – significant or otherwise – bowl of chrysanthemums (how does that even work?), but to be honest anything will do. Interestingly, I find potted ferns just scream vintage, and a good arrangement of classic roses also really adds the edge.

#3 Music

Even if this is the only tip you incorporate, I cannot stress its importance enough. The right music will immediately set the scene and make your guests feel more in character and more relaxed. For 1930s, think jazzy or sentimental and, if possible, crackly. You want your guests to feel like they’re in an old movie.

If you happen to have a record player and any 1930s records, this would, of course, be perfect; if not, YouTube is awash with vintage playlists or you can buy 1930s CDs online.

#4 Glassware & china

A party suddenly seems so much more vintage when the glassware and the china are old fashioned. If you happen to find some art deco style china in your local charity shop, amazing; if not, I really find anything a bit chintzy will do. And as for glassware, I have literally seen the shyest people in the world become positively RADA when clutching a champagne bowl or martini glass. I don’t know why, but it just works.

It will also make your event photos at least marginally less awkward on account of people having something to do with their hands.

#5 Backdrops & props

Let’s be realistic: it’s hard to vintage-ise your whole house without making some serious lifestyle changes and spending at least a month anxiously bidding on Ebay, so focus on just one wall or corner. Cheap art deco posters can be found online, and a wall of these will really add a vintage feel. And you definitely can’t go wrong with an old-fashioned telephone or cigarette holder for people to pose with.

I can guarantee you’ll end the night with some wall-gallery worthy photos of your party and a lot of happy guests!

Jessica Andrews

Jessica is the author of Death on the Rocks, our 1930s murder mystery set in an English village.

2016: Better than expected

It’s the start of a new year, and that means it’s time for our traditional time to reflect on the previous year. We did this last year, in 2014 and 2013.

2016 was an extraordinary year in many ways. Here at the Freeform Games HQ, we’re pretty happy with how 2016 went for us.

wow-28

Sales overall were up 29% on 2015, and it was our second-best year ever – beaten only by 2011.

Best selling games

Our best selling games for the year were Way out West, followed by Casino Fatale and A Speakeasy Murder. These were also our best-selling games last year.

Overall our top three games accounted for 27% of our sales.

New and updated games

For the first time in many years (possibly ever!) we didn’t publish any new games in 2016. That wasn’t planned, but just the way it worked out. We have been working on a game (The Food is to Die For), it just wasn’t ready in 2016.

Way-out-West-bookBut that doesn’t mean we were just sitting around doing nothing, instead we:

The interweb

We didn’t do much to our website in 2016. We had a few problems with spam on our discussion forum, which is why it’s currently turned off. At some point we will revisit that.

We’ve had more people contact us via Facebook this year, which is a trend that we expect to continue.

Google Adwords

We dipped our toe into the water with the advertising behemoth that is Google Adwords. We’re starting with a low monthly budget to see how it’s going. So far the results appear to be good – although the Adwords’ tracking tools suggest that we’re not making many direct sales as a result of the advertising, we think there’s more to it than that.

So there’s a bit of uncertainty with Adwords, but we’re keeping our budget small for the time being and we’re happy with the overall results.

Flash sales

We’ve been running regular Halloween and Christmas sales for a while, but this year we started to experiment with short ‘flash’ sales. We celebrated the discovering of the tomb of Tutankhamun in November with a short sale on Curse of the Pharaoh.

What about our plans for 2016?

an-12We set ourselves some goals for 2016. This is how we did:

  • Improve the website, again. Fail – we didn’t pursue this in 2016.
  • Improve sales by exploring reviews or advertising. Success – we’re now advertising with Google Adwords. We haven’t explored reviews, but our sales have improved anyway.
    Get the free Way out West in front of more people. Success – we’ve now turned Way out West into a book.
  • Update Death on the Gambia and Curse of the Pharaoh. Partial success – we updated Death on the Gambia but not Curse of the Pharaoh. We’re also almost finished with an update of Snow Business, but I’m not counting that as it wasn’t part of the plan.
  • Publish new games if possible. We didn’t promise to publish any games, and we didn’t.

So I think that’s mostly a success. Our main failure was to improve the website.

Targets for 2017

So here’s the targets we’re setting ourselves for 2017.cita-03

  • Improve our website: Google has a new tool we can play with to try out variants and see which is most effective.
  • Update Curse of the Pharaoh: We didn’t do it in 2016 so we’ll try and get it done for 2017.
    Update Snow Business: This should be ready for early 2017.
  • Publish The Food is to Die For: Currently being playtested, so shouldn’t be too long before we publish it.
  • Re-start work on The Reality is Murder: This has been on the back boiler for years, and it’s time to dust it off and get it ready for publication. With a bit of luck we’ll get it published in 2017.

So here’s looking forward to a good 2017. We’ll catch up in early 2018 and review how we did.

Death on the Gambia and Snow Business updates

Front cover for the Death on the Gambia cover booklet

Front cover for the Death on the Gambia cover booklet

You probably haven’t noticed, but we’ve given Death on the Gambia a refresh.

Death on the Gambia was our first game, and it’s been in need of a refresh ever since we reformatted our games. So it now each character has a character booklet like all our newer games.

Unlike our recent Hollywood Lies revamp, we haven’t changed Death on the Gambia. It’s the same game, just in a new format. You can see what the front of the new character booklets look like above.

Snow Business

Snow Business

Snow Business

With Death on the Gambia updated, we’ve also started updating Snow Business. This is a work in progress, but you can see what the front of the character booklets look like below.

Snow Business is another of our early games, and it’s one that I’ve not looked at in a while. I had been a bit worried that it was a bit dated, but I’m very pleased at how well it compares our current games.

With a bit of luck the Snow Business update will be done by the end of the year.

Way out West in book form

I’ve wanted to publish our murder mystery games in book form for a long time now, so I’m particularly pleased to be able to say that Way out West is available from Amazon.

Way-out-West-bookOne of the problems with publishing a murder mystery game in book format is that you can’t actually play the murder mystery without destroying the book. So that means either providing a CD with the character files on, or providing a download link, or asking customers to buy the downloadable version as well.

None of those are particularly satisfactory; the CD is more complexity, the download means coming up with a way for a secure password and makes VAT more complicated, and nobody wants to buy two versions of the same game.

But our free version of Way out West (which you can get simply by signing up to our newsletter) solves those problems. Now you can have the book and downloadable files at the same time.

CreateSpace

We used Amazon’s CreateSpace self-publishing system for Way out West. This is a print-on-demand service that means we don’t have to keep any expensive stock, or become involved in shipping.

We chose Amazon over Lulu for two main reasons. First, Amazon is the online retailing heavyweight, and by having one of our games on Amazon we might attract new customers. Second, Amazon Prime members get free shipping on a CreateSpace book, which is an added bonus.

I have to say that I found CreateSpace a bit fiddly to use. If we ever use it again I suspect it will be much easier.

Contents

We’ve had to think about the contents and layout of Way out West compared to the downloadable files. With the downloadable files, while we expect you to read the instructions first, you can read the other files in any order you like.

With a book, though, we needed to decide an order for everything. So here’s the contents:

Introduction

  • Welcome to Way out West: This section.
  • What the host does: A brief summary of what the host of a Freeform Games murder mystery does.
  • Cactus Gulch Gazette: The front page of the local newspaper, containing background information.
  • Cast list: A brief summary of all the characters in Way out West, including the extra characters that come with the purchased edition.
  • Casting: Tips for casting Way out West.
  • About the Author

Timetable

  • Before the game: Our suggested timetable leading up to your murder mystery party.
    Invitations: What to include in your invitations.
  • Your Venue: Advice on preparing your venue.
  • Preparing Way out West: Printing characters and getting everything ready for play.
  • On the day: Our step-by-step guide to hosting Way out West.
  • Solution: Every murder needs a solution.

Characters

  • Introduction: An explanation of how the characters are presented.
  • Characters: The detailed backstories for each character, including goals and a list of the characters that they know.
  • Tips for players: Playing one of our murder mystery games can sometimes be a bit confusing for some people, so these are our tips to help them get started.

Rules

  • Player rules: The basic rules for Way out West.
  • Detailed rules: The detailed rules that the Host needs, covering things like gunfights and arrests.

Afterword

  • Buying the main game: What you get if you purchase the full version of Way out West.
  • Questions: Where to go if you have questions about Way out West or any of our other games.
  • Our other games: A selection of our other games.

Pricing

Unfortunately we can’t offer this book for free, as there are costs involved in producing a physical product. However, we have kept the book as cheap as possible and it is on sale for $5.99.

Available on Amazon

You can purchase Way out West on Amazon here (US) and here (UK).

Way out West on Kindle

Another advantage of using Amazon means that it’s pretty easy to create a Kindle version. Easy, but not seamless. We found we had to make a few changes to the layout to suit a Kindle, in particularly removing anything complicated (such as the three column layout for the newspaper) and the boxes for item cards.

To be honest, a Kindle version of Way out West is a bit of experiment. It’s not as easy to use as a book, and I don’t think anyone would ever be able to actually play Way out West from the Kindle version. It’s for those who really like their Kindles…

You can see Way out West Kindle Edition here (US) and here (UK).

Adding eight pirates to Pirate Island

We’ve just tweaked Pirate Island so that it now works with up to 32 pirates. I’m going to explain the how and the why of doing that.

The why

Pirate Island had been bugging me for a while – because it’s actually a bit fiddly to prepare.

Pirate Island

Scout Master Richard running Pirate Island – and on his 50th birthday as well!

Pirate Island is a team game, where the pirates are all members of a ship’s crew, trying to be the best pirate crew. To be the best, they have to enter contests, track down treasures and trade items with each other.

Everyone in Pirate Island plays a pirate. Either a Captain, a Gunner, or a Crewmate. And in keeping with our other murder mystery games, each of them has a character sheet.

A full game of 24 pirates has eight ships, each with three crew. However, with only 23 pirates, then we use seven ships with three pirates, and one ship that has only two pirates. That two-pirate ship is functionally the same as the one it replaced, except that it has a different name and only a Captain and a Gunner. By having four such ships (with two and three pirate versions) Pirate Island is fully flexible for 6-24 players.

But it’s a bit fiddly to prepare. Unless you are absolutely certain of your numbers, you have to print out all the ships just in case someone drops at the last minute. Or you get an extra unexpected pirate. Pirates can be so unpredictable!

When we came to Trick or Treat / Monster Mash, we simplified all this by creating team envelopes that didn’t require specialised roles. That way a team can be two or three (or more!) monsters – and there’s no extra printing required.

So one of the things that I wanted to do, given time, was to do the same with Pirate Island and tweak it to make it simpler to print and run, along the lines of Trick or Treat.

That’s not what happened, though.

What happened next – the Cub Scouts

Instead, I was contacted by a friend, Richard Salmon, who had purchased Pirate Island and wanted to run it for his Cub Scout group (the 1st Nork St Paul’s Scout Group). The problem was that he had over 30 cubs coming, and that would mean an awful lot of the generic extra Crewmate character. We had written the additional Crewmate to allow for one or two extra pirates – not nine!

Could I sort something out?

So rather than my original plan, I made the more-or-less identical ships more unique. The main change I made involved the pirate quests.

Questing for Treasure

In Pirate Island, each ship has a map to a Treasure mappirate treasure (such as Blackbeard’s treasure, or the wreck of a treasure ship). To find the treasure means solving three puzzles, and the answers are scattered amongst the pirates – so they have to team up to solve them.

The more-or-less identical ships had the same treasure map, so I made them all unique. Instead of writing brand new clues, I simply re-used existing clues from the existing quests. (I had to choose the clues carefully to make sure that I didn’t accidentally give them all to one ship.)

Other changes involved tweaking item cards a little and checking that I hadn’t messed the game up anywhere else.

Feedback

So how did the new, expanded game go? I asked Richard for feedback and was told that:

“It went very well – they all seemed to have a good time.

“Took a bit of time to get started and the motto and performance contests were less popular. The quests all seemed to work out and there was a flurry of trading of items at the end. The winning team got nearly fifty doubloons, but some only collected a dozen or so (mainly because they didn’t do the contests).

“With cubs if something not engaging them; they start chasing one another about and generally messing; we didn’t have any of that for the hour they were playing; so that means they were really quite into it.”

Here are some photos from the scout group’s Facebook page. And here.

Overall

So while we’ve adjusted Pirate Island, we’ve taken it in a different direction than the one I had originally expected. I’m very happy with the way this has turned out, and maybe now that Pirate Island is bigger more groups will think about giving it a try.

And it really works for cub scout groups!

Help with hosting

In our larger games we recommend an assistant host to help run the game. For ex
ample in Spellbound, it can be particularly useful to have another host run the library
while the “main” host deals with the rest of the game.

Similarly with the larger games having another host to help with pickpocketing or combat can be helpful – particularly if the several players need the host at the same time.

However, some rules can be managed by the players themselves (perhaps overseen by a trustworthy player). For example, combat doesn’t require secret knowledge, or an awareness of the plot, and so could be something that the players manage themselves. On the other hand, I wouldn’t recommend allowing players to manage pickpocketing – that’s something a dedicated host needs to do.

Tips for players managing combat

Death on the Gambia

Death on the Gambia

Here are my tips for getting your players managing combat.

First, I wouldn’t get everyone to manage combat. Not everyone needs to know anything about combat – generally only the “dangerous” characters need to know something about it. so I would choose a small number of trustworthy players to become helpers. Id
eally they would be playing characters that I didn’t think likely would be involved in combat to keep the relatively neutral in the conflict they are overseeing.

Second, I would share our standard combat rules with those players.

Third, I would encourage them to practice the combat rules before the party itself, so that they understand how they work and any problems and misunderstandings can be ironed out. Ideally I would do this a couple of days beforehand, but if that doesn’t work you could simply schedule a training session before the party. I would also explain that I wouldn’t expect them to adjudicate combat that they are involved in themselves – they should either find me or one of the other helpers.

Fourth, during my introduction I would ask the helpers to identify themselves. That way the other players know that they can ask them for help if I am busy.

Fifth, I would just keep an eye on combat during the game, just in case there are problems.

Sixth, as part of my debrief speech I would thank the helpers for their help.

Other standard rules

We’ve also included other standard rules, including capturing player and poison, but I think that it’s combat that has the most potential for getting other players to help with hosting.

Looking back at 2015

It’s the start of a new year and that means it’s time for us to look back and reflect on how we did last year. We did this last year, and for 2013 before that.

Sales overall were up 7% on 2014, and it was our best since 2012. Sales might have been even higher, but for some website problems – more on that below.

Hopefully this trend will continue into 2016, and we will continue to improve our website to make sure that it can be found by the search engines.

Best selling games

Our best selling games for the year were Way out West, followed by Casino Fatale and A Speakeasy Murder.

Way-out-West33

Way out West – our best-selling game of 2015

I predicted last year that A Speakeasy Murder would outsell Hollywood Lies, and sure enough that’s exactly what happened. It’s pleasing to see a new game in the top three. And Way out West’s popularity is boosted by it being our free game.

Overall the top three games accounted for 28% of our sales.

New and updated games

In 2015 we published Death on the Rocks and we updated Hollywood Lies.

Website improvements

We also made changes to our website in 2015. The main change was to make the menu more responsive on smaller screens – tablets and phones. This had been on the to-do list for a while, but Google announced last year that it would be prioritising sites that worked well on smaller screens, so we moved it up the to-do list.

Looking at our traffic, it seems that while we get a healthy volume of traffic from smaller screens, purchases tend to be made from laptops or desktop PCs. We believe that our visitors are browsing our site with a mobile device before purchasing a game with their “main” computer.

Speakeasy-PT1a

A Speakeasy Murder

Website problems

We had two big problems last year. We had a few outages in the first part of the year which led us to change our hosting provider (which is always a challenge). And then in October (the run up to our busiest time of year) our new hosts updated their database software, and that meant we had to update our site.

Our plans for 2015

We set ourselves some goals for 2015. This is how we did:

  • Continuing to improve the website, and keep an eye on its performance: Website improved, performance good but would have been better without the problems described above.
  • Publish Death on the Rocks. Achievement unlocked!
    Update Hollywood Lies: We finally published the updated Hollywood Lies in December. The update took us longer than we though and you can read about that here.
  • Publish our standard rules. Stretch goal reached! We snuck our standard rules into our games last year, and talked about it here.
DotR Group

Death on the Rocks – our new game for 2015

Our plans for 2016

  • Improve the website, again. Maintaining a website is a bit like painting the Forth Bridge. By the time you finish, you need to start over. So we still have a few things that need sorting, and we want make it as attractive to visitors as possible.
  • Improve sales by exploring reviews or advertising.
  • Get the free Way out West in front of more people. We think seeing our games is a good selling point, and we’ve got some ideas for that.
  • Update Death on the Gambia and Curse of the Pharaoh. They’re both popular games, but they need an update to the new format.
  • Publish new games if possible. We have some games in the pipeline, but none of them are that close to publication right now. So we’re not making any promises for 2016 (we want to concentrate elsewhere). If it happens, it happens.

Our standard rules

We use some standard rules in our murder mystery games to cover situations such as combat, poisoning, death and the like. We’ve now made these available in pdf form so that you can share them with your players.

(Note that we have more rules than this, but these are our most commonly used rules.)Derrenger item card

  • Basic rules – these are our basic rules that apply to all our games.
  • Combat – there are our full combat rules. We use these in a lot of our games – they are quite simple, but can be deadly. These rules include healing and death.
  • Poison – some of our murder mystery games include rules for poisoning others. This is how they work. These rules include healing and death.
  • Capturing another player – sometimes it’s important to be able to capture or restrain another player. This also includes our Arrest rules.

You can find these rules on this page, which also includes some ideas for using the rules.

Rationalising the rules

It’s taken us a while to get to the point where we can publish our standard rules because for a long time they weren’t actually standard. Our games have evolved over time, and we’ve incorporated tweaks and improvements as we’ve gone along. But what we haven’t been very good at is going back and updating the older games.

Poison ability card

Now that we’ve published our standard rules, we’ve gone back to our old games and made sure that they are consistent. After all, we don’t want to confuse anyone with different sets of rules.

The rationalising process has resulted in quite a few discussions here at Freeform Games HQ, as it hasn’t always been obvious which is the best version to use. Our rules for arrests and poison in particularly needed quite a bit of looking at. Overall, however, our approach has been to use the simplest version.

We’re happy with them now, and standardising our rules will make it easier for our future games.

Let us know what you think: have you shared our standard rules with your players? And if so, did it help?

Developing Hollywood Lies: Part 2

In Part 1 I talked about updating Hollywood Lies – bringing it into the modern format, making it completely kid-friendly, making all the characters gender-neutral, and including the extra character pack in the main game. In this post I talk about how I did it.

Preparing the character booklets

Hollywood-Lies

Detective Chase (right) investigates the murder.

The first thing I did was to prepare the character booklet format. When we first wrote Hollywood Lies our character sheets were on two pages – story on one side, goals and people on the reverse.

Our current format is an 8-page booklet:

  • Page 1 – Cover, including a few words setting the scene (the same for each character)
  • Page 2 and 3 – Background and goals
  • Page 4 – Other People and tips for beginners
  • Page 5 – Abilities (previously on a separate card)
  • Page 6 – Secret and Clue (previously on the same card as the abilities)
  • Page 7 – Rules
  • Page 8 – Cast list for our shorter games, blank otherwise. (Blank for Hollywood Lies because the cast list won’t fit unless the font is microscopic.)

Once I was happy with the format, I then cut and pasted the character text from the original files into the new format.

(An aside, Mo and I do this differently. Mo has all the characters in a single document, while give each character their own document. I do this because I’m often switching from one character to another, and I haven’t found a way that works for me when everything is in one document. The downside is that if I need to make a change to a piece of boilerplate text, then I need to open every single document whereas Mo can just do find-and-replace.)

The character spreadsheet

With the characters all in the new format, I then created a character spreadsheet that did two things: ranked each character, and tracked changes.

Character ranking: I ranked each character numerically based on things like the number of goals they had and how much background text they had. This resulted in a score, and those with a low score compared to others needed more work.

This was particularly an issue because at this point while I’d deleted plots (such as affairs and the photos discussed last time), I hadn’t replaced them with anything. So some characters were definitely weaker.

(I didn’t completely rely on the ranking, but it was a good start to identify those characters that needed more work.)

I has used a similar system for for Murder at Sea, which I wrote about here.

Tracking changes: I also used the spreadsheet to track the changes. For example, I changed the introductory text and I used the spreadsheet to ensure that I changed every character booklet.

The spreadsheet included a tab with all the secrets and clues on them, so that I could check that the murder trail worked. (I didn’t want to make it easy, but it needed to be possible.) Other tabs also tracked who knew who, so that I could fill any gaps.

Changing plots

As I said previously, some plots were removed and I replaced these by fleshing out some of the other existing plots and writing two new plots.

Other changes

Other changes arose due the the new format. Our previous format had the Other People section before the Goals, the new version puts Goals ahead of Other People. That meant that there were sometimes goals that referred to information that the player hadn’t read yet (because it was now further down the character sheet in the Other People section).

In our view goals shouldn’t add new information but instead they should summarise the background and act as a reminder. So in those cases I moved the Other People information into the background so that the character sheet flowed from start to finish.

I also checked that the balance of Other People was about right – that nobody was left out and that nobody knew too much about one particular person.

Remaining files

Once I was happy with the characters, I then updated the other files such as the instructions, quick reference sheet, and the cards file.

Then followed a thorough proofread, and that was it!

On reflection

Updating Hollywood Lies seemed to take a long time – but I think I was being a bit ambitious. The two big changes (making it gender neutral and kid-friendly) made a significant impact that I then needed to address, and all that took time.

However, I do believe that the game is better as a result.

Developing Hollywood Lies

So for much of 2015 I have been spending my spare time updating Hollywood Lies and bringing it into our current format. We finally released it in early December.
As well as re-formatting it (to bring it up to our current standard, as I had done recently with Murder at Sea), we had a few other ideas for developing Hollywood Lies:

  • To make Hollywood Lies gender neutral.
  • To make the game kid-friendly.
  • Incorporate the expansion pack into the main game.

I have talked previously about making Hollywood Lies gender neutral, but the last two deserve a bit more explanation.

Kid-friendly

Hollywood LiesOriginally Hollywood Lies had an “adult” version and a “kids” version. That’s because when we wrote it we didn’t think that our customers would want to run it for their kids – we should have thought that through!

Having two versions made it clunky for our customers, and harder for us to update when we find an error.

And to be honest, wasn’t much difference between the two:

  • The nude photos plot in the adult version (which was inspired by a plot in Notting Hill) were replaced with embarrassing photos.
  • The affairs were changed to “secretly seeing” (but no change in the actual plots).

And that was about it.

As the changes were just cosmetic, some parents were understandably concerned with their children playing characters who are in affairs (whether ‘secretly seeing’ or otherwise). With the new changes all these affairs are removed, and anyone can play, and it will still be lots of fun for everyone.

The expansion

We also incorporated the expansion into the full game. While we like the idea of having optional expansions for our games, practically they present a couple of problems.

  • First, they end up more complicated as there’s a second set of instructions and more bits of paper everywhere.
  • Second, the characters in an expansion never seem as fully embedded in the game as the original characters. (Although that might just be my perception rather than reality.)

So for Hollywood Lies we’ve included the characters in the main game. If that proves a success, we’ll do it with our other games as well.

So that’s what we’ve done. Next time I’ll talk about how I did it.