Death in Venice – an online murder mystery for lockdown

We’ve just released another game specifically designed to be played online during this unprecedented lockdown – Death in Venice.

Death in Venice is for 5-9 players (and one host) and is again designed to be played using video chat (Zoom, Hangouts, or whatever your favourite is).

Last night at the glamorous Venice Film Festival, controversial award-winning director Clay McFarland was dead in front of St Mark’s Cathedral – hacked to death with a meat cleaver.

Clay’s movie, Never Look Back, won the festival’s prestigious Golden Lion award last night. After the post-awards party, the cast and crew and their guests returned to the Casanova, the luxury yacht they are using for the festival. All except Clay, who remained behind – and who never returned.

Everyone now is confined to their cabins aboard the Casanova, while the police start their investigation. The only way they can communicate is online.

As cathedral bells toll out across the ancient city, on board the Casanova a frothy ferment of vineyards, memoirs, gossip, jealousy, and movie-set punch-ups will come to the boil.

Charge your glasses, put on your designer sunglasses, and and join the cast and crew of Never Look Back as they try to solve the mystery of death in Venice!

Learn more about Death in Venice here.

A Heroic Death in Lockdown

A Heroic Death is one of our more complex games in terms of moving parts – it has superpowers and hidden identities and specific locations. So we never thought it would be a candidate for online play during coronavirus lockdown.

How wrong we were!

Eve Bennett successfully ran A Heroic Death with her friends spread across three cities, two in France and one in the UK (and with seven different nationalities, so a real international mix).

Technical stuff – Zoom, Slack and a dedicated app

Here’s Eve:

“Similarly to what someone described in a previous blog of yours, we used Zoom, but we used the breakout rooms function to represent the different rooms in the superheroes’ base (according to the plan provided with the game).

“So players could go to different rooms to have private conversations. For the items and abilities, my partner (who’s handily a software engineer) created an app that functioned as a virtual wallet for each player (see photo).

Virtual wallet

“We also set up a private channel on Slack (see example below) for each player with them and us, the two hosts, which they used to tell us when they wanted to move to a different room or use an item or ability or get stuff from, or leave stuff in, one of the bedrooms.

Here’s the document that we sent to the players to explain all the virtual game mechanics in full.” (Note – this is an MS Word document that will download if you click on it.)

I believe that Zoom’s breakout rooms function is only available with the paid version – but if you are technically minded there are other options such as Discord.

So how did it go?

“It was a really great evening and everyone has been telling us how much they loved it and how it was the most fun they’d had in weeks.

“However, it was pretty hectic for us hosts, even with two of us! It’s a shame that the players had to rely on us to move them to different rooms as it was hard to keep on top of that as well as the items, abilities, hangover cures, etc. But we managed, more or less!”

Eve did later say that if she were doing it again she would set the game space up using lots of Google Hangouts (as Peal described previously) as using Zoom meant that the hosts had to move everyone in and out of the breakout rooms.

“In this photo you can see all the participants. You can probably guess who’s who, but just in case, from left to right…

  • Top row: Hosts 1 & 2 (we went for a Red Dwarf reference as the Host is supposed to be a hologram!), Miguel (in his cleaning supplies cupboard), InvisoGirl.
  • Second row: Shaman, Puss, Bloody Mary (actual bloody mary made with passata as she couldn’t find tomato juice not pictured), Ice Queen.
  • Third row: Masked Crusader, WhizzoGirl (who kept styling her hair and reapplying makeup throughout), Doctor Robot (Head and) Neck, S.
  • Bottom row: The Russian, Captain Amazing! (underpants over tights not pictured, but we did catch a glimpse at one point!).

“I’d told everyone not to worry too much about costumes, but as you can see they made an amazing effort in the circumstances!

“So thank you very much to all at Freeform Games for keeping us thoroughly entertained for an evening (and longer in the case of us hosts)!”

Decorating your venue – lockdown style!

One of our customers, Peal, got in touch with us recently to share with us a site they had prepared for lockdown Murder at Sea with 20 guests.

We’re really impressed – it’s a great way to set the scene for your online murder mystery party.

They built their site using Google sites. I’m not sure if they used one of the templates or if they built it from scratch (possibly the Event template). Other free website builders are available.

Murder at Sea – Home page

This is the home page. They’ve used an image of a suitable liner and included our introductory text from the game. They also included a couple of checklists.

Before the Party Checklist

  • Read your character description and (if possible) print out your abilities.
  • Read the rules to understand how to use items and abilities.
  • Ensure Zoom is working on your computer (Phones may be hard)
  • Ensure Google Hangouts is working on your computer.
  • You can check this by going to the map page and clicking one of the rooms in the ship.

On the Day

  • Reread your character details again!
  • Do you have?
    • Booze
    • Food/Snacks
    • A snazzy outfit and your character prepped
    • Phone and Laptop Charger

Then head on over to The Great Staircase and join the Zoom Meeting
(Murder at Sea starts with the lights going out and Captain Bayard being shot – I don’t know how they staged that.)

The map

This page contains the locations where the game will be played. The Great Staircase is the main Zoom location – that’s where the party will start. (Note that Zoom has a 40 minute time limit if you don’t have the paid version. Jitsi is a free alternative, but lacks some of the features that Zoom has.)

The other 11 locations (The Dining Room, a First Class Cabin, an Empty Deck and so on) are all Google Hangouts that the players can use to have private conversations.

(I’ve explained how you can set up Google Hangouts in this way at the bottom of the page.)

Character Details

On this page, everyone can get access to the information about their character.

Cast List

This is our cast list – it’s our cast list pdf embedded in the page.

So for example, clicking on Christina Younger takes you to the page below:

The three links on this page (Items, Abilities, Character Description) all go to protected Google Drive folders that the host has set up. Access has been shared with the relevant player only, so only they have access.

You could also use Dropbox or OneDrive – or ownDrive as one of our other customers recently described here.

Zoom Backgrounds

Zoom lets you add a virtual background to your calls, so rather than seeing your normal background you appear to be somewhere more appropriate.

So here the host found (and created) lots of thematic image files (.pngs) for their players to use.

Here are some examples of images – one of an Edwardian room and the other a background for one of the characters – this one for Elizabeth James with the Union Jack.

There were even animated angel wings, presumably for characters who had died during the game.

Rules

The final page, Rules, has links to our standard rules for poison, pickpocketing and so on. 

Google Hangouts

Here’s how you can set up a video call that people can just drop into and out of.

1 – go to https://hangouts.google.com/

2 – In the middle of the screen you should see: 

3 Click on “Video Call”

4 You will get a new pop-up with the video call. You’ll also get a dialogue box like this – just close it by clicking the X in the top right corner.

5 You’re now in a video call, all alone.

6 Copy the URL of the call, which will look like “https://hangouts.google.com/call/…” and then a random list of letters and numbers.

7 Save that URL somewhere. Anyone can then click on that URL and go straight into your video call. (And I mean anyone, so be careful about making it too public!)

8 Set up several hangouts – and give them appropriate names such as “On deck” or “At the bar” or “Under the gazebo”.

New lockdown murder mystery – Reunion of Death

To help with those Coronavirus lockdown blues, we’ve just released our latest game – Reunion with Death.

Reunion with Death is for 6-9 players (and one host as usual) and has been written to be played online in lockdown, using video chat. We’ve included detailed instructions for using Google Hangouts, but you can use any system that you are familiar with.

Reunion with Death is set at a 15-year high-school reunion, in smallish-town America. Former students are gathering in the town’s main hotel, ahead of the big party tonight. But one of them, former prom queen Mikolette Lukanis, has been found murdered!

Everyone is locked in their individual hotel rooms, pending a full police investigation – they only way they can communicate is using the hotel’s video system. High-school rivalries will re-emerge, old grudges and secrets will surface: along with a heady mix of present-day envy, betrayal, and lust.

Restock the minibar, put on your complementary terrycloth robe and slippers, hang out the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign, and join the alumni of Holborrow High as they prepare for their reunion with Death!

Learn more about Reunion with Death here.

Lockdown Way out West

Following on from our last post about running a A Will To Murder in lockdown, we have another lockdown story – Way out West.

Paul Barnard used Zoom and ownCloud (a bit like Dropbox or Microsoft OneDrive) to run Way out West across five houses. Here’s how he did it.

Way out West across five houses

“With the Covid-19 isolation policies in place it was not possible for the family to get together for a face to face dinner. Instead we held the party using a zoom video conference across five different houses.

“I made images of all the items, Abilities, Secrets, Clues and Money. I created a “wallet” for each player using cloud storage (such as Dropbox) and provided each player with a link to their personal wallet that they could access from pretty much any device using a browser. I placed the item etc for each player in their wallet as a starting point.

Shared folders in ownCloud – one for each character, shared with that character’s player.

“With that all in place I sent around the character booklets, rules and general information ahead of the dinner. Game play went pretty much as expected with everyone on the conference, eating our various dinners and chatting in character. We had all dressed up in costumes, with one enterprising guest making a deputy hat from an Amazon delivery box.

“The big difference for this remote experience was that we used text messages for the private discussions and scheming. This really suited the younger attendees as they tend to do this all day anyway :-). A couple of the older attendees actually called each other on their phones and there was a bit of whispered background chat which had everyone on the conference straining to overhear.

“The participants were able to copy and paste their cards to the text messages when they needed to share them with others. For the secret stuff, like picking pockets, the thief did it via the bartender just like normal but again using texts. We used rock, paper, scissors on the conference just like we were face to face. It actually added to the intrigue when the bartender and one of the other guests started rock, paper scissors at seemingly random points through the evening.

“If things got stolen then the Bartender simply moved the item from the original players wallet to the new owners. This was achieved on a computer connected to the cloud storage folder. This worked surprisingly well as the original owner was even less aware they had been pickpocketed than if we had been playing face to face. A startled cry of “Where has my map gone?” 30 minutes after the pickpocketing again adding to the game.

Our timings were handled exactly as in the game handout and the evening flowed perfectly despite the need to type texts to many people. At the end of the game the opinion of everyone was “when are we doing the next one?”

“During these times of forced separation and growing isolation your game provided a great excuse to gather the family together for an evening that everyone thoroughly enjoyed and greatly appreciated. We will be purchasing another of the games shortly.”

Paul then followed up with some great tips:

Lockdown party tips

First create a wallet for each player. Use a cloud service like DropBox. I used ownCloud as I had an account for that already. A free account is big enough to hold the wallets. I created the wallets by making a folder for each player in the cloud storage.

We have a lot of girls in our family so I adjusted some of the players sex for our game. For each wallet create a share link. This is done on most services by right clicking the folder and selecting “Create Link” . This is the link that you will share with the guest playing that role.

I added the links to the invitations for each person. I created my own invitations as I needed to provide some help to people to get setup and understand how things worked. “ (See further below for Blaise’s invitation.)

“Second create virtual cards for the abilities, items, money, Clues and Secrets. I did this by creating JPG images copied from the pdf player booklets.

Important: The filenames for all cards must be uniquely named to move them from folder to folder. I randomly numbered all the items and money so that where they came from was not obvious (see picture below, for an example).

Ability filenames were numbered from 1 to the maximum use. (SuddenInsight-1.jpg, SuddenInsight-2.jpg and so on.) I then deleted the ability cards as they were used. (You could just have one copy in the wallet and trust people to only use them the permitted number of times.)

A Wallet – ability names greyed out. Note that the filename of each of the money jpgs is unique.

“Above is the content of Blaise Sadler’s wallet at the start of the game. I’ve hidden the ability names to not ruin the experience for other players.”

This is what Blaise’s locker looks like on an iPhone.

“If you want to look at an object you just click it and you see it.”

Third create a contacts group for the characters. As we used text and instant messaging for private conversations I collected everyone’s phone number and created a contacts group for everyone. Save the list as a contacts card and then attendees can click the .vcf file to add all the characters to their device. Sending a text now just needs you to enter the character’s name.”

Way out West virtual party invitation

Here’s Paul’s invitation to his virtual Way out West. He created a pdf for each player, with unique links to their Wallet (I’ve blurred the urls). I really like the way he clearly explains how the game will be played and what technology will be used.

Going online – murder mystery games in a worldwide pandemic

I’m sure I don’t need to mention the worldwide coronavirus pandemic currently underway, but please be responsible in organising a social gathering and make sure you follow the latest advice.

Playing Death on the Gambia before the days of social isolation

Some of our customers are doing that – and still hosting our murder mysteries…

A Will to Murder

Mariana who hosted A Will to Murder in self-isolation at the end of March.

She reports that “Everyone had a blast! It went really well. I think as the Lawyer I was a bit more busy than a typical game (not that I have one to compare by), because I had to be the one passing items between people.”

She’s explained what she did:

“I made 6 Google Hangout rooms, enough that at one time, everyone could be talking one on one. I named each room and posted a link to them. In chat, you could ask someone to come join you in the Library or whatever, but all conversations had to be in one of those rooms. That meant that people could walk in on people’s conversation, and you could see who was talking to whom, and as the Lawyer I could eavesdrop when someone used that ability.

“Items were in an ‘inventory’, a Google doc with people’s items that I as Host had access to and could move things around. It was a bit hectic keeping track of these things. I think I should’ve done a second host or fewer people (we ended up with 12 people so I added the optional characters).

“The only thing that didn’t work well is that we hit the limit of how many people can be in a Google Hangout at once (10 people). For announcements, there were roommates that could share a computer, but when a dramatic fight broke out, a few people didn’t get to witness it.

“Anyways, all in all a huge success. Two people left talking about doing another one.”

Mariana confirmed that she used rock-paper-scissors for combat (so as normal), and to poison someone “You needed to see them eat or drink while in the same room as you. In the invitation I had mentioned people might want to have snacks and booze on hand.”

(An aside – at some point soon Google will probably retire hangouts and replace it with Google Chat and Google Meet, which I’ve not used.)

Tech note

Give yourself plenty of time to sort out any technology issues before you start playing. Technology is wonderful, but we all have different levels of expertise and the various versions of Windows/iPhones/Android/Apple Mac devices don’t always play well together…

Prizes Galore!

One of our customers, Kelly from Michigan, has told us of the numerous prizes she uses when she hosts our games. Except where noted, the awards are voted on by the players themselves and tallied at the end of the game.

“We usually try to get all the ballots in by mid-game, but since few obey, we accept them until we have votes tallied. You guys are right, it is a great way to wrap of the evening. People enjoy getting them, and the cost is minimal.”

The Reality is Murder - a Freeform Games murder mystery game

The Reality is Murder

Kelly does vary the awards depending on the games, but these are the awards that she told us about.

Best Dressed (“We used do best male and best female – now we are gender neutral and do the top three.”)

Best Acting (“Again we use do best male and best female, but we are gender neutral and do the top three.”)

Random Award (The person who added something to make the night more fun.)

Most Outrageous Player

Too nice to be a killer

Slimiest Suspect

Biggest Ham (Chosen by the photographer who they thought was the most fun when taking pictures.)

Best Accent

Biggest Badass (Used in A Speakeasy Murder.)

Best Dancer (“During Lei’d to Rest we had a mid-game hula contest.”)

Staff Awards: The party hosts chose winners for these two. You can use the most number of nominations from the other players across the other awards, or player who got the most points (see Keeping Score), or any other method you want.

Best Newbie

Best in Show!

Freeform Games in 2019

We’re mid-way through January so it’s time to look back and see how the last twelve months have been. I don’t like to do this in December, because the year isn’t fully over and we haven’t tallied all the sales.

Death on the Gambia - Murder Mystery Game

Death on the Gambia

We’ve been doing these reviews since 2013 – you can read them all here.

2019 continued to build on the success of 2018, at least in terms of sales. We sold 13% more games compared to 2018 – and we’ve doubled our sales since 2014. However, we’re taking that as 2013 and 2014 were low points: we’re only 38% up on 2011.

(The difference is down to Google. If I remember correctly, there was an algorithm change in 2013 that hurt us badly compared to the previous years. A reminder of how vulnerable we are to factors outside of our control.)

Best selling games

Our best selling games for the year were Way out West, followed by A Will to Murder and A Speakeasy Murder. So the same as last year.

Overall our top three games accounted for 27% of our sales (again similar to last year).

Way out West - a Freeform Games murder mystery game

Way out West

Returning customers accounted for about 20% of our sales. I’m not sure how to interpret that. If I had to speculate, I can think of several reasons:

  • Our games are only occasional purchases – few people host lots of murder mystery parties.
  • Returning customers may use a different email address to purchase their next game.
  • 80% of our customers don’t like our games enough to purchase another. (I hope this isn’t the case!)

Given that most of our feedback is extremely positive* (we get a lot of great feedback as you can see on our stories page) and only a few requests for refunds (usually because our games are more complicated than expected), I suspect that the low number of return customers is simply due to the relative infrequency of our games.

*And we’re much more likely to hear about positive experiences over average ones.

We’ve sold more German-language games this year than ever before – and that’s thanks to our wonderful affiliate Simone and her website Krimispiele-Seite.

Bundle of Holding repeated their 2017 murder mystery game offer, with eight of our games bundled together.

We also appeared in a video!

New and updated games

Christmas Lies - a Freeform Games murder mystery game

At the start of November Mo suggested that we create a Christmas-themed version of Hollywood Lies. The new game is called Christmas Lies and it took me the rest of the month to create so that it was ready for December (but not really soon enough to make much of an impact on our Christmas sales – at least not this year).

We also added to our site three games originally published by Peaky Games and aimed at more experienced groups: Small Town Folk, Best of the Wurst and The Day the Music Died. The games are structured similarly to our games (in that all the characters have a background with conflicting goals) but they don’t include a murder.

Death on the Rocks - a Freeform Games murder mystery game

Death on the Rocks

What about our plans for 2019?

We set ourselves a few goals for 2019. How did we do?

  • Improve our website: This year we did a few minor tweaks and added lots of customer photos and stories, but didn’t get to the larger changes that I’d hoped we would make.
  • Publish The Food is to Die For and Murder on the Istanbul Express. For the second year running this didn’t happen. Fingers crossed for 2020.
  • Update Under the Big Top or Happy Birthday RJ. I flipped a coin and started to update Under the Big Top. Unfortunately I didn’t get it finished, so that’s one to complete in 2020.
  • Improve our use of Facebook: While I’m not sure we’ve completely mastered Facebook (and I find the interface for businesses utterly atrocious), we have posted regularly and kept up engagement. It certainly seems that many of our customers now contact us for support through our Facebook page. If you want to keep up with the latest Freeform Games news, our Facebook page is the first place we post it (followed by the blog, and then we issue a newsletter when we have a bit more content).

So not so good – the only real achievement was improving our use of Facebook.

But what have we done instead? Well, it’s been a mix of things. Most of our time has been spent on customer support – with the increased sales brings more queries that need answering. Plus we’ve had a few queries from potential partners that have taken up time. And added to that we’ve not had a great year health-wise, and haven’t had as much capacity as usual.

The Reality is Murder - a Freeform Games murder mystery game

The Reality is Murder

Goals for 2020

So these are our goals for 2020 – broadly more of the same.

Improve our website: This is an eternal promise – our website is key to our business and so we’re always looking to improve it.

Publish The Food is to Die For and Murder on the Istanbul Express: Hopefully. At least one of them….

Finish updating Under the Big Top: This has stalled slightly, and I need to pick it back up and get it done.

TL;DR

Overall, 2019 was a great success for Freeform Games, and we’re hoping for a good 2020.

A Heroic Death - a Freeform Games murder mystery game

A Heroic Death

Alternate Pickpocket rules

One of our customers, Rob from Canada, wrote to tell us about a variant for our pickpocket rules that he used.

Watch out – there’s a pickpocket about!

Here’s the text that he prepared for those with the pickpocket skill:

Your character has the Pickpocket ability. Your ability card shows what you can pickpocket and how many attempts you have during the game. Beware! Some characters have the ability to investigate pickpocket crimes, and even dispense justice if a crime is proven!

When you want to use your ability, you will need to do three things:

  1. Complete a Pickpocket Use slip.
  2. Place a sticker somewhere on your victim’s body.
  3. Show the host your ability card and give them the Pickpocket Use slip, telling them where on the target you placed the sticker (such as left shoulder, right heel, purse, etc.)

The host will seek out your target as soon as possible. If the sticker is no longer there, then you may have been discovered by your target or another character who saw you place the sticker. Other players have not been told what the sticker means, but you had better watch your back as they may become suspicious!

If the sticker is still there, the host will advise the target they’ve been pickpocketed and will search through their items, retrieving either the target item (if they have it) or some other random item. The host will then (as discreetly as possible) remove the sticker from the target and transfer the stolen item to you.

Stickers and Pickpocket Use slips will be found in your character envelope which you’ll get at the start of the game.

Rob is using our rules for Investigating Pickpocketing Crimes, which you can find here.

If this sounds slighting familiar, it’s because we talked (briefly) about using stickers for pickpocketing previously, back in 2014. But this is a much more detailed explanation of how that works.

Note: Depending on your players, you may need to consider whether using stickers needs their consent first. If so, then we recommend using our standard non-contact pickpocket rules.