Author Archives: Mo Holkar

Playtesting Death on the Rocks

IMG_6111Back on 20th July we ran a playtest of our new game Death on the Rocks, in London.

Playtesting is an important part of our development process. However well a murder mystery game’s been written and edited, it can’t be considered finished until it’s been thoroughly tested.

We call it ‘playtesting’ because it takes the form of playing through the game in the normal sort of way that you would if you’d bought it yourself. We aim to make it as close as possible to what your experience is going to be like! The only difference is that afterwards, we ask the guests a bunch of questions about how it went for them.

Testing, testing…

Our usual preferred pattern is to run at least three playtests, once the game is complete in draft.

  • First, the author of the game playtests it themselves, on their own family and friends. This will reveal any elements that basically don’t work, or serious timing issues, or where something important isn’t being communicated properly to the player.
  • Second, once all those things have been fixed, we run a playtest ourselves; using experienced players who can be relied upon to identify inconsistencies, imbalance, characters without enough to do, characters for whom the game starts or finishes too quickly or slowly, and if there are any subtle problems with any new rules or bits of system that we’ve introduced for this game.
  • Finally, once all that’s been sorted out, we send the game out to a new host who’s never seen it before, and they run a party for their guests exactly as if they’d just bought the game. This is particularly helpful for exposing any parts of the host’s instructions that aren’t explained clearly, and also for how well the game works when there are less than the optimum number of characters. It’s also good for cultural differences: as most of our customers are in the USA, we like to have a US-based host run an eye over the game – particularly if it’s been written by a UK-based author, as most of ours are.

Any or all of these stages will get repeated more than once if there are serious problems that need re-testing after fixing.

So anyway, for Death on the Rocks it was actually a combination of stages one and two. Jessica the author wasn’t able to test the game herself, as she lacked the facilities. So we decided that as it was a pretty straightforward game with no new rules or complications, we would run a test together with her, using our experienced playtesters.

A cellarful of murder

IMG_6183We held the event in the basement room of a pub in central London that we’ve used a few times before for playtests. They know us now, so they’re happy to let the murderous mayhem proceed unabated! We usually use either London or here in Ipswich where we’re based, simply because it’s easier to rustle up 20 or so players for a given date in those places. We would like to run playtests elsewhere too, to spread the love, but it’s been difficult getting enough people together.

We ran the test over a Sunday afternoon, between 2 and 6. Most of our customers’ parties are in the evening, but that’s not quite so convenient when we have to think about last trains back home and so on. Customers’ parties often involve a good deal of drinking, too! – but we prefer to keep that restrained at playtests. The feedback at the end of the game might not be quite so useful otherwise!

How did it go?

Really well! Death on the Rocks is a game that we’ve been working on for quite a while – Jessica actually first came to us with the idea as far back as 2006! – so we were pretty confident that it would work properly. It’s always nice to have that confirmed, though!

Our playtesters gave us some excellent feedback on details that need attention, but generally they were very happy with the characters, with pacing, with how much they had to do, and so on. One general concern was that the murder was too difficult to solve – several of them did identify the murderer correctly, but by suspicion rather than by following the intended clue trail. So we’re going to make the clues a bit more prominent, and spread knowledge of them around a few more people.

IMG_6254 Next up

So those changes are in process now, and in a few weeks we’ll be sending the revised and improved version of the game to our next tester. This is Matthias, who’ll be running his playtest around the end of August–beginning of September. We’re looking forward to hearing what he and his guests make of Death on the Rocks!

Amazon adventure

If you follow our social media postings, or our newsletter, then you probably heard a little while ago that we’d started selling our games on Amazon. And then you probably heard shortly afterwards that we’d stopped. It has been an… interesting… experience. We thought it might be worth writing up here!

So, registering to sell goods on Amazon is pretty straightforward. You have to register separately on (which also covers .fr, .de, .it and .es), and on, with different email addresses: but that’s not too bad. To sell on .it and .es you have to have a bank account in Euros, which we don’t have, so we didn’t do that: .fr and .de are able to convert payments into pounds. Not sure why that is, but we don’t sell many games in Italy or Spain anyway, so no harm done.

The first tricky aspect we found was on trying to list our games. Amazon require that a product to be listed must have a universal identifying code – either a barcode or an ISBN. Both of these are jealously guarded by issuing authorites, who you have to pay good money to in order to be allowed to assign codes to your stuff. And it takes time. It was a good few weeks before the ISBNs we registered for all of our games were processed and showed up on the system, and so we could list them on Amazon accordingly.

The second tricky aspect was that Amazon believed all our games were actually books (because of the ISBNs, presumably), and so insisted on listing them in the Books section, and imposing the standard Books delivery charge (£2.80) and schedule. After a bit of pleading and badgering, we managed to get to change the listing to Games: but they still wouldn’t remove the delivery charge and schedule, instead they just changed them from the Books charge to the Games charge (£4.11). And had still not managed to do even that by the time we pulled out, although they sent a daily ‘your call is valuable to us’ message. We decided to reduce all the cover prices by £4.11: so people ended up paying the same total as they would have if there hadn’t been a delivery charge.

It was now October, and had warned us that if we didn’t sell 25 games before the end of the month, then they wouldn’t let us trade over the Christmas period: because, to avoid potential customer disappointment, they only wanted reliable and proven traders on the site at that time. This seemed fair enough, but it put us under a bit of pressure! We put on a 20% discount on all the Amazon prices, and encouraged our existing customers to go there to make their purchases, rather than our own website.

This worked well, and sales started coming in. Unfortunately complaints started, too. When you buy a game on our website, you can download it right away. When you buy it on Amazon, though, they send us an email. Only when we’ve read that and processed it can we send you the download link and password. Because we’re a small business, we’re not watching the email 24/7, so it can take several hours to respond. A few customers got quite concerned and impatient. Then there were others who wondered why we were setting a delivery charge for a download product. The answer was ‘Amazon won’t let us remove it’, but that sounded feeble and unsatisfactory.

Finally we were contacted by itself. They had noticed that what we were selling was actually a download rather than a ‘Game’ as they understand it, ie. a physical object. They said that as a small trader, we were not allowed to sell digital goods, other than via the Kindle (which is not much use to us, as you can’t print files out from it). We would have to either switch to selling physical goods, or else withdraw. And the same would apply on (if they ever got around to replying to us).

So, that’s how it ended. We’re not set up to produce and ship hard copies of our games, and the price wouldn’t be economical. We have the option of burning the files onto CDs and selling those, in the ‘Software’ department rather than ‘Games’: we will look at that. But for now, we’ve just pulled out of the site, and are concentrating on making our own website work better for you!

(Also on the plus side, we generated a whole set of new ‘book’ images to represent our games. The old ones were getting a bit long in the tooth… see below for the contrast between old and new versions.)

Old All at Sea book image

New All at Sea book image

Mo Holkar

Shape Up!

When I’m not making murder mystery games for Freeform Games, one of the other things I do is… make other kinds of games. (I may have a bit of a games problem. Although if you acknowledge it, it isn’t a problem, isn’t that right?)

So just lately I’ve been thinking about card games, particularly small ones that can be played in a family context – not too complex, but with enough interest and depth to make people want to try them again (and again). I am the first to admit that I have a lot to learn, and the games I’ve designed are not yet as good as I’d like them to be: but I have just had one published, so I thought you might like to take a look. Especially as it’s free!

Yes, the game’s called Shape Up! and you can download it for free from the publisher’s site, Good Little Games. Just print out the file, cut up the cards, and away you go. There are also several other good games on the site, all also free!

Here’s an example card from the game:
which is basically about assembling these different-symbolled cards in different combinations to score more points than your opponent.

Give it a go if you think it sounds like your sort of thing! – and Steve and I would love to hear what you make of it.