Author Archives: Steve Hatherley

Steve Hatherley

About Steve Hatherley

Steve is one half of Freeform Games and wrote Death on the Gambia, Hollywood Lies and Halloween Lies. He has edited many, many others. He lives in Yorkshire, England with his wife and daughter.

Freeform Games’ review of 2021

As you might expect, the pandemic dominated 2021 for Freeform Games, but we slowly started to recover from 2020.
We’ve been doing these reviews since 2013 – you can read them all here.

Online and offline play

While 2020 showed a strong interest in playing our games online (using Zoom or similar), in 2021 we sold fewer copies of our online games (Reunion with Death and Death in Venice). Instead, our smaller games continue to sell well (a trend that started in 2020).

Playing Way out West in 2021

We suspect that’s because although many restrictions have been lifted with the vaccine rollout, many people are still wary about large gatherings. However, smaller groups (maybe family and close friends) appear to be okay, hence the popularity of our smaller games.

And while October and November had strong sales (compared to 2020), December’s dropped back. This was presumably due to the Omicron variant and fewer parties being held. (That’s not surprising – our own party season was quiet, too.) We’re keeping a close eye on how Omicron plays out, but early signs are looking promising.

Best-selling games

Our best-selling games for 2021 were Way out West (10-24 guests), then A Will to Murder (6-9 guests), then Casino Fatale (15-30 guests). Casino Fatale sold half as well as the other two, demonstrating the popularity of games for smaller groups.

As mentioned above, Reunion with Death (6-9 guests) and Death in Venice (5-9 guests) didn’t sell well, despite being for smaller groups. I think this is because we promoted them for online play. Both can be played in person—and because they are simpler (no combat or items) they are suitable for the host to play. So we are thinking about promoting them differently.

Our new game, Murder on the Istanbul Express (7-11 guests) has started strongly, although time will tell if that’s just because it’s the new game.

New and updated murder mystery games

We published one new game in 2021, Murder on the Istanbul Express. It’s been on our to-do list for ages, so this year we knuckled down and pushed it over the finish line. We’re really pleased with it.

We also updated The Night Before Christmas and Dazzled to Death to our current format.

We also updated the covers of all our games to make them more striking and obvious.

Scratching an itch

We created a page on itch.io for our games. Itch is ‘an open marketplace for independent digital creators with a focus on independent video games.’ It also has roleplaying games and larps, and we thought we’d add some of our games.

Our itch.io page

We’re not expecting sales through our itch.io page, but we have our free version of Way out West there and it gives us a little exposure to the indie gaming scene that we might not otherwise have.

Last year’s goals

We set ourselves a few goals in 2020:

Improve our website: We made a few improvements this year:

  • We added a banner made up of lots of customer photographs.
  • As described above, we changed all the cover photos for the games, making them brighter and clearer.
    We created theme pages for bestsellers, Christmas games and Halloween games.

Publish Murder on the Istanbul Express: Published!

Another new online game: We talked about another online game, but given the drop in sales of Reunion with Death and Death in Venice (as noted above), we didn’t push that.

So that’s two out of three goals achieved.

Plans for next year

Improve our website: Specifically, we have plans to expand the game themes and bring a little animation to the book covers.

Resolve the payment process glitches: We’ve had a few payment glitches lately—customers not receiving the download email (or it going straight to the spam folder). So we’ll investigate and fix that.

Continue to work on new games: We have a few new games in the pipeline, but realistically I don’t think we’ll be ready to publish any in 2022.

Run games online: We will try something new and run an occasional game online. We’ll promote this using our Facebook page.

Games the host can play: Change the focus of our two online games and promote them as games the host can play. As they don’t include items or money or the complicated rules that require an independent host, they are ideal if you want to host and also play in a game. (Steve ran Death in Venice this way back in 2020.)

Summary

Although 2021 was bad, we weathered the pandemic and released a new game. Sales are slowly recovering and as normality returns, hopefully we will return to playing our games in person.

Adding 20 players to Hollywood Lies

We were recently asked how we would add around 20 additional characters to Hollywood Lies. That’s a lot, and as we’ve already talked about that for Casino Fatale, I thought I’d explain what I would do for Hollywood Lies.

Hollywood Lies starts with 32 characters, and there are two additional characters. So an additional 20 characters means you could run Hollywood Lies for 54 guests! You’re going to want at least one more host for that! (And this applies to Christmas Lies and Halloween Lies as well.)

Overall approach

Cover for the Hollywood Lies murder mystery game

As I mentioned in the earlier post, I wouldn’t write detailed characters (with secrets and bespoke goals) for these extra 20—that would be a significant amount of work. So these would be more minor characters, mainly focussed on solving the murder and making movies.

I’d give each character:

  • A clue—duplicated from the other characters.
  • A goal to help solve the murder.
  • A goal to be in the movies.
  • A goal to help their friends.
  • Another goal—related to either the Hollywood Charity Ball (maybe buy a ticket), the Post-Modern Freeform Movement (maybe as a member, maybe wanting to join), Club Monte Carlo (to join), find an agent, or be hypnotised by Les Tytan.

I would make sure that each of the new characters had two or three good friends they could support (hence the goal). Ideally, you would cast real-life friends in these roles.

I’d also give them abilities (based on the existing ones) and money to make sure there’s still enough money in the game for all the movies to be made.

More ability uses

With more characters, ability uses will be scarce. So to counter this, I would give everyone five blank “Tear this up instead of marking an ability use” cards.

Making movie changes

I would change the making movie rules slightly to ensure that everyone can make a movie.

Hollywood Lies starts with five producers and movie teams of 5-8 people. I would increase the team size to 8-10 and add a sixth producer—so theoretically, we could have up to 60 people making movies.

Six producers gives us flexibility, although it does mean the party will last longer as there will be another movie to show off. (With an additional 20 characters, the party will take longer than usual because it will take the players longer to find the people they need to talk to.)

Assistants

I would also create assistants to help the original characters. In particular, an assistant for each producer and the detective.

Copying existing characters

I would also copy some of the existing character types (similar to the new producer I mentioned above).
These would be new agents, another Hollywood reporter and maybe an amateur detective.

20 additional characters

So here are my 20 additional characters:

  • One extra producer, whose main goal is to make a movie
  • Six assistant producers
  • One assistant detective
  • Two new agents
  • One rival Hollywood reporter
  • One amateur detective as a rival to the police detective
  • Four actor/directors (who can do either role)
  • Four actor/screenwriters (each with a screenplay)

And if I needed even more, I’d increase the number of actors/screenwriters/directors.

More tips on adding characters

A question

Would you be interested if we produced an additional 20 characters for Hollywood Lies? (And Halloween Lies and Christmas Lies.) Let us know in the comments below.

Updating The Night Before Christmas

We’ve just updated The Night Before Christmas into our current format. Written by Tracy Bose and initially published in 2004, we haven’t significantly updated the game in over a decade and it needed a reformat.

Reformatting

So while we haven’t changed the plots or characters, we’ve made numerous changes:

  • The characters are now in the 8-page booklet format, which includes their Secret, Clue and abilities—along with the rules and the cast list.
  • The abilities are now all in the latest format.
  • Items are now all illustrated.
  • We gave the text a light edit to make sure it flows.
  • We caught a couple of minor errors still there after 17 years!
  • We improved how the free extra characters are integrated into the game by linking them to more plots and characters.

But besides that, it’s the same 1948 game set at the Evington-Browne’s Christmas Eve cocktail party, held in their hunting lodge in the mountains north of Boston. A valet has died – is it murder? (What do you think?)

Purchase or re-download the game files

You can purchase The Night Before Christmas here.

If you’ve previously purchased The Night Before Christmas, you can re-download the new format using the exact location as the previous files. (We will write to anyone who has made a recent purchase.)

Send us your feedback

We love to hear from you about your parties – you can let us know via Facebook or our contact page.

Our games by year…

Following on from our birthday post last month, I thought it would be interesting to show when we published each game. I’ve excluded translations to keep things simple…

2001

2002

2003

2004

2005

2006

2007

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2018

2019

  • Christmas Lies (the festive version of Hollywood Lies) by Steve Hatherley

2020

2021

One of the things that amazes me is how my memory has changed everything. I think of A Speakeasy Murder as one of our newer games, but it’s now over seven years old! And was it really in 2009 when we published The Karma Club?

Looking back: 20 years on

Twenty years ago, on 9th October 2001, Freeform Games was incorporated.

So that’s the day we celebrate as our birthday.

We made our first sale ten weeks later, on 17th December.

In 2001…

There was no iPhone, iPad, Facebook or Twitter. Google was three years old, and Amazon was nothing like the behemoth it is now. And Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 5 was the most common internet browser.

Payment over the Internet was relatively novel when we started, so we still accepted checks/ cheques. Not that checks have been popular – we’ve processed fewer than ten checks in 20 years.

Our first game was Death on the Gambia. It was initially more complicated: combat was fiddlier, you could catch river fever, and each character had a success or failure epilogue depending on how the player felt they did. We’ve simplified our games since then to make them easier to run.

In our early games, some characters had more abilities than others. (You can still see this in some of our older games that we haven’t updated to our new format, such as Curse of the Pharaoh.) In our more recent games, everyone has just three abilities.

Over time, we’ve improved our games’ layout to make them easier to run and play. We’re also more consistent with our look and feel so that when you buy a Freeform Games murder mystery game, you know what you’re getting. (Although we still have a backlog of games to update into the latest format.)

Foreign-language games

We live in the UK, and we initially expected that most of our customers would be here and in other English-speaking countries. But it quickly became clear that offering downloadable PDFs instead of physical games meant that people from all over the world would be keen to join the party.

We’ve had customers in 84 countries (at least—PayPal doesn’t always tell us where a customer is based). However, about two-thirds of our customers come from the USA—by far our biggest market.

We offered our first translated murder mystery in 2003 (Tod auf dem Gambia – a German translation of Death on the Gambia), and we offer 13 translated games. We now have two partners, Die Besten Familienspiele in Germany and FranceMurder in France.

Curse of the Pharaoh – played in New Zealand

Challenges

The last 20 years have not been without their challenges.

Our biggest challenge has undoubtedly been the pandemic, where our sales dropped off a cliff in March 2020. However, as we reported in January, things have been picking up ever since and hopefully will continue to improve as we learn to live with coronavirus.

Other challenges have included unreliable web hosts (in one case causing us to lose a week’s traffic in October, our busiest period) and changes to Google’s algorithm.

We get most of our traffic from Google, and as they have been trying to weed out low-quality sites from their search results, we have occasionally been affected by those changes. But as you might expect, we only remember the changes that affect us negatively – we don’t remember the good changes!

Murder on the Istanbul Express – our latest game

20 years old

We had no idea that 20 years later we would still be running Freeform Games, with over 30 games to our name.

But we’re happy we are – and here’s to the next 20 years!

Additional Way out West character and Zoom tips


We have received a great story from Rosie about her Way out West Zoom party.

Way out West on Zoom

I ran Way out West via zoom for a group of old school friends last weekend and it was so much fun! The players said it was one of the best evenings they’ve had all year.

I wrote one extra character. My husband played it and said it worked really well- in fact he got quite a few murder accusations (is that a mark of success?!)

(I wrote the character so that it could be played by male or female as I’ve noticed there seem to be fewer female parts in the murder mysteries I’ve seen- but then saw you’d given the stable hand a name already so he is Pete.)

Zoom worked pretty well as a medium, I only have the basic account so we had to restart the call every 40 minutes which wasn’t as annoying as it sounded as the game broke fairly neatly into 40 min chunks. A word of advice to others to check out their breakout room settings- they need to tick the box to allow players to exit breakout rooms themselves!

Thanks for a lovely evening.

You can now download Rose’s extra character, stable hand Jay Sidwell, with the other extra characters in the same place you download the main files.

Her note about gender balance is interesting – we try to be even in the genders across our games and include a good number of genderless characters to keep things flexible, obviously we can always do better.

In fact originally her character, the stable hand, was male. That’s because the stable hand, Pete, is mentioned once in Way out West – they’re the poor soul who finds Zeke’s body. So we’ve changed Pete to Jay and made them genderless.

Way out West now has three extra characters, and you can see the full list of extra character for all our games here.

Playing The Food is to Die For using Gather.town

Gather.town is a map-based virtual space where users can walk around a map and engage in video conversation based on their proximity to one another.

Although we’ve not tried it, it’s another option if you want to run a murder mystery game online.

The Food is to Die For

gather.town map for The Food is to Die For
The restaurant

Gather.town uses a map, and while several are provided none of them are ideally suited for our games.

However, one of our fabulous customers create a gather.town map for The Food is to Die For and has shared it with us.

Freeform Games in 2020

Unsurprisingly, 2020 was all about the pandemic for Freeform Games.
2020 had started well, with sales in January and February building on 2019 (which was a good year for us). And then in March the pandemic properly reached the UK and USA and our sales dropped off a cliff…

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

Learning to play our games online

With lockdown, our amazing customers started playing our games online—using Zoom or Discord or Google Hangouts or whatever system they found easiest.

That inspired us to both create games specifically for online play, and also to learn how to play our “normal” games online.

Playing our games online in 2020

So for most of 2020 that’s what we’ve been doing – learning to play our games online. And also sales dropped off a cliff in March, things picked back up. Not to 2019 levels, but our sales for 2020 were similar to those in 2017.

Best-selling games

2020 brought a change to our best-selling games, with new online game Reunion with Death coming third (close behind perennial favourite Way out West). A Will to Murder topped our best-sellers list in 2020.

Reunion with Death – our third most popular game of 2020

Overall our top three games accounted for a hefty 35% of our sales. It’s noticeable that in 2020 our smaller games have been more popular, which is I think a reflection of the smaller games being easier for online play.

Three new games

We published three new games in 2020.

Reunion with Death by Mo Holkar. Written specifically for the lockdown, and set in a hotel where everyone is locked in their rooms. We also produced a festive version, Christmas Reunion with Death (but I’m not counting that as a separate game).

Death in Venice also by Mo. Another lockdown murder mystery, this time everyone is locked in their cabins aboard a luxury yacht.

The Food is to Die For by Anastasia Kulpa, set in a restaurant. This has been close to publication for a couple of years now, and in 2020 we finally rolled up our sleeves and published it.

We also updated Under the Big Top, to bring it into line with our newer format.

Last year’s goals

We set ourselves a few goals in 2020:

  • Improve our website: We made a few improvements this year:
    • We improved the look and feel by as increasing the overall type size and line spacing
    • We improved the right-hand menu on the games pages to make it easier to see new and best-selling games.
    • We changed the style of our game cover graphics for our new games – we’ll update our earlier games as we go along.
  • Publish The Food is to Die For and Murder on the Istanbul Express. So a partial success as we published The Food is to Die For. Murder on the Istanbul Express will have to wait for 2021.
  • Finish updating Under the Big Top: This was originally planned for 2019, but we updated it in 2020.

Plans for next year

  • Improve our website: Our website is key to our business and so we’re always looking to improve it. I don’t think we’ll ever not have this as a goal.
  • Publish Murder on the Istanbul Express: With The Food is to Die for published, we’ll concentrate on Murder on the Istanbul Express. And after that, we’ve got Death at the Derby lined up.
  • Another new online game: Even if the pandemic disappears (and I think that’s for the long-term), it seems there’s a space for online murder mystery party games and so we’d like to publish another.

Summary

So although 2020 was bad, we weathered the pandemic and have learned more about playing our games online.

As the vaccine is rolled out and normality returns, hopefully we will return to playing our games in person.

Casting a Freeform Games murder mystery game

Casting can be a dark art, so I thought I’d share how I recently cast The Karma Club and Death in Venice.

I ran both of these games during 2020, and both were held online using Discord. As with much of 2020, everything was done online—including casting.

Death in Venice – using Discord

What is casting?

Casting your murder mystery game means deciding who get to play which character.

This can be tricky, because everyone is different.

We include casting information in our casting table (at least, with our newer games—we are updating our older games to include this table). This highlights potentially problematic issues, such as where romantic or family relationships exist, and who the murderer is (not everyone wants to play the murderer).

This assumes that you know your guests. If you don’t know who will be coming, or you only know some, or you don’t know them that well, then the casting table is of limited use…

Form or not to form

For The Karma Club and Death in Venice, I used a Google Form for casting. I did this so the players could let me know who they were interested in playing. (And I hadn’t met some players, so didn’t know them very well.) Many of my players play a live-action roleplaying games and it’s normal for those to have simple casting forms.

Using a form made casting easy—I would do it for all games in the future.

My casting form

I created a form using Google Forms (you could use a Microsoft Form instead, or do it via email). At the top of the form I wrote a brief introduction:

This is the casting questionnaire for The Karma Club online game.

Please note that I will try and cast you according to your preferences, but I may not be able to give everyone their preferred role.

Also note that the characters have hidden secrets, and few are what they appear on the surface.

I need your email address as I am using Google Drive to manage items and money, and I need to share the folders with you. I won’t share your email address with anyone else.

For Death in Venice I changed the third and fourth paragraphs to say: Also note that I haven’t read the full game and I don’t know the game secrets or characters – that’s because I’m going to play as well. However, I expect the characters have hidden secrets, and some may not be what they appear on the surface.

I need your email address so I can send you the character sheets.

I used these fields for the form:

  • Your email address
  • Your name
  • Your gender
  • Do you mind playing a gender other than your own? (I don’t think this will be an issue, but just in case.)
  • Of the characters listed, which three appeal to you most? (This then listed the characters in the order that they are in the game cast list, with those details. The first selection was “I don’t mind who I play”.)
  • Of the characters listed above, are there any that you really don’t want to play? (This was just a free text field rather than another list. Sometimes it’s more important to know who someone doesn’t want to play.)
  • Is there anything else you’d like me to consider when casting you? (This is so your guests can tell you if they don’t want to be the murderer, or don’t want to be involved in a romantic plot, and so on. Although as it’s a free text field, you may get some odd requests.)
  • I would like to share online a screenshot/photo of the game being played. Are you happy for me to include you in the photo?

As an example of what that looks like, here’s my Death in Venice casting form.

Flagging contentious issues

Some of our games contain contentious subject matter—such as characters having an affair, or involving magic or the occult. I dealt with those when advertising the game to new players, but I could also have flagged that up in the casting questionnaire.

Issuing the casting form

A Heroic Death – online

Once you’ve created the form, Google provides several ways of sharing it (I imagine Microsoft Forms does the same). You can use a link, or email it out, or embed it as html in a web-page. As I used Facebook to organise my games, I sent all my players a link.

I sent the casting form link to the players about two weeks before the game, hoping that I would get everything back so I could cast and send character sheets out a week in advance. I had to nag one or two guests, but I kept to that timetable.

Using the results to cast the form

Once you have the results, it’s time to assign characters to players. Google provides the results in a spreadsheet so you can work with the data.

  • First, I looked for characters that only one person wanted to play. I cast them first.
  • Then I looked people who said that they didn’t want to play a character, and cast them.
  • Then, I looked at popular characters and cast them.
  • Finally use the people who don’t mind playing any character to fill in the gaps.

Tip – if you’re also playing a character (if you’re running and playing Death in Venice, for example), then I recommend being flexible in who you play.

With luck you can give everyone what they want – but if you can’t then I suggest contacting those players and manage their expectations.

Sending out the results

Finally, you need to tell everyone who they are playing. With each character sheet I sent out an email that listed the characters and who will play them, and any extra bits of information. For example, this is the email I sent for Death in Venice.

Hi,

I’ve now cast Death in Venice, thank you for completing the form in good time. Your character booklet and the game background is attached.

Here’s the cast list:

  • Jackie S is Mary-Lou Sinclair
  • Meera G is Célestine de Vincennes
  • Sara C is Tindall Nobbs
  • Stuart R is Daniel Setters
  • Dave T is JJ Kowalski
  • Jon F is Landor Hammond
  • Ahmed D is Courtney Keller
  • Jan W is Lyra Spark
  • Steve H is Cruz Vicente

Note I have a character and I’m playing. This means I know nothing about the characters other than the public information. If you have questions, I suggest that you hold on to them for now and we’ll resolve them after we’ve played. (As I can’t answer them!)

Please change your name on the Discord server to your character name. (I’ve changed mine to Cruz Vicente (Steve H GM).)

Abilities: If you can, print off your abilities and when you want to use then you can show them up to your webcam. If not, then you can either take a screenshot of the ability and post it in a message to whoever is asking. And if that doesn’t work, just read it out and we’ll trust you.

Clues/Secrets: Again, if you can print them off and should anyone need to see them then hold it up to the webcam. Or use a screenshot, or just read it out.

Announcements: There will be a few announcements during the game. They are to be read by different people (not always me), and I will send the announcement to that person to read out in the Common Room. I’ll then post the announcement itself as a jpg in the announcements text channel for anyone who wasn’t in the Common Room (you may have seen the background already in there).

Timetable: I plan to be online from about 13:30, and with a fair wind (and minimal technology issues) we’ll start playing at 14:00 and finish about 16:30.

I’m happy to answer questions about logistics. See you next Saturday!

Way out West – online (it’s been that kind of year)

Other ways of casting

That isn’t the only way of casting, and we’d be interested in hearing your ideas for casting in the comments below.

Using Discord for online murder mystery games

We used Discord when we ran The Karma Club and Death in Venice. It’s probably the most flexible of the video chat options, but it’s also the least intuitive.

This is a brief guide to setting up a Discord “server” (a space to hold your game).

The Karma Club via Discord

Advantages of Discord

  • It’s easy to create lots of game spaces for players to chat in.
  • Players can move themselves in and out of the spaces without needing you to move them (unlike Zoom’s breakout rooms which require someone to manage them).
  • You can easily see who is in which space, so you don’t need to go searching for people.
  • When you get into it, Discord is powerful and flexible.

Disadvantages of Discord

  • You can’t add a background to your video, like you can in Zoom. (At least, not yet.)
  • With lots of people, Discord can take up a lot of bandwidth. That can be a challenge for briefings if your broadband connection is slow and when everyone is in the same channel, it can be mitigated if people mute themselves and switch off video. It’s less of a problem once the game is flowing as most players will be chatting in small numbers.
  • Discord can be a bit geeky—there is lots of jargon and it’s not as user friendly as some alternatives.
  • The Discord app isn’t as user-friendly as using it on a PC. (So if you’re going to use it on a tablet, make sure you’re completely familiar with it first.)

Step 1: Sign up to Discord

First step is to sign up to Discord. I recommend downloading the desktop app (as performance is reportedly better), but you can do everything through your browser if that’s easier.

Step 2: Create and customise your server

A “server” is what Discord calls its chat rooms. To create one, click on the plus symbol “Add a Server” in the left-hand menu.

You will be asked whether you want to base it on a template or create your own. You don’t need a template, so click “create your own”.

You need to give your server a name and you can upload a photo if you like. (You can change these later.)

Once you’ve done that you will have a new server with one text channel called “general” and one voice channel (also called “General”). A channel is like a small chat room for a specific subject. Note that the voice channels also accept video.

Your server should look like the one above.

Step 3: Add more channels

Now you can rename or add your channels. (Click the + to add a channel. Click the cog to edit the channel to change the name or set other properties.)
For Death in Venice I set up these channels:

Death in Venice server – note the channels

(See our story about hosting Death in Venice for details on how I used them.)

To limit the number of players that can visit a channel at any one time, click on the cog (“Edit Channel”) and change the User Limit . Once you become proficient at using Discord you can create hidden channels and other tricks.

Step 4: Invite your players

To invite players to your server, click the down arrow next to the server name in the top left. You can either send them a link to the server or invite them directly if they are already on Discord. Either way, the link only lasts for 24 hours, so you may need to send it more than once.

Step 5: Change your nickname

You can change your nickname for your specific game server. For Death in Venice I changed mine to Cruz Vicente (he, Steve). If I was just hosting a game, I’d probably change it to Steve (he, Host).

I suggest you ask everyone to do that when they join your server.

Once you’ve done that, you’re ready to play!

Photos

Note that your Discord username is displayed on screen in the bottom left-hand corner. If you take a screenshot of your game to share, remember to crop that bit to hide your username.

More help

Here’s the official Discord article on setting gup a server.

And here are our tips for hosting online murder mystery games.