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.

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.

Keeping Score

Every now and again we are asked if we have a way of assigning points to goals so that our guests can keep score.

We have never done that, mainly because in our experience is not necessary. We believe you can have as much fun in one of our games if you fail all of your goals, and making it competitive might undermine that.

(I do suspect that the customers who ask this haven’t played out hosted one of our games, as if they had then they’d know not to ask. But that’s just a guess.)

But some people do ask if it can be done, and one of our customers in Japan is going to try it out. (They run a boardgame cafe, so maybe their customers do like a clear sense of keeping score.)

So if your want to try this as well, this is how I would do it.

Out of ten

First, I’d divide ten points among a character’s goals. Most of our characters have 3 to 5 goals, and I would divide the points pretty evenly.

Where I can’t give them all the same points, I would give the easier goals more points than the harder goals. Obviously that’s a judgement call, and possibly a tricky one to make if you’re not as familiar with the game as we are.

I would do this for two reasons:

  • First, higher scores are more motivating. So giving more points for the easier goals means that your players will feel like they are getting somewhere.
  • Second, some of the goals are verging on impossible (I’m thinking of the ones where you are told to try and keep something a secret – never easy when we have all those abilities). So give those goals fewest points so that the player isn’t penalised if they don’t succeed in them.

But apart from that, I would spread the points fairly evenly.

For example, for a character with four goals, I’d give the two easiest three points each, and the others two points each. You can just write this next to the goal.

Murderer

Murderers usually have a goal saying something like “don’t get caught” which is a bit of a challenge given that we are playing on a murder mystery game in which solving the murder is a big part.

So the way I would treat that is to consider the goal successful if, when it comes to choosing who the murderer is (at the end of the party, before the solution is read out), most people choose someone else.

Other ways to score points

So that gives us 10 points if you achieve all of your goals. But I would also add other ways to score points:

  • Use all of your abilities at least once
  • Exhaust at least one of your abilities
  • Complete both of your tips for beginners
  • Talk to everyone in the game
  • End the game with less money than you started with (for those that don’t need money).
  • Reveal your secret to another characters
  • Reveal your clue at at least three other characters

Everyone should have five of these, and I would score them two points each. So everyone would have a maximum score of 20.

I have two reasons for adding these extra points:

  • First, they make it easy to score points. Unlike character goals, nobody will try to stop you from achieving these objectives.
  • Second, these activities are all actions that we want to encourage in one of our games, and doing them will make the game flow better.

Scorecards, explanations, and prizes

I would prepare a scorecard for each player, listing their goals and their scores, and the additional actions. I would include the scorecard in the character packet.

At the start of the party, during the introductory briefing I would explain the scorecards so that everyone can keep their own score. (I would trust the players to do that themselves rather than rigorously police it .)

Of course, once players are keeping score your are going to need a prize for whoever has the highest score.

Let us know

If you do try this out, we’d love to hear what you did and how it worked.

Your can reach us via our contact page, our Facebook page or through the comments below.

Three new games!

We’re delighted to present for sale three new games from Peaky Games: Best of the Wurst, The Day the Music Died, and Small Town Folks.

If Peaky Games sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve talked about it previously on our blog. Peaky is a writing weekend in Derbyshire for writing and the playing interactive (or “freeform”) games much like ours.

Peaky Games have taken some of their games, polished and updated them, and published them. If you’ve played a few of our games, we think that you may enjoy these games.

(This is from Murder on the Dance Floor – we don’t have any photos for these new games yet!)

The games are:

Best of the Wurst: In Castle Quimper Hotel in 1942 Occupied France Colonel Kronenburg has organised a sausage tasting competition – the best German wurst against sausages from across Europe! Is there any doubt who will win? Best of the Wurst is for 9 guests plus a host, aged 12+.

The Day the Music Died: Set at Radio Rebecca, the grooviest radio station in the English Channel in 1965. The Day the Music Died is for 10 guests plus a host, aged 12+

Small Town Folks: Macy, Nebraska, in 1962 is a small town like any other. But when the hurricane approaches, twelve people are trapped by a storm. Tensions rise, secrets spill, and long-buried rivalries erupt… Small Town Folks is for 12 guests plus a host, aged 15+.

The games written at Peaky are very similar in structure to our murder mysteries – everyone gets their own character sheet with goals and objectives, and information about other people, and they take between two and three hours to play through.

(Those similarities are not a coincidence, as we’re members of Peaky Games and have helped co-write some of the games.)

There are a few differences though.

First, they aren’t murder mysteries. Although sometimes there’s a death involved in the backstory, the game is rarely about investigating the death. Instead, the death is the background to some of the plots.

Second, the Peaky Games freeforms don’t usually have abilities, secrets or clues. The games generally don’t need them – secrets will come out naturally during the course of play, and clues are woven through the character backgrounds.

Third, these games are written for more experienced hosts. They expect you to use your common sense to resolve issues and questions. As a result, we wouldn’t recommend these if you haven’t run one of our games first.

Fourth, the games often include geeky ideas and concepts. Although the games we’ve selected here are mostly normal games, Best of the Wurst does contain a vampire!

But if you’ve played or hosted one of our games before, you won’t find anything too unfamiliar in them!

As with our other games, we offer a 30-day no-quibble money back guarantee on these games.

Click here to learn more about Peaky Games.