Category Archives: Design

Updating Davy Jones’ Locker and Way out West

Our ongoing project to update our games to our latest format continues with Davy Jones’ Locker and Way out West.

Davy Jones’ Locker

We completed this earlier in the year but forgot to mention it here on our blog.

Davy Jones’ Locker is our shipboard game of pirates in the Caribbean. The Libra is sailing from Tortuga to Florida – but with so many scoundrels aboard, it will be an eventful journey.

Apart from updating it into the new format (and correcting the odd typo), Davy Jones’ Locker hasn’t changed as a result of this update.

Way out West

Way out West is our best-selling game set in the Old West in 1884. The railroad is coming to the sleepy town of Cactus Gulch and brings trouble with it.

While we’ve not changed the plots or characters, we’ve simplified how we present Way out West. Previously, Way out West came in two versions – a version for adults and a version for kids. The kids’ version was the same as the adults’ but with references to elements like saloon girls removed (they’re now waitresses).

We’ve combined the two versions – there’s just a family-friendly version now. It’s the same game with the same plots and characters, but it’s now easier to include younger players as everyone is using the same version.

We have also now folded the expansion pack into the main game – so there’s no need to buy the expansion pack if you have more than 14 guests coming.

Getting updated copies

If you have an older copy of Davy Jones’ Locker or Way out West, you can get the updated versions by using the download instructions you received when you first bought the games.

Murder mystery party games you can simultaneously host and play

Our murder mystery games require a separate host because we include items and money and abilities like pickpocketing and rules such as combat and arrests. We find a dedicated host helps the game run smoothly.

However, the games we developed during lockdown (Reunion with Death and Death in Venice) are more straightforward because we designed them for online play. So they don’t include combat or items that need swapping between characters.

Playing in person – you can’t share food like this online!

And so, as we wrote before, with care, the host can play a character.

Sales

Initially, in 2020 when the pandemic was new and terrifying, and we were all in lockdown, sales of the two games were good.

However, since then, sales have not been so good.

We think there are two reasons for this.

First, as lockdown has eased, people meet in smaller groups. That means they can host our smaller games, such as A Will to Murder or Murder on the Istanbul Express. (And that theory is backed by the improving sales of those games.)

Second, as life moved online during lockdown, we became more familiar with using online video chat such as Zoom.

Playing Way out West using Zoom

And our customers have used the technology to host our other parties (and they’ve shared their stories with us). That means they don’t need a dedicated online game—they can host our existing games online.

We think those two factors mean our ‘online-only’ games are less appealing and haven’t sold so well.

Hosting and playing

So we have re-branded the games and changing their focus.

The games work well, and they work well face-to-face. They play just like our other games—except there’s nothing that needs a neutral host (such as combat) and no items to swap.

So rather than focus on hosting them online, we’re emphasising that the host can both host and play a character in these games.

Therefore, we’ve updated the game files with the default assumption that the host will play a character, and the game will be played face-to-face. That meant some changes, as the games assume that players will be isolated from each other.

For example, in Reunion with Death, it is assumed that everyone is locked in their hotel rooms during the party. However, in a face-to-face game, the hotel is still in lockdown following the murder, but everyone is in the hotel ballroom and can mingle as they would at an ordinary party.

Of course, you can still play them online, just like our other games.

And if you want to host them without playing a character, you can do that too.

Photos!

However, the only problem at the moment is we don’t have any photographs of people playing Reunion with Death or Death in Venice in person! So if you have played them in person, please share your photos and tell us your stories!

Updating Happy Birthday R.J.

We’ve recently updated Happy Birthdhttps://www.freeformgames.com/shop/product/happy-birthday-rj/ay R.J. to our latest format.

Happy Birthday R.J. was originally published in 2003. It was our fifth game and was written by Lisa Butler (who later wrote Snow Business and Casino Fatale). Next year it celebrates its 20th birthday!

Taking place on SouthSpoon Ranch in 1980s Texas, Happy Birthday R.J. is full of glamorous oil people. It uses lots of tropes (and similar names) from the Dynasty and Dallas tv shows and is for 11 to 15 guests, plus one host.

The game is a little different from many of our murder mysteries—there are two murders, and we don’t know who the murderer is for one of them. The host will decide the identity of the second murderer during the party, and it could be any of the other guests!

The changes we’ve made include:

  • Each character now has an eight-page character booklet (previously they were on two pages).
  • Rewritten the instructions to be clearer and in line with our current format.
  • Given images to all the items (although this game doesn’t have many).
  • Added a solution—which was tricky given we don’t know who the murderer is.
  • Increased the value of the money to better reflect the wealth of the attendees.
  • Given it a light edit and tidied up some of the language.

So if you’ve purchased Happy Birthday R.J., you can download it again using the same login details as before.
Let us know what you think!

Adding fighting and poison to a murder mystery party

One of our customers recently wrote to us asking which games have combat in them.

(I’m not sure if they were looking for games that had combat, or games without combat. Not that it matters.)

We realised we hadn’t made it easy for our customers to work out which games have combat and which ones don’t, so we have added icons (from game-icons.net) to our choosing a game page to make that clear.

Includes rules for combat.

Includes rules for the use of poison.

Uses superpowers instead of our usual combat and poison rules.

No combat, no poison. No combat, no poison.

One character will die during the game, and will be replaced with a new character for that guest.

The host can either play one of the characters or can just be the host, as they prefer.

Written by Peaky Games, and only recommended for people who have hosted one of our murder mystery games before.

Standard rules

We also have our standard rules (combat, poisoning, pickpocket, capturing and arrest) which anyone can use—either for their own games, or to add to a game that doesn’t normally use those rules.

A Speakeasy Murder – includes our combat rules

But how do you do that?

To explain, I’m going to show how I might add combat to Murder on the Istanbul Express (which is set aboard a luxury train where fighting would normally be forbidden).

Option #1—in the background

The easiest thing I could do is simply have the rules in my back pocket should they be needed. The game includes items that could be used as a weapon, and if one player decides that their character really must attack another, I would use our rules to adjudicate that (rather than forbid it).

First aid kit

I would also provide a first aid kit as an item on the train (perhaps in the kitchen).

But I wouldn’t advertise this in advance—I’d just use the combat rules if they were needed.

Option #2—announce it in advance

The next option is to announce that the fighting rules will be used during the game briefing, but don’t introduce new abilities or items (except the first aid kit mentioned above). Simply identify which of the existing items could be used as a weapon, and let the game commence.

Could this lucky horseshoe be a weapon?

Use common sense when working out which items could be used as a weapon—and be prepared for players to improvise.

Option #3—add abilities and items

Finally, I would embrace combat and announce that not only that the fighting rules will be used, but I’d give out suitable abilities and possibly even weapons.

But who to give them to?

  • Characters looking for revenge and their targets
  • Law keepers
  • Heroic types
  • Villains

I would give all of these a weapon of some sort, and an ability from the list in our Combat Rules.
And to balance everything, I would give other characters either an extra ability (from those used in the game) or a first aid kit (for doctors or anyone who might reasonably have access to one).

I would also share the combat rules with everyone as part of their character packs.

To add combat or not?

For me, though, I probably wouldn’t add combat to a game that doesn’t already have it.

I know our games without combat work fine without it, and adding combat can create unnecessary complexity that it doesn’t need.

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. If you’ve not used our shop before, get in touch and we’ll sort you out.

Send us your feedback

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

And now hosts can play too!

We occasionally receive criticism about the role of the host: some people want to be able to host a murder mystery game and play it at the same time.

While we’ve written before about hosting and playing our games, it’s not always satisfactory because of what the host needs to know and manage.

But that changes with Death in Venice and Reunion with Death.

Designed for lockdown play using video chat, neither of these games include tricky rules (such as combat or pickpocketing) that require a separate host.

So now the host can play!

We’ve created a separate pack for hosts to download if they want to play our game as well as running it. That’s to keep everything separate, to minimise the risk that the host reads a key piece of information.

(So that’s like Way out West, which includes a self-contained kid-friendly version.)

So you can either host the game separately (as with our other games) or as a player. It’s up to you.

A caveat

The main downside that we can see of hosting and playing is that casting becomes a little trickier. If the host is playing they have less control over who plays which character.

We’ve provided some casting hints about each character – but obviously you don’t get as much depth as you do when you can read the characters themselves.

And as host you might even end up as the murderer! (If as host you don’t want to be the murderer, you can drop us a line and we’ll suggest a different role for you.)

We want to hear your stories!

If you try this out, please let us know how you get on. You can contact us either via Facebook or via our contact page.

Never too old to learn new tricks

The recent playtests for The Reality is Murder worked really well. We asked for playtesters via our newsletter, and eventually had four groups providing us with great feedback that really improved the game and ironed out a few kinks that we hadn’t spotted.

And even though we have been writing and publishing these games for nearly 20 years, I’m still learning new things. So amongst all the specific playtest feedback, there were a couple of issues that appeared that I think we need to carry across to other games.

Missing characters

While we already provide instructions for what to do if some characters aren’t used, it seems that one of our playtesters missed them, and got a bit confused.

So I made the following change: where items are reassigned, I added a handout to be added to the affected character envelope. This should make it clearer as to what needs to be done when not all the characters are being played.

Solving the murder

One of our playtesters noted that towards the end of the mystery some of the characters had finished their goals, and if they had had a goal to solve the murder, could have been working towards that.

I didn’t want to add a goal to every character to tell them to solve the murder because that’s a player objective rather than a character objective. But I realised that the host could remind the players of that objective during the game.

So added a note to the hosts’ introductory speech about solving the murder: “At the end of the evening I will ask everyone to indicate who they think murdered Jeff Thompson. So see if you can piece the evidence together and work out who murdered Jeff, and why.”

I also added an announcement in the timeline (and Quick Reference Sheet) towards the end of the game, reminding everyone to try and identify the murder.

That way the players are reminded that they can still solve the murder, while the characters are still the characters.

Our other games

And with The Reality is Murder finally finished, these changes now need to be added (where applicable!) to our other games.

That’ll be something we do over time as we update our games – starting with Hollywood Lies and Halloween Lies (both of which have now been updated).

Death on the Gambia and Snow Business updates

Front cover for the Death on the Gambia cover booklet
Front cover for the Death on the Gambia cover booklet

You may not have noticed, but we’ve given Death on the Gambia a refresh.

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

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

Snow Business

Snow Business
Snow Business

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

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

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

Adding eight pirates to Pirate Island

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

The why

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s not what happened, though.

What happened next – the Cub Scouts

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

Could I sort something out?

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

Questing for Treasure

Treasure map

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

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

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

Feedback

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

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

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

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

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

Overall

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

And it really works for cub scout groups!