Category Archives: Design

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 probably haven’t 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

In Pirate Island, each ship has a map to a Treasure mappirate 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!

Our standard rules

We use some standard rules in our murder mystery games to cover situations such as combat, poisoning, death and the like. We’ve now made these available in pdf form so that you can share them with your players.

(Note that we have more rules than this, but these are our most commonly used rules.)Derrenger item card

  • Basic rules – these are our basic rules that apply to all our games.
  • Combat – there are our full combat rules. We use these in a lot of our games – they are quite simple, but can be deadly. These rules include healing and death.
  • Poison – some of our murder mystery games include rules for poisoning others. This is how they work. These rules include healing and death.
  • Capturing another player – sometimes it’s important to be able to capture or restrain another player. This also includes our Arrest rules.

You can find these rules on this page, which also includes some ideas for using the rules.

Rationalising the rules

It’s taken us a while to get to the point where we can publish our standard rules because for a long time they weren’t actually standard. Our games have evolved over time, and we’ve incorporated tweaks and improvements as we’ve gone along. But what we haven’t been very good at is going back and updating the older games.

Poison ability card

Now that we’ve published our standard rules, we’ve gone back to our old games and made sure that they are consistent. After all, we don’t want to confuse anyone with different sets of rules.

The rationalising process has resulted in quite a few discussions here at Freeform Games HQ, as it hasn’t always been obvious which is the best version to use. Our rules for arrests and poison in particularly needed quite a bit of looking at. Overall, however, our approach has been to use the simplest version.

We’re happy with them now, and standardising our rules will make it easier for our future games.

Let us know what you think: have you shared our standard rules with your players? And if so, did it help?

Developing Hollywood Lies: Part 2

In Part 1 I talked about updating Hollywood Lies – bringing it into the modern format, making it completely kid-friendly, making all the characters gender-neutral, and including the extra character pack in the main game. In this post I talk about how I did it.

Preparing the character booklets

Hollywood-Lies

Detective Chase (right) investigates the murder.

The first thing I did was to prepare the character booklet format. When we first wrote Hollywood Lies our character sheets were on two pages – story on one side, goals and people on the reverse.

Our current format is an 8-page booklet:

  • Page 1 – Cover, including a few words setting the scene (the same for each character)
  • Page 2 and 3 – Background and goals
  • Page 4 – Other People and tips for beginners
  • Page 5 – Abilities (previously on a separate card)
  • Page 6 – Secret and Clue (previously on the same card as the abilities)
  • Page 7 – Rules
  • Page 8 – Cast list for our shorter games, blank otherwise. (Blank for Hollywood Lies because the cast list won’t fit unless the font is microscopic.)

Once I was happy with the format, I then cut and pasted the character text from the original files into the new format.

(An aside, Mo and I do this differently. Mo has all the characters in a single document, while give each character their own document. I do this because I’m often switching from one character to another, and I haven’t found a way that works for me when everything is in one document. The downside is that if I need to make a change to a piece of boilerplate text, then I need to open every single document whereas Mo can just do find-and-replace.)

The character spreadsheet

With the characters all in the new format, I then created a character spreadsheet that did two things: ranked each character, and tracked changes.

Character ranking: I ranked each character numerically based on things like the number of goals they had and how much background text they had. This resulted in a score, and those with a low score compared to others needed more work.

This was particularly an issue because at this point while I’d deleted plots (such as affairs and the photos discussed last time), I hadn’t replaced them with anything. So some characters were definitely weaker.

(I didn’t completely rely on the ranking, but it was a good start to identify those characters that needed more work.)

I has used a similar system for for Murder at Sea, which I wrote about here.

Tracking changes: I also used the spreadsheet to track the changes. For example, I changed the introductory text and I used the spreadsheet to ensure that I changed every character booklet.

The spreadsheet included a tab with all the secrets and clues on them, so that I could check that the murder trail worked. (I didn’t want to make it easy, but it needed to be possible.) Other tabs also tracked who knew who, so that I could fill any gaps.

Changing plots

As I said previously, some plots were removed and I replaced these by fleshing out some of the other existing plots and writing two new plots.

Other changes

Other changes arose due the the new format. Our previous format had the Other People section before the Goals, the new version puts Goals ahead of Other People. That meant that there were sometimes goals that referred to information that the player hadn’t read yet (because it was now further down the character sheet in the Other People section).

In our view goals shouldn’t add new information but instead they should summarise the background and act as a reminder. So in those cases I moved the Other People information into the background so that the character sheet flowed from start to finish.

I also checked that the balance of Other People was about right – that nobody was left out and that nobody knew too much about one particular person.

Remaining files

Once I was happy with the characters, I then updated the other files such as the instructions, quick reference sheet, and the cards file.

Then followed a thorough proofread, and that was it!

On reflection

Updating Hollywood Lies seemed to take a long time – but I think I was being a bit ambitious. The two big changes (making it gender neutral and kid-friendly) made a significant impact that I then needed to address, and all that took time.

However, I do believe that the game is better as a result.

Developing Hollywood Lies

So for much of 2015 I have been spending my spare time updating Hollywood Lies and bringing it into our current format. We finally released it in early December.
As well as re-formatting it (to bring it up to our current standard, as I had done recently with Murder at Sea), we had a few other ideas for developing Hollywood Lies:

  • To make Hollywood Lies gender neutral.
  • To make the game kid-friendly.
  • Incorporate the expansion pack into the main game.

I have talked previously about making Hollywood Lies gender neutral, but the last two deserve a bit more explanation.

Kid-friendly

Hollywood LiesOriginally Hollywood Lies had an “adult” version and a “kids” version. That’s because when we wrote it we didn’t think that our customers would want to run it for their kids – we should have thought that through!

Having two versions made it clunky for our customers, and harder for us to update when we find an error.

And to be honest, wasn’t much difference between the two:

  • The nude photos plot in the adult version (which was inspired by a plot in Notting Hill) were replaced with embarrassing photos.
  • The affairs were changed to “secretly seeing” (but no change in the actual plots).

And that was about it.

As the changes were just cosmetic, some parents were understandably concerned with their children playing characters who are in affairs (whether ‘secretly seeing’ or otherwise). With the new changes all these affairs are removed, and anyone can play, and it will still be lots of fun for everyone.

The expansion

We also incorporated the expansion into the full game. While we like the idea of having optional expansions for our games, practically they present a couple of problems.

  • First, they end up more complicated as there’s a second set of instructions and more bits of paper everywhere.
  • Second, the characters in an expansion never seem as fully embedded in the game as the original characters. (Although that might just be my perception rather than reality.)

So for Hollywood Lies we’ve included the characters in the main game. If that proves a success, we’ll do it with our other games as well.

So that’s what we’ve done. Next time I’ll talk about how I did it.

Writing a murder

As part of this year’s Hollywood Lies update, one of the changes I have made was to the murder plot. The original murder plot involved a love affair, and that was no longer appropriate as I was making the game more kid-friendly and gender neutral.

So this is what I did.

Plotting a murder

The first thing I needed to do was work out the basic plot – and most importantly the motive. I didn’t change the murderer’s identity, nor did I change how the murder was committed (the means). But I needed a new motive, and I needed to change when the murder was committed (the opportunity).

Obviously I don’t want to say too much about it here, so the rest of this post is about how I developed the plot rather than the details of the plot.

Once I’d worked it all out, I wrote it down in bullet points.

Hollywood Lies death scene

The Hollywood Lies death scene – but is it murder? (Probably.)

Clues and red herrings

With the murder outline in hand, I wrote down the clues that I needed that would lead to the murderer.

I also needed some red herrings, and other suspect. Our victim, Tom Speed, was a nasty enough character that he had a number of enemies.

I used a table (along the lines of the one below) to keep track of the murderer and suspects (and to make sure that one of the suspects didn’t have too many clues pointing to them).

murder-suspect-table

Writing the plot

Then I wrote the murder plot out in full, written from the murderer’s perspective. One of the challenges I find of writing the murder plot is that if it’s too involved, then there’s no space left for the murderer to have any other background or goals. So I made it concise enough to leave space for other plots, but detailed enough that the murderer knew what they had done.

Then I worked through the other characters.

I concentrated on the ‘core’ characters first. These are the characters that are always used in the game – the ones used when you’re playing with the minimum number. The clue trail has to work with them, so I made sure that all the clues were spread amongst the core characters.

Incidentally, this is why it’s difficult playing with fewer than the minimum number. You have to be really careful who you drop, in case the character you drop has a key clue that you can’t solve the murder without.

The denouement and other handouts

With the core characters done, it was time for the denouement, or the solution to the murder mystery that’s read out by the detective at the end of the party.

I like writing denouements. I imagine Poirot making a speech in front of all the suspect, and it’s about the only space in our games for a little dramatic flair.

With the denouement finished, my next task was to write the murder plot handouts that are needed during the game. In Hollywood Lies, this consisted of a few timed handouts relating to new information provided by forensics.

A fake body lies at the bottom of the stairs

Another death scene – this time from Snow Business

The other characters

With the core characters, the denouement and the handouts finished, I wrote up the remaining characters.

For the remaining characters, I repeated the clues that I had already used for the core characters. The reason for this is that with more characters in the game, it’s possible for an individual clue to be overlooked. Multiple copies of that clue makes it less likely that that will happen.

Murder all wrapped up

That’s how I updated the murder plot for Hollywood Lies, and it’s pretty much how I write any murder plot, whether I’m starting from a clean sheet or adapting an old game.

Writing gender neutral characters for Hollywood Lies

As I mentioned in our review of 2014, I am updating Hollywood Lies and bringing it into our current format.

However, one of the things that it making this harder (and therefore taking much more time than it otherwise should), is that I am making all the characters gender-neutral so that they can be played by men or women.

Hollywood Lies

Hollywood Lies – our movie themed murder mystery party game

My reasons for doing this are threefold:

  • Firstly, it helps make casting easier if you haven’t got to make sure you’ve got the right number of male and female guests. We include a few gender neutral characters to help with numbers, but making all the characters gender neutral takes that issue away completely.
  • Second, it means that when we are asked for an all-female game, we can direct customers to Hollywood Lies. (While we get the occasional request for an all-female game, we almost never get a request for an all-male game.)
  • Third, Hollywood Lies is set in the modern day and we shouldn’t be constraining any of our roles by gender.

For those of you who have played Hollywood Lies – yes this does mean that there will be some plots and characters that will change. That’s just making the task of updating the game more complex.

An invaluable tool for names

I’ve found Wikipedia’s Unisex Name page invaluable for finding gender-neutral or unisex character names . It’s a great place for getting gender-neutral names that we haven’t used before (it’s very easy to fall back on the usual ones).

Challenges in writing unisex characters

The main challenge in writing unisex characters is avoiding the use of he/she/him/her. Usually I find that a sentence can be simply rewritten to avoid these pronouns – and at worst case I end up using the character’s name instead.

(I don’t like using “they” as it often doesn’t sound right.)

Some examples:

  • Original: Edward is your agent and charges a standard 10%. He was Tom Speed’s agent as well.
    Rewritten: Eddie is your agent and charges a standard 10%. Eddie was Tom Speed’s agent as well.
    Original: James was fired after setting fire to the office. He was seen shortly before the fire drunk and smoking in a prohibited area. He hasn’t worked since.
    Rewritten: Joss was fired after setting fire to the office. Joss was seen shortly before the fire drunk and smoking in a prohibited area, and hasn’t worked since.

Plot challenges

As well as changing the written language, turning all the characters gender neutral is having a few other changes.

For example, our games often include characters who are romantically linked to each other. That might be as a married couple, or someone in love with another character, or possibly even having an affair with another character.

Not everyone is comfortable with same-sex romances, so I am removing these relationships. (And that changes several plots – such as those characters who are married or seeing each other and so on.)

Arguably, this gives Hollywood Lies a wider appeal: it becomes more kid-friendly and also less constraining in terms of who can play which character.

A challenge

Writing Hollywood Lies to be completely gender-neutral is proving to be a bit of a challenge, for all of these reasons. I’m having to carefully check the wording of every character, and also writing a few new plots to replace those that I’ve dropped. The core game is the same, though.

And no, I’m not sure when it will be ready. 2015 is all I’m committing myself to at the moment!

From All at Sea to Murder at Sea

Murder-at-Sea

First class passengers enjoying Murder at Sea

All at Sea was our second murder mystery game and is written by Chris Boote. Apart from amending a couple of errors we haven’t really touched it at all since its release in 2002.

However, since then we’ve changed our game layout (more than once!) and as All at Sea is one of our more popular games, we thought it was worth bringing it up to date.

The most obvious change is it’s title. All at Sea is now Murder at Sea. We changed it’s name for two reasons. The first is that Murder at Sea is a better description of what the game is about, and the second is that putting “murder” in the title of the game helps the search engines realise that our site is about murder mystery games. (If you cast your eye over our current range, that might not jump out at you, and we may may one or two similar changes in the future.)

Here are some of the other changes we’ve made:

  • We’ve added a detective to Murder at Sea – Aggie Marbles (who first appeared in Dazzled to Death / The Night Before Christmas). Aggie is 26 in Murder at Sea, and we’ve written a solution to the murder for her to read out at the end of the party.
  • With Aggie added to the game, Murder at Sea now needs 17 players as a minimum.
  • We’ve reformatted the character sheets. Each is now 8 pages long, including rules and abilities, so that you can now print it in booklet format.
  • All of the characters now have three abilities – originally they had only two. Our modern games all give our characters three abilities, and we’ve used our current ability template which helps them be consistent across our games (at least, those that we have updated, anyway!)
  • Each character now has a Clue. Previously everyone only had a Secret, but now we’ve given everyone a Clue as well.
  • Items and cash now have graphics to go with them.
  • We’ve changed the cash from pounds sterling to dollars, on the basis that the ship flies an American flag and has just sailed from New York. (I guess in reality they would use both on board, but to keep things simple we’ve just gone with dollars.)

    First Aid Kit

    First aid now administered by the stewards and stewardesses

  • The stewards and stewardesses now have first aid kits. That means that players can get medical attention from another player rather than the host.
  • We’ve tweaked a few of the characters to give them a little bit more background and to help draw them into the game better.
  • Scissors-paper-stone is now rock-paper-scissors.

  • We’ve improved the instructions, and added a summary of the characters to help with casting.

If you’ve already bought All at Sea you can download the Murder at Sea right now using the same link and password that we’ve already sent.

Note – the update is for the English version only (at this time).

Steve Hatherley

Goodbye Scissors-Paper-Stone

When I grew up we played scissors paper stone. And I still much prefer saying “scissors paper stone” to “rock paper scissors” (which, to be honest, always sounds a bit ugly to me).

But as this chart from Google shows, rock paper scissors has soundly thrashed scissors paper stone. So it’s time to change. But we’re not going to rush into it. We’re a (very) small team with a huge to-do list. So for new games, and as we update old games, we’ll make the change.

Rock Paper Scissors v Scissors Paper Stone

Since the mid 90s, rock-paper-scissors beats scissors-paper-stone

So why do we use rock paper scissors for our resolution system?

We use rock-paper-scissors in our murder mystery games for several reasons:

  • First, almost everyone in the entire world knows how to play.
  • Second, you don’t need any special equipment to play.
  • Third, the only outcomes are win/lose/draw – which is enough for our resolution system. (I’ve written about making sure you know what happens on a draw before here.)

(By the way, we don’t use rock-paper-scissors-lizard-spock (or any of the other variants) because it’s neither well known nor intuitive. And we don’t need the added complexity.)

But I’m not very good at RPS?

One of the downsides of RPS (and perhaps it’s biggest failing), is that it isn’t completely random. There’s a psychological angle – people aren’t completely random. Here’s a clip of Derren Brown winning time and time again against football fans. (And here’s a blog post analysing Derren’s technique.)

This article from the BBC highlights some strategies that players adopt that prevent the game from being completely random.

  • Players who win, tend to stick with their winning rock, paper or scissors.
  • And players who lose, tend to change – but they tend to follow the order of rock, paper and scissors. So players losing with paper tend to change to scissors for the next game. (I don’t know if that also applies to those of us who grew up calling the game scissors paper stone…)

So now you know that, you can use this information to beat your friends. (Unless they’ve also read the article, in which case all bets are off.)

In fact, if you’d like to test your skill, try this RPS simulator.

Truly random rock paper scissors

And if you’re still uncomfortable playing rock paper scissors, I picked up these dice on Amazon.

RPS dice

Rock-paper-scissors dice

Steve Hatherley

Customer Feedback

We love getting feedback. Our favourites are the unsolicited emails we get telling us about your parties, but sometimes we send out our feedback form. In March we did just that and sent out 1200 feedback requests to our most recent purchasers of our games.

Actually, when I say we’ve got them back, we only received 11 responses. We think a lot of this is due to the emails being caught in spam filters, but perhaps we need to redesign our emails to make them more appealing.

Players enjoying Lord and Lady Westing's Will

Lord and Lady Westing’s Will

Anyway, thank you to everyone who responded. We’ve read all of them and here are some of the key points.

Just the numbers

Most of the feedback was returned within 48 hours, and it mostly came from the United States (no surprise as that’s where most of our customers are), but also from the UK, Canada, and Australia.
Most people had found us via the internet or a search engine, although 3 (27%) found us through word of mouth. We’d like to improve our search engine presence, but word of mouth is valuable too.

We ask our customers to rate how likely they are to recommend us. From this we’ve calculated that our “Net Promoter Score” for March 2014 was 64%. (Note – Net Promoter Score is a registered trademark of Fred Reichheld, Bain & Company, and Satmetrix.)

Party size ranged from 9 to 16 players, but that’s not surprising as the feedback came from just four games: Curse of the Pharaoh, Davy Jones’ Locker, Spellbound and A Will to Murder. None of those are our larger games.

Comments

Our feedback form has some space for customers to write their own comments – here are the key themes:

  • There were several comments about the host role being too complicated for a first-time host. I’ve got a bit of sympathy for this. While we design our games so that anyone can host them, some of them are more complicated than others – particularly those that involve combat. We’ll consider highlighting the games that we think are most suitable for first-time hosts – perhaps a section on our site with games for beginners.
  • Several people commented that a second host would have helped. We often recommend that in our instructions, but it’s not always possible to arrange.
  • One person suggested sending rules out in advance to the players so that they could become familiar with them – that’s something we could look at making easier to do.
  • Two people liked the smaller games (8-12 people) and one person specifically appreciated the fact that we have gender neutral roles that make it easy to cast.
  • Quite a few people gave lovely comments such as, “EVERYBODY LOVED IT”, “Everybody was talking to everyone else, despite them not having met previously” “All attendees said they had a good time”.

Our actions

There’s no point asking for customer feedback if we’re not going to do anything about it! So here are the actions we’re taking from this feedback:

  • We are going to see if we can redesign the request for feedback emails to improve response.
  • We’re going to look at a section on our site covering games for beginners.
  • We’re going to see if we can make it easy to share game rules in advance.

Steve Hatherley