Category Archives: General

General posts about Freeform Games

3 tips for a successful Christmas murder mystery party!

First choose the right game!

Our best-selling mystery at this time of year is of course The Night before Christmas. This game, set in a high-class New England family’s hunting lodge, is for 12–15 guests and a host, and we also have 5 free extra characters that you can add in if you need more.

Of course, The Night before Christmas isn’t just for the 24th December – it works well at any time in the run-up to the big day. But if you’re organizing your party after Christmas itself, then you want Dazzled to Death instead! This is basically exactly the same game, but with the specific Christmas theming removed.

Or if you don’t have that many guests, check out Snow Business, our other winter-themed murder mystery – this one is for 10–12 guests, and it’s set in a ski chalet with another murderous family get-together.

Second, pick the right music!

You want something appropriately festive, but also suiting the period. The Night before Christmas is set in the 1950s, so Bing Crosby’s White Christmas, Judy Garland’s Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, and other classics like Let it Snow!, Jingle Bells, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Baby and Sleigh Ride are absolutely perfect.
Snow Business is set in the present day, but in a cheesy Alpine resort, so a selection of more modern Christmas songs would be great – Last Christmas, Do They Know It’s Christmas, All I Want for Christmas is You, Fairytale of New York – that sort of thing. With some Euro dance music mixed in!

Third, serve the right food and drink!

We always recommend our games are accompanied with finger food rather than a sit-down meal, and Christmas nibbles are ideal for this. Here’s a great list of simple but delicious recipes from the BBC.

As for drink, there’s the traditional punch (alcoholic or not), mulled wine, eggnog, and hot chocolate. Here’s a good mixture of those together with some festive cocktails, from the BBC again. And has a great selection here of non-alcoholic drinks, for everyone to enjoy!

The other important tip is: get planning well in advance! We recommend starting two weeks beforehand, ideally. If you don’t have that long, that’s OK, but you’ll have to be organized: don’t leave it to the last minute before printing out the character booklets!

We at Freeform Games will be on duty throughout the holiday period, here to answer your inquries and help with any problems. But if you follow these tips, everything should go just fine and you and your guests will have a terrific and murderous Christmas party! Do please let us know how it goes…

Bryant and May and the Invisible Code

It may seem a bit of a surprise, given that I write, edit and publish murder mystery party games, but I read very little crime fiction. I don’t really enjoy them, and I don’t find them that useful as inspiration because in our games, the murder is often just one of many different plotlines. Also, in crime fiction the murder plot is often so difficult to unpick that we couldn’t write our games that way. In our games, we can’t rely on the brilliant detective solving the mystery – everyone has to have a fair chance.

Bryant and May and the Invisible CodeSo I read very little crime fiction. I don’t even watch that much crime drama on television.

I make an exception for Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May series, though. Arthur Bryant and John May are a pair of elderly, decrepit senior detectives well past their retirement date. I’ve just finished Bryant and May and the Invisible Code, the 10th in the Bryant and May series (although they appear in a number of Fowler’s other novels as well).

Bryant and May head up the Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU), a much-maligned unit that the Home Office would love to shut down – except for the PCU’s incredible success rate at solving strange crimes that nobody else can solve. John May is procedural and proper, while the Arthur Bryant eschews traditional detection methods and consults with witches, occultists and other fringe characters.

Arthur Bryant is possibly my favourite fictional character: blunt, eccentric, erudite, rude, esoteric – and often laugh-out-loud funny. John May is Bryant’s straight man, and while the rest of the PCU team have their moments, none are as memorable as Bryant.

In The Invisible Code, the PCU are investigating yet another bizarre murder and become embroiled in a sinister conspiracy of silence concerning key government figures. And I’m not going to say more than that, because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone.

Each of the books can be read on their own, but there’s a definite sense of time in the later books (from White Corridor onwards) as the PCU relocate to new offices and new characters are introduced.

If you’re interested in reading more, I wouldn’t start with the first in the series, Full Dark HouseFull Dark House chronicles Bryant and May’s first meeting during the London Blitz, but to enjoy it fully you really need to know who the characters are in the first place, as it recreates the Blitz through flashbacks.

So instead, I suggest starting with the second book, The Water Room. The Water Room is quite bizarre, and definitely my favourite of the series – if you don’t like The Water Room then you probably won’t like the rest. I’d then follow that up with Seventy Seven Clocks (third in the series), before returning to Full Dark House.

So as Christmas approaches, you might want to put this on your Christmas list.

Steve Hatherley

Amazon adventure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old All at Sea book image

New All at Sea book image

Mo Holkar

A look back at Death on the Gambia

Death on the Gambia is our oldest game. I wrote it in the mid-90s, before Freeform Games came into being. I can’t exactly remember where the idea for Death on the Gambia came from, but I remember that I created it after I played a massive freeform called Home of the Bold in 1992.


Death on the Gambia

Death on the Gambia – our first murder mystery game

Although Home of the Bold was set in a fantasy world, I realised that if you stripped out the geekiness one could create a game that would both be fun to play and appeal to normal people. And that’s what I set out to do with Death on the Gambia, and in 2001 Mo and I started Freeform Games.

The name is obviously similar to Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, but that’s the only resemblance. I decided to set Death on the Gambia in pre-war 1939 so that I could add lots of international spies, an Indiana Jones character and so on.

Death on the Gambia has changed over the years, as our approach to our murder mystery games has changed:

  • The original combat system was much too complicated, and required the players to track “wounds”. If I remember correctly, Mo suggested simplifying it and we threw out the wounds.

  • Death on the Gambia originally had epilogues, which were used as part of the debriefing. At the end of the game each player would decide whether they had been successful or not (it was up to them to judge) and based on that they received either a “success” or a “failure” epilogue card, which they would then read out. (Epilogues made it into our second game, Curse of the Pharaoh, but no others. They were too hard to make interesting without being overly repetitive.)

  • Originally, ability cards all came as separate cards – and some of our older games are still formatted this way. They also tended to vary per character, with the result that some characters ended up a bit overpowered. Since then we’ve standardised on three abilities per character.

  • The host originally played the Captain of the Christabel, which didn’t really work out as we discovered that we needed a more neutral character for our games. (The game still contains tips for being both the host and playing the Captain.)

So that’s the story of Death on the Gambia.

Steve Hatherley

What we’re working on right now

Here’s what we’re working on right now.

We’re adding our games to Amazon and you can see them here. We’ve started with, and to celebrate we’ve knocked 20% off the price until the end of October. It hasn’t been plain sailing, and Mo has been wrestling with getting everything lined up properly. Once we’ve got sorted (and with it and then we’ll get going. Update – actually, we’ve had to take everything down from Amazon, alas.

The Speakeasy Slaughter, our upcoming 1920’s Prohibition game for 15 to 32 guests, is making progress. Our playtest in London didn’t happen in September as originally planned, but we’re still hoping to get another playtest in later this year. We’ve provided a wealth of comments that author Becky Channon (who previously wrote A Heroic Death) is working on. Expect to see The Speakeasy Slaughter some time in 2014.

Following hard on the heels of The Speakeasy Slaughter is Death on the Rocks, by Jessica Andrews, and is just entering its first playtest.

All at Sea

All at Sea

Steve is revising All at Sea, one of our older games. We’re making cosmetic changes to bring it up to our current standards (so character booklets for everyone) and tweaking a few of the characters to make them more fun to play.

And after this? We’ve got plenty more to keep us busy!

Steve Hatherley

Halloween parties with Freeform Games

It’s mid-September and we’re already thinking about Halloween, just a few weeks away now.Halloween

We’ve got two Halloween-themed party games. The first is Halloween Lies, which is a Halloween-themed version of Hollywood Lies. (The two games are basically the same – just the setting has changed. So if you’ve played Hollywood Lies, you’ve already played Halloween Lies.)

Our other Halloween game is Trick or Treat, which is very different. Trick or Treat is more of a traditional party game – there are no murders. All the players are grouped into teams (monster gangs) and have various spooky-themed challenges: there’s a treasure hunt, a pin-the-wart-on-the-witch contest, a competition to create the best scarecrow, and more. Teams can also create potions with strange effects – such as turning someone into a frog.

In order to succeed, the monster gangs must trade information and items with each other to win. Prizes for the contests can be either treats (we used sweets when we first tested the game) or tricks (which are random, and may be good news or bad).

Trick or Treat takes about 30 minutes to play (and so with briefing and handing out prizes allow for about an hour) which makes it ideal as part of a larger Halloween party.

We’ve written Trick or Treat so that it can be played by children as young as about eight (or even younger if they have a bit of adult help), but it’s suitable for all ages. Certainly when we first tested it we played it with adults.

This year we thought we’d create a Halloween Bundle – so we’ve bundled Halloween Lies and Trick or Treat together, and knocked 50% of the price off. (So yes, this means that you can get Halloween Lies for £5 less than it normally is, and get Trick or Treat thrown in as well!)

So celebrate Halloween this year with our Halloween Bundle.

Steve Hatherley

Raise money for charity with Freeform Games

We’re always very happy for our games to be used to raise money for charity. While we have commercial licences available for people who want to run our games commercially, if you want to run one for charity, here’s what you have to do:

  1. Buy a game from us. We suggest that you pick one of our larger games such as All at Sea, Casino Fatale or Hollywood Lies. That way you can maximise the number of guests you invite and therefore how much money you raise.

  2. Let us know that you’re using our game to raise money for charity – all we ask is that you mention our name in your publicity. We’ll also add your event to our site.

  3. And that’s it!

Way out West

Choose a game with lots of characters to raise as much money as possible!

If you’re not sure whether one of our games will work for you, then download our free version of Way out West. You’ll get a good idea of how our games work and whether they are suitable for your fundraising event. (The free version of Way out West probably won’t be big enough for  you though.) This is what Vicki, one of customers did:

“Thank you for allowing us to read Way out West. Our non-profit is wanting to host a game like yours but since I have never attended one and have NO IDEA how they work, I was thrilled to be able to actually read and understand the mechanics of running such a game. I have put this off for years because I could not discover how it is actually organized and carried out. Now I know and we will be choosing one of your games for our fund-raiser in September. SO EXCITED!! Thank you!!”

Here are a few suggestions for raising money with our games:

  • Take plenty of time: While your friends may forgive you the odd mistake, when you have paying guests then you need to take a bit more care. So make sure that you thoroughly understand the game (and maybe try out the mechanics first). You’ll probably also want one or two co-hosts to make sure the evening goes smoothly.

  • Finger food or sit-down dinner: We always recommend finger food for our games, because it allows your guests to eat while continuing to mingle and play the game. However, for a charity event you might want to create a special meal – in which case we suggest that you schedule plenty of time for the meal and the game.

  • Raise as much money as you can: Some of our games include opportunities to raise a bit of extra money within the game. For example, in Hollywood Lies the players can use money to increase the likelihood of their movie winning. You could allow the players to use real-life money (to charity of course) to increase the chances of their movie winning! (We wouldn’t normally recommend doing this – but it’s in a good cause!)

  • Have plenty of prizes: End the evening on a high by awarding plenty of prizes – best costume, most outrageous accent, best actor, funniest moment…

When you’ve hosted your event, please tell us about it, either here or on Facebook.

Steve Hatherley

Shape Up!

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

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

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

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

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

Introverts and our murder mystery games

I’ve just finished the excellent book Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking by Susan Cain. In it, Cain outlines the differences between introverts and extroverts and how society (American society in particular) values extroverts over their quieter brethren.

A couple of characters from The Karma Club

Introverts and extroverts enjoying The Karma Club

Now, I’m an introvert and so I found myself agreeing with much of the book. But I also found myself reflecting on introverts and our murder mystery games. Surely as in introvert I should hate our interactive murder mystery games? Maybe not.

I don’t particularly enjoy parties. As an introvert I find myself stuck for things to say – I’m hopeless at small talk with strangers. And I don’t particularly like large groups. So at a party I inevitably end up finding one or two people to talk to in depth – and then I worry that I’m monopolising all their attention. (Shyness and a dose of guilt – that’s very traditional introvert behaviour.)

However, I love playing in one of our murder mystery games. I have no problem talking to complete strangers in one of our games – it’s as if the very nature of our games (a fake situation, everyone has goals and objectives) removes my awkwardness.

In my view, the key to this is that I don’t have to make small talk in a Freeform Games murder mystery. We make sure that each character knows something interesting about two or three or four other characters – enough to start a conversation with someone else. So instead of making small talk, I’m either trying to find out something or I’m sharing information that I already know.

I’m not sure our games are suitable for all introverts – if you’re painfully shy you might never enjoy our games. But here are some thoughts on casting extroverts and introverts:

  • Introverts often suit characters that other people will seek out. I remember (inadvertently) casting an very shy person in the role of one of the producers in Hollywood Lies – and they found that the actors, screenwriters and directors were seeking them out because they wanted to appear in their movie.

  • I would tend not to cast an introvert in a role that required a lot of announcements or public speaking. Detectives and private investigators tend to suit extroverts because they require the player to meet with everyone – and they often have a solution to read out at the end of the party.

  • Allow time to wind down afterwards. I find our murder mystery games quite exhausting (both when I’m hosting and when I’m playing), and I need a bit time after the game to wind down.

  • Remember that everyone is different – you may know introverts that are happy to speak in public, so please note that these are guidelines only.

You can take the quiet quiz here and find out whether you’re an introvert or not.

Steve Hatherley

Where did the name “Freeform Games” come from?


This is another weekend freeform – Sharp and Sensibility where I played the British Prime Minister who, as well as running the country, had to deal with his demanding daughter and her friends.

In the UK and Australia, the games became known as “freeforms” whilst in the USA they became known as “theater-style larps”. They are often run at games conventions.

Freeforms/theater style larps involve giving players prewritten characters in a setting designed to create lots of conflict. After I played my first freeform in 1992, I realised that if you removed the genre trappings (most freeforms are steeped in fantasy/SF/horror) then you could create a game that anyone could play and enjoy.

Thus Mo and I started Freeform Games, and started bring freeform-style murder mystery parties to the Internet.

The main differences between a Freeform Games freeform and the freeforms run at games conventions are:

  • We provide detailed instructions for our hosts as we appreciate that our game might be the first time they have tried this sort of thing.

  • Freeforms at games conventions are often steeped in the fantasy or SF genres – it’s not unusual to be playing a vampire or a spaceman or even a vampire spaceman. We try to keep our games fixed in the real world. (Although we have made a couple of exceptions, such as Spellbound and A Heroic Death.)

  • We also ensure that our murder mystery games are fairly simple and take no longer than about three hours to play – other freeforms can be quite elaborate and involve dozens of players and take an entire weekend (see my post on The King’s Musketeers).

So when Mo and I talked about starting a business bringing murder-mystery style freeforms to the Internet, “Freeform Games” just seemed to be perfect.

There are perhaps two downsides to calling ourselves Freeform Games. The first is that the name itself doesn’t mean anything very much, particularly if you aren’t involved in freeforming. Second, and probably more importantly, it’s not a particularly good name from Google’s perspective, as it doesn’t contain the words “murder mystery”.

Despite those two drawbacks, I can’t imagine being called anything other than Freeform Games. It suits us just right.

Steve Hatherley