Category Archives: General

General posts about Freeform Games

Playtesting Death on the Rocks

IMG_6111Back on 20th July we ran a playtest of our new game Death on the Rocks, in London.

Playtesting is an important part of our development process. However well a murder mystery game’s been written and edited, it can’t be considered finished until it’s been thoroughly tested.

We call it ‘playtesting’ because it takes the form of playing through the game in the normal sort of way that you would if you’d bought it yourself. We aim to make it as close as possible to what your experience is going to be like! The only difference is that afterwards, we ask the guests a bunch of questions about how it went for them.

Testing, testing…

Our usual preferred pattern is to run at least three playtests, once the game is complete in draft.

  • First, the author of the game playtests it themselves, on their own family and friends. This will reveal any elements that basically don’t work, or serious timing issues, or where something important isn’t being communicated properly to the player.
  • Second, once all those things have been fixed, we run a playtest ourselves; using experienced players who can be relied upon to identify inconsistencies, imbalance, characters without enough to do, characters for whom the game starts or finishes too quickly or slowly, and if there are any subtle problems with any new rules or bits of system that we’ve introduced for this game.
  • Finally, once all that’s been sorted out, we send the game out to a new host who’s never seen it before, and they run a party for their guests exactly as if they’d just bought the game. This is particularly helpful for exposing any parts of the host’s instructions that aren’t explained clearly, and also for how well the game works when there are less than the optimum number of characters. It’s also good for cultural differences: as most of our customers are in the USA, we like to have a US-based host run an eye over the game – particularly if it’s been written by a UK-based author, as most of ours are.

Any or all of these stages will get repeated more than once if there are serious problems that need re-testing after fixing.

So anyway, for Death on the Rocks it was actually a combination of stages one and two. Jessica the author wasn’t able to test the game herself, as she lacked the facilities. So we decided that as it was a pretty straightforward game with no new rules or complications, we would run a test together with her, using our experienced playtesters.

A cellarful of murder

IMG_6183We held the event in the basement room of a pub in central London that we’ve used a few times before for playtests. They know us now, so they’re happy to let the murderous mayhem proceed unabated! We usually use either London or here in Ipswich where we’re based, simply because it’s easier to rustle up 20 or so players for a given date in those places. We would like to run playtests elsewhere too, to spread the love, but it’s been difficult getting enough people together.

We ran the test over a Sunday afternoon, between 2 and 6. Most of our customers’ parties are in the evening, but that’s not quite so convenient when we have to think about last trains back home and so on. Customers’ parties often involve a good deal of drinking, too! – but we prefer to keep that restrained at playtests. The feedback at the end of the game might not be quite so useful otherwise!

How did it go?

Really well! Death on the Rocks is a game that we’ve been working on for quite a while – Jessica actually first came to us with the idea as far back as 2006! – so we were pretty confident that it would work properly. It’s always nice to have that confirmed, though!

Our playtesters gave us some excellent feedback on details that need attention, but generally they were very happy with the characters, with pacing, with how much they had to do, and so on. One general concern was that the murder was too difficult to solve – several of them did identify the murderer correctly, but by suspicion rather than by following the intended clue trail. So we’re going to make the clues a bit more prominent, and spread knowledge of them around a few more people.

IMG_6254 Next up

So those changes are in process now, and in a few weeks we’ll be sending the revised and improved version of the game to our next tester. This is Matthias, who’ll be running his playtest around the end of August–beginning of September. We’re looking forward to hearing what he and his guests make of Death on the Rocks!

Cafe Casablanca from the GM’s perspective

Last year I talked about how Mo and I attended The King’s Musketeers, a weekend long freeform. This year’s weekend game was Cafe Casablanca, and while Mo played Philip Marlowe, I was one of the six “directors” (ie, a host).

Mo as Marlowe

Mo, looking very dapper as Philip Marlowe

Cafe Casablanca is based on Hollywood thrillers and wartime dramas of the ‘30s and ‘40s – particularly those starring Humprey Bogart such as Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep.

Cafe Casablanca is broadly very like one of our games, but much much bigger. To get a sense of how much bigger Cafe Casablanca is…

Cafe Casablanca needed six directors – and we were busy for the entire game.

But that’s not surprising – we had 74 players to manage!

Cafe Casablanca took an entire weekend to play – from Friday evening through to Sunday lunch. I’ve worked out that we generated about 1300 hours of person-hours of entertainment!

I was the “harbour director” and responsible for overseeing all the mischief being done in the harbour. That’s another difference with our games – Cafe Casablanca had very definite locations, from the harbour, to the police headquarters, the Gestapo office, Rick’s Bar and the casbah.

Playing Cafe Casablanca

Cafe Casablanca in full flow

The harbour turned out to be quite an exciting place – I was never bored. I oversaw art robberies, sabotage, salvage operations (there were all sorts of things hiding in the harbour), shark attacks, and even a raid on a battleship!

Character envelopes

74 character envelopes!

It took us hours to complete all the character envelopes for this game – but that’s not surprising given that they contained:

  • A character booklet (typically 8 pages of tiny print)

  • The rules booklet

  • Extra rules for those that needed it, such as the gang wars that were going on in the casbah

  • Complicated name badges containing secret codes and symbols (that some people could read)

  • Abilities, including heart abilities and romantic requests

  • Cards for the the romance mechanic

  • Cards to allow certain shady characters to cheat at gambling.

  • Stickers for the poison and pickpocket rules

  • Contingency envelopes

  • Lots of items, including some with props, such as passports.

It was interesting to see how things have developed over the last few years. Cafe Casablanca was originally written over 20 years ago, and I’d do some things differently these days. For example, it wasn’t particularly easy to prepare. We provide a guide for preparing character envelopes in our instructions, but there was no such thing for Cafe Casablanca – there were various documents here and there, but no master.

But then I doubt Cafe Casablanca was ever written with the intention of being regularly re-run, so making that sort of thing easy probably wasn’t high on their agenda. We make our games as easy to prepare as we can because we hope they are going to be played many times!

Anyway, next year’s weekend long freeform is Lullaby of Broadway, which is inspired by Broadway musicals. And I’m going to be playing again.

Steve Hatherley

2013 in review

So how was 2013 for Freeform Games?

Actually, it wasn’t great. Sales were down by about 20% in 2013 compared to 2012. In fact, it was our worst year since 2005. Ouch! Affiliate sales were particularly badly hit and were down about 40%.

We believe that much of this is thanks to Google’s latest algorithm updates. Over the last couple of years Google has been “improving” the quality of its search results, and it has been targetting spammy websites and other “black hat” search engine tricks. We’ve not employed any black-hat tricks, but we think we’ve been caught in the wash.

So we’re trying to improve our website (you’ve probably seen the redesign), both from our visitors’ perspective, and Google’s. And as Facebook becomes more important, we’re being more active on Facebook. But we’ve still got a lot to learn.Way out West - one of our top selling games of 2013

Highlights of 2013

  • Our stalwarts continue to sell well – Casino Fatale, Way out West, Hollywood Lies. Pirates seem to have lost their lustre; A Dead Man’s Chest used to be one of our more popular games, but appears to have fallen from favour. We need Disney to reinvigorate Pirates of the Caribbean!

  • We published one new game, Lord and Lady Westing’s Will in 2013.

  • We’ve continued our Facebook page, and I think we’re starting to get the hang of it now. We see Facebook as a place where you can contact us easily, and where we can ask questions and post things that interest us that we think might interest you.

  • We started this blog! And we’ve posted over thirty times – roughly once a fortnight. We see this blog as an opportunity to talk about our games in a bit more detail than on Facebook.

  • We also now sell games in multiple currencies – US $ and Euros as well as good old pounds, shillings and pence. So now if you are buying our games from the USA or Europe, you know exactly how much you’ll be paying.

Things we should do better

  • Playtests – we didn’t run any playtests ourselves in 2013, partly because A Speakeasy Slaughter wasn’t quite ready. But we did commission three that others ran for us – two of Murder on the Dancefloor and one of A Speakeasy Slaughter.

  • Unlike our Facebook page, our Google+ page isn’t anywhere near as popular. Google+ is a different audience – we probably need to think about how we make the best use of G+, instead of simply reposting everything that we post on Facebook.

  • Pinterest – we’re on Pinterest, but not really so that you’d know it.  We need to do better.

  • Twitter – we have a Twitter feed, which currently echoes our Facebook page. But it’s another way that you can get in touch with us.

Looking forward into 2014

  • First priority has to be to get the website into healthier place. We need to get it re-liked by Google, and we also need to make sure it’s visitor-friendly.Playing Casino Fatale

  • We are hoping to publish two games in 2014: Murder on the Dancefloor and A Speakeasy Slaughter. We might also get Death on the Rocks out as well.

  • We’ll update All at Sea, bringing it into line with our recent games.

  • Mo and I may get together one weekend to see if we can write a game together, a bit like Peaky. If that’s a success, we’ll do more of them and that may mean we can publish more games each year.

  • And we’d love to hear from you – what do you think we should be doing in 2014? Or what should we stop doing?

Why do we have a separate host for our murder mystery games?

Our murder mystery games are different from many others in many ways, one of which is that our games need a dedicated host. Instead of playing a detective or a suspect along with everyone else, our hosts oversee play and coordinate events and the rules.

 

The Karma Club

Things get tense at The Karma Club

I know that some people would like to be able to host their game and play in it, but our games really do need a separate host. We didn’t have to write them that way – so why did we?

With our background in tabletop roleplaying games, it was perhaps inevitable that Mo and I would write games that require a “gamesmaster” role in our games. But that’s because the kind of games and events that we want to write about require such a thing. They can’t easily be done without a dedicated host.

So here, in no particular order, are just some of the reasons our games require a dedicated host:

  • There’s no need to worry about inadvertently reading a game secret when you print out the game. If the host is also a player, then they have to be very careful about what they read, just in case they find out the identity or the murderer or some other piece of key information. (And that’s assuming they resist the temptation to cheat.)

  • A dedicated host allows us to introduce rules that require a neutral referee, such as combat and pickpocketing. If we didn’t have a neutral referee we wouldn’t include these rules.

  • It’s easier to cast your players if you can see the characters first. The host usually knows most of the players, and can cast accordingly.

  • A host can focus on making sure that the party is an overall success, and won’t be distracted by trying to achieve their in-character objectives.

  • They can adjudicate on any of the wild and wacky ideas that the players may dream up. This is perhaps one of the most important roles of the host, as our murder mystery games give the players considerable flexibility in how they achieve their goals. Instead of endless, overly complicated rules, the host oversees the game and adjudicates on player requests to ensure that everyone has a good time.

Having said all that, we’ve written before with tips for playing a character and being the host.

But if you want to both host and play our games, then the best solution may be to host one game, and then get a friend to host the next.

Steve Hatherley

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 eatingwell.com 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 amazon.co.uk (which also covers .fr, .de, .it and .es), and on amazon.com, 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 amazon.co.uk 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 amazon.com 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 amazon.co.uk 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 amazon.co.uk 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 amazon.com (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 amazon.co.uk, 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 amazon.co.uk sorted (and with it amazon.de and amazon.fr) then we’ll get amazon.com 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