Category Archives: General

General posts about Freeform Games

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

Using props

Using props in Who Shot the Sheriff

What’s in the yellow bottle?

While we provide item cards for all the key items in our murder mystery games, you can create a better atmosphere if you replace the cards with real props. There’s an obvious practical reason we use item cards in our downloads as opposed to physical props, but there are other issues with using real props that we’re going to explore here.

One of the problems with using real props instead of cards is that they can become confused with ‘costume props’ (those that your guests have brought along as part of their costume) and scenery.

For example, a couple of our games include notebooks containing key information as items. If you provide your guests with notebooks and pencils for them to take notes, then also providing the items as props presents a potential source of confusion.

One way around this is to attach the game item card to the appropriate prop, perhaps with a luggage label or sticky tape. That way it is clear when something is an in-game item or just part of someone’s costume.

Some items you might not want to re-create as props. Some people are phobic of spiders and snakes, so you might want to think twice about creating props for those if the game has them. (And one or two do!)

Real props can also be awkward to carry around all the time, especially if they are quite bulky and/or heavy. Some of our props have included a box, a record collection, a staff, a roll of material and we certainly wouldn’t want to spend the entire game carrying them around. While we don’t mind burdening characters with all this stuff, we’re more considerate about burdening our players.

Bottle of spiders

A bottle of spiders – perhaps not the best thing to reproduce as a prop

Unlike props, item cards are easy to conceal which means you can keep something hidden that you don’t want others to know about. Most items in our games start out concealed, so you may need to provide character-appropriate baggage for your guests.

There’s a school of thought that suggest that larger items (say weapons such as swords) should always be displayed if they are being carried. We haven’t formally included that in our games because we don’t believe it adds anything significant, but we’re very happy if you would like to implement such a rule. One approach would be to display such items with your namebadge.

Realistically, our characters probably aren’t carrying their items around with them all the time; they would probably hide bulky items somewhere secure until needed. However, our games don’t usually a way of interacting with the environment – there are rarely rooms or cupboards or hiding places. Instead, our item card approach abstracts all that away – but if you want to create the additional complexity then go for it. (In that sense the Pickpocket ability may not be actually stealing something from someone – it’s general theft.)

Steve Hatherley

Customising our murder mystery games

Dazzled to Death re-themed for a Mad Hatter's Tea Party

Dazzled to Death – Mad Hatter’s Tea Party style!

Our games aren’t always perfectly suited to your exact needs. Perhaps you want to set Casino Fatale in the 1920s, or perhaps you want to change the names of the characters in A Dead Man’s Chest to those of your favourite movie. Or perhaps you want to run Curse of the Pharaoh for children and need to rewrite the inappropriate plots.

Some companies won’t let you change their games, or they will charge you a fortune to make those changes themselves. And while we would have to charge for alterations if you wanted us to make them, we have a simpler solution: we’re happy for you to do it.

We’ll let you have the files in MS Word or OpenDocument (.odt) format for you to amend. Here’s how it works:

  1. You buy the game that you’re interested in.
  2. Then, drop us an email asking for the Word files and explaining why you want them. Please include the purchase ID so that we can check that you really have bought the game.
  3. We’ll then email you the files and you can amend them to your heart’s content.

If the changes you’re making are more extensive than simply changing names, we’d love to hear back. That’s partly because we really love hearing about our games are received, but also because we might want to consider whether we want to make those changes to the original game.

Some of the changes that have been made to our games include:

  • Setting Casino Fatale in the 1920s and 1960s, and moving it to Washington DC instead of Paris.

  • Changing Dazzled to Death to a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party theme.

  • Relocating The Spy Who Killed Me to a US Ivy League university rather than Oxbridge.

  • The Night Before Christmas has been customized to be a “who killed the boss” office party setting.

  • Turning A Dead Man’s Chest into a Prohibition-era mobster game!

PS: If you just want to customise your game by adding an extra character, then simply download the template – and see these tips for writing extra characters. If you send the character back to us and we publish it on our site, we’ll give you a free game in return.

Steve Hatherley