Seasonal tiredness

There are so many things I'd like to be doing right now but don't have the energy.

I've got board game prototypes under development that I really want to be making new versions of and playtesting. There's one which had a publisher interested, and they wanted me to take a "final" version to show them at UK Games Expo at the start of June; I'm feeling that it's pretty unlikely to get the game into anything approaching a "final" state by then because I've just not had energy to work on it.

There are several other game prototypes in rather earlier states of development I've also had no energy to work on. There are other creative projects too, especially my webapp Multiverse on which I've done barely any development in the past year or two.

And I'd like to be blogging quite a bit more as well! I post depressingly rarely on here, given how much stuff I do and find interesting.

What strikes me about this tiredness is that I had something rather similar last year. In both cases it started around late winter, maybe December, and I had very little energy all through spring and until June or so. Which rather suggests to me that it might be something seasonally affective.

It's very frustrating being low in energy, as woodpijn well knows, much better than I do; she's had her frustrating fatigue for a lot longer than I have and hers doesn't seem to let up in the summer. woodpijn has tried a number of potential remedies over the years. One she hasn't tried is lightboxes, which seem to be one of the standard recommended treatments for seasonal affective disorder. I guess I may be getting one of those, and who knows, maybe it'll help with her fatigue too.

One-Man Nativity

Whew. Today I gave the longest kids' talk I've ever given, although there weren't any kids in the audience!

For a long time I've been doing "children's talks" at our church Eden Baptist, which is a fun challenge that I've quite grown into: the idea there is that someone stands up in the morning service and gives a short 3-5 minute talk, mainly aimed at the primary-school-age children in the audience, but with awareness that the whole congregation of 300-400 is listening. So it's usually quite visual, quite dramatic, some quite silly analogies being made, that kind of thing.

Well, I got asked by a member of church who'd seen me doing these talks whether I'd be able to give a Christmas presentation at the charity she works at, which is a day centre for adults with learning disabilities or other special needs. The brief was for a talk with the same kind of accessibility level as if it were aimed at kids age 3-4; but I was invited to talk for up to an hour! That's wayy longer than I've given a children's presentation before, at least this kind of up-front stage talk. I've led Sunday school lessons for that duration before, but that's sitting with a class and the freedom to do games, crafts etc. This was more of a storytelling focus. I was invited to tell the biblical Nativity story, taking as long as I wanted over it.

So for the past couple of weeks I've been preparing a script. I've been pulling material from a few places, especially a Christmas assembly script that a friend of Rachael's wrote and has performed several times. Given the target age range I knew I'd need to keep any individual section short and dynamic, and keep mixing things up to keep attention. The script outline I ended up with was:

  • Opening talk about Christmas presents
  • Mary and the Angel (using a repeated refrain line "Mary, Mary, don't be afraid, God has a special plan for you!")
  • The Journey to Bethlehem (short, focusing on the donkey's POV)
  • Song: Little Donkey
  • No Room at the Inn (getting the audience to help me make knocking sounds as Mary & Joseph visit each inn; lots of varied voices for different innkeepers)
  • Poem: As a Baby Jesus Came
  • Retired Shepherd (quick costume change; monologue from a nostalgic retired shepherd reminiscing in a broad country accent)
  • Song: Go Tell It On The Mountain (lots of hand clapping rhythm)
  • Interview with a Camel (glove puppet camel, speaking with a very posh, proud, self-important voice)
  • Closing Thoughts & Prayer

So, how did it go?
Overall, it went pretty well! The accessibility level was pitched about right. The audience varied in their levels of comprehension, but I think they mostly understood, and nobody felt talked down to or patronised. The camel puppet (which I'd borrowed from the church children's worker and it was my first time using) was a big hit, even though he kept slipping off my hand.

The one thing I deliberately did differently to how I'd give a show to actual 4-year-olds was that I included several little "application moments" where I just spent a couple of sentences talking about how some aspect of the story shows something of God's character and how God wants to relate to us today. That seemed to be a good choice - the audience seemed to understand and engage with those bits at least as well as they did the rest of the show.

On the negative side: I really should have learned the songs better, as I fumbled the words a bit and found it very hard to keep the clapping rhythm going through the verses of Go Tell It On The Mountain. My Bluetooth speaker was rather quieter than it's been before - I suspect it's running out of battery. And I had a sore throat so I needed to stop for water a few times. It seems I was really nervous because I was sweating a lot in the second half of the presentation.

But despite all that, it went well. The staff at the centre were very grateful to me and repeatedly said it had gone very well. They asked if I'd ever done anything like that before, to which the truthful answer is no, not really, but I've done a few things vaguely similar that helped me know the kind of techniques and presentation style to use.

Ultimately the glory went to God, which is exactly how I'd want it :)

Steam Works at Essen

I went to Essen!

My game SteamWorks was released at the start of October, and so I went to Essen Spiel, the world's biggest board game convention, which ran from Thursday 8th to Sunday 11th October. I spent 4 days doing basically nothing except play demo games of SteamWorks all day long, and the reaction was extremely gratifying. More than half the time, at least one of the players immediately wanted to buy a copy of the game. And when people left the demo game without buying it, in many cases they'd come back later or the next day to buy a copy later. Most of the time when a demo game finished and the players stood up, within 1-2 minutes there were another group of 2-4 people wanting to play!

The Steam Works booth set up before the convention starts, and me teaching people the game

It was so busy that I didn't have much time to go around the fair myself to try out other games, but that's okay. Since I travelled on the train I didn't want to be carrying a huge amount of games back, and I did a few quick purchases on the Thursday morning.

The publisher I've been working with, Tasty Minstrel Games, didn't have their own stall at the con, so I was responsible myself for arranging everything like stall booking, hiring tables and chairs, making the banner poster for the wall behind me, and so on. It was the first time I've ever done something like this, and given that, I think it went pretty well!

For the Friday and Saturday of the con, I did take the opportunity to dress up in my steampunk outfit, closely modelled on Professor Lucius Fitzgerald from the game:

I went out there as part of a big group of British board game designers, who mostly all had booths right next to each other. This led to a great feeling of camaraderie. It turned out that just across the aisle from me were the Ragnar Brothers, who always attend conventions in top hats, so we took the opportunity to have a waistcoats-and-top-hats photo:

So what are my conclusions after four days of playing Steam Works all day? Well, I still love the game, which is a good sign :) I've learned quite a bit about how to demo it, what kinds of gestures and turns of phrase are most likely to help people understand. I've learned that it's going to normally be best to tell people we're only going to play about two-thirds of a game, stopping one or two rounds into Age II. This has a few advantages: it's enough of the game that players get a feel for how things work, and get to see some larger devices on the table, but I get to go through more demo games in a day; and it can also leave players feeling like they want to see the game through to its end, which makes them more likely to buy a copy :)

I started the convention with 72 copies of the game stacked all around me at my booth (you can see them in the first photo). I'd sold 60 of those by the end of the four days, which meant I was able to pay my hotel bill of several hundred Euros in cash, which felt quite amusing. Excitingly, I got my first royalty cheque a couple of weeks afterwards. It's a curious feeling that this thing that I started just as a hobby has started to make money for me!

Steam Works

I made a game!

My game Steam Works really exists! Not very many copies of it exist at the moment, and probably only one on this side of the Atlantic. But it exists!

Me posing with my first copy of the game

A few dozen copies were being sold by the publisher, Tasty Minstrel Games, at GenCon a couple of weeks ago. They all sold out in the first day, which is rather exciting :) The very first copy was opened on livestream on the internet, and then posted to me. (Come and play it at our house!) But the main print run is being manufactured/shipped at the moment and will be on sale in October.

So only a small number of people have copies of the game at the moment. It's still not got any reviews posted on BoardGameGeek, but this session report and this video blog post are quite complimentary so I'm looking forward to seeing the reviews trickle in!

If you're interested, the thing I'd most like for you to do is ask your Friendly Local Games Store to get some stock of the game in :) That way some copies get onto shelves and exposed to more people. Unless you're in Cambridge, in which case I've got the local shops here covered and you will be able to buy a copy of the game either from them or directly from me!

My games in development

I'm having a day off for my birthday! So I thought I'd follow Seth Jaffee's example and list the current state of my board games. (As with Seth's post, some of the details here are more notes to myself than expected to make sense if you haven't played the game.)

Steam Works

Steam Works, of course, is getting published by Tasty Minstrel Games :D The artwork and rulebook are done, and the game is in manufacturing, and on track for release at Essen this October. The cover artwork was made public a week or two ago, and it's awesome! (Click for larger version)

Now, on to games at a much less advanced stage of development.

Space Dogsbody

This game is sadly retired. There was a publisher interested a couple of years ago, but they went out of business, and in the meantime I was becoming increasingly aware of a number of problems with Space Dogsbody: 1) The flavour is very sardonic / comic, but the gameplay is rather cutthroat tactical manoeuvring. A game with SD's flavour ought to have gameplay to match. 2) The rewards for the different reputation tracks were too explosive. It was all about who managed to make their score explode first. 3) The different reputation tracks didn't all work. The Hacker track and Freelancer track worked nicely, but the Merchant track encouraged a very boring style of play, and the Sheriff track was a bit too all-or-nothing even having added Explosives.

Nonetheless, it had a bunch of nice mechanics to it - particularly the way the pirates move around threatening all players but in a predictable way somewhat under the players' control - and I'm certainly looking to reuse aspects from Space Dogsbody in other games.

Castles in the Air

This is a game I started working on almost ten years ago. It's got a fun flavour and pleasing mechanics. Here's some of the current prototype tiles to give you a feel for it:

The state of the game seven-ish years ago was that it was fun but seemed to be lacking something, so got abandoned. Having worked on a number of games since then, this year I decided to revisit it with my more experienced game designer's eye to see if I could find what that missing part might be. I tried replacing gems with treasure cards in hand, each of which could be "spent" (but you still score for it) to gain some oneoff ability. That didn't work very well - the cards were mostly somewhat situational effects, which meant people didn't spend them as fast as they gained them, leaving players towards the end of the game with lots and lots of not-very-useful options and a lot of AP - so that's been quickly reverted. I've had a plan for adding some special rooms to the castle where players can trade gems for special powers, but haven't had much energy to actually implement this and try it out.

Airship Investment

I had high hopes for this one, but it doesn't seem to be working. The core mechanic is that players have several actions they can take, which each start off very expensive (in Action Point cost), but one of the actions is "Investment" which reduces the AP cost of any other action (to a minimum of 1). I tried to come up with a suite of actions all of which could plausibly be in any of the categories "never do it all game", "do it once or twice", or "invest in it heavily then do it lots". I also tried to make it that no one action was able to stand alone and be the only thing you do once you get it down to costing 1 AP, but that you'd need to balance or mostly alternate two or more. But basically that mechanic seems to inevitably result in meaning that players look for some combination of upgrades or effects that let them "go off" with one particular action down to 1AP. That wasn't really what I was going for, so this one is on the back burner for now.

Empire Builder

A game about gathering resources and building structures, to fulfil certain missions, some of which are shared by all players and others of which are in a player's hand at the start of the game. You do this by using cards from your council of five underlings, each of whom can be used each turn either for their ability to gain resources or build, or can supply you with cash to hire new underlings (but you only ever have five available on any one turn).

This one seems to have potential. The idea of using each of your cards either for their effect or for buying a new card seems good; the costs of the different resources and the relative achievability of the mission cards seems good. Players mostly keep pace with scoring each mission the same number of times as each other, but with enough variation that there's not much risk of tied scores, and players feel good for spotting ways to score an extra mission here or there. Letting each mission card be scored in precisely two scoring rounds works very well. Current problems include that players really aren't doing much blocking of each other, mostly just parcelling out the board into the territory each of us is interested in because of our particular mission cards; nobody wants to buy the advanced underlings as it seems better to just spend rounds 5-10 building structures; and if you "run out" of missions your final couple of rounds are distinctly boring.

Things to try next time I look at this: One big theme is increasing competition/interaction. To that end: Some mission cards that explicitly encourage you to be touching opponents' buildings. Also some ways to "jump" away from your existing territory and some missions for disconnected groups. More missions that mention the same terrain as each other to increase competition. Special contested resource spots on the board which several underlings refer to / count, including one of the starting underlings, but you're not allowed to start actually on them. Plus miscellaneous other ways to encourage players to get in each other's way.
Other changes I'm considering: Make the later underling cards cheaper and/or give you a benefit the turn you buy them. Rework the system whereby you need to buy an otherwise-suboptimal underling who makes crystal to have any chance of buying the magic users - I'm thinking perhaps several of the otherwise-useful underlings also have an inefficient way to make crystal.

Vaguer ideas

I've got a few other ideas which haven't even made it to a first playtest yet. A few months back I was having a play with and it offered the intriguing suggestion of an Ancient Rome area-control game where you achieve victory by "Helping the Most Players". I've done some thinking about what this could mean but not actually got as far as making a prototype yet.

Similarly an idea about spies transmitting data through cyberspace, which would have two boards - one for your location in meatspace and one in cyberspace. The players would have to keep moving to avoid detection, and need to have "conversations" with each other to communicate certain key data, but risk also giving away other secrets they didn't intend to.

And there's a game in early development where I love the theme but I don't want to mention it here yet :) Players will be drafting cards for assistants to help them with their tasks, and be spending favour with authorities to try to get missions that suit their particular combination of abilities. I'm rather enjoying making plans for this one but it'll be a while before it's ready to playtest.


Many of you will know that for a number of years now, Rachael's been struggling with tiredness. It'll go up and down, so she'll have a period of some months where she's got a reasonable amount of energy, and then a period of some months where she's exhausted most of the time.

Distressingly, for the past few months I've been experiencing something very similar. Since about January I've been feeling far more exhausted and sleepy than I used to.

A few years ago (2010-ish), I'd happily stay up until midnight most nights (without any ill effects), and 2am sometimes (but too often and I'd feel zonked the next couple of days).
A year or two ago, I'd happily stay up until 10pm most nights (without any ill effects) and midnight sometimes (but more than once in a row and I'd feel zonked the next couple of days).
The past few months, I've been having to go to bed around 9pm to get enough sleep; staying up till 10pm leaves me feeling zonked the next couple of days.

I'm finding myself having much less creative energy - much fewer times when I sit down and think "Right, I'm going to [work on a game design / work on a programming project] now". Now I've noticed before that my levels of creative energy wax and wane, and I have periods when I've not got the energy to be doing anything much creative for a couple of months. That kind of peak-and-trough seems natural, but it doesn't normally last 5 months, nor does it normally come alongside the levels of exhaustion and tiredness that I'm experiencing at the moment.

Bizarrely, this extended period of tiredness on my part more or less correlates with having two children who sleep through the night! I'd been rather looking forward to regaining uninterrupted nights' sleep for a lot of the autumn and winter, but if anything I seem to have been rather more drained now that Zoe's sleeping through without waking. (She is still getting up at 6am, so usually one or other of me and Rachael will get up with her then, let the other have an extra hour in bed, and then the one of us who got up early will swap and go back to bed for an hour.)

Possible causes that I've wondered about:

  • My body collapsing in relief now that the girls are both sleeping through the night. If I've had a busy and demanding weekend, when I get home from it I'll frequently crash and want to just flop (that's fairly normal, right?) This could perhaps be a longer-scale version of that.
  • Stresses around board game publishing. Most of the spring was spent in discussions around the Steam Works artwork and rulebook, and there was a certain amount of stress caused by deadlines, miscommunications, different expectations, and so on. The game will still be awesome when it comes out, but the process of making it so was somewhat demanding. That aspect of things finished a few weeks ago, so if it was the cause to this exhaustion I'd hope I should be recovering from it fairly soon.
  • "Catching" whatever it is that Rachael's "got". This doesn't seem very likely, as I've spent an awful lot of time with Rachael for quite a number of years, and only in this past year started to feel this kind of tiredness. There's also been no evidence that Rachael's tiredness is "catching" in any other way.

Diversity in Magic: the Gathering

It's interesting to see how diverse characters in Magic: the Gathering have become recently.

MtG has been decently diverse for a long time. For a long time they've been consistent about having equal representation for male and female characters, including leaders, protagonists, villains, and miscellaneous cool characters of many kinds. Way back in 1996 they had a bunch of sympathetic dark-skinned characters, including Teferi.

But in the past two years, in addition to that, we've had:

The introductory articles for Alesha and Narset are well done, introducing us to the character as a whole, with all their circumstances and traits, not making a big deal of the "representative diversity" in a tokenistic tickybox way, but rather letting it be present as one of many characteristics that make up each character.

Julian Huppert

Cambridge is a remarkably strategic location for the coming general election.

Our First Past The Post system means that, for lots of people, their vote accomplishes very little. If you live in a safe seat, you might feel your vote is wasted[1]. On the other hand, here in Cambridge, it's as close as they come. The Lib Dems and Labour are polling neck-and-neck: one poll shows Labour ahead by 1%, another the Lib Dems by 1%.

Not only that, but the Lib Dem candidate up for re-election is Julian Huppert. I don't know how much you know about what Julian has done in the past five years, but I've been following him on They Work For You and have been extremely impressed.

  • He's one of the very few scientists in Parliament

  • He's far more technologically literate than most MPs and actually understands normal use cases for the Internet

  • He's very active in Parliament. Often when I hear about an Early Day Motion or similar that I'd like to contact him to ask him to sign, when I look at the current list of signatories he's already signed it

  • He has been involved in a number of committees and boards including the Home Affairs Select Committee

  • He stands by his principles and promises. He voted against assorted government policies such as the tuition fee increase.

  • His expenses have been scrupulously clean each time they've been checked

  • He was deemed most influential Lib Dem backbencher and Internet Hero of the year

  • He's been active on a number of Cambridge-specific campaigns, most recently securing a marked increase in Cambridgeshire school funding

  • Just reading the Hansard reports of his participation in parliamentary debates, he's consistently a voice for reason and evidence-based policy (to the point where other MPs jeer and boo him for it), and frequently asks astute questions of senior front benchers (and usually gets very poor answers)

I rather naively wrote five years ago that "Julian Huppert [was] untested". That wasn't true even at the time (he'd served on the Cambridge council for years), but is much further from true now. He's been tested and found excellent.

So in Cambridge, our votes count for far more than most locations. Not only does every vote for Julian or Labour make a difference, but the potential gain or loss is higher than in most places: Julian has been a force for good, a force for sanity, in Parliament.

So what should you do?

If you don't like Lib Dems: I'd encourage you to check out Julian's record. He voted against the Coalition government on several key issues such as tuition fees, detention without charge and military action in Syria.

If you think it'd be good to get Julian re-elected: Obviously, if you live in Cambridge, be sure to get out and vote on Thursday 7th May! But there's lots more to do than that. There are plenty of ways to contribute to Julian's campaign.
And if you're planning to help, earlier is better. There are less than 60 days left until polling day!

In particular: tell other people to vote as well. There's a lot of disillusionment with politics and politicians at the moment. Having watched him for the past five years, Julian really is different. It'd be a crying shame if he didn't get re-elected because our friends and friends-of-friends didn't bother to get out and vote.

Edit: See also "Every professional scientist in the UK should be hoping that the city of Cambridge returns Dr Julian Huppert as its MP in May".

[1]: Even in a safe seat, votes aren't really wasted. It's not going to make any difference to who becomes MP, but it does still get added up for total support figures. If nothing else, it helps demonstrate how FPTP is broken. And what's a safe seat and what isn't does change over time: seats that were safe ten or twenty years ago are hotly contested now.

Shuffle meme

I keep thinking I'd like to post to LJ more. I've been really tired recently (for similar reasons to woodpijn), and always seem to be busy. I was considering doing a February or March Post-Every-Day thing and ask you all to suggest topics I should post on, as a way to force myself back into posting. But, as with all the other LJ posts I've considered making, I haven't got around to it...

But anyway. cartesiandaemon posted the Shuffle meme, which looks both fun and straightforward. Therefore, I shall participate.

The algorithm, as I understand it:

  1. Take the list of items from the place you saw it
  2. Remove one of them
  3. Sort the remainder in order of how much you like them (defined as you wish)
  4. Add one new item at the top, one new item at the bottom, and one somewhere in the middle.

The result of that algorithm has ended up as:

The Gospel of John
Climbing trees
Stuffed Dinosaurs
Undercooked Aubergine
Cycling in the rain

My order is fairly similar to Jack's. Undercooked aubergine is annoying both because it's hard to eat and not very pleasant to do so, but also because it's a waste of aubergine that could have been really yummy were it cooked properly! I do visit Twitter occasionally, but I'm not at all clear that its existence is a net positive for the world, whereas cuddly toys are clearly nice. I don't feel very strongly about either Twitter or stuffed dinosaurs, though, so it would have been simultaneously tricky and boring to choose something sufficiently in-between... so instead we have the simple pleasure of climbing trees :) Maths is obviously really awesome, sufficiently so that I had to pull out some pretty big guns to get above it! But given the idea of this is things will shuffle around, I decided to choose one that'll be slightly controversial, or at least likely to not get stuck at the top of everyone's list.