Redwell Games founder and lead designer, Tom Lovewell, joins blogger, Neil Bunker, to talk about party games, Kickstarter lessons and wild west shootouts.
Hi Tom, thanks for joining me. Please tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started with Redwell Games
I originally began designing and developing boardgames through my involvement with a tabletop miniatures game called Relics.
Relics was a game designed by Gavin Moorcroft and published by Tor Games. I worked with Gavin during the development of Relics versions 1 and 1.5, contributing to the rules and to ‘fleshing out’ some of the units.
I’m a scientist by profession and for me, game design shares similarities in approach. There’s a process of developing an initial concept (or theory), testing it, then taking your observations and iterating until you have something that seems to work. Following that begins the long slog of playtesting to ensure it really does work.
That part of wargame development is quite involved. There are often many components in a game and each component can have its own ruleset, particularly when they represent units. Its own variation to the overarching rule structure. Each of these variations need playtesting extensively.
There are also errata noticed post publication that need addressing. These are simply a result of the sheer number of gameplay factors and combinations of those factors. Identifying all issues during development becomes very difficult. Often you don’t have the data to identify some errata until the game is released and you start to receive feedback from a wider group of players.
While all this is happening game developers also have many ideas that are not included in the published design. I was no different and when Gavin decided to move Relics to a new publisher, I started to develop these ideas further.
I knew that I wanted to focus on card-based games so I that I could concentrate on making sure the games worked without becoming distracted by the possibilities of variation to the core rules. My first design was called Ka-Zing, which I still have in the back of my mind today. I also had designs for other card games.
The first game I published, through Redwell Games, was my party game, Vote Me.
I chose not to take Vote Me to established publishers, because my time with Relics had taught me that there was a lot about the industry that I didn’t know. I wanted to learn, and I’ve found that the best way to learn is to do.
With that in mind I began working towards the publication of Vote Me, which eventually happened via Kickstarter in 2018
‘Vote Me’ involves public speaking. This can be challenging for many people. What inspired you to use it in a game?
The idea for Vote Me came while I was working at the University of Sheffield English Language School. I was involved with a course that teaches English as a Foreign Language. One of the best ways to learn a language is to speak it and I wanted to help students find opportunities to speak.
The students had a regular board game night so I began to look for a game that would encourage speaking. Many games that involve speaking are fun party games, however, the speaking element is limited to a few words. Maybe a sentence or two. This wasn’t quite enough to help the students improve their English-speaking skills, so I began to develop a game involving more speaking that the students could use during their games’ nights.
A game of Vote Me has players form teams that support fictional political parties – the Blue Butterfly Party, the Orange Jelly Party and so on – and each round all players get to vote on each other’s policies. The team that has the most votes wins the round, and the team which won the most rounds at the end of the game wins.
Each round a player from each team will present a policy during a one-minute speech. The specific theme and policy under debate are determined by cards and will see players deliver their Party view on, for example, the health of plants or taxing the weather. It can be as silly or as serious a game as players want to make it.
Six Gun Showdown was your next published game. It combines memory elements with real time reaction. What led to this combination?
When I began demoing Vote Me at conventions, I noticed that feedback varied depending on the convention. At some, the reception was fantastic. At others, I could barely get a game started.
I realised that the convention audience was very important. Vote Me is a game designed for groups, so at Dragonmeet, which has a strong roleplaying audience, it was easy to get a game started as many attendees were already in groups.
Vote Me required a bit of time to demo, perhaps 20 minutes. At conventions where the audience leant more towards boardgames attendees were often alone or in much smaller groups. There could be a lot of waiting for players to join and for the demo to start. Understandably, this put some people off participating.
I began to think about games that would play very quickly, that could be taught and played in 10 minutes. I noodled around with a few ideas before hitting on the concept of a game based on wild west shootouts. Shootouts had drama and tension but were very quick.
I recalled a character I used many years before during a Deadlands RPG campaign and the shooting mechanics used in that system. I also began thinking about the traditional card games that I played as a kid; games like Snap that feature a flurry of activity as people slap their hands down on cards.
These ideas began to come together with card-based modifiers determining, for example, the speed and focus of a character in the build up to a shoot-out. This is done with a face down card display and players must remember where each modifier is in the display.
Once the shoot card is revealed, players react quickly to the cards and there is a sudden release of tension that simulates the quick draw.
Vote Me was your first Kickstarter. What did you take from that experience into the campaign for Six Gun Showdown?
Six Gun Showdown was my third Kickstarter campaign. Ka-Zing, a spell-casting game, followed Vote Me and its Kickstarter was very much a learning experience.
Years ago, if a game didn’t need a lot of investment, it was possible to run a campaign based on a great idea and some temporary artwork. The campaign for Ka-Zing taught me that this is no longer the case.
I have been asked why I didn’t release Six Gun Showdown before trying to release Ka-Zing. It’s simply because, at that time, Ka-Zing had been in development longer and the core gameplay didn’t require stress testing, which Six Gun still did.
I was happy with how Ka-Zing played. I had got people to check the rules and it didn’t feel it needed as much work as Six Gun Showdown and that I would be free to concentrate on the ‘smaller, relatively simple’ elements of packaging and components.
I quickly learned that I was wrong. Further blind testing of the rulebook confused some people who to start the game and the temporary artwork didn’t resonate with backers. Ka-Zing has a spatial awareness component and I needed to improve how I described this element of the game.
Ka-Zing was designed initially as a game, but as I developed it, to have different difficulty levels and ways to play, it evolved mechanically to be a system. Consequently, the rules became over cluttered without me realising. I had lost some focus on the core game as I thought of all the other things that could be done with the system. On top of that, a week into the Kickstarter campaign, family illness meant that I was not able to spend as much time on the campaign as I would have liked.
When the Six Gun campaign was being planned, I wanted to make sure the game was as close to completion as possible. I didn’t want to announce the game on Kickstarter and then tell backers it would be ready in a year because the playtesting wasn’t finished. I made sure the characters were balanced and that the game was as close to completion as it was possible to be. Consequently, the campaign that launched in June resulted in games being in backer’s hands in October.
Kickstarter is a constantly evolving platform that it’s possible to learn a lot from. What works for one game isn’t necessarily going to work for another and each Kickstarter campaign that you do teaches something different. The experience with Ka-Zing taught me how to judge the progress of a game’s development better.
What is next for Redwell Games?
Wow – that’s a different answer now than it would have been two months ago! I had planned to work on Six Gun Santa, a small three-character expansion to Six Gun Showdown. The aim was to start play-testing the new characters in April with the artwork finished in time for the UK Games Expo, and a potential Kickstarter ready for Tabletop Gaming Live later in the year.
Unfortunately, this is now on hold. I was starting off slowly due to personal reasons – relocating to Gloucestershire with a new house, new job – and now playtesting currently cannot happen due to the social distancing restrictions resulting from the Covid-19 situation.
I’m now going back to the idea of a team based ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral’ variant to Six Gun, to enable proper multi-player games. The challenge there is to ensure the existing cards and characters work in the new format. Mechanistically, this needs more time to design and develop than just new characters. The intention is for it to be a standalone game that will also work as an expansion for the original.
Ka-Zing is still undergoing development in the background. I’m working on how best to introduce a basic game in the rules before moving to the other options. Secondly, how to convey the spatial elements in the artwork and rules. This is an integral element to the game design. It’s not as trivial as having different pictures on the cards.
The game is about casting spells and the cards represent wand movements that combine to create a spell. This requires very specific icons to represent the prescribed locations around the spell-caster. The locations and the icons need to be such that the system can be easily interpreted by all players.
Any advice for someone just starting in the games industry?
I wasn’t expecting a great deal when I started. I found that I learned so much by speaking to people in the industry and asking questions. Even now, several years later, I am still far from knowing enough.
It is said that it takes 10 years to be an overnight success. Be patient, ask questions, don’t expect too much too quickly. Keep plugging away with your designs, keep playtesting and eventually things will happen.