Site upgrade to WordPress

Up until recently, this website was hosted by Google. That was good for a start, but in order to maximize ease-of-use, they put some limits on functionality. Perhaps there were ways around those limits, but if so, I couldn’t figure it out.

After doing a bit of research, it seemed that the next step up in flexibility and complexity was WordPress. So, here we are. Fire and Flora via WordPress.

It’ll be clunky for a few days, while I learn how to work the new system, but in the end, this should be a good step forward.

Hello Chaparralians!

Yesterday morning, in their most recent semi-regular member update, the California Chaparral Institute included a short note about Fire and Flora. If you are a member of the Institute, a Chaparralian, welcome! If not, welcome anyways!

Many of the individuals and groups that I have talked with have been busy with the fall grant-writing season, and deferred serious discussion to the new year. The Chaparral Institute was the one exception. They took time to meet in person, talk over the meat of the game and my plans for this project, and agreed to help improve the game’s visibility by providing notice to their members.

This is a nice step forwards for the project. As the new year comes round, I will be continuing to talk and meet with other groups. With a little luck, this first public step will be followed by many more similar steps, creating a solid foundation from which to build a successful Kickstarter campaign, which will then enable me to bring it on home, and publish this game.

Post-classroom thoughts

Last week was the first real-live kid playtest (see photos on Facebook). At the end of each class, the kids were given a homework assignment to write a paragraph about their thoughts on the game. I have the paragraphs from two of the three sections, and this morning, I sat down to read them.

There were a variety of comments, but there was one thing that nearly every single kid agreed on: the game was confusing at first, but once you got the hang of it, it was pretty darn fun. That was my overall assessment as well. I was a little surprised that the second section reported the same level of initial confusion as the first section. I thought that I’d learned a lot from the first section, had given a much better introductory explanation to the second, and that the improved explanation had helped the second section to get the hang of things much faster.

Other interesting thoughts:

  • Most kids enjoyed the competitive aspect of the game, particularly the ability to mess with their opponent’s plans. Though there was also one group which felt the game was too competitive.
  • Several asked for a more exciting Event Deck. I had actually been afraid the Event Deck was too exciting, that players might think that this was an Event driven game, and feel a discouraging lack of control. To counter this, I purposely included a modest bunch of fluff events, which were just cards with pretty pictures that had no effect on the gameplay. It seems I was wrong.
  • Several kids commented on the potential messiness of the game layout, and suggested developing some sort of board. Several turns in, when each player had 3-4 lands, a plant on each land, and a small collection of Resource Cards, the tables did look pretty messy. On the other hand, there was one group of four girls who had everything very neatly laid out. So it is certainly possible to have an organized table, but it is perhaps unrealistic to expect kids to exert the effort to make that happen, particularly when they’re excited about something.
  • There were suggestions of a couple types of new cards. A “Trash” card, which would paralyze a plant, and remain on the plant until it was removed by a Labor Resource. An insect card, which would be damaging to plants.
  • Two kids suggested more complexity: more kinds of plants, more types of resources. It’s awesome that they both picked up on the game so fast, but I think they are relatively unusual in this. I didn’t ask, but I got the feeling that both were experienced card gamers. I was hoping that previous gaming experience would carry over to this game, and it seems that it does. However, I’d like the game to appeal to a relatively large audience, including inexperienced gamers, and so I feel that any changes must be in the direction of less complexity.

Likely changes:

  • Tiered rule sets.I had intended to have just two sets of rules: Standard and Advanced. While I’ve had some optional advanced rules in mind for some time, I have not yet tried to play with them. What I could do is to develop a simpler set of “Basic” rules. How might this happen? The Plant, Resource, and Event mechanics are tightly interwoven, and central to the ecological messages of the game. However, the Land mechanic is somewhat separate, and less ecological. Land Cards are a way to ration resources, and also to allow for a sense of growth and expansion. A Basic game might specify a fixed set of Land Cards for each player, or perhaps work with no Land Cards at all. I’ll think on this.
  • A more exciting Event Deck. One change would be to include more Fire Events, but to modify them so that each affects only a portion (half?) of the lands. This is the way that it had worked in previous versions. The problem is that you need a way to quickly and easily describe which set of lands are affected by each fire, and I haven’t yet come up with a mechanism that I’m comfortable with. One kid suggested labeling each land with a symbol. Fires would then affect, for example, all lands of the green-square type. This would, again, increase complexity, but it would probably be the minimum increase necessary to distinguish classes of lands. I could classify lands by geographic region, and that would be mildly realistic and educational.
  • While I like the idea of a layout aid, I’m very concerned about cost. I know that Pokemon has a layout aid. When you buy a starter deck, you get a folded-up paper layout, which you can then unfold, and use as a guide for where to place the parts of the game. However, Pokemon is a two-player game, and players cannot have more than three Pokemon in play at any time. Fire and Flora works with up to four players, and naturally uses more table space, so it would require a correspondingly larger layout, with correspondingly higher cost.
  • Misc smaller changes. But I’ll put those in the ToDo part of the Changelog, rather than go into them here.

Serious playtesting

Last week, I recruited several serious gamers to playtest v09. Overall, it went well. The game started out quite slowly, and there were some balance issues, but once everyone had several plants and several lands, and the resources were coming in, it went fairly smoothly. I was also quite surprised to see that all four of these folks chose a fairly conservative gameplay strategy. Based on this, I made a few modest changes intended to speed up the first few turns, and also to make it harder to turtle-up. Aside from that, I got good feedback on a host of details, all of which will be a big help in making this a better game.

That playtesting was in preparation for this week. A very exciting week indeed, as I’d been invited to bring this game to three sections of 7th grade science at my own old high school. So I needed to make sure there were no glaring errors in v09, before bringing it out to them.

While I’ve done a fair bit of gaming with family and friends, this was the first time I’ve been able to play with younger folks. It was fun and unexpected. Well, I’m sure an experienced classroom teacher would have accurate expectations, but I’m only an occasional teacher.

Yesterday was our first in-class test. I gave a quick verbal introduction to the game, essentially a mini-lecture on the rules, then set them loose. It was more chaotic than I’d expected. With a fair bit of help, they were all able to figure out the rules, and had a good time, but it did take some coaching. My introduction was clearly inadequate. At the end of the period, I led a short discussion about the ecological intent of the game, and I was happy to find that they mostly had picked up on the central theme of balance and fire.

Based on feedback from their teacher, I modified my introduction. Today, when I met with the second section of this class, I gave them a slower, more hands-on introduction. I had them take specific cards, and we used those cards as examples during my explanation of the rules. After this, I walked the class, all together, through the game setup process (e.g. shuffling cards, laying out a set of starting lands, doling out starting coins, etc). Lastly, I talked them through the first turn, and then I set them loose to play. This worked much better. There were still questions, but most of the groups understood most of the rules, and mostly played the game as intended. And I think that having less confusion led to more fun. Again, at the end, I led them through a short discussion, and asked them for their thoughts on the game.

In two days, on Thursday morning, I’ll visit the third section. With any luck, that should turn out well too.

βeta 09

This week, I finished the design changes for β09, and sent the new files off to the printer. There were two big changes:

Wider scope: 

Where previous versions of the game focused on the Santa Monica Mountains, this new version has an expanded geographic scope that presents a balanced picture of shrublands and foothills throughout California. This update required revisions to about half of the plant cards, and most of the land cards. I’ve dropped species that had narrow ranges, and replaced them with functionally similar species that had wider distributions. At the same time, I dropped most of the SAMO locations, and replaced them with sites that range from San Diego up to Point Reyes. This part was rather fun, as it was a good excuse to go visit some places that were new to me (e.g. Henry Coe State Park, Pacheco State Park, a few others).

Streamlined land mechanic: 

Land cards are now all the same botanical size. Each can support exactly one plant. The new land cards are easier to read, as there is now less information on each card. At the same time, the gameplay is more intuitive. In previous versions, to figure out if there was room on a land for another plant, you had to count the number of size icons on the land card, then count the number of plants laid out below that card. This was doable, but the relatively small size of the visual cues made it easy to overlook opportunities. In this version, plant cards are played directly on top of land cards. If you see a brown card without a green card on top, that’s an opportunity to add a plant. If not, then you cannot add plants. Easy!

With fewer plants on each land, I had to add more land cards to the game. Where there were once fifteen lands, there are now almost fifty. This means it’s no longer possible to display all the lands at the same time, and have them all available for purchase from the start. Instead, there is now a Land Deck, and a Land Display (<= still looking for better terminology here). The Land Display is simply a space in the middle of the table where bank-owned lands are laid out for purchase. At the beginning of each turn, if there are less than five bank-owned lands in the Land Display, players draw from the Land Deck, and to the Land Display, until there are five cards in the Display. Thus, there are always five cards available for purchase. This is also a nice feature. Having fewer buying choices reduces the danger of analysis-paralysis.

The downside of this change is that land cards are less realistic. In previous versions, you could look at the land cards, read the game-related info, and get a rough feel for the landscape and ecology of the place pictured on the card. This is no longer possible. The ecologist in me is saddened, but in the end, I feel good about this choice. The most important thing for any game is that it be fun to play, and I think this streamlining of lands will improve the gameplay.

Misc:

There are a number of other small-to-middling changes. I’ve added a few new Events and Resources, tweaked the behavior of some of the old Events and Resources, and found some cool new card photos. Anyone curious about these details can take a look at the changelog.

New name / New look

Fire and Flora title graphicAfter some pretty serious thought and discussion, I settled on a new and final name for this game: Fire and Flora. It’s short, to the point, and has some nice alliteration. More excitingly, I’ve got a new look.

Visual art has always been one of my weak spots. I’m very excited about this game. I think it’s got a lot of good ideas, and is both fun and interesting to play. And I’ve gotten good, positive feedback from most of my playtesters. However, it’s been a little hard to recruit, as the visual side of things has been lacking. Basically, the game gives a good second impression, but it’s been hard to get that second look, to get people to learn about the substance of the game, when the first impression is kind of bland.

So, I spent some time looking around for a graphic designer to help me improve the look of things around here. Following a quiet advertisement, I came upon the studio of Mark3. Mark worked with me to create a new title graphic, one that has turned out quite nicely.

There’s still a ways to go before I’m ready to make my big on Kickstarter, but this is a good step forward. Slow and steady. Be the turtle.

Research

I’ve been looking into various new plants and places, both calling folks, and reading stuff both in print and online. It’s been a little hard to find a set of species that cover both the necessary geographic range and the necessary botanical range. For example, there are lots of small fire followers, it’s one of the most diverse groups of species, but most have very limited distribution. I can only find one that seems to meet my needs: Whispering Bells. Luckily, I only need one.

Regarding places, I have a nice list of possible places. However, I feel that I need to make personal visits to most of them before I would feel comfortable including them in the game. For each of these places, I want to have photographs with no strings attached, which means I probably need to take them myself. I also want to be be sure that my characterization of these places is as accurate as possible. Unfortunately, I won’t have time to go visiting until July or August. So it will be several more months before I can finish up with v9.

In the meantime, I’ll work on other aspects of the game:

  • Writing a more accessible set of rules. One that is easy to read, and has a fair number of pictures
  • Developing this website
  • Playtesting the current version
  • Building a good Kickstarter package

Slow but steady

These last two weeks, work has been pretty busy, and I expect that it will continue to be busy through the end of the month. Because of this, I’ve only made modest progress on the game, but I’m content with that. All progress is good progress, and I’m enjoying the work. I had been afraid that if I became more intent on this project that it would become less fun, and feel more like work. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened.

A few short updates:

  • Version 8: I ordered and received several printed copies of v8. I’m now working on recruiting some new folks to help test it out. I appreciate feedback from friends and family, but I’m also curious to learn more about the game will go over with non-gamers and non-biologists. Last fall, I had the chance to play with one college class, but that was a one-shot deal. So I need some new volunteers. Several groups have expressed interest, including one local science class, but it will still take time to work out details. Among other things, I’ll need a background check from the school district before I can test with kids on campus, and it sounds like that process involves a lot of waiting around.
  • Research for version 9: The big change for v9 will be an expanded geographic scope. All the locations in v8 are somewhere within the Santa Monica Mountains. In v9, most of the SAMO locations will be dropped, and replaced with a new set of locations from throughout the state. However, I want to be sure to maintain the same level of biological accuracy, and that requires research. So, I’ve been looking at a lot of maps. This includes maps of species distributions and maps of natural areas. I’ve also talked with some professional botanists. I feel like I’m closing in on a new set of species and locations that will be better representative of California overall. I hope that, by the end of March, I will have a decent set of revised species and locations. This will still be provisional. I feel that it is important to personally visit all of the locations, but that doesn’t need to happen right now. It will be a good summer project. A good excuse for some quality camping trips.
  • A new name: I’d like something that is both descriptive and catchy. Since this is a game about real life, the title ought to reflect that, and be at least a little descriptive of the subject. However, since this is a game rather than a textbook, the name must also be catchy and fun. The current name (“Plants and Fire”) is descriptive, and fine as a draft, but it’s just not catchy. I’m afraid that I’m really struggling with this. I’ve collected a lot of ideas from a variety of folks, but I feel like all of the ideas so far are either descriptive or catchy but not both.

Kickstarter strategy

I’ve been talking with my friends about Kickstarter, discussing different possible strategies. I had planned to break up this project into a series of small pieces, and ask for separate funding for each. I thought this would be the most transparent method, as donors would know exactly where their dollars were going, and could see quick and concrete results from their donations. However, I’m being persuaded that this is the wrong strategy.

Opinion is that if I have multiple, small project-pieces, then I risk alienating donors and fans through too-frequent requests. Opinion is that this is a one-shot deal. That I would be more likely to win successful funding if I figure out what it will take to get this to completion, and then post a single project with that single goal. That strategy is also more in line with Kickstarter guidelines.

I estimate that it will take 1-2 years and about $20K to finish the game design. If I then choose to partner with an existing publisher, I could hand-off the business side of things to them. If I choose to self-publish, then I estimate that it will take another $20K to print and assemble 1K copies. So this project could reasonably be split into two large pieces.

Hmmm.

Kickstarter and Swag

As I move forward, things will become more expensive. For a group of 20 players (e.g. a small classroom), I will need 5 copies of the game. At $20 each, those five copies will cost me $100. Over time, this will add up. I can cover these sorts of modest design costs, but looking ahead, it’s clear that I won’t be able to cover the production costs. I estimate that a first printing of the game, and the associated business-type machinery (orders, shipping, taxes, etc), will cost in the range of $5K to $20K. This is well beyond my personal financial means. When the time comes, to be successful, I will need to find some significant outside funding, or develop some sort of business partnership.

This got me started thinking about Kickstarter. It’s a sort of patronage 2.0: patronage via crowdsourcing. I was thinking that I could post regular small project requests, like that $100 to print five copies for a series of playtesting sessions. On further thought, I realized that a Kickstarter presence would bring more than a welcome sort of micro-funding. It would also be a good investment for the long term. A presence on Kickstarter could generate some positive word-of-mouth, and a positive reputation. Both of those will be important if I am to get the sorts of funding or partners required to make this real.

Yesterday, Kickstarter notified me that they have accepted my project. Now it’s up to me. I’ve always hated selling myself, and been somewhat shallowly prejudiced against marketing in general. But now I am become my own marketer. So I must apologize to those in the advertising industry. I apologize for lumping you all together, and failing to treat each and every marketer and publicist as a unique human being.

Kickstarter works, in part, by swag. The expectation is that project creators will offer a set of rewards. Each reward is linked to some donation level, and backers who provide donations at a given level will receive the reward that corresponds to that level. Rewards come in various forms such as personal emails, a signed copy of a book, invitation to a cast party, etc.

What kind of rewards would I offer? Well, the first thing that came to mind was special-edition foil or holographic cards. Folks familiar with Pokemon will know what I am talking about. Unfortunately, this turns out to be very pricey. This week, I talked to two local printers. The Pokemon cards appear to have used ink-over-foil.  First, the foil was stamped into the paper. Next, an image was printed on the card, using special inks that will adhere to the foil. These inks require an offset printer, which uses actual metal plates, and those plates must be carefully etched. Lastly, getting the proper balance between the image and the holographic effect requires either lots of experience, or some modest experimentation. My printer suggested it would be $2K to $3K to print some tens of cards, simply because the setup was so expensive. While this would be super-cool, it’s financially impractical. For Kickstarter to work, the swag needs to be significantly less costly than the project. To give away $3000 in swag, I’d have to be asking for at least $10K. And, at least for now, I’m not.

However, there is a simpler alternative. Rather than ink over foil, I could do foil-over-ink. In this process, the ink is printed onto the paper, and so the printing can be done with a digital printer, which is fairly cheap. The foil is then stamped into the paper, on top of the image. So parts of the image would be replaced with shiny-metallic foil. The stamping of the foil still requires a custom-made plate, but this kind is not so expensive. My printer suggested it would run in the ballpark of $300 to print tens of copies of one type of foil-over-ink card. This is more than I’d hoped, but it’s just barely in the range of possibility. If I were to ask for $1000 in funding, then $300 of swag would be acceptable. Plus, it would be cool. I, myself, would be excited to have one of these cards.