Archive: Blog

The Hidden Card Game

I promised I’d come back after Playful and write some more about the Hidden card game, giving more details about how the game worked.

Every attendee received two random cards in their snazzy delegate’s envelope – for the rest of the day, during time between speakers, they challenged each other with those cards (and any others they managed to “acquire” during the game). In all, there were over 600 cards in circulation, composed of 22 different game cards in 3 levels of rarity and 16 Agent cards. The weaker cards just let you do things like look at another player’s cards or steal one at random. The more powerful cards allowed you, for example, to possibly steal all of another player’s cards, but also required you to hand that card over (giving your victim a chance to get back in the game).

One of the 16 Agent cards, a hazard and some defence against it.

The aim of the game was to get as many Agent cards as possible and not get blown up at the end (if a player had managed to get hold of a Body Armour card, they were immune to the fatal effects of Tick, Tick, Tick…). In the event of a tie (which there was) Agent cards were drawn at random to determine which Agent was the winner (the magnificent prize being a copy of One Night Ultimate Werewolf). I did not reveal the goal of the game (or the potential hazards of certain cards) in advance – this was partly so that people could have fun discovering the different cards and effects as they played the game, and partly to stop people from simply hiding Agent cards when they came across them.

The Heist lets you steal your opponent’s best card.

Best to keep your cards well-hidden if your opponent has Guess Work.

High Stakes lets you play a winner-takes-all game of rock, scissors, paper.

I think at least forty cards must have passed through my hands as I wandered around during the breaks (including three different agents!). It was very gratifying to see that hundreds of people were playing the game and having fun. Many were playing casually – the odd card exchanged here and there – but some players were really going for it. There were some fierce stone, scissors, paper battles caused by the High Stakes card, and I saw a classic move where someone used Planted Evidence to give someone else a couple of cards, and then returned a few minutes later with Big Target to steal all of them now that player was vulnerable. I was even a victim of Planted Evidence myself as I walked up to the stage to announce the final result! Someone grabbed my arm, showed me the card, and used it to offload a Tick, Tick, Tick… onto me.

Planted Evidence and Big Target made a great combo. My only regret is I never saw anyone’s hand raised due to Blown Cover

P.S. It should be noted that the actual winner would have been Mudlark’s very own Emma Broadhurst (the only person to end the game with more than one Agent), but Charles purposely sabotaged her by sitting next to her at the end with his Tick, Tick, Tick… card. I’m not sure she’ll ever forgive him…

Big Game Hunting

We wanted this year’s Playful to be more interactive than ever. I spend far too much of my spare time designing board and card games, so it seemed like an interesting challenge to design something that could be played by everyone at Playful and which fitted this year’s theme of “Hidden”.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year playing the hidden-role card game “One Night Ultimate Werewolf” (ONUW) which takes the classic party game “Werewolf” and condenses it down into an intense 5-minute experience without losing any of the negotiation, pleading and fun of the original.

Some of the role cards from One Night Ultimate Werewolf

Some of the role cards from One Night Ultimate Werewolf

ONUW has an interesting genesis. Social deduction card games have become all the rage over the last 5 years. Games like “The Resistance” and “Coup” had players trying to work out who was on their side, and what role (and therefore what abilities) they had. Japanese designers, especially Seiji Kanai, further distilled these ideas down into ‘microgames’ such as the multi-award-winning “Love Letter”, a game consisting of just 16 cards.

Some of the role cards from Love Letter

Some of the role cards from Love Letter

The Japanese designer Akihisa Okui applied this microgame ethos to Werewolf, and the idea was refined by American designer Ted Alspach, who made the inspired decision to add an app which played the narrator/moderator role (one of the annoying thing about the original Werewolf was that one person was required to sit the game out in order to play this role).  I could (and may!) write a whole blog just on dissecting a single game of ONUW. For now, suffice to say that I have never known a game that packs such a punch (and so much fun) into such a short space of time.

So for this year’s Playful I wanted to take some of these ideas and design a game that could be played by 300 or more people over the course of a day (we think this may well be the biggest card game ever played in the UK!). There are many interesting factors to take into account with this sort of game.  The three most difficult limitations are that you can’t really have a draw pile, you can’t have turn-taking (people need to be able to wander round and play with who they want in a completely ad-hoc manner) and you can’t have many rules – the game needs to be instantly understandable. You also want to avoid player-elimination, and ideally keep the victory conditions at least partly hidden (because you don’t want the game to be over in the first 5 minutes, or someone thinking that they’ve got a winning hand and then hiding for the rest of the day).  I had 5 or 6 ideas for games… some of the rejects are shown here.

First set of test cards.

In this game you have 2 or 3 cards and try to make the longest word possible. There wasn’t much incentive to swap cards once you’d made a word as it usually meant destroying the word you’d already made.
Second set of test cards.

In this game you try to match a sequence of icons (these are actually symbols from Zener cards used for testing ESP) which are revealed one at a time over an hour or two. This was fun until people realised that there was no way someone was going to trade a card with a partial match.
Third set of test cards.

We tried the icon match game again with more lines (and therefore more ways of matching longer sequences) and a subway-map aesthetic, but it was just too confusing and still suffered from the ‘why trade?’ problem.
Fourth set of test cards.

This version ‘borrowed’ ideas from Lucas Pope’s amazing indie video game Papers, Please. Players swap cards trying to find a matching set of papers (and one in which there are no other ‘mistakes’ such as expired visa dates or mismatched serial numbers). This was good fun on a small-scale test, however we decided not to pursue it because of the amount of work in producing around 1000 unique cards, and the fact that there was no easy way of testing whether the game would work when scaled up to 300+ players. (Of course we would have changed the graphics/theme from Papers, Please if we had decided to take this beyond prototype stage)
Fifth set of test cards.

These are a few of the cards from the prototype for the game we finally went with. It uses some of the ideas from Love Letter, but changes and extends them so that the game will work in a free-form, simultaneous format and scale to hundreds of players.
Near final test card.

Near-final version for one of the cards for our Hidden game.

But in the end, after several playtesting sessions (though it’s difficult trying to extrapolate from 5 testers to at least 300 players), I returned to the design that is closest to social deduction microgames such as “Love Letter” and its ‘sequel’ “Lost Legacy” – though it’s very different to either of those games, to allow for the limitations described earlier, and the game has over 600 cards rather than 16! I’d like to explain it in more detail here, but I think the game will be more fun if people don’t know the rules in advance, so we’ll save the detailed description for another blog after the event (along with an analysis of how successful – or otherwise – the game was!).

A few tickets are left for Playful: buy yours now.

Sort of not right

Turning on the Radio 4 Today programme yesterday morning, I found myself in the middle of an interview with the novelist David Mitchell explaining why he was publishing his new short story on Twitter.

Image from The BBC
Image of David Mitchell from The BBC

Given our experience with Such Tweet Sorrow  several years ago, I was both interested in the project and keen not to be too critical of it. I remember how sensitive many of us were to what looked like stupid criticism from some people who were really creating their own bandwagons and weren’t giving themselves a chance to see all the ambitious things we were doing  with the project: its live-ness; its “acted-ness”; its woven appearance into just about every emerging or emerged social platform we (mainly the wonderful Tim Wright) could think of. Not to mention all that interactivity.

We had to listen to stuff about betraying Shakespeare’s poetic language, as if Shakespeare was both utterly sacrosanct and terribly vulnerable.

So I wanted to give what sounded like another bold literary experiment with social media (and Lord knows that there aren’t many of them) a chance. But there were things in the Mitchell interview that just felt wrong. He was so guarded – so priggishly above the medium he’s chosen. He doesn’t tweet. “I’m not really a social media animal… I don’t want to add to this ocean of trivia…” If it was just a marketing ploy he wouldn’t do it… “I don’t want to feel like a gimmick chaser”. Already, this doesn’t sound bold – just cautious.

Then the thing itself. Again, a minority of critics fell on the first day or two of Such Tweet Sorrow without giving it a chance to get into its stride for the best part of another 5 weeks, so I am reluctant to cast aspersions, but…really? Really?

He has simply crafted a narrative in a series of tweet-sized passages. And played them out over Twitter.

There’s a ten hour gap between two tweets that clearly describe the same set of instances. And then more this morning – still in the time frame of the story, but not of the medium.

Mitchell so far fails to realise that the quality of Time is crucial to Twitter – its currency, its spontaneity, its asynchronicity, its ability to be both live and of record. If you don’t play with all of this you might as well give up.

The Right Sort is not “of Twitter” in any interesting way at all. The only people the account is following are a handful of publishing (and Twitter) marketing types. It’s not that cynical to assume one of them is pushing out the content for Mitchell, out of the sausage machine.

Not that this delivery method matters –  there is no interactivity to mention. No interactivity at all. In fact there is no argument for it taking this form other than that the hero experiences much of the story in bite-sized, trippy “pulses” and that the author found it very demanding.

His claim that he’s been through “escapological challenges posed by diabolical treble-strapped textual straitjackets” may be true for the experience of composition, but none of that jeopardy appears in the tweeted result.

Maybe he found it so difficult because he feels so lofty about the medium through which he’s chosen to push his message – and he hasn’t bothered to understand it.

From Mr Cloud Atlas, this is just disappointing. It’s not even a gimmick, and hardly a stunt. To me it reads terribly safe, maybe the most un-experimental thing of Mitchell’s I’ve come across.



Tea Wars

Tea Wars is a game for the office – a fun and fast-paced multiplayer game to settle the eternal debate about whose turn it is to make the tea.

Tea Wars cards, new for 2014.

We designed the game in 2009, when one of our number always said “Yes please” when offered a cuppa, but was never the one to offer. Hence, rather than ask everyone in the room if they want a cup of tea, we now ask them if they want one enough to fight for it.

It’s like Noughts & Crosses meets Battleships, and we’ve play-tested it many thousands of times over the years. And it still works! It gets everyone emotionally invested in the click of the kettle. It fills the office with banter and strategy. It levels the playing field when it comes to kitchen manners.

Each player picks a square, then take it in turns to try and ‘bomb’ other people by naming a square they think someone else is on, e.g “C2!”. Whoever gets bombed first, makes the tea. Boom!

This is how James plays, marking where the others ‘bomb’ to notice patterns.

To celebrate the game’s staying power in our daily lives, we’ve published a set of limited edition Tea Wars card decks so you can experience it too.

In each pack are 50 ‘grid cards’ with which to play (one card per player, good for up to six games). These double up as ‘order cards’ so that the loser can accurately fulfill everyone’s hot drink desires. There are some handy instructions for new players, too.

Pen not included.

If you’d like the chance to bring the battle to your place of work (with a free deck of Tea Wars Cards), tweet us @wearemudlark (including the hashtag #teawars) to tell us how you feel persecuted by the drink orders of your colleagues, housemates, family or friends.

Derby [2061] – Telescope Cards Edition

Earlier this month, the internet saw the arrival of Telescope Cards. This service enables you to pull in a List – a curated collection of places e.g. best coffee in East London – from Foursquare, and have it handsomely printed onto a pocket collection of cards.

On deck.

I like cards. Apart from them lighting up that card collecting boy that’s still inside me somewhere, they’re also nice and tactile. You can flip through them, give them to someone, write on them. It’s been said a lot more eloquently and informed than this, but you can’t do those things with the internet.

Printing out the internet has rightfully become a thing, and mini cards is the perfect way to print out Foursquare. As soon as I saw Basil & Co at Minified‘s lovely site for Telescope Cards, I wanted to try out Derby [2061] with it.

Background to Derby 2061

In 2011 I wrote a story on Foursquare. It tells the tale of a city fifty years in the future, where memories can be downloaded and experienced internally, where fast food is 3D printed, real food is for the rich, and the Moon and Mars have been colonised. The aim wasn’t to write a speculative masterpiece – the facets of the story are stock sci-fi tropes – but to see if you could write something on a location-based game platform.

Derby 2061

Users ‘Check In’ at a location using Foursquare, and see an alternative version of that place. They click on that place to see what it is – a Monorail Station where the train station is supposed to be, or a Server Farm instead of the college campus – and find a strange Tip from a narrator.

The narrator is Girl X, a young girl accidentally sent back in time from 2061 to the present day. She uses Foursquare (and other assorted social media) to tell us what will happen to the places around us in the next half century.

Early Conclusions

As well as using Foursquare as a storytelling platform, I wanted to see if you could entice someone into a story by leaving a digital breadcrumb trail. And if you told parts of a story, would the reader fill in the gaps?

The main problem in this excersize is awareness and likelihood of that happening. The concept has had good press and been mentioned at conferences around the world, but it’s located in Derby. You have to be in Derby to experience it. And not that many people travel to Derby, so your audience is the population divided by the amount of Foursquare users within it divided by the amount of Foursquare users within it who are interested in digital storytelling. The story is buried, and there aren’t that many diggers around.

Telescope cards are an opportunity to see if people respond to the story when the ‘rabbit hole’ into it is a physical thing rather than a digital one.

Framing the future: fictional place descriptions and tips.

Making The First Set

I printed one set of cards: a prototype set. Telescope print decks of 25 cards, so I cut the story in half to fit. For the printed Tip on each card, you can use 100 characters max. In under an hour I’d done a good bit of editing and the result was better than what I’d started out with. Forced editing is a good thing.

The cards arrived the other day, and I love them. I flip through them, reading the Tips and imagining the place they are talking about. Next time I’m in Derby city, I’ll go to some of the places and see what effects the combination of card and vision have.

Will being at a location with a card in hand reframe the place of Foursquare in the story?

Is Foursquare a means to tick off that part of the story, and tell my social graph that I’ve ‘completed’ a chapter?

The narrative of the story was embedded in Girl X’s description of places. By lifting out these descriptions into print, could that open up Foursquare to go deeper into the narrative/character?

The main problem with Derby[2061] is awareness. If I place these cards in the gallery shop window, or on a coffee shop counter, will people’s interest be piqued?

A selection of the deck of 25 cards.

I’m going to test this first deck out on a few people, see what happens. If the response it good, maybe I’ll print a few more decks and put them in some good spots to see if people pick them up and play with them.


As a result of thinking about what is essentially a low-level protype, alpha version of a story (as well as a way of telling one), I find the story becoming clearer in my mind. By thinking “what would Girl X say about this place?” her character now has a voice and opinion in my head. Thus it becomes easier to expand the story.

If Telescope Cards work for Derby [2061] or not, they have at least given me a bit of time with a story I had almost left behind, and established in my mind a character whose deeper story I am becoming increasingly interested in telling.