Tuesday, March 14, 2006

A while ago I wrote a few notes in my trusty Info Select about "designing against the grain". That is designing a game that's a lot different from what you usually design, perhaps from what you like to play. I'm always a bit leary of this, as I've also written that if *you* don't like the game you design, why should anyone else?

Maybe I should modify this latter to "if you dislike the game you design, why should anyone like it?" Because I have recently designed a game that I don't care to play, because it's abstract, but that has been very well received by my local playtesters.

I like games that model reality, or "a reality" in the case of fantasy and science fiction. I want to be able to compare a move or play I'm making in the game with something that could happen in the (or a) real world. If I cannot, then I have trouble getting any interest in the game. I played chess when I was a kid, but gave it up at about age 15 because it was too much like work! Yet chess originally modelled warfare.

In the end, it's my interest in history that combines with the interest in games.

So I don't care for abstract games. Nonetheless, a few months ago I started with the premise that I wanted to design a game that uses the colored glass beads or "stones" that were originally made to decorate plants, but which now have many uses including games. At first I tried to come up with a system without chance that just used the stones, but that seemed too sterile., insufficiently varying. I didn't want to use dice, of course, or any overt chance mechanism, but I wanted more happening than you get in a "typical" abstract no-chance game such as Go or Chess. So I came up with the idea (used in Fluxx and, I suppose, other games) of varying the rules. There are cards for different victory conditions and different capture methods, plus some action cards, that players may have in their hands. Players can play the cards to change the victory and capture conditions of themselves or of other players, making for a rapidly-changing game.

Because the game combines the positions of the stones on a hex board with the wild variance of the cards, I called the game "Law and Chaos"(TM). It is much shorter than my other games (30-40 minutes), and feels more "Euro" than my others (no one is really out of the game, surprises occur). I'm not a Euro fan. And I have been quite unable to come up with any theme for the game at all--to me it is purely abstract.

I tried it first as a two-player game, which worked but didn't seem terribly exciting to me (the disliker of abstract games....). But when the local playtesters got hold of it, especially when they started playing with three players, it has turned out to be very popular and to be a "natural" three player game, where "kingmaking" is necessary, but difficult enough that it works out very well. We have found a second way to play (the Law way) that de-emphasizes the changes produced by the cards, and consequently rewards planning and "strategy" much more than the first (or Chaos) version, which rewards efficient reaction to frequently-changing conditions.

At this point, then, "designing against the grain" has proved once again to be quite worthwhile.

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