Thursday, April 07, 2011

The Essence of a Game


Every game has an essence, what makes it the game it is, what comes to mind when people think about it, what people are doing (or contending with) when they play. The essence characterizes the game, and can be quite brief. For example Diplomacy is about negotiation and simultaneous tactical movement. Chess is about positional play with perfect information, and about looking ahead several moves. Monopoly (a poor game) is about collecting sets (of properties), managing funds, and random movement. Video game shooters are about killing and blowing stuff up. Some games aren't quite as "pure", of course.

Recently I've been trying to formally write the "essence" of some of my game designs to try to help me see what I should concentrate on, and what I might improve. It's another way to focusing the designer's attention on various aspects of the game: the more (different) ways you can look at a design, the more opportunities you have to find ways to improve it. I want the essence to be long enough that it will tell a person who hasn't played the game something about it. The very brief characterizations I used above aren't very informative for someone who hasn't at least seen the game being played.

So I began by making a list of what ought to be included in the essence statement:

• Tag line (characterizes the game and provides a hook at the same time-the hook is the more important part)
• What is the game obviously related to? (what is it about?)
• What does the player DO?
• How does the game work? (This may not be vital to the essence but most gamers want to know something about how the game works.)
• What is the "affect" (the emotional impact, sometimes called the "aesthetics") on the player? (As emotional impact varies so much from one person to another, I tend to leave this out for games that haven't been played widely, that is, haven't been published.)
• Including time of play is probably necessary these days, when so many people won't play games that take more than an hour, or two hours, or whatever.
• Perhaps a second tag-like line to end it, as playing time is an anticlimactic ending.

While first impressions when playing a game are becoming more and more important, and I try to make notes about what happens in the first 10 minutes and how long teaching and the setup takes, these are more marketing notes than part of the essence of the game.

So let's take Britannia as an example. There have been two tag lines, so I'll include one at the start and one at the end. Notice that the first one, from 1986, talks about what happens, while the second one from 2006 talks about the player's role. The first one is addressed to wargamers, who are interested in the event and in history; the second is addressed to contemporary game players, who are more interested in the feeling of "being there," of what part they play. Both are quite active statements. (And I wrote neither of them.)

"On an anvil of blood and terror they forged the destiny of an island!" In this epic wargame four players each control several nations playing at different times with different objectives throughout the Dark Ages history of Great Britain. Romans, Britons and Gaels, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Normans --they all play a part in this history. Combat is resolved with dice. This is a strategic game of achieving objectives, not of conquest, though many invaders conquer much of Britain at different times. 4 to 5 hours for experienced players. "Invade Britain. Rewrite history. Rule."

I'm not sure that's a very good description of essence, but I'm perhaps too close to the game to judge. Nor am I a good promoter of my own games, so someone else might be able to come up with better.

Here are some other examples, the first three are unfinished prototypes:

AAARRRRRHH! (the Pirate game)
"Fortune sits on the shoulder of him what schemes." Two to seven players are pirate leaders capturing ships on the Spanish Main. Begin with a pirate cutter, recruit more crew, avoid the hunting warships, add ships to your fleet, interfere with your rivals, capture a town or Spanish silver fleet if you're lucky, and accumulate the most Loot to win. The game uses hands of specialized cards (110), and dice. A "screwage" game something like Bang! or Nuclear War but without player elimination. 1 to 2 hours depending on players. "Beware the Black Spot!"

The Rise and Fall of Assyria: the History of the Ancient Near East
"2,000 years of early history in two to three hours". Two to five players control ancient empires as they rise and fall, including the dour, hated, ultimately doomed Empire of Assyria. There are no chance elements in the game other than the choices of the players. This sweep of history game is much less restrictive than Britannia (though there is a four player Britannia-like version) but much more historical than History of the World. 2 to 3 hours. "Pay tribute or die!"

Zombie Apocalypse
"Run for your lives!" The Zombie Apocalypse is here, with each of 2-7 players representing a small group of survivors. The last survivor "wins". The game uses hands of specialized cards (110), and dice. Players often play zombies against other survivors. A "screwage" game something like Bang! but without player elimination (when you "die" you become zombies!). An hour or more depending on number of players. "Send those zombies down!"

Law & Chaos
"Manage the chaos to win the game." While this abstract game can be played by 2 to 4, it is that most unusual game, one that is perfect for three players. You try to establish a pattern with your pieces on a small board, and you can capture opposing pieces, but capture methods and victory conditions vary for each player and can be changed by other players, using cards. You try to anticipate what other players are doing while disguising your own intentions. The game takes as little as 15 minutes with inexperienced players but sometimes one hour and up with experienced players. "A simple game that requires full attention."

This game is under contract to be published by Mayfair.

Dragon Rage
"The dragons are coming!" This two player wargame depicts an assault on a city or ork lair by dragons or other mythical creatures. The attacker must destroy a large portion of the city or lair before reinforcements arrive. Many scenarios and a scenario-builder are included. 90-120 minutes. Two sided mounted hex board, individually die-cut cardboard pieces. "Here there be giants."

This game was recently published in its second edition by Flatlined Games. BGG entry Web site

To return to the point: if you as designer write the essence of your game early in your process, and revise it as you go along, this will help you focus on what's important, or what must be fixed. Remember, "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."

Monday, April 04, 2011

"Take no prisoners"


That phrase, "take no prisoners", makes sense in some contexts, but D&D (Dungeons & Dragons) players seem to take it to extremes. I have almost never encountered a D&D group that takes prisoners (just as I rarely encounter D&Ders who run away). It doesn’t seem to matter which edition is being played. I like to get information about what I'm going to fight (or avoid); prisoners are sometimes a source of such information.

There are spells and techniques (I don't mean torture, which is unreliable even if your world-view approves of it) that have a good chance of getting useful information out of a prisoner (if it's there); especially if you have more than one prisoner.

I suspect that many referees simply refuse to let prisoners provide any useful information. This encourages a hack n slash sort of game. (To me, D&D is mostly about combat (a wargame), but combat informed by good planning, not merely "rush in and slay".)

As I don’t care for pure “hack n slash”, because it tends to be mindless rather than informed with intelligence, I don’t want to discourage planning and thinking. If you can take prisoners, and it makes sense that they know something useful, and you go about getting the information reasonably, then you’ll succeed to a greater or lesser extent. Nor does this involve merely an “intimidation” or “bluff” or “diplomacy” roll (depending on circumstances. Most of my play with D&D was first edition, where no such official character skills existed. In a sense, in third and fourth editions we’ve given players further crutches for not thinking, by the inclusion of such skills and skill rolls.

I mentioned running away. An old mate of mine, having moved away many years ago, recounted a case where he was playing with a new group and urged them to run away from a random encounter. It had never entered their minds; yet all the encounter offered was a chance to get hurt, and to earn a few experience points, it could not further their mission goals. In the end they did run away, and were better off for it. This is another case where a referee (or DM if you prefer) can offer players a chance to use their brains. There is no reason why every encounter should be one they player characters can be expected to cope with. Why not make them decide when they need to run away?

I have recently been playing the “March of the Phantom Brigade” official D&D encounters, to learn about 4th edition (which might be a decent game (though awfully encounter-oriented), but isn’t really D&D). That is a very linear progression, of necessity to keep everyone on the same page throughout the country, of one encounter after another. Taking prisoners might help a little, but there’s certainly no intention that the adventurers should run away. It is quite different from a “normal” campaign, in other words. At least, I should hope your campaign doesn’t work this mostly-mindless way.