board games

Game Theory

I know, I know – I said I’d use original artwork, and this is a piece done by TeeTurtle – it just fit the subject matter of my post better than anything I could think up.

So, here’s my first gaming review post – it’s more of a general overview of the different qualities a board game can have, and how those elements can come together to make a game that’s enjoyable to play. Feel free to mention any elements you think I missed!

Game Theory

What makes a game fun? To me, it comes down to four factors: simulation, evocation, elegance of design and humor. A game may have all, some or none of these qualities but it will need at least two of them if I’m going to play it more than once – all four or three done especially well and I’ll probably end up buying it.

I listed simulation first because of all the traits I listed it’s the one most likely to make a game interesting. For instance, if the game is about a historical battle, are all the decisive elements of that battle present, and if so, are they modeled in a way that they behave the way they did during the engagement? Are all strengths and weaknesses of those elements realistically portrayed? If all of this is done particularly well, a player can learn a great deal about why a particular battle turned out the way it did.

“Command and Colors” is an example of good simulation. Different types of infantry, cavalry, missile troops and artillery are all represented, with different modules of the game covering pre-industrial warfare from ancient Greece to the Napoleonic wars. The elegant rules system allows the game to be taught in 20 minutes and set up and played in an hour or two. The communication problems between commanders and their units so endemic of that era are simulated by a movement system based on a card draw that allows a player to command only a few of her units each turn. Missile troops can harass from a distance but are very vulnerable to damage if caught or cornered, while heavy infantry can inflict great damage, but is slow and may not engage at all or at the wrong time if held back to long or committed too early.

Of course, a good simulation game doesn’t necessarily have to be modeled on true events as long as the elements portrayed in the game act in a way that’s consistent with the reality being simulated.

The game “Firefly”, for instance, does an excellent job in choosing which elements of that story to simulate and does so in such a way that the players feel like they’re creating a new episode of the show with each game. The ships, gear, contacts, cargo and crew have all the advantages and drawbacks that make them interesting in the show.

The mirror side of this is what a designer chooses not to simulate, as some elements may add needless complexity without appreciably adding to either the simulation or enjoyment value of a game. Too much complexity can lead to decision paralysis as players try to choose between several options or to misunderstandings in regards to interpretations of rules.

This is a controversial opinion, as there are many gamers out there who are willing to trade playability for a more sophisticated reality model, but I firmly believe the game that models simplest models best. Most aspects of simulation can be abstracted, and it’s part of the game designer’s art to do this while still maintaining the feel and effect of the behavior being simulated.

Again using “Firefly” as an example, given the big picture scope of the game, combat is handled in an appropriately abstract manner that is both easy to learn and takes a minimum of game time to accomplish. If the game focused on tactical combat in the Firefly universe, a more complex   model would be warranted.

How the game’s reality model is presented to the players is the aspect of design called ‘elegance’. Elegance includes such attributes as concise and logical presentation/organization of the game’s rules and how intuitive those rules are in relation to what’s being simulated. Elegance also includes the coherent arrangement of information on the game’s various components (cards, pieces etc.)

The game “Star Wars: Armada” gives us examples of both good and bad elegance. Layout of information on the components is superb – vital information is available at a glance and is attractively presented – this makes game play go smoothly, as all the information a player needs to make game decisions is right in front of her with no need to access complex charts or matrices. With all of this elegant simplicity, there should be little need to consult the rulebook during play, which is a good thing, because the rules are a disordered mess.

Needlessly spread out over two books, the rules bury important concepts of play, are full of imprecise terminology, lack examples and don’t provide an anatomy for all of those elegant components, instead spreading this information across several different rules sections.

Fortunately, forums are available on the internet to help clarify and define vague game terms and concepts – without this resource, the game would be unplayable.

Evocation is more subtle than the other attributes, but no less important for an enjoyable game. The key question here is: Does the design of the game immerse the player in its reality?

There are several ways a game can accomplish this – photographs, well executed artwork, pieces designed with care and an eye for realism, and rules that add fun mechanics not strictly necessary to playing the game (also known as chrome).

Good examples of well-designed components are the ship photographs used on the cards for “Modern Naval Battles”, the miniatures of “X-wing” and the beautifully rendered cards and heavy poker chip pieces of “Splendor” that turn an otherwise mediocre game into something that is a joy to play.

Chrome is something that needs to be used sparingly, because the price for its implementation is added complexity. Almost any game can benefit from it, however, as it often adds a role playing element that personalizes the game experience. For instance, it’s cool to fly an Advanced TIE Fighter in “X-Wing”, but it’s much, much cooler to fly one that’s piloted by Darth Vader.

While it takes a few added rules to incorporate Vader’s abilities into the game, the payoff is worth it as you picture the Sith Lord hunting down rebel scum.

Finally, humor, while not appropriate for all games, can seriously increase the fun factor of others. Humor, however, is a difficult concept. While welcome if well done, it can make an otherwise good game unplayable (Munchkin’s Cthulhu expansion “Unspeakable Vault” comes to mind). It’s for this reason that most games skip it entirely – it can fall flat, and it isn’t really necessary for the creation of a good game.

Some games, like “Munchkin” and “Chez Geek”, are entirely about humor and gamers who are inclined to be serious forget this at their peril. In these games, the simulation aspect is replaced by satire and the point is to have fun by being silly.

In conclusion, a good game exercises the mind and the imagination. Situations outside the player’s experience are simulated with some of the excitement but none of the consequences. Games also bring people together into a shared experience, directly communicating and interacting in a fashion that in other spheres of life have become uncommon.

Advent of Carcosa

Advent of Carcosa – Designer’s Notes

Hi Everyone!

Thanks for reading along this far – I hope you’ve been enjoying the world I’ve been creating. Now come the big questions – does it sound like something you’d be interested in playing? Is it scary? What parts seem fun and which less so? Please feel free to comment on any aspect of the game design, especially if something really works for you or is a deal breaker.

As I mentioned before, I’ll continue to post occasional updates on aspects of the design that I think may be of interest as I move ahead with it. It’ll be a long road, though – it might be several months before I’m done 🙂 In the interim, I’ll post game reviews and other topics of interest – look for the first of these next week.

For now, here’s a few words about why I did things the way I did them, as well as some thoughts as to how the game should be played.

I suppose the first question to answer is: Why Carcosa? After all, the usual path to unspeakable horror lies down the road to R’yleh where Cthulhu dwells. It’s partly for this reason that I chose the King in Yellow as my focus in that so little material has been dedicated to this particular landscape. Also, while the monsters that inhabit the Cthulhu mythos tend to be almost immediately catastrophic once discovered, The King in Yellow tends to be more subtle and baroque, seeking not death for those who find him but a sort of loyalty and kinship which is realized by the seeker’s slow but inevitable corruption. This will lead to a game with much more foreboding, filled with omens and clues that will give shape to the investigator’s personal apocalypse.  There will of course be those who want to use Cthulhu in their campaigns, so he, his Star Spawn and their lost city of R’yleh are also present in the weird chorus that seeks to drown humanity in its otherworldly noise.

One aspect of the game that met with some controversy with reviewers is humanity’s failed attempt at interplanetary colonization. This was a conscious decision on my part, as I find the idea of pristine, silent planets dotted with abandoned settlements more compelling than worlds that have been tamed by humanity and covered with maglev rails and strip malls so much that they can scarcely be differentiated from Earth anymore. It’s also spookier. Indeed, I’ve tried to make all the locations I’ve included in AOC’s write-up have an aspect of horror around them: the partially finished ring that surrounds the Earth, full of abandoned and forgotten locations forever lost in the installation’s immensity, the hazardous spirals of the Helio Array, the lonely aerostat poised above the endless toxic Venusian clouds.

The inclusion of humor in a horror game may also strike some as odd. While rare, this idea isn’t new for the genre of otherworldly horror, as readers of Charles Stross’s  ‘Laundry Files’ can attest. It was these books (as well as the RPG inspired by them) that led to the desire to incorporate something like their ethos into the game. The bureaucratic maze that is the Corporate Unity and MJ-12 is a marriage of the Byzantine office politics of the ‘Laundry Files’ and the absurdity of the RPG ‘Paranoia’ (but without the slapstick element of the latter, as this would make things less frightening). Dark humor can add to the atmosphere of a horror RPG if done correctly and still illicit a graveyard laugh as well.

At first glance, it would seem that adding layers of bureaucratic complexity to an RPG would be antithetical to fun, but it can lead to a great deal of added enjoyment for the players and the GM. For example, if the players are running an MJ-12 team, each one of them will be from a different governmental department as well, which will give them objectives in addition to the ones that they are officially assigned – any AGs that they belong to may also do the same (an especially sadistic GM may make the objectives contradict each other). This maze of divided loyalties will inspire a flurry of rapidly scribbled notes to the GM from players anxious to hide their activities from their comrades, which in turn inspires suspicion as everyone wonders what their fellow players are getting up to. . .all this during a dangerous mission where team cooperation is essential.  It’ll be fun, trust me.

With all of these conflicting agendas running amok, it’s probably a good thing that the players cannot be permanently killed (at least not without filling out several forms first).  I originally liked this idea because it allowed for all of the drama of player character death with few of the consequences. It could also give the player new role playing opportunities as they may be assigned a radically different new morph after being reintegrated, or, lacking access to a medical facility, existing as a mobile cortical stack or even uploaded into another character’s memory and sharing their headspace with them.

If the idea of playing bureaucratic commandos doesn’t sound appealing, the game will have character options for an urban mercenary campaign a la Shadowrun, interplanetary and interdimensional explorers, deep sea habitation on Earth or Europa and many others. If you have your own idea for a setting, the simple game mechanics could easily be modified to suit it.

Finally, there’s my choice of the Savage Worlds rules set as the medium through which the game will be played. Savage Worlds has been my go-to gaming system for several years now, and I’ve done some informal adaptations of other gaming universes, including Star Trek and Shadowrun.

Why Savage Worlds? In short, it has a good balance between the narrative and tactical aspects of gaming while not taking itself too seriously. Player actions are quickly resolved by rolling a couple of dice, and if the player isn’t satisfied with the result, they have a limited ability to alter the outcome to their satisfaction by spending ‘Bennies’ that will allow a re-roll. Players start out each gaming session with only two of these, but more can be earned over the course of the game through good roleplaying.

Combat is also quickly resolved thanks to an intuitive combat system that can resolve most conflicts in matter of minutes, allowing everyone to jump back into the narrative again quickly. While the tactical system might lack some of the nuances of Shadowrun’s, I’ve found that most players don’t really care about the finer points of tactics, preferring a more cinematic style that delivers action without taking all evening.

Everything about the game from character creation to leveling up emphasizes getting and keeping the players involved and having fun with no needless complexity that only serves to slow down play and give fodder to rules lawyers, min maxers and other assorted Munchkins.

Because of its simplicity, it’s easy to mod and makes designing your own gaming world simpler by providing a framework on which you can hang your ideas. I hope you find my attempt at doing so enjoyable and fun.

‘Advent of Carcosa’ is a combination of several ideas gleaned from sci-fi novels, other RPGs and my own imagination. I hope you find the result to be both entertaining and scary – sweet dreams!