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Moses and Pharaoh: Design Baseline

As I worked on Disciples, I contemplated what other Biblical stories might be suitable for treatment as a game.  As I’ll document in a separate post, some of the most familiar and beloved stories don’t really lend themselves to a game setting well, because a good game depends on replayability, and this requires the possibility of different outcomes.

The story of Moses is one that has broad familiarity, and has crossover appeal outside the community of believers, as evidenced by successful film treatments like The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt.  And the struggle between Moses and Pharaoh seemed to me from the beginning to have the potential for a good 2p game in the mold of the Kosmos 2p line like “Caeser and Cleopatra” or “Hera and Zeus”.

The game, in its present form, is a study in two design concepts.  The first is asymmetry – the sides have different objectives, and are deliberately imbalanced, giving each side different strengths and weaknesses.  The second is mutual dependence.  Pharaoh’s goal is to build his pyramid, but he depends on Moses to provide the bricks that he needs to build it.  Moses needs “gold” (an abstraction that will probably be changed, and that represents his ability to motivate the Hebrews), but he receives this by building bricks for Pharaoh.  So, each player requires the help of his opponent to acquire the currency that enables him to win the game.

This avoids being a zero-sum game by the variable payouts from the actions cards.  A player’s turn consists of playing an action card, perhaps “Build bricks” or “Gather straw” for Moses, or “Add bricks to the pyramid” or “Demand bricks” for Pharaoh.  But the player determines the degree to which he’ll perform the action (ie, how many bricks he’ll build, how many units of straw he’ll gather), and the “reward” he receives scales inversely with the benefit he claims from the action.  E.g., if a player elects to take more bricks, he receives a smaller reward.

The “reward” is the opportunity to place markers in one of several boxes, which represent the player’s influence with various Egyptian factions, each of whom pays out a reward at the end of the round.  One might provide a power card, one might provide some additional gold, e.g.

Of course, as everyone knows, the story of Moses and Pharaoh wouldn’t be complete without the infamous Plagues.  In Exodus, these are depicted as consequences that Pharaoh received for having “hardened his heart” to the people of Israel and the God of Israel.  In game terms, there’s a track that Pharaoh can freely adjust (as a turn action), that represents his “heart”, or his disposition relative to Israel.  The “softer” he becomes, the more he must pay them for the bricks they provide, and the easier it becomes for Moses to move the Hebrews towards the exit, BUT the less likely Pharaoh will be to get whacked by a plague.  If Pharaoh becomes too strict, Moses is authorized to flip the top “plague” card, and these have various effects but all are severely negative for Pharaoh.

The remaining design work pertains to selecting an appropriate mix of action cards for each player, determining the effects associated with each of the 4 bins, and balancing the consequences of the plague cards so that they aren’t too weak (such that Pharaoh doesn’t have to worry about them) or too powerful (such that Pharaoh automatically loses if he gets hit by one).

Development work is also needed to address the component manifest – the game has a board, a full deck of cards, “straw” pieces, “brick” pieces, “gold” pieces, “influence cubes”, and a couple of markers.  That’s probably too big a production for a small-box 2p game of the Kosmos variety; it’s not clear whether the game would warrant a bigger-box 2p production like “Mr. Jack”, for instance.  Matching the production to the price point the game can support will be a task for development after some of the design work settles into place.

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The beginning…

Welcome to Belltower Games’ design blog.  I’ll use this blog to document progress on games that we are designing or developing for possible release by Belltower Games.  For posts about Belltower’s publishing progress, check out the Belltower Historical Society.

I’ll separate the posts by game, so if there are only a couple of games that you’re actually interested in following, you can use the Categories at the right.  I’m sorry to say that I don’t know how to tailor the RSS feeds to where you can selectively subscribe to just a single category; if that’s possible and something you’d like me to do, let me know and I’ll look into it.

A couple of things we will try very hard not to do:

  • No teaser posts:  We won’t ever say, “I came up with an awesome mechanic, sorry, can’t tell you about it, you’ll just have to wait until it hits the store shelves!”  If it’s worth talking about enough to mention it, we’ll disclose details; most of the details, anyway.
  • No discussion of games under consideration:  Games submitted to Belltower are kept under strictest confidence.  We won’t say anything about games we’re evaluating for possible publication until a contract has been signed.
  • Post just to post:  The posts on this blog will appear when there’s progress, and won’t be on a particular schedule.  I hope that enough will be happening that there will be a steady stream of information flowing out through the blog, but every post will communicate something that we hope will be of interest.
  • No biographical stuff:  No details about where I’m going on vacation or which of my children has a cold or anything like that — this blog is just about games, period!

As of now, there are several games we’re working on internally.  The first three are part of a planned trilogy about the earliest days of the church, and are called The Acts of the Disciples, The Acts of the Apostles, and The Acts of the Evangelists.  The fourth is a 2p game called Moses and Pharaoh.  The fifth is a possible two-game project based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.  The sixth is a game about the abolition of the British slave trade, called “Amazing Grace” as a working title.

For each game, I’ve created a hub page providing some basic information, and for each, I’ll provide a baseline post to show the design stage at which it’s entering the process at Belltower.  Stay tuned!