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Christmas Nativity: Design Baseline

Although I tend more towards designing and playing more “serious” games, it would probably benefit Belltower’s line to have a range of game styles.  My first thought for a lighter game is based loosely on Dirk Henn’s Showmanager, only instead of staging broadway plays, the players are staging Nativity Pageants.  There would be a deck of cards representing the different possible “actors”, and each actor has a rating for how well he/she can fill each role.  The illustrations should be comical, perhaps in the style of Slapshot/Phantoms of the Ice, which used to crack me up as a kid.

In terms of component design, one of the games that’s a hit in our house is Numbers League, in which players assemble superheroes using different “head”, “torso”, and “feet” cards, and the card design is great because any “head” can be connected with any “torso”, etc.  Here, I’m imagining that possibly each player has a mat onto which he places the various cards that he’s assigning to each role, and then there’s a clear plastic overlay that is placed over the mat that adds “costumes” to the illustrations on the cards.

In practical terms, the interest in the gameplay has to come from the process of getting cards into your hand in the first place.  Showmanager used a simple but clever drafting mechanic, whereby there’s a display of available actors, and you pay to draft a card.  The further to the right you draw from, the more the actor costs, and after you draft a card, you slide all the other cards down and add a new card to the right end of the display, so cards become “cheaper” the longer they stay in the display.  This has been emulated in Vinci and Through the Ages, for example, and it works very well.

A different idea I’ve toyed with is to auction off the cards.  Since there are so many roles to fill, individual auctions would drag out, but I came up with a simultaneous way of doing a “once around” auction for a different game, and it worked well there:  each player has a set of 8 “bid” cards, numbered 1-8.  The back of each card has 1, 2, or 3 coins (cards numbered 6-8 have 3 coins, 3-5 have 2 coins, 1-2 have 1 coin).  There would be 8 actors up for bid.  On your turn, you simply place a bid card in a row under one of the actors.  Then, after all players have bid, the bid cards are flipped over and whoever bid the highest (a) gets the card and (b) gets $ in an amount equal to the number of coins that are shown on the bid cards placed on that card.  In this way, you’re trying to get the cards you want, but also mindful of which way you might be throwing money with your low-value cards.  (Bizarrely, at about the same time I worked out this mechanic, a game called Maya came out with a very similar mechanic.)

It might make sense to try variations of this – eg maybe each player has a hand of cards, and must put 1 up for auction each turn, and he gets to keep the coins from the bid cards, so there’s some incentive to putting up a good actor instead of keeping him for yourself.  Or maybe it’s that actors are up for auction in “lots” of 2 or 3, and players get to choose from a lot that they bid on in order.

The mechanic was originally built around a game of archaeology, which had a couple of cool features.  On your turn, you paid one of your bid cards to send an explorer to one of 5 regions, and then recovered as many artifacts as the number of coins on the card, and those artifacts were then auctioned off via the aforementioned procedure, after everyone had had a chance to commission an expedition.  Now that I think about it, maybe that game could be resuscitated as a game of Biblical archaeology.  Hmm…


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Lord of the Rings: Design Baseline

Both games are in an extremely early design stage.  The War of the Ring game is a little further along – I’ve tested out a combat mechanic, and it works pretty well.  The combat is card-based, with each player amassing, through the “recruitment” mechanics (which are TBD) cards representing individual units; you shuffle your cards together and then flip them one at a time, War-style, evaluating each time which card is the stronger.  There’s more to it than this, and I’ll dedicate a post to describing the combat mechanic in detail.  But basically, the game involves traveling around the board rallying armies to your cause, then throwing them against the opposing sides’ armies to (a) buy time for the Quest to succeed (if you’re Gandalf or Aragorn or Denethor/Boromir), or (b) emerge as the replacement Dark Lord of Middle Earth (if you’re Saruman), or (c) stamp out all happiness in Middle Earth (if you’re Sauron).

The quest game is even rougher, but the core idea I’ve had from the beginning involves the search mechanic.  I think it will be something like Scotland Yard or Fury of Dracula, where Frodo moves in secret and the Nazgul player moves his ringwraiths around to try to force Frodo to put on the ring and reveal his whereabouts (at which point they can try to attack and capture him).  Frodo has a (hidden?) track that reflects his “ring resistance”, and the Nazgul player positions his ringwraiths; then Frodo adds their “pull” – 1 point for each ringwraith in a space adjacent to his current location, and 2 points for each ringwraith in the same space as Frodo – if this exceeds Frodo’s ring resistance, then Frodo puts on the ring and reveals his current position to the Nazgul player.  After that, they can potentially have a battle, possibly using the same card-based resolution that the other game will use.

This sounds ok enough, but the wild card thrown into the game is that a third player plays Gollum; he knows at all times where Frodo is, but must bide his time before striking and trying to recover the ring.  Because of his ability to find Frodo, he may be a useful quarry for the Nazgul player, but because he knows the secret paths that lead through enemy strongholds, he can also be a valuable ally, if a dangerous one, for Frodo.  What I don’t know is whether the Gollum player can also become “Smeagol”, and, through the kindness of Frodo, become united to the Quest, as Gollum apparently did in the books, at least for a time.  I could envision the Frodo playing “Frodo” cards that are weaker but help Gollum/Smeagol, or “Sam” cards, that are more powerful but that harm Gollum/Smeagol, pushing him to “the dark side”.  But I don’t know if the idea of a player’s victory condition changing mid-way through the game, would be too frustrating for that player, particularly if it can bifurcate back and forth (unless the player himself has some control over which way he’s going to go).

Needless to say, there’s lots of work to be done on both games, and throughout, there need to be interface points whereby the two games can interact with each other and even some room for some players to switch from one table to the other.  Some of these ideas are easy to conceive – for example, maybe the Sauron player determines how many Ringwraiths he’ll provide to the Nazgul player for use in the quest and how many he’ll keep for himself for their benefits as leaders of his armies.  Maybe Gandalf can hop between boards, alternately helping the Quest or the armies.  This isn’t actually the hard part – the hard part is having simple and clean mechanics in place for when the games are played in standalone mode, so that the game itself can handle this kind of thing.  So, even if there isn’t a “War of the Ring” game going on at the other table, the Nazgul player still needs to have some variability to his ringwraith quantity each turn, and Frodo needs to sometimes have access to Gandalf and sometimes not.

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The Lord of the Rings project

*Disclaimer:  Yes, yes, I know, you can’t just expect to publish a Lord of the Rings game without getting permission from the Tolkien estate.  This is just for fun, for now.  If we can’t get the license, this will go nowhere.  No sense asking for the license without a game that’s worthy of it!

Although there have been some great Lord of the Rings games over the last decade (Lord of the Rings, The Confrontation, and War of the Ring among them), I’ve for some time been kicking around ideas for a true multiplayer competitive game.  At first this sounds silly; aren’t there really only two sides, after all?  Not exactly, because the motivations of the different members of each side drive some of the consequential events in the story; the rivalry between Sauron and Saruman partially enables the quest to slip through the cracks, the concern of Boromir for the preservation of Gondor trumps his allegiance to the quest and ends up bringing about the end of the Fellowship.  These asymmetries in motivation are exactly the kind of thing that a game can exploit to create interest.  Players on the same side have goals that are compatible but not identical, and this could give rise to friction even among the players who are ostensibly allied.  Of course, to get the true richness of the story, it seems like you need room for a lot of parties – certainly, at a minimum, Frodo, Gandalf, Aragorn, Boromir, Sauron, Saruman, Gollum – at least 7 players! 

 More recently, with the Acts project (which I’ll talk more about at a later time), I’ve been thinking about ways that games could be combined in serial – where several games are played one-after-the-other, and the output of each feeds inputs into the setup of the successive game in the chain.  But in the past I’d also thought about games that could be played in parallel, ie, with multiple games going at the same time, and the action at one table affects the action at the other, and/or with some or all players having the ability to go back and forth between tables.  There are significant structural challenges to being able to do this, but in the first place, you need some concept of what exactly the action at different tables represents in the game world.  It seems like this is ideally suited to a LotR game, because there are really two different stories happening in parallel:  the quest of Frodo to destroy the Ring, and the War of the Ring waged between Sauron and the people of Rohan, Gondor, etc.  And more importantly, and crucially for this concept, there is fog-of-war that keeps the stories at an arm’s length from each other in the books, and this too seems well-communicated by two games happening on separate tables.  At certain points you may catch wind of how your “allies” at the other table are faring, but mostly you’re constrained to hoping and guessing.

 This also has some practical advantages; by splitting the game up, it not only avoids the practical issue of needing 6 friends just to play the game (with a smaller group, just play one game or the other), it avoids the downtime issue that inevitably arises when you try to accommodate 7 players in a turn-based game, so overall you can have a big-group game that doesn’t take too much longer than the individual games.

 The challenge, of course, is that each game needs to be great in its own right – you can hardly expect people to want to buy and play two games together if they aren’t both excellent!