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.

Related posts:

  1. Disciples: Design Baseline

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  • Games

    I think there is a good game with this story as the baseline, but how it’s proposed here just doesn’t work for me. The actions and motivations of Moses and Pharaoh represent such a bigger picture (the prosperity of entire nations) that actions like “add bricks to pyramid”  and “gather straw” just seem out of place to me. Currying favor with various Egyptian factions doesn’t really fit the story either.

    One thing I think is great from these ideas is the “hardness of Pharaoh’s heart” track. I would suggest building the entire game around this. Israelites win if  Moses gets Pharaoh to let his people go (by reaching a certain point on this track). Pharaoh/Egyptians win if Moses is unable to do this after X turns. Plagues would be one of the ways that Pharaoh’s heart is softened.

  • http://www.belltowergames.com Jeff

    Thanks for your comment!  Although there’s of course a bigger picture than simply the “brick economy”, I think that in the text, the main interface between Pharaoh and the Israelites is economic, so that’s where I’ve chosen to focus the game for now.  That’s not to say it couldn’t change as development continues.

    Of course, there’s more to the game than what I’ve said so far (I can probably post a rulebook and some images soon), but in a very real sense, the action in the game does revolve around Pharaoh’s disposition towards the Israelites, in this sense:

    – If Pharaoh’s “heart track” is below a certain threshold, he is susceptible to a plague.  Pharaoh’s pyramid consists of 3 levels; with each level that he completes, this threshold increases.

    – Pharaoh’s “heart track” sets the payout that Pharaoh must give to Moses for each brick that Moses completes, AND, the “cost” for Moses to advance the “Israelites” track (his victory condition).

    So Pharaoh has a balancing act — if he’s too lenient, the Israelites will be able to leave before the pyramid is finished, but too harsh and he exposes himself to plagues.

    At the same time, I think it’s important to the spirit of the story that Pharaoh ultimately and directly controls the position of the heart track.  Although a game in which the Moses player tries to influence this could work mechanically, I am (at this point, anyway) inclined to leave the heart track as a lever that only Pharaoh has the means to adjust.

  • Seth Jaffee

    This idea sounds really neat and interesting! I fully suspect it would not be the kind of game I like though – I seldom play 2p games in the first place, and this one sounds like it’d either feel like “I’m damned if I do, and I’m damned if I don’t” most of the time, or else it’ll be super obvious what to do to make the other guy not win. I’m not sure that’s true, just the impression that I get from imagining playing (and admittedly I don’t actually know the rules) – maybe not until the end, but at some point:

    “Let’s see, if I buy this brick, I lose, so I guess I won’t bu a brick!” or “If I buy this last brick I win, what do you mean you won’t sell it to me?”

    I suppose it’s likely there are other ways to get gold or brick, or perhaps there’s some hidden ‘scoring’ to alleviate that situation.

    This theme could probably also be done as a cooperative game – the players trying to get the Hebrews out of Egypt while the disposition of Pharaoh changes over time (as a result of game play).

    I remember explaining the story of Passover (which is this very thing) one time and thinking “there MUST be a game in there somewhere!” but I never pursued it.

    Good luck!

    Oh, and I do not feel as Tim does about the scope of the actions in the game – it sounded OK to me.

  • http://www.belltowergames.com Jeff

    Hey Seth,

    Good points.  Keeping in mind that it’s still in an early stage, here’s what I think might alleviate the concern of obvious decisions or being forced to lose.  There are two considerations that are relevant, I think.

    The first is that each turn consists of five rounds, during each of which you play an action card and take its associated action, and you MUST play a card if you have one each time.  (That means that Moses can’t just be obstructionist and refuse to make any bricks at all, e.g.).  But, one of the “influence” areas I mentioned pertains to how many action cards you get next turn, so by loading that box up, you’ll have more cards than you need and can therefore avoid playing cards that help your opponent more than you (and in any case, you still determine the order).

    Second, the cards almost all have a choice of this sort:  “Build 1/2/3 bricks, receive 1/2/3 influence”, so you’re also choosing the degree to which you’ll take that action and it will be influenced both by how much it helps your opponent (“if I build 2 bricks, he can demand them and add them to his pyramid for the win…”) and how much your strategy revolves around winning one or more of the influence categories (“…but if I only produce one brick, I won’t get the 2 influence that I need to win the ‘Miriam’ leader card that I really need”)

    But your overall point is well taken, obvious decisions are absolutely to be avoided in the design!

  • Seth Jaffee

    I forgot to mention – to reduce bit cont, couldn’t you track things like bricks/gold on the board rather than with tokens? Also, cardboard chits don’t take much room and are relatively cheap.

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