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!

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.

Disciples: Design Baseline

Since this blog will track the progress of games we’re working on, it seemed like a good idea to provide a baseline for each game, since few of them are starting truly from scratch.  Disciples is the oldest game of the bunch, so it seems like the best one to start with.

I’ve been working on Disciples, or “The Acts of the Disciples”, for quite a few years, and it’s one of three games that I’ve designed that I consider truly complete (the others being a whimsical card game called “Santa’s Reindeer” and a heavy civ-building game called “The Sands of Time“).  It’s been under development since about 2003.

The players take on the role of Jesus’ disciples.  The game board shows 6 cities in 1st century Palestine, and the game’s action revolves around “Deed cards”, each of which is associated with one of the cities, and represents a need that the players can meet (and each is based on an event from one of the Gospel accounts).  Each Deed card is associated with one of four action categories, and each category has a cost track that indicates how many cards a player must pay to perform a Deed in that category.

A player’s turn consists of acquiring action cards, traveling to a different city, paying action cards to meet the conditions of a Deed card, or asking Jesus to perform a Deed (which resets the corresponding Action cost track.  After that, Jesus moves toward the town that has the most remaining Deed cards.

What motivates a player to want to pursue one Deed over another?  There are several considerations.  When a player performs a Deed, he receives a point from the Deed, plus an additional point if Jesus is in the same city, plus an additional point if one or more additional players in the same city (and each of them receives a point as well).  Additionally, each player has 2 secret “goal” cards, which provide additional points at game’s end if the players’ deeds meet some particular condition.

The Deeds also incur consequences on one or more of the “political tracks”, which reflect the reaction of the Jews, Pharisees, and Rome, to the actions of the Disciples.  The Rome track is one of the game clocks — when it reaches its end, the game ends.  However, the Pharisees track acts as another game clock of sorts — it reflects the number of VPs the player who holds the “Judas” goal card will receive if he elects to end the game.

Yes, this means that Disciples has a “traitor” mechanic, which unfortunately has become quite common in cooperative games over the last few years (although of course, Disciples is not a cooperative game).  In Disciples, the traitor functions a bit differently — he isn’t trying to subvert the group’s mission, nor is he forced to act as the traitor — choosing to end the game and take the payout is entirely volitional.  But as the Pharisees track clicks up high and higher, the possibility of a big VP payout should seem increasingly tempting to the player, and this is exactly what the mechanic is trying to simulate.

Disciples has been tested extensively, and the goals are reasonably well balanced, as is the traitor relative to the other players.  Because it’s been some time since I last played it, I’m hoping to approach it as a developer instead of as a designer, and look for ways to simplify, reduce clutter, and make the game more approachable and playable for new players and, particularly, new or less experienced gamers.  Although Disciples is a medium-weight game, there might be aspects of the game that are still somewhat too confusing for non-gamers; hopefully playtests with a broader audience will help me to find out!

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!