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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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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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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!

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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!