Imagine for a moment that you are a multiclass thief-chef. You can create a dish to make a statue drool and steal its shoes in one smooth motion. The world is such that only the most legendary chefs can generate their own ingredients (and even then only rarely) so each night you slip into the shadows hoping to obtain the perfect spice for your next dish.
One day, while raiding a pantry the lights flick on and you are caught. A bleary eyed chef spies you raiding her cupboard and her jaw sets. She shakes her head in disappointment and disapproval. “How dare you steal those herbs.” she spits, advancing on you “They won’t combine properly with the spices that you took from next door.” Of course! She’s a chef too and whatever ingredients she has she acquired elsewhere.
And so you talk late into the night about theft and cooking and capers and ideas and meals, in the morning you leave with a bundle of herbs and spices under your arm and her best wishes that your larcenous meal succeed.
This is broadly how it feels to be a game designer.
New designers are always excited to try to come up with new mechanics, but the truth is that it’s exceptionally rare to do so. I think that I may have seen it done exactly twice in my life time. The skill in design is more about combining existing ideas in new ways. Whether we’re aware of them or not, the games we’ve played influence our designs and despite each game being an original creation they each owe something to the games that have come before, right back to the first person who decided that knucklebones roll kinda funny and maybe we should carve some numbers into them. In the run up to getting ready to launch my new game, Wizard’s Academy, I wanted to take a minute to reflect on some of the cooperative games that I’ve played and the things that they’ve inspired me to do in my own design.
Lord of the Rings – Losing is fun
The first cooperative game I ever played was Lord of the Rings and it was brutal. I’d meet with Ben (who owned it) every few weeks or so. We must have played dozens of games and I’m not sure if we ever won. I’m not sure if the game was hard or if we were just inexperienced back then, but that’s beside the point. We lost over and over again and kept coming back. “Maybe this time. Maybe this will be the time we finally win.” It’s a feeling that added something to the game that can’t be captured by all players in a competitive game.
It was obvious from early playtests that Wizard’s Academy was at its best when everything was going wrong. Players became animated as more of the building caught fire and revelled in just how bad the situation had gotten (and whispered that perhaps they could pull it back). Doing a bit of digging and light survey work I came to the conclusion that people seem to enjoy coops that they lose approximately 70% of the time and that the feeling of pulling things back from the brink of disaster is important – so the game is balanced towards this. Of course different groups have different levels of skill (and tolerances for failure) so each scenario has an easy, normal and hard setting and some are harder than others to begin with – as of this moment there is one scenario that has never successfully been completed on hard.
Shadows over Camelot – Talkers gonna talk
Shadows isn’t strictly a cooperative game, there’s a chance for there to be a traitor, but when I first came across this I played with small groups so as often as not we didn’t have one to contend with. In Shadows you can’t tell anyone what’s in your hand, but that allows you to talk about it in vague terms. The problem is that the cards are numbered 1 to 5 and most people appear to believe that “I’ve got a high card, but it’s not as high as it could be.” isn’t the same as “I’ve got a four.” Regardless of the game, it seems that if players want to communicate something, they’ll find a way, even if they’re forced to resort to elaborate charades.
There’s a reason that cooperative game designers want to limit information to certain players: Coops quickly fall apart when one player decides they’re the brains of the operation and starts giving all of the other players orders about how to play successfully. For Wizard’s Academy I started with the assumption that players will communicate what they know and tried to find ways to stop a single player dominating from that standpoint. I was a psychologist before I was a game designer and there are limits to what the human brain is capable of, so I designed elements of the game to make it more efficient to split planning and reasoning tasks between players rather than trying to give all of the information to the player who thinks they’re the smartest to solve. I could write a whole article on just this, but I’d summarise by saying that overloading working memory is not a perfect solution but overall the playtest results have been very positive and the game generates an above average amount of collaborative decision making.
Sentinel’s of the Multiverse – Sometimes people die.
When I was first introduced to Sentinel’s one of the things that I liked was how it attempted to deal with dead players. If you want a game to have an element of risk, then the consequence for defeat must be meaningful, but you don’t want to have to eliminate a player or push them into a position where their decisions have no impact on the game. Sentinel’s deals with this by having players that die being knocked down and still getting to choose to supply some small but important bonus to their allies each turn. It doesn’t always work but it seems like a good direction to push failure in cooperative games.
Self-immolation is a core concept for Wizard’s Academy, a game in which you can’t set fire to yourself isn’t about magical experimentation. The answer to “what to do with players who make fatal mistakes” turned out to double as the answer for “what to do if the game becomes unplayable but hasn’t hit an end condition”. The mana crystal starts with a pool of mana tokens and whenever a player is killed it burns one to save them. They can also be discarded to solve other problems, by killing threats or rotating rooms, but once they run out the power holding up the building is gone and it collapses to a pile of rubble around you. Every player is in until the end and every problem is solvable – but each mistake brings the group closer to a collective defeat.
Space Alert – Theme changes everything.
I fell in love with Space Alert the first time I’ve played it, I know real time games aren’t for everyone, but it was delightful to me. Generally I’m a mechanics first kind of a guy, but there are so many times that my enjoyment of Space Alert has come down to its theme. There is a huge difference in the emotional reaction to “I put the wrong card down two turns ago and so now my new card won’t work.” and “I’m standing in the interceptor room hammering the launch button again and again with my balled fist, but all that’s happening is that the robots are in the next room looking at me quizzically because I forgot to activate them.”
This sort of piggybacking is great for helping players to learn rules too. It’s hard to remember that a klark will eliminate a blarglargh if they’re in the same room – but nobody has trouble grasping that you should remove fire tokens from rooms that are underwater. I knew that I wanted a lot of interacting elements so that players can go through the game in the style of the old lady who swallowed a fly. Thematic interactions make the game learnable and playable. If I told you that the game contains fire, water, ice, imps, trolls and demons you could make some educated guesses about how most of those elements interact and the rules can fill in the blanks, allowing for a greater amount of depth from a lesser level of complexity.
Pandemic – Some people just want to watch the world burn
I think that one of the reasons that Pandemic has been such a huge success is that with a very limited set of components it does a very good job of visually displaying how bad the situation is. The visual of a pile of disease cubes scattered across a recognisable map of the Earth is very powerful and “more cubes = more bad” is comfortably inside even the most unimaginative person’s comfort zone. If players thrive on being in a losing position and clawing their way back from the brink of defeat, then the more obviously, immediately and viscerally a game tells them that they’re in a losing position the better.
It’s difficult to playtest for this sort of effect, because what I really need is for unrelated strangers to walk past, glance and the board and say “You guys are stuffed! How did you manage to set the library on fire and freeze the hoard into a solid block of ice in the same game?” Elements have proven pretty successful in this regard, when there are fire tokens everywhere it’s pretty obvious how bad that is. Enemies can be more subtle, as they are less numerous and do not replicate themselves so quickly (conversely, a big fire grows faster than a small fire) but using miniatures to represent them has been a huge visual boost.
Dr. Gregory Carslaw is the lead game designer at 3D Total. He blogs about game design at 3dtotalgames.com. His current game “Wizards Academy” is on Kickstarter now.