Sunday, February 16, 2014

Playtest -- The Last Two People On Earth

One of my projects is to create some roleplaying games that are specifically designed for just two players. I won't claim an extensive enough knowledge of the RPG market to claim that such games are rare, but they certainly present a unique challenge. For my first attempt, I took on a post-apocalyptic theme. The two players are, so far as they know, the last two people on Earth.

The mechanics are pretty obviously inspired by Fiasco. For the setup phase, players each roll a pool of dice, then use the numbers shown to pick items out of a table to create the scenario. The scenario defines things like the nature of the apocalypse, how the players' characters survived, and how they met. For the main game, the players re-roll their dice and use them to select scene prompts which the other player must then work into their scene. At the end, the players use their remaining dice to select their characters' ultimate fates.

In our game, we decided that the apocalypse had been caused when the government finally tried to control the minds of everyone who had been drinking fluoridated water their entire life. This didn't go so well, and so everyone died, and now packs of wild dogs roamed the ruins. Our characters were Justin Bieber, who survived due to prodigious consumption of vitamins, and Lieutenant Colonel Dolores Gripley, who had just emerged from several years in a secret government cryogenics experiment. They met while scavenging in the ruins of the Cedar St. Giant Eagle in Pittsburgh. Justin appealed to Dolores for help, because while the store was still full of food, he (as a pampered pop star) had no idea how to cook it. Dolores didn't recognize him (having been frozen during his entire career), but she took pity on him.

Accompanied by Justin's trusty dog Artie, the two set off to the park by the river to eat, when they came upon the corpses of Justin's fans who had been leaving his show at PNC Park when everything went wrong. They both fled onto the 9th Street Bridge -- Justin because the bodies were covered with bugs, and Dolores because she hallucinated that they were coming back to life. Upon hearing Dolores's story, Justin tried to go back, thinking his fans would help him. Instead of his fans, though, he encountered a pack of wild dogs. Artie ran ahead, and somehow charmed the wild dogs. Justin reasoned that just like he was famous among humans, Artie must be famous among dogs, and so the wild dogs were his dog fans.

Dolores was increasingly confused, so Justin turned on his radio, hoping to hear one of his songs so that he could show Dolores how famous he was. Instead, the radio picked up a bulletin calling for any survivors to rendezvous at the WESA studio in the Southside.

Justin, Dolores, Artie, and the wild dogs proceeded to the Southside where they found the WESA staff as well as several visiting NPR personalities barricaded in the studio. Carl Kasell was guarding the entrance with a machine gun. He confessed that he was Justin's father. He had wanted to reconnect, but he couldn't afford a ticket to one of Justin's shows. In order to verify the identities of anyone seeking refuge in the studio -- to make sure they weren't part of the government conspiracy -- the studio dispatched a team of crack investigative reporters. Steve Inskeep, who had for some reason been turned into a minotaur, came out to check out Dolores and Justin. Justin grabbed Steve's microphone and sang an impassioned concert all night, proving his identity and bringing tears to everyone listening.

In the end, everyone from the studio set out down the Ohio River on the Gateway Clipper (renamed the Gateway Bieber). Justin reveled in his new NPR-listener fan base, and Dolores fell in love with Carl Kasell.

Draft rules -- The Last Two People On Earth

Monday, February 10, 2014

RPG night -- Dread, Cold War edition

Tonight we played a round of Dread. The players were members of the President's entourage and other hangers-on chilling at Camp David. We had President Hellmutt, who had blatantly stolen the election and built a stained-glass fallout shelter at Camp David. There was his not-so-secret lover the hippie Sunshine Happiblossom, who was an activist for men's rights and a hater of all things Guatemalan. Unfortunately for her, we also had Guatemalan ambassador Sylvia Contreras-Ayala, who hoped to retire from politics to become CEO of the United Fruit Company. There was journalist Drake Johnson, who was a secret communist spy, as was Ruth Gilberg, a CIA agent under cover as a janitor. And finally we had General Prescott Wainwright, who believed strongly in getting Americans to produce as many children as possible for cannon fodder.

Our story began with the President and the General having a beer in the stained glass fallout shelter and discussing this comm-u-nism thing that the President didn't really understand. The President was getting well and truly sloshed when a marine ran in to tell him that there was a call for him from Admiral Birkbickler on the red phone in the command center. The President and General rushed to the phone, with the CIA agent and Ambassador both disguised as cleaning staff following. The Admiral informed them that he had just gotten word that Soviet submarines bearing nuclear warheads were within striking distance of New York, New Orleans, San Francisco, Honolulu, and -- the phone line was cut before he could tell the President the last city being threatened. The President drunkenly marked the cities on a wall map, putting the marks in wildly inaccurate locations (such as Fargo, ND).

The other characters were waiting outside, where they saw a helicopter painted with a hammer and sickle land in the grass. Three Soviet soldiers and an older man in a suit emerged. The older man declared himself to be the Soviet Premier, here to demand the unconditional surrender of the United States. He explained that he had cut all communication lines out of Camp David, except for the enormous satellite phone that he carried with him. If the captains of the nuclear submarines didn't get a call from him with a secret code phrase in five hours, they had orders to nuke their respective target cities. The CIA agent pulled out a gun and shot the helicopter's fuel tank, causing it to explode -- but remained hidden so nobody else knew she was the one responsible.

After some back and forth, the President and General agreed to meet with the Premier at the stained glass fallout shelter. The Ambassador managed to grab the satellite phone from the Soviets to try to call for a Guatemalan helicopter to come rescue her. All of the Soviet soldiers turned their guns on her, at which point the General ordered the US marines to fire on the Soviets and ducked behind the beer fridge. The President also pulled out a gun. The three Soviet soldiers were killed. The CIA agent (being a commie traitor) took a shot at the president, wounding him in the head. The Hippie rushed to help him. The marines took the phone from the Ambassador and gave it to the General, who called Washington and ordered a preemptive nuclear strike on Russia.

At this point a backup Soviet helicopter, having seen the wreckage of the first one, landed, and four soldiers got out. The Premier rushed to the safety of his newly arrived comrades. The Journalist grabbed the phone and tried to call his communist contacts to let them know about the American nuclear strike, but the marines interrupted him. Luckily for the Reds, the CIA agent was able to dive into the meelee and complete the call. The marines seized her and locked her in a broom closet, while the Journalist fled to the Soviet helicopter. In the commotion, a stray bullet from one of the marines killed the General. The CIA agent used her knowledge of the fallout shelter's secret passageways to escape through a ventilation duct.

Meanwhile, the President rushed outside and took a shot at the Premier. It hit him, and the Soviet soldiers rushed his unmoving body onto the helicopter. The Journalist convinced the Soviets to wait a few minutes so that the CIA agent could join them, since she was a communist too.

The Ambassador now showed up with an army of cleaning staff, gardeners, and other common people who were around at Camp David. They took the satellite phone and made a series of calls to the cleaning staff at the three US missile bases and five Soviet nuclear submarines, telling them to disarm the warheads. (In terms of game mechanics, this required the Ambassador to make eight separate pulls from the tower.)

New York ... saved.

New Orleans ... saved.

San Francisco ... saved.

Moscow ... saved.

Stalingrad ... saved.

Mystery US city ... saved.

Honolulu ... saved.

Leningrad ... saved.

With the world now saved, the Hippie decided to take out the two leaders who had gotten us into this mess. She grabbed the President's gun and shot him (giving him a nice symmetrical wound to the one he got from the CIA agent). She charged the Soviet helicopter, hoping to finish off the Premier, but was killed by the Soviet soldiers.

In the end, the two traitors got away in the Soviet helicopter, the Ambassador became a major union organizer in Guatemala, and the President survived impeachment but lost his reelection campaign. And the mystery city really was Fargo, ND.

Here's a file with the player questionnaires if you'd like to play a Cold War Dread game.

Cognitive vs social approaches to analysis paralysis

Luke Laurie has a useful post listing some strategies that game designers can use to cut down on "analysis paralysis" -- the tendency of players to take inordinate amounts of time to make decisions, slowing down the game. I thin Laurie's list of 10 specific strategies can be lumped into two basic approaches: reduce cognitive barriers and reduce incentives to continue investing congitive effort. The "reduce cognitive barriers" lump includes things like separating phases for different actions and reducing visual clutter. These strategies help players' brains process relevant information faster and more easily. The "reduce incentives to continue investing cognitive effort" lump involves things like randomizing outcomes that make it impossible or worthless to game out long chains of consequences and counter-moves.

The word "cognitive" appears in both of my (inelegant) labels above because Laurie's approach is basically cognitive. That is, he treats players as basically rational agents trying to maximize their achievement of a goal (winning the game), under constraints posed by the game itself and their own mental shortcomings. This is certainly a huge part what board games are about! Strategizing to win is at the heart of what draws most players to gaming.

Nevertheless, games also have affective (feelings) and social aspects too. Consider Arkham Horror, featured in the last photo in Laurie's post. There's a lot of strategy that goes into playing Arkham Horror. But people play it just as much for the feeling -- to experience the horror and madness of a Lovecraftian world. And board games are usually a social activity, to be played with and against other players rather than just solitaire or against a computer AI. I've found that analysis paralysis can vary greatly with the social dynamic of the game. For example, one of my early plays of Alien Frontiers was with a group especially prone to analysis paralysis, so the game dragged on forever. I nearly swore off it, but in subsequent plays with a different crowd it flowed smoothly. So I think that in addition to the cognitive solutions to analysis paralysis that Laurie proposes, there are also solutions to be found in the affective and social realms too. I can't claim to have an exhaustive list, so I'll just focus on one.

Laurie's last suggestion is to create simultaneous actions. On a mechanical level, this can speed up a game by letting multiple players do their analysis at the same time rather than having to wait to do them one after the other. But I have found that it also exerts beneficial social forces. On the one hand, there is social pressure on slower players to make a decision, because the whole group is waiting to do something together. On the other hand, it reduces the scrutiny directed at one player by the others who are waiting for their own turns. Together, these two forces push players to get to the point. Seven Wonders makes a good example of this. Nobody wants to be the person holding up the round by taking too long to pick their card, but you also have some breathing room to think while other people pick their cards. I use a similar approach in Bunny Money Gunny, as players pick their card order simultaneously then reveal them simultaneously. In playtests, slower players are swept along socially to avoid analysis paralysis.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Balance, fairness, and meaningful choices

Max Seidman suggests that game designers should think about balancing a game in terms of ensuring meaningful choices rather than ensuring fairness. As he defines it, "Balancing is the act of tweaking numbers (resources, probabilities, options, etc.) to ensure that players always have at least two interesting and equally appealing choices during their turns."

As I see it, there are two ways of making a choice not meaningful. One is to have a clearly dominant option. Seidman spends a lot of time on this aspect in his post, discussing the ways that designers can prune away "false choices" where the correct strategy is obvious, and ensure that there are 2-3 equally appealing options. The other way to make a choice not meaningful is to make the options not matter. If two options are equally appealing, but things will probably turn out the same regardless of which one you pick, then the choice isn't that meaningful either. It has to be clear to the player that the choice will affect the outcome of the game, and the connection between the choice and the outcome needs to be clear. The test of choice meaningfulness, I think, is that it's possible for a player to look back at their choice and say "dammit, I should have done X instead of Y!" If the choice is meaningless in the first sense, nobody will have done Y in the first place. And if it's meaningless in the second sense, players won't think that doing X would have changed anything (because they were destined to fail/win anyway, or because it's unclear whether the X-vs-Y choice made any difference).

This second aspect of choice meaningfulness brings the issue of fairness back in. Unfairness tends to make choices lose meaning in the second way described above. Imagine a game where the first player has a substantial advantage simply by virtue of going first. If the other players recognize this, then their choices will become less meaningful. They can start to feel like it doesn't matter what they choose, as they'll probably lose anyway. Similarly, the player with the unfair advantage will stop worrying about their choices, because they know they can easily coast to victory.

This is why fairness can be so important in a purely strategy-based game -- that is, a game where the only goal is to achieve a concrete victory condition. So we see excruciating efforts at fairness in classic abstract games (e.g. Go, Scrabble) and heavy Euro games (e.g. Agricola, Village). When a game is "unfair," there is usually some other non-strategic goal that makes choices still meaningful. This might be the case in a very atmospheric, theme-heavy game. For example, a horror themed game might make certain players probably doomed, but their choices are still meaningful because they help define the nature of the horror. I might be dead either way, but it matters to the feel of the game how I choose to die. The extreme case of this is a heavily narrative-based roleplaying game like Fiasco. In Fiasco there's no effort at all to "balance" character abilities in terms of making those characters able to "win." Choices are meaningful because of how they influence character development and how they produce situations that the other characters will have to react to. A good Fiasco setup is balanced in the sense of giving characters multiple appealing paths to interestingly different story endings.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Kittens and Rainbows and _____

I have some friends who are not big fans of Cards Against Humanity, so I threw together a game of the same type based on things that are adorable and cuddly. Since it's a riff on some existing games I don't intend to go any farther with it in terms of publishing, but I thought I'd put it up here for print-and-play purposes. Print out the "cute things" cards on one color of cardstock, and the "quotes" cards on another color (pick cute colors, like pink and lavender).

The game plays basically like Cards Against Humanity or Apples To Apples. Each player gets a hand of 7 cute things cards. On your turn, flip over the top quote card, which gives a heartwarming or inspirational quote with a blank in it. Each other player selects a card from their hand that they think best fills in the blank in the quote and hands it, face down, to the player whose turn it is. Note that some quotes have two blanks, but players still only hand in one card, because those blanks should both be filled in with the same word -- e.g. "When life gives you [puppies], make [puppy]-ade." Each other player then draws a cute thing card to refill their hand. The player whose turn it is shuffles the cards they were handed, then turns them over one by one, reading out the quote with that card filled into the blank. The player should be generous about grammar, adjusting plurals and tenses, etc, as needed to make the quote flow nicely. The player whose turn it is then chooses, on whatever basis they like, the cute thing that they think best completes the quote. The player who had put that card in takes the quote card as a scoring token, and the cute things cards are placed in the discard. (Alternate "democracy is cuter than dictatorship" rule -- all of the players discuss and vote on which cute thing best completes the quote, with the player whose turn it is casting a tiebreaking vote if necessary.)

Cute things cards

Quote cards