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Dreams of bureaucracy quickly turn to nightmares

Jeff Warrender
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Averill Park
New York
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I talked some time ago about a game based on a favorite book of mine, The Palace of Dreams, and some of the ideas pointed to ways to take this impressionistic and dreamlike narrative and build a fairly conventional game around it, albeit with some innovations of course. But solo testing of each iteration has really come up empty; the game just doesn’t yet have a good answer for what you do as the player and furthermore I think that if the game can answer this then in a way the game has failed. The whole point is supposed to be that you’re sort of feeling your way around in the dark through a complicated political landscape and so the more concrete the game’s actions, the more conventional it will seem.

Now I happen to like conventional games but I really think this one idea has the potential to be unlike anything else; to make players ask what the heck is going on and whether it’s even a game at all. But I don’t know how to do it.

I mentioned previously that one of the things that resonates from the story is that you have this vast bureaucracy that the Sultan views with absolute confidence, but the powerful, realizing this, find ways to take advantage of that bureaucracy for their own ends.

This creates a challenge for the game though. On the one hand the action in the book is minimalist, and the game should be this way as well. On the other hand it’s about weaponizing a bureaucracy and how can you weaponize a bureaucracy unless the game depicts that bureaucracy in all its convoluted messiness? Don’t you need an economy and a political layer and a military layer and all the other stuff that a State would have? So it seems that minimalism and bureaucracy might be at cross purposes.

I have what I think is an absolutely wicked answer to this. And I mean this in the malevolent sense, not the Boston sense. The idea is that the game could include a vast, dense, and practically impenetrable rulebook, so hopelessly long and convoluted that you couldn’t possibly hope to know all the rules. Perhaps it’s even that many of the rules are hidden under lock and key, legacy style, and only through certain points are you given permission to access certain sections of the rule book; then you as a player have to figure out how to use that portion of rules to your advantage. Ie you know rules that the other players don’t, and can spring them on the players when the situation permits it.

I suspect it’s something like, the rules that actually govern gameplay proper are the first four pages, and then there are a hundred pages of exceptions and special situations and clarifying commentary and brownie recipes and tax forms and all sorts of other stuff. So you can play the game using the basic rules but it’s impossible to actually k ow all of the rules to the game; these are discovered in the playing, but it’s not something like Nomic where we add rules as we go, rather it’s that we uncover rules that were there all along.

A related idea was to give players cards that confer powers on them, which they can use, but they never actually reveal to the other players what the text on those cards say. This could create a lot of “wait, what?” confusion and paranoia, “what are you doing? How are you allowed to do that?” Perhaps there’s some way of challenging a person’s right to do what they claim to be authorized to do but doing so carries some risk; if your challenge fails you lose some prestige or something.

The inspiration for this one at least is the invisible glove (I think) in Dragon’s Gold, that lets you steal freely until another player catches you and calls you out.

“Wouldn’t this allow cheating?” Yes, hopefully. I think that’s part of what this game is straining at, a game whose interaction and friction aren’t circumscribed by the game’s rules but rather by the creativity of the players themselves. It’s a game without guard rails. Obviously this will put off a lot of players and that’s fine, there are a zillion games that behave conventionally.

I don’t know how to do this and I don’t know if I can pull it off. But I’m trying to walk slowly and not force it down a particular path, and guarding against anything that looks too much like a conventional game mechanic. This patient approach makes a game take forever to design but a couple of my games have turned out well (by my standards anyway) simply by waiting and refusing to force things so it can work, sometimes.
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Subscribe sub options Fri Feb 14, 2020 2:24 pm
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