Greg's Design Blog

A collection of posts by game designer Gregory Carslaw, including mirrors of all of his blogs maintained for particular projects. A complete index of posts can be found here:
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Once more with feeling

United Kingdom
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Original post (with over 100% more pictures)

A few days ago I got into a discussion about games and emotion and yesterday I ran a playtest for Wizard Academy. The two intersected very neatly. The thrust of the discussion was about how to design games that instilled players with emotions. It's hard to worry about having twelve blurbs on the board and a lack of blarges with which to remove them, but players can get excited by the notion that everything is on fire and the extinguisher doesn't work.

When I wrote the game I was focusing on interacting elements that would easily piggyback into a players existing understanding of the world. On an abstract level, I wanted a game that forced players to conceptualise problems as solutions to each other and for there to be a fairly large number of these problem-solutions to create emergent play. But to give players a chance to memorise the interactions between pieces, and for the game not to seem arbitrary and cruel, I had to hook the idea into their existing understanding of the world. Fortunately the world is a muddle of problems that can be each other's solutions.

I would like to give credit for this, it's so cute, but I can't find the artist

So what has this got to do with emotion? I'm glad you asked hypothetical straw man, the link to emotion is through this piggybacking. It's very hard (though not impossible) to write a game that will inspire a particular emotion, a much more practical approach is to write games onto which people can project their existing emotions. I think a lot of gamers have had that experience where they've got emotionally invested in a particular piece, who's been a big damn hero and held off a entire army on his own. There's nothing in the rules of a game that makes that happen, it's something that our imagination does to a piece once a situation has occurred that makes it stand out from all of the other identically moulded mass produced pieces. That can only happen where the game supports this view of the piece and makes its struggles comprehensible so when something unusual happens, the mind is able to have an emotional response to them.

Of course some players would view this as a weakness leading to suboptimal play. Those players win more games and probably don't have less fun - they're just out for a different kind of fun - but here we're talking about the sort of player who will invest some level of emotion in a game and in the fate of their little avatar and friends.

The reason I bring this up is that I want to share a story from the Wizard Academy playtest. One of the rooms is a crystal ball which allows players to manipulate monsters, making moves on their behalf. One of the monsters is a troll, which disables the power of any room that it is in. One of the spells is darkness, which makes a room hard for players to move through, but trolls fall asleep in dark rooms (The legends I heard as a child didn't conceptualise Trolls as nocturnal, though I'm aware that some notable sources disagree).

There's a troll in the crystal ball room, smashing things up and stopping it working. One player runs in and casts darkness to send the troll to sleep. Then they use the crystal to make another nearby troll walk into the room and also fall asleep. Over the next few turns they lure other trolls to the room to neutralise them. During the game, between discussions of strategy and assertions of certain doom, I counted a half dozen times where one player or another would make loving reference to the fact that they had created a troll crèche.

I've got a lot of work to do on this game with the pages of notes of gameplay and balance issues that this session produced, but I never want to produce a version of this game that cannot provoke that sort of reaction in its players.
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