Earlier this week I wrote about the desirability of emergent properties in games, I'd like to talk a little about the steps I'm taking to include these in my own game. The core requirement is deceptively simple, the game needs to have a large number of elements that can interact with each other, so that while a game might run out of unique elements it will have unique combinations for a long time.
This seems easy enough, at any given time the game state consists of the following information:
Rooms (location, orientation and contents)
Characters (character chosen, location, runes, items)
Spells (location, state)
Threats (locations, disaster deck, room deck, disaster cards in hand)
So in order to make a game with lots of emergent properties, it's simply a case of making sure that as many of these things interact as possible. The core rules have plenty of interactions built in, the location and orientation of rooms determine how characters and threats can move through them. The runes a character owns influence what spells they can cast based on the position of the spells, it also influences how they will move through the rooms as their ability to gain new rooms is tied to specific locations. A character's magic items influence these things too, as some items allow movement through otherwise impassable rooms or negate the requirement to reach a particular room to cast a spell. It's a good start.
Taking it forward required finding ways to make the interactions involve more elements, without making the game too much more complicated. An obvious step was to include at least one spell and at least one threat that influenced every other type of thing. "Read the card and do what it says" does not become any more complex as a rule when you add spells that move rooms or threat cards that make the players pay runes or suffer a penalty. They do add a lot to the depth of the game though, as players are able to form new types of strategies using these options. Another early step was to make the act of spellcasting influenced by the character and the room.
At the time I figured that this effectively quadrupled the number of spells in the game without adding significant complexity. A player should be able to remember the one ability their character has and looking at the room you're in isn't hard, but just to be safe I put icons on everything (the dimension spells too). I've written about the depth and complexity problem before; to summarise I want to make games that are deep and have lots of interesting and competitive strategies to explore but are not complicated to pick up and understand. "A moment to learn, a lifetime to master."
This solution violated this trade off. It did not add very much depth, while in theory "Rotate a room 90 degrees.", "Rotate a room 90 degrees and swap it with the adjacent room.", "Rotate a room 90 degrees and cast a lower level spell." and "Rotate a room 90 degrees, swap it with the adjacent room and cast a lower level spell." are different spells they are quite similar. Ultimately they do not produce many new strategies and the difficulty of accessing a spell in the right room and with the right character almost always out weighted the extra benefit from casting the spell this way. Conversely, it added more complexity than expected, each character gets a different bonus from their specialised spell and each room offers a different bonus, so players could rarely hold everything in working memory and ended up consulting several game elements every turn. Clearly I needed a better solution.
Now rooms and characters have the same effect on a spell, it is "boosted" if cast by an appropriate wizard or in the correct room. If it's boosted then the extra effects on the card take place. Since players are already consulting the spell card to see what happens the extra information is now in a place that people are already looking for it, which should help with the complexity issue. Additionally, the extra effects can differ between spells which means that they can have more synergy with the existing spell or offer new options. This also frees up the character ability slot to contain something flavourful for the character that won't happen often, but provides a cool bonus when it is used.
I've played a few games of this edition against myself and the change appears to be working. I find that there's a wider array of options to work with and that boosting spells feels more awesome as opposed to the previous version in which casting spells of your characters school often didn't help at all. I'm looking forwards to testing this group with other players to see if the complexity trade off has worked out in the way that I hope.
I'm a little concerned that the game might be too easy, but I've got an idea for a monster that rotates or moves rooms as it progresses through the academy. I can't keep adding options that give the players more flexibility without increasing the challenge posed at least a little bit.