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Stealth (2/2)

United Kingdom
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Original Post (Sad to type that, I liked that it was 999 words.)

This is a continuation of yesterday's post about the implementation of stealth in board games. I'd say to read that one first, but I'm not going to tell you what to do, read every third word of some of my sentences if it makes you happy. I just don't promise you that it'll be coherent, contain tricks, hide secrets or flow.

So, having played Scotland Yard, but had problems with the pen and paper book keeping and the arbitrary manner of the reveals, Fury of Dracula seemed like a straight up improvement on the formula. In this game Dracula uses cards to indicate his hidden location, when a new card is played the old one is slid along a track, until it drops off at the end and he can reclaim it for reuse. If one of the hunters runs into any space with a card on the track, the card is revealed. To me it feels much more natural to find clues of the form "He was here three turns ago" than to have periodic reveals. The game has a lot more to it than the stealth mechanic, turns are classed as day and night and at night Dracula is a much more dangerous opponent, it can wind up that the hunters follow his trail trying to find him for three "day" turns and then start avoiding where they think he is for three "night" turns, if they don't feel well prepared enough. The game itself is pretty good, does some things well and some things poorly, but implementing the stealth mechanic through a trail feels like an excellent implementation. As a hunter it's satisfying to feel you're on the trail. As Dracula it's lots of fun to mislead hunters or pull of gutsy manoeuvres like following them around one space behind until they realise that they're going in circles.

A couple of years ago I got Ninja: Legend of the Scorpion Clan for Christmas. I probably wouldn't have bought it myself, since I'm not into legend of the five rings and games based on existing IP can wind up pretty flawed. The stealth mechanic of this game sadly went back to the pen and paper approach, while it gives you some little screens I find physically hiding something clumsy and annoying. The detection mechanic, on the other hand, is excellent. Guards have to listen for the sneaking character and detect them at a range determined by the distance that they moved. It very elegantly tied movement and sneaking together without a need for special rules or exceptions. It's also an interesting puzzle from the guard's point of view since you do not get a distance or direction from a hearing the ninja so you either need to do some triangulation of work off your knowledge of your opponent. That can be rewarding too if your opponent is the type to think out loud. "Well she's gutsy so she'd have walked in through the front door, relying on me to predict that she'd make a safer move - but she knows that I'd know that so she'll have gone over the wall - but she knows that I know that so..."

That's an up to date look at stealth mechanics in games which I have played, but a large part of this blog is looking for game design lessons and improvements in things. The strengths of the stealth mechanisms described above are in their ability to make players feel like they're being sneaky or like they're tracking someone down. Taking an intuitively understood phenomenon, like "a trail can be followed and is strongest where the hunted thing was most recently" or "faster things are noisier" and implementing it in game makes the game more accessible. This actually helps both sides, while the impact on the tracking party is obvious, the sneaking party will also adapt to the rules and successfully misdirecting someone under realistic conditions feels much more satisfying that playing an arbitrary "You didn't find me" card.

The stealth games I'm talking about here manage the marriage of theme and mechanics whereby the mechanics are the theme. You don't need flavour text or a picture to get you into what's going on because it's inherent to the game. I've got the feeling that if you took any of the games and removed all contextualising information from the rulebooks, just telling people the board position that the pieces needed to be in for a win condition they'd immediately see them as stealth games. This is definitely something worth aiming for in design, maybe something that's even worth testing directly; can people still derive the theme of your game if you remove all cues (pictures, titles etc.) from the game?

It's also interesting that these games are all one sided stealth, in which one side openly takes positions where another hides. It'd be much harder to model situations in which players were sneaking up on each other. The complexity is in telling when one player has detected another, if both players have removed their models from the board and are tracking their movement secretly, how will either player know when they see each other? You might have found yourself sharing another players hidden secret spot.

I've been told about games that have attempted this, generally it sounds like it can be achieved by making the meeting bad for one player, but making escape easy if the pursuers location is known. In this instance the pursuer needs to engage in some stealth to get close to the prey, but once they start announcing searches they give their position away, so they either have to have trapped the fleeing character or will have failed. It's an interesting idea, I'd love to play one of these games or to try making one. Maybe I shall sometime.

There the I is other liked one code sneaking other is it place dull in with and it the not will third happen worth word again finding code.
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