Yesterday I went to afternoon play. Normally this is a group of people playing games in a cafe, but since the weather is nice it was decided that we should have a picnic. This lead to a lot more games involving running, jumping and climbing trees. Alongside some favourites (including the still excellent witness protection program) we ended up trying to make our own games with the things we had to hand. Since there were a few designers present, including the excellent Andy Hopwood, we ended up developing some truly sophisticated mechanics.
"Face ball throw game thing" is a game for whatever number of players that you have and requires an oversized ball and a hoop.
To setup you place the hoop in the centre of an open space and take N pigeon steps back from it, where N is the number of players. Someone with a degree of foresight and self preservation grabs the ball.
Each turn every player takes one pidgeon step forwards. Then whoever has the ball throws it at any player that is not adjacent to them. The player is not permitted to dodge or block and is expected to watch their oncoming doom with a sense of grim inevitability (in a fun way).
Any player struck in the head or face by the ball returns to their starting position. This includes players who were not the original target, thus it is possible to eliminate a player adjacent to you by bouncing the ball off the head of a legal target. The ball is then returned to the original target of the throw, who will make the next throw.
The first player to spend a turn in the centre of the hoop without being hit is the winner.
Telekinesis is not strictly prohibited by the rules, but is discouraged.
Obviously this is a very serious game and we're hoping that it'll make it to the Olympics one day. It has a few features that I'd like to tease apart from a game design point of view, since it might be good to try to implement them in other designs (though obviously these shall never match the majesty of the original game).
The "go back to the start" mechanic is much maligned as something for childrens' games. I think that it's fair to criticise it in long term tactical games, since it is always upsetting for a single event to undo hours or careful planning, but in short or casual games it achieves something important. Most games continually raise the stakes in an effort to reach some sort of climax. In Twilight Imperium you expect to see more powerful ships later on, in Dominion you'd expect to see bigger and better cards each turn, even Settlers sees an improvement in resources gathering over the course of the game.
The "go back to the start" mechanic can be recast as an improving arms race. At the start of the game you have an inaccurate weapon that will be lucky to hit one person that does a single step worth of damage. By the end of the game your weapon does many steps of damage and can hit several targets (especially if they've all just stepped into the ring simultaneously). It's also the case that once people start threatening to win a person who's further back is much less of a target, so while in absolute terms the distance to the middle is the same as at the start of the game, in real terms it will (on average) take the player less turns to reach that point.
It's also interesting in terms of how it changes natural advantages. In a lot of physical games being tall and having a long reach is an advantage (this was certainly true of the lemon game) but this reverses that. If a group of players reached the middle at once, a relatively common occurence, the winner would often be the one able the use the others for cover.
I think it's good for games to subvert expectations; This is at its best when a game turns an experienced player's learning against them. I played Viticulture for the first time yesterday and was impressed by how well some of the different actions were balanced. In worker placement games, the "get more workers" approach is very often dominant early on. As an extra worker is an extra "whatever you need" every turn for the rest of the game the investment is practically guaranteed to pay off, so people who've played a lot of worker placement games tend to go for these early on. Viticulture makes practically all investments function in the same way: Grapes gain value each turn, fulfilled orders produce money each turn, building a cottage gives an extra card each turn and so on. This removes what's special about "get another worker" and makes it worth a player learning how to play this game rather than simply falling back on experience for other entries into the same genre. I hear that Eurphoria (also by Jamie Stonemaier) will take this a step further by making having too many workers actively punishing. I can't wait to try it
Going back to the lessons to take from "Face ball throw game thing", I think there's just one more that I'd like to highlight. I generally aim to make games that have emergent properties that are not immediately apparent from the rules as these tend to make for the best moments in play. The ricochet rule produced most of these situations, with players boldly leaning their face forwards to make a ricochet shot onto the current winner viable. The best moment came where two players entered the ring at once and one had the next throw, he trivially eliminated his rival with a throw at point blank range, but managed to do so in such a way that it bounced back and he hit himself in the face. They both returned to the start and the game continued.
It's hard to write moments like that into rules directly, the best you can do is hand each player enough rope to hang themself and watch what happens next. I've still not mastered writing rules this way yet, but I feel like I'm getting better and that a lot of the 404 playtests are going in ways that please me. Or at least the part of me that would be willing to contribute to the development of something like "Face ball throw game thing".