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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Original Post

I've been meaning to tackle this one for a while, so let's dive in. I don't drink, haven't in decades, as a consequence I've not really played drinking games. You wouldn't anticipate that a drinking game would have much opportunity to inform real game design, as the premise is that your players have recently ingested psychometabolic poisons and intend to continue doing so. As such you wouldn't want to work in any mechanics with more depth than a poodle's paddling pool, which is at odds with a lot of more traditional game design. Then I played Wench.

I think that this game, as a piece of game design, is brilliant. Each player has a hand of cards that describe the rules of the game, when another player breaks a rule you give them a card, if you get rid of all of your cards you win. The malleable rules mechanic is something that I'd love to see much more of in games and with other offerings dominated by arbitrary big swings that make most prior gameplay pointless (Fluxx, I'm looking at you.) There's a built in catch up mechanic, in that a player who is losing will have lots of cards and thus lots of opportunities to dispose of cards. There's a surprising amount of strategy, in that you can choose not to play a rule if you wish, you choose which rules to give away and to whom, you can respond to being caught out by saying why, staying silent or lying about it. Having played it with a good mix of people over the years, but never as a drinking game, there's enough of a game there that the drinking bit isn't really needed.

My issue with the game is the cultural politics of the thing. The theme is definitely of the "pasted on" variety and contributes to a cultural cesspit that we really should be trying to make an effort to crawl out of. I'm not against sexual content, in fact I'd argue that we need more of it (there's an undercurrent of collective fear in publically engaging with these topics that does a lot of harm) but I think that we can be more than this. I don't like the idea of a designer who thinks gamers are all heterosexual men who can't appreciate a good design idea enough without being given some cartoons of hollow people with nothing to them beyond being an object of pleasure. I really don't like that idea of gamers who act in a manner that makes such designers right. The bottom line is that I feel embarrassed to pull this game out on a game night, despite its quality as a game.

So it feels like the best way to go forward from here is to look at the mechanics that work in Wench and to think about how they could be taken forward to a different game. It'd also be possible to go forward in thinking about how one might make a game that deals with sexual topics elegantly while remaining attractive as a game, but I've got a feeling that as long as I'm working for someone else I should drag them anywhere near that minefield. So what's going on here, mechanically?

The notion of cards in hand works well, the rules are hidden and a player only discovers them when the rule is broken. This creates the unpredictability you'd want from a malleable rules game, but also means that the set of rules that applies to the game is stable enough for it to have any depth - what changes over time is your knowledge of the rules. To an extent my Wizard Academy project already does this, in that the spellbook is a set of random rules that apply to the game that the players discover more about as the game goes on and it's the most loved thing in that game (according to 40ish testers) so this feels like a good direction. Betrayal at House on the Hill also manages this to a lesser extent with the hero and traitor books being split up so that there are hidden rules that both sides learn about (in that case the randomisation comes from the scenario chosen rather than within the game itself) and a lot of the love that game gets comes from this element. It feels to me like "randomly selected hidden rules learned in play" is a core component that a game can be built around.

Some of the other notions I mentioned above are lesser, but still important. The catch up mechanic inherent to having rules on cards and a 'get rid of cards' objective works very smoothly. There might be room to improve on it by having setbacks result in 'choice of cards' rather than 'lots of cards' somehow, as this minimises potential AP problems for the player who's had the most trouble with the game.

A direct conversion runs into an interesting question about the scope of the rules. In Wench the rules apply to a bunch of different sorts of actions. Broadly these can be irrelevant to the game ("Give a player a card when they yawn" - yawning is unrelated to the game), likely to be caused by the game ("Give a player a card if they pick something up without using two hands" - cards are picked up a lot in the game) and caused because someone had the card ("If a player sees you wink and nobody else does give them this card" - odds are you weren't winking until you drew this card). Working out an appropriate scope for the rules in a game would depend on knowing the audience very well and playing on their likely assumptions and behaviours. At very least you'd need to know why the classic Filch creates so much division in Cosmic Encounter fans.

The asymmetrical effects of rules are important, decisions become more meaningful where the presence of a particular rule will benefit one player more than another. If every player will trigger a card every turn it'll very often fail to have an interesting effect on the game. On the other hand one that is only sometimes triggered is something that you can play around. It might be interesting to see how this could be applied in a manner that was more integrated with other game rules. For instance if effects triggered off stuff like "won exactly one battle this turn" it would create variations in the way that people approached their other decisions. That would mean that the shape of a game would dramatically change depending on which rules were in play, which could generate some serious replayability.

A knowledge of standard gamer behaviours might be helpful here too. If a game using this sort of mechanic did opt for a more meta set of rules we can do better than "yawning" or "winking" given that the audience is quiet specific. I can imagine a game with game effects linked to "player has stood up all of their troops facing the same direction." or "player has turned all of their dice to show the highest number face up." or "player changes dice in response to a bad roll."

I feel like there's some unexplored design space here, I'm kinda pleased that Wench has lead me here, but I'm ready for it to be put aside in favour of something else taking those ideas forwards now. If I finish my current backlog of games and 404 and Wizard Academy do well enough for me to have another year at this then I'll see what I can do about that
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