Thematic Solitaires for the Spare Time Challenged

A blog about solitaire games and how to design them. I'm your host, Morten, co-designer of solo modes for games such as Scythe, Gaia Project and Viticulture.
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f***ing with the formula – cutting up the traditional story arc to generate new game ideas (guest post by Jan Scröder)

Morten Monrad Pedersen
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This guest post originates directly from the very inspiring ideas Morten laid out in his post about narratives in board games and the 3 act structure.

Although I have to admit that he somehow pointed out the obvious (“if you want your game to tell an interesting story, keep in mind the story telling laws” – to oversimplify a bit) I had never thought about that before...
So i´m really grateful now to have the opportunity to try contributing a little to this very interesting line of thought!

My main idea goes like this

There are countless stories that successfully follow the basic 3 act structure: Set up – confrontation – resolution.
But – if you think about movies, for example – there are also the ones which became famous for changing this structure: Pulp Fiction, Memento, 500 Days of Summer, to name a few.

These three movies don´t have amazingly original content, they tell rather common crime or love stories but manage to be much so more interesting than other movies with comparable story lines through the way they handle the story arc.

All of them cut up their story lines and put together the pieces in surprising, meaningful and just plain entertaining new ways.

Boardgames tend to tell rather generic stories.
So if you should want to come up with something new and maybe a little more interesting (story wise), learning from the above mentioned movies could prove to be helpful.

The experiment – or how to cut up a dungeon crawler:

To find out if this method might work for (story driven) games I would like to try a little thought experiment:

Let´s take one of the most common stories in board gaming: The dungeon crawl.
The 3 act structure of an ordinary dungeon crawler works something like this:

Act 1: character generation: you decide who you are in the game and what you can do.
Act 2: the quest: you enter the dungeon to gain experience, abilities and items to become strong enough for
Act 3: the epic duel: in which you have to face the main enemy you came here for in the first place.

What would happen if you cut up this structure and put together it´s three basic elements (act1, 2, and 3) into different orders?

Image credit: Brian Brown. Reversing the order of well known ideas.

They can be combined into these 6 different permutations:

1 – 2 – 3 (character generation – quest – epic duel = the ordinary dungeon crawler we started from)
1 – 3 – 2 (character generation – epic duel – quest)
2 – 1 – 3 (quest – character generation – epic duel)
2 – 3 – 1 (quest – epic duel – character generation)
3 – 1 – 2 (epic duel – character generation – quest)
3 – 2 – 1 (epic duel – quest – character generation)

So far the potential of these random collages of story bits might not be that obvious...
But through trying to make sense out of these “potential stories” it could be possible to come up with new and hopefully interesting ways to arrange a dungeon crawl game.

That is what I want to try now:
I´ll go through all of the permutations of story fragments above and try to come up with something that could make sense in a (yet to be designed – feel free if it should interest you!) story driven solitaire game:

1 – 3 – 2 (character generation – epic duel – quest) = Will you find what it took you to win? – a push your luck dungeon crawl

The story:
You choose your character as usual, but just as you wanted to enter the dungeon, there is a flash forward in the story line: you have a vision!
You can see yourself fighting the epic duel for which you came into this dungeon in the first place. After that vision there follows the quest that will eventually lead up to the duel that you somehow were able to foresee.

The game:
After setting up your character you have to fight your arch enemy. Of course you have to win this fight or the game would be over instantly! Anytime during the fight when you would need a better ability or weapon you can wish for it and you have it. The more you wish for the better you get but the catch is this:
During the following quest you have to make sure that you acquire everything you wished for in the duel! Thus the more you wanted, the more you´ll have to find.

Possible advantages:
First you have a push your luck element in the “final” fight because you still have the possibility to make up for any mistakes or bad luck during the fight when you start the actual quest.
Second, you have a goal for the quest that arises naturally out of the game and will be different each time depending on the course of the “final” fight. No need to invent any quest cards!

2 – 1 – 3 (quest – character generation – epic duel) = Who is who? – a dungeon crawl with secret objectives (sort of)

The story:
A group of reckless adventurers enters the dungeon. All of them claim to be the “chosen one”. Eventually the chosen one will have to defeat all of the impostors to claim his right to be the next Dungeon Lord. But for now they´ll have to cooperate to survive what´s hiding inside the dark caves.

The game:
You control the group of adventurers. During the quest it will eventually become clear which adventurer is the real chosen one.
This is (somehow at least…) the moment of character generation: now you know which character you play. Your goal is to make sure that the chosen one will defeat all of the other adventurers (played in AI mode from now on) in the final suite of epic duels!

Possible advantages:
A lot of tension in the set up: you´ll have to make sure that nobody remains too weak (anybody could be your character) but you´ll also have to find out quickly who is who in the game (but then again not too quickly as you want to have a well experienced character who is able to defeat the rest).
(No idea how the mechanics would work, but in case somebody would be able to come up with something the result could be close to a secret objective game for a single player...)

2 – 3 – 1 (quest – epic duel – character generation) = Amnesia – a deductive dungeon crawl
the story:
An hero enters a dungeon. But for some (forgotten) reason the suffers from amnesia, he does not even remember who he is. All he remembers is that he is here to defeat somebody. Who? No idea. Lots of shady people hang around in this dungeon or maybe they just don´t talk that much and are friendly anyway?
He tries to collect enough information about himself to find out who to fight against. At some point, somebody has to be chosen as the enemy. After winning the fight, suddenly his memory returns...

The game:
Go into the dungeon, try to gather information about yourself and who might be your enemy.
Time is scarce so you better hurry but on the other hand you have just one chance to take on a battle. Did you fight the right enemy in the end? Only after the fight you will be sure about who you are!

Possible advantages:
This could be a possibility to turn a dungeon crawl (which already has lots of exploring) into a deductive game. Maybe in the end it´s the path you take through the dungeon that finally defines who you are and who is your main enemy – a bit like Tobago.

3 – 1 – 2 ( – 3) (epic duel – character generation – quest – epic duel again (slightly cheating..)) = Revenge!

The story:
Begins with a fight that our hero barely survives. It marks him for the rest of his life though: He has lost his right arm and gained a goal: Find his nemesis and take revenge!

The game:
The epic duel is played out before your eyes like a movie. You will not win but you will survive and you will have learned about your opponent´s strengths and weaknesses.
This battle will shape who you are: It leaves its marks on your body and on your soul. During the quest part of the game you will try to overcome those handicaps and of course you will try to find your opponent again to finally defeat him.

Possible advantages:
Character generation is not arbitrary but the result of a story. When you finally start playing your character and yourself have already experienced intense things together. You possibly feel more attached to your character and the game.
Also your character will have weaknesses (both physical and psychological ones) which could be an opportunity for more complex and intense story telling in the game.

Image Credit: Bullfrog, scanned and uploaded by Wouter Dhondt. A game that turned the dungeon crawler genre on it’s head.

3 – 2 – 1 (epic duel – quest – character generation) = The way out – a reverse dungeon crawler

The story:
You have made your way in, you have won the epic duel – but you also have insulted (and injured) quite a lot of people (and monsters) in this process...
All you want now is grab a drink in the dungeon canteen (if they still have any glasses left that is, after your last visit there) and then go home. If only you could remember the way…

The game:
You find yourself weakened and eyed upon in an unfriendly way somewhere in the middle of a large dungeon after you managed to defeat its big boss. As you do not really feel like fighting anymore (everything hurts...) you will have to bluff and swindle your way out – pretend you are somebody else, bribe a few former foes, find the exit.
Only when you have managed to leave the dungeon behind can you be your true self again…

Possible advantages:
A new theme: the tired hero´s way home out of the probably by now rather hostile dungeon could be a quite funny story and also use different thematic mechanics: not so much fighting, rather more talking, bluffing, bribing and sneaking around.

Final thoughts:

Of course I have no idea whether the results of this thought experiment can be turned into working games.
But the turnout seems to be surprisingly varied (none of these ideas have been around (in my head that is) before I started thinking about those different story lines):
Some could grow into new genre mash ups, some could produce new mechanics, some might provide a different take on the basic subject.

So to start up your imagination when you feel like trying something a little different the next time you set out to design a board game (that mainly wants to tell a story) you could try cutting up the timeline of your story and rearrange them an a new and unexpected order!
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