*Blows dust off blog*
*Chokes on 316 spam comments*
Wow, it's been a while. The last post is dated June! This is really embarrassing, while I have been doing some exciting things (Including two secret projects) there's really no good reason that I haven't written anything in so long. I tried to come back to it once before with an entry entitled "How to make friends by setting fire to yourself." but the entry was destroyed (possibly attempting to follow its own advice) and that turned me sour on the whole thing for a time. In any event, it's been too long and I need to get back to writing about games and game design! So where to begin...
I think bigging up someone else's work is a nice way to get back into the swing of things, somehow making it all about me doesn't seem right for a "returning after extended absence" post. "In a Bind" is a game currently doing the rounds on Kickstarter, at 50% funded with 5 days to go its odds don't look good at the moment - but I think that's down to the campaign rather than the game itself. I'm not going to talk about campaign issues, there are plenty of more talented writers discussing what does and does not work in kickstarter campaigns, I'd like to try to keep my focus on games and game design.
In a Bind has a very simple core mechanic: Every turn you draw a card and play one card on an opponent that limits how they can physically sit. A player is out once they fail to do this, the last person playing wins. This sounds straightforward enough, but drawing a card becomes a challenge when you have to touch your right elbow with your left hand, have a finger touching your nose, one of your hands touching a knee, keep your left elbow above shoulder height and balance a card on your head.
As a microgame it's generally been well recieved. It won't stand up as the meat of a gaming evening, but as something to do for a few minutes while we're waiting for the stragglers to show up it's wound up displacing the likes of Love Letter and Coup in my local gaming groups (for now at least, they are both excellent games and I'm sure they'll rise again.) So what elements of the design allow that to happen?
Well firstly let's talk about similarities. The rules for these games are simple enough that you can explain them before you've finished shuffling (depending on the rigour of the shuffling and in how much detail you've chosen to stack the deck). They have low setup times and no serious barriers to entry, it's also the case that while a player with some experience might have an advantage it's not unheard of for someone to win during their first game. These all seem necessary, but not sufficient, to fill this sort of slot at the gaming table.
The art of these games is in the situations that emerge from these relatively simple rules, it's possible to play a handful of games in which very different things happen despite the relative brevity of rules and limitations on components meaning that most game elements are reused. I think that it is telling that the rules are such that in any of these games the exact same cards could be drawn in the exact same order, but that the game that resulted could be wildly different - not due to any random factor, but due to the way in which players decided to play their cards. This feature seems critical to a good microgame that will hit the table again and again to fill the cracks between meatier games.
So what's different? The most obvious attribute is the skill being tested. Coup (and to a lesser extent Love Letter) are games of prediction and deceit, wheras In a Bind is primarily a dexterity game. Usually the groups I play with prefer the former, I guess I get on better with liars than acrobats, but In a Bind does something that's important to how we use microgames.
You can walk into a room full of people playing it and immediately enjoy what's going on. We often use this sort of filler when players are late or distracted so they're liable to walk into a game in progress and it's immediately obvious who's winning and what's going on in the game. You can walk in on a game of Coup and not know what's going on or enjoy the brazen lies and scandal that's being perpetrated if you don't know what's previously been claimed or revelaed - but walking in on In a Bind is immediately rewarding. You don't need to ask to see who's in a tough spot, they're the one who's wobbling.
This brings to mind another similarity that these games share: They're all player elimination games. Usually this is a contentious (at best) feature for a game to have, but minigames get away with it because they're fun to watch and you're never waiting so long that you can't join in next game. This game gets a lot out of (effectively) making you look stupid while you're playing it.
But if you're going to look daft, look daft to win