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Subject: [Design Talk] Each Game Tells a Story rss

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Vladimir Teneslav
Romania
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designer
mbmb
Introduction

I really like to analyze the fun in games (boardgames and PC games) and understand why they make me feel the way I do. It's very important if I want to understand the design philosophies and try to master them. As I've been working for over 4 years on my sci-fi game MIND - The Fall of Paradise I've been through a lot of design and got to become better as I've seen the direct implications of lots of choices in the play testing rooms. I've got to understand a bit better what makes a good game tick (a game on my niche, of course)and I want to talk with other designers our there about what (and why) I ended up putting inside my game and why.

I want to talk about the design choices more, and not the game and I will try to make it clear about what I am talking about without you guys knowing the game's context.

Each Game Tells a Story

I remember when Team Fortress 2 first appeared and me and lots of my colleagues at work would play it in our break. The game was lots of fun while we were playing it but then we would all join the water cooler and would talk about all the memorable moments that we had in our game. Not all games are like that and it is a trait that keeps the game going in the player’s hearts and minds.



While I was designing MIND I constantly had a fear in the back of my head: “What if my game doesn’t spark any interesting and memorable moments to the players at the table?”. In today’s day of age most popular PC games are the ones that can also entertain a public, via Twitch or E-Sports and also the players playing it via some amazing and memorable (also shareable) gameplay moments. So there must be something interesting in watching, enough to entertain you, if not more than the person playing it, and the game should create moments worth talking about later on.

Even though there is no real correct mix of ingredients that results in a success, one thing is for sure for me: player interaction has the best chance of creating memorable moments.

Most top PC games are multiplayer and this must be for a reason. So with this in mind I knew that I wanted players to interact at the table in lots of ways and also to make the game confrontational. Adding confrontation to a game adds conflict, and conflict is at the base of any narration. But let’s recap a little. Interaction.

Interaction mechanics in MIND - The Fall of Paradise:

1. I attack you with my units - pure conflict never fails to add detail to interesting stories if surrounded by a more complex system;


The squared tokens are units, and there are 2 Space Pirates invading this nice colony. Holding off and defending is a nice feeling.

2. I help you with my units - diplomacy creates relationships during the game, relationships that can be broken or consolidated, thus adding to a story;

3. I choose to be bad, so I hurt you - this is an oversimplification of what’s in the game, but players get to choose to be Rebelled or Enlightened, and by doing so they harm or help directly and indirectly other Factions.


These cards put players in front of a tough situation and they need to decide how they handle it. Depending on the choice they become good or bad. They can choose to be greedy or share, or can take a beating or give it to someone else.

This is how revenge stories start within the game or friendships bond. Also, given player's choices that define them and not making the game play them then all players to represents them and gets to talk about it at the table. If the game makes you hurt me then there is nothing to talk about, but if you chose to hurt me, then that's diplomacy and strategy.

4. I choose to be good, we are friends - again, diplomacy that creates a story. Cooperation is also nice;

5. My problem is your problem - during the game players can encounter events and can pay a resource called Influence to make the event go global and affect everyone else. This is a nice way of creating of feeling “we all burn together”, while not being game changing. For instance, if I receive an event that adds fire in my colony I can pay to make the event go global and make everyone at the table be obligated to put one fire inside their colonies. While this is only a small harassment it really shifts the discussions and diplomacy at the table. The take that elements is balanced out by the cost of Influence and this is very important. Don't make hurting others easy and without a trade off.

6. I steal or loan this from you - "Hack" is an action that can take something a player owns and "Access" can only use it and return it. These actions are remote, so in case players never leave their bases they can still harm each other a little.


Some units have "Hack" and some the "Access" action. Even so, they require Influence in order to be able to use it. This makes it an accomplishment when someone successfully hacks or accesses and you can't get that mad about it.

The balance is important in these actions, and be careful when adding gameplay elements that take something from someone else. Usually people hate it.

7. Sabotage - nasty, but these powerful abilities that really hurt a player’s colony require the units to move inside enemy territory, so while more powerful than Hack/Access they are harder to pull off.


These are the Sabotages in the game.

But if you Sabotage me then we can hardly be called friends. Sabotages let players close doors, burn sectors, unpower structures and malfunction structures, all annoying things to go against and fun to pull off.

8. Let me modify your dice roll - there are some cards called Overpower that can add or remove dice players want to roll. Let’s say I have an Engineer and I want to build a Sector. For this I roll 2 dice, but I can play an Overpower card that adds 3, and you can play one that divides it all by 2.


The dice modifiers that can turn a situation around sometimes.

These cards can be played at any moment during a game and can create a chain where everyone is adding and removing from the base number of dice in important moments. Play testers said that this is alone was one of the best interaction mechanics in the game because it lets you have a say in anything that happens in the game, based on pure diplomacy and strategy. "You attacked me earlier? Then your chances of building your Sector are reduced now". But allies can also help each other and add dice so it’s not all gloom and doom. Also, another strategy layer is added to the game because you have limited cards in your hand and you need to know when to play them. Don't waste them on actions that don't matter, maybe you will need them in combat, or when building something important. It's your choice and it is important, but it's also powerful.

9. Chance - who doesn’t like dice? If balanced out well, dice can always create interesting situations, while people will not mind that the luck was not with them in an important moment. But be careful where you add randomness, cause you still want people to feel in control. For instance don't add randomness in how much you move on the map. That's annoying.

10. Lastly, you can’t win if I have something to say about it - the very winning conditions of the game are made so that players interact. The game is won by the player that has the most Achievements by the end of the last game turn.


The Trophy tokens mark Achievements that have not been gained. In the image the Faction has 2 Achievements unlocked, the one for people and the one for Influence.

There are 5 different achievements that have the following requirements:

- have 5 citizens
- build 4 sectors
- have 5 Researches
- have 10 Influence
- have 10 Fate.


The fun of the game comes from the fact that these Achievements can be lost the moment their requirements are no longer met. So if I see you having 5 Citizens I know that if I kill one you will lose your Achievement. This system shifts alliances from one turn to another and also creates some very interesting interactions and discussions during the game. Also, the strategy part of the game receives a new layer of depth because you need to plan your moves so that you gain Achievements in time, and take in consideration the enemy, and even your allies. The last turn of the game is usually filled with action and alliance twists.


A very, very important thing to note here is that all the above interactions are only SMALL POKES players do one to each other. Why am I mentioning this is because if players had nukes or something like that then a small confrontation could be game changing and that is not healthy gameplay. I want frustration to be part of the game, but only in small doses, because then the feeling of accomplishment is greater, but if your colony can be destroyed in one move then that is not fun.

Now, what can you gather from the above? Of course the below list is not a must, because all games differ:

- Let players counter what other players do
- Add gameplay elements that stir discussions at the table by their very nature
- Let players make decisive actions, that define them
- Add some sort of confrontation, but balance it out harshly
- Let players perform actions that make them feel powerful

Now, to talk about confrontation a bit. I had a few play testers that really hated having enemies inside their colonies. That is not even hard confrontation, it’s basic combat. However, people can be sensible at some things and not at others. On paper, the Overpower cards (that add and remove dice rolls) are straight out annoying but in reality they are really fun. The reason for this is because they counter dice not a direct number. So in the worst case scenario you remove a percentage of luck from my action but the way I perceive it is that I still have some chance, and that’s good enough for me to feel ok. But if the Overpower cards would just remove things, or damage units then that would feel bad. There is no chance left, it’s just something definitive. So when adding confrontation it’s important to analyze the ecosystem around it. If the “take that” element is really harsh then you are doing it wrong. “HAHA I NUKED YOUR BASE, FEEL THE FUN?”

Alright, so, thanks to all the above, at the end of a gaming session of MIND there are LOTS of moments to talk about. You then just sit there, looking at the developed boards and remember here and there things that happened. It’s a great feeling as a designer to look at your play testers talk about moments that happened during the session.

If I’d be required to put it simply in 2 design choices these would be: randomness and player interaction. I think because of 2 issues working together my game tells a story.

Hope this was helpful in any way or form. I had fun writing it and I will be back with more.
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