I've never designed a game before, but after chatting it over with some friends, I think I might try to do just a simple, social deduction game based largely on an American political theme.
A quick history lesson:
The 25th Amendment to the US Constitution was created to allow the Vice President and Cabinet-level officials to "vote" the sitting President out of office. Prior to the 25th Amendment, the Vice President was widely understood to take the office of president in the event that the President dies or resigns (as had happened before in US history - e.g., Truman succeeding FDR upon FDR's death). But what happens if the president is merely incapacitated and unable to resign? Does the Vice President assume the role of President then?
Even more critical: who decides if the President is incapable of discharging the duties of the office? Congress? The Supreme Court? The Vice President?
No one knew.
At least, not until 1967.
The 25th Amendment was added in the wake of the assassination of President Kennedy to address just these very questions (and a few others, to boot). The relevant section of the 25th Amendment, around which the game's theme and concept will largely revolve, is the following:
Whenever the Vice President and a majority of ... the principal officers of the executive departments ... transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.
In other words, if the Vice President can get the majority of executive officials on his or her side, then the Vice President can legally seize power.
How to turn this into a game? I think this would be something of a social deduction game, something similar to Tontine / Spyfall / Avalon / Coup.
In any case, I plan to sort of keep a little log of all my different thoughts here. My current plan is to go through the "Brief Crash Course" posted here:
And maybe we'll get a cool PnP at the end? Or maybe I'll never finish. But hopefully I'll have fun in the process!
"0. Paranoia - So I have an idea! But I’m worried because... "
Having read over this section, I don't believe I'm going to get into any legal issues. While my initial vision here is that some sort of card art will be involved, obviously if the game gets to that stage of development I'll be producing / procuring that art myself. Otherwise, I don't have any intellectual property concerns right now.
My general worry that this game could just be yet-another-Secret-Hitler game is pretty real. But I think it's just too early to worry about. As the game takes shape, I'm going to have to be conscious of how to be sure that the game is taking on its own flavor and character. But I don't want to get so obsessed with making the game "different" that I shut myself out of useful mechanics / possibilities.
So, that's it for Step 0, I think.
1. Idea Generation and the Early Conceptual Stage
Alright, this is about where I am right now.
1-A. From Daydreaming to Design - Document the concept!
So, the general gist here is that things should be written down. Well, hooray, I'm already doing that, ha. And given that I'm something of a meticulous document-maker, I think I won't have much trouble jotting down and annoying just about everyone with this thread.
The more important question asked in Substep 1-A is what kind of mechanic / theme the game is going for. The theme is already somewhat obvious: it's a sort of political thriller based on bluffing, social interactions, and so on. The general gist of the game, of course, is that there will be a player who is President, a player who is Vice President, and other players who are Cabinet members. The President and Vice President each want to seize the seat of power themselves, while the Cabinet members are trying to go with the political winds (?) and end up on the winning side by the end of the game.
Voting of some sort will obviously be involved. I love Dead Last for its simplicity, and I imagine a similar sort of voting / backstabbing / cheating dynamic. I don't want the game to be TOO mean, and I want there to be some other mechanics at work that make it something more elaborate and hopefully replayable.
The Bruno Faidutti article linked in the Crash Course has some interesting questions to consider:
Does everyone have the same chance of winning?
Does the game play in a reasonable amount of time?
Does the pace of the game seem right?
Can I change the outcome of the game by the choices I make?
Is there only one perfect way to play?
Did the best player win?
Do the rules make sense?
Is the game fun?
Hmm. I don't think these are questions I can answer right now, given that I haven't flushed out the mechanics quite yet. But as general lodestones / guideposts, they seem just about right. The main worry for these sorts of somewhat asymmetrical games is making sure every player has a decent shot of winning. I think pacing and time are going to be less of a concern, given that players will be driving most of the drama forward (i.e., there won't be a lot of counting pieces or moving things or clean up).
I really like this bit from the article:
It is my basic contention that people must be involved on some mental and emotional level for a game to be considered a success. One of the appeals of party games is they make people laugh, that people have a "good time". [...] The real difference between gamers is how much mental and emotional involvement is necessary, and how much is intrusive. For me, if the mental effort is not very great, then the emotional involvement must be very strong (and equally important, that involvement must be purely positive). At the same time, too much emotion (particularly negative emotion) will make me dislike a game (my real complaint about luck in most games is how crummy I feel when a good plan goes awry because that 1 in 216 chance actually happened). For other people, however, the emotional involvement is the most important thing. Many who play games are trying to avoid having to tax the brain with some obscure calculation, and I don't blame them one bit. Too many fiddly mechanisms and lot's of small choices requiring a calculator to figure out are just not appealing for most.
I think that's just about right. For me, I want this game to be simple enough that non-gamers could get into it, but complex enough that it can be more than just a party game. I realize that the "deep but simple" thing is sort of the Holy Grail of design, and I've never designed anything before, so I may not hit it.
Nevertheless, I like the idea of trying to balance an emotional experience with an intellectual or mental one. I do think that I am more of an emotional gamer than an intellectual one: the games I love most are the ones that really draw me in to the drama. That's probably why I love games like Spyfall and Avalon / Coup so much. They really draw you in to the relationships you have with the players you're with. What I would say is that I don't want to design a game that could be easily played over the Internet, or on a phone app - I would like something that people really have to be with each other to play, really interacting on a social level: reading each other's faces, trying to guess how the person thinks, etc.
The danger with a voting / social game like this, of course, is that people get too mean. I'd want to mitigate that somehow. These sorts of games can really turn into revenge-based games: you screwed me over last turn, now I'm coming after you no matter what. There has to be a way to ensure that everyone has enough skin in the game that they can have an enjoyable experience, even if betrayal and backstabbing are a piece of it.
As a mechanic, I wonder if a traitor-card type thing (ala Eclipse) might help. If betrayal becomes a mechanic, something that is somewhat stigmatized, maybe then it becomes less of an emotional decision or issue, and more of an intellectual decision / issue. Or at least, perhaps that's how Bruno would put it. I think managing the mechanics as crossing between emotional / intellectual could be a good theoretical model as I move forward with actual mechanics.
Okay, I think I'm going to have to sit with that for a while. I'll try and do "1-B. Establish your design goals and gameplay objectives - and write them down!" tomorrow.
1-B. Establish your design goals and gameplay objectives - and write them down!
Alrighty, I think having given the previous section above some thought, I'm ready to kind of get into some design goal / gameplay objective specificity. Here are the questions the Crash Course asks here:
What kind of design goals should I be considering?
- What is my target audience? What kind of “fun” am I trying to make?
- How many players will the game support?
- How long is the game? What’s the playtime for first/learning games
Hm. So, as to the first question concerning the target audience: this will definitely be a mature-ish game. When I visualize the style or "feel" of the components, I don't imagine a cartoony looking design. I want there to be some sophistication, here. At the same time, I don't want the game to be too stuffy.
I'd kind of like this to be somewhere edging towards a gateway game. The audience need not be hardcore gamers; I don't want the rules to be too complicated or inaccessible such that only people who have played Twilight Struggle a billion times will be able to get into it. That having been said, I certainly want this to be balanced and interesting enough to capture the interest of more serious hobbyist gamers.
So, with respect to number of players and playtime, I'm guessing this will run on the shorter side: 30mins to 45mins. We're not talking a big, beefy, play-all-night sort of thing. This is more intended to be a warmup game or a hey-we're-drinking-and-why-not-play-something sort of game. The number of players, due to the fact that this is intended to be a social game, clearly has to be at least 3, but I'm thinking that the mechanics will basically require four. The maximum number? Not sure. Eight? I'll have to think about that the more I get into the actual mechanics, though.
- How much, and what type, of interaction do I want to have between players? Is it passive or confrontational?
- How much politicking / table talk do I want players to engage in?
- What types of choices or dilemmas do I want players to face?
- How much randomness / luck do I want in the game?
Alrighty. These are the bigger questions, for me, at least.
The game should definitely be somewhat confrontational, and there should absolutely be politicking/table talk. I mean, that's the entire point of the game. This is huge for me. I want this to be driving the game forward, for sure. As I mentioned above, though, I don't want the game to be so confrontational that folks just get fed up with one another. There needs to be some sort of way to ensure that people stay invested emotionally in the game and each other at the same time.
As far as randomness / luck goes: I've enjoyed games in the past that make use of luck and randomness. Obviously, a pure roll of the dice has no place in a social game (or really any game, for that matter): strategy and politics have to be in the mix. At the same time, I do actually want a small bit of luck in there as a way to build tension. I'm thinking about the sort of tension that builds when you try and find out whether a quest will succeed in Avalon.
Thinking on that a bit, it's pretty clear that Avalon doesn't actually make use of luck to build up that tension. So maybe luck doesn't have to be a component. I suppose, if I were to be specific, luck might be a factor - but not a huge one.
I find that I often have the clearest sense for the goals I have for a game early on in the process, and writing them down so I can use them to evaluate design choices later on is immensely helpful. Often, you may find yourself struggling to choose between two seemingly equal mechanics or design options. Being able to evaluate your choices in light of your established goals is essential for creating a strong rational and case for choosing one option over another.
For sure. I'm going to have to keep going back and looking at this. For now, though, I'm going to read the articles 1-C and give some more thought on the specific mechanics that will be at work in the game.
1-C. Think about pacing and how players win
First, if anyone is reading this, please feel free to comment (particularly here, as I start to get into the mechanics stuff).
Alright. I read the four articles (Game Theory 101) and they were super helpful.
There are three basic concepts I want to focus on (I'm ignoring the "story arc" section, because I need to reread it - that section is really challenging, at this stage of my development). In any case, the three concepts are the Bomb, the Agonizing Decision, and Nervous Systems.
The Ticking Time Bomb. How steep rewards and sudden catastrophes help make a game great.
[ . . . ]
What defines the bomb is that a small change in player actions has a disproportionately large effect on rewards. What makes it work is that it creates strategic consequences out of tactical decisions. It turns the effect of your decisions into something greater than the sum of their parts and forces you to focus on broad goals.
The Agonizing Decision. How presenting the player with impossible choices helps make a game great.
The Agonizing Decision is at the heart of characterization. These are the dilemmas that confound the character—and that ultimately define him. It is Hamlet's decision over whether to kill his uncle. It's Rick's decision over whether to stay in Casablanca or leave with Ilsa.
In gaming, it is those difficult decisions which determine whether you, the player, will come out victorious or blow your best opportunity and hand the game to your opponent. In the story of the game, you are the protagonist, and in the best games, the human heart... and mind... is in constant conflict with itself.
What makes a decision agonizing? Clearly the results must be substantial. A Bomb, which makes the consequences of a choice more extreme, helps achieve that effect. A player is more likely to work up a sweat when he is confronted with moments that bear heavily on his victory. Additionally, the player must face uncertainty. Any move made with a great deal of confidence can't be all that agonizing. Finally, the decision will have been framed as a limited set of conflicting alternatives with clear possible consequences. To this effect, an agonizing decision is different from the broader challenge of creating an optimal strategy. It's in-your-face, it's immediate, and you know exactly when it's happening to you.
Nervous Systems. How instability in a game system helps make a game great.
In gaming or in weather, a chaotic system is one which is so unstable and complex that a small change in one condition sets off large unpredictable consequences. Since much of the fun in a game comes from setting up moves with predictable consequences, chaos is usually a bad thing.
There is another type of instability, though, which I think is a good thing. It is the sort in which the effects of your actions are reasonably predictable, but which injects an element of surprise which forces players to adapt and make sometimes radical course corrections. Operations Management professionals call these systems "nervous". A "nervous" system is one where a small external change forces you to alter your plans substantially. A small change won't suddenly turn a winner into a loser, but it may force a winner into inventing a new plan if he expects to maintain his lead.
At first, I find "the Bomb" to be somewhat shocking advice: for all the talk of gamers hating "luck" in games, you'd think that the Bomb would be something they'd abhor. But of course, Degann is 100% correct: every game needs to have some opportunity for things to change dramatically due to what would otherwise be a "normal" action. I think the example of buying a hotel on Boardwalk is a good example. Normally, that's not a very interesting move - but it sets something up. It's something that creates drama and tension.
In some ways, the Bomb is really the final expression of the two other principles: the Agonizing Decision and the Nervous System. Maybe I'm not getting Degann 100% correct, but it's been helpful to characterize the the relationship between three in terms of cause, effect, and environment. The Agonizing Decision is the cause, the Bomb is the effect, and the Nervous system is sort of the context in which these causes and effects take place. "Do I throw the Bomb? And what changes if I do?"
With those three things in mind, I gave a lot of thought late into last night about how to create some basic mechanics that will hopefully embody those three big principles. Here's what I'm thinking.
Basic Objectives: Loyalist v. Everyone Else
Players in The Twenty-Fifth are all Cabinet officials who are attempting to vote out the President of the United States. There are two ways for most of the players to win: first, they can discover who the secret Loyalist is, and collectively win; or second, they can collect the most Senator cards for themselves and win individually.
For one player, the Loyalist, the game will be won if not enough Senator cards are won by the players. In this case, those Senator cards will go to the President's area, and if the President's area has a sufficient number of Senator cards, the game is over and the Loyalist wins.
I hope that this Loyalist vs. Non-Loyalists will work out some tension. This is similar to other games, wherein you have some people who are working on the inside against everyone else - this should create some dramatic tension between the players. Obviously, the Loyalist will have to work hard to avoid getting caught, so the Loyalist can't be too obvious in making moves to get Senator cards to the President's area.
Some basic rules:
Players distribute secret Role Cards that will ensure at least one player is the Loyalist. Each player is then distributed a number of poker chips. These chips have certain values printed on one side, with the other side having a symbol of some sort specific to each player (e.g., one player would get all the chips with stars, another player would get all the chips with wheat, another with the Pentagon, etc.).
Then the players shuffle a deck of Senator cards and place it in the middle of the table. Last, players would shuffle a deck of Press Release cards and give it to the First Player.
Okay, those are the basic components: colored chips, Senator cards, and the Press Release cards.
(an aside: is it crazy to build a game around components? I love playing Splendor almost entirely because of the way the chips feel - there's something so satisfying about the way they feel!)
Here's how I'm roughly imagining how the game would play:
Basic Mechanics - Drafting
The players would then take a Senate card and place it face up on the table: as mentioned above, players' goal are twofold. First, all players EXCEPT the Loyalist want to ensure the Senator card does NOT go to the President area. If the President gets a certain number of Senators, the game ends and the Loyalist wins.
But the players also want to win the Senator for themselves, as compared to all the other players. So, while they are competing against the unknown Loyalist, they also are competing against each other.
Once a Senator card has been drawn, play would basically go in two rounds: the Press Release phase, where players draft Press Release cards by passing a group of such cards from one player to another, and a Wager phase, where the players wager on the success of their Press Release to win over the Senator card.
Press Release cards would have a certain numeric value (say, 1-10?). The first player takes a number of Press Release cards from the deck - that is, the number of players plus two - and looks at all of the cards. He picks one, and then passes the remaining cards to the player on his left. Once all the cards are drafted, the last player would take the remaining two cards and put them face down.
Once this is done, players reveal the Press Release card they have chosen all at the same time. The player with the lowest card number automatically loses the round - that player cannot win the Senate card. Players then total the value of the Press Release cards all players have played: if the Press Release cards do not add up to a number exceeding the value of the Senator card (as mentioned above, each Senator card would itself have a certain value), then the Senator has not been convinced to vote against the President, and that Senator card goes to the Presidential area.
Alright, so the idea here with the Press Release card drafting is to basically create some tension between the players as they select cards. Obviously, they don't want to be the player with the lowest card value, because they're out. The Loyalist, of course, probably DOES want to pick a lower card - but if the Loyalist does so a bunch, the other players should catch on and have a pretty good idea that this player is the Loyalist.
But, as will be seen in the wager round, the players don't want to necessarily pick too high a card, because if they do, they won't have a chance of wagering enough chips to meet the Press Release value. So on to that next phase.
Basic Mechanics - Wagering
Players now must wager how much they wish to support their Press Release. The player who wagers the most amount wins the Senator card.
This round proceeds as follows. The first player places a single chip on his press release card, with the value of the chip face down. The next player does so, as well. Then the next player.
Play continues around the table. On their turn to wager, players may opt to pass. Once all players have passed, the players reveal the value of the chips they have placed on their Press Release cards. The player with the highest value wins the Senator. However, that player must have wagered enough such that the total value of her wagered chips meets or exceeds the value of the press release.
If no player has wagered enough chips to meet the value of the press release, the Senator card goes to the presidential area.
Once the winner has been calculated, the chips that have been wagered remain face up. They may not be used again.
So this mechanic is supposed to be a kind of bluffing, poker-y type game. Because players need to meet the Press Release value to win, they'll probably want to be keeping that in mind when they're drafting. They also can't just go full bore and put all their chips down no matter what, because the chips aren't refreshed until Reset occurs (see below).
I hope that will yield some drama. The trick will be that the chips will have different values on the bottom. So a player may bluff, pretending to put a bunch of chips down and looking like she wants to win - but in fact, the player is just playing low value chips to get everyone else to waste their chips. Or a player may slyly play only a few chips, but chips of very high value, in order to try and snake a Senator card without revealing their plan and getting into a bidding war.
I could see this wagering thing not working well in practice - I haven't 100% thought through how this would work. Obviously I would be playtesting this extensively.
The First Player is now the player sitting to the instant round's first player.
The two rounds of drafting Press Releases and Wagering continue. Once the First Player position has returned to the initial First Player, the players "refresh" their chips by flipping all face up chips back to face down. These may be used again.
The First Player at this point is not the initial First Player, but the player with the fewest amount of Senators. If there is a tie for least amount of Senators, the First Player is randomly chosen.
Blah blah blah.
So those are the basic rules that I'm thinking of using. I think that there is enough in here to certainly meet the demand of an Agonizing Decision. Players are really going to have to strategize both during card drafting AND during the wagering portions of the game.
One thing I wonder: is the Loyalist mechanic adding anything at all? Or can it be removed? I think the game could actually be fun without it. Maybe it could be a variant of some kind. The thing is, there needs to be some sort of "everyone loses" scenario because we want people to want to be paying attention and involved for each round. Otherwise, people might just not care about a particular Senator card - if that's the case, then it might break the game.
Gah, this is a long post. So one last thing / big worry: I have no idea how to get the values right. Haha. The most important part of the game, an I really don't have a clue. This is basically a giant math problem / something that would come out in playtesting I guess. But seriously I haven't got a clue. What should the array of values for the Senate cards be? The press release cards? the number and value of the chips?
Seriously how do you manage that?