Wednesday, June 16, 2010

World War I, only less Violent

After I spent so much time complaining about the Game Design Concepts guy trying to define what a game is, I suppose it's fitting I should tell you that so far as I've seen the rest of his blog is more useful. Particularly the third post, wherein he defines various elements of games. ...yeah, before I was complaining about him defining things, now I'm praising him for defining things. I think I should do some distinguishing.

The difference is that between Physics and Metaphysics. Let's take the most classical example of all. When Issac Newton penned his Principia he never defined what gravity was, merely how it acted. Newton tells us that if you have two objects they exert a force on one another. He'll even describe how two such objects will move. But he doesn't even try to explain why it happens. That's important; if he had waited to publish until he understood "why" then we'd still be waiting. "How" is the Physics question; "Why" is the Metaphysics question.

So what does that mean? Well, we'd know something significant indeed if we could ever nail down why gravity works, but we don't need to know why to know how. And "how" is really all you need if you're trying to derive practical results. Anyone can speculate about the nature of gravity, but that doesn't give you engineering solutions, the sort you want if you're actually, say, sending a spaceship to the moon. In the same way, it could be fun to argue about what makes a game a game but it isn't likely to produce concrete results.

What is much more useful is to define the various elements of games in such a way that you can describe a given game as a sum of the various elements. It gives you a way of organizing thoughts about games as well as scoping out what design areas have been done what ones may have been overlooked. It also gives you a checklist for designing new games in that you can go down the list and make sure you've thought everything through. Which makes Post 3 a whole lot more practical and useful than Post 1, despite the fact that they're both "theoretical".

Now that I've had my tasty, tasty meal of crow, let's get to the exercise at the bottom of post 3:

Most war-themed games have an objective of either territorial control or capture/destroy (as described earlier). For this challenge, you’ll be pushing beyond these traditional boundaries. You should design a non-digital game that includes the following:

[Easy Version]

The theme must relate to World War I. The primary objective of players cannot be territorial control, or capture/destroy.

[Middlin' Version]

You cannot use territorial control or capture/destroy as game dynamics. That is, your game is not allowed to contain the concepts of territory or death in any form.

[Hard Version]

As above, and the players may not engage in direct conflict, only indirect.

Ok? Naturally I'm going to skip to the hard version. Because I'm that overconfident. So we want to build a World War I game wherein players can't fight over territory or resources, and units can't die. Thing about war is, most of it is fighting. So what sort of World War I game could I make? Glad you asked:

Suggestion the first: The Zimmerman Telegram
Other than the fighting, what's the first thing we all know about WWI? That's right; entangling alliances. Once the first war began everybody was obliged to jump on in. I could make a primarily diplomatic game which wouldn't involve territory acquisition, death or direct conflict. I'm naming it after the Zimmerman telegram because I figure the latter diplomatic efforts to get America into the war on one side or another might be interesting.

Suggestion the second: Architect of the Trenches
After the initial pushes and all, battle in WWI settled down into the bloody stalemate of trench warfare. As time passed the trenches became more and more elaborate series of bunkers and connections and everything. We already know that it's fun to build up something, so why not trenches? I think I'm going to pass on this; if you're elbowing for space to put your trench in then you're pretty much fighting for territory, and if you're not then I'm having a hard time thinking of meaningful interaction with the other players.

Suggestion the third: Black Adder, the Boardgame.
Black Adder was a very funny British comedy set in various periods of British History. In the fourth and final season the eponymous character was an officer in the British trenches in WWI. The plot was based around the protagonists doing everything they possibly could to avoid being killed. If we can't make a war game about people being killed, what about a war game about doing your best not to be killed? I am assuming that death as a lose condition is different than death as a resource loss mechanic, and therefore allowed. But even if I assume that this game has problems. The show's dynamic is a struggle against stupidity and fate, which is really hard if you want someone on the other side of the board. (You get to play fate, and you get to play dumb. Excellent! You've got it already!) Moving along...

Suggestion the fourth: Kill Franz Ferdinand!
Again assuming a win condition of death is allowable, what about a game about assassinating Franz Ferdinand? I mean, killing him started WWI. Players form two sides, one of time travellers attempting to kill FF, the other of time travellers attempting to stop it. Sort of a cop out, I mean this sort of set up would work with pretty much any historical figure. Would be better with Hitler.

I intend to use the first suggestion, since the worst objection I have at the moment is "needs more research".

Ok, a little reading done, let's go down the list.
Players: 2 to six I'm guessing. Arranged into two teams, (Britain France Russia on the one, Germany, Austria Hungary and Ottoman Empire on the other). It might work poorly with an odd number of players, but that's not too worrisome. Many games do.

Objective: Get America to enter the war on your behalf. In mechanical terms, I'm figuring this to be a "points acquisition" sort of game; each player attempts to get to a certain amount of points representing diplomatic objectives achieved. The major one is to get America into the war on your behalf; there are going to be other objectives but America is the big one. The side (allied or central powers) with the most victory points wins the war, the player with the most victory points wins.

Rules: Ok, here it'll get difficult. It's easy to say "I want there to be diplomacy" but it's a lot harder to actually get your players to engage in diplomacy. I'd rather not get into all about how and what that entails. That, is, what sort of rules structures I'd have to implement for that to work. Just a generic outline.

There are going to have to be in game representations of real world events. The sinking of the Lusitania cost the Germans heavily on the diplomatic side of things. Either the players will have cards that let them use or not use the events as they wish, or they will be world events that get automatically played, one every turn or so.

Given that players represent different countries with various diplomatic objectives we need to make a structure that allows them to pursue different goals. This implies the existence of hidden information; probably expressed in the form of cards in hand. No better way to hide information. Also, diplomacy probably means that we need mechanics to encourage negotiation in the game. And things to barter. But let's keep moving.

Resources: Victory points and Cards in hand are the obvious ones. There are probably going to be cards in play type resources too. It's possible that actions in a turn could be used as a resource, but I'd rather not limit this game that way. No real good reason for that, just I'd like to see more games like that.

Game State: Generally gonna leave this undefined. It consists of all cards in hands and all cards in play and all victory points.

Information: As already stated each player will have a hand of cards which are hidden from all players. There will also be cards in play which all players should be aware of. If they're paying attention.

Sequence: I'm going to call this game turn based, with a stack. That is, with the possibility of actions being taken on other player's turn, in response to their actions. Among other benefits this allows people chances to bluff, which is important if we're going for mad diplomacy.

Player interaction: In addition to all the negotiation and trading I've been harping, it should be possible for players to use cards to counterbalance opposing strategies. Can't use them to destroy their cards in play (violates the condition of the example) but you can use them to negate or alter effects.

Theme: WWI Diplomacy. Already discussed.

And that's about it. While it might be interesting to explore this game concept further, I don't think I will, as Awesome Games is already producing a game that's very similar mechanically. Only that one is better, because it's got Richard Nixon.

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