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Saturday, August 17, 2013

Brainstorming, Continued: Multiple Axes of Decision

The brainstorming phase of game creation is an exciting time.  You get to throw dozens, perhaps hundreds of ideas against the wall and see which ones stick.  (The cleanup afterwards isn't fun, but that's why they invented industrial-strength vacuums.)

A loose design goal I had for this game was to make it playable with just the rulebook, a story book, and the cards.  The main reason for this goal was to cut down on the barrier between player and game.  With print-and-play games, any addition of components just makes it that much harder for players to jump in and try the game.  "Sorry, not only do you need to print and cut 200 cards, but you have to acquire 30 Eurocubes in assorted colors, and at least 10 dice of two different colors."  That's a hassle.  It's daunting to a lot of would-be PnPers.  So I try to lower the barrier to entry to my PnP games as much as possible.

But, for the good of the game, I going to add at least one new dimension.  Resources.

In previous brainstorming sessions, it was determined that the player would have a hand of cards, a deck of cards, and a discard pile as resources from which they could attempt to overcome various challenges.  The problem with this is that it's binary.  You either have the card(s) that you need or you do not.  That's not an interesting game.  ESPECIALLY when I'd like to give the player the chance to dig for the card(s) he or she needs.

What would make the game more interesting was to force the player to balance short- and long-term benefits.  Sure, you can defeat that squad of mercenaries now, but will that leave you helpless in the robot boss fight later?  Can you absorb the damage from the turret in order to save up for the final hacking challenge?  This tension creates much more interesting game decisions.  So how do I add this tension to the game?

The answer is to give the cards a cost in Resources.  Yes, you can fire that Grenade Launcher now, but will that leave you enough cash to use your weapons later in the game?  Sure, you can trade some intell to get a tool you need, but then what will you use to break into the data fortress?  Those are the kinds of decisions I want the players to be making!

Currently, I think the game only needs two types of Resources:  Cash and Data.  Using physical Items will typically have a cost in Cash, while performing certain actions such as hacking or convincing might require Data.  Some cards might require both, and the occasional card may cost neither.  The important thing is that the player will now have multiple axes of decision.  It will not just be a case of having the right cards, but using those cards effectively to maintain a pool of Resources.

The downside to this is that the player will need a way to track his or her Resources, whether it be pen and paper, a smart phone app, an Excel sheet, poker chips, or whatever they have on hand.  It increases the game's footprint (more space require on the table in order to play) and ratchets up the barrier to entry, if only slightly.  Still, I think this will be an important step in making the kind of dynamic and interesting solitaire game system that this needs to be.

I am also considering a third layer, in addition to cards and Resources:  Actions.  During an encounter, the player would be able to perform X number of Actions, and then the encounter would "act."  This may mean doing something detrimental to the player, such as forcing him or her to discard cards or lose Resources, or it could just advance some sort of timer--a countdown to something really bad happening.  This has the added benefit of balancing out the ability to discard a card and draw a card.  If the player can only take, say, three actions before the encounter acts, it's potentially a lot more costly to need five actions just to find the cards necessary to guarantee success.  More importantly, this would give encounters a more dynamic feel, with a "back-and-forth" dynamic happening between the player and the game's AI.   

This would mean that encounters would be more difficult to create and balance.  That's more work on the part of the designer, and I'm not certain yet if the game needs this sort of dynamic.  But it does make for more interesting outcomes to the encounters beyond simply pass/fail.  And it would give the player another axis of decision, and another knob for the designer to tweak while trying to balance the game and increase the tension and fun.  I'll keep it on the back burner for now, but I like the idea.

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