Popular Posts

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Brainstorming for the 2013 Solitaire Print and Play Contest

This year's solitaire game design contest has begun, which means I have a few short weeks to prepare and submit a game.  I was originally planning on submitting Horns of Thunder, the sequel to my well-received solitaire story game Wings of Lightning.  However, I've had a lot of thoughts banging around in my head about how to integrate story and game mechanics, and wanted to put it all on paper.  This post is a massive brainstorm, and will subsequently be long and somewhat incoherent.  However, it may be useful for some people to see a designer's mind at work.  Or this will just be really boring--I've no idea.

  • I'm really intrigued by the idea of using a customizable deck of cards to work through a gamebook.  So there might be two to four pre-crafted decks for players who just want to dive in, or the player could build his or her own deck.
  • To keep the decks roughly thematically appropriate, I'd probably borrow the idea of Influence from Android: Netrunner.  The players would have a particular Identity or Persona that have a particular set of cards associated with them that they can include at no cost.  However, all cards would be marked with an Influence cost, and each Persona could only include out-of-character cards up to their Influence limit.
  • For example, the Human character could only include a limited number of cards from the Cyborg deck.  
  • One of the reasons this idea appeals to me is that I can release expansions--new stories to overcome, new Personas, new cards for the different Personas, etc., all within the same rules system.  Heck, I'd be more than willing to open the system up to all users, so that they can generate their own stories, Personas, and cards!  
  • The catch is that I have to get the system right.  Once it's released, it will be much more difficult to go back and fix any problems inherent in the rules set.
  • So let's think about the AI.  What sort of challenges will the player have to overcome, and how will the game react to the player's decisions?
  • I like to approach these sort of problems from a thematic perspective.  So I'll start with a case study.  
  • Say the player is traversing some rocky terrain and stumbles across a goblin campsite.  The goblins haven't noticed her, yet, but she's not confident that she can skirt around them.  She has to go through them.
  • What are her options?
  • She could fight them, risking her life and probably taking some wounds
  • She could frighten them, causing them to scatter.
  • She could set up a distraction, and hope they abandon the camp to investigate long enough for her to sneak past.
  • She could reveal herself and talk to them, hoping to persuade them to let her pass.
  • Could I just keyword the encounters?  So with the example above, the player must discard an appropriate number of Fight, or Frighten, or Distract, or Talk cards to progress?
  • That's stupid; that's basically just asking whether the player has the right key or not, which does not make for compelling gameplay.  I want the player to have to make difficult decisions.
  • What if the encounters didn't spell out how to overcome them?  It could be up to the player to decide how to use the cards at his or her disposal.  So a card might say, "Distract +3."  The player would use it, hoping that a distraction would work on the encounter.  He or she would then look at the current paragraph number, add three, and consult that paragraph.  So, if he or she was at Paragraph 24, he or she would proceed to Paragraph 27.  If it said "Distraction Successful," the card worked.
  • That doesn't work, either.  First of all, that would require a massive amount of work on my part just to create a small story.  I'd have to account for half a dozen or more permutations for each encounter.  That's a lot more writing for a small gain.  Plus, he player would have little to no basis for his or her decision.  What if the player decided to Frighten the goblins, but it failed?  How would the player no it was going to fail?  What hints could the system give that one option was better than another?  What sort of consequences would there be for failure?
  • No, that's way too much work for me and not enough fun decision-making for the player.  I'll have to find another solution.
  • On top of which, I'm not sure I want the story to consist of numbered sections.  Would it be possible to have a slightly more linear story, with random encounters scattered throughout?  How would that look?
  • So the player is going along, reading the story, and he or she hits a Random Encounter.  He or she then rolls on a chart based on his or her location, and perhaps some other factors adjust the die roll.  The chart then tells the player what sort of encounter he or she must face.  He or she deals with it, suffers some consequences, gains some bonuses, and proceeds with the story.  
  • That could theoretically work.  In fact, I like the idea that the story would have a general overall shape, but with little crests and valleys and twists that are with each play through.  I could even have some branching paths that would only be accessible based on particular random encounters happening at particular points in the story.  That could be fun.
  • Okay, so I've got a basic story structure.  But how do random encounters actually work?  What information is given to the player when they hit a random encounter?  And will I be able to have encounters that are not purely combat-based, so that players can work through the story in a number of different ways that don't involve the murderation of dozens of animals and sentient beings?
  • Let's say that the player rolls an encounter.  That encounter might have several different stats indicating how one MIGHT overcome it, and the player can use his or her cards to match or beat one of those stats.  
  • So the goblin encampment would have Fight 15, Frighten 20, Distract 9, and Talk 12.  The player would have to muster up enough Fight, Frighten, Distract, or Talk cards to overcome one of those options.  Otherwise, the encounter gives a certain consequence.
  • That's still a bit too much like needing the right set of keys to get through the door.  I don't like the fact that the player knows EXACTLY what he or she needs to beat the encounter.
  • Is there some way to "hide" the exact numbers that the player will need to overcome?  That way I could merely hint at what the player needs, but he or she would be uncertain about whether his or her Lighting Strike and Dual Wield Daggers (Fight 9 and Fight 6, respectively) would be enough to get through the goblins.
  • I know!  I could randomize the stats.  So instead of "Fight 15, Frighten 20," etc., the player would see "Fight 2d6 + 6, Frighten d12 + 4, Distract d6 + 1, Talk 2d6 - 2."  The player would assemble his or her response to the encounter, THEN roll to see if he or she defeats it.  That adds a nice push-your-luck element that I think could really work.
  • The best part is, sometimes the player will KNOW that the dice cannot possible roll high enough to defeat his or her response, but sometimes the player will be forced to gamble on a low number in order to conserve resources.
  • Plus, I could have the story branch out in different ways, depending on how the player overcame the random encounter.
  • Yes, I like this a lot!  It's potentially very compelling, and can reward players for progressing through the game in multiple ways.  Replayability is always good for a solitaire game, especially one with a customizable component like the player's deck.
  • Now to think about theme....
  • This system could obviously translate very well to a fantasy theme.  The player could be a mage, a soldier, a noble, or a merchant, with different strengths and weaknesses against different kinds of encounters.
  • The problem with fantasy is not only that it's been done a lot, but it's been done WELL a lot.  That's a lot of pressure to compete!
  • I'm not sure I'm interested in a modern thriller or spy story, but it could work.  Something to keep in mind.
  • Sci fi would be fun, though.  I love a good sci fi story.  And this system could let the player play in the universe in fun ways.  A human, a cyborg, an uplifted animal, and a robot would all interact with the encounters in different ways.  The robot might be prone to hacking and electronic warfare, while the cyborg uses brute strength and enhanced speed to bring down his or her enemies.  The human is relatively weak and fragile, but overcomes many different types of obstacles through creativity and ingenuity.  The uplift has certain social obstacles and advantages, as an animal living in a world designed for humans, but is a master of stealth and surprise.
  • Yes, I like this a lot!  I think I'll go with it.
  • Now, let's consider what a deck actually looks like.
  • I like the idea of smaller decks.  The players shouldn't need a 60-card monstrosity to get through a story.  Let's say a 30-card minimum deck.  Probably a maximum of 3 copies of any given card.  That makes printing easier--my card sheets are 3x3, so I can put three copies of three unique cards per sheet.
  • I also like the idea of giving the player actions to take outside of what is explicitly written on the cards.  So while the Human player might have a card that he or she can discard to draw three additional cards, or to search his or her deck for a particular card, all Personas will have the option to, say, discard a card to draw a card.
  • I don't think I want the player to have to deal with his or her own stats, not even Health or Oxygen or anything like that.  Everything he or she needs should be in the deck or in the encounter tables.  It's just simpler that way.  So what sort of punishment can the AI dish out?
  • Perhaps running out of cards in the deck means death?  No, that would reward players for playing huge, bulky, cumbersome, extremely random decks.  I think I'll allow the player to shuffle his or her discard pile into a new deck when the deck runs out.
  • Hand size, then, could be the player's Life.  Take damage, discard a card.  Run out of cards in hand, and you're dead.
  • The problem with that idea is that a player could get into a death spiral.  He or she doesn't have enough cards to overcome a particular encounter, so he or she takes damage, so he or she has fewer cards to deal with the next encounter....  So that doesn't quite work, either.
  • What about removing cards from the game permanently?  Take damage, exile the top card of your deck.  That card is gone forever; I don't care if it's a really strong card, you don't get to use it this game.  Hm... maybe.  I don't like the fact that it won't always FEEL like damage.  "Oh, I don't really care about that card, so that encounter wasn't very punishing at all."
  • Maybe a mixture of those ideas?  Some encounters force you to discard cards from your hand if you fail, which limits your options.  Some of them force you to exile cards from your deck, which CAN limit your options.  And some of them could put a cap on your hand limit, so you don't necessarily have to discard cards, but now you can only ever hold 4 cards in your hand instead of 5.  So when you draw cards, you'll occasionally be forced to discard cards.
  • I also think it's important to keep the player from just digging through the deck for the exact cards he or she needs for every encounter.  So there should be a penalty for having to shuffle your discard pile to create a new deck.  Perhaps, if you run out of cards in your deck, you shuffle your discard pile into a new deck, then exile the top two cards?  So each time you have to reshuffle, you have fewer and fewer cards left in your deck.  Yes, that should work.  It's not too punishing initially, but if the player abuses that strategy, he or she will find him or herself without many options.
  • Okay, I'm really liking this idea.  Time to go brainstorm some cards, and to sketch out an outline for the first story!

No comments:

Post a Comment