This article now only exists on an archive website. I’m puting it up as a pdf in case that too should vanish from the net. It’s a valuable piece of game design history.
It’s 1997. Magic: the Gathering is flying off the shelves. (I mean, it’s flying off the shelves even more today, but now we’re used to it). And this despite its seemingly customer-unfriendly practice of selling cards in randomized “boosters” with arbitrarily-assigned card “rarity”. Well a plate on a door affords pushing, and the thing to do with unsatisfied customers is to offer them a superior product. This is what Ryan Dancey (then of the Five Rings Publishing Group, later the driving force behind Dungeons & Dragons‘ unheard-of Open Gaming License) did, using the Legend of the Five Rings Collectible Card Game and a few others as guinea pigs.
The whole saga is an entertaining read, but most important is its conclusion:
Wrote 20 cards (out of 120 or so). Should have a playable prototype in a month at this rate.
A Once Upon A Time/Aye, Dark Overlord-like storytelling game with Harry Potter fanfics as its theme. Cards with all the tropes we know and love: “the real chosen one”, “muggle with a shotgun”, “storyteller’s self-insert”, “time travel”, “Twilight crossover”, “male pregnancy”… Players interrupt each other with crazy plot points to try to drive a very confused story towards their Ending card (“…and Harry and Voldemort were a family again”).
No content written, just a couple ideas I had after watching Catching Fire. It started out as a boardgame because I think about boardgames all the time these days, but computers have fewer practical issues.
Setting & Gameplay overview
Battle Royale, The Hunger Games and the like. A bunch of young adults are locked in a very large arena with various weapons. Only the last one standing will go free.
Key elements :
- NPCs. Many more contestants than players, so a large number of roaming NPCs. A smart NPC AI that can handle all the points below, with different personalities. If it’s a board game, then the AI should also be easy to use, else players will spend too much time moving all the NPCs every turn.
- Player elimination. NPCs open the possibility of a “reincarnation” mechanic, either as a genuine second chance to win or as an attempt to make the game a draw by killing every other PC.
- Skills. Contestants vary in physical fitness, intelligence, military training etc. PCs are median in most aspects with perhaps a special talent or two. Some NPCs are pathetic. Some NPCs are scary.
- Temporary collaboration, Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma-style. Coalitions beat loners, but are vulnerable to betrayal – and everyone knows there can only be one winner. This is the game’s selling point. This tension is what draws us to these stories. Though make sure it’s not friendship-destroying. Coalitions may include PCs and NPCs alike, so must be handled by the NPC AI.
- Cat-and-mouse. Every fight is risky. Better to attack only as an ambush or with overwhelming force. Better still to stay out of the way until everyone else is dead. As a video game, this can be implemented with fog-of-war.
- Wilderness survival. You can hide for a while, but eventually the lack of food, water or medicine will force you to make supply runs in the more heavily contested parts of the arena. Or perhaps it’ll be the angry snakes and poisonous gas. The arena may even shrink over time to force an ending. (If you’re brave, you could take over a supply area from the start, fortify, and stand your ground against desperate challengers.)
- The escape plan. There just might be a way for a coalition to “beat the game” by escaping the arena together. It’s very tempting because it’s a solution to the iterated prisoner’s dilemma that doesn’t require backstabbing allies. It’s uncertain and time-consuming though. Working on it (instead of gathering weapons and stalking enemies) will make you more vulnerable to other coalitions – and to betrayal.
The far future: time travel technology is now commonplace, as well as all sorts of future tech that lets humans move and think at supersonic speeds. Various factions use them all to fight a very confusing war across time and space. Eventually they figure out that the only way to win is to travel as far back in time as possible (which means the invention of time travel, since time machines work like time portals, not like time ships) and secure that first second.
July 1st, 20XX: Dr Brown has build the very first time machine. As a precautionary measure, a powerful explosive is strapped to the device and rigged to blow if any unexpected object comes out of it. Brown turns on the machine. In the single second between the opening of the time portal and the room’s utter annihilation, far future warriors jump out and fight each other, using future tech and time-travel tricks. There can be only one survivor.
Okay, this is about time travel so it’s going to get confusing. Here’s a (very very early work-in-progress) mockup of the board, maybe it’ll help:
In a scifi world that didn’t invent FTL travel, each player is captain/dictator of a huge generation ship launched centuries ago. The original purpose of the mission has long since been forgotten – colonization? military strike? flight from a Grey Goo scenario? – but it’s kind of a big deal now that the ships are almost at their destination.
Like its premise, the general tone of the game is grim with some dark humour. No objective seems worth sending a tin can of miserable astronaut families in outer space for generations.
Gameplay is a mix between an action point game and Galaxy Trucker, somewhat similar to the video game FTL. Players must:
- Keep their derelict ship in working order. Between food riots, pvp combat, and surprise meteorite showers, the ship’s economy will naturally go into a downward spiral, and players will have to prioritize where to spend their precious few spare parts and spare workers.
- Gather information to figure out the fleet’s objective, which is initially secret. There’s a Clue-like mechanic that will help them figure out which of several possible objectives is used in this game. Some objectives are fully competitive, others fully collaborative, others hybrid. And of course, gathering clues takes workers away from tasks with greater short-term utility.
- Prepare their ship to fulfill that objective (e.g. get their population as high as possible if it’s going to be a colonization mission).
- Trade with other ships and/or blast them off the sky (which could come back to bite them if they’ve misguessed the objective).
- React to external events (supply caches, the aforementioned meteorite showers etc.).