Theory: Baroque Game Design

The Babylon 5 CCG was a game about everything.

It’s hard even to begin to explain what players could do in the B5CCG. Each player took the role of an ambassador on a space station, with the goal of accumulating political influence. They could do that through diplomacy, or by intriguing against other players, or via missions of conquest, or with mind-readers who stole valuable secrets, or by generating unrest in opposing factions. Players lent their strength to a budding galactic government, or voluntarily became client-states of ancient powers in return for a portion of their might.

Some strategies revolved around following a single character through his or her story arc–or changing that arc, turning terrible villains into destined heroes or vice-versa. Other strategies were all about building up groups. I mean that literally; there was a card type called “Group,” which gives a sense of just how much was going on in this game.

Votes of the players were common, on every topic from who should gain influence to whether someone should be allowed to play a card from outside the game. Occasionally these votes were rigged through in-game effects. Usually getting a vote passed relied on table-talk.

Games were long, and could be very long. Part of that was just because there was a lot to do; a four-player game might well have five “conflicts” to participate in during a turn, along with playing cards and drawing and otherwise doing card game-y things. Some of the length resulted from the fact that real-life diplomacy wasn’t just encouraged, it was vital. Occasionally a game grew long because of mechanical factors: woe betide anyone who has somewhere else to be if the Shadow War between the ancient powers starts.

In some respects the Babylon 5 CCG is an example of a previous era in game design, when the baroque was more appreciated than the elegant and more detail was considered almost strictly better. This extends from the top-level things one does–even a two-player game involves tracking the influence of five different groups, and basically requires a playmat–to individual cards, a few of which have so much text that they’re difficult even to parse. I still remember a discussion around the table of exactly what “Triple-Cross” did.

Yet, the B5CCG’s intricacies gave it what I can only describe as a rich texture. It felt more like a simulator than like a game, and at its best it was deeply immersive. One plotted and schemed and made deals and broke them, masterminding a rise to power worthy of the television series the game was based on. The mechanics could fall away and be replaced by something more akin to an RPG experience.

One doesn’t really see games like the Babylon 5 CCG anymore. Perhaps that’s for the best; there’s no denying that it was a little frustrating not knowing whether one was sitting down to an hour-and-a-half game or a four-hour one. Still, I sometimes miss that feeling of playing a card game and an RPG at the same time, watching the player to my left manipulate the media while the player to my right tries to keep a fractious alliance of minor worlds together. There’s a lot to be said for simplicity and focus in design. However, the B5CCG taught me that it’s OK to be in the mood sometimes for the ornate.

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