Semi-Coops and the Maharajadhiraja

I love semi-cooperative games, where the players have to work together but there will ultimately only be one winner. They have a natural narrative to them: an Act I in which players are careful to demonstrate their goodwill even as one or two antagonists start to emerge, an Act II that sees the players’ interests diverge and cooperation become more difficult, and then finally an Act III where the players make their final bids for power. Every play of a semi-cooperative game has the potential to become a great story.

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about this sort of game, thanks to John Keay’s excellent India: A History.

Image from Amazon
Image from Amazon

In his book Keay talks about the concept of the maharajadhiraja, the “raja of rajas of rajas.” To acquire this title one had to do more than merely conquer territory. In fact, taking and holding ground wasn’t necessarily even desirable; the maharajadhiraja might exert personal control over only a relatively small area. Rather, to be the raja of rajas of rajas one had to command the loyalty of other rulers. Far from annihilating competing kings, one left them in place to acknowledge one’s superiority.

Although the idea of the maharajadhiraja was never intended to serve a game design purpose, I can’t help but feel that it points toward an interesting approach to a semi-coop. The leader seeks, not to eliminate other players from the game, but to keep them involved and even powerful, so that their might will make the leader’s supremacy all the more impressive. Of course, those other players are candidates to be leader as well, and must weigh their odds of successfully claiming the title for themselves against the benefits of peace and prosperity under the current order.

Such a design would also raise fascinating questions about the nature of winning. Is it necessary to end the game as the maharajadhiraja in order to win? What if a player succeeds in maintaining a safe, happy kingdom as a subordinate ruler—is that a victory? Should it be? What message does either choice send?

I’m currently spending some time on Over the Next Dune, and in fact hope to have everything in place to jumpstart its playtesting very soon. However, I’d love to pursue this idea further, both as a design and as a source of theoretical questions. Is anybody on the whole 25th-hour-in-the-day issue?

Project Updates

Lines of Questioning’s PC implementation is coming along well. This week’s work has been split between getting the GUI in place and finalizing the basics of rules enforcement: checking whether tiles connect appropriately to their respective lines, making sure they aren’t stacking atop other tiles of the same type, etc. Of course, nailing down the basics of rules enforcement means that the really complicated parts are yet to come. 😉

In other news, I’ve made a bit of progress on Over the Next Dune’s new look, and have continued trying things out in the Flying Drone Toolkit. There’s nothing to report yet on those fronts, but they’re not forgotten.

I expect to spend at least some time next week building more physical prototypes of Lines of Questioning; devoting lots of time to coding has slowed playtesting considerably, so I’d like to get some more copies in circulation in hopes of speeding things back up. Boardgamegeek’s print-and-play competitions are also in full swing, and I’d like to put something forward for at least one of them. Always, always I need that 25th hour . . . .

Status Report

I’m wrapped up in end-of-year lawyer stuff, so I thought I’d use this update to provide a quick overview of where Law of Game Design’s projects are.

Over the Next Dune: the case study which was the focus of this blog for most of the year is not forgotten! Design work has been paused while I try to get enough playtesters in the room at the same time; it turns out that testing a game designed for five players is no joke.

To break that logjam, I’ll be working more aggressively to get Over the Next Dune to the table in 2015. A massive component upgrade is in the works, and will help with that quite a bit; the old components were very simple (and thus easy to change), but were almost completely abstract and did nothing to sell the theme. “Let’s try this game involving a number of circles and some squares” is a pitch that only another designer could love. The new components will be easier to work with and more attractive to the eye, which I hope will make the game more appealing to testers.

Lines of Questioning: this is my current focus, and I’ve been very pleased with how the game is working out. Feedback so far has been positive and the game plays well. There’s still lots of room for further refinement, but I feel that Lines of Questioning’s foundation is very strong.

In related news, the digital implementation of Lines of Questioning is coming along nicely. At the moment the game is in an alpha state; it’s playable, but not feature-complete. The road ahead is well-mapped, so I expect steady progress on this front. Unity 4.6’s new UI tools, in particular, are a tremendous boon.

Narrative-driven miniatures game: an older concept, but something I keep simmering on the back burner. Recently I started thinking about mapping power-ups to a three-act structure, gating power by having players guide a “leader” figure through the things a character in a three-act story must do. That would cast players in a different light than most minis games; rather than being a general or a battlefield combatant, the player would serve as author. Perhaps, just as authors must put their characters through the wringer, the player would then want to throw some curveballs at her own troopers?

More than anything else, this is the game that makes me wish for a 25th hour in the day.

Game for parents with toddlers: I haven’t been able to put as much time as I would like into this one, not least because the digital implementation for Lines of Questioning is eating into time that might otherwise have been devoted to it. With that said, I have more out-of-nowhere ideas for this game than I do any other. This is very rapidly becoming my “wake up in the middle of the night with an insight” game.

Moving forward, the priorities are:

1. Lines of Questioning, digital implementation: reach a feature-complete state and build an appealing digital experience.

2. Lines of Questioning, ongoing design work: continue testing and find the ideal variant.

3. Over the Next Dune, component revamp: build an attractive, functional prototype for OtND.

4. Over the Next Dune, testing: get OtND to the table more often, putting the current version of the game through its paces.

The Case Study: (Small) Update

I wanted to give a quick update on Over the Next Dune. Unfortunately, playtesting opportunities have been sparser than expected–the end of summer is a busy time for everyone, playtesters included! Testing results are, as a result, still forthcoming.

A major force behind my recent turn toward building a PC version of OtND is that I’d like to increase the number of people I can reach out to for testing. It’s one thing to say “please print these pages, cut them out, learn the game, play, and report back.” Skipping to the third step by sending out a .exe makes the request something else entirely.

OtND hasn’t changed much in the last few weeks, but it’s by no means forgotten. As always, if you have the chance to play some test games (especially with the five-turn, 30-card deck variant) let me know. If print-and-play isn’t something you’re interested in, stay tuned for the computerized edition.

The Case Study: PC Prototype in the Works

Following up on last time‘s discussion, I’ve been working on a PC version of Over the Next Dune. My hope is that this will make testing faster (since resetting the game will just be a click instead of a die-rolling process), and will enable more people to try the game out.

Unfortunately, my minimal background in coding means that progress is a bit slow. Please bear with me while I go through the learning process. 🙂

The Case Study: Permanent Page for Updated Print-n-Play

I got a suggestion to put the rules and print-and-play components for Over the Next Dune into a single file, and to have a consistent place where the up-to-date file can be found. That’s completely sensible–I should have done both a long time ago! You can now find the current and complete Over the Next Dune file on its own page accessible via the top navigation bar.

The Case Study: Ongoing Playtesting

I’m still playtesting the five-turn version of OtND with three left turns and three right turns. The more I play it the more I like it. It’s hard, and games consistently come down to the wire. Making the game harder was part of the goal, and that goal is being achieved.

Using three turns is also working out better than four. It’s sufficient to make the game unpredictable without rendering planning impossible. Moreover, the challenge shifts over the course of the game; it starts out very difficult, and then the advantage shifts toward the players as turns come out of the deck. I haven’t forgotten the question of how to give a game the feeling of a three-act story.

So that’s the good news. The bad news is that the game still needs a lot of external playtesting. We’ll see how it holds up.

The Case Study: Ongoing Playtesting

Things have been busy, so just a quick update. I’ve played a few more five-turn games. They remain challenging. So far, though, I’m not sold on using three “lefts” and “rights.” It’s easier, but it may have turned the challenge dial down a little too far. I’m going to keep testing this, and take the show on the road to see what other people think.

As always, if you have thoughts let me know!

The Case Study: Playtesting a Five-Turn Limit

It’s been busy, but I’ve been able to play a few games of Over the Next Dune with a five-turn limit. The results have been mixed. On the plus side, the game is definitely more difficult. Players have to move quickly and take risks. On the minus side, the game might not be reasonably winnable. Having only five turns makes the game very difficult, moreso than I expected.

To dial the challenge back a bit I’m considering reducing the number of turns in the searcher movement deck. Maintaining the ratio of turns to straights from the 10-turn 60-card deck in the five-turn 30-card deck produces 3.5 of each turn. So far I’ve been rounding that up to four, on the the theory that previous attempts to make a “hard mode” had been inadequate and so this time I should do everything possible to increase the difficulty. Since the 30-card five-turn deck has turned out to be a very hard mode I’m going to give a deck with three of each turn a try. I’ll update you on how that goes next week.