Maharajadhiraja: Further Thinking

I couldn’t resist spending some time working further on a game based around the concept of the maharajadhiraja, the ruler who doesn’t want to destroy other rulers but rather to preserve them so that they can acknowledge his or her greatness. The more I think about the idea, the more it seems like it leads in neat directions.

First, I still like what it does with player elimination. Everyone wants to secure their own power, but the leader has to stop short of fully removing rivals from the game. Complete safety is thus unachievable, which helps keep the game interesting as it goes along.

Second, I’ve started to be very interested in how the design might naturally control snowballing—the situation where players get more powerful as they advance toward victory, so that they enter a positive feedback loop where winning gives them power and the power causes them to win even faster. (The name comes from a snowball rolling downhill, picking up snow so that it speeds up and picks up even more snow.) Most games with the potential for snowballing rely on mechanical barriers that limit how much power the players can acquire at different points in the game. By contrast, this game could have players limiting their own snowballing, stopping their feedback loops in order to keep their opponents in the game. That’s unusual, and I feel that it would be fascinating in play.

My ideas so far have been minimalist, with some dice for each player as the only components. The intent was that simple mechanics would put focus on the key dynamic of getting some—but not too much—power at the opponents’ expense. Unfortunately, nothing’s worked yet; having few mechanics means there aren’t many levers to pull when something doesn’t play out as intended.

So, an interesting idea, but one that’s not quite there yet. I’ll have some free time this weekend to plug away at it a little more.

Thief In the Night

After a few weeks of Unity work, I started to feel like I hadn’t flexed my game design muscles in a while. So I set myself a two-hour deadline to come up with a game.

Here’s the result: Thief in the Night. It’s a simple game for two players that you can set up with stuff lying around. This isn’t a polished product; make any changes you think are good, and let me know what you think!

Something Completely Different: Design Rules

With the current playtesting project underway, I feel like it’s safe to talk a little more about the idea of a Dynasty Warriors-themed miniatures game. Playtesting can be somewhat grindy; a mental break can only do us good. 😉

If we were to pursue this game, the first step would be to come up with the core rules guiding the design. I can’t imagine not starting with:

1. The decisions must be interesting.

Part of the original idea was to use the game’s elements–its rules, its components, its play, everything–to put across emotion, much like how authors use words and sentence structure. That kind of guiding principle deserves to be a rule:

2. All aspects of the game must help convey an emotion.

In that formulation Rule #2 is question-begging: what’s the emotion in question? If this is a Dynasty Warriors-esque experience, there’s only one good answer:

2 (revised). All aspects of the game must reinforce the players’ feelings of might, prowess, and general awesomeness.

(Wait, this is really interesting–how do we reinforce competing players’ positive feelings at the same time, given that one of them is probably losing? So tempting to spend time on this . . . this is why it’s dangerous to work on other projects during playtesting! 😉 )

That wasn’t all the game was trying to do, though: it was also trying to create a sort of story arc. I don’t feel qualified to delve into what a “story arc” is, but I feel comfortable saying that a three-act structure counts.

3. The game experience must involve three acts, as in a three-act story.

I’m not sure what that means, exactly, but it sounds like a lot of fun to think about.

Something Completely Different

The playtesting project is winding down, just in time for the group testing I’m hoping to get in this weekend. On Friday I’ll have a couple of fixes for issues that have arisen, along with a bunch of playtest data and some thoughts on the results.

Since Over the Next Dune will really be taking over soon, I wanted to take a moment to talk through an idea that’s been bouncing around in my head. I’m always a little wary of working on a second project when the first is at the difficult testing-and-refining stage; it’s easy for the new project to become an excuse for avoiding the grindy part of game design. However, I think it’s safe if we all agree to keep this brief for now. 😉

The idea is this: in writing, one can use things like sentence structure to make a point. In Frankenstein the main character tends to use long sentences to describe nature, giving a sense of the natural world’s power and constancy, while using shorter sentences when describing what he himself did, suggesting his agitation and hurry. Can the same thing be achieved in game design? How far can one use the structure of the game, not just to make the game work, but to focus attention and bring about a reaction in the players?

I’m envisioning as a test case a miniatures game patterned on the Dynasty Warriors series of video games. In those games one plays a character who fights his or her way through hordes of trivial and easily-defeated opponents on the way to a final one-on-one confrontation with a villain. By hordes I mean hordes–tens of people attacking all at once. There’s a clear break between the waves of thugs, who are not especially dangerous and are mainly there to be swept aside in ways that emphasize how mighty the player is, and the “boss” at the end who is a legitimate challenge.

The game would be built from the ground up to create that sense of escalating tension and player empowerment. Everything, from the rulebook to the rules themselves to the playing field to the miniatures, would contribute to it. For example, each player might control some thugs and a major warrior. The rules for the thugs would be brief even to read, inculcating from one’s first exposure to the game the idea that these pieces aren’t important and that the player can dispatch them quickly. By contrast, the rules for doing battle with the opponent’s leader-warrior would be much lengthier, so that before one even begins play one has the sense that that battle will be more involved–that it will deserve more focus.

It’s just an idea, but it’s one I think could be a lot of fun. Dynasty Warriors games are rarely critical darlings, but they have a devoted fanbase; for all their technical sins they work as power fantasies. A minis game aimed entirely toward delivering that same sense of I am awesome could be a blast. Perhaps the next project after OtND?