Category Archives: Games

A review of Kodama: The Tree Spirits

Introduction

In 2014, Daniel Solis released another of his POD card games. I’d been looking forward to this one for a while. It had the aesthetic feel I like, both in game design and actual graphic design. In this game, you are all using cards to create little ink drawings of trees and scoring points based on the flowers, dragonflies, and the like that inhabit the various branches.

It’s called Kigi.

So, when I heard that Action Phase Games was planning on redeveloping Kigi into a new game, I was intrigued. I won’t lie; I was debating what my interest level was. Did I really need a mere variant of Kigi if I already owned Kigi?

But then, as I saw the game art, I realized that my daughter Hope (who turns 7 today!) would love it. And as I heard about the changes that Action Phase made to the gameplay, I became more interested. So I backed the Kickstarter for Kodama.

I’m really glad that I did.

Gameplay

In Kodama, you’re trying to grow the best tree for the little tree spirits to inhabit. You each start with a trunk with one of six features on it: a caterpillar, a star, a cloud, a mushroom, a firefly, or a flower. Then, on your turn, you take a branch card from a display of four cards and adding it to your tree. The end of the branch must touch the bark on a previous card, and you can only touch one other card. However, to be clear, you do not have to play on a grid or anything. So your tree tends to grow in semi-organic ways.

These branches have one or more of the same features that are on the trunks, and those control how you score points. For each feature on the branch you just played, score one point for each matching feature in a contiguous line down the branch until you reach a branch without that feature or you reach the trunk. You’re not allowed to play a branch card that scores more than ten points, which also encourages you to diversify your branches, spreading out in a few directions. This might sound complicated, but it’s actually pretty simple once you see it. Again, Hope has this figured out, so it can’t be that tricky.

Four turns comprises a season, of which there are three in a game. (There’s no winter, because trees don’t grow in winter. Savvy?) At the end of each season, each player plays one of the four Kodama cards that they were dealt at the beginning of the game. These represent the tree spirits judging your work and are essentially special scoring cards, such as “Score two points for each feature on branch cards that touch your trunk card” or “Score four points for each branch card with your trunk’s feature that is within two cards of your trunk card” or “Score two points for each cloud or flower on your tree, whichever is fewer”.

Oh yes, there are also the Decrees. These are special laws dictated by the spirits for the duration of a season. Each season has its own deck of Decrees. In the basic game, each season has five possible Decrees, of which you’ll only use one per game. (That’s 125 possible combinations, for those keeping track.) My deluxe Kickstarter version actually includes nine of each, which is 729 possible combinations. These are little effects like “After placing a branch card that touches your trunk card, gain three points”, “At the end of this season, choose an end branch card on your tree and score it again”, or “Score one point when placing a branch card with a firefly or a star on it”. These provide additional opportunities to be considered while playing the game while keeping gameplay fresh.

After three seasons (aka 12 turns) the game is over. Whoever has the most points wins!

Some Clever Marketing

Here I must discuss briefly the genius of the winner card. I don’t know if the winner card exists in the base game, but it was certainly included in my Kickstarter edition. Here’s how this works: whoever wins gets the winner card. That means they get to decorate their finished tree with the little cardboard Kodama that came with the game. Then, you’re supposed to take a picture of the winner with the winning tree and post it on social media with the hashtag #kodama.

In other words, this game provides a built-in victory ceremony which naturally turns into free advertising for the game.

As I say: genius. Really, I tip my hat to Action Phase Games for coming up with this idea. It feels like such a natural part of the game while improving the marketing of the game at the same time. Everyone wins!

Playing with Hope

Daniel Solis, the designer of Kodama, has commented that he has stumbled into designing a number of games that gamer parents can play with their children. Kodama is no exception. As I mentioned, I primarily backed Kodama to have a game to play especially with Hope, and that seems to have worked out well.

There are a few reasons for this. The graphic design and basic gameplay certainly help. There’s something satisfying about growing a little tree, even if you don’t win. Also, the math that the game requires is essentially just counting, which makes it easier for Hope to engage with. The Decrees are also pretty simple to get, and in our last game Hope was considering the bonuses from Decrees and reminding me to score them.

The only area that could be difficult is the actual Kodama cards. And this is where Action Phase Games had their other stroke of genius in developing the game. They included three sets of special Kodama cards called Sprouts which are specifically intended to be used by children. Each set is comprised of three little Kodama, each labeled for the season they are intended for. Taken together, each set of Sprouts essentially rewards collecting two features. For example, one set has these scoring conditions: “Score five points for each branch card with a firefly or flower on it that touches your trunk” for Spring, “Score 3 points for each branch card on your tree with a firefly or flower on it” for Summer, and “Score 1 point for each firefly or flower on your tree” for Fall. So, when Hope has this set of Sprouts, all she needs to focus on is collecting lots of fireflies and flowers. That’s a much simpler initial heuristic than trying to understand a hand of Kodama cards.

Oh, and last game, she scored about 20 points per Kodama card, which gave her the game in a five-player game.

In essence, the Sprouts represent an elegant handicapping system allowing young children to play Kodama with older children or parents and actually be competitive. I won’t lie; this might be my favorite part of the game.

Differences from Kigi

For those of you curious, here are some of the ways that Kigi is different from Kodama.

First, in Kigi, you can play on anyone’s tree to score points, not just your own. In addition, instead of there being a rule against branch placements that score more than ten points, in Kigi this triggers a pruning that cuts that entire branch back to the trunk, thus resetting that scoring opportunity.

Also, In Kigi, the bonus scoring cards are shuffled into the deck with the branch cards and must be chosen from the display instead of taking a branch card. These bonus cards (called Commissions) represent end game goals that can now be scored by anyone, like “have the fewest flowers on your tree” or “have the most pruned cards” or the like. At the end of the game, each Commission is worth ten points to the player who fulfills it. If you took the action to choose the Commission, you win ties. If the display ever fills up with Commissions, then it clears and refills from the deck. So, it’s not a given that any particular Commission with end up in play. Unless, you know, you make sure that it enters play.

These factors aren’t the only differences, but they are probably the most significant. They make Kigi a potentially more confrontational game, as players can sabotage other players’ trees through triggering pruning or by adjusting feature count to skew Commission scoring.

Conclusion

I was really happy with Kigi when it came out. It slotted into a neat place in my collection, being able to play with a wide range of players, including relatively young players like Hope.

But I can’t lie. I think that Kodama has fired Kigi. Here’s why.

First, removing the competitive card play and, therefore, the pruning, allows the game to be about building up. At the end of a game of Kigi, you’d frequently have several players with only stumps of trees, due to particularly brutal pruning. Kodama fulfills the promise of Kigi by giving each player a beautiful, unique tree at the end of each game. Win or lose, you walk away being able to feel proud of yourself for having accomplished something, which also fits the comtemplative feel that Kigi presented but didn’t necessarily provide.

Also, being dealt a hand of Kodama at the beginning of the game provides strategic direction beyond merely lining up the most features. Ideally, you want to consider your hand of Kodama at the beginning of the game and plan which one will be played in which season–and therefore which one will not be played–and grow your tree accordingly. Kigi was purely tactical, but Kodama actually introduces strategy into the gameplay.

The Decrees are another pleasant addition that further diversify gameplay, which should help keep the game fresh for many plays.

And, I have to admit, the Kodama are all so darned cute!

Kodama should be available from your local gaming store starting April 24. Pick yourself up a copy!

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Unknown Armies 3e and loving people

The third edition of Unknown Armies is currently on Kickstarter. This was one of the more significant roleplaying games in my past, so I was positively required to back this one. This got me access to the Gamma edition of the rules, so I’ve been reading.

Oh my.

The second edition of Unknown Armies came out in 2002, which means that it’s been 14 years since it was published. In the interim, there’s been both a lot of history and a lot of development in RPG game mechanics. Both of these have been rolled into this new edition.

Last time I was rhapsodizing about Unknown Armies on this blog, I talked a lot about the Madness Meters. Now they are called Shock Gauges, and Greg Stolze has doubled down on their inclusion. Without going into too many details, the Shock Gauges are now the mechanical core of your character. Not only do they define your psychological profile, they set your core skills, which are the basis for the relationships and identities (e.g. player-defined skill sets). Everything radiates from your core psychological state.

Add to this rules to manage a sandbox approach to play (the Objective system), collaborative character creation, and GM advice which seems like the MC advice from Apocalypse World filtered through UA glasses (a really good thing, from my perspective), and you are left with a modernized version of a classic. Folks, I want to play this so hard.

But that’s not what I want to talk about. Instead, I want to talk about how Unknown Armies loves people.

That’s kind of a weird assertion to make. After all, Unknown Armies is known for horrible things happening to–and being done by–its characters. How could a game like this be accused of actually being warm towards humanity?

Unknown Armies has always been humanocentric horror. It’s almost the exact opposite of Lovecraftian horror, in fact. Lovecraftian horror is all about the cold, uncaring cosmos and the lack of human meaning. In the Unknown Armies universe, everything is humanity’s fault: the good and the bad alike. The world is a cosmic democracy; we make it what it is. Thus the “you did it” slogan from bygone days.

This edition of Unknown Armies does the best job of all the editions of capturing this humanocentric approach within its mechanics. You’re not creating a power fantasy with which you will be awesome. Rather, the rules guide you into making an emotionally real character who is still obsessed enough to chase something and pay the price. And you will pay the price. Both the rules text and the game mechanics enforce this. First, obviously, there are the Shock Gauges that will track the mental and emotional impact of what you have done and what has been done to you. Also, violence is brutal. In Unknown Armies, the characters’ “hit points” are tracked by the GM. The player isn’t allowed to track them or know what they are. Instead, they have to rely on the narrative description of their injuries provided by the GM. Gimmicky? Not really. Instead, by introducing uncertainty, the players respond towards the violence in more reasonable ways. They don’t know how hard they can push without suddenly dying. Combat in Unknown Armies tends to involve a lot of taking cover and scurrying from one location to another. Even magickal adepts can go down to a gunshot to the head.

The rules text amps this up, too. Here’s the quote from the beginning of the combat chapter in both the second and third editions:

Somewhere out there is someone who had loving parents, watched clouds on a summer’s day, fell in love, lost a friend, is kind to small animals, and knows how to say “please” and “thank you,” and yet somehow the two of you are going to end up in a dirty little room with one knife between you and you are going to have to kill that human being.

It’s a terrible thing. Not just because he’s come to the same realization and wants to survive just as much as you do, meaning he’s going to try and puncture your internal organs to set off a cascading trauma effect that ends with you voiding your bowels dying alone and removed from everything you’ve ever loved. No, it’s a terrible thing because somewhere along the way you could have made a different choice. You could have avoided that knife, that room, and maybe even found some kind of common ground between the two of you. Or at least, you might have divvied up some turf and left each other alone. That would have been a lot smarter, wouldn’t it? Even dogs are smart enough to do that. Now you’re staring into the eyes of a fellow human and in a couple minutes one of you is going to be vomiting blood to the rhythm of a fading heartbeat. The survivor is going to remember this night for the rest of his or her life.

Then the text proceeds to discuss ways to avoid a fight. The game treats violence as horrible because humans–real humans with loves and fears and dreams–are destroyed by it.

And, maybe even these things are justified. After all, the brutality of the combat doesn’t stop it from being a tool. So apparently, at least this time, what you wanted was worth inflicting that kind of harm on someone…or receiving that harm yourself.

This approach makes the horror of Unknown Armies work. It’s not about cosmically horrific monsters, as much as I love that sort of thing. No, in Unknown Armies, the horror is that the worst things being done in the world are being done by people. Real people, with real loves and desires and history. People who are understandable. Maybe even you.

That’s what I love about Unknown Armies: the intersection of real people, real desires, and real price. The magick and everything is just the setting.

Sound interesting to you? Consider backing the Kickstarter campaign!


BREAKING NEWS: Dirty Secrets featured in current Bundle of Holding

So, the newest Bundle of Holding is out. If you don’t know, this is similar to the Humble Bundle for video games: pay a small amount to get a collection of roleplaying games, but if you pay above the average, you get a larger collection. Well, the current bundle is noir-themed, and it includes Dirty Secrets!

You should totally check it out!

Other games in the package:

  • The Big Crime
  • FASTLANE: Everything, All the Time
  • One Last Job
  • A Dirty World
  • Killshot: The Director’s Cut
  • Secrets & Lies: Hardboiled Triple Feature
  • Streets of Bedlam

In particular, I want to call out A Dirty World and Streets of BedlamA Dirty World is Greg Stolze’s noir game using the One-Roll Engine (ORE) which was popularized in Godlike and Wild Talents. It definitely skews to the classic noir period piece, like The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep.

Streets of Bedlam, on the other hand, is inspired more by Sin City by Frank Miller. Written by my friend Jason Blair, it’s powered by the Savage Worlds engine, most famously used in the newest edition of Deadlands.

All this, plus Dirty Secrets, for just a few bucks. If you love hardboiled fiction or noir of any kind, you simply can’t pass this one up.

Check it out, and please spread the word!


My Life with Games (part 31)–Papers, Please

Are you nostalgic for the Cold War? Does the life of a petty bureaucrat sound thrilling and exciting? Want to grapple with the moral ambiguities of being the face of a system you can’t totally support? Then Papers, Please is the game for you!

Okay, yes, I could totally sell this one better. Like how this game is truly a game design tour de force. How the intersection of game mechanics made me feel more like I was playing a roleplaying game than a puzzle game. How there’s even something oddly enjoyable and thrilling about…well…doing paperwork.

But maybe here’s the best selling point of all. In his preface to The Screwtape Letter, C.S. Lewis writes:

“I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the office of a thoroughly nasty business concern.”

Papers, Please is, in part, an exploration of this idea in video game form.

First, here’s a link to the trailer for the game.

The core of gameplay is the view that you see in the trailer. You are behind a desk, interviewing the various people attempting to cross the border at your crossing. You have a rulebook, giving the details of the various items you need to watch for. If you discover discrepancies in the paperwork, you highlight the discrepancy to ask the applicant for more information. Sometimes this resolves the issue, while sometimes it necessitates a denial of entry or even detaining the applicant for further questioning.

So that’s the game. Review paperwork, then stamp “Approved” or “Denied” as appropriate. Or, rather, that’s the core of the game.

See, you’re on a clock. So you’re doing this processing in realtime. It’s not that any one applicant has a clock. It’s just that your workday ends when you’re out of applicants to process. 

And that’s where the next aspect of the game enters play.

You are paid piecework. So, the more applicants you process, the more money you get paid. Mess up, and you’ll get citations, and eventually your pay will be docked.

And each day, you have to go home and pay the bills with the money you made. Because you have a family to feed and keep warm. You have to pay the rent. Get lax on these duties, and your family can get sick and even die. It happened in my playthrough. I lost two family members to disease because I couldn’t afford both food and heat, and then I couldn’t afford medicine.

So, your performance at the checkpoint directly impacts your ability to care for your family. 

With me so far?

Now comes the next twist.

The applicants you’re processing at the checkpoint aren’t ciphers. They have personality. They’ll talk to you. Sometimes they’ll ask you for favors, or they’ll overshare. Like the woman who mentioned that her husband had just gone ahead of her in line. Or the other woman who slipped me a note, telling me that the man behind her was her pimp, intent on selling her once they entered the country, and please, oh please, don’t let him through.

So, what about that, right? The pimp’s paperwork is in order. I’m supposed to let him through. But should I? 

 But there’s even more! Your country is embroiled in a tense geopolitical situation, which means that the rules for crossing becoming increasingly arcane and difficult to enforce. And then there are the foreign terrorists, hopping the wall and throwing bombs. And then there’s the homegrown resistance movement who appeals to your patriotism to aid them.

There’s probably even more. I’ve only played through the game once. But, without a doubt, the core gameplay activity of processing paperwork is only a small part of the overall game experience. 

This isn’t just a game about playing “One of these things doesn’t belong”. This is a game about morality at the intersection of competing loyalties.

By my count, my character had at least four competing loyalties: 

1) His government 

2) His family 

3) His country (not the same thing as his government) 

4) Humanity in general 

 Following the rules of applicant processing demonstrated loyalty to the government. Making enough money to provide for his family’s needs demonstrated loyalty to them. Aiding the resistance movement demonstrated loyalty to his country (at least in my mind!) And sometimes bending the rules at the checkpoint demonstrated loyalty to humanity.

But these loyalties do not live peacefully with each other. And, as the game goes on, you are forced to make choices between them.
In my game, I tried to juggle my responsibilities. I tried to do good work at the checkpoint, though I’ll admit that much of this was motivated by my desire to pay for my family’s needs. So, yeah, I accepted some kickback from one of the border guards for detaining people, but I didn’t change my actions. I figured that if I could get a little bit extra for food for my family while still doing my job, then there was no harm. I wasn’t looking for extra reasons to detain people, though maybe I was a bit harsher than I might otherwise have been. I mean, maybe. And I was a patriot! So when the resistance movement contacted me, I jumped at the chance to help.

That was morally grueling in its own way. At first, the resistance only wanted me to look the other way when certain people were coming through. though, as the news came out about bombings against government buildings, I knew that I was culpable. And then came the day when they asked me to kill. And, God help me, I did.

Things came to a head when my superiors announced that there would be an audit of my actions at the checkpoint. I knew that there was no way that I could come through that audit without incident. One of the regulars at the checkpoint had told me about a way to get forged passports to get across the border to a neighboring country. (It was an…unusual…relationship.) But it required real passports from that country as a base. So I began confiscating appropriate passports from people coming through the checkpoint. The day before the audit, and I’m still one passport short. I’m going to lose a family member.

I can’t risk it. I have to leave tonight. So I get three passports for me, my wife and my child. My wife’s mother heads for her hometown to try to disappear within the borders of our country. I don’t know if she made it.

As the game ends, I wait at another border checkpoint. This time, I’m the one clutching bad paperwork, praying that the clerk is unattentive. I hand over our papers. He goes back into the office.

I hear one stamp. I hear a second stamp.

Then there’s a pause. It feels like eternity.

And then a third stamp. I heave a sigh of relief. Then, we cross the border, safe but exiles.

Papers Please was a morally exhausting game.  I tried to do the right thing, but I’m not sure I always did. I know that I screwed over perfectly innocent people at the end of the game in my mad dash to get passports for my family.

Papers Please was also an amazing game. There are apparently 15-20 possible endings for the game, which means that your playthrough could be totally different than mine. I’m also impressed by its ability to take core gameplay that doesn’t seem all that interesting and make it fascinating.

But even more, I appreciate that this game managed to make an artful statement through the application of game mechanics, not merely narrative. And it’s an important lesson.

The System will not save you. The System will not give you the guidance you need. The System can never encompass the entirety of a situation. The System can never replace wisdom. The System cannot tell you what is right. And so, at times, the System must be resisted. It must be fought. It must be overturned.

Or, to quote from the Foundation series, “Never let your sense of morals stop you from doing what it right.”


For Further Comment: Loops and Arcs

I would hope that none of you are surprised that I’m a geek about game design and related topics. I mean, you do read the blog, right? Many of the people I follow on Twitter are similar, so I pick up various articles about game design and the like in my feed. All of this preface is really to say that I don’t remember who originally posted the link to the article I’m going to discuss.

So, without further ado, Loops and Arcs.

This article prompted a bunch of ideas, but I’m going to keep it focused to just one. (You’re welcome.) But first, a summary.

In the article, a loop is a repeating sequence of learning in the game. To quote the article:

*The player starts with a mental model that prompts them to…
*Apply an action to…
*The game system and in return…
*Receives feedback that…
*Updates their mental model and starts the loop all over again. Or kicks off a new loop.

So, as I proceed through a loop, I start with my understanding of the world, which leads to action, which leads to feedback on my action, which leads to learning on my part. Those of you who know your continuous quality improvement probably recognize PDSA (Plan, Do, Study, Act) here. This is a very common construct. And, as the article notes, the loop is a good model for the building of wisdom. I iterate over a series of experiences, improving my understanding each time. Or, at least, we hope so, right?

The article also defines an arc:

‘Arcs’ have similar elements to a loop, but are not built for repeated usage. The player still starts with a mental model, they apply an action to a system and receive feedback. This arc of interaction could be reading a book or watching a movie. However, the mental model that is updated rarely results in the player returning to the same interaction. The movie is watched. The book consumed. An arc is a broken loop you exit immediately.

(Emphasis in original.)

I might quibble a bit on this–I do rewatch movies and reread books–but the basic point stands. After all, I don’t immediately reread a book once I’ve finished it. That particular reading has done all the work it’s going to do, and time will need to pass, allowing external factors to operate on my mental model, before I will be able to profitably re-engage.

So, loops and arcs. Who cares, right?

Well, the article goes on to discuss a couple of interesting implications of designing with loops and arcs, including a brief but fascinating excursus into evaluating religion through this lens. But what earned this article a blog post was the article’s discussion of how loops and arcs impact the economics of game design.

Hey, you! I see you edging out the back door! Hang on a sec. If you’re a creator of any kind, this applies to you.

See, from one perspective, economics is how we answer the question “How can I do what I’d like to do and still be able to eat?” For all that we laud the nobility of the starving artist, the fact still remains that the artist is starving.

So, how can you make games (or whatever) and be able to get paid enough to eat?

As the article notes, the classic boardgames are all loops. You don’t “finish” Chess or “beat” Go. Each instance of playing the game becomes part of the larger loop of ongoing mastery of the game. I’ll note that early videogames were also loops. Again, there’s no way to “beat” Asteroids or Space Invaders. Over time, though, computer games became more arc-focused. Consider most of the AAA games that are released. There’s a story line that you play through and, eventually, you beat the game–if you’re any good, at any rate.

Why is this? Why the change? One answer is economic. How did the makers of Asteroids make their money? The player paid 25 cents per game instance. Thus the loop makes sense. The player continues to return to the game to develop mastery and therefore continues to fund the game maker. This is why the leaderboard was such an important part of the design of these games. Those high scores represented milestones of mastery, providing aspirational goals to drive consumption. Your skill would be publicly acknowledged by the community of play that formed around a particular game cabinet.

With the advent of the home computer and game console, the economic model changes from paying per instance to paying for the entire game. Now, instead of having to pump quarters into a game cabinet, you could pay once for a game and play it as much as you wanted! Pretty awesome for the players, but how did the game makers make their money?

Thus, the rise of games that could be beaten. Games move away from being loops of mastery to being consumable arcs of content. This leads quickly into the place of the sequel in game design. If I’ve beaten Dragon Warrior and am now casting about for another game to consume, Dragon Warrior II seems like a safe bet. So now, the game makers have to be thinking about franchises and game series and staying out in front of the players enough so that new content can be released to feed the consumption habits of the audience.

The advent of the Internet provided another possible tool to solve the economic problem: the DLC. Rather than having to make an entirely new game, you just release little expansions of downloadable content (DLC) that provide additional content. Maybe a new character class or a special level or even a new mini-campaign that can work within the context of the current game. Handled correctly, this strategy of expansion could allow you to milk a given game release for a long time.

Now, where I get interested is how these economic forces act on the hobby game market, both in boardgames and roleplaying games. As I’ve been thinking about all of this, I’ve arrived at some interesting preliminary conclusions.

I think that boardgame makers are finding themselves in the place of selling loops while marketing them as arcs. Let me explain. The buying pattern of boardgamers seems to be driven by a lot of novelty. What’s the newest game? I must have it! There doesn’t seem to be a lot of exploration of the game space or the establishing of communities of play around specific games in the same way that there is around games like Poker, Bridge, Chess, or Go.

Yes, I’m aware that the hobby boardgame market isn’t as old as these games. But there are enough games that have a measure of age to them. For example, Tigris & Euphrates is generally considered to be one of Reiner Knizia’s greatest games, it is about 18 years old, and it certainly has a comparable depth to Bridge or Poker. But I do not see advanced level strategy discussions about T&E. Instead, it’s generally passed over as being an “older” game, pushed out by the flood of new games pouring into the market.

I think that this is the result of economics. The market for a game like Tigris & Euphrates is only so large. A company can’t sustain itself on sales of just that game. Eventually, it will need new revenue streams.

Another solution to this problem is the expansion, which is similar to the DLC approach in videogames. This approach has its own problems (e.g. your market is automatically smaller, because having the original game is a requirement), but it can be functional.

This all becomes particularly fascinating when coming to roleplaying games. A genre of game that is based on player creativity has additional complications when it comes to selling new product. How do I make money, if I’m selling you a toolkit for your imagination?

Again, the normal solution has been expansions in the form of new rules, pre-made adventures, and the like. But these approaches can sometimes reduce the approachability of a game, simply because there is too much material to take in. Are there other solutions?

Here’s one weird thought that has emerged in my thinking from reading this article. What if you designed a game that was intended to be a consumable? What if we embraced the arc-like nature of player engagement with these games and actually make some games that are intended for a one-shot use and then be done? System mastery wouldn’t be the point. Rather, it would be the creation of a particular experience in a particular moment. And when it’s done, then you’re done with the game.

I know that this could sound shocking and cynical, but isn’t that how we engage with most media? How many movies do you watch once and never view again? Why should games be different?

If you think about it, I just described those murder mystery dinner kits. If you consider the popularity of these dinners as opposed to the rest of the hobby…let’s just say there’s food for thought there.

Here’s a completely different approach: what if we approached game design as a fine art? What if we could decouple the economics from the game design? This would essentially require patronage, as those with money support not a product but a designer, freeing him or her to make games that are beautiful and well-crafted without also having to be economically viable.

So it’s not surprising that we see the growth of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Patreon. In fact, Patreon requires a little more attention, as it has this creator focus versus the product focus of Kickstarter.

I’ll be honest. When I design games, I don’t usually think about the economic impact of my design. I’m approaching it all as an artiste…and it shows in my economic success as a designer. But I’m starting to think about possibilities for the future. And, now, hopefully, so are you.


My Life with Games (part 30)–Flower

Last year, due to the generosity of my father-in-law, we were able to purchase a PlayStation 4 for Crystal and me. This was pretty exciting, because, you know, video games! Also, Sony has been aggressively pursuing partnerships with those weird, offbeat indie game companies that make the sorts of games that fascinate me. So the PS4 was a shoo-in. And, yes, I’ve played a couple of AAA games, but most of my gaming has been with indies.

Like Flower.

Flower is one of those games that seems like a conscious effort to see how far the video game formula can be successfully stretched. It’s not very long; the playthrough video I’m using for this post is only 100 minutes or so, which is the length of a shortish movie. The concept is weird, as I’ll explain in a few minutes. I’m not even sure that it’s all that difficult to play; Hope (age 5) was able to play through it with only occasional assistance from me.

And yet, what a profound experience.

SPOILER TAG: yes, there will be spoilers. You have been warned.

ADDITIONAL NOTE: I’m going to be hyperlinking a lot in this post to a playthrough of Flower. This way you can actually see and hear what I’m describing.

So here’s the conceit of the game. You are a gust of wind, or the dream of a flower, or a dancing flower petal (the game is kinda vague on this point) that is flying around a landscape filled with flowers. It is your job to touch all the necessary flowers to open the next segment, where you will find more flowers to touch. When you touch a flower, the game plays a musical note, based on which flower you touched. Some sounds like chimes, while others are choral stabs. So your flight is a musical experience. In addition, as you touch flowers, you accumulate more flower petals in your wake. So, you begin as a single petal, and you become this multi-colored streamer of beauty, swooping and twisting in the breeze.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Don’t worry about watching too much; you’ll get the idea pretty quickly.

Pretty, isn’t it?

But there are other things going on. The main menu shows each level as a flower in a pot on the window sill of an apartment. Each level opens with a little cutscene of a dark, broken city, which contrasts sharply with the bright colors of the gameplay levels.

Or does it?

Because as you proceed through the levels, the sun is going down. You progress from daylight on levels 1 and 2 to sunset on level 3 and twilight on level 4. The world is getting darker around you as you flit from flower to flower.

And then there’s The Moment.

Flower is a testament to the power of effective user experience design. By the time you reach level 4, the game has instructed you well through patterns and wordless hints. You have learned that accomplishing a given task unlocks a new area, and you’ve learned what that unlocking looks like. For example, on level 4, you are led from area to area by a series of street lights that turn on as you complete tasks. The lights on the electrical wires turn on, one by one, leading to the next lamp, which initiates the next area. (It looks like this.)

And that’s why The Moment works so well. Check it out.

The black smoke. The pulsating red light. The dying grass. Suddenly the idyllic world you have been playing has been desecrated. Ahead of you lies wreckage and ruin. But the game has taught you well. You must go forward. And so, suddenly, you find yourself moving through a wasteland of pollution and metal. Lightning flashes in the distance above a dark, twisted citadel. The level terminates, and you find yourself feeling, “What happened to my beautiful, happy, relaxing game?”

Which brings you to level 5.

I consider level 5 of Flower to be one of the crowning achievements of video game design. All the work of the previous four levels begins to pay off here.

The color is gone. The sun is gone. Instead, rain pounds out of a black sky, occasionally lit by lightning. All around you, twisted girders punch out of the ground. High voltage electrical wires crisscross across the sky.

And then, as you attempt to find and touch the flowers huddled around the level, you discover something new. If you touch one of the girders, you receive a powerful electrical jolt. The screen shakes and flashes, you hear a zapping sound, and even the controller shakes and buzzes. You feel like you’ve been zapped. Every person I’ve watched play this game yelps and almost drops the controller the first time it happens.

And worse, the petals that you have been accumulating burn up into wisps of smoke.

When I played this game for the first time, I suddenly began to be afraid that it was possible to die in this game, burning up in a flare of electricity.

So, on level 5, you do not swoop and flit through the air. Rather, you crawl through metallic wreckage, oppressed by the sky, threatened by the land, dwarfed by the dark landscape that you wander. I’ll be honest; it felt like passing through Mordor.

The level reaches its climax as you are hurdled down a series of canyons, where spearlike girders thrust out of the canyon walls as you desperately try to avoid being “shocked” over and over again. Pieces of metal fall from overhangs as you try to dodge, and you are so far from the happy place where you started in level 1.

And then, physically and emotionally exhausted, you emerge from the canyons, and before you is the city. Walls made of grey buildings forbid you, and yet the end level swirl beckons.

Admittedly, this is where the game gets a little heavy-handed, but in the moment, I didn’t care.

Because, as you head toward the end of the level, it simply fades out, returning you to the main menu, with level 6 unlocked.

And, of course, you dive right in, because you can’t end on a cliffhanger like that, right?

Level 6 starts right where level 5 left off. The end level swirl is still there, so that’s where you head. And when you enter it, everything changes.

A single flower grows up, but then it begins to radiate power. And, with an explosion of light, color and life bursts back into the world.

The color returns to the grass. Flowers sprout up. And you…you are glowing brightly with power.

The grey forbidding city still stands before you, its entrance webbed over with girders. But something feels different. So you head into the girders, braced for that terrible electrical shock feeling.

Instead, the girders explode before you, and you enter into the city.

The first area is covered with girders, but now you can destroy them. As you fly around, shattering metal, buildings grow from the ground and take on color. Where there was once greyness and death, there is color and life.

The emotion has shifted, too. At the beginning of the game, you are happy and carefree. Levels 4 and 5 destroy that. But, in Level 6, the mood changes again. You aren’t carefree anymore, true, but neither are you afraid. You are focused and determined. You have discovered your strength, and there is a battle to be won. Every time you hurl yourself at another piece of metal, it feels like punching back at the darkness. You have passed the trial of night, and you have now come to usher in the day.

As you work through the level, you can still see the citadel of twisted iron in the distance. Clearly that is where you must go. And, eventually, you arrive at the gate of the tower. It looks like the entrance to hell. And yet, as you storm in, it cannot stop you. The once-fearful girders that spear from the ground fall before you as you force your way inside. And then you are at the base of the tower, shattering it from within as you ascend.

And then, as you burst out of the top of the tower, there is a moment of transcendent beauty. And the world holds its breath as, in a final eruption of life and color, the metal tower is transformed into a giant cherry blossom tree, showering blossoms upon the newly reborn city.

The closing scenes show the city again. All is clean and sunlit. Even spaces that you saw earlier in the game are clean. And the closing image is of a little flower, growing in the crack of a sidewalk. And…fade out.

***

When I sat down to play Flower, I was looking for a light, mindless game. I was wanting something cute and simple. I was taking a mental health day, and I wasn’t really in the mood to be challenged. So, I was especially susceptible to the bait-and-switch that the game inflicts on its players. I was caught completely off-guard by The Moment and the raw emotion of the last third of the game.

I won’t lie; when the game was finished, I lay back on my bed, emotionally wrung out by the journey I had just taken.

Part of it was my appreciation for the game’s stance on “the city”. The city isn’t evil. It’s just been overtaken by darkness. It is in need of rescue. Level 6 is all about the redemption of the city. You free it from bondage and make it a place fit for human habitation again.

But there was a price. And the price was a passing through darkness. As a player, you are not equipped at the beginning of the game to face the darkness. No, rather you must pass through the night yourself. And, in some way, that is what qualifies you to become a part of the redemption of the city.

In other words, this game told me my story back to me.

What if my suffering isn’t just coincidence? What if it is a necessary part of my becoming what I want to be? What if I need to suffer in order to feel, to care, to empathize with others? To be able to sit across from someone and truly engage with their sorrow? What if I need to hurt in order to find the passion to shield and shelter others?

What if I needed to crawl between an oppressive sky and a dead earth, simply to be ready, willing, and able to bring color and life into the lives of others?

What if it hasn’t all been in vain?

P.S. Thanks to Catfroman for the four-part playthrough that I used. Note that this was the PS3 version. The PS4 version is even prettier. The links to each video are here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.


It’s Epimas!

My new game Showdown is for sale during Epimas, so if you’re interested, you can check that out.

But what is Epimas?

It’s a celebration of giving! You purchase one or more bundles of RPG PDFs ($10/bundle, with a discounted rate for buying multiple bundles). You get the contents of that bundle immediately *plus* the person of your choice receives the same bundle on Epimas (December 24). Essentially, you buy someone a gift and get to keep the gift at the same time. That’s the magic of Epimas!

Be sure to check out the Epimas sale, and get yourself a copy of Showdown for you and a friend!


My Life with Games (part 29)–Showdown

I’ve lived with Showdown for over six years now, so I forget that many of you reading this may not actually know what in the world the Showdown project was about. For that matter, it’s been a fairly tumultuous stretch in my life, and there are a number of you who didn’t even know me when I started to work on Showdown. So, for all of you, let me tell you about my new game Showdown.

Here’s the basic pitch from the book:

Showdown is a roleplaying game about two people locked in a bitter struggle that can only end with the death of one of them. It’s for two players and should take between 60 and 90 minutes to play. Over the course of play, you and your opponent will be fighting over two things: the outcome of a climactic duel between these two foes and the history that led them to that duel. Win the duel, and you get to choose who lives and who dies. Control the history, and you get to shape why they fought in the first place. How did it come to this? Who’s the hero? Who’s the villain? And who’s left standing when the dust settles?

Raise your weapons and prepare to face the truth.

When I designed Showdown, one of my goals was to create a roleplaying game that would fit into a boardgame-sized social footprint. Most roleplaying games are events, requiring multiple sessions of 2-4 hours. Even back then, my life didn’t really afford the opportunity for much of that sort of thing, and the demands on my time and energy have only increased. But most people can find 60-90 minutes of time to play a game.

I also wanted a game that made creativity easy. Instead of presenting the players with a wide-open canvas, I used the rules to hold the players by the hand by asking specific questions of each player. “How do you attack your opponent?” “Who exactly was there with the two of you?” “How did she succeed against you?” By asking small questions, the game makes it easier to create a compelling story. “Say anything!” is hard, but “say this” is a lot easier.

I also wanted a game that gave some thought to the user interface of the game. As I’ll discuss in a moment, players are already tracking two parallel stories in their heads. I wanted the game to remember as much as possible for the players, freeing them to focus on their developing narrative. Thus the special Showdown cards, helping to track information for players.

So, what’s gameplay like?

Each game is composed of two entwining narratives. The first narrative is that of the unfolding duel to the death between the two characters. In this narrative, each player is describing the ways that their character is attempting to win this final confrontation by killing the other character. Success in this narrative represents your character getting the upper hand over the other character, and ultimate victory in this narrative gives you the right to decide who survives the duel and who is killed.

Because, for certain, one of your characters will die.

So, why wouldn’t you always choose for your opponent’s character to die?

Because of the second narrative, which is composed of a series of flashbacks, stepping through the history of these two characters. The first flashback of the game shows the first time these two characters met, and the succeeding flashbacks unfold their history of these characters’ interactions, which we know must lead ultimately to this climactic battle. Success in this narrative represents your opponent’s character being revealed for who he truly is.

See, as you make your character for this game, you create four Qualities that complete the sentence “I think I am [a]….” For example, “I think I am a generous person” or “I think I am next in line for the throne.” When you succeed in a flashback, you take your opponent’s character sheet, cross out a Quality, and replace it with something that finishes the sentence “…but really I am [a]….” The replacement has to subvert or diminish the original Quality in some way. So, for example, “I think I am a generous person, but really I am a manipulator who uses money to get ahead.”

Qualities are privileged by the rules; any narration has to be consistent with them. So, you start the game thinking you knew who your character is, but in reality, you have no idea.

Another way of putting it: you have two kinds of hit points in this game, and one of them is your self-image.

By the time the game comes to an end, you may discover that your character is so vile that you’d be happier seeing him dead than alive.

So, on each turn, the two of you set up what you’re trying to do in the duel and then what you’re trying to do in the next flashback. Then you both choose the dice you will roll to attempt to come out ahead. Higher numbers are better for dueling, while lower numbers are better for the flashback. So, if you really want to get ahead in the duel, choose your d12, which is the highest die. If you want to get ahead in the current flashback, choose your d4, which is the lowest die. You then roll two dice of the kind you selected, one for the duel and one for the flashback. This means that a lucky (or unlucky) die roll can still let you win both the duel and flashback…or lose both.

Lose the duel, and you lose the die you played. Lose the flashback, and you lose one of your Qualities.

Play until someone is out of dice.

That’s essentially the game.

I’ve noted in the past that my life has tended to reflect whatever game I’m working on. There’s a weird “life imitating art” vibe that turns up for me. That has certainly been true for me with Showdown. This stretch of my life has possibly been the most painful in my life, in part because my ego was laid bare for me to see, and I didn’t like it very much. God has exposed so much in my life and in my heart which was bad for me and those around me. And I guess it’s been good, but I know that it has hurt. A lot.

It’s hard to discover that maybe you haven’t been the hero of the story, the way you thought you were.

When Showdown was in playtest, my friend Ralph Mazza commented that he really wanted to see a variant where Qualities had a third statement, something like “…but now I’m becoming [a]…” with a redeemed version of the negative Quality. Something like “I think I am a generous person, but really I am a manipulator who uses money to get ahead, but now I’m becoming a wise investor in other people’s dreams.” He wanted to see a way for Qualities to come through the fire of revelation and be redeemed. It wasn’t the right choice for the game, but I’ve thought about that suggestion a lot over the last year as we’ve been finishing up Showdown. Because it certainly feels like what God has been doing in my life.

It’s good that life doesn’t always imitate art.

So, yeah, that got kinda deep. I should also say that Showdown is a ton of fun. Ordinarily, by this point in a project, I should be tired of playing the game or even thinking about it. But I haven’t. I’m proud of all my games, but I think that Showdown is the most fun of all my games. At least so far!

Showdown is available at DriveThruRPG. I’d love it if you would check it out, maybe pick up a copy, and then spread the word.


You should back Mars Colony: 39 Dark right now! (with bonus reasons)

So, let’s start here.

If you like politics, or you are concerned about the direction your country is going, or you like science fiction, or you like supporting independent art, or think that I know what’s up–at least from time to time–then you should back Mars Colony: 39 Dark by Tim Koppang on Kickstarter. $6 gets you a PDF of the game, and $12 gets you both Mars Colony: 39 Dark and the original Mars Colony. That’s not a lot of money, and I really want to see this go super well for Tim.

The Kickstarter ends at 10:00 am (EDT) on April 2, so this doesn’t give you a lot of time. But, really, $12? To support a great guy? It’s a no-brainer to me.

But I promised bonus reasons, which are really the reasons that I care about this Kickstarter. And it goes a bit like this.

I like Tim.

As best I can recall, we first met at GenCon 2007. I was demoing Dirty Secrets and he was demoing Hero’s Banner. We ended up going out for lunch at the Ram. We chatted about…honestly, I don’t remember what we chatted about. But it was the beginning.

We’ve stayed in touch since then, mostly via Twitter. Tim came down from Chicago to one of our Go Play Peoria events, and he was one of the playtesters on Showdown. I had another odd connection to him. He was a lawyer and his wife is a law librarian. Back in Erie, I was a law librarian (without an MLS) at a law firm, so I had opportunities to work near and with lawyers. It was an educational experience, to be sure.

So when I got wind of the news that Tim had decided to quit being a lawyer and pursue an English degree and a career in teaching, I was kinda curious. So, in September 2012, I was at a convention in the Chicago area, and we were able to get together for breakfast. And we talked.

In this post, Tim sets out his reasons for pursuing his career change. It’s worth the read, and it matches with my own experience working around lawyers. The long hours, the constant grind to bill more and more hours, the deception.

The stress.

I wanted to be supportive to Tim. I know that there were people who straight up didn’t understand why he was making the choices he was making. He was deviating from The Plan that we’re all supposed to follow.

I found a kindred spirit in Tim.

He’s been working his ass off to keep up with work and graduate school ever since August of 2012, and I’m not really sure how he figured out time to finish getting Mars Colony: 39 Dark designed and developed. But I believe that Tim made some brave choices a couple years ago, and I want to see that his creative work is still rewarded as a result.

Maybe I want to believe that daring, counter-cultural choices can actually pay off, and that the road less traveled sometimes leads through easier terrain, not harder.

I’m proud of Tim, of what he’s done, and what he’s pursuing. And that’s why I want to see Mars Colony: 39 Dark succeed beyond his wildest dreams.

There’s not much time left, so you’d better go back it now.

And Tim, all my respect.


Looking for feedback on Dirty Secrets (plus a Showdown update)

So, in the wake of all the Veronica Mars attention, I find myself idly poking at the idea of doing a second edition of Dirty Secrets.

For those of you who don’t know, Dirty Secrets is my roleplaying game of detective noir, set in your home town, last week. One person plays the investigator, who is drawn into the seamy underbelly of her town in the service of truth and justice and righteousness…or at least some of those. The truth can be a dirty thing, especially the truth about yourself.

In fact, I was introduced to both Veronica Mars and The Wire through my work on Dirty Secrets. When I was demoing Dirty Secrets at GenCon 2007, people were constantly asking me, “Oh, so it’s like Veronica Mars?” After having to admit several times that I hadn’t seen Veronica Mars, I resolved to watch it as soon as possible. And, as I engaged discussions on the Internet about how Dirty Secrets handled issues of race, I discovered the need to watch The Wire.

And now, I find myself poking at the idea of another edition.

After all, it has been seven years since I designed the game originally. I’d like to think that I’ve learned a thing or two about game design since then.

For example, I know that Dirty Secrets required significant cognitive load, especially during conflicts. Using Liars’ Dice as the core mechanic was a cool idea, but this was also the time that gameplay could come to a screeching halt, as players tried to juggle narrative and dice info plus bluffing…. It was a lot to hold in the mind.

I’d also like to allow for a smaller footprint for the game. There are a lot of components required to play Dirty Secrets. Dice, index cards, record sheets…the table was full. Maybe I could cut down the clutter a bit. I’d also want to reduce the social footprint of the game. I doubt that Dirty Secrets would ever be an hour-long game, but it might be nice to get it into the three-hour time slot. This is because I’m selfish. I don’t have the mindspace these days for a multi-session game, and I want to be able to play my own stuff, dammit!

So, these are some of the thoughts I have when I start thinking about a second edition. I’ll even admit to having done a little design and prototyping. But here’s where I’d like to pause and ask a question: what were your experiences with Dirty Secrets? Anything that you really liked? Anything that could be smoothed out? Any awesome experiences? Any really bad ones? I’d love to get an idea of what worked and what didn’t.

Please note: this doesn’t constitute a promise to actually release a second edition or even to do any work on it. I’m still in the exploratory phase, you might say. After all, I still need to get Showdown out the door, right?

Oh yes, about that….

Here’s the deal. I have a final manuscript in place. Layout has progressed a significant amount. However, my wife is my graphic designer and layout person. Part of the joy I get from working on Dark Omen Games is being able to work with her. And right now, due to some health challenges[*], she hasn’t been able to work on the project. I like all of you, and I really want to see Showdown in the world, but caring for Crystal comes first.

We both intend on seeing Showdown through to the end. But for now, the project is at a standstill.

At such time as we reach our next milestone, which would be the completion of layout, I’ll let all of you know.

[*]No, nothing life-threatening or anything, but enough to be very tiring.