Crackdown is not a series known for subtlety. The most recent entry in the series, Crackdown 3, has players leaping off of skyscrapers to shoot rockets into robots while yelling, and I quote, “quack quack motherfucker“. This is a series where a valid answer to the question “How do I deal with these enemies?” is “Have you considered throwing a semi-truck into them?” and yet, the series still has some genuine cleverness to the way it handles its level design.
To catch up anyone who hasn’t played the games, Crackdown is a series about the Agency, a sort of megacorporation police force whose genetically modified Agents solve organized crime by punching it very hard. Superhero games in all but name, Crackdown games are open-world sandboxes in which Agents can leap over skyscrapers, throw cars, and slaughter criminals with a small army’s worth of firepower. It’s some good dumb fun.
For my purposes, the system throughout the series that I’m going to focus on is the “Skills For Kills” mechanic. Simply put, the only way to improve the games’ five skills is to use them. if you want to increase your Firearms, you gotta shoot some guys. Increase your Strength by punching guys, your Driving by doing street races and some sick drifts, and your Explosives by blowing stuff up. The fifth skill, however, Agility, is slightly more interesting.
Agility is not improved just by jumping a lot. Instead, the worlds of Crackdown are littered with Agility Orbs: glowing and humming green balls precariously perched on top of tall things. The taller the thing, the more XP bundled up in the Agility Orb at its peak. The more of that XP you collect, the higher your Agility skill goes, and the higher your Agent can jump. Within this wrinkle is Crackdown‘s genius.
As I mentioned before, Crackdown is open world: each of the three games dumps you into the world after a brief tutorial and says “Go wherever! Have fun murderin’!” This presented an interesting challenge to the developers. They wanted to provide players a freedom to go wherever they want, but want to avoid the world feeling homogeneous, and the gameplay feeling samey. Open world games frequently suggest a player’s path through a world through the scaling of enemy difficulty, but that doesn’t really work for Crackdown: the player Agent becomes a walking WMD that even the game’s toughest enemies usually crumple to fairly early into the game. Here, I imagine, is where the level designers piped up and went “We have an idea”.
Crackdown and its sequel take place in the fictional Pacific City, an ocean metropolis spread across three islands, and the path through these three islands is implied not via enemy difficulty, but through the height of their buildings. La Mugre features short apartment complexes and undeveloped spaces, The Den features taller industrial complexes and fancier apartments, and the Corridor is a Manhattan-esque cluster of luxury skyscrapers.
Agents freshly inducted into the world will be able to leap La Mugre’s one- and two-story buildings fairly easily, but if they venture into the Corridor they will find themselves climbing skyscrapers at a snail’s pace, having to carefully look for nearby handholds. As their Agility skill increases, and their jump height increases, the highest buildings of La Mugre become vaultable in a single leap, and soon even the Corridor’s towers become easy to climb, with a greater jump height and air control allowing the player to skip large swaths of the handholds on a building’s exterior.
I want to emphasize again that these buildings are not a hard limit. With a few exceptions, the buildings in the Corridor are scaleable even to rookie Agents. The process, however, is slow, and makes the Agent an easier target for any enemy sharpshooters who happen to see their Spiderman impression. However, if that new Agent can scale even a few of these Skyscrapers, the top-tier Agility Orbs waiting at the top represent massive experience point gains.
This level design creates one of the most intuitive progression systems an open-world game has ever implemented. The difficulty of the islands is instantly communicated to the player, even from the other side of the map. The game doesn’t need to implement bullet sponge enemies to scale difficulty, but instead makes the traversal of the environment, something much more intuitive to visually parse than whether Dude With Gun X is stronger than Dude With Gun Y. It also means that a player’s increase in skills have a very tangible effect on gameplay: instead of just “the numbers go up”, the players can see themselves fly over buildings they once had to scale, reminiscent of a superhero.
Crackdown 2, in my opinion, perfects this progression by offering a pair of wonderful, natural rewards at the end of this journey: the Wingsuit, and helicopters. The Wingsuit allows players to glide deftly through the air, moreso the higher the building they jump off of is, creating a natural progression. You’ve spent the whole game getting better at climbing buildings, and the Wingsuit gives you something new to do when you get to the top of one. The helicopters, available only on a helipad which requires a massive leap to get to, provides another natural end state: you’ve spent the game getting closer and closer to feeling like flying, so what if we let you actually fly.
So. Agility Orbs facilitate a set of soft skill barriers in the world, giving players an implied path of least resistance through the world while still letting them venture into dangerous territory for high rewards. They provide a means of progression that is far more tangible than just “your numbers go higher”, and feed directly into the game’s core ethos as a power fantasy.
There is one problem, though.
Crackdown fans probably can already guess what I’m going to say, but those of who you haven’t played the series might be reading all of this talk about running and jumping and gliding and say “wait, didn’t you say this series has cars?”
You’d be forgiven for forgetting, because I’ve played all three Crackdown games and frequently forget myself. Many games that emphasize unique or interesting traversal mechanics suffer this problem: the cars in Saints Row IV are notoriously useless, and Infamous and Prototype just throw them out entirely, not even letting you get into one. In Crackdown, however, Driving is a skill just like Agility, and it’s handled, well, worse.
For one thing, running and jumping and gliding through the city is just more fun than driving. This alone is a huge problem, but it gets worse. In an effect to mirror the “tangible skill growth” of Agility, Driving causes the handling of every car you get into to improve with every level of Driving you accomplish, but the implication of this is the death knell for Driving: when you’re low-level, at the earliest stages in the game, the cars handle like garbage.
This creates a sort of feedback loop in player progression. At the start of the game, cars are clumsy and kind of hard to control, while the player character themselves, while slower than their maximum potential, is still responsive and fun to control. This encourages the new player to focus on Agility, and after they’ve done so for a while and their Agility score eclipses their Driving, the player has less and less desire to go back and start again from square one with Driving. Combine this with the fact that many of the story and optional objectives in Crackdown games are located in and around skyscrapers (that is, inaccessible by cars), and none of the other skills can be used effectively in concert with Driving (you can’t really punch someone while driving), and Driving is frequently neglected entirely.
There is one good nugget of design in Crackdown‘s cars, specifically the cars of the first Crackdown. While the Agent is free to hijack any car in the city, there was a suite of three special Agency cars that could be deployed. Not only did these cars handle better with higher Driving, they physically transformed, offering that tangible sense of progression as what was once just “a pretty good sportscar” morphs into “off-brand Batmobile” as you get into it.
I’ve been using the word “tangibility” a lot, and I think that’s the big takeaway from Crackdown. Progression is often the key hook that keeps players playing a game, and there’s been a lot of ways that progression has been done. I’d be foolish to say that “the numbers go up” isn’t an effective strategy (the golden age of clickers and loot games we’re currently in proves as much), but games like Crackdown show that designers can look beyond the balancing of equations to more immediate methods of making a player feel empowered as they grow within a game.
There’s a common idiosyncrasy pointed out about video games with any amount of non-linearity, which is that the player’s propensity to goof off frequently contradicts the in-universe drive of the protagonist to accomplish their goals. Shepard wastes his time in the club instead of saving the universe, the Dragonborn runs around collecting cheese wheels instead of stopping armageddon, the Sole Survivor pretends to be a superhero instead of finding their son, etc. While this is usually handwaved by lamenting the natural contradiction between having a narrative with tension, and offering players choice, a corollary question emerges: what the hell are your companions doing?
A decent number of games offer the player an ensemble of companion characters, NPCs who you can drag along with you on your assorted adventures, a second set of guns and a sort of Roman chorus chiming in on whatever you’re doing. Usually, these characters are given strong personalities, deep backstories, and goals of their own. All of this makes it all the more demeaning that, in most of these games, these characters become attached at the hip to the player character, being dragged along on whatever dumb garbage the player wants to do. This is completely contradictory to their written character; it makes them feel like some combination of uncaring about their own goals, the player’s babysitters, and servants to the players’ whim.
I only really started to think about this when I recently started to play Far Cry 2. A game who’s whole M.O is “the player doesn’t matter”, Far Cry 2 has a “Buddy” system that on first blush resembles these companion systems, but which has an interesting twist. When you meet a Buddy, they thank you for your help, pledge their services in the future, and leave. They go off into the African wilderness to … do whatever it is that they’re going to do. Probably some flavor of war crime.
This isn’t to say they vanish. Rather, they instead intersect with your story at its most interesting moments. They reappear for most story missions, offering their own wrinkles based in their own goals (“Hey, as long as you’re in this area, you mind taking out a target for me?”), and sometimes when you’re killed in combat, instead a Buddy comes charging in to save you.
This was fascinating to me, and made me realize that video game companions who stick around through the entire game are a lot like anyone else who you spend a prolonged period of time around: at some point, you just run out of stuff to talk about. Their story, at least for the duration of the game, is yours, because they’re at your side the whole time. All you can get is chunks of backstory and character-revealing dialogue, but the character is rendered passive by their role as your new shadow. Filling out this character’s backstory requires a combination of them oversharing about their life, and them commenting on every little thing the player does (assuming the player is doing anything worth commenting).
By contrast, the Far Cry 2 buddies are interesting in the negative space of their lives. Because you only intersect with their lives briefly, you end up naturally interested in what you don’t see. Why is Flora suddenly a target for kidnapping by the UFLL? What was Paul doing in this desert before he happened across me bleeding out in the sand? It’s reminiscent of when you swap characters in Grand Theft Auto V, popping into one of the protagonist’s lives in the middle of a scene or moment: the unknown of what was happening just before the camera panned in on them makes the player wonder, and that wonder makes the character interesting.
A similar idea is put into effect (heh) in the Mass Effect trilogy. The selection of characters who are actually aboard the Normandy and available for missions varies over the trilogy, but those characters are still in the world when they exit the team, so they’re given some time out of the spotlight to pursue their own goals. This can be jarring at times, such as Liara’s 180 degree turn from naive and curious to stone-cold bureaucrat, but other times it means characters are given a chance to grow and be their own heroes, like Jack’s turn from “vengeful psychopath” to a mentor-like figure. Other characters, whose identities and arcs are strongly rooted in the culture they come from, like Wrex, Grunt, and Legion, are given a chance to reintegrate with those cultures and be changed by them, or to change them. This could never happen if these characters were permanently aboard the Normandy, just playing ping pong between missions.
Being side-by-side with a companion character for an entire game feels a lot like a John Mulaney bit from his newest special Kid Gorgeous at Radio City, in which he describes having so run out of topics of conversation with his mother that, desperate for anything, he just blurts out “Do you believe in ghosts?” These companion characters in video games are similarly suffocated by the need to be an interesting character for up to eighty hours. However, I think some writers have taken to an almost Hitchcockian approach to writing companion characters, wherein they are decoupled from the character and are given some time out of the limelight, which allows them to grow, act, and shape the world, free from the bungee cord tying them to the player’s waist.
This also ties into that idiosyncrasy I mentioned at the front: by letting companion characters loose from the main cast for a spell, they are able to complete their goals without the player opting in to them, which, from a narrative design perspective, means they’re allowed to have goals unrelated to, or even against, those of the player. A player would be hard-pressed to pursue a companion quest which actively sabotaged them, but having a loyal companion disappear from the cast, only to reappear having chosen their own goals and loyalties over their loyalty and friendship with the player, would be an interesting moment, both for the character and the player.
Untethering companion characters from the protagonist allows them to become more interesting by way of the unseen moments of their lives, and offers narrative designers new opportunities for character development that just aren’t possible when companions are chasing the heels of the player character.
At first blush, Hitman 2, much like its 2016 predecessor, looks like a brutal, dark, serious game of international assassins, a game in which a coldly-calculating murderer executes his targets with violent precision, a la John Wick. Once you begin playing the game, this falls away for a truer picture, one in which Hitman 2 is a black comedy, a game in which a stern-faced man in a flamingo costume hurls a screwdriver into a target’s face before running away like a child. Beneath all of this, though, Hitman 2 is a machine, a coldly complex piece of mechanical clockwork which is imposing and constrictive to the new player, and a familiar toy to the veteran.
Hitman 2 is perhaps more accurately considered Season 2 of 2016’s Hitman, with mechanical improvements being good, but relatively minor. Basically everything I’m about to say about it can also be said of its predecessor, but 2 is worthy of ultimate praise because, for one, it contains all of Hitman as an easily-imported expansion, and on top of that, the cleverness shown in Hitman 2‘s additional levels shows further mastery of the formula.
The Hitman formula is a three step procedure, mapping pretty cleanly to the classically considered experience levels of novice, learning, and mastery. What you’re doing in Hitman 2 is fundamentally the same in hour 1 as it is in hour 100: there are some folks, on a map, that you need to kill and get away. Generally, it’s always the same folks, and it’s always the same maps.
We can specifically divide this process into two fundamental steps, which for ultra-cool Hitman-style minimalism I’m going to call cause and effect. Cause is the procedure the player takes, the positioning and preparation of the game elements across the map, including the player themselves, in precisely the state desired by the player. Get your target to this room, make this guard throw up, be standing right here in this outfit. This is all for the intended effect, the crowning moment of action, the kill. All murders are not equal in the eyes of the ICA, so specific kills will grant specific rewards based on the game’s Challenges and scoring system. Explosives, while bombastic and effective, are generally worth less than more subtle kills.
When you enter a given level of Hitman 2 for the first time, as a novice, the game heavily nudges you to follow what it calls Mission Stories: guided, waypoint-laden paths to victory. In this way, Mission Stories give new players cause and effect. The waypoints helpfully lead the player from key step to key step, from obtaining outfits to getting key items to laying traps, and generally, once concluding, leave players in an ideal position for an effect: this leaves the target alone leaning over a rooftop railing, or in front of an inconspicuous explosive, and it’s just up to you to push the final domino. The player is given some wiggle room, but generally speaking the entire plan is laid bare.
Once the player has grown beyond Mission Stories, they enter the learning step of Hitman 2. This is when they begin directly interacting with the game’s Challenge system, and in this phase, the game lays out effect, but not cause. Players know that they should kill a target by, say, dropping an elaborate light fixture on their head, incentivized by a pile of experience points as a reward, but the game doesn’t tell them how. It’s up to the player to go into the level and study, and learn the cause. When does the target walk under a chandelier? Do they do so in their unaffected loop, or does the player need to do something to reroute them. Where can the player drop the chandelier without being seen?
The player is forced to analyze the same target from multiple perspectives to complete different challenges, constantly trying to parse the same fundamental machine for moments where it can be forced into a desired state, and thus, increasing player understanding of the machine as a whole.
The final stage of Hitman 2‘s progression, the level of mastery, comes in the form of the game’s toughest Challenges. These Challenges singularly specify cause. To claim the most difficult bounties, the game suddenly becomes extremely focused on a player’s ability to plan: don’t be seen, don’t cause any collateral damage, never change costume. The game’s Escalations do this as well, and the result is some of the game’s most satisfying challenges.
Forced into a challenging playstyle, master players must figure out how to make the kill work. Where in the map can I get into without the security clearance of different costumes? How can I avoid security cameras, and if I can’t, how can I wipe the footage? Previously, the player had some flexibility in how they could get the proverbial machine to work, even if it required some shoving or well timed hits, or in this case, a few witnesses, a few dead bystanders. No more with this sort of play: the player has to follow the rules of the machine to a T.
To imagine this complexity mapped to a more universal activity, imagine this progression in the context of cooking. The Mission Stories are, in effect, following a recipe. You’re given an ingredient list, told what to do with them, and told what they’re gonna be in the end. The main Challenge loop represents freestyling a recipe: you know what you wanna make, and you’ve done this enough that you generally know what goes in it and how to prepare it, but you maybe are making informed guesses to the specifics. You’ll probably need to experiment a few times, try different spice blends, let things cook for longer or shorter, add things in a different sequence. Mastery is just looking in a pantry, maybe one that isn’t even yours, and throwing something together out of what you have, with little control on your ingredients, just how you use them. This is, after all, the premise of most competitive cooking shows, a la Iron Chef. Restaurant chefs face similar challenges: we need to get rid of these ingredients before they go bad, we need to have something that cooks this fast, we need something to fit this gap on the menu.
Even more fundamentally, imagine it like this: first, give the player a hammer and a nail. Then, give the player a nail, and force them to find a hammer, or something suitably close. Finally, give the player a hammer, and force them to consider how the challenge in front of them is like a nail.
I think this fundamental progression pattern can, and should, be pulled out and utilized in other games, even games with more traditional level- or mission- based progression, because the satisfaction for the player of learning and mastering systems is so much greater when the player is neither just handed all of the solutions, or given absolute freedom without guidance, but is instead gently led down the path of progressing from one to the other.
Consider that some of the best games use this design pattern for micro-systems within their games. For example, consider the individual Sheikah Slate powers in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. When they’re introduced, they’re given to the player in relatively constrained settings with obvious solutions (cause and effect provided). As the player goes out and explores the world, they learn how to use the abilities in concert to achieve new desired effects (for example, using Magnesis to complete electric circuits). The best of the best players use these abilities in speedruns, using their understanding of them to beat the game under constrained conditions (specifically, under a certain time).
When designing any system for a game, from an individual item to the entire main gameplay loop, consider implementing this hammer and nail -> nail -> hammer arc, which can be as simple as tuning incentive structures to encourage this progression. It’s a fantastic way to balance a player’s desire to know what’s going on, and the rewarding feeling of discovery.
I’ve been reading a lot this year. I set a personal goal to read thirty books by the end of 2018, which probably isn’t a lot for the real hardcore bibliophiles, but between work, travel, working on side projects, maintaining this blog, and also just trying to maintain a functional social life, reading two and some change books a month is one hell of an ask for me. But I’m doing it!
Along with some lesser known titles that have made my list, this year has proven a good chance for me to catch up on some of the classics, especially in science fiction and fantasy. I finally began Asimov’s amazing Foundation series, and delved into the strange world of Moorcock’s Elric Saga. I almost teared up reading The Wizard of Earthsea, and almost teared up for completely different reasons reading The Road.
Alongside these classics I’ve been reading some more contemporary stars. Among these, there were few I was more excited to read than Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem.
The Three-Body Problem is an absolute juggernaut of modern sci-fi. A Hugo award winner by Chinese author Liu Cixin, and start of the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, Three-Body manages to weave together an interesting, unique science-fiction mystery with a deeply introspective look at human, specifically Chinese, history. I’d heard about this book for a while, but it was when President Obama name-dropped it in an interview with the New York Times that I decided it had to make my list.
So, I bought a copy, tore into it over the course of three nights, my eyes glued to the pages, and
I have some issues.
That’s actually not fair. I think, of the two parallel narratives weaved through the book, one, the section set in China’s Cultural Revolution, is very good tip to tail. The modern section, however, starts off with some fantastic setup and then promptly stumbles over itself 2/3 of the way to the end.
With that, I am issuing a spoiler warning for The Three-Body Problem. If you’re looking for my opinion on whether you should read it, my answer is “Probably, yeah”. It’s real good, and despite a bit of a bungled ending, I think that doesn’t invalidate the interesting ideas in the book.
I had the pleasure of attending my first board game convention this October, in the form of the Shut Up & Sit Down Expo, pleasantly shortened to SHUX. If you’re unfamiliar with Shut Up & Sit Down, suffice it to say, if you’re at all interested in board games, you should be. I’ll sing their praises all day (and, in fact, did, in my post on my travel blog about attending the convention), but, long story short, they’re passionate, insightful, and dedicated to spreading the lovely hobby of board gaming to everyone.
SHUX was an opportunity for board gamers across North America and beyond to come together and play some games, and that’s exactly what I did. The fantastic thing about SHUX was, thanks to the size and diverse interests of the community there, I was able to play a wide variety of board games, games that would be a Herculean effort to put a group together for back home. As a result, I got to check out some extremely cool games, some of which I’m gonna talk about here!
Fog of Love
Perhaps the single most interesting game I played in all of SHUX, Fog of Love is a two player game about relationships. In it, each player at the table constructs a fictional character, one with their own personalities and drives and careers and histories, and over the course of the game the two players watch these two characters attempt to undergo a relationship.
The meat of the game plays out through a series of scene cards, in which the two characters enter a fictional scenario, and the two players need to work out the resolution together, almost always in the form of a multiple choice question. Some of the scenarios are pleasantly mundane (“How should we pose in this picture!”), but as the game progresses they get more and more serious (“If the cops ask, I was with you last Thursday”). How you answer these questions will not only affect your raw affection for one another, but also define the characteristics of your relationship. Are you as a couple focused and organized, or chaotic and spontaneous? Are you saccharine, or are you constantly at each others’ throats? Each player wants the relationship to fit their personality, but without knowing each others’ goals, the two players will have try to intuit where their partner is trying to steer, and if that’s a direction they want to follow.
The most interesting part of Fog of Love, in my opinion, are the Destinies. A hard of cards basically representing each players’ victory conditions, the Destinies are the end-states for the relationship. At the start of the game, each player has all of their Destinies available, representing a young relationship where anything could happen! However, as the game progresses, this hand is slowly, and secretly, shaved down to perhaps a few scant cards, meaning players will have to focus in on what exactly they want this relationship to be. Since these hands of cards are secret, neither player is really sure what the other is going for.
This mismatch is extremely interesting. If one player is accomplishing all of their hidden goals, they might think the relationship is going great, and go for the Unconditional Love ending. However, the other player might be secretly failing all of their goals and, knowing they’ll be ultimately unhappy with this relationship, is instead moving towards a graceful breakup. This need to read the state of the board, and trying to intuit what your partner wants, and more importantly, if you can provide that while being happy yourself, is an example of mechanics beautifully mirroring theme.
If I had one complaint about the game, it’s when this beautiful theme falls away, leaving players staring at a coldly mechanical, and ultimately simple game. In one game I played, near the end, my partner and I were fairly confident that we were going for the same Destiny, and fairly confident that each others’ secret desires were satisfied. With that knowledge in tow, the rest of the game’s storytelling fell apart, as every choice became “well, I know we need to be within 5 affection of each other, and this choice brings us in that range, so we’re just both gonna pick that one”. On a purely mechanical level Fog of Love is a multiple choice test, so when the hidden information becomes less hidden, and the quiet drama of a relationship turns into confidence, the game underneath is forced to stand on its own, and I don’t know that it can?
Nevertheless, Fog of Love is a testament to the way a truly great designer can see the game in anything in life, and better yet, how a great designer can take a moment, a feeling, a train of thought and distill its essence into a game, such that anyone who opens that box and plays that game is transported to the exact moment the designer wants, whether its a far-off battlefield, a tense hospital, or an awkward first date.
All the way on the other end of the emotional spectrum from Fog of Love is a classic, if somewhat austere, game: Imperial 2030. In Imperial 2030, much like in the classic game Risk, players look over a world map divided into territories, one where global powers can amass armies and sweep them across the globe, claiming territory and wiping one another from the globe. Where Imperial 2030 really lives though is in the twist: there are all of these global powers, and you don’t play any of them.
Instead, you play a shadowy cabal of manipulative puppetmasters, vying to see who can make the most money by shrewdly investing into the powers on the board. The act of purchasing bonds is useful on two levels. On a long-term scale, owning shares of successful countries nets you a bounty of victory points at the end of the game, depending on how many shares you bought and just how successful they are. On a short-term scale, however, the player with the most shares of a country is the one who gets to take that country’s turn. I immediately found the idea of a board game that takes place on a sort of abstracted layer above the obvious premise immediately fascinating.
For an example of the kinds of amazing moments this premise can bring to the table, allow me to describe to you one of my favorite plays from my game. I was at the peak of my power for the game, with controlling stakes in three of the game’s six powers: Europe, Russia, and America. I had been using Europe and Russia as cash cows for most of the game, while America was my primary military force, with an oppressive fleet that was shutting out the player in control of Brazil. However, I knew that there was another player at the table who was within striking distance of buying America out from under me. Worse yet, that player also held shares of Brazil, so while he didn’t control Brazil, when he took control of America, it would have been in his best interest to unite the two powers, probably turning the two powers’ massive armies against the next biggest threat: Europe (which, remember, is also me).
I saw the writing on the wall, so instead of enjoying one last cashout from the American coffers, I took the reins of the American army and absolutely crashed it into the Brazilian forces. The results were catastrophic (military units eliminate each other at a 1:1 rate), and the American and Brazilian armies were obliterated, leaving both powers defenseless. The next turn, America was bought out from under me, but I didn’t care. Neither America nor Brazil had armies strong enough to cross the Atlantic, and as a result my combined Russian and European forces were strong enough to keep them at bay for the rest of the game. Even better, since armies end up costing the controlling powers upkeep, America’s newly svelte army meant that American investors made a boatload of money next time the country paid out, and, while I was no longer controlling stakeholder, I was a stakeholder, so I managed to make a killing on a country I drove into the ground.
Imperial 2030 requires a bit of time to wrap your head around, but the idea of players operating on a level separate from that of the board itself was insanely interesting. I already have some designs floating around in my head about how to implement this idea in different games, because it seems a great way to create that “diplomatic puppetmaster” fantasy for the players.
Great Western Trail
The “sad cowboy game” was high on my to-play list for the convention, for the combined fact that my group doesn’t tend to play much that runs longer than an hour in playtime, and my group (and myself) don’t really tend towards Euros, which is ultimately what Great Western Trail kind of is?
Great Western Trail is a sort of stew of game design, with big, hearty portions of game mechanics mixed together to create a single, hearty game, while every piece still remains individually recognizable. The meat and potatoes of this dish are deckbuilding and worker placement: every player has a deck of cows that they draw a hand from, representing the cows that they’ll eventually bring to market at the end of the board, at Kansas City. To get to Kansas City, they’ll choose which spaces on the board to bring their meeple cowboy to, with each space offering the chance to tune and refine that hand for maximum profit, or perhaps to modify the layout of the trail itself, hire some help, or manipulate the player’s train (we’ll get back to that in a second).
On top of this tried-and-true base is a menagerie of other ingredients. Since players’ movement across the board is measured in number of building spaces passed, constructing buildings on the trail, thus giving yourself more options on where to land, actually extends its length. Players collect a series of objective cards, giving them auxiliary tasks like clearing a certain number of obstacles from the trail, or collecting a certain set of cows from the market. However, the most interesting concept in Great Western Trail is the trains.
You see, lining the board is a railroad, one that follows an increasingly distant series of stops, starting from Kansas City and ending all the way at sunny San Francisco. When you arrive at Kansas City to sell your cows, you total the value of the cards in your hand, and can sell to any station whose scoring value is less than or equal to that value, with nearer stations having lower thresholds. If the station is further along the trail than your train (a token that, as I mentioned, is moved throughout the game), you may have to pay a little extra to reach it to cover travel fees. There are two interesting wrinkles to this, though.
The stations that are closest to Kansas City (including, you know, Kansas City) are actually worth negative victory points.
You can only visit any given station once.
Plenty of board games are interested in maximizing a system, be it a deck in a deckbuilding game or a route across a board, to produce a maximal result every turn, but what’s interesting about Great Western Trail is that it’s equally about maximization and precision. Pushing your deck to produce the most valuable hand it can every lap around the trail is only worthwhile if that maximum value increases every turn, otherwise you’ll end up wasting value as you sell your fantastic cows at some garbage backwater for no, or perhaps less, points. And, frankly, some turns you just won’t be able to raise the maximum value of your hand as much as you need to, if only because there are so many other systems you need to pour resources into.
As a result, Great Western Trail is a game about planning and fine-tuning. There aren’t a great many surprises in Great Western Trail (it’s a game of near-perfect information), and every turn you typically only need to choose between three or four spaces to move to, making moment-to-moment decision-making easily done. The joy of the game, then, is similar to the joy of a perfect game of darts or pool, or even a perfectly-done parallel park: a celebration of careful, well-considered precision.
The game isn’t without its flaws, though. The learning in the game is heavily frontloaded, as the game relies on a symbolic language on its components to communicate most of its rules, which takes a while to wrap your head around. Interactivity also isn’t really the name of the game here: other than clogging up the trail with one anothers’ buildings, many of which double as tollbooths for the controlling player, there isn’t going to be a lot of interplay between players in Great Western Trail.
Despite both of these, I had a blast playing Great Western Trail. While there are no shortage of games out there about building and refining engines, many of them feel like they’re about blasting forward as fast as your scrap-built strategy can muster, whereas Great Western Trail feels more like playing an instrument, where you’re trying to play the precise note you need in the moment. That note might be a soft, quiet one, not terribly effective on its own, but designed to build up and emphasize a bombastic, booming blast on the next turn.
The word “elegant” is thrown around a lot when it comes to board games, but frankly I haven’t played a game as elegant as Hanamikoji in a long time. The premise is simple: two players vie for the favor of seven geisha, each of whom wants a specific present, represented by a set of cards in a deck. Whoever gives the most presents to a given geisha in a turn gains her favor, and whoever gains the favor of either the most geisha, or the strongest (?) geisha, wins the game.
While the theme obviously plays off of the elegance of the geisha, and the beautiful artwork that adorns the cards, the game also features a strong sense of mathematical elegance. You see, in every round of Hanamijoki, each player takes turns performing one of four actions. Each action affects between one and four cards in your hand, and each of the four actions must be performed exactly once in a round, meaning that the true skill of the game is determining at what point in a round to use each of the four actions. Beautifully, no matter how quickly you churn through your hand of cards, the math of the game works out that you always have exactly as many cards as you need to perform any of your remaining actions.
The game also plays a lot with the idea of hidden information. You see, two of the four actions which you must perform each turn are done secretly, either in the form of secretly playing one gift, or secretly discarding two. Your opponent might be investing heavily in a geisha whose gifts you discarded long ago, or perhaps they’re hoping you’ve ignored a geisha, whose gift you have secretly stashed to be revealed in the eleventh hour to swipe their favor out from under your opponent.
The other two moves are even more interesting, because each involves allowing your opponent to choose some cards from your hand to play themselves. Ultimately, some of the cards you play every round are out of your opponent’s hand, and there’s a fantastic layer of reading strategy that this creates, where you are trying to offer someone cards that aren’t actually very useful to them, or even trying to guide their strategy by offering them the exact cards you want them to have. For example, the 4 action involves creating two stacks of two cards. Your opponent gets one, and you get the other. At a crucial moment in my game, I laid out two stacks, each with two gifts for the extremely valuable five gift grey geisha. With no option, my opponent and I each got two, locking us in a tie for that geisha. However, he didn’t know that I had secretly played the fifth gift earlier, meaning the two cards I had given him were functionally useless: my majority was guaranteed.
Hanamikoji was a wonderfully tight game, but not for reasons I can eloquently describe? The numbers of the game just sort of work, in such a way that trying to predict your opponent’s moves, and develop a strategy of your own is a process of looking at the elegant math behind the game and unfurling it, a sort of dance in which need to know your opponent’s moves and respond with a mathematically perfect move of your own. It’s extremely good, doesn’t take that long, and costs twenty bucks, I highly recommend it if you’re the kind of person who sees beauty in numbers.
Pantone is a uniquely visual game, one that relies on ability to recognize the fundamental features of visual design. The premise is simple: you as players have access to a collection of monochromatic cards, and must combine them in an attempt to visually communicate the idea, usually a pop culture reference, of a card in your hand. The challenge of the game is to try and get the other people at the table to intuit that the collection of colored rectangles in front of you is Bart Simpson, The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, Lara Croft, or whatever it is you’re trying to communicate.
I think Pantone‘s interesting, insofar as I feel like the game’s genius isn’t it’s own, but instead is an appreciation of the cleverness of the last 50 years of animators, costume designers, prop designers, and visual artists. It’s impressive that I can instantly get a table of strangers to guess “Bart Simpson” using only a yellow, red, and brown rectangle, but I don’t think that’s me being clever, nor do I think that’s Pantone being clever, I think that’s Matt Groening being clever. The game is, at its best, a celebration of some of the best visual design in pop culture.
The problem is the game is, at its worst, a somewhat cynical and commercial regurgitation of brands? Parts of me feel this game is in the same vein as those “Guess The Brand Logo” apps, a thinly-veiled manifestation of the hooks corporate branding has on us. The game is also heavily biased towards those in the loop on modern American pop culture. A British player at our table ended up bowing out, as the Ameri-centric cards simply went over his head, and people at our table who hadn’t seen Rick and Morty (lucky bastards), had a disadvantage as several cards appeared referencing a show that doesn’t seem old enough to be a “classic”.
Nevertheless, while I have some disagreements with the implementation, the idea of a game that exists to draw attention and appreciation to another designer’s work is extremely interesting to me. This is a stretch of a comparison, but it’s sort of like how Pokemon Go as a game really emphasizes and draws attention to the work of the civil engineers and planners who laid out the public spaces in which the game prospered, or how something like Rock Band or Guitar Hero directly plays on the work of 50 years of rock musicians. Neither these games nor Pantone could exist without the great design and art that came before them, and yet I think all three of these games allow the player to go back and appreciate their source material, be it visual design, civil planning, or rock music, that much more.
As a game design nerd, if there’s one thing I love more than playing finished games, it’s playing unfinished games, and SHUX was a flocking point for many designers who were demoing their playtests for the greater gaming audience.
If you’re interested in game design, I highly recommend playing in some playtests. Designers will love you for it (the more playtesters, the better), and its a unique opportunity to delve into the mechanics and intentions of design, like ripping the faceplate off a watch and seeing the gears beneath tick. A lot of this is due to the simple fact that the designer is there, playing with you (or perhaps standing awkwardly behind you, scrunching their face in frustration). It brings about a level of metadiscussion about a game: how it’s making you feel, the sorts of strategies you feel compelled towards, the value you’re assigning to the game’s various components and mechanics. If you were the kind of kid who liked taking apart electronics to see how they worked, optionally putting them together again, playtesting is like that for games.
I should also note that playtesting other designers’ games is profoundly inspiring for me as a designer. It’s easy to get sort of stuck in your own design space, getting bored of staring at the same designs day-in and day-out, and that sense of boredom is what usually leads to me abandoning a project and pursuing a new one, turning my Google Drive into a doldrum of design. Interacting with other designers, however, alleviates that sense, as you surround yourself with new and interesting designs which, like a positive feedback loop, energize you to work on your own projects, if only to share them with other designers like they did with you. Seeing clever designs makes me go “Shit, that’s clever, I wanna make something that clever”, and always reignites the spark in me to go and make games.
The best part of that ignition is that it isn’t limited to meeting designers at cons. Designer and playtesting groups can be found across the world, and even if there isn’t one close to you geographically, you can find tons of communities on the internet about game design. There are a few game design Discord servers you can find with minimal digging, and Seattle-based game designer Emma Larkins introduced me to #gamedesigndaily, a Twitter hashtag that game designers can use to share their progress, no matter how atomic, and constantly get that hit of design conversation that can be what you need to be motivated to open that document up and get designing.
SHUX was real good, y’all. I’m definitely going to be going back next year, if I can swing it. Everyone I met there, be it player or designer, exhibitor or organizer, was nothing short of impossibly pleasant, and having the chance to try such a variety of board games over the week, including plenty of stuff my normal group would never try, was a breath of fresh board game air. Which, actually, probably isn’t that fresh, it’s been sitting in a cellophane-wrapped box for months. Nevertheless, my point stands. As far as getting a blistering rush of good board game ideas for three straight days goes, as well as getting a chance to visit Vancouver, SHUX was a wonderful, energizing experience.
I was lucky enough to recently get a chance to play a translation of one of my white whale RPGs: the official adaptation of the Dark Souls video games. Released in Japan only, and thus, in Japanese only. I, however, lucked out, and happened across a post on a Discord server of a GM who had translated the game, and was looking for players. The one thing he needed were a few pages of the bestiary, but he was in luck: I actually own a print copy of the game from my vacation in Japan, and was able to scan the pages he needed. With that, we were able to play the game.
There were a few reasons I expected Dark Souls to play sorta weird. For one, this was a game made by and for a completely different role-playing culture than that in the States. I’ve heard a variety of rumors and claims about how the tabletop gaming culture differs in Japan, but as someone who never thoroughly researched those claims, or played in a Japanese group myself, I’d feel weird echoing them here. Secondly, this was a translation, and with only enough Japanese to get a table for one and find a bathroom, there’s no way I could confirm the accuracy of it.
Anyways, the system proper: the Dark Souls TRPG, as one might expect, has an extremely heavy emphasis on combat. Lucky for it, then, that it has one of the most interesting and engaging tabletop combat systems I’ve played in a while.
Much like the source material, Dark Souls is all about the conservation of Stamina. In the tabletop game, however, Stamina comes in the form of five dice, rolled at the top of every round. Almost anything you do in the game costs some quantity of these dice, with varying stipulations on how much dice, as well as the side of the dice that are showing. These Stamina Dice are used for both attacking and resisting damage, so the careful usage of them is key.
For example, for the Knight I was playing, one swing of my sword required spending Stamina dice whose total was or exceeded 5, which could be fulfilled by a single die if I rolled high enough. I could chain attacks by adding an additional 5 + the number of previous attacks to the total Stamina spent, allowing me to spend 17 Stamina in an all-out attack, equivalent to getting a good stun lock on a Dark Souls enemy.
Damage is, interestingly, not randomized. Every attack deals a known amount of damage, and every enemy has a Damage Threshold. An attack that deals less damage than an enemy’s DT does nothing, an attack that does deals one pip of damage, and an attack that exceeds the DT by ten deals an extra pip of damage (dealing an extra two if it exceeds by twenty, and so on). You can block damage by spending dice equal to your shield’s Guard Cost, reducing damage by a certain amount, or you can evade an attack by spending dice equal to your Weight Load, a system I find immensely clever.
There are other ways to avoid damage, namely to do with initiative. Initiative is rerolled after every character’s turn, with the character who last took a turn removed from the list, until the list has no more characters on it, at which point everyone rerolls and you start from the top. The character with the highest initiative goes first, but if any two characters roll the same initiative roll, they are “batted”, removing both of them inactive for that turn. This means that, if a boss is potentially about to act, you can use some initiative-modifying abilities to move around initiative numbers to bat them, instead allowing one of your allies to strike.
There are also special skills that characters can obtain with their own costs. Two abilities stood out in my game. My ally got Backstab, allowing him to spend three matching dice to deal an instant 100 damage to an enemy (an astronomical amount), and I used Parry, which let me guard for two matching dice (no matter their value compared to my shield’s Guard Cost), and block an additional 5 pips of damage, making me a walking damage sponge.
The way the game interpreted physical space was unexpected, opting to take a fairly abstracted approach. All characters are by default assumed to be “in range” of anything, with the range of attacks differing between hitting an individual or everything. This is wrinkled a little by the existence of “Safe Zones”, a set of spaces in each encounter that a character can enter for the cost of two dice. Safe Zones are completely removed from combat, incapable to attack from or be attacked in, but are consumed after use. The beauty of ranged characters is that only they can continue to attack from within a Safe Zone.
The layout of the prepublished adventure we ran was fairly standard, essentially a hallway of randomly placed rooms with a few branching paths, some boss rooms, and a bonfire. Our job was to traipse around a cavern looking for some Ashes (I dunno, man, Dark Souls stuff), and take down a couple of bosses in order to escape an eerie cave that we were trapped in. The actual adventure design was pretty bare-bones, it’s clear the complexity is meant to come from combat.
Actually, speaking of Bonfires, there’s one other mechanic of note to mention about Dark Souls: the Malice Chart. Besides having a hilariously paradoxical name (like the “Murder Table” or perhaps the “Malevolence Spreadsheet”), this is a mechanic designed to balance the infinite restorative and resurrective properties of the bonfire, which would normally allow players to hurl themselves at problems for eternity. Instead, every time characters die or rest at the bonfire, the GM rolls on the Malice Chart, and doing so risks one of a variety of world-level effects to occur, ranging from health, initiative, and damage buffs for every enemy, to increased weight and stamina costs for players. The Malice Chart provides a sort of soft timer for quest completion in the game: players are incentivized to complete a dungeon as fast as they can, lest it become unwinnable.
I’m extremely happy I got to play the Dark Souls TRPG. Its combat system is extremely tactical while remaining fairly rules-light, and it captures some of the feeling of crossing blades in the video games very well. If this game ever makes its way to the States, or if you find yourself in a position to play a translated copy of it, I highly recommend it, because it’s honestly a game unlike any other tabletop RPG I’ve played.
Bucket Detective might be the weirdest game I play all year. A game by Jesse Barksdale, the creator of the deeply unsettling and weirdly funny the static speaks my name, Bucket Detective is a short walking simulator-type game which gingerly tiptoes the line between dark comedy and just flat-out disgust.
Bucket Detective stars David Davids, a character who Waypoint’s Patrick Klepek correctly refers to as “an irredeemable piece of shit“. David’s motivations are simple, idiotic, and amoral: his wife isn’t giving him the weird, kinky sex he wants, so he decides to write a book, inexplicably called “Bucket Detective”, in order to attract women. Unfortunately, David is a garbage writer and an idiot, so the going is slow in writing his magnum opus. After a meeting with an unscrupulous friend, David is given a shortcut: go to a building that very quickly turns out to belong to a cult, and help them resurrect a dark god in exchange for finishing your terrible book.
Calling David an antihero is just flat-out incorrect. There is no redemptive arc, no empathizing with his dark motives. The only things that make you possibly see from David’s perspective are the fact that you control him, and the weird, innate human need to empathize with things too dumb for their own good, like the twang of guilt you feel when a bird flies into a window.
This, in my opinion, is the most interesting thing about Bucket Detective. As Barksdale himself remarks, a lot of video games use the empathetic quality of the medium as a sort of wish-fulfillment, a way to assume the role, however temporarily, of a character that lives a life in some way better or more interesting than our own. Even villainous characters, or amoral characters, typically feed into a dark, inadmissible fantasy to just sort of go apeshit every once in a while (see Grand Theft Auto V‘s Trevor), or the character of the stylish, ultra-cool villain (see Hitman‘s Agent 47, or even someone like Shadow the Hedgehog).
Bucket Detective grabs the player, however unwilling, and forces them behind the eyes of an amoral, irredeemable dumbass whose single goal is to, and these are the game’s words, not mine, “make penis spit with pretty girls”. There is no fantasy to be fulfilled here, no moral grey area to explore, David just sucks.
But, interestingly, he isn’t annoying. When people watch movies, read books, or play games with characters that they dislike, frequently they express annoyance with the character. A common example of this is Shinji Ikari, the moping, inactive lump of a protagonist of Neon Genesis Evangelion, or even video games’ resident Unlikeable Dick, Duke Nukem, whose pompous arrogance is more and more of a put-off the further he gets from the era in which he almost deserved it.
David, bizarrely, elicits no such venomous reaction from the player, or at least from me, which perhaps says more about me than it does the game. I think this speaks to excellent writing from Barksdale, and a superb, and arguably necessary, understanding of how to portray this sort of character. David is a trash human, but he’s a sort of miserable hyperbole of some fairly commonplace human feelings: he’s unhappy with his ho-hum life, he wants a romantic partner that he feels is out of his league, and to an extent, he’s willing to put other people behind him in exchange for following his dreams.
Now, I’m not saying that anyone who has any of the above senses is a piece of shit, nor am I suggesting David’s redeemable in his actions. David sucks, and you probably don’t. However, David’s reasoning in his actions remains constantly comprehensible. You’re never yelling at the screen that he should do something else, because you know every decision he makes, makes perfect sense to him. You’re never yelling at him to stop being an idiot, nor do you ever really want to slap him across the face. David’s the kind of train wreck you just look at from afar, shake your head, and go “what a fucking mess”.
It’s like, you know when you see a Youtube video of someone trying to rob like a convenience store or a vape shop or something, but they just hopelessly mess it up? David’s kind of like that: he sucks, you know he sucks, but for some reason you can’t get upset with him. I think it’s because he’s an honest character. He is greed, selfishness, and hedonism incarnate, but he’s greedy, selfish, and hedonistic in a way that, were you to sort of de-escalate the game from it’s melodramatic narrative, you’ve maybe felt before, at least in brief flashes and in much lower stakes.
David is also, purely from the perspective of narrative function, a competent protagonist. He moves the plot forward, doesn’t waste time bungling the few tasks set out before him, is never wracked with indecision or guilt, and doesn’t waste time or word count giving himself undeserved praise. I think this represents a key game design insight from Barksdale: he already made his character completely insufferable within the narrative, which meant that anything that made him frustrating on a meta-narrative or mechanical level would have probably gotten the player to quit the game completely.
I think Bucket Detective represents an infrequently-explored frontier in games, specifically in game writing: how to make the audience like, or at least willing to tolerate, a character who’s an absolute garbage fire. Bucket Detective does so with a sort of vague, fundamental feeling of familiarity combined with the empathy we subconsciously give to the incompetent, but I doubt that’s the only method.
I’d go deeper, but frankly, Bucket Detective takes an hour to complete and costs four dollars on Steam. Go play it. If you find yourself unable to tolerate David, congrats, it’s probably because you’re a better person than me. But if not, think about how it feels to become David for an hour, whether you can feel any sense of empathy for him. If you’re a writer or designer, and really wanna push yourself to the limit, I think an interesting exercise would be to make a character like David, a character that is terrible in every sense of the world, but still manages to grab the player at least a little bit, even if they’re ashamed to admit it.