Bleak Rains: My Foray Into The Apocalypse

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It just occurred to me that I haven’t written about my projects in a little while, so I thought I’d pop out and talk about something I’ve been working on: Bleak Rains. I’m excited about this project for a couple of reasons, but mostly because it’s my first foray into designing a Powered by the Apocalypse game, meaning it runs on the same mechanical engine as Vincent Baker’s masterpiece, Apocalypse World.

Initially a project I started to get out of a funk I was in while writing playtests for my other two major tabletop RPG projects, Bleak Rains takes place in a city called Indra. Indra is a massive, ancient city, on an island surrounded by the ocean on all sides. Indra is at a level of technology equivalent to just before the Industrial Revolution: there are some steam engines here and there, but they’re loud, clunky, and expensive. This city is ruled by a group called the High Overseers. From the top of their ivory towers (literally), they not only enforce law and order, but also the cultural norms of this society. Before the High Overseers, things were, well, bad.

The reason they were bad is because of the ocean. In classic, Lovecraftian fashion, the ocean of this world is full of unknowable things. There are monsters, relics from the barbaric civilizations of a bygone era, but on top of all of that, the water itself is just inexplicably weird. It naturally unnerves people, makes them paranoid, and maybe even causes them to hallucinate. The water is never clear, it’s always murky, hiding something. In the distant past, the people of Indra used to worship the things in the water, the High Overseers pulled them away and dragged them towards civilization.

Things are fine for half of the year: the things of the sea stay in the sea and everyone, with the exception of sailors, fishermen, and daredevils, can stay safely on land and avoid all of the unpleasantness. The problem is the weather: for six months out of the year, Indra is in its rainy season. This means that the water which is the source of all of this general unpleasantness literally drenches the city, and sea levels rise, to the point where lower layers of the city flood. All of a sudden, what was normally stuck in the sea is now free to wander the streets.

The actual play of Bleak Rains takes place exclusively in this rainy season. In this period, the streets are full of mysteries and danger, people are paranoid and selfish, and things that lay dormant wake up. The playbooks, offering roles and identities to the player, are people who, for one reason or another, are forced to (or want to) be in the streets during this dark season.

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One of my goals for the playbooks was that I wanted the roles to be sort of weird. I have nothing against wizards, clerics, and paladins, but I thought that it would be much more interesting to let players define part of this weird setting through play (that is, after all, the mantra of PbtA). Thus, by providing playbooks close to the weirdest parts of this setting, it puts a spotlight to those weird parts and encourages an exploration of them, even if only to get a better understanding of what your character’s even doing.

Take, for example, The Graveswimmer, one of the playbooks a player can choose for their character. The central premise is that traditional burial doesn’t really work in Indra. On top of there not being a lot of land to bury people, the rain has this pesky tendency to bring the dead back to life. Graveswimmers are an ancient order basically responsible for finding dead bodies and giving them their rites, both putting their souls to rest in a spiritual sense and ensuring their shambling bodies don’t bother anyone in the future.

By having a Graveswimmer in your party, you’re forcing your group, or at least one person, to think about the way death is handled in this society. It brings up this conflict of treating a dead person with respect versus limiting the danger they present to society (a conflict that was very real back in the days of plague), and it makes you think of burial as a sort of functional mechanism of society, rather than just a cultural one. If I do my job right, the Graveswimmer will, as they grow as a character, explore more and more of the psychology and cultural importance of death, something that’s kind of hard to do, but might be easier if placed in such a foreign setting.

Another playbook I’m super excited about is The Anchorlugger. Anchorluggers are basically The Scarlet Letter taken to the nth degree. Since straying from cultural norms in this society leads to, you know, the veneration of sea monsters and the potential destruction of civilized society, major social transgressions are treated very harshly in this world. One of the Anchorlugger’s ancestors committed some sort of grievous sin and, as punishment, their decedents, including the player, have had to carry a physical manifestation of their family’s sin in the form of this big, unwieldy anchor.

Where Graveswimmers deal with the treatment of death, and the balance between burial as a cultural and a function construct, Anchorluggers are built to deal with the conflict between trying to fit into a society that hates you, and embracing your differences, even if it means self-imposed isolation. That’s a conflict that might hit really close to home for some people, but Anchorluggers are dealing with crimes and punishments far outside of the norms of our society, and thus maybe have some more creative freedom to explore what it’s like to integrate into, or distance oneself from, a society that hates you.

The most mechanically interesting part of Bleak Rains, in my opinion, is Weird. Weird is a tangible measurement of one’s distance from societal norms, and is represented in the form of checkboxes. Characters that are closer to the fringes of society have fewer boxes of Weird. That’s because you mark a Weird every time your character does something that’s really pushing the limits of what this society will think of as acceptable. For most characters, marking Weird is good, because you add the number of Weird you have marked to dice rolls when you use your, well, weird abilities. The closer you get to the fringe, the better you are at manipulating it. However, when you mark all of your Weird, society decides that you’ve gone too far from the norm. At that point, you’re either cast into the shadows forever, with society trying its best to completely ignore your existence, or a lynch mob comes after you.

With Bleak Rains, my goals are twofold. First, I want players to be able to explore the concept of what we in a society consider “normal”, as well as what happens when you leave normalcy, without the baggage that a familiar setting might bring with it. Secondly, I want players to be able to explore a setting where they have some control in the fundamental structures of its society, and explore what I consider to be the most interesting part of worldbuilding: figuring out what happens when the weird becomes the new normal.

I hope to share some more Bleak Rains content on this blog in the future. I think I’m pretty close to playtestable right now, but in the meanwhile, I’ll probably talk about the playbooks and the types of player experiences they’re built to encourage. Until then, be sure to stay dry…

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10 Good Ideas: Dead Rising 2 and Combo Weapons

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Dead Rising 2 still burns in my heart as the pinnacle of the Dead Rising series up to this point. While there have been 4 games in the series (technically 7, counting the spin-off Off the Record and the downloadable titles Case Zero and Case West), Dead Rising 2 represents the point where the series really managed to achieve it’s goal of being a big, silly, dumb sandbox designed to fulfill power fantasies and elicit giggles from its players.

For the unaware, Dead Rising is a series of open-world sandbox games where the player fights their way through hordes of zombies using weapons and items scavenged from the environment. The first two games take place in shopping malls filled with shops selling weird and obscure nonsense, although later games take place in full towns. Crazy boss battles are sprinkled through the environment against Psychopaths (which, again, is an idea that got sunsetted as the series went on), and these complement the main story.

The core Dead Rising gameplay loop involves players entering a large space with limited resources and an objective in mind, ranging from saving a survivor to defeating a Psychopath to just simply moving from one end of the area to the other. The player must scavenge their environment for items to increase their fighting ability. As the player makes their way through the area, they expend these resources (items degrade and eventually break with use), forcing constant scavenging. Killing zombies is encouraged as a way to make the path to your objective safer and to gain XP, thus encouraging this churn of items.

This loop works perfectly well in the original Dead Rising, but it never quite, in my experience, makes the player really learn the map. Players might memorize the locations of a couple of key shops (the grocery store and the gun shop being stand-outs in my mind), but other than that, weapons and healing items can be pretty consistently found in any part of the mall.

Dead Rising 2 featured a change in protagonist, from the photojournalist Frank West to the motorcycle rider and mechanic Chuck Greene. To signal this change mechanically, Dead Rising 2 abandons the photography mechanics in the first game and instead introduces a mechanic designed to emphasize Chuck as a mechanic: combo weapons.

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Combo weapons are pretty simple, conceptually. Certain pairs of items in the game world can be taken to the workbenches scattered around the map and slapped together into new, unique weapons which are stronger, cooler, and grant more XP than normal weapons

Combo weapons are immediate a fantastic way of incorporating Chuck’s story identity into the game mechanics, but they do so much more mechanical heavy lifting than that. For starters, the existence of combo weapons forces players to take much greater care into remembering the layout and stores of the mall. Since combo weapons are so good, players are incentivized to use them, so as a result players will naturally try to remember the locations of valuable item spawns across the map so that they can build combo weapons more consistently. Sure, you can find any ol’ weapon in any ol’ store, but if I remember where the boxing gym is, I can build the Knife Gloves, and then I get to be Wolverine, and that’s awesome.

Combo weapons also encourage exploration, as quite a few of them have their combo card unlocked by saving survivors, defeating Psychopaths, or by finding posters in the environment which provide the inspiration for the weapon. This is a great way to grant tangible benefits to exploration and quest completion. Not only do you get the sort of intangible gain of ticking off quests or saving X survivors, but you also get cool new toys to play with. The same actually goes for those combo cards you get through level-up. Dead Rising has actually always been pretty good about giving exciting level-up benefits (mainly pro-wrestling moves?), but getting a big, dumb new weapon is a great, tangible benefit that’s much more exciting than a simple stat boost.

Another thing combo weapons do well is build up a sense of anticipation and mystery, weird as that sounds. You see, when you pick up an item that’s used in a combo weapon, it’s marked with a little wrench icon, like this:

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This occurs whether or not you know what the combo weapon actually is, so it means that as you’re going through the early hours of the game, you might pick up something like a construction helmet and think “Wait, what does this make?”. You might be motivated to wander around the world and try to piece together the combo weapon through trial-and-error (which you can do, more on that later), and when you finally figure out the combination, either by deducing it or by getting the combo card later, you get the resolution of figuring it out. As this builds up, you feel like you’re getting better and better at whipping together super-powered weapons out of the environment, which you are, and you gain a sense of mastery.

Back to that trial-and-error point. If combo weapons could only be used when they were unlocked, players might feel like their options were a little limited at first. However, a combo weapon can be put together at any time with the right ingredients, having the card merely grants a secondary fire and greater XP gain. So, players never feel arbitrarily blocked off from the cooler weapons, but combo cards still feel like they offer cool benefits to the player when earned. Adventurous players can “cheat” and discover weapons early, and less clever players still get a nice feed of new combo recipes even if they don’t experiment. Genius.

Dead Rising 2 is a game about exploring, about mastering your environment, and about doing dumb things, goals all advanced and made better through the genius inclusion of combo weapons. So, yeah, combo weapons in Dead Rising 2, a Good Idea.

10 Good Ideas: Halo 3 ODST and Non-Linear Storytelling

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Let’s start this bad boy up with an unpopular opinion: Halo 3 ODST is the best Halo game, period.

This is, obviously, an opinion, and a lot of it has to do with how the setting and the fantasy of Halo don’t really do a lot for me. The idea of being a nigh-unkillable space marine is cool, sure, but the games don’t really execute on it in the way that I like, with enemies being pretty bullet spongey and the player character never really mechanically feeling “like a badass”, especially on higher difficulties and when compared to other “badass space marine” power fantasies like DOOM or Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine.

ODST has a special place in my heart, however, as a game that I felt like always married its narrative with the Halo mechanics much better than the mainline series. ODST doesn’t pair the protagonist with sick guitar riffs, reverential NPC dialogue, and that one hype battle song (dudun du DUUUUN, dududu, dudun du DUUUUN, you know the one). Instead, the game has this dark, rainy atmosphere, a much more survivalist tone, and a somber, jazzy soundtrack that almost sounds a bit like a dirge.

Matching this mood change is a change in story. Halo games typically follow this plot structure: there’s a big thing that’s very bad. Master Chief goes to that big thing and blows it up. Weirdly, this tends to be both the atomic story element (blow up this Scarab, blow up this AA gun) as well as the greater story (blow up the Halo, blow up the Ark), although “rescue Cortana” gets sprinkled in a decent amount too.

ODST‘s plot, meanwhile, actually largely focuses on a lot of the protagonist, simply called “the Rookie”, stumbling around trying to figure out what happened. You end up finding evidence of your squad’s movements through the city, and finding these items triggers flashback missions, showing what your squadmates got up to in that area. You don’t have to do the flashbacks in order, you just sort of piece them together as you go along.

I have a basically completely unsubstantiated theory about Halo 3: ODST. The game’s materials and promotional content pitch this game as a more “down to Earth” Halo game, with players leaving the shoes of Master Chief, who is a literal super-soldier, and instead finding themselves playing someone who is much more of a normal dude. Here’s my conspiracy theory: the player character is not, in any significant way, powered-down between Halo 3 and Halo 3: ODST.

I’m having a hard time collecting concrete numbers to substantiate this theory, but here’s my reasoning: the Master Chief has always actually been kinda squishy in-game, and his “super soldier-ness” seems most supported mechanically by his large reserve of rechargeable shields, meaning the player can afford to run into danger and take some hits. In ODST, by pulling these shields back just a little bit and returning to a health kit system, players still do and take the same amount of damage, it’s just that they’re punished for being more gung-ho.

The main way that ODST creates a tone of weakness for the player is through story and setting elements. As mentioned above, a somber soundtrack replaces a heroic one, the game is dark and shadowy instead of bright and colorful, and perhaps most importantly, the player character is not the main catalyst of the story. Instead of doing all of the really cool things, you see the results after the fact.

Of course, players don’t like not being the main executor of story events, just look at some of the negative responses to The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion‘s story, which at times feels like you’re the bodyguard for the protagonist, instead of the protagonist. ODST doesn’t want you to be the hero that saves the day, that’s not the tone it’s going for. However, it cheats: you, the Rookie, aren’t the one who does all the cool stuff, but you, the player, are. You still get to play all of those cool scenes where you drive a Scorpion and you are the elite sniper or whatever, but since those are flashbacks, these scenes don’t create a sense that the Rookie is this sort of super-protagonist in the way the Master Chief is.

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Here, look at a list of the things the player, not just the player character, does in Halo 3: ODST.

  • lead a charge of Marines using a Scorpion tank to pierce Covenant lines
  • defend, and then blow up, an ONI base
  • hijack a Covenant dropship
  • fight a Scarab
  • retrieve and escort a super-important AI

Man, those…sound like regular ol’ Halo objectives, don’t they? Most of those are things that the Master Chief actually does on his own in mainline Halo games. On top of all of that, consider that you’re fighting the same enemies, with the same guns, and they’re going down in the same number of hits.

However, Bungie tricks the players, through the use of music, color, environment design, and narrative design, to “remix” this set of Halo setpieces to feel like a totally different game. When you compare ODST to other Halo games in terms of mission design and raw combat mechanics, not a lot is actually different. However, since the players are taken out of the driver’s seat of the story, narratively, even though they actually 100% are not when you actually look at what the player does over the course of the game, they don’t feel like a world-saving badass, despite doing all of the things world-saving badasses do.

With a few clever tricks of narrative design, Halo 3: ODST tricks players into thinking that what is ultimately any other Halo game is a reserved, quiet, more grounded experience, using minimal changes to repackage the Halo experience into something totally new, and that is a Good Idea.

 

10 Good Ideas: Blitz: The League II and Thirty Yard Downs

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Here’s an uncontroversial opinion for someone as heavily invested in “nerdy” hobbies as I am: I don’t much care for American football. Where I differ is in the amount of it I’ve watched in comparison to most people with similar “geeky” dispositions. I worked at what was ostensibly a sports bar for four years, in the suburbs of Dallas, a very, very football-heavy town. I feel pretty comfortable saying that I’ve watched a majority of NFL games for at least the last three years.

I certainly don’t think football is per se bad, mostly just boring. A common phrase I hear said is “football is a game of inches” which is between our co-opting of the word “football” and use of the imperial units, maybe one of the most American expressions possible. This phrase is supposed to speak to football’s very strategic nature, but for me it just highlights how slow the game is. The game is typically played in ten to fifteen second bouts, before the whistle’s blown, everyone just sorta stops and putzes around, and maybe you see an advertisement for Carl’s Jr. or something. Most plays, to me, look like a lot of dudes just sort of crouching, before most of them just slap into each other, and maybe the guy with the ball moves forward six feet, maybe he throws the ball, and maybe he just falls down.

With this, let’s call it, lukewarm opinion of football, it’s easy to find it surprising that I really like Blitz: The League II. In fact, not counting motorsports or extreme sports, Blitz is the only sports game I own. So, what does this game do to the formula of American football that changes it from a snoozefest to a staple on my shelf to my eyes? Simple. Blitz makes football dumb.

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It does this in a lot of fairly superficial ways: you can beat the hell out of opposing players, leading to some ridiculous, Mortal Kombat style X-ray views of bones being broken and nuts being smashed, and there’s also a full subsystem for exorbitant touchdown dances, my personal favorite involving pretending to poop out the football. When it comes to mechanics, though, Blitz: The League II makes one change that radically changes the game, and that’s thirty yard downs.

Let me back up here. In American football, play is measured in terms of downs, with each down basically being a unit of play. A team, when on offense, gets four downs, or basically four plays, to attempt to move the ball 10 yards. If they do, they are awarded another four downs to attempt to move the ball 10 yards. Either the ball ends up making it all the way to the end zone, or a team will fail to move the ball 10 yards in four downs, causing possession to switch. I realize that my American readers are probably scoffing at the idea of me explaining football, but between international readers and just, like, nerds, I figured it was worth the explanation.

In Blitz: The League II‘s rendition of football, however, this rule is changed slightly. Instead of having to advance 10 yards in four downs, a team in Blitz needs to advance thirty, or a fourth of the field. This does a massive amount towards making the game faster-paced, more aggressive, and host to more ridiculous stunt plays.

You see, when you have four downs to move a measly ten yards, you can kind of afford to have small gains with every play. Moving two and a half yards a play is not terribly difficult, but it’s not terribly exciting either. If we presume an average human running speed of about 10 mph (which is admittedly a pretty rough ballpark), an average person can run two and a half yards in about half a second unopposed. Factoring in acceleration time, as well as taking non-straight routes due to opposing players, we’re still talking maybe a couple of seconds to accomplish the distance. That means that, on average, if you’re running the ball, a successful play only needs to run a couple of seconds. When you consider that, between downs, players have to reconfigure and maybe huddle up to devise and disseminate a strategy, these short bursts of action end up kind of boring. They’re too fast for you to really build up excitement, and what excitement you do build up fizzles out in the long downtime.

When you have to move seven and a half yards a down, however, things get a smidge more interesting. We’re now sitting at about a second and a half for an average human to run that in an optimal line, 300% the length of regulation football. Moreover, we have to consider a change in strategy. According to the stats given by TeamRankings, literally every single NFL team averaged less than 7.5 yards per play last season, and in fact, every season for the last 10 years. This means that all of your strategies that form the meat and potatoes of your team’s play need to be thrown out the window.

So, what is the strategic status quo that we’re shaking up? Well, let’s look at the statistics. Last season, NFL teams passed the ball for between 50% and 65% of plays, and those passes yielded between 5.5 to 8.9 yards on average, depending on the team. Again depending on the team, these passes were successful between about 54% to 70% of the time. Actually, let’s plot pass completion percentages and average yards per pass, shall we?

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We can see a positive correlation that teams complete more passes get more yards per pass, which is good! Let’s look at passing play percentage versus pass completion percentage now.

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There is way weaker a correlation there, with results pretty much being all over the place. What this means, with a rough statistical analysis, is that in football, passing a lot doesn’t necessary correlate to completing a lot of passes, but completing a lot of passes does correlate to a large amount of gain from those passes. In layman’s terms, I have statistical support for the anecdotally obvious: passing is a high risk, high reward play.

What the hell does this have to do with anything? Why did I start talking about passing so much all of a sudden? Well, anecdotally, passing is probably the most interesting thing that can happen in a single play. It’s harder skillwise to throw a ball successfully and then for someone else to catch it successfully than it is to just sort of hold a ball (while both are pretty hard in an NFL setting), making it a bit more of a technical feat to watch. Passing the ball puts it in the air, making it a bit more visible than if it’s in a big mob of dudes. Passing opens up potential for interceptions, which tend to be big, dramatic moments in the game. The act of passing also just creates anticipation, as the crowd watches the ball go through the air, watches a player line up to catch it and the defense move to counter, and everyone naturally tries to complete the situation in their head before it happens.

What does this have to do with Blitz: The League II. Well, sparing you another graph, you can look here and see that, generally speaking, running the ball yields fewer yards than passing it. This is fine in a ten-yard down game, you can see that every team on average scores more yards per run than the two and a half they “need” to. However, in a thirty-yard down game like Blitz, these numbers don’t cut it. All of this data basically exists to prove something that your average football player knew the second they read the headline: in a thirty-yard down game, you have to pass more. More passing means more anticipation, more clarity, and more big plays. All things that I find interesting. And, for that, thirty yard downs in Blitz: The League II are a Good Idea.

10 Good Ideas: Fallout: New Vegas and the Faction System

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It is frankly astonishing to me that I haven’t talked about Fallout: New Vegas significantly on this blog, because I think it might be my favorite game? I have a tattoo symbolizing it, after all, so I should probably talk about it.

For me, the shining jewel in New Vegas‘s crown of good design is the faction system. You see, from basically the moment you set foot out in the Mojave Wasteland, you become immediately aware of a series of factions, wielding varying amounts of power. Some, like the New California Republic and Caesar’s Legion, are massive, world-bending forces vying for complete control of the Wasteland. Others, like the Powder Gangers and the Great Khans, are smaller gangs who control small pieces of turf in the Wasteland. Others yet are singular towns, like Goodsprings and Novac, just trying to get by.

The previous Fallout game, Fallout 3, had a binary morality system which existed on a single scale from good to evil, which was fine? Ultimately, it ended up feeling like your character was either a saint, a monster, or just some sort of morally ambiguous blob. If you were bad, bad people liked you. If you were good, good people liked you. It was something, certainly more than a lot of games, but it wasn’t terribly interesting. New Vegas did away with this, and did something great.

You see, New Vegas measures not your morality, but your standing with each individual faction. This is so good for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, it allows for a greater moral depth to your character. In Mass Effect, a game with a traditional morality scale, I always felt like the scale didn’t quite capture the way my Shepherd behaved: I was a mondo dick to most everyone, but fiercely loyal to my crew members. The game just ended up labeling me “mostly a mondo dick”, which I found kind of incomplete. In New Vegas, if I want to be a valuable ally to the factions that align themselves with me, and a complete scourge to anyone in my way, the game mechanically portrays that. Instead of just everyone thinking I’m kind of an asshole, the people I’m allied with will treat me like an old friend, and the people who hate me will shoot me on sight.

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Here’s another cool thing: these faction reputations are on multiple axes. There are separate measures of Fame and Infamy, meaning that if you murder a bunch of Powder Gangers, then out of the blue give them a ton of help, they’re reaction isn’t to just do a 180 and love you, instead they’re actively confused, as they should be.

Just having this system is really cool, but the way the game leverages this to make interesting missions, and interesting mission solutions, makes it even better. An entire act of the game basically requires you become either favored by or to destroy whole factions in order to pave the road for the final conflict. Some missions become much easier, as you would expect, with certain faction reputation. If some rando needs the NCR to jump in to defend a town, it might require a bit of convincing. If a valuable ally of the NCR needs them to defend a town, however, sure, we owe the guy this.

That’s, ultimately, the cleverness of the faction system, is that it is such a powerful narrative and mechanical force. The main plot of New Vegas is actively changed by which factions you ally with and which you forsake. The final fight on Hoover Dam can be fought on either side, or optionally you can storm it as a dark horse force all your own. Whether you fight the battle all your own, with the help of one of the big factions, with the booming artillery of the Boomers, or any other number of factors depends on your faction rankings. Hell, if you don’t like any of the big factions, you can basically assemble one on your own, a patchwork of all of the factions you like.

On the flip side, the faction system provides mechanical representation of your narrative choices within the game world. The merchants available to you change depending on your faction reputation. Your reputation with certain factions determines how you think of the game map, with certain areas changing from bastions of safety to enemy fortresses depending on your choices and your reputation. The big factions might even send hit squads to kill you if they hate you enough. Your experience in the game world changes based on your factions, and each playthrough is different depending on your different faction alignments.

The faction system is a nuanced, clever way to represent the way the player interacts with the game world, and also changes the game world in response to the player’s choices, creating a cyclical force which strengthens the player’s connection to the Mojave Wasteland, and for that, it’s a Good Idea.

10 Good Ideas: Age of Mythology and God Powers

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A lot of people have an RTS which defines their youth. For some it’s Starcraft, others Warcraft III, others yet maybe played Age of Empires II or Command and Conquer. For me, though, one game in the genre ruled my childhood, and that game was Ensemble Studios’s spin-off of the Age of Empires series, a fantastical, mythological romp called Age of Mythology.

I’m not really one for super-tactical RTS play. I’ve played all of the above games, but I never really considered them my favorites. The tactics and planning involved in them are very long-term and forward-thinking, meaning the atomic elements of your victory or defeat ultimately lie in very minor decisions early into the game, like how you manage your worker units, what units you build in what order, and where you build your structures. Extremely deep and tactical, yes, but hardly an explosive or exciting turn of events. I found that, often times in RTSs, I had moments where either an enemy just snowballed so far past me due to superior decision making in these microdecisions, or I suffered death by a thousand cuts and went “Oh, I guess I lose now”.

Age of Mythology certainly still has these elements, and I’m sure if I played it anything resembling competitively, I’d still have to worry about those microdecisions, but Age of Mythology offers something to the casual player that has that kind of explosive game-altering effect that normal RTS play kind of doesn’t: god powers.

You see, when playing a game of Age of Mythology, you select one of 5 ancient civilizations to play, and each has a pantheon of gods to worship. Worshipping those gods requires spending resources and building structures to enter different Ages, these Ages constituting the main source of progression through a game. When you successfully worship a god, they usually grant you a new kind of unit you can build, as well as a god power: a single use ability that can be triggered at any time.

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While the effects of any given atomic gameplay decision in an RTS tends to have relatively minor changes to the game space (think building or killing a single unit, pursuing a single upgrade, or assigning a worker to a single task), god powers are usually big, bombastic, and seemingly tide-turning. Some, like Lightning Storm and Earthquake, can wipe out meticulously constructed armies and bases with ease. Others, like Lure or Forest Fire, can create massive imbalances in the game’s economy. Others yet can instantly boost armies with powerful units, like Nidhogg and Ragnarok, providing a trump card that can turn a losing battle into a winning one, and some like Underworld Passage can grant players increased mobility with their armies, allowing for some underhanded positioning.

God powers provide flashy, game-changing moments in a genre not typically known for them, and they’re provided at a constant drip throughout the game, rather than just saving them at the end (like Starcraft‘s Nukes). They also, of course, add tactical depth to the game for more seasoned players. The game announces whenever you’ve successfully worshipped a god, so veteran players will know what god powers everyone has. Furthermore, you can pick between two gods, and thus two god powers, every time you advance an Age, giving you tactical choices in how you decide to progress.

God powers serve a valuable purpose for new or casual players. Getting god powers requires you to successfully advance your Age, which in turn requires you to perform certain steps, be it building structures, accruing Favor (an in-game resource), or assigning workers to certain roles. By putting requirements on god powers like this, it forces new players to think strategically in order to get the requirements for their Age. In another layer of genius, every civilization accrues Favor differently, in a manner fitting of their strengths, meaning that for a new player to get the Favor needed to get a god power, they have to play to their civ’s strengths, incentivizing them to play in a more strategic manner. God powers are a reward for playing smart.

For experienced players, god powers are equally valuable. Since god powers ultimately are obtained by doing the things that mark normal good RTS play (tactical base construction, good build queue management, etc), god powers serve as a reward and a reinforcement for the play you’re already used to doing. The selection of god powers, and playing around your opponent’s god powers, grants greater strategic depth. The game-breaking effects of god powers also let you perform extremely silly and off-the-wall strategies that wouldn’t work without them, like leading your enemy into seemingly unfair battle, only to summon Nidhogg and lay waste to the previously superior army.

God powers are ideal for a mix-up to the RTS formula because they provide something for both casual and experienced players. For casual players, they provide, big, flashy, cool effects that can change the shape of the game, and they help rebuke strategies that might end up steamrolling them early on (a big enemy army can be destroyed by Lighting Storm, and suboptimal resource gathering can be bolstered by Lure). For experienced players, god powers add an extra layer of strategic depth to the game, further raising the skill ceiling. By giving something to both casual and experienced players, god powers in Age of Mythology are a Good Idea.

 

Centralized vs. Decentralized Complexity

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Magic: The Gathering is very bizarre in its massive influence upon game design as a field. As one of the most successful and long-running tabletop games since, I dunno, chess, Magic has been played by tens of thousands of people across the ages, harboring a unique appeal due to its complexity. Magic is a tactician’s wet dream, with an uncountable amount of strategies to adopt and invent. You can win a game of magic by just summoning comically strong creatures, by using relatively simple effects as the centerpieces of combos, by taking advantage of methods to cheat out strong cards without paying the costs, or by just playing an unreasonably large deck.

And yet, new players are still pretty regularly coming into Magic, drawn by the game’s popularity and the promise of exciting gameplay. This is in spite of the fact that the game’s official rules are 200 goddamn pages, and features chestnuts like this:

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Magic players knew what this would be a picture of without even having to look

The secret is that Magic is not difficult to learn initially. The core gameplay loop of Magic is fairly simple, all things considered. Untap your stuff, draw a card, tap some lands, play some stuff, make guys fight, tap some more lands, play some more stuff, end turn. With some very minor hiccups (usually surrounding how blocking works), learning the fundamentals of Magic is, all things considered, pretty easy, if you already have a bit of experience learning board games.

The difficult parts of Magic‘s rules come from outside of the core rules. It’s the individual card keywords, limited to a few cards from a few select sets, that introduce the bizarre and perhaps unintuitive rules. Sure, maybe Ninjutsu requires a more nuanced understanding of how combat works, but it’s on 10 cards from 1 set. Maybe the decision on when to take the +1/+1 counters versus Servo tokens for a creature with Fabricate is a complex tactical decision, but if that’s overwhelming, just don’t play the 14 cards that use the keyword.

This leads to my point: Magic has decentralized complexity in its design. The core fundamentals of Magic, the bits that are present in every single game of it and are essential to playing the game, are pretty easy to pick up. You can understand the entire turn structure, the color wheel, combat rules, all of the card types, and a bit of basic strategy in, I would guess, an average of about 1 to 2 hours. The lion’s share of complexity lies in a bunch of components that, while part of the game, are not essential parts of the game, in particular cards and keywords. By the simple fact that Magic decks are built by the player before the game begins, a player gets to pick and choose what complexity they deal with.

A new player, or perhaps just one who doesn’t like dealing with complex decks, might go for an intuitive strategy: summon the big smashy creature and make them smash things. Throw a bunch of fireballs at your opponent’s face. Just gain so much life that whittling you down to zero becomes a chore. Experienced players, or those who want to interact with the game at a more technical level, can run decks which operate on that more technical level, complex decks like Eggs or, my personal favorite, Oops, All Spells.

Of course, a single player can only control half of the cards they see in a game of Magic. Their opponent, after all, might have built a complex deck while the player opted for a simple one, or vice versa, but I actually think this is the part of Magic‘s decentralized complexity most applicable to all games. Because a single game of Magic can only feature a limited number of cards (decided by players’ choices in deck construction and limitations of the format being played), and only a subset of those cards will be in play at any one time (well, unless you’re playing a very stupid game of Magic), even though the player could run into mechanics or strategies they are unfamiliar with, they are only encountering a small subset of the mechanical possibility space at a time. By playing game after game like this, discovering the game one deck at a time, what would be an extremely complex game to learn piece by piece is easily absorbed in bite-sized chunks.

Compare this to one of my favorite board games, Archipelago.

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While I love this game to death, I positively dread having to teach it to a table of new players every time. Archipelago is a banner holder for centralized complexity. The most complex parts of the game, the parts from which the strategy and interesting mechanical interaction arise most of the time, are the fundamental actions taken over the course of the game. Buying and selling on the foreign and domestic markets, moving your characters, harvesting resources, bartering with your fellow players, and dealing with worker insurrection are all essential to the game; every player will perform all of those actions every game of Archipelago. For a player to understand the game at a base level, they have to understand all of these actions, that that leads to a pretty big wall that players have to surmount in order to start meaningfully playing.

So, the downsides of centralized complexity, and by inverse the upsides of decentralized complexity, are fairly apparent: decentralized complexity makes it easier for new players to start your game, and ultimately lets you build extremely complex games knowing that your players can digest that complexity in pieces, rather than as a whole. It can add a sense of discovery to a player’s process of learning the game, as they discover new concepts and rules, and it also lets you build an extremely modular experience, much like Magic. However, centralized complexity must have upsides, too, or else you’d think designers would stop designing games in such a mode?

Well, for one thing, centralized complexity gives the designer a bit more control over gameplay as a whole, and lets them focus the experience. The original Coup, a tight bluffing experience with only 5 types of cards, is an extremely refined experience, with interactions designed to create a tense, paranoid play experience, from the relationship between the Contessa and the Assassin to the discord sowed by the Ambassador or Inquisitor to the bullying brought about by the Captain. Coup: Rebellion, the sequel which allows players to swap identity cards in and out from a pool of 25, can vary wildly. Sometimes it recaptures that tense paranoia of the original, sometimes it devolves into brow-beating militarism if the card pool is too aggressive, sometimes it’s too easy to gang up on people and beat them down without fear of repercussion. Some combinations of cards in Rebellion surpass that of the original game in terms of interesting, but others dip far below it by being boring, or by simply not offering anything unique.

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Archipelago was a game designed with an extremely tight experience in mind, the experience of putting players into the logistically crushing and emotionally dulling role of a colonial authority. By centralizing its complexity, the game ensures that this experience happens every game. Since the design guarantees that all of these complex components are going to be in the game, every game, each is tailor made to heighten this experience by playing off of one another. The worker rebellions cause stress on the local and foreign markets, which in turn can force players to work their workers even harder to recoup the lost materials, which can just make the next worker rebellion even worse. This feedback loop couldn’t exist if any one of these components was modular or optional.

Furthermore, centralized complexity ensures that once your player has learned the game, they’ve learned it, tip to tail, and their mental capacity in regards to the game can be dedicated solely to strategy. With a game like Magic, you are, at bare minimum, learning new rules interactions every time a new set comes out. You constantly have to readjust your understanding of the rules, which means you’ll have to constantly readjust your strategies. On top of that, if you don’t play for a while and come back, that need to learn is just compounded as you “catch up” with the game. Meanwhile, once you learn Archipelago or Coup, you learn those games, and every play experience after that can be solely dedicated to play and to strategizing, instead of learning. If I don’t play Archipelago for a while and I come back later, I don’t have to “catch up”. Once I shake the rust off, I can get right back into the game.

Obviously, neither centralized nor decentralized complexity is the “right” answer, and a designer should carefully consider which mindset to adapt in building a game. When well done, a game with decentralized complexity can last forever, constantly adding in new elements to make the game fresh without overwhelming new players, like Magic. Centralized complexity when well done, however, can live on forever by allowing players to strategize with the same game components ad infinitum, allowing masters to use a small, common pool of mechanics in novel ways forever, like ArchipelagoCoup, or even chess.