Sunday, March 22, 2020

Hardscrabble Open Design Journal, Page 2

If you don't know what this is about, see page 1 where I discuss some early design work for a tile-laying dungeon crawling game. There I predicted step 2 would be the character and resolution mechanics, but I ended up side-stepping that to do some research into other crawl games like Death Maze, Citadel of Blood, Heroquest, Descent, Four Against Darkness, etc.

What I have learned from research and playing other solo or cooperative crawlers.

  • Role-playing isn't a bolt-on feature. There's only two ways a solo crawler tile game is going to breach the wall of "role-playing:" 1) the gamer takes it upon themselves to bring it or 2) the system explicitly and elegantly pushes it. There is no middle ground where one can half-heartedly throw in a "bit" of role-playing support to an otherwise boardgame-like experience.
  • Complexity has a low threshold. Most solo crawlers are too fiddly by far, for my taste at least, and fall into the realm of heavy simulation rather than a pocket game. I have ideas for solving that. Indeed I think I already have come up with a way to provide endless variety without pushing complexity, but that's my little secret for now. 
  • Choices have to be meaningful. I mean, this is a staple of good design for me in any interactive medium. Don't give the player a choice that is either 'obvious' or 100% arbitrary. Choices don't always have to (and shouldn't always) have predictable consequences, but players need to be given enough information that their choice feels important and, more often than not IS.
  • Save points and portability mean more play. I am unlikely to leave this game out on the table to be continued later, so it needs to be something I can quickly pack up and then set back out to continue where I left off or something I can keep in a journal. Also, I would love for my game to have the form factor of a mint tin, small dice bag, or TCG (trading card game) box. Both of these things will lead to more plays of the game by reducing required investment (see complexity above as well).
  • Four classes go into a dungeon isn't going to cut it. The tired trope of Fighter, Cleric, Wizard, Thief (varied and/or embellished with fantasy races) walking through a D&D like dungeon has been done to death. My secret fix for the complexity threshold is going to address the uniqueness of the dungeon experience, but on the character side I want to either go for a classless system or more of a high-concept buffet like Troika's backgrounds or Electric Bastionland's failed careers.
  • Tactility is huge. The physical feel of the tiles, down to heaviness, thickness, and size, is massively important. If you get that right, the addiction factor goes up. People love handling pleasing items -- thing about Mahjong tiles or really nice dominoes. Even the sound they make is kind of important when they "clack" together. Other elements also come into play, the dice, any pawns, colors and graphics, etc. So once the design is "finished" I expect to really be thinking hard about how to share the game cheaply but also nail this tactile element. I really intended to make the game print-and-play, and maybe still will, but I am going to have at least strong recommendations as to the form factor.
That's probably enough for now. These lessons ended up being design goals really: 
  • Address role-playing
  • Keep it simple and portable
  • Make choices meaningful
  • Subvert the tropes
  • Provide a tactile play experience

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