Feb 1, 2006

Requiem for a Game

Alright, I’ve decided to turn my attention to one of my dead prototypes. Utopia was my attempt at a completely abstract euro-style game. I had noticed that all of my previous designs were very top-down (start with a theme and try to choose mechanics that represent the theme in a fun way), and I wanted to take a stab at designing a game bottom-up (choose mechanics that seem like they could be fun when used together and paste a theme on after the fact).

One of my favorite mechanics in games are hidden and/or asymmetric goals. I feel that games that employ these have inherently greater replayability, so long as the goals are chosen well.

Take a look at Risk (bad game, but I’m trying to make a point and an example I’m sure everyone will understand is essential). Back before I knew there were good games out there, Risk is something I’d play whenever I felt the need to be massochistic. However, when they released a version of Risk with the “Mission Cards”, the game actually seemed enjoyable again for a short amount of time. These cards presented each player with a hidden new goal in place of the old complete world domination goal.

The goals included controlling of continents, such as Asia or both North America and Australia, controlling of a certain number of territories anywhere, or elimination of another player, identified by color. This had several effects on gameplay. Firstly, the game ended much sooner, as these goals were all obviously much easier to achieve than world domination (because these goals could all be described as subsets of the original goal). Connected to that effect, the age-old strategy of turtling up in Australia until you have the cards to steamroll across the globe no longer worked, because an opponent would likely achieve his or her goal and the game would be over before you finally made your move. Thirdly, you had to be aware of unintended consequences. Actions that would have previously been unambiguously beneficial to you might now be more beneficial to an opponent who is closer to victory. Take the “eliminate a player” goals. By taking one of the territories that you need to accomplish your goal, you might eliminate a player who is a third player’s target, winning the game for that person before you can claim victory.

Although in the end they could not save Risk from its core inadequacies, the Mission Cards were a good idea. Apart from the above mentioned effects, they also introduced a sort of metagame to Risk. Players would attempt to guess which of the mission cards each opponent had received so that they could then gague how close those players were to victory. An opponent believed to be close to victory would need to be slowed down by attacks, even if neither they nor their territories were a target of your Mission Card.

The ways that the Mission Cards changed Risk have always been something I’ve thought about, even before I became a Game Designer Wannabe. I would often wonder how games I played could be changed by creating asymmetric and/or hidden goals.

It is thus that Utopia was born, even if it wasn’t named that yet. I began with a decision that the hidden goals would be color patterns. Players would try to create the pattern on their hidden goal card on a common board. But in what manner would this play out? At first I just thought that players should lay out tiles with colors on them. Players could play two new tiles or change one existing tile on their turn. They would need to create a path around the board that was a repetition of their pattern but could take any sorts of turns on the way.

I created a hexagonal board broken up into smaller hexagons. If you want to visualize it, start with one central hexagon. Then add equal hexagons extending out from the central hexagon’s six sides in straight lines to a distance of three. Connect these outer hexagons with however many more hex’s are needed, then fill it in as needed.

Players would win if their pattern’s path touched three non-consecutive sides of the board, not including the outer corners. The central hex was off limits. Patterns would consist of combinations of four colors (I used red, green, blue, and yellow just because they were convenient). There would be four parts to each pattern, so possible patterns included RGBY, RGGY, BGBR, and YYYY. You get the picture.

I quickly realized that laying entire tiles would make it impossible to change them mid-game. I instead made little discs out of checkers pieces, putting colored stickers on them. Then I made the pattern cards, about 40 of them to start with.

I realized that if players just layed the discs as they wanted, it would be impossible to track each players’ actions, which would remove the guessing aspect from the game. Sure, some geniuses out there could probably memorize who placed what where, but I didn’t want this to be a game that required a masterful memory, just deductive (or is it inductive? I think this might be an inductive game) skills.

So I decided that to lay discs players would have to move pawns representing themselves around the board to where they wanted to lay the disc. Each player would receive two pawns that each started at the center hex and would have five actions to perform a turn. An action would be either moving the pawn one space, “kicking” a pawn in an adjacent space to move it out of the way, or placing/changing a disc.

I toyed with the idea of each player having a “death” color, where if one of their pawns was on a space with that color disc, it would be “destroyed” and that player would have to lose a turn to return their pawn to the center of the board. This quickly got dismissed, as it meant that pattern cards could then only consist of a maximum of three colors, else the pawns would have to commit suicide many times in the course of placing the pattern.

I still wanted to introduce player interaction, especially one that directly rewarded players who figured out their opponent’s pattern. I decided that at the start of your turn, you could choose to guess another player’s pattern. If you were wrong, you lost your turn. If you were right, you got twice as many actions as normal and that player was forced to draw a new pattern card.

Unfortunately, I realized that it would be far too difficult to disguise your patterns unless you wasted many many actions laying down discs that were not part of your intended path but were there simply to obfuscate your actual pattern. So I decided that when you layed a disc, you would lay down four discs, one of each color. One would be on the hex where the pawn was located, and three would be on three non-contiguous hexes surrounding the pawn’s hex. This way, it would not be immediately clear which of the four hex’s affected were part of your pattern’s path, if any.

I needed a title for my internal version notes. I decided that the four colors would represent the four elements (wind, water, earth, fire) and that the board would represent the Earth. The players were elemental agents attempting to change the Earth into their ideal planet, represented by the pattern card. That’s when the name Utopia came to me. It proudly continued my tradition of awful game titles.

So we tested the game. It was . . . not fun. The test lasted all of five, maybe ten minutes before I ended it. And that’s including rule explanations. I had failed to find the correct balance between making it easy and rewarding to discover your opponents’ patterns and making it hard enough to do so that a person could convceivably win before their pattern was guessed correctly even once without spending too much time on moves intended to confuse their opponents. It was now far too difficult, but I was unable to conjure a way to make it easier without overdoing it.

I have set aside this game until such an idea comes to me. In the meantime, it is effectively dead. I don’t plan on dedicating any actual time to it. If there’s a breakthrough idea, it will have to come to be by accident. Or maybe one of you kind readers can come up with a way to fix this.

I am somewhat dissapointed with myself. My first attempt at a bottom-up, abstract game was a complete failure. People talk about American games versus Euro games. I don’t like that distinction. I don’t think that American designers can’t effectively break into Euro designs. Unfortunately, I did nothing to prove that with Utopia, may it rest in peace.

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