Stage One: Reviewing 1-1

2011 Nov 19

I’ve divided the eighteen Stage One games into three sets of six games each, so the reviews won’t be in one long post. That works nicely with the Mario Bros. tradition of breaking stage one into 1-1, 1-2, and 1-3. I’m going to try to keep these reviews relatively short and to-the-point, providing additional feedback to games when/if they accept an invitation to be part of the (first?) Stage One anthology booklet or at the request of individual designers.

1. An Analog Tribute to Gauntlet (Gauntlet): Christopher Weeks

This game cleverly mimicks the random and arbitrary nature of arcade games. I tracked down some video footage of the older Gauntlet games, which was helpful as I’ve only played the newer 3-D remake. And, man, it totally nails the frantic axe-throwing, food-seeking, and running-like-a-headless-chicken aspects. It was also helpful because the current text leaves out some critical information, like what characters’ starting scores are (600 health, 0 stress, 0 score, I assume). Other concerns include: the confusing description of the only example of play (paragraph 3), the difficulty of easily spotting when the score reaches a multiple of 16384, and a larger concern of… is this actually fun to play, beyond reveling in the ruthless ribbing of Gauntlet? Players just randomly increment their stats until certain conditions are reached. It would certainly be hilariously thrilling the first time, as long as you had the right crowd. So, some smart ideas, but I think this one either needs some deep reworking to be a good fit for the anthology or — more likely — should just embrace what it is, be shared with the right audiences in a slightly revised and clarified form, and not worry too much about print. People will either get it or they won’t, right?

2. Resident Evil+ (Resident Evil): Mike / Gremlin Legions

First off, the layout here is top-notch, which definitely helps in organizing and effectively transmitting the rules and tone. The rules are more complex than many of the games here, but the presentation keeps them from being overwhelming. Overall, the rules suggest a semi-generic dungeony game, but they look fun and reasonably solid. The example locations are straight-up terrific, but unfortunately take up a lot of space for something that’ll mostly be useful in later stages. There’s some classic Resident Evil stuff I miss too. Could the game be for GM + 2 players (male and female PCs), who are sometimes together and sometimes split up? Where are the ominous trinkets and clues to collect? Shouldn’t you be able to investigate a thing more closely, so the GM can give you a creepy description of it? Rules-wise, with 5 effort dice and 1/3 chance of success, you’re averaging slightly less than 2 successes, which makes failure seem pretty unlikely, especially if you use resources. I was going to suggest letting players cooperate on certain things, but that might require reworking the dice to make the game significantly more difficult. Overall, though, this game seems ready for initial playtesting and revisions, just to make sure the play experience matches what the rules intend. After that, it’s definitely ready for an invitation to the more intense editing and play that lead up to publication. So… let’s call that playtest and resubmit, I guess? Looking forward to this one. I’ve been playing the Resident Evil remake for the Gamecube lately, and sometimes it’s so creepy that I have to stop for a while.

3. A Few More Heroes (No More Heroes): Stephen Bretall

This game reminds me of a cross between Scarlet Wake and Ammo: Revenant War, both of which are fun shooty/fighty games where you take out a bunch of random dudes. I really dig the Beatles-inspired bad guys too and, even more, the overall descriptive setup: assassinating people to make rent. Way rad. The concerns I have are mostly about the lack of clear instructions about how you use the “cool junk that’s more important than rent” (like rage-induced superpowers) and how sustainably fun the carnage is, even if you just play through the first stage. I mean, by the end of the game, you’ll have slaughtered 10d10 thugs per player, which is a lot of mindless killing without something else to keep players’ interest. Even Ammo has the cool tactile feel of popping dice out of your first with your thumb, which feels really great, as you’re mowing down random faceless dudes. I guess there’s that 3:16 thing, where you can compete with the other players for most kills, which probably helps some. I guess I want something else to help hook me into the carnage, but I’m not sure what. Maybe some way to engage with the environment, like the parking lot or the penthouse, in a way that makes them feel different? Overall, though, this seems pretty solid and it ready to be played and tweaked based on that experience. So, playtest, clarify, and resubmit.

4. Roguish (Rogue): Evan Silberman

This game is either genius or incomplete and I’m going to lean towards “genius” — though I showed it to another indie game designer and they went with “incomplete.” Specifically, the really stand-out aspect of this game is its complete disregard for expectations in its dirt-simple, nearly resolution-free system for fighting monsters. You hit a monster, it hits you back, and this continues until one of you is dead (no dice). Monsters can take 1-2 hits, with bigger ones taking more, and PCs record damage by scribbling on their card (when it’s covered in scribbles, they’re dead). Legendary monsters kill you instantly unless you use fictional positioning to make it not so, likely with the help of some of the magical loot you’ve picked up. Dungeon- and monster-arranging is automated, as in Roguelikes or, more recently, Castle Ravenloft. Honestly, I am super in-love with this game partially because I know just the crowd of people to play it with: folks who will totally appreciate its minimalist, arbitrary nature. I definitely want to try this out in play, to make sure it has all the guidelines needed for it to work well, but, man, this game feels done to me. Invitation extended!

5. Shadow of Colossus (Shadow of the Colossus): Scott Slomiany

I love nearly everything about this game. Representing the giant golem as a flowchart is a fantastic decision and the rules are very clear and spot-on. A few thoughts: (1) It will eventually need a new name and a different name for the protagonist for copyright reasons, maybe “Giantkiller” for both? (2) It should really support both solo and 2-player play, drawing cards randomly for the colossus, like the dealer does in backjack. For bigger beasts in later levels, I can even imagine a few slayers working together on the same golem. (3) “Rest” is not quite the right term for that move, I don’t think. Really, it seems like the slayer is taking the time to assess his options, bid his time, and wait for the right moment. After all, if you “Rest” as turn 1, you climb up on the golem’s hand, presumably because he tried to smash you and you jumped on, or because you waited for him to come by. (4) The game needs a few more words about the special rules for later golems and how to set up their flowcharts. Other than that, yeah, it needs to be played, but it seems totally ready to go. Invitation extended!

6. Mushroom Kingdom Stories (Super Mario Bros.): Hans Chung-Otterson

The setup here is pretty brilliant, rolling some dice onto the map and having them generating situations. Also, the use of actual coins is super great and fitting for a Mario-inspired game. Some concerns I have: (1) If we file the serial numbers off here, will it still be compelling and will it feel like a Mario game? Like, if it’s a “portal to the Wacky Zone” instead of a “warp pipe to Minus World,” will it still excite us to play? I think that really depends on making the descriptions compelling and Mario-esque without drawing heavily on other IP. (2) Compared to other games in this batch, I feel like I have less of an idea how this game will feel in play from reading the text. There aren’t any examples and some of the language — especially “embodying” tags and roadblocks — are less than clear and might be wishy-washy in play without firmer guidelines. (3) Overall, the game seems inspired by the overall ethos and elements of Mario-related media, but it’s much less inspired by the gameplay of those games or any specific title, at least as far as I can tell. That’s why I linked to a video of Paper Mario, because I couldn’t really think of any Mario games that felt quite like this, where you resolve problems rather than just jumping on things and grabbing coins and powerups. Even in the newer games like Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy, you generally resolve problems for other characters by doing what Mario does: jumping on things and grabbing coins and powerups. Consequently, I feel like this game might be stronger if it picked a specific Mario game to be inspired by, even if it keeps a more exploratory and problem-solving approach, rather than being more a tribute to Mario games as a whole. In the end, I think this game needs some work if it’s going to be a part of the anthology, both to remove Nintendo IP and to focus it more on the type of experience it wants to help players’ create, which some playtesting and examples would contribute greatly to, I think.

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STAGE -1: Reviewing “All Cosmos”

2011 Nov 8

This is a review of All Cosmos (inspired by Katamari Damacy) by Jonathan Walton, i.e. myself. I’m reviewing my own game first to demonstrate the invitation process that follows this event, which is a bit like the peer-review process for a journal (“revise and resubmit!”), except open and public.

What’s Great

Katamari Damacy is an amazing and innovative game! A brave, terrific choice.

The overall setup is pretty solid, reminiscent of the way you “shift up” in die size in Formula D, but instead modeling how your Katamari gets bigger and allows you to pick up larger objects. Sweet! Also, just the fact that you’re rolling your dice into other dice has a very Katamari-like feel. Everything rolls!

Additionally, it’s great that the game actually gives you a concrete reason to buy a scoop of dice from the Chessex booth. People do that anyway, so why not take advantage of the dice fetish that already exists!

What Needs Work

Without the missing tables and bonus rules for combining certain objects, it’s hard to know whether the exact objects you collect will matter at all to the game, which is a mixed bag. The exact objects only matter in certain missions in Katamari, but having the game constantly tell you the wacky things you’re picking up is a key part of the experience and enjoyment of the video game.

Overall, though, there are larger issues, especially relating to the implementation of the “Stage One” concept. This feels like a general Katamari simulator, rather than the first stage of a larger experience that emulates the core of Katamari gameplay. Rather than having the table represent a whole host of random objects to pick up, it might be better to have a playmat that you can print out, representing an early Katamari stage (the kid’s bedroom is classic!). Then, you could subdivide it into regions (under the bed, on the desk, on the bookshelf, etc.) and have the actual objects you pick up — when you hit different dice — listed on the playmat instead of having to look them up in tables.

That streamlining of the experience could be applied elsewhere too. Having to re-roll the dice you have the possibility of grabbing seems like an unnecessary step. The dice have already been rolled when you throw them out on the table/playmat in the first place, right? Even if the playmat requires placing dice in certain areas, you can roll them before placing, giving them results that are “fixed” before play begins. Then, when the players roll their Katamari dice across the table/playmat, you can go ahead and grab any touching dice that have a lower number than what you rolled, glancing at the sheet to see what they represent (a rubberband! a matchbox car!) and writing them down in your collection before it becomes the next player’s turn.

Really, if you wanted to streamline it further, the “bonus rules” for combinations could take the form of a Bingo-style sheet where you check off things as you pick them up, rather than writing them down. You could even move the object list off the playmat (which will be covered in dice, making it hard to read) and onto a playcard or something that each player has. So you got a 3, 3, 4 in the region “top of the bed” and you cross off those numbers on your playcard and see that you now have two themometers and a thimble. That saves the players a lot of writing and makes the game quicker, which is critical for making the silliness sustainable. It’s harder to be silly for long stretches of time, through a lot of waiting.

For the “Stage Two” section then (not included in this game), you could offer some thoughts about how to create a playmat and playcards for the next level up (inside a house, in a front yard, whatever). This is just one suggestion of the direction the game could go in — the author may hate the idea of playmats and playcards — but I think it illustrates what the game needs to fit better into the “Stage One” concept and be of-a-type with the other games in the booklet anthology.

Invitation Status

Revise and resubmit! As it stands, this game doesn’t seem ready to begin hardcore playtesting and editing, since (1) it’s not really complete, (2) it doesn’t really follow the “Stage One” concept, (3) it doesn’t sound thrilling and exciting quite yet, and (4) the mechanics could use some streamlining to reduce redundant rolling and unnecessary mechanical steps. The overall structure and mechanics of the game are sound, but it needs a bit more work first: some more design to make a complete draft, some internal playtesting, some better-designed materials to make play easier and more exciting, and some rethinking of the bigger picture to fit with the “Stage One” premise.


All Cosmos: Last-Minute STAGE ONE Entry

2011 Nov 7

Here’s something that just hit me:

1. Each player brings their own unique set of “adventure game” dice, d4 to d20.

2. Roll a whole bunch of other random dice on the table, like the “scoop-worth” you can buy from Chessex at conventions.

3. Take turns doing the following:

A. Starting with your d4, roll your die onto the playing space, trying to get it to touch a bunch of other dice. You’re going to want to do this strategically, as you’ll see in a minute.

B. Pick up your die and whatever dice are touching it. Roll these together separately off to the side.

C. If your dice rolls higher than some of the other dice, SUCCESS! You’ve captured them! Place them in your personal stash, away from the play space, and return the others to the central pool, just rolling them back onto the table.

D. Pass the turn to the next player and, while they’re going, roll your dice on MASSIVE TABLE NOT INCLUDED to figure out what you captured. This table is subdivided by your current die size, so start with the d4 tables. Maybe you captured a thumbtack or a pack of chewing gum!

E. If you’ve collected objects equal to the faces on your current die, CONGRATULATIONS! You’ve increased your die size! On your next turn, roll the die from your set that’s one step bigger: d4 > d6 > d8 > d10 > d12 > d20.

4. You win the game if you expand your rolling die past d20 (rolling up 20 dice with a d20) or if you have the largest collection of stuff when all the dice are removed from the table (or, whenever you decide to stop).

5. It is recommended that, whenever they roll, players are required to hum or sing the themesong to Katamari Damacy.

6. There are SECRET BONUS rules for what happens when you get a bunch of the same thing (i.e. multiple cows) or complementary items (toothbrush and toothpaste).


STAGE ONE: Wrap-Up

2011 Nov 7

I’ve updated the game list again, after getting up this morning. I’ll still accept any others that trickle in during the next little bit. I know Shreyas was working on a Minecraft game, but I don’t know if he’s seen the end of the tunnel or not. I made some good progress on stage one of Super Farmhand, my Zelda-inspired game, but I’ll have to post that later. Maybe it’ll be done by the time I’m done reviewing.

All these games look terrific and exciting, folks. Some of them I want to play right now. I’ll try to send out comments and invitations as soon as I can. I’ll aim for at least one review a day, to try to put myself on track to finish in a reasonable time. In the meantime, let us know if any of these get played and how they went! Don’t wait for me!

There may be too many good games here for a single booklet-sized anthology, but that’s a good problem to have. Let’s cross that bridge when we get to it, if enough people accept invitations and are excited about publishing these collectively.


STAGE ONE: The Games

2011 Nov 6

Here’s all the games from the event:

  1. An Analog Tribute to Gauntlet (Gauntlet): Christopher Weeks
  2. Resident Evil+ (Resident Evil): Mike / Gremlin Legions
  3. A Few More Heroes (No More Heroes): Stephen Bretall
  4. Roguish (Rogue): Evan Silberman
  5. Shadow of Colossus (Shadow of the Colossus): Scott Slomiany
  6. Mushroom Kingdom Stories (Super Mario Bros.): Hans Chung-Otterson
  7. Return to Maniac Mansion (Maniac Mansion): Nick Wedig
  8. Scrabblenauts (Scribblenauts): Nick Wedig
  9. Differences (6 Differences): Jackson Tegu
  10. Fortunes and Thieves (Uncharted): Steve Hickey
  11. Dragon and Warrior (Dragon Warrior): Orion Canning
  12. Naughty Duck’s Dream Adventure (DuckTales): A.D. Henderson
  13. Half of Everything is Luck (Goldeneye): Mike Olson
  14. Lost Colony (Alpha Centauri): Mendel Schmiedekamp
  15. Pokemon Paper Edition (Pokemon): Robert Bruce
  16. Heavy is the Head (Civilis/zation): Simon Carryer
  17. Paperboy Unleashed (Paperboy): Lorenzo Trenti
  18. The Fissure (Guild Wars): Trevor Waldorf

And a bonus one, from me, which doesn’t count:

Woohoo! Reviews coming soon.


Metrofinál [Beta] Released

2011 Nov 5

I wrote the first draft of this game in 2006, so I can’t tell you how excited I am that — five years later — it’s finally ready to share with other folks. I don’t think there’s anything out there that provides a play experience quite like it. Enjoy!

The Play Materials

Metrofinál Game Board (8.5×14″, single-sided)
Metrofinál Rules (booklet)
Metrofinál Character/Station Cards (8.5×11″, double-sided)

Other Stuff

I’m also working to compile a set of playtest notes based on my own play — though I’ve only played this version once and that was not even exactly the same as the beta — things that are more advice than rules and will eventually be worked more fully into the text in a future gamma version. That’ll be posted at some point and kept regularly updated, especially because there’s no promise on when any gamma version of this will be released. The beta took me five years! My design philosophy is to work on stuff when I’m inspired to do so, which can require a fair bit of patience. BUT! This version works pretty great as it stands, and I hope folks really get something out of it.


STAGE ONE: An Autumn Invitational

2011 Oct 26

In an attempt to reinvigorate my drive to work on game stuff, I’m doing a thing.

Rules

0. Anyone can participate (the “invitation” part comes later).

1. Pick one of your favorite video games.

2. Create an “analog” game that distills the essence of it, but…

3. Only include the guidelines for playing STAGE ONE or LEVEL ONE (whatever that is).

4. At the end of your rules, briefly describe how the players might create their own STAGE TWO+.

5. Fit everything onto the front and back of a single sheet of paper.

6. Do this by Sunday, November 6, linking it here.

Invitations

A. I will read and give feedback on all submitted games. I will attempt to play some or all of them.

B. I will also tell the authors what additional work is needed before they will be invited to join a very short anthology (3-8 games?) called STAGE ONE, probably printed as a Scoutbook, which will be Kickstarted/Gogo’d when the booklet is completed (assuming enough people accept the invitations) and distributed at/near cost. Contributors get free copies and rights to their games forever.

C. Games who accept my invitations get played and edited hard, with compassion but little mercy. If we have too many games, we can either try to organize a second booklet or come up with some other plan.

D. This is indie games, so you can always give me the finger and do whatever else you want to with your work, at any time.

E. We all benefit from awesome, tight little games that are great for playing with new audiences.


Thoughts on Running Game Chef

2011 Oct 25

Folks are talking about Game Chef 2011 on SG and offering suggestions for next year. They’re all totally right about everything. But the real crux of running Game Chef is that is has a lot of contradictory aspects and goals, which have to be negotiated and priorities set. This is what I said about how I’ve been thinking about it:

First, one of the things I feel like I’ve learned from participating in and running Game Chef is that there’s really a limit to how much the master chef can control or facilitate as far as participants’ experiences of the contest. If you’re completely hands off, people find it hard to engage with each other or get excited enough to finish. If you go in and try to set up a bunch of structures, it distracts from the task at hand (i.e. designing the game) and puts people together who aren’t interested in what each other is doing, ending up feeling more alienating than relationship-building. So finding the right middle ground is tough.

The way I’m approaching things, I’m trying to keep the attention — as much as possible — on finishing a game and whatever participants need to do that. Connecting with other designers and getting great feedback would be nice, but — in the end — it’s not absolutely critical and it’s not something I think I can be responsible for. Sometimes it happens, othertimes not so much. And I’m not sure there’s a formula that will make it happen most of the time for most people.

And, honestly, being an indie designer is kinda like that. Sometimes you connect with folks, othertimes not. Sometimes you make a game that people get and are excited about, and othertimes people don’t really understand it or it can’t find the right audience. The people who end up being successful are those who push a project through and gradually build interest as more and more people play it and get excited about it, even if that takes a while. That’s partially why the games that win Game Chef have never really gone on to be successful, while games that made a less of a splash in the contest end up being bigger deals.

The thing about Game Chef that’s hard to remember sometimes is that it’s not really about the experience of the contest so much. It’s about what that experience does for you — to help you build confidence and experience as a designer — and the games that come out of it (in the event that you get lucky and develop something that people actually want to play repeatedly). And you can get the benefits of that even if it’s not always a perfect experience. There is value, in fact, to be had in persevering through a mixed experience because — lord knows — indie design and publishing is nothing if not full of mixed experiences. If some people don’t get your game, that can drive you to improve and clarify it; whereas folks who’s game gets major praise may be less clear on where to go next.

Now, I don’t mean that as a cop-out. I’ll certainly keep trying my hardest to make the experience the best that I can. There’s no point in upholding suffering as a virtue or something and, really, an incredible amount of good stuff and positive interactions came out of Game Chef this year, as it does every year. But what I’m trying to say is that some of this stuff isn’t really my responsibility or even in my power to make better, given the amount of time and energy I already devote to this. I don’t want to have to closely moderate a forum or coerce people into writing useful reviews (how would I even know what that would look like?). At some point, I have to just trust and hope that people will make a decent good-faith effort and assume that others will be tolerant when people are inevitably late, flakey, slapdash, conservative, judgmental, or otherwise less helpful and supportive of their fellows than they might be.

Designing Game Chef is a kind of game design in an of itself and, in game design, it’s almost always better when you trust the players and don’t try to micromanage or railroad too much. And, although I have some pretty radical notions about contest design (see: Murderland), I’m also limited by the traditions and expectations that I’ve inherited from previous master chefs. Believe me, if I had to create a design contest from scratch, it might not look much like this.

In any event, that’s where my head is about some of this stuff. 1) Yes, we will continue to get better, but 2) recognize that Game Chef — as an institution — can only do so much to create an experience that will be productive for you; and, 3) it’s really about what happens afterward: the contest is just an excuse.


Coalblack Night: A Jazz-Age Apocalypse

2011 Sep 22

This is something that struck me as I was walking through downtown at night, after wrapping up the tenth session of my AW-in-space game.

Inspirations: “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After” from Cloud Atlas, Three-Penny Opera, Sleepy Hollow, City of Ember, Porgy & Bess, The Untouchables, Idlewild, Public Enemies, Chicago, The Giver, Dark City.

I member when the cities first got lit up. Twernt just candles in the windows but gas lamps and, then, the full-on real stuff, Uncle Edson’s lectric wonderland. Was a magickle time: erryone could see the future, right in front of em. But it was shortly affer when coalblack night done roll in, blockin out the sun, moon, and stars, coating errythin in darkness that no man’s light could pen’trate for long.

When coalblack night first roll in, lot of folk got dead reel fast. White folk obvusly blame black folk; black folk rightly point out that Ole Coalblack himself be unquestionbly a white man: impossible tall, pale like snow, in hat and tails as an undertaker or a sweep, but with those eyes and those teeth y’know. And the god-fearing ladies — black, white, or otherwise — just be tellin their men that the apocalypse o’ Revelations ain’t no time to go killin nobody, in fact just the opposite, and that Ole Coalblack is clearly the Devil an nobody ought listen to him.

But erryone listen ventuly, right? Ya don’t wanna, but ya caint help it.

Hush my darling, for we are deep in the COALBLACK NIGHT…

Playbooks:
Driver + Operator = The Wheelman
Skinner + Maestro’D = The Flapper
Hardholder + Quarantine = The Baron
Chopper + Touchstone = The Highwayman (w/ Horse & Hound)
Saavyhead + Gunlugger = The Greaseman
Angel + Battlebabe = The Raven

Replace when you open your brain with when you are all alone in the coalblack night and the lights are out, an impossibly tall man with skin like snow lights a cigarette, offering another to warm you against the cold. If you refuse, it’s always, “Suit yourself” and nothing more. But if you accept, Ole Coalblack makes you a bargain, though never straightforward and plain but in hints and strange questions, and whether you’ve accepted or not is sometimes only clear later, when you find out what he’s up to. Roll +Weird. On a 10+, Coalblack’s doing something in your best interests. On a 7-9, mostly so.


Randomness and “What Happens”

2011 Sep 8

So I was thinking about the chorus of “play to find out what happens” that Vincent describes at one of his PAX panels.

Traditionally, the “what happens” emerges from a number of places, but a couple of the major ones are:

  • what the players choose to do (the biggest one, no question); and
  • what the dice say about their attempts to do things (which often leads to yet more interesting choices).

And I realized one of the things I really like about fortune-less games is that the interesting part of determining “what happens” has nothing to do with the dice, which in less awesome situations can become a crutch that provides tension to otherwise uninteresting “choices” or narrative moments.

Even in games like Apocalypse World, I’ve occasionally seen GMs (including myself, though less and less, I hope) reaching for the dice — especially “Act Under Fire,” which can be a catch-all move — when they think there should be mechanical tension but are unsure or too tired to set up the necessary narrative leverage to create a potent situation with an interesting choice.

Sure, in fortuneless games, you can still do cheap shock revelations and set up other lame choices that aren’t really choices (“Are you willing to kill… YOUR OWN FAMILY MEMBER!” “Choose between your own safety and that of the one you love!”). But there’s no dice to fall back on or help you spice up otherwise lame situations, which I find forces me to be better and think smarter about how I run games. It forces me to be a better GM and player, basically, where other kinds of games make it easier for me to fall on bad habits or otherwise mess things up.

In a game with dice, a relatively straightforward situation — “You’re fighting a dude for no reason!” — can be vaguely compelling just due to the uncertainty of how things will go down, but in a game without dice — just the interaction of player choices — you’re forced to try harder than that. Yes, good games that have fortune mechanics push you in that direction too, but sometimes I just want to be thrown into the ocean (without a life jacket) so I can really learn to swim.