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So, Kevan and I have just got back from Come Out and Play 2007, and it was great. Hoorah! I’m infatuated with big or pervasive or urban or whatever-you-want-to-call-it games at the moment, embroiled in conversations that run:
“Holly, do you want a cup of tea?”
“Maybe that could be a game!”
so I’m going to go through them one by one. This could be a bit long; you might want to skip to the overconfident assertions about game design that have emerged from the festival, and which will be at the end.
MANILA: Spies and secret information and a wonderful game, maybe the best of [what I experienced of] the festival. Players were given a sealed envelope holding a list of “contacts”, who were NPCs scattered around the city. As a player you got some identifying details about the location and appearance of the contacts, as well as a passphrase and a five-minute timeslot for each contact; if you made it to the right contact in the right timeslot, and gave them the right pass phrase, you got a secret envelope in return. Whoever had the most envelopes at the end of the game was the winner. There were complications: other spies might have been going after the same envelopes, and could get to them first; and even if you got an envelope first, opponents who managed to catch you and give the right passphrase for an envelope could steal it from you.
Obviously this involved cities, paranoia and (for the contacts) silly costumes (I was a contact this time, having been a player in London a couple of weeks ago), so I’m biased towards it on that basis, but as far as I could tell everyone else enjoyed it too. It also seemed like it would work well as the opening to a more complicated game: the secret envelopes contained random codes, but they could easily have contained a segment of a map, or some other form of clue to a second half of the game. Other particularly nice elements involved not being sure who the other players were, and it being very open to a variety of playing styles through the range from “sneaky” to “athletic”.
SAFARI: Chasey (or tag), pretty much. Players were divided into three groups - poachers, rangers and animals - plus some NPC rabbits; and each team was only told what they needed to know to do their own part. As a poacher, therefore, I knew that I wanted to catch animals, and would get a token from each one I caught; that I wanted to run away from rangers, who would confiscate all my tokens; and that I also wanted to run away from any group of five or more animals shouting “stampede”. The limited information about the motivations of the animals and the rangers was great, and also probably made it easier for everyone to remember what they were supposed to be doing.
LUMENATIO: Players wore a swimming cap with a number on the back, and wielded a camera; you got a point for each number you got a clear photograph of. That’s pretty much it. I really liked the back-of-the-head number placement: it encouraged lots of running away backward, sidling along walls, and even rooftop climbs. It’s a shame, but inevitable with photography games I think, that quality of camera made a huge difference: a couple of players had camped out behind a screen and were taking photos with enormous lenses from an awfully long way away.
Lumenatio was particularly interesting as a demonstration that most people will tend towards the more fun behaviour rather than the more practical (from a game-winning perspective) behaviour. Scoring was entirely “how many photos did you get”, with “how many photos were you in” only mattering as a tie-breaker, but everyone was running around in paranoia or panic anyway, trying to keep the backs of their heads safe. Similarly, in Safari, I found out later that the rangers didn’t gain anything from catching poachers, but that didn’t stop them from doing it anyway.
PEOPLE-WATCHING: A team game. Each team of four or five players had seven pieces of heather, vague descriptions of seven people who would be hanging around nearby, and a message to give to each of the seven people. One woman was looking for her lost cat, for example, and you had to tell her that it was safe and eating tuna in a friend’s house. If you gave the right message to the right person, you got a piece of three-point gold (if you were the first team to give the message to that particular person) or single-point silver (if you were the second or third) heather in return.
This one was particularly interesting for making passers-by part of the game rather than an irrelevant distraction. For most of these games, anyone who wasn’t a player or an NPC might as well have been a tree, but in People-Watching I spent several minutes following a man around the playing area trying to work out whether he had a “roving eye” (no: he just looking at differeny cheese a lot because he wanted to buy some). My team was also outraged by a woman who had the temerity to walk around the square with a baby, singing to it, but who wasn’t the answer to a “rock-a-bye baby” clue.
OMMRPG, or “Offline Multi-Mirror Reflector Positioning Game”. I was expecting this to be the equivalent of a Prince-of-Persia reflecting-mirrors “puzzle”, but instead it was a team sport. Two teams of eight, each with a shooter (who has a laser pointer), four reflectors (who have mirrors) and three blockers (who have black gloves). Each team got a point every time its laser pointer reflects onto its goal area. This was startlingly like a generic ball-with-a-goal game, right down to “a couple of the reflectors from each team will end up hanging around feeling a bit useless while the shooter passes straight to his friends”, but with lasers instead. Interesting for showing that even people who hated sports at school can enjoy games that are essentially isomorphic to a generic sport, but with added Cool Stuff and a different context.
We also played one round of Bocce Drift, which seemed like a pleasant way to wander around and look at stuff idly.
OVERCONFIDENT ASSERTIONS ABOUT LARGE-SCALE GAME DESIGN THAT HAVE EMERGED FROM THE FESTIVAL:
- Lasers and costumes are automatically good.
- Team identifiers are important. Bright armbands are good; patterned or thin armbands are harder to spot; hats are good, but one-size-fits-all identifiers (like swimming caps) aren’t going to fit everyone comfortably.
- Reset-to-zero mechanics are just as nasty as they are in board or card games. Near the end of Safari I was caught by a ranger, and lost all of my tokens, which is obviously my fault for not being more careful but which was also very frustrating. Opponents being scary is good, but opponents having the power to send you right back to your beginning position is likely to lead to sulking (especially if you’re all running around and behaving like six-year-olds anyway). Additionally, it can lead to the more careful players (which is to say Kevan) hiding out from the fun ten minutes early, to be on the safe side.
- Having other players with whom your interactions are neutral or positive is good. Even though the poachers in Safari were rivals, it was nice to see someone and neither perceive them as a threat nor be perceived as a threat by them.
- Announcing the winner pretty soon after the end of the game is important for providing a feeling of satisfaction; and this can be difficult with games involving photography or complicated scoring mechanisms (Lumenatio’s winner was announced the evening after the game had taken place).
- Verbal and written explanations of the rules have different strengths, and perhaps both should be available, when possible. It’s probably easier to miss things in written rules rather than spoken, but having something to refer to during the game is very helpful, especially if disputes arise.
- You can’t rely on players to turn up, especially if its raining, so games should shrink elegantly. This was particularly obvious with Manila, which took place on a cold wet day and began in a hard-to-find room, and which therefore ended up with about 20 players from a potential 50. However, the handouts to the players were designed to work with whatever number of players turned up, maintaining competition for specific handovers rather than scattering everyone randomly across a too-big board, so it worked despite the relatively low numbers.
- I wonder whether, for these sorts of games, it’s worth thinking of them in terms of which emotions they’re going to evoke? Paranoia and camaraderie seemed to be the big two.
- Narrative can be nice but it doesn’t have to be coherent or chronological. People Watching obviously doesn’t actually make any sense as a sequence of events: in a chronological narrative, once one team has told a woman where her cat is, she’ll know, and she’ll therefore stop wandering around with cat food looking sad. However, this didn’t seem to be a flaw in the game: inasmuch as there was a narrative, it consisted in finding out about a persistent game world and building stories from that, rather than in enacting the events. Possibly it’s significant that Annette, who ran People Watching, seems to have come at games from a mainly theatrical background - she was also involved in A Small Town Anywhere.
- We missed Human Snake, unfortunately, but I’d tried it at an earlier playtest, and enjoyed it a lot despite the fact that - like Lumenatio - a huge part of the gameplay is only important as a tie-breaker (the length of the snake only matters if there’s a tie in the race to the finish-line). Apparently “fun” can really be pretty independent of sound game design, as long as there’s a good framework for encouraging fun-like activity. I’m still never playing Munchkin again though.
- There’s very little scope for discussing or checking the rules after these sorts of games are underway, so it’s more than usually important to think of ambiguities and confusion that might come up. It wasn’t clear in Safari whether you could catch someone who had just been caught by another player, for example, and whether you could be caught while you had stopped to collect a token from a victim. I don’t think it matters which way this is resolved, but it does matter whether it’s resolved.
Next Come Out & Play is Spring 2008, in New York. I’m told New York is nice? And there are all these Dispatch game designs floating around that we haven’t done anything with yet.