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Dispatching the Dungeon Master
A year and a half later…

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Probably time to admit that this particular blog has quietened nigh unto death. In case you’re still subscribed, may I point you toward an experiment to which I’m attempting to lure indie-RPG fans? It’s called Boardy Games and although it is, regrettably, a forum, I plan to collapse and expunge it at the first sign that the tar is creeping over our feet.

Ideally, I hope to see it generate not just board game mechanic discussions but material for Theme Hacks and Ludocity.

Rehabilitation: Exquisite Corpses

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My last dynasty on BlogNomic was not really a success. Amid the reasons for this is that the central mechanic - that players collaborate to draw monsters one-third at a time - was never tied into a game formula that functioned in any real way.

This is a shame, as I quite like the idea. I’ve always found exquisite corpses to be a bit of a let-down - you have fun drawing them, but when you’re done all you have is a pile of slightly nonsensical scribblings, which you can titter at for a couple of seconds before setting aside. What I’m looking for is a game that has the Exquisite Corpse system as a base, but then uses the drawings (not necessarily monsters, obviously) in a workable game structure. My own thoughts kept flitting to Dvorak, largely because the principle of drawing your own cards seems to fit, although it may not have the same spontaneity that an exquisite corpse game might have.

Any ideas?

Balloons II

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So, with unprecedented swiftness, a few weeks after posting about wanting to play a game with balloons, I have now played a game with balloons. It took involvement with a smallish ARG and days spent sitting around in a Soho office building up my credibility with competence and cake, but it worked. The best photos of the day that I’ve seen are here.

The Soho Project involved the fictional media company Fictional Media, who were running a competition in which people chose tasks (”organise a tug-of-war between businessmen”, “tell the story of a Soho street”, “eat a meal in a Soho restaurant and review it in song while still on the premises”), recorded them, and uploaded the videos to be judged. A simple enough process: the team with the most points at the end was the winner. At the same time, however, a shadowy Resistance was working against Fictional Media, and at Super Stag Saturday — the final day of the Project — all teams dissolved, subsequently reforming into FM versus Resistance. Fictional Media were the forward-looking technocrats, aiming to synthesise a Soho Experience from the videos, keen capitalists with a taste for mediation; the Resistance were the slightly luddite, desperate-for-reality rebels with a love of unconvincing rhetoric, barbecues, William Blake, and silly hats.

I joined the Resistance, and brought my own hat.

For complex plot reasons that make perfect sense, the endgame came down to hunting a stag that had the brain of a genius computer scientist inside it. It wandered the streets of Soho (roughly a square mile) for an hour and a half, heading unpredictably toward the steps of William Blake House. Resistance members in groups of three, carrying a balloon each, had to find the stag, show it the balloons (the symbol of the Resistance was three golden balls), and, when it stopped, tie the balloons to its antlers before returning to base for more balloons. FM members — also in groups of three — had to photograph the stag, return to base, show the photographs to, um, the body of the computer scientist genius (currently inhabited by the mind of a stag), and then run out to find the stag again.

Gameplay considerations:

  • Running around Soho chasing a stag with fifty balloons on its head is a lot of fun. I think it probably wasn’t as much fun for the FM side - no balloons for them, after all - so perhaps it would work better, once divorced from the Soho Project plot, with two teams, each with a different colour of balloon?
  • The game ran for around ninety minutes, and we’d used up between fifty and eighty balloons by the end, with only 12 people on the Resistance team. So it’s probably not a good game for a huge number of players, but it could accommodate 30 or so (an hour would have been comfortably long enough for a satisfying game, I think).
  • The stag head is, yes, not integral to gameplay. But it’s pretty spectacular. And tying the balloons to something is definitely much better than just giving them to someone.
  • There’s no point trying to stop people from using their phones to tell each other where the stag is, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s pretty hard to find a single person in a square mile, even if they do have a giant stag head, and having to do it afresh every time you find it would get a bit wearying.
  • More games need to force their players to ask passers-by whether they’ve seen a stag.
  • If you play this game where there are children and you don’t have a heart of stone, expect some balloon attrition. If you play this game and one of the members of your team does have a heart of stone, expect her (it wasn’t me!) to take back one of the balloons you’ve given to a child in order to tie it to the stag.
Game Seed: Balloons

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I want to play a game involving helium balloons. Maybe a reverse scavenger hunt? Each team would have a dozen balloons, a list of targets (’man in red shirt’, ‘child with ice-cream’), and the first team to give all their balloons away to appropriate targets would be the winner.

My concerns with this:

Score verification. To make sure people don’t just let the balloons go, there’d need to be a way to make sure that they’ve given them to appropriate recipients. The obvious solution to this is photographs: give your balloon to someone in a red shirt, take a photo of them, bring the photos back at the end for judging. However, it’s presumably harder and more awkward to give a balloon to someone and persuade them to be in a photograph than it is to just give them a balloon; and this is probably especially the case with children, the group most likely to appreciate random balloons. Asking someone whether you can give their toddler a balloon and take a photo seems likely to be awkward.

Annoyed passers-by. What if there’s only one person in a red shirt, and they don’t want a balloon? They could get every team, potentially every team member, trying to foist a balloon on them. Making it possible for passers-by to be more than scenery seems like a good thing for a game to do, but annoying them incessantly with balloons is less good. The ideal playing space would be somewhere like the South Bank, where there won’t be too many people in a hurry to get to an autopsy, but even so.

I’ll go down to the South Bank with some balloons and try to give them away, to see how it goes, but: any solutions? Any different ideas for a big balloon game? It’s worth noting that deliberately letting go of balloons may count as littering, depending on where it’s done (though it sounds like it’s okay in the UK as long as they’re biodegradable balloons, released in numbers under 5000, and don’t have string or tags attached).

Having gone out and played

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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.


  • 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.

Game Seed: Dominion

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I want to write a computer game whose client is web-based–that is, you install the client software on your website and play that way, competing or collaborating with other players who are listed by domain name. ( versus GO!) (Actually maybe your opponent can be any domain that doesn’t have the game installed! Hmm.) Obviously this would be open-source, and cheating would be prevented by having some master server somewhere that keeps track of the numbers.

As exciting as this is, though, I can’t think of any particular advantages it has over the standard all-in-one web game model, where you sign up for an account on the master server directly and don’t have to install anything. You can even change the skin of most webgames yourself by installing a custom stylesheet in your browser. Can you think of advantages? Do those advantages lead to interesting ideas about what the game could actually be?

Quick Follow-Up to A Small Town Anywhere

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Kevan, Holly and I actually had the chance to try out the game–or a version of the game-in-progress, anyway. I did a very long writeup.

Rehabilitation: Hide And Seek

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Brendan, Kevan, Holly and I recently found ourselves, as part of a wider festival on a similar theme, playing a game loosely based on Hide and Seek, in which over a hundred participants worked through a series of checkpoints over about ten miles’ worth of the centre of London. It was great fun, although not very hide-and-seeky, and we later found out that the game was slightly rigged to ensure playability.

So far, so good; but later this year, the same people are planning another Come Out And Play festival in Amsterdam (of all places). Participating is definitely on the tiles, but more fun would be to come up with our own Hide-and-Seek-based game and see who we can sucker into playing it. If you read Brendan’s post, then you’ll be able to see that adherence to the classical concept of hide and seek can be as tenuous as you like; some of the games on offer when we played were more closely related to Assassins or your old-fashioned Treasure Hunt than Hide and Seek. The guiding concept actually appears to be that the game must be massive, pervasive, and urban; hiding and seeking are relatively optional.

Any ideas?

Rehabilitation: Zombies!!!

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Okay, I haven’t played in a year or so, but my recollection of Zombies!!! is basically that you never have enough bullets, health or lives, mathematically, to make it through any serious amount of zombies to the end. Bullets only work half the time and there are far more zombies than bullets, hearts and power-up cards put together. There are essentially two strategies: wait for other people to exhaust themselves clearing a path to the helicopter and then make a break for it, or work cooperatively and mostly still die a couple times. Admittedly these are pretty good strategies for a real zombie outbreak, but they don’t make for a very fun game–it’s more a matter of slog than strategy.

Josh and Kevan have already been discussing an appropriate postapocalyptic twist using the Zombies terrain tiles. What else can we do with it? The building-board-as-you-go could be cool for a tactical wargame, with the “player” tokens controlling armies of zombies (although it’d be tough to remember whose were whose–maybe colored dot-stickers?). Can we combine the figurines with other toys (Dieslinger: Zombies vs. Polyhedrons) or use them as currency?

Game Seed: SPOON!

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There’s this Andrew Bird song, “Tables and Chairs,” about looking forward to the holocaust. My favorite lines in it:

“‘Cause listen, after the fall
There will be no more countries, no currencies at all
We’re gonna live on our wits
We’re gonna throw away survival kits,
Trade butterfly knives for Adderall”

Which in turn reminds me of the snippet in “Fragments of a Hologram Rose,” in which the protagonist–stuck in a post-secession Texas shantytown–scrounges a leather jacket off a corpse in a gulley. He ends up leaving the jacket hanging from the knife he finds in one pocket and taking the fifteen ampoules of antibiotics in the other, which are priceless, or anyway worth enough to buy him passage out through an Army cordon.

How do you play the postapocalyptic bartering game? Is it a deck of custom cards, or a markerboard on which people can asynchronously scribble new inventory and offers? Is the goal to amass wealth, and if so, how do you manipulate relative worth to prevent everything from staying zero-sum? Is the goal just to stay alive from day to day, and if so, what are the risks involved in scrounging for new items?