Monthly Archives: February 2013

GMotW: Roll to Move, featuring Touch of Evil

Touch of Evil boxIt’s Wednesday! This time, I remembered. Let’s do this. Let’s get a rule I’m not pulling from a game specifically (though I do have one in mind) but from a vast array of games out there in the world. Let’s pull a mechanic straight from Board Game Geek’s list of mechanics:

“Roll / Spin and move games are games where players roll dice or spin spinners and move playing pieces in accordance with the roll.”

By and large, I don’t like “Roll to move” in board games. Obviously, there are some where the rolling is a central conceit of the game: Snakes and Ladders comes to mind, as does Monopoly, games which are entirely about moving forward on an unthinking, unbranching path, in which the natural variance of the dice is a meaningful part of the game or (in the case of Snakes and Ladders at least) the only meaningful part of the game. S&L takes it roots from Game of the Goose, which is really just a betting game, and it shows.

Elsewhere… ugh. Recently I played Touch of Evil, which is one of my favorites from Flying Frog–it’s my wife’s favorite, I prefer the competitive aspect of Last Night on Earth, but both suffer from the same design element so it’s all moot. There is a map, there are locations on it, they are not all in a line but branching away from one another, and the players have to move their avatars from point to point to react to the dangers about them, but they may only move as many spaces as they can roll on a six-sided die.

The benefits of a roll and move system? Well, primarily, it adds a level of definite uncertainty; a play does not know, for instance, whether or not she can make it to the Windmill on time to start a showdown with the villain this turn, or if she must risk waiting another. I can’t know for sure if I will make it away from the zombies surrounding me, or if I will just have to stand in place and fight for a round. Variance it thrown into the game mechanically, and from that variance comes tension. Likewise, from a narrative/representational standpoint, sometimes people who try to run don’t go very far; they trip, they get hung up, they are blocked in by one thing or another. Sometimes the ground is clear and they get further than they expected. Rolling to move acknowledges that the notion of a character always being able to move five yards in a turn (or however one wants to register the spaces on the board in “real space” is artificial. So that’s… that’s fine then.

And yet I don’t like it. I usually avoid talking about mechanics I don’t like, but this is a pervasive one. Obviously, it’s not present in all board games, but it remains trapped in the cultural subconcious as an element of board games, the sort of thing that people have to purposefully think away from. There is no such thing as a truly blank slate in any sort of design–every school of thought is stained by ideas so common as to seem almost essential–and in board gaming the notion that “obviously you roll to determine how far you move” is one of those stains which one has to willfully wipe off. Or, as the case may be, not.

It simulates random tripping and bursts of speed and delays… poorly. It’s not so much that the variance is too high, it’s that it’s too REGULAR. In a game like Monopoly this regular variance is fine, because you aren’t actually representing movement through space, just wiggling about an average. But people aren’t moving about an average evenly… they generally have one runnign speed, sometimes go quicker, sometimes slower, and rarely trip up entirely. The die for this might be numbered 0, 3, 3, 4, 5, 6; most of the time you’re moving, sometimes extra fast, but every so often BOFFO, things suck for you.

Of course, that hits up the secondary problem of reduced player control; there is little worse in board gaming than rolling a 1 to move. Touch of Evil tries to remedy this by awarding an Event card, but that worsens the problem of control; they argue that it represents the player opting to take time and note their surroundings as they move, but I didn’t want to note my surroundings! I wanted to get to the damned windmill! Rolling low is punitive, without having a good call for BEING punitive. If another player drops a card to stall me, that’s competition. If I try to move extra fast and that stalls me, that’s risk/reward (see the trains in Fury of Dracula). If I need to get twp spots away but can only get one… well what’s up with that shit, huh? Not cool, bro. Not cool.

But I suppose more than anything else, my problem is this: rolling to move means that I have to roll a lot. Every turn! That’s all well and good if a game is about movement (see Formula D, which is all about racing and has a lot of mechanical tweaks to “Roll and Move”), but something like Touch of Evil isn’t, really, about movement, it’s about investigation. Last Night on Earth is about movement for the zombie player, but for the humans its about finding stuff and using it. Moving from place to place is incidental in these games, a thing you gotta do in order to be in a new place, but not the focus of the game in and of itself. So why does it become an event every turn? Wouldn’t it make more sense to spend the time, energy, and emotional beats on something relevant to the central feeling of the game? Roll to investigate, or roll to scavenge? Roll for the core concepts, and let the periphery take care of themselves for a smoother, streamlined sort of game experience?

Me, I think it would. I still had fun, but it was always tainted by a little bit of frustration and a desire to enact some houserules that have been floating around in the back of my head.

(Bonus: Unplaytested houserule for movement in Touch of Evil and Last Night on Earth: You may either: move one space and draw an Event card (in ToE) or search (if indoors in LNoE), OR move three spaces, OR move six spaces and roll a die–on a one you draw a Mystery card (in ToE) or trip and fall, moving no spaces (in LNoE).)

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GMotW: Ms. Pac-Man

Boy is it ever Wednesday! Haha, woo!

AHEM. Game Mechanic of the Week. Let’s go… classic. Let’s pull a line straight from Ms. Pac-Man’s instruction manual:

“As soon as she gulps down the energy pill, the ghosts turn blue with fright.”

Oh yes. Eat a power pill, and now your enemies are no longer terrors to be feared and fled from, but delicious and nutritious sources of points, points, points!

Me, I don’t care about points. Points are meaningless abstractions for me, I’m more invested in the narrative push and pull of “ghosts are certain doom” and “ghosts are certainly tasty.” Ms. Pac-Man–and of course the original Pac-Man and later Pac-Man Junior and really all the incarnations of the Pac-Clan–does not have a complex or coherent story… there is a maze, it is full of dots and ghosts and sometimes fruit, eat everything and you’ll find yourself in a new maze. There’s no sense of progression of a story, and yet the ghosts are iconic… arguably the first iconic villain characters in gaming. Inky, Blinky, Pinky, and whomever is taking up the fourth slot are memorable in part because they have individual and unique AI, in part because the game introduced the cut-scene to show the ghosts and and the Pacs out-of-game interactions, and in part, I think, because of those power pills.

The ghosts can be avoided and evaded by those with a quick joystick, but they really need to be outthought; grabbing the powerup isn’t a matter of “see it, get it” as it is on most games. Rather, the clever Pac-player holds off on snagging the pills until A) he is in dire need of not getting killed, or B) she has a good line to eat one or more ghosts in a row. The former ushers in a mojor shift in the power dynamics of the game; for a time, the player was doomed, ever doomed, but now he is Pac-Man the Destroyer, ready to take the entire world apart with the power of pills! It changes EVERYTHING about the player’s interaction with the game, because it ceases being re-active and becomes pro-active, whether the activity is rampant carnage or merely sweeping through the areas the ghosts like to haunt when you are immortal.

Regardless, it alters the players relationship with the little ghostly sprites… because you are at times the prey and at times the predator, you see more sides of the ghosts and develop a relatively complex attitude toward them. Someone who gets the pill planning to eat as many as possible has that as well; rather than things to be inherently feared, they are fish to be lured into place; pull them in close, risk your own Pac-flesh to do so, hope not to get killed and eventually BAM! When the moment is right, pill up and flip the tables. Delightful!

The ghosts are iconic villains because they aren’t solely mooks to be smashed or obstacles to be avoided but something in between. Getting the pill becomes an emotional moment for a player, because it forces a mental switch to be thrown twice in succession: joy or relief when the pill is eaten, and fear when the things start to blink again. Emotional beats that draw the player closer to these ghosts… ghosts with personalities (albeit very simple ones), ghosts which the player has a complex relationship with.

If the power pill merely froze the ghosts, or made them disappear altogether, or just made the Pac ignore their attacks, or even made them vulnerable but didn’t make them run away… all of that would accomplish a similiar mechanical necessity for allowing players to get away from the ghosts which are following too closely, but none of that would convert the player’s need to run into the thrill of the chase. None of those options would open up the same emotional beats, so none of those options would create villains who are quite so memorable. Eat a power pill, then you can eat ghosts. It’s a classic and it has endured, rightfully so.


Superheroes: The Pocket RPG

What’s this? I have a business card? Well, I’ll be speaking to academics in a few days, I guess it’s wise to have one. But… wait…

supers front

What the heck does the card mean by “included game?” That doesn’t… OH! It’s a FOLDING business card!

opening

So, there’s info hidden inside? What’s all this then?

inside clear

OH SNAP IT’S A GAME! For realsies? Click it to embiggen and read what’s going on in there; I’m not going to say it’s the world’s smallest RPG, but it’s definitely a superhero adventure that fits in your wallet with ease.

back

And there’s Terry the orc, hanging out on the back, ready to defend us from danger. Good work, Terry.


GMotW: Portal, and “Whatever works, works”

I’m more than a little overdue for a Game Mechanic of the Week. Forgive me. I’m a busy fellow, and I’ve been distracted by Fate Core (I’ve got a game starting in a few weeks! Yay me!) and the SW/TX Popular Culture and American Culture conference (I’ll be speaking about the Fallout series and their concern with the past and the future), and basically letting you all down.

So, back on the saddle, and with a little more restriction. It’s, what, Friday today? Let’s try and make this, officially, a Friday thing. Good? Good. Now, let’s talk about Portal.

“Please proceed into the Chamber-lock after completing each test.”

GLaDOS tells us this just before the end of the first chamber, but it’s not quite worded as a dissectable rule… in fact, it’s rather the opposite of the rule which governs the game the way it’s worded, so let’s me rephrase:

“The level is completed when you go through to door at the end.”

Much better. This is true of Portal, and it’s true of Portal II (although the definition of “level” can be a bit more obtuse at times), and it’s true of Quantum Conundrum, and Perspective, and, well, most of the genre of First Person Puzzle Games. FPPGs are a nascent genre, to the extent that they might not even be considered a genre separate from puzzle games or first-person platformers, though I would argue that they are a thing apart. Regardless, there are a series of games similar in mechanics and presentation with this commonality: you get to the door at the end of the level, and you have finished the level.

Portal is an extremely linear game; linearity is rather a hallmark of Valve’s single-player efforts–you begin at point A and arrive at point Z and in between you hit the entire alphabet, in order. Half-Life II has been compared to a twisting hallway full of soldiers, which is unfair but not entirely inaccurate. While games have made great strides in open worlds and branching storylines, there is nothing wrong with the classic structure which dates back to Mario and even earlier: a series of levels which are surmounted in order, telling a precise narrative. But while Portal and similar games has a very linear NARRATIVE, the gameplay is less so. Obviously, there are solutions to the given puzzles, solutions which you are intended to discover, but (and here’s the money bit) sometimes you don’t discover those solutions. Sometimes you discover something else.

This is a big part of Quantum Conundrum, for which a number of levels can be “solved” by virtue of clambering wildly up crates and making stacks of couches that more or less get you where you need to go. In Portal, there are ways to avoid the real puzzle and fling yourself wildly in the general direction of victory. You can craftily take out the turrets which block your progress, or you can run screaming and holding a storage cube up to eat the majority of the bullets. And hey, if it gets you to the exit point, then it worked.

That’s great! That’s one of the things which I wish FPPGs could make more of… the ability to brute force your way through the problem with luck and blind persistance. For some reason, I have seen this suggested as a fault with these games… as if allowing a player to survive a less-than-elegant run was somehow a bad thing. I could not disagree more with this sentiment though! An elegant solution is its own reward. A half-assed idiot’s solution? IS ALSO ITS OWN REWARD.

If I were the king of games, I’d call for more of this action. A jump that can work if you do it JUST right and latch onto a TINY little ledge? YES. A button that you can only find if you pick up everything and toss it on the ground in a rage? YES. Enough loose books, cameras, and end tables to form a ramp you can run up so you can fall out of the level and into the next one? YES, PLEASE. I would love for all of those to be true, gormless solutions for folks who reach “try literally anything” before they reach “Oh, I know what I’m supposed to do here.”

But even if they aren’t programmed in on purpose, they show up sometimes, and I’m glad that the game doesn’t needlessly penalize the player for not doing it right. If you reach the end of the level, you reached the end of the level, and should be rewarded for it.