Category Archives: Design

Aperture Science Sokoban Testing Initiative

Last week I mentioned a game that I was working on in PuzzleScript. There was a link to the game in progress.

To-day, there is a link to the game which is done: Aperture Science Sokoban Testing Initiative.

It’s Portal, told as best as I can through the game engine. Which, honestly, came out pretty great, given that my last experience attempting to code a game happened on a TI-83+ graphing calculator. 

I’m quite proud of myself. For designing levels which people have found challenging but possible, for punching out bugs wherever I discovered them, and for writing which, in my mind, serves as a pastiche of what made the Portal series so entertaining, without simply hitting identical beats; in the same way that Portal 2 featured some callbacks to the initial game (companion cube, cake, etc.) without simply repeating the bits which had become memetically entertaining.

I gave myself a challenge to do something relatively new with “cake,” and I honestly think I achieved it. But that’s a spoiler, technically, and this isn’t a post-mortem analysis. This is an announcement that a thing has been completed!

Go, play Aperture Science Sokoban Testing Initiative! Push some crates, fling some portals, eat some cake, and enjoy!


The Quiet Century

Hey you lot; it’s been an EXCITING week. Just found employment at the local community college, teaching English composition, rocking out. Escaping from the Halls of Retail. It’s a sweet gig, so I spent yesterday celebrating, but that’s no excuse to not come out with a Game Mechanic of the Week, now is it?

Today, it’s from a little game called The Quiet Year by Joe Mcdaldno. I know, I know, I did one about the Quiet Year before, in which I lauded the game’s economy of contempt tokens and the way it reflected the difficulty for a community to come to a collective decision. Now I’m going to talk about a different clever mechanic, but I’m really only using it as a springboard into a hack I’d like to try out.

Quiet year. Chapter 3, the mechanic holding my interest today:

The basic unit of play in The Quiet Year is the week.

Every turn one player draws a card, and it reflects the events of that week. Then they decide what else happens that week, whether it’s discovery, discussion, or the beginning of a project. Point it, it’s a game about the passage of time as reflected through weeks.

Pacing is a difficult thing indeed; it’s something I have been struggling with while working on Synanthropes, but it’s something that the Quiet Year does a fine job with, because it’s able to make that pacing absolute. Every turn, one card, one week. There’s only so much you are able to do in a turn, there’s only so long it can last, and the arrival of the Frost Shepherds is on the horizon, and time is moving implacably forward. Sometimes it seems too long, sometimes it seems too short, but it never actually changes pace. It’s really effective, and works, well, just like actual time in that fashion, ticking along at one second per second but never quite seeming like it is.

But tell me then, because I like to think about these things… imagine if we changed nothing else about the Quiet Year, but altered that basic unit of play.

The basic unit of play in The Quiet Century is the year.

(Well, the Quiet Half-Century, but who’s counting cards, right?)

A minor change, which makes the game last fifty times longer in terms of narrative, while covering the same time in the real world. Suddenly, change happens quickly, society rises and falls in a blink, and people can be children at the beginning of the game and dead at the end without it being a tragedy. True, the Quiet Year doesn’t really do characters, per se, but it is common to have a list of figures who become relevant and recurring, names that keep popping up, often attached to specific modes of thought. It’s useful to keep track of, for instance, that charismatic young girl who causes so much fuss, because she may be related to other causes of fuss later on.

The Quiet Century? Well, the next time you see her, she might be thirty years older. Or the matriarch of an entire clan or rebel group. That’s interesting. That’s one way in which we fit in a LOT of change in the same two- to three-minute turns (because remember, we’re changing nothing else. Yeah, that means seasons last thirteen years wherever we are. I don’t know, it works for Game of Thrones, so deal. Or just call them metaphorical seasons, that works too).

Of course, filling in the blanks is what The Quiet Year is about, metaphorically AND literally, but these year-long gaps will mean the blanks are MUCH larger, so filling them in becomes really, really important. Every event has to be notable… it’s not just some guy who goes missing, it’s that fellow who everybody knows for some reason, maybe he’s the richest man in town, or the mayor. He’s all everyone seems to talk about that year. Every discovery must be huge, because that was the only thing worth discovering for an entire year! Every discussion is going to be of massive import, because it signifies a year in which nothing happened except argument (imagine the horror of spending all year to talk about what to do about those folks in the next town over, only to realize that we were all in agreement the entire time!). And every project, well, instead of being something that takes weeks to occur, it’s something that takes years. Every project is, thus, an Undertaking. We’re not talking about repairing the old truck, we’re talking about erecting viaducts, constructing entire villages, inventing new technologies from scratch.

Scarcities too take on more power, because if we’ve been scarce on food for a few turns, we’ve been hungry for years! That’s not just a lack of food as a physical thing on our plates, it means there is a huge logistical problem in supplying our people with what they need. The longer it goes unaddressed, the more people are suffering, for YEARS.

At the same time, you lose a lot of the little interactions. It’s really easy for discoveries to get lost in the shuffle. The other community on the map? In a turn’s time they could be extinct, they could be indoctrinated, they could be the first leg of the empire. The world becomes divided into the extremely short-lived and the extremely long-lasting, because of the scale of the thing. And of course, though you might be suffering from scarcities, you would lose that sense of life on the edge… no matter how much things suck right now, we know society is stable enough to keep trucking for a few more years at least.

(That said, you can put in a lot of civil unrest, coups, instability on the personal level. We’ll just know that SOMETHING will continue, even if it is much changed over the course of a decade.)

If I were to play the Quiet Century, I’d probably be tempted to give folks an extra activity every turn… I know, I know, this is violating my “only change the basic unit of play” rule but… well. I’m spitballing. Roll with me. It would be “Check in on a situation.” Checking in is like discovering something new, except instead of putting an actual new thing on the map, you alter something that is already there to reflect the passage of time. It keeps the world from being too darn static, it happens after the card is drawn but before the action for that year.

The money question is this: Will this function as a game? Will it be FUN?

Answer: I don’t know. I’d like to try it. I don’t think it would take any real manipulation of the standard Quiet Year cards to be a viable game, either… a little creative interpretation as necessary, but even then, only a little, mostly come winter when events start feeling a bit immediate. Even then, only a bit.

I think if nothing else, it would be nice to give it a try.

(Those of you who follow me on the Twitter, @EddlyT, will likely know that hacking Quiet Year has been on my mind of late. Keep your eyes peeled for more on this topic in the near future.)


Oh man, PAX. Oh daaaaaaang you guuuuuuuuys, I did a lot of PAXing in the past few days. I ran through four quiet years, each less quiet than the last. I wandered around an expo hall, frightened by all the loud noises and blinking lights. I saw a really cool Tom Servo puppet, and other cosplay that didn’t include puppets so whatever. I met some interesting folks, I ate a delicious salad, I hung out with a friend, and I Networked like a business-minded mercenary.

(On the other hand, what with all the preparations and stuff, I completely fell off track with regard to editing the novel. That’s okay, I only have like twenty manuscript pages left on this particular draft, and I will get to them tomorrow. It’s my Big Plan for tomorrow.)

Perhaps most importantly, though I wasn’t able to run through the full version of Synanthropes (due, mostly, to folks being more interested in Quiet Year, and that being a game which is playable by only two), I did get four runs of Synanthropes Lite in, teaching me a few important lessons:

  1. Synanthropes Lite works! It is fun and interesting and folks had a good time. VICTORY.
  2. Synanthropes Lite drags, just a bit. Just a bit. Maybe instead of fifteen solid minutes of argument, I make it ten minutes, which means that the entire game (including the brief introductions and wrap-up questions) becomes a fifteen-minute affair. And of course, that time is as adjustable as you want to make it. Also, I should make a note that if the conversation about the Artifact ebbs on its own, that’s as good a call as any to fade to black a minute early, just to keep us from needing to harp when we’ve discussed something to death.
  3. A fifteen-minute con game is a great idea. Like, totally. There were several situations when my game ended with an hour or so before the next sets of games began, There were lots of people who thought an idea was good but didn’t want to spend two hours when there’s so much PAX to do. There were people who I wanted to do stuff with who had other commitments but a few hangout minutes to spare. There were people waiting for games to start, or waiting for another person to sign up for a game, with a little time to kill. There were people who had never played story games before, and would balk at a two hour commitment. ALL of these were events which occurred, and ALL of them were treated with a direct application of Synanthropes Lite, and (at least from my end) all of those games went really well and ended with happy people leaving the table having enjoyed themselves. And of course, happy people leaving the table having enjoyed themselves is basically what gaming is all about for me. (Maybe you disagree. Maybe you’re all about messages and learning and feeling and growing as a person and whatever. That’s fine too. That’s not how I tend to play, though).
  4. Synanthropes Lite works! Worth mentioning again, because it was a last-second sort of project but managed to hang together into something interesting, so… yes. Super happy.

Synanthropes post-playtest notes!

Okay, Synanthropes playtest, time to do a little after the fact deconstruction and contemplation and all that rot. What’s WORKING, what’s NOT, and what needs to be CHANGED.

WORKING! All of the Synanthropic species. Okay, they’re not perfect yet… some Traits don’t have any real use, some are too easy to fall upon for everything. Some Mysteries and Legends are reliable at prompting fun clues and motivations, some are just a bit weird. Some species have more hooks for being appealingly alien than others. But at the capsule summary level, every one of them has worked as a character concept, and THAT makes me happy. Godspeed, you lot.

ALSO WORKING: Hoard points! Again, tweaking is needed, some ways to gain them are easier than others, some uses are more powerful than others. Some things didn’t come up in this last game at all, and it’s impossible to tell, offhand, the difference between an ability that wasn’t useful this one time and an ability that straight-up isn’t that useful, but the idea works, and has proven way more intuitive and functional than the fiddly dice. Mechanically, everything else is proving functional, expecially…

PROBABLY WORKING: The new method of finding Clues. Pacing-wise, we found nine Clues over the course of ten floors, which just about perfect. Narrative-wise, we found them in many ways: successfully making a daring leap, failing to hold our ground, knocking another character about, getting knocked about, all over the place. I was pretty sold on Clues being things that we stumbled across all over the place. On the other hand…

NOT QUITE WORKING: Narration privilege getting passed to whomever last found a Clue. As was pointed out last night, this meant that some people didn’t get to narrate very often, and others more than they expected (both lame). Now this bears a digression.

The Indie+ testers thought that shared narration might not have been worthwhile, that a single narrator might be more effective. I spent some time considering it, because, well, it’s an important issue, but ultimately I could not disagree more; the advantage of a single narrator in an RPG is a consistent voice. The GM has an idea of what’s going on, and can make sure that everything links up in a way that makes sense… which is not what I want. If the narrator wants this building to be military in nature, then suddenly it is, and every danger can be twisted to reflect that, every floor to somehow relate to that… even if the Artifacts can’t be directly military, their placement and other details can attempt to rectify that and produce a setting that’s internally consistent with the narrator’s vision.

That’s good, if that’s what you want. But I want the characters to be out of their depth. “What is this place?” isn’t just a question for the Synanthropes, it’s for the people at the table as well, and it should be shared self-discovery. Ideally, they will start forging toward a specific conclusion, but… it has to be forged. Not really knowing what this building is about isn’t a failure condition… knowing immediately and all-too-well what this building’s for IS, because that denies them the ability to truly explore something mysterious.

Having the narration ping-pong around semi-randomly was meant to facilitate this (and, incidentally, keep any one player from dominating the clue-finding field, since it meant nobody could find two in a row), keeping everyone off-guard with respect to who would be up next to narrate. Is that necessary, though? Just moving clockwise by scenes is more fair, perhaps, and gives folks time to prepare to narrate, while the danger oracle will still throw a wrench in the ability to craft a specific plan. Oh, incidentally:

WORKED BUT COULD STILL WORK MUCH BETTER: The Danger Oracle. Lots of ‘meh’ options to weed out, and it was suggested that some of the specificity could work against me, meaning that multiple games can get a bit same-y. Imagery over description might be a better bet, (not necessarily literal, but not necessarily not). It’s fine enough as it is, but I’m thinking of the ability to have a few smaller, imagery-oriented lists, from which elements are matched… an item from column A and an atem from column B sort of thing. It’s worth consideration, enough that I’ll give it a try on the next big test, I should think.

So, TO BE CHANGED: Passing of narration, format of the Danger Oracle, and the setup of the character sheets (in that there’s some blank real-estate that could be made more useful, which isn’t really a thing that WORKS or DOESN’T but is, you know, just a thing).

But yeah, the core game is functional and makes me feel good, so I’m smiling here. Woo, Synanthropes.

Synanthropes: Killing my babies.

Synanthropes, is now on the receiving end of several thoughtful reviews and a couple of playtests. I’m watching reactions and making changes and enjoying the process but saying to myself, well, it’s about time to start killing some of my babies.

(It’s the Cane Toads, to be honest. Can’t write about cane toads without wanting to kill some babies, amirite?)

Right, not actual infanticide, but some massive design alteration. Specifically, it’s the hoard dice, and how it fits into the central die mechanic as a whole. It’s… it’s not working so great, to be honest.

Why isn’t it working so great? Well, let’s start with what it’s INTENDED to be: It’s intended to be a mechanical way of making the different characters DIFFERENT, rewarding them for acting in a manner which is… for want of a better way to put it, stereotypical. It says some things about how the different creatures act, and gives two points of intersection with the narrative: gaining hoard dice and losing hoard dice.

And there… there is part of the problem. On the one hand, there’s a balance issue here: characters must be reasonable able to gain and spend these dice at a similar rate, they must be equally interesting, equally useful, and not only is that incredibly difficult (oh my, yes) but it’s also… well, redundant. That’s what Traits are for, and those are tied specifically into the synanthrope’s physical form (and can easily be adapted to include their social upbringing as well).

Additionally, the hoard is intended to be a pool of dice that can be freely added to rolls when victory is paramount, or in order to increase the odds of finding a clue. And that’s all well and good… if they can be put into rolls easily. It’s silly to think, however, that roaches will only find clues when they’re getting squished in doing so, and rats only find clues by exposing secrets and so on and so forth. Since I dropped “Roll to find a clue” (which is for the best, I think) in favor of semi-random stumbling across clues, it makes since that they can come up at any time for any reason, although you should still be able to put in a little extra effort in order to push the outcome.

That said, I like the idea of a hoard in the abstract… it’s the things that you are keeping away from the others, and that allow you to be unique. The hoards as they are now hit on “keeping something from the others” sometimes, and “unique” occasionally, but never really hit both, and… well. They just aren’t doing it for me.

So I’m going to kill them.

Or, if I won’t be a toad eating my own tadpoles about this, I’m going to burn down the Hoard Dice mechanic as it currently stands, and allow something to grow in the ashes. Something different, something new, something… dare I say brilliant?

Are you ready?


No, no, don’t run away just yet! Hoard points instead of hoard dice, represented by, oh I don’t know, pennies or whatever, physical tokens you pick up and put down (which is way better than jotted-down numerals or physical dice which you might want to share or use for other things).

What gets saved: unique methods of regaining hoard points. In deference to the fact that, seriously, some shit was totes esoteric, these will be greatly simplified and now refer to coherent events within the narrative–something that might happen as often as once per floor. The Crow is able to studiously examine an artifact is a good example… specific, coherent, relatively common. I’ll be shooting for one hoard point per player per floor as a reasonable clip, though they’ll still be events that need to occur.

What gets changed: they will be much, much more powerful. At a baseline, any player can spend a point to add a die to any roll, or to re-roll any die. So, that’s pretty boss. Use as many as you want per roll. Yes. Secondly, the unique instances of being able to spend hoard dice will remain in spirit, but they will be opportunities to spend a hoard point and gain TWO dice. Ooh, double trouble. Roaches may stumble across clues at any time, but the odds are even higher when they’re swarming mindlessly over something. That, that I’m fine with.

Additionally, and here is where things get potentially wiggly: each species will have a unique Power. That’s a thing that they can just DO, no roll, nothing, which is activated by a hoard point. A Raccoon can get a door open, no need to roll, if he spends a point. A Toad can cause an injury, no roll. A Gecko, when they come to exist, can disappear from sight, no roll needed, if he spends a point.

What does this do for me? Well:

  1. It gives the animals animal-based superpowers. Maybe one, maybe two, maybe two or more. Perhaps an innate, biological ability and an acquired, cultural ability. I like the sound of that, and at this stage, throwing in things I like the sound of and seeing how it goes is pretty much my task as a designer.
  2. It helps re-enforce the notion that these creatures are truly different from one another, if one has an ability that the others simply lack, especially one which seems almost magical.
  3. It provides a measure of resource-management… if you can spend a hoard point at any time, is THIS the best time to spend one?
  4. It is much easier to expand on and adjust, as need be.
  5. It can be more thematically consistent, if I’m able to keep hoard generation linked to somehow HOARDING things.
  6. It should be more intuitive. Even down to the language of points versus dice. Intuitive is good.
  7. When in doubt, I can add other abilities to a hoard point. Friggin’… spend it to redraw the danger, to seize narration, to reroll a clue, to etc. etc. etc.; I don’t think those abilities NEED to exist, but if it seems that they are lacking I have a convenient place to shove them. I can also allow hoard points to be spent as narrative currency asymmetrically… that is to say, the Toad can always spend a point to spawn a creature looking to fight, while the Rat can spend a point to spawn some surviving texts worthy of investigation. That is a weird but compelling idea.

Okay, I’m a bad cane toad. I’m trying to kill my baby, but I just ended up with a different baby who looks similar and now I want to raise it like some sort of goddamn mammal. Shame on me.

Synanthropes v.II

Hey all!

So, I was not the Game Chef victor (that honor went to delightfully ridiculous-looking Paper Tigers by Ashok Desai, but given that I would have picked that one if I weren’t in the running, I’m hardly bitter about it). BUT I am still working on Synanthropes. Enough to take it for a playtest, enough to incorporate some feedback, and enough to create a new version:

Synanthropes Version II!

Up-to-date as of June 19th, it is a much, much better version of what was submitted to the Chef, and includes, among other things, mechanics that have been made more intuitive, rules for direct conflict, careers, improved rules for finding Clues, and most importantly, the fifth Synanthrope (of a planned six): The Cane Toad.

The Toads are vile, unpleasant bastards. They are poisonous and cannibalistic with very little respect for life. I love them.

In fact, I love all of my Synanthropes, and when the next edition comes out, I hope to love my House Geckos as well.


Game Chef: Talking a bit more about Synanthropes

Hey, so, I was a bit quiet on Synanthropes when I posted it, because it was literally minutes before the Game Chef time limit was up for me, so… so yeah.

Synanthropes is a game about exploring humanity from the view of those creatures which live in our detritus. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for synanthropic animals; that is to say, those who dwell in ecological niches which were created by humans. Its sort of a catchall term for non-domesticated urban animals, and the borders are pretty grey–rats, for instance, would not exist as we know them without the presence of humans, whereas urban crows are just one little species of a large and more wild corvid genus, and raccoons exist in the wild just as well (if not as well-fed) as in the suburbs. Still, they are animals who dwell with humans, not because we want them to, but because, well, nature finds a way.

I’ve always felt that, in a way, synanthropes are more human than many of our closer relatives in the primate family. They don’t come from the same taxanomic family, but they demonstrate the sorts of qualities which make humans so… human. Curiosity, craftiness, a drive to explore, a willingness to dwell amongst the most dangerous predators in the world because the rewards are so good. And of course, they like human houses and human food, just like we do (regardless of the fact that they like human houses because of the spacious tunnels between walls, and human food is presented to them as massive, heterogeneous piles of slightly rotten garbage).

Humans produce waste like nothing else in the world–from literal trash to mere claimed but unused space–and the synanthropes are there to remind us that, no, it’s not really being wasted, it’s being USED. And that’s keen. It makes me sad when old buildings are demolished to make new parks, because of the arbitrariness in destroying several species’ natural-but-artificial habitat in order to make an artificial-but-natural habitat for some other creatures.

I used to keep rats myself… pet rats, not quite the same as the ones who dwelt in secret beneath my home but closely related. And I always wondered what they thought of me… they learned to recognize me as the big hand who brought the food and sometimes pulled them out of the cage to go for a ride on my shoulders or explore the desk. Was I something like a giant rat to them, recognizable as a person? Was I a god, or a titan, or a mystical figure who knew the secrets of opening peanut jars? Was I a series of disconnected images… a hand, a shoulder, an ear, some shouting about how I had a rat nose in my ear, never quite coalescing into a whole? Who can say?

So I wanted to do something with synanthropes, which led me to this game. When humanity is gone, they will remain, or something like them, moving through our leftovers, because the world contains a lot of human leftovers. If left unchecked, able to blossom and make the most of the human ruins they live in, what would they think of us? What will they become? Will they try to be like us, adapting to life in the big rooms, rather than between the walls, and creating rather than scavenging? Will these little protohumans turn into something more human?

And what, I wonder, would they think of us?

Anyway. That’s the stuff that was going through my head as I made the game.

While my sources of inspiration include literally everything I’ve ever seen/played/done, special props go to Ocean, by Jake Richmond, which is great at allowing the exploration of something unknown and mysterious without A) the need for a GM to pre-assemble the mystery, and B) the mystery being a sort of canned, procedurally-generated mess. I pretty much stole clues from that. And the character sheets are heavily inspired by Apocalypse World and its ilk, with the playbook-style sheets that help re-enforce the notion that these beings are truly unique from one another by literally giving them unique rules right there on the sheets.

As for what’s lacking, if I’m going to do a game chef post mortem, I would say that it’s the combat and confrontation rules, which ended up being sacrificed because they were ever-so-slightly too long for a game which is already two thousand words over the limit (albeit with those extra words being “optional.” I could justify optional oracle and fluff… suggesting that a major form of interaction could be optional would be one toke over the line).

Beyond that, while it’s obviously in need of playtesting and tweaking, it’s received really positive feedback thus far. I’m pretty excited, and thinking about what I can do after Game Chef season is over to finish and finalize. I feel like this year that really is something I’m interested in, more so than I was for last year’s Game Chef–not that I wasn’t fond of my game last year, but its flaws were fundamental enough that it would take an almost complete rewrite before I would be happy with it, and that takes a lot of energy to dive into when I have other, sexier projects right in front of me.

Some minor mechanical tweaks, and some playtesting to see if there need to be major changes to the pacing. Legends and mysteries could use a little re-jiggering, if only because some of them are a little too silly, and some are not quite silly enough. I’d like to give everyone a fourth set of Traits, to further connect them to their species, and a Career, to help keep them more individual. I’d like to invest in a fifth species as well, perhaps something reptilian and definitely something that doesn’t begin with “R”. Doing some research into geckos and skinks.

And pictures, pretty pretty pictures of animals.

Speaking of pictures, I’ve earned a badge, and that’s really quite exciting.


Happy Game Chef, everyone.

Squishy Challenge: Pre-Emptive Strike

This is a bit… broad and abstract at the moment, as a response to this week’s Squishy Challenge. But I’m running with it. Oh, it also turned out like twice as long as I intended it to, but… that’s just me, I think.

The game is called Pre-Emptive Strike.

You play two countries at war (there may be a way to expand it to three or more, not sure), and the general setup is a board-game equivalent of a Real Time Strategy game. Every player has a board in front of them with a few locations on it: a military barracks, a power plant, a science center… and a time machine.

You have three resources represented by different tokens: soldiers, energy, and research; you start with three tokens on the appropriate locations (soldier at the barracks, etc.), and will get one more of each at the end of each turn. The time machine doesn’t generate anything. You also have a hand of cards in three varieties: battle, structure, and technology.

Battle cards work rather like Cosmic Encounter; if you initiate a battle with another player, you put forth some number of soldiers and a battle card, most of which have a number between 1 and 10, that you keep secret. The other player does the same, and then you reveal the cards; whomever has the higher card+soldier number wins (with ties going to the defender). Whomever loses, loses the soldiers, and if the attackers win then the defender puts a “damage” token on their board. Five of them, and their country is overtaken, and they lose.

Technology cards can be used in battle instead of battle cards, and have special effects, if you can pay their energy cost. For instance, one might triple the number of soldiers you have, but cost three energy to use, and another might negate the opponent’s battle card, forcing you to fight with soldiers only, and that costs one energy. Some tech cards are for use on your turn outside of battle, but they’re still one-use cards that require energy.

Structure cards will go down on your board, and structures do useful things; some upgrade your existing locations, so they generate energy faster, others can be new structures entirely, like a shield generator which prevents you from being attacked if you spend, oh, ten energy to turn it on. Stuff like that.

You don’t just GET cards though. Battle cards you need to buy, by spending soldiers to draw cards. Technology and Structures you need to earn as well, Technology by spending a research token to draw a card, and then paying the price in research tokens, and buildings by picking the card off of the table (the other players get to see what you’re building) and paying its price in research, energy, and/or soldiers (who will be reassigned to actually building the structure). Most structures are upgradeable (often by the simple expedient of paying the cost and flipping the structure over) and there may be an element of a tech tree… you can’t have the city-shield without at least a level-two power plant, perhaps.

“Ed. Ed,” you say, “This is all well and good, I suppose, but didn’t you say ‘time machine’ up in paragraph one?”

I did not.

“I’m certain you did!”

Oh, all right, I did. Here’s the deal, you have a time machine. You soldiers are time troopers, your ‘battle’ cards are really temporally-duplicated instances of a single soldier, your technology cards are all about time-effects… mass-duplication, aging rays, rewriting the enemy’s training to have been less effective, etc., and your structures are also time-based… the city-shield is a static time-bubble. But that’s theme. That’s flavor. The real deal is this: your time machine lets you use buildings that don’t exist yet, and field soldiers that you don’t have. How? Easy, if you need something, ANYTHING, just grab if from the table. You need two soldiers right now, just grab them from the pile of tokens, and while you’re there, grab a two more. The latter two you will place on a little zone of your board called “paradox”, along with a paradox token. That’s the paradox you’ve created, so on your next turn, you need to spend two soldiers, along with one energy for every token (that’s two for the soldiers plus one paradox token for three total), to send your soldiers back in time. OR, if you can’t, you get another paradox token, and try again next turn.

You start with one paradox zone, but of course you can gain more by upgrading your time machine. You lose if you get ten paradox tokens, because time tears itself apart.

And you can send ANYTHING back into the past… a technology, research, energy… even a battle card! But sending a “10” card back into the past means that you have until you earn ten paradox tokens to not just get a new battle card, but get a new “10” battle card. That’s dangerous. But, on the short term, oh, so useful!

“This is neat and all, Ed, but how does this even relate to the challenge theme?”

Ah, well, there are three ways to lose. Get taken over. Create an untenable paradox. Or engineer a snapback. A snapback happens when a country realizes is cannot win the war, but if it sets of a nuke on its own terrain and directs the energy into the time machine, it might just send some valuable resources back to itself, before the war even began, resetting the entire game.

To snapback (which causes you to lose, remember), take all the cards in your hand… and put them in your pocket. Pack up the rest of the game. Put it away. Say “good game,” because you’ve lost… you nuked your own territory into the dirt.

But next time you play, you can pull those cards OUT of your pocket, as a mess of high battle cards and useful technologies just appears in your hands out of nowhere, sent from the future.

So now, as a player, if you’re losing, the question must ever be on your mind: do I fight back and try to win? Do I sacrifice now, and have a better shot next time? OR do I try to get a better hand so my next game will be EVEN BETTER, and risk being defeated in the meantime?

Decisions, decisions.

Game Chef Brainstorming V. II

I’ve been having some problems with Game Chef.

Now, admittedly, that’s not unusual. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve given up on an idea jam or other creative challenge only to get a new idea and run with that until the end, I’d have about a nickel for every idea jam or creative challenge I’ve completed. But it does frustrate.

Mad scientists killing one another through a game of Hearts gone awry is what I got last time, but I’ve got no steam in working with it, so I want to keep thinking and see if something else comes forth.

Elements that I want to keep:

  • It should be a Story Game. In part because, historically, those are served well in this contest (as opposed to what I’ll call Setting Games for the moment… games in which the rules allow for interactions but don’t create inherent narratives), and in part because, well, that’s what I’d like to make.
  • It should be fun. What I think of as fun, specifically. I should want to play it, because that will make me care.
  • It should do something new and strange mechanically. At least something unusual.

So. With those in mind, let me again consider the elements.

liftThe uppy-downy person. I still like this as “Human but not quite human,” an indication of distance, be it physical or metaphysical. Scientists, sure, but what else? Anyone who might be considered an “Observer” would fit in just fine. A superhero. Or perhaps a mutant… a post-apocalyptic post-human.

apple-maggotInsect. Corruption and mutation, but maybe a positive spin. Something new, emerging. Discovery.


Face. Snow. Hell if I know.

mail-shirtCoat. Mail. Protection. Protective gear. Jewels. Riches. Suit of Diamonds as in cards. Magic. Don’t know.

paper-lanternLantern. Darkness. Shadows. Discovery. Exploration! Light and darkness, combing through the unexpected and unexplored and so on and so forth. Combing through ruins in search of the answer.


The world ended. The apocalypse came and went and humans with it, and all that survive are the mutated remnants of what came after. Ah, sounds fun already!

Let’s take a similar tack, with a sci-fi twist. We’re on a spaceship, a billion light-years from earth. All the occupants died long, long ago. All the human occupants. But where humans go, they bring rats. Rats, which reproduce and overpopulate and die off and find the grain stores and sleep on the nuclear pile and mutate and change and create a rudimentary system of agriculture.

Maybe it’s not on a spaceship. Maybe it’s on Earth, and all the animals that are human but not quite are there… rats, crows, and roaches. City-animals, synanthropes, folks who emerge from the trash into a world with a huge legacy.

And maybe some of them are explorers.

And maybe some tall buildings have survived.

And maybe the explorers… the anthropologists… are seeking out information on the human legacy… discovering what the past was like, and sharing the legends of humanity from long ago.

We arrive at the remaining skyscraper. A team of creatures, the Resource War only recently over. Rat-folk, Crow-folk, Roach-folk and some others. Raccoons and foxes, pigeons and gulls. The creatures that once relied on humanity’s existance, but not their care… cattle and chickens died off, and domesticated dogs and cats just went feral. It was the synanthropes who gained sentience, emulating the now-missing humans.

And where are the humans? Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? The answer is at the top of the tower. We just have to get there. Every floor is a scene… a challenge, a discovery, and a legend. We find an artifact and consider it not as humans do, but as rats and crows and roaches do… as cultures that don’t know what this technology could be.

Every player represents a different species, each sees the humans differently. They are like gods to the rats, demons to the roaches, but powerful to everyone. Much of the game will be about this interpretation. And every species is different, and the dangers that do crop up (though they will be fewer indeed than the artifacts which must be studied) will be handled differently when, for instance, one explorer can fly and the others can’t. Will there be arguments? Fights? Will someone be left behind? More importantly, will they make it to the top, and when they get there, will they discover where the humans went?

Feeling good about this one.

Game Chef 2013 brainstorming!

Game Chef is upon us.

Let’s brainstorm.
We’re doing this in pictures this year, which is keen. The theme:


A person in an arrow that goes up and down. The arrow is interesting enough, as it can be a lot of things… physical movement, as in an elevator, metaphorical movement as in hierarchies, some combination of the two. It might not even be movement, simply an awareness or focus on verticality, or feeling somehow in the middle. The figure within it is, in my mind, ominous; the square, white eyes call to mind the blank glasses of an anime villain, lurking in the shadows but for the glare. The shape also sells me on the idea of glasses, rather than eyes… that said, the closest thing to a defined feature on this fellow is his/her/its eyes, which could be something to focus on. Sight, looking, seeing, searching… visual metaphors in general.

What I most get from this is a certain sort of person… I can see a scientist or academic here, with the glasses suggesting (fairly or not) intelligence and interest but distance and dispassion as well. He’s looking at me, but not because he likes to see me, just because he wants to know what happens next. Factoring in the double-sided arrow emphasizes the “distance” element… he doesn’t necessarily consider himself to be above humanity, but he DOES consider himself to be somehow apart from it. Doctor Manhattan from Watchmen would be a good example… interested, distant and, yes, forboding.

That’s a rich bit of theme to mine. The elements to include:


A… snowflake in someone’s head. Huh. So, this is the strangest of the four elements, and the one I’m most likely to ignore at first blush, but I’m still going to think about what it can contribute. Offhand, the face has a certain skull-like smile to it… it’s an omen of death, one which has been touched by frost. Or at least, a mental conception thereof. The snowflake is a bit of a paradox, like winter itself… both ordered, still, predictable (winter is a time of stasis and all snowflakes take a recognizable form) while chaotic, changing, and unknowable (winter is a massive change, snowflakes are fractal and unique). It could represent a more generalized “Death stemming from knowledge” for which the snowflake is just an example… but that’s a bit lame to me.


A bug bursting from an apple. Easy mode: the game features an insect. Alternate thoughts include corruption and decay, the presence of something alien (that doesn’t look like an earth worm to me), and impossible physics (that worm is way bigger than its apple). ALL of those send my internal Lovecraft sensor buzzing. Cosmic horror meshes very well with my interpretation of the theme… it suggests that the observers are alien, posing as human while being distant both in their outlook and their actual, factual nature. Of course, mundane corruption also flies high in scientific and academic arenas.

It also makes me realize that at this point I could pretty much reverse-engineer The Shab-al-Hiri Roach… academics and hiererchies, knowledge and things in your head, corruption and insects. Huh.


A shirt (robe? blouse? jerkin?) decorated with random diamonds. It can be considered to be mail or some other armor if you so desire, or with the diamonds indicating the shine of a cloth-of-gold or actual jewel-encrusted outfit of great value, or something else entirely. Motley, such as a fool should wear. Diamonds also bring to mind the suit in cards (and indeed, one could call this a part of a suit of diamonds). The garment is not modern, and makes me think wizard first and jester second, though one could make an argument for cultist, taking us back into Lovecraftian territory. Whomever wears this outfit is somehow marked as Other, distanced from those wearing normal clothes. More tangentially, it can indicate the pursuit of riches, or an identity which is somehow dependent on one’s outfit.


Finally, a figure barely illuminated by a lantern. Ah, stealth. Well, other options… shining a light to ward off the darkness, the lantern of truth, a lantern indicating discovery, all of these meshing really quite well with scientists in general. But I’m seeing stealth here, or at least a sharp distinction between what is seen and what must not be seen. The nature of the illustrations means there is no shadow… there is LIGHT and there is DARK and there is no room to maneuver in between them, and that tickles the amoral scientist center of my brain.

Initial conclusions: amoral scientists is golden and worth sticking to. Cosmic horror I’m a bit iffier on at the moment… but I do like the idea of corruption, secrets, and death, which all combines to suggest that if the players are indeed portraying folk of science, then they are conspiring to kill one of their own.

No, they’re conspiring to experiment upon one of their own. One of them is a madman, one of them is a victim, and the players might not know who is who at first… as time goes on, one player will grow madder than the rest as he/she/it gazes too far into the abyss, until it’s time to pull a Re-Animator and invest in a human test subject.

OH. Oh, I have a half an idea. Scenes played out in brief hands of cards, with the winner growing steadily madder… perhaps it’s a trick-taking game like hearts, each trick is a scene. When all hands have been taken, the tricks become narrative tokens, giving the maddest player the most power over the remaining scenes.

I think there’s a start here.