After 5 long years, the expansion for Chaosmos is nearly upon us. I’ll be showing it a bit at Gen Con (although my booth – Vigour Games #566 – is mostly about GROWL).
Some of you seem to play the game as a thematic exploration/combat Ameritrash game. So you play the game and have fun but to some degree miss the point of the simplicity of the system. This is, at its core, a complex version of Rock/Paper/Scissors. From a design perspective, Chaosmos was conceived as a deduction and deception game. (“Did Andy drop off the Spores once I defeated Paul because Andy scryed Paul’s hand and knows I might have taken the Spore Immunity? Or did Andy KEEP the Spores in his hand, knowing that I know that he knows?”) So take that as a baseline for where I am coming from when making decisions about where I am taking the expansion.
Your General Requests for Improvement:
1. Reduce combat. Combat sometimes overwhelms the game in the final turns, and everyone attacks the guy who does in fact have the Ovoid. (This happens in my own game group about 33% of the time.) Players are afraid the Temporal Displacer will get used, so they prematurely launch their big turns, and then have no more aces up their sleeve for the final round. I view this feedback as requesting a larger diversity of defensive or weapon-negating strategies, or that players want a more tangible reward for exploration and deduction and concealment.
2. Speed the ending. The final turns drag with experienced players. This is likely an issue with the Temporal Displacer, which can be difficult to use effectively when maximizing your hand in the last turns.
3. Add gambits. Some high-risk/high-reward opportunities could be very valuable for players whose strategies have failed, and thus would be given renewed hope in the final turns. And it’s better to launch a crazy and dangerous final turn than simply say “there’s nothing I can do.”
MY DESIGN GOALS
• Up to 6 players (with alliance powers and opportunities for betrayal) – “shared win” as an optional variant
• 5 minutes to set up or less – regardless of player count – in other words:
• Tighten and codify cardset for 2-4 players, with added “5+” cards when playing 5 or 6 players
• Under 3.5 hours to play, even with all modules (when playing to max of 45 or 48 turns)
• Reduce emphasis on combat and more exploring and hiding
• Tight integration between planet effect tokens and cards so there’s ALWAYS some cool interaction or other way to have an epic final turn even if you made grave errors
• 4 unique aliens of varying complexity, each exploiting an untapped key game mechanism
• New cards that push the boundaries
• Dozens of bonus powers that boost new lanes-of-play and opportunities for players in weak positions
* For years I playtested versions of the game using an Agenda deck of rules-breaking political goals. The concept was lifted from Warrior Knights and especially Twilight Imperium. Players got votes based on Influence and the number of landing flags they had on the board. This increased the game time by nearly an hour, and added little. So I folded those powers into the new “Klik-tek” upgrade powers. You can earn hyper-ore a few different ways and spend it on universal rules alterations and personal upgrades that trigger at various times. It’s cleaner and faster this way, and lets the conversation be natural (“I’ll trade you hyper-ore to upgrade your tech”) rather than artificial (“I’ll bribe you to help me pass an agenda!”).
• The “BIG IDEA” of the expansion – I am going to not announce this quite yet…. Sorry.
First of all I wanted to explain that I’ve tried numerous new types of Bases and Vaults. They just didn’t work in playtesting as well as the original versions did. I won’t bore you with all the rejected ideas, but about 4 ideas made it to the last phase of playtesting before getting abandoned. The originals are just better, and interact with the cardsets in beautiful and subtle ways. I likely won’t be adding any new Bases and Vaults, but I will likley have cards and planet effect tokens that make Bases and Vaults work differently.
I finally realized that TRAPS are the interesting mystery surprise flip cards – so most of the cool ideas I had for new Vaults and Bases actually became new Traps.
There’s a LOT of new traps and I’m not sure what to do about it since I only wanted about 3 in each game, and I don’t want to slow up the game setup. There’s Hyperspace Trap, Secret-Base Trap, Toxoplasmic Trap, Ovoid Trap (formerly Squeeze Trap), and Scry Trap, in addition to a slightly buffed Telethwarter Trap. Playtesting on these is not complete at high player counts – I am trying to get the number of Traps down to 4 unique ones and just let players shuffle them all into every game. So all games will have 4 traps instead of 3. I don’t want a lot of extra traps because despite all your pleas for more more more stuff, I actually think what you want is a tight, robust experience that is very different from what you are used to.
Ok, that’s it for now…. Make sure you are on the mailing list for the game.
I’m hard at work on Dirtside, the sequel to Battlestations, to be published by Gorilla Games next year. But I also had some time to get design work on The Temple closer to done.
Spying, hoarding, deceiving, stashing and sneaking… now with diplomacy, machinations, alliances, betrayals, and wild new abilities!
The Temple is an expansion to the board game Chaosmos, allowing for alliances and betrayals, as well as tech advances that allow you to prepare for the future by altering your powers and the rules of the game themselves!
Up to 6 players can now face off in the epic struggle over the Ovoid, and new cards guarantee a universe of ingenious new strategies. Four new aliens join The Hunt, bringing with them their strange and beautiful physics-bending racial abilities….
Look forward to the Kickstarter launch this summer. You can get on the mailing list for it here.
DARK UNIVERSE playtest kit (2-3 players, 5-10 minutes)
Here’s a 2 or 3 player bluffing/deduction/memory game I designed (with Jeff Siadek) inspired by the classic Universal monsters. The name is obviously temporary.Please forgive the unlicensed/stolen art; this game is just a prototype. It doesn’t have card backs, so just sleeve it with card sleeves that have an opaque backing.
I’m currently seeking playtesting feedback on it. It takes about 5 minutes to play. I hope you like it!
36 page rulebook (including rules in English, German, Spanish, Italian, Chinese, Thai, Japanese
(The Basic Box has the same content, but it does not have the double-height box for slotting the cards and organizing the expansions, and it does not come with any expansions. It now also allows 4-10+ players.)
Note: The 7 Sins/Undead expansions do NOT come in either box.
That add-on is available in the shop.
Card Sleeve Questions?
The sleeves come in sets of 200, with 130 wolf backs (for all the main cards and cards that say GROWL on the back), 30 Spell cards (cards with blue backs), 10 Night (includes 2 extras), 10 Final Night (includes 2 extras), and 10 Undead sleeves (for the main undead cards).
First, sleeve the main 74 cards.
If you received punchboard tiles then you don’t need the card tiles (or you can sleeve them with your own clear sleeves).
The 14 Curses cards (pitchfork icon) should be sleeved with the same wolf card back as the main cards.
The Spells cards (potion icon) should be sleeved with the blue Spells back.
If you bought the 7 Sins, those are also spell cards, so sleeve them with the blue Spells back as well.
The Undead expansion cards should be sleeved with the green undead back. The green grave/green blood drop cards from this expansion can be sleeved with your own clear sleeves or remain unsleeved. (These cards are remnants from before the game offered punchboard tiles to replace the card tiles.)
If you bought an extra deck you only need up to 30 extra cards to raise the player count (see “Playing with more than 10 players”). The rest are backup cards, or you can use the second deck as a portable edition of the game, using the black velvet bag.
If you don’t have an extra deck you can invent your own cards to put in the sleeves or save the sleeves to be compatible with current or future expansions.
If you bought custom sleeves, the set comes with more than enough (200 total), so you have extras in case any are damaged or if you get expansions.
Even if you own all 4 expansions (Spells, Curses, Undead, 7 Sins), PLUS add all 30+ cards from an additional deck to play up to 15 players, you will have extras. The sleeves are not intended to cover all duplicate cards and extra cards from your second set – they only cover all the sleeves you need to play up to 15 players with all expansions.
If you bought an extra deck, it can be played standalone or with the base game to increase player count, but the sleeves do not cover both copies of the game, only up to one copy maxed-out with bonus cards and expansions.
Are stretch goals missing from the final production version?
The 3-player variant was canceled because it was not fun enough, so we replaced it with the free Spells expansion in the Howly Growly, and increased the Basic Box player count to 10, just like the Howly Growly.
The bonus Night and Final Night cards were mostly all renamed or replaced with improved versions. But the game originally came with just 5 Night/Final Night cards, and the final version comes with 16.
I bought the 25 bonus coins and there aren’t the same number as the punchboard coins (24).
That’s on purpose. For production reasons the game comes with 18 “1” coins and 6 “3” coins, and the metal version of the coins comes with 20 “1” coins and 5 “3” coins.
HOW DO I SET UP MY HOWLY GROWLY?
Howly Growly comes with a thin pack of 28 cards. Divide those based on their icon in the lower left (Curses and Spells) and slide them into their expansion slots in the box. The icons above line up with the slots.
Open the main 84 card deck. Take out the 10 tile cards. These can be placed anywhere in the box or discarded if you also have punchboard tiles.
Look for the 6+ or 9+ in the bottom-left corner of the bite and wound cards and place them in their appropriate slot (if you want you can use a tile to divide them).
Yellow/Red: Night/Final Night cards (denoted by backs of cards): put in the slot that looks like a yellow/red moon.
Pitchfork: Curses cards expansion
Potion bottle: Spells expansion (packed with Curses expansion)
Green Hand: Undead expansion (packed with 7 Sins expansion, if you purchased that).
Demon mask: 7 Sins expansion (packed with Undead expansion).
The expansions all have their icons in the bottom-left corner of the cards for sorting.
PLAYING WITH MORE THAN 10 PLAYERS You can (unofficially) play GROWL with up to 15 players. To balance the game, you will need a second copy of the game (a “bare-bones” deck) of 84 cards. (Technically, you only need up to 30 of these extra cards, although you can try different card sets or invent your own variants if you want.)
• For EACH player above 10, add 3 additional Wound cards and 3 additional Bite cards to the game. (Store unused cards from the second copy of the game far away, so you don’t accidentally mix your two copies other than the cards needed to play with additional players.)
• Additionally, when playing with 12+ players, there will be 4 starter wolves (4 Bite cards given out during the Infect Wolf Zero phase of setup).
Playtesting is ongoing for these unofficial high player count games. There is a high likelihood that the balance will need to be updated when more data comes in. Go have fun, and if you are interested in helping the GROWL community, track your wins at high player counts and post your data to Board Game Geek.
WHY IS THE DECK FACE-UP INSTEAD OF FACE-DOWN?
• Playtesting has proven that if the deck is face-down, players forget to publicly reveal the card they draw before passing it. Playing with the deck face-up solves this problem. On your turn, instead of drawing just the top card, pick up the entire deck, select a target for the card, and then give the card before passing the entire deck to the next player.
CAN I SHOW SOMEONE MY CARDS?
• You are allowed to say anything you want about the cards in your hand but you may not show anyone your cards unless a card allows it.
CONVERTING TO A WOLF
WHAT IF I DIE AT THE SAME TIME I GET CONVERTED?
• If a human is converted to a werewolf AND dies simultaneously, they die as a werewolf.–
IF THE LAST HUMAN IS CONVERTED TO A WEREWOLF AT THE END OF THE GAME, DO THEY WIN?
• If a human is the last remaining human but is converted to a werewolf on the Final Night, they win with all the wolves. This may not seem like a big difference (winning with humans vs winning with wolves, but it DOES matter which players get to collect their gold that round).
Some players don’t like that humans who survive right to the last night will win (either as a human or wolf). If your group chooses, you can play the unofficial rule, which is that humans who get converted in the final night (or during a final night power) don’t win with the wolves. It may technically be more balanced this way, but it is difficult to track, so the official rule stands as written.
ISN’T IT SMARTER TO SHUFFLE THE CARDS I RECEIVE AT NIGHT INTO MY ENTIRE HAND, RATHER THAN SHUFFLING JUST THE 2 CARDS TOGETHER?
• You can do that if you prefer, as long as you keep track of your hand. Playtesting has proven that most players can’t remember their entire hand, which means they won’t notice when they get bitten or wounded. Keep in mind that some Night cards REQUIRE you to carefully note which cards you received from your neighbors.
CAN WE TALK DURING NIGHT PHASE?
• When a Night card is first revealed, all talking must cease other than the active player reading it (you can call this player the Night Watchman if you want). You may make claims what you passed the previous Night but you may NOT wait until you see the Night card and then tell another player what you are about to pass.
DURING NIGHT PHASE, SOMEONE ACCIDENTALLY PASSED A BITE, EVEN THOUGH THEY ARE A HUMAN! WHAT DO WE DO?
• As soon as those players remember their mistake, they should admit it. They immediately out themselves as humans who broke the rules and instantly die. (They die as humans, even if they WOULD have turned into wolves that night.)
CAN WE RANDOMIZE THE CARDS WE PASS AT NIGHT?
• Players are NOT allowed to shuffle or otherwise randomize the cards they are passing away at night. They must make a specific decision which card to pass left and which card to pass right.
I’M STILL A HUMAN BUT I CAN’T PASS BOTH MY CARDS BECAUSE THEY ARE BITES!
• See the rulebook: If a player… is unable to pass the two cards, they die prior to Night falling and do not pass cards.”
WHAT IF SOMEONE CHEATS?
• The game uses the honor system. Don’t play with people who can’t handle that.
To celebrate the INSANE FINAL DAY of my Kickstarter game GROWL I am reposting a hugely updated version of my social deduction/hidden roles game list.
Despite what some hardcore tabletop gamer “friends” may say, social deduction is NOT a withering genre, but an ever-evolving one. The mysteries are not unlocking to reveal aged rusted mechanisms within, they are blooming and propagating into new generations of infinite variation and beauty… a new mini-renaissance of the “old school” deduction games of yesteryear. I’m going to mention just some of the lighter, more casual games in the social deduction/hidden roles genre. (If you are a more dedicated detective and deceiver, check out Battlestar Galactica by Corey Konieczka, or its baby cousin, Dark Moon by Evan Derrick.)
Werewolf/Mafia is the classic but takes hours to play, and eliminated players just have to sit there and wait, sometimes for hours. Bang!by Emiliano Sciarra sort of improves this a tiny bit by shortening the game, but it also distracts from the actual hidden roles and makes it more card-driven. Honestly I don’t think Bang! is anywhere near as good as Werewolf. But it also came out in 2002, so it is practically as old as Werewolf and deserves a pass for inspiring many other games.
A quick shout to WitchHunt by Kyle Brockman for slightly improving Werewolf by letting the dead players have some voting powers and the ability to try to protect some of their living teammates (villagers), or cause more chaos from beyond the grave (witches).
Red Riding Hood: Full Moon Rising is a new prototype from Ta-Te Wu, liking hitting the scene late this year or early next year. It’s a definite improvement on the Bang! style mechanics of being able to shoot players and deduce their role, etc. There’s bombs and things, and it’s a hoot and a howl (excuse the pun). [image: Red Riding Hood]
One Night Ultimate Werewolf from Ted Alspach and Akihisa Okuiis may be the go-to these days… but I think there’s some issues with it (still requires a moderator/phone app, too complicated for casual gamers, suffers from the “alpha gamer problem” where the loudest players often take charge). It doesn’t really work with my group for some reason. One Night Ultimate Alien is better, but a bit complicated for the casual crowd. He has a new game coming to Kickstarter next week called One Week Ultimate Alien, which appears to add a board and area movement of some kind to the basic ONUWW system.
Crossfire by Emerson Matsuuchi is very similar to One Night, but even shorter. It takes place in exactly 3 minutes. Players have more hard information and a few various powers. Players simultaneously point their finger to “shoot” someone, and then roles are revealed. Definitely worth a look.
2 Rooms and a Boom (by Alan Gerding and Sean McCoy) improves on the live action role play elements of Werewolf in many ways, and introduces a two-location area-movement mechanic, and players physically move and are “traded” into the other room, where information is gleaned slowly while a clock counts down only 15 or so minutes. One team wants the Bomber to be in the same room as the President after 3 rounds of moving people. The game is wonderful but an extremely uneven experience because of the dozens of weirdly-interacting roles/powers. I would have preferred only a few tightly balanced card sets (although there are several suggestions in the rulebook and online).
Mafia de Cuba by Philippe des Pallières, Loïc Lamy is a very clever “light” game which comes in a cigar box. Players take turns secretly stealing diamonds or a poker chip with a secret role (thus you get to choose a hidden role from whatever is left in the box). The Godfather and his minions try to root out the betrayers.
Salem 1692 by Travis Hancock is one of my favorites of the “new generation” – I personally prefer it to Secret Hitler (and I mildly prefer Secret Hitler over The Resistance, and I prefer The Resistance to Coup, and I prefer Coup to Mascarade). Players have 3-5 tryal (trial) cards, depending on the number of players. The village’s goal is to locate and reveal all the tryal cards labeled “Witch” (the remaining ones say “not a witch). You can place Accusation tokens one people you suspect, and when they get too many they are forced to reveal one of their tryal cards (at the discretion of the last player who accused them).
Deception: Murder in Hong Kong by Tobey Ho is a bit like Dixit or Mysterium, in that there’s art images that you are using to convey information to certain players (in this case information about a crime), but with the added delight of some simple hidden roles like Accomplice and Witness.
Everyone knows about Spyfall by Alexandr Ushan, a wonderful little inversion where there’s a traitor who is trying to “fit in” and several related games like The Chameleon and A Fake Artist Goes to New York. I won’t get into too many “traitor mechanic” games but I mention Spyfall because it naturally leads into an amazing “inversion” of the traitor mechanic… Fall Guy.
Fall Guy is an amazing and very simple prototype game by Jon Perry, coming next year from [xxxx not allowed to say xxxx]. We’re criminals and one of us is the “fall guy” we are trying to pin the crime on. Our role card says who the fall guy is, but one of our role cards is LYING to us! What a genius mechanism! So we’re going through the game and we are all trying to quietly communicate via our actions and purposely confusing sentences, making sure we are on the same page and trying to each get the right card in hand to pin the crime. But whoever happens to be the fall guy has to “go to the police” before we pin the crime. The game is probably coming out next year and it is fantastic.
Good Cop Bad Cop by Brian Henk/Clayton Skancke is a 52 card hidden identity, deduction game where each player takes on the role of a law enforcement officer in a corrupt district. Players must investigate others to figure out who is on their side, grab one of the 2-3 guns on the table, and shoot the opposing leader to win the game. There’s alternate versions themed as Leaders of Euphoria and a prototype based around Total Recall.
Tradecraft print-and-play by Steven Cole uses a cool system where the roles are only part of what gives you points (you also get points if you stay alive and if you have certain points-giving cards. Really interesting game but I haven’t been able to get my group into it.
Timebomb [also called Don’t Mess With Cthulhu, and also Tempel des Schreckens] by 佐藤 雄介(Yusuke Sato) is a great, very simple game you can even make at home. We’re on a bomb squad trying to clip the red wires and then deactivate the bomb. The Terrorists want to have the bomb flipped (go off) before the bomb squad activates it. But we don’t know who the terrorists are. Players have 5 cards to start. they look at them but then shuffle them up and place them out in front of themselves. The cards are all blank except 3 red wires and the bomb. On your turn you reach out and flip up a card. If the bomb goes off before the 3 wires are flipped, the terrorists win. After each player has flipped a card, the round starts over, minus the cards already flipped, so the total number of cards each round is reduced. Very exciting and brilliant design.
Mayday Mayday by Stephanie Brandl is also very clean and simple – each player on an airplane is either Honest or an Infiltrator. You know your role because you have 3 cards and whichever role you have 2 of is your true team. Players spend their turn looking at one other role card and speaking/lying about what they see.
Human Punishment from Godot Games uses a similar (but more complex) system to define your role (you have 3 role cards. if you have 2 of one type, Humans or Machines, then you are that role, and if all 3 role cards are different then you are an Outlaw, meaning you want all non-outlaws to die.
Patriots and Redcoats combines elements of The Resistance and the 3 card role aspect of Mayday Mayday, with the 2 Rooms and a Boom concept of getting the Assassin and Leader together to end the game. I haven’t played it but it looks most similar to Secret Hitler, but with a lot of interesting twists and interacting powers (like everyone having to pass one of their three roles to the left, etc.). Also a twist in that if one of your role cards is a Leader (George Washington/King George) then you are secretly that leader’s faction, even if your other two roles are the opposite faction.
Transylvanian Pickup is a prototype from Dave “Get Bit” Chalker, and I believe it has been at Unpub in the past. There’s 18 cards featuring monsters and your current role is the monster pointing at you. On your turn you either draw a new card or cast a vote for another player (you can change it next turn if you get one). When all players have cast a vote, or instead if the deck is empty, you check for a winner based on the powers and objectives of each monster.
Shadow Hunters is a 2005 game from Yasutaka Ikeda, and it has 3 different teams you can be on, and introduces an area movement mechanic. There are several other games that have been released since that are inspired by this one.
Rick and Morty Total Rickall – some of you are parasites, some are real people. The basic mode is a simple cooperative game, but the advanced mode is full-on social deduction. There’s a bunch of characters in the middle of the table and we need to decide who to shoot. When you shoot a “real person” your hand size goes down permanently.
If a 4th “real person” character is shot, the player (and therefore team) that shot that last real character loses. Players have a small hand of action cards, and they commit to their action simultaneously but get to select their target when their turn comes around. Player identities/allegiances can shift frequently. There’s no player elimination since we are shooting NPCs instead of each other.
My new game is called GROWL. Here your hand of cards determines if you are human or a werewolf. If you ever have 3 Bite cards you are turned into a werewolf. A Charm cancels a Bite, and there are also Salves, which cancel Wounds, etc. During the game you don’t play cards from your hand, you take the top (face-up) card from the middle of the table and publicly give it to someone. So we all get to see how players’ roles are slowly being influenced. When a Night card pops up, all players get to pass a card from their hand face-down to the left, and also a card from their hand face-down to the right. Players shuffle the two cards they receive from their neighbors, so if you get bitten you won’t know for sure which neighbor bit you. At the end of the third night all wolves start growling (yes, out loud!) and the goal for humans is to have at least one human left alive (and wolves of course want no humans left alive). Check it out if interested, on Kickstarter now!
Just like any fun genre of game, social deduction hidden roles games just keep evolving and each new design inspires others. Is there ONE ultimate game of this type? No, because like any infinite magisterium, beauty can be found in strange places. Each player might be seeking something different and every game on this list might be somebody’s favorite. So go explore this exciting new world of mysterious identities and wicked deceivers!
Chaosmos has an incredibly rich mythology but it’s very subtle in the way it is integrated into the gameplay. The planet Sykloakis is the home of Neeksi, a female scavenging bile-tract parasite who makes her home in a series of giant megafauna ungulate creatures (the Great-Hosts) which have evolved in symbiosis with the Merdivz (the parasites) on Sykloakis. Neeksi’s is the clan-mother (Khatun) of her tribe and she needs the Ovoid of popular lore to ensure the survival of her clan.
The Great-Hosts are somewhat controlled by the chemical secretions of our slimy little heroes, and can be moved into positions for when the wars break out. The Merdivz pop out of various cavities and blast each other.
I’m currently working with my long-time collaborator, William Tombs, to come up with a powerful cover for the Chaosmos expansion. William wanted to delve more into Sykloakis and the lifestyles of the Merdivz… so this is his first sketch and I’m loving it so far. It’s all out war, and visuals you have never seen before. I can’t wait.
To keep up with the development of the Chaosmos, go to growl.launchrock.com and enter your email address. I’ll let you know when I have another update.
It is only the things we don’t understand that have any meaning… In all chaos there is a cosmos. In all disorder a secret order.
The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious
Rolling dice or shuffling cards is the gamer equivalent of summoning a demon of chaos. It’s a prayer for the cosmic intervention of an inexplicable dark force. The very act of rolling dice, and especially the ritualistic fervor that often accompanies it, is by definition a religious act. The origins of life remain a mystery, but the very nature of chaos itself creates the complex order we see everywhere. The rarest outlier molecular forms may be extremely statistically improbable, but once they happen to appear in the swampy swarm of this cauldron of chaos, they can beget complex forms through self-replication.
The gamification of complex real-life tasks distills the unfathomable chaos of life into comprehensible order. A worker placement game allows us to understand correlations in systems such as farms or factories. Games are fun because we enjoy feeling like we can control the laws of physics like gravity and molecular forces. H.P Lovecraft called the discovery of your own insignificance “cosmic fear,” and it stalks us like a shadow whenever we stay up too late.
So why do most game designers introduce an element of randomness to their games?I would argue that dark mystical (or at least unknown) forces are a game designer’s ally because the introduction of chaos to a game causes our subconscious to be reminded of real life. Games are a simulacrum of life, but all the beautiful photo-realistic art and all the flavor text is still just fluff on top of the Spark that moves us emotionally. Understanding the Spark is the struggle of all artists: to know that there is unknowable, and to grasp at it in a comprehensive presentation. To recall a long-lost hidden truth, or cosmic memory. In his Exegesis, Philip K. Dick referred to this as “anamnesis,” which means “loss of forgetfulness.” (Of course, Dick had already gone partially insane when he wrote that book.)
WE RELATE TO GAMES BECAUSE THEY CONNECT US TO OURSELVES.
What makes a game fun is not the perfect marriage of theme and mechanics, or art and presentation. A lot of great games have bad mechanics (Talisman, Warhammer 40k). We play them because they excite something deeper within ourselves. Some games have a terrible theme (Chess) or no theme (Go), but we love them because it is the game Itself we struggle to unlock. The act of replaying these games is an exploration into the unknown. We seek a simulation of our complex universe in an effort to reduce it to an equation. Tic-Tac-Toe doesn’t hold our interest after childhood because we’ve solved it. It no longer reminds our subconscious of the world we inhabit. There is no chaos, no mystery.
Even games without dice often use the complexity of sociological impulses to add an element of the unknowable. When you cannot predict your opponent’s motivations, you struggle to understand them though their next move. Successfully out-maneuvering them feels like a victory because you have reduced something complex and unknown into a series of predictable components. This is the gamer version of quantum mechanics.
There’s a reason Chess has begun bore the popular imagination… as computers conquer champion chess-masters and Russia releases logs of millions of past games, we begin to realize that Chess is simply a game system, technically one that is solvable. Magnus Carlsen remains mysterious to us partly because his chess-master brain is more complex than most computers, and he has avoided playing Chess against computers possibly to maintain his own aura of mystery.
I think a very beautiful and ‘pure’ gaming experience is Conway’s Game of Life. You set up a simple equation at the beginning, and a few lines of code move dots around the screen until they disappear or equilibrium is reached. These dots are meant to emulate molecular interaction, or even living creatures, and watching them live out their “lives” and fail or thrive can be surprisingly entertaining–and scary, as growth rate curves come into effect and large populations suddenly vanish.
When you experiment with an infinity of formulas for the laws of physics, eventually you are bound to get some interesting – the “knife-edge” balance of our real-life universe. Cosmologist Martin Rees identifies a set of constants–six specific numbers–as “the deep forces that shape the universe.” These numbers include things like anti-gravitation forces, weak and strong nuclear forces, etc. Only in the chaos of the birthing of a universe (or possibly an infinity of universes) do we get the elegance of our laws of physics, what you might call the “sense” we make of the universe.
In other words, the mixing of utter randomness in the cauldron of chaos IS what creates matter, what creates order, what creates anything that we can view as meaningful. Anything less complex than utter chaos eventually reveals itself to be just another system.
So let’s embrace dice rolling, deck shuffling, hidden information, and mystery in games. It’s what our subconscious relates to anyway. It’s how we lose our forgetfulness and reconnect with hidden truths. It’s how we find ourselves. Anything less than that is just Tic-Tac-Toe.
There seems to be a backlash against video games that feature detailed graphics and complex mechanics, but have extremely linear and passive story-lines. Board games can suffer the same fate; snazzy art, long rulebooks and expensive components are not the most important elements to an awesome board game experience. To me the very best board games have relatively simple rules, but the complex choices and interactions aren’t necessarily obvious until you actually play it a few times. This is called “emergent gameplay” and yes, I’m talking about you, Cosmic Encounter. But beyond subtle complexity of mechanics is something even better than emergent gameplay, and it’s something that emergent gameplay can lead to: emergent narrative.
My definition of emergent narrative: Unique stories that develop naturally during gameplay, and are not imposed by the theme or objective.
The more open-ended a game is, the more opportunities players have to explore the mechanics (and interact with each other) in unique and unexpected ways. Different people will develop very different playstyles, thus leading to a story landscape of infinite possibilities. It’s almost like each time you play these games, you are writing a new epic movie featuring tough choices and sacrifice, trust, and retribution. My favorite games always feature an extended post-game discussion, and many of the very best games can even lead to special moments that dwell in our memories just as vividly as any great movie scene or classic sports play. Games featuring a linear track that players have to move around to reach a set goal are not very interesting to me; I personally prefer games where the path is more unclear; where every decision each player makes has immediate ripple effects that may not ever be fully understood until long after the game is over. In other words, I want my games to be more like real life.
Take for example, the following rules primer to Chaosmos:
Players start the game with a hand of cards that each perform a unique function. Each of the 10 planets holds caches of other cards, and you can land on them and drop off cards or take new cards.
Sounds pretty straight forward, right? If there were no objective at all then it would be a pretty useless game. So we add an objective, but a very distant one: Your goal is to have a particular card in your hand “The Ovoid” at the end of the game (when all players have finished their final turn). So now players have an end goal, but there’s still not a lot of information about what to do on your turn. In addition, let’s add a small constraint:
Your hand limit is 7 cards.
Since all players are moving about the same board, now all of a sudden it matters which cards are left behind on which planets and when. You aren’t just managing your hand, you are also influencing the hands of your opponents and the cards they discover on each planet. Different players may want different cards, depending on their strategies, and that may naturally lead to players battling over cards and the envelopes that contain them. Players may begin to trade with each other. Players will begin to lie to each other about where certain cards are located. Since all players have the same goal, eventually conflict of some sort will develop, and it will develop totally differently based on how their personalities and strategies interact. This emergent gameplay leads to unique moments, and (for the thematically-minded players) unique stories. That’s emergent narrative, and, to me, it’s the basis for a great board game.
“Maybe I am being influenced by some subliminal power from the stars…”
–William Sleator, describing his writing process
Great artists tap into the dark forces of the collective unconscious. There’s a reason certain paintings and films and novels remain classics long after their authors have vanished from existence. Great art uncovers facets of what it means to be human, and some art even dares to explore the deepest mystical question of them all– that of humanity’s place in the cosmos.
H.P. Lovecraft – francescofrancavilla.com
You may have missed out on reading William Sleator’s young adult novels… even if your fingertips grazed the spines, they probably landed on a book by R.L. Stine, one of his (more than a hundred!) Goosebumps stories. But if you were like me, you somehow found William Sleator. His books deal with real issues, particularly family dynamics, but wrapped in the guise of generic sci-fi. House of Stairs (1974)deals with five children (one of whom has sexual identity issues) who have been trapped in a social experiment in a dystopian future. A primary theme is authority, and its many forms. Singularity (1985) deals with a twin facing an identity crisis, and his struggle to self-actualize. (Of course, there’s also a portal to another dimension.) Finally, Interstellar Pig (1984)… which also deals with family dynamics, a teen coming of age, and extraterrestrials vying for a… piggy. It’s one of my all-time favorite books, something that has shaped my view of the world. Here’s a picture I drew at age 11:
It’s now 20 years later, and I still think about that book’s themes a lot. It’s a book about the unknown and Mankind’s ultimate fate, and the fears and questions that come when a 16 year old begins to come to terms with all that.
The plot of the book is about a kid named Barney who meets some good looking and exciting adults who dote on him and give him some much-desired attention. They are obsessed with a board game called Interstellar Pig, and Barney gets drawn into the game. The game is described in quite a bit of detail. In 2005 I became friends with Interstellar Pig’s author Bill (or Billy, as he insisted I call him), and he told me a lot about the book’s origins. For example, the first version of the book had no board game at all, until his editor Ann Durell suggested that the characters play a board game that explains the complex mythology that justifies the book’s strange plot. Briefly, a bunch of characters are looking for a “piggy” — an alien that will hiccup and destroy the world, but he’ll take kindly on the person that posseses him. The game within the book depicts this struggle, and the struggle eventually breaks out of the game board, Jumaji-like, into reality.
Sleator based his game-within-the-book partly off ofthe game Cosmic Encounter, which was only a few years old at the time he was writing Interstellar Pig in 1983. I am quite sure Sleator never actually played Cosmic Encounter since he seemed unfamiliar with the game when I asked him about it. Ann Durell told me in 2011 that Bill was more inspired by the idea of the game (rival aliens of various powers facing off) than that game specifically. Bill conceived Interstellar Pig on a beach near Cape Cod. Coincidentally, I have since met (thank you internet!) both Peter Olotka and Bill Eberle, the two original creators of Cosmic Encounter. Bill Eberle told me that Cosmic was also conceived on a beach near Cape Cod. Maybe there’s something in the water.
The “thing” that everyone wants
There is a long history of the “everyone wants the same thing” plot device in fiction. The Maltese Falcon, the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, Ronin, and the papers in Casablanca. Hitchcock apparently called this the “macguffin” and used the device so often there are websites devoted to his use of it:
As a science fiction fan, some of my favorite examples include Robert A. Heinlein’s story “–We Also Walk Dogs” (about a beautiful piece of art that inspires greatness in people) and Harlan Ellison’s story “Grail” which is about an artifact that somehow instills its owner with a comprehension of True Love. (Or something like that!) I love the story because the protagonist makes use of special skills, including the summoning of a demon who has the power to break locks. Sounds like a really cool board game, actually….
So Interstellar Pig is about a kid who finds the macguffin. He is offered eternal life, great wisdom, beauty, etc. by the other characters, but knows that what he possesses is the ultimate prize. And he faces up to his dangerous rivals as a man. (And after his parent’s beach house is destroyed in the ensuing struggle, he cleans up like a man!)
So in 1993, at age 11, I made a board game based on the book, and when it was done my brother and I sent it to Bill, and he loved it and told us we should get it published. Bill and I became friends, and we shared ideas for science fiction movies and stories. And then he died unexpectedly in 2011. I was crushed. We had plans to make a movie together, and (I think!) I’m the inspiration for the character named Joey in his final book, The Phantom Limb.
In the year after Bill’s death, I kept thinking of ways that early game could have been better. Amazingly, I’ve since found at least TEN people over the internet who have made, or attempted to make, versions of an Interstellar Pig board game. There are probably more of us out there, others who love that book and were inspired by it. Each prototype is actually very different; Bill never actually designed a playable game for his book, so the game in the book didn’t really work.
So I started on a brand new space-themed game, Chaosmos. Instead of a rudimentary roll-and-move mechanic, it has an action-point-allowance system. There’s no player elimination. I used to make board games, and published Macintosh computer games with my friend William Tombs, so I invited him to design a mythos and a history and it sprouted into something that is really personal and powerful to me. My brother Danny moved to Los Angeles to work on the game with me. Designing our own universe is very freeing because it allows us to include elements that are deeply personal. I love the concept of treasure hunting and deception. Chaosmos retains that spark that inspires me from my favorite science fiction books–that mystical element that beckons me–and then eludes me. The game seems to “create its own mysteries,” to borrow a phrase from Peter Olotka (describing his own game Cosmic Encounter).
Chaosmos… it’s a word that hopefully suggests the weight of the subject-matter it addresses. The universe is chaos on a micro level, but there’s order that springs out of chaos, and life itself (as chaotic as it is) is order. And this order will eventually return to chaos. And we seek methods to control chaos. Chaosmos is a heavily thematic board game designed to be an extremely interactive experience–a narrative game that encourages deception and leads to moments that reveal a lot about the players who are playing it. You aren’t playing the game system so much as interacting with the other players and trying to outguess them and adapt faster to each other’s strategies.
So now Chaosmos is done, and even though it’s different from Interstellar Pig, I plan on dedicating the game to my friend…. Billy, I hope you have not just vanished; I like to believe you have become part of the voice of collective unconscious that calls out to artists from somewhere in the stars.