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.
In our mythos, the universe has been discovered to be a vast living organism and the planets are connected via an amniotic nerve reticulum…. In other words, wormholes between stars are connective webs of the Biocosm’s nervous system. Somewhere out there is an embryonic universe that is hatching soon… the Ovoid.
Powerful microscopes can stare deep into the embryo, revealing infinitesimally small swirling galaxies and nebulae, ready to burst forth.
But the creature who possesses the Ovoid will imprint onto it, and the next universe will be created to the will of the alien who possesses it when it hatches.
Chaos is not the same thing as randomness. It’s easier to poison Ghengis Khan when he’s still a young soldier than it is to defeat his massive Mongol hordes 20 years later.
You can’t control very many aspects of Chaosmos simultaneously– if you find an inactive Trap, you can set it immediately, but of course that doesn’t really help you, it just prevents others from getting it. You can remember where it is and leave it there, but then someone else might end up using it against you. If you carry it with you, it has now become a part of your strategy… or it’s just filling up your hand.
Part of the mystery of the game is the tough choices you must make about what aspects of the game you want to control, and when. Do you want to hold several planets at once using Bases? Do you want to lock off one planet with a Vault and hide the keys? Maybe you want to spend time controlling the enviro-gear, preventing the other players from going to particular planets. The whole while you will most likely need some weapons to protect yourself, and to find and take the Ovoid before the end of the game.
Cataleptic Fog and Temporal Displacer are the two most powerful cards in the game (other than the Ovoid). They cannot be recovered after use, so try to save them for the end game.
DON’T ACCIDENTALLY REVEAL CARDS. Open envelopes under the table, or turn them in such a way that the bottom card is not revealed to the players across from you. This is game about control of information, and information is far more powerful than weaponry.
Don’t use the same weapons too many times. Someone probably has already picked up the counter cards, and is planning a little surprise.
Don’t waste Hypertokens.
Your opponents’ enviro-gear become more valuable to them in the final turns.
Pay attention when it is not your turn. It shouldn’t feel like there is ever downtime between turns. The player who figures out what the other players are doing has a huge advantage.
Find the Ovoid. Don’t forget the goal of the game.
While the goal for the end of the game is to have The Ovoid, players may differ in their strategies during gameplay. Here are some different strategies a player might employ during the game. These strategies, other strategies, or a combination of strategies might be employed.
• Building up an arsenal of weapons, so as to be nearly unbeatable in combat. The idea here is to let others find and control The Ovoid, and then take it from them near the end of the game.
• Spores and Imps can be Nano Fabricated, like any other combat card.
• Gathering the Environment cards other players need to travel to certain planets, and stowing the cards on those planets, rendering it difficult for the other players to access them. If the necessary Environment card is on the planet along with the Disguise Selector (a universal Environment card), then the player cannot access the planet at all, unless another player helps them get one of the cards needed to journey there. [Therefore in a two-player game, such a strategy while controlling The Ovoid is a way to end the game prematurely, since the second player cannot access the planet to win it for himself or herself.]
• Setting up Vaults on planets to protect cards stored there. Anyone can lock a Vault, but only the player with the right Key can discard the locked Vault or take cards from an envelope protected by a Vault. In addition, players might save Keys they find in their journeys, in case they come across that color Vault. Or they might take an unlocked Vault and move it to a planet of their choosing. A player might even save an unimportant Key on their person as a red herring to fool other players into thinking the Key might be important. (See Vaults and Keys.)
• Protecting cards on a planet with one or more Traps. (See Traps.) Traps may be set in combination with a Vault, but an armed Trap always goes on top of a locked Vault.
• Using the Temporal Displacer card to end the game early or delay the game longer.
• Using Hyperspace cards or the Booster Rockets to avoid other players from engaging you in an Interstellar Space Battle (combat). (See Hyperspace, also Booster Rockets.)
• Squatting on a planet with strong resources, defending it against attackers. Cards in an envelope that a player controls cannot be accessed by the attacking player unless they win a battle (and therefore, control of the planetary envelope).
• Misleading other players by traveling to unimportant planets, or by holding onto unimportant Keys.
YOUR FIRST GAME: TIPS FOR BEGINNERS
Selecting a Secondary Planetary Envelope
Be sure to note which planet is ecologically unfriendly to yourself and your opponents. Also note where your home planet lies on the boardâ€“far away planets will be harder to explore without expending your precious Hypertokens.
Designing your opening hand
At the outset of the game you will have about 12 cards with which to create your hand and determine an opening strategy.
• Do your alien powers lean towards exploration, politics, warfare, etc? This might change your plan.
• Do your envelopes contain multiple Imps or multiple Spores? Those combine to create powerful weapons.
• Do you have a Vault or a Key or both? Did you start with the Ovoid? Perhaps you should carry these cards with you until you can find a planet to hide them on.
• Is there anything in the Cosmic Pool that you can use? Scrying Prisms let you peep other players’ hands or far-away unexplored planets.
• Do you have a Telethwarter? This can be set as a trap, but it might be more valuable as a way to get you home quickly in the future to access the Cosmic Pool.
• Which planets are already explored? Which have not been explored yet? In a 4 player game, only 2 planets are unexplored at the beginning, and (since players start the game with an envelope and can reach a second on your first turn, that’s 8 of the 10 planets) quickly controlling a third planet will net you 10% more knowledge about the location of critical cards.
So you want to design a board game? Hooray! It’s a wonderful, rewarding experience. Here’s 5 ways to make it unique (and hopefully innovative), while remembering that is has to be fun to play.
1. Don’t just clone other games.
If you think a deckbuilding game is fun, then play more deckbuilding games and decide what you can bring to the genre (if anything). You don’t really want to make another clone of Dominion, perhaps what you really want to do is tweak or house-rule or re-theme that game. That’s awesome! But if you want to make a unique game, dig deeper and find inspiration. You should avoid adding a paint job to an existing game. Even if you make improvements your game probably won’t achieve much notice or replace a popular game. Most games use the best ideas of other games in new ways, so seek something new, or a new spin. Maybe be inspired by a movie or a book or a family story, and find mechanics to fit.
Most games exist in a pseudo state where the only thing limiting their design is your imagination. Don’t think of the gameplay like a rigid set of rules that must remind you of other games. Your gameplay foundation should be more like gravity… there are ways to supercede gravity, but it still exists to prevent us from flying up into outer space.
Dune. Machinations and treachery and hoarding spice! There are some light area-control elements (from many other games) and variable player powers (from Cosmic Encounter, the designers’ previous game), but the rich theme and player interaction, and combat system, was a revolution. The design team was inspired by ideas of political backstabbing, and one of their favorite books, Dune.
Unique ideas don’t have to be epic. There’s a game I saw recently that you play with a balloon and an iron-maiden style headpiece with spikes that goes around the balloon. You take turns slowly screwing the spikes deeper and deeper into the balloon until the balloon pops. This is pretty new, but it seems clearly inspired by Jenga and similar games. The game doesn’t look fun to me, but it definitely evokes a real-life feeling of dread.
Evoking emotional reactions is one of the most powerful things a game can do. Lots of people make fun of Pretty Pretty Princess (a game where you dress up in plastic jewelry and tiaras). There’s a reason that game has lasted: it’s because some people find it fun.
Which leads us to:
2. Find true inspiration from your own life.
Games are more powerful when they are rooted in the human experience. I’ve read in game design forums many times “Should I pick a theme before or after I design the mechanics?” Those are both bad places to start. There are plenty of great games alreday published, more than you could ever play in your entire life. Why would you want to make “just another game?” If you want to design a game about pirates, stop thinking about pirates in terms of what they DO (plunder, hoard, sail around, fight) and start thinking about what YOU love about pirates. Was there a movie from your childhood that spoke to you? Do you love the sense of freedom pirates enjoy? For me, Merchants and Marauders is a good board game not because it perfectly captures the pirate “theme” (although it does admirably) but because it offers you a large amount of choices on your turn.
3. Game rules are like city ordinances; things get fun when you break them.
Once you are inspired, you need to not limit the game by the basic rules (or at least playtest the possibility of breaking them). I personally like when each player has unique game-breaking abilities, but there’s also other ways to break rules. Sometimes entire games are about breaking rules (Fluxx is a game in which the victory goal of the game keeps changing). Some great ideas for games can pop up because of an idea to break another game, but I would caution against making a new game that doesn’t inspire you emotionally.
4. Have fun designing it, and keep at it!
For me, a game is most fun when it’s in its early stages. Playtesting games can be amazing because the initial inspiration that sparked the game hasn’t been accidentally squashed yet, and it may still be possible to find some amazing way to break the game. I think part of the fun of Magic: The Gathering is that there are so many possible combinations of cards that players know it is still possible to come up with innovative decks, and uses for cards that will eventually get errata’ed. It’s a glorious journey you are about to undertake, and you step up to the challenge and enjoy it.
It’s really fun to add a bunch of new cards or rules and then try to “break it” or figure out ways to make characters or card combos overpowered. For that one perfect moment, your game became something more than just a game. It became a puzzle that you unlocked! Now you can fix the mistakes and test it again. If it isn’t fun to test your game, it isn’t fun to play it. And if you would prefer to play another game more than playing your game again, your game probably isn’t ready for primetime. It should be AMAZING. If you designed the game with true passion, then you should love playing it. Most people will never like it as much as you (even if it’s a great game) because it came from within you– it’s your baby, so cherish it!
5. Pay attention to your playtesters, but don’t listen to them too much.
Playtesters will be very supportive and offer all kinds of helpful suggestions. Write it all down and look over the notes from time to time. But don’t listen to most of it. First time playtesters don’t necessarily know what type of experience your game strives to convey, so they will automatically equate the experience of playing it with other games they have played. This is why my game Chaosmos gets compared to Clue and and Capture the Flag and Battlestar Galactica. Yes, those are VERY different games. No one really knows what Chaosmos is like because it’s something new. What you should do is pay attention to what the playtesters enjoy about the game and how they subconsciously try to make it more fun. If they play a rule wrong and have more fun than a different playtest group, figure out WHY it was more fun to play it wrong. Interpret what they are saying in the context of their misunderstanding of the game.