Friday, May 15, 2009

The turning of the wheel: Mogul is coming back in print, and I talk about game mechanics

Mogul, one of my favorite auction games, is coming back into print soon.

It's a good game that packs a great deal of fun into a small box, and is amazing for the amount of tension for such a short game. Although each player's choice on the turn is bid/don't bid, the effects of the decision change based on the circumstances. A neat feature. Early in the game, it may be worth passing even if you don't get money, just to conserve it or keep it away from your opponent to the left. You're rail barons who know about when (but not exactly) the crash will come. Save too much money, and you don't earn the points you need to win the game.

I have a number of game mechanics that I've been trying to shuffle around into a prototype for some time now. Game mechanics, when properly handled, evoke a certain feel. In Arkham Horror, as the monsters appear, parts of the town close down as citizens board up their windows. This narrowing of choices implies the growing isolation, and helps the players connect to the town, not just on an empathetic level, but on the level of game mechanics. In some ways, the spread of infectious diseases in Pandemic is less successful at evoking this empathy. Yes, the players advance the Outbreak token, but there's less sense of human loss.

There's a story in the Ten Wings of Game Design about a designer who was play-testing a game about hostage rescues. Since the terrorist would get a victory point for killing the hostages, in an early revision of the game, it made sense for the "good guys" to shoot any hostages that looked endangered.

The first mechanic is evolving capacities of characters. I have made a couple of rough prototypes of a game about hippies attempting to build a better commune. Basically, each player recruited hippies and hippie support structure (old couches, beat-up vans, etc.) into his or her own commune, with an emphasis on having your hippies learn new stuff and become more enlightened. As it stands, it's too bland and doesn't have enough player interaction, so I'm still working on it.

I have a second design about sullen anime giant robot pilots. In a nutshell, the players recruit pilots and they gain resources to upgrade their pilots by defending Japan against alien threats. I'm trying to figure out how to solve an apparent runaway-leader problem where a good draw early on helps a player too much. The other challenge is more of a graphic design one - how can I use card space efficiently to do a lot with the same cards (so they can be resources, pilots, threats, skills, or victory points, all in the same card)? Of these, what is going to have to be moved off to a different card? How much differentiation between pilots can I create, yet keep the turns short and extraneous player decisions to a minimum?

In both game prototypes, players are recruiting characters and granting them new abilities or increasing their power, but in one, the hippies are passively generating love (or spare change, or marijuana) - ultimately factories that produce tokens that pay for more factories. In the other, the pilots are being used to harvest resources that are hidden on the gameboard. The players' motive to seek efficiency in the first is to tighten the coils that drive the economic engine; in the second, it's to compete for easy threats to get good resources.

The hippie game may well need an auction mechanic or a rotating goal that any player can achieve for points, so that resources that could be used for improving the engine have a second or even third potential outlet for players to choose.

Likewise, the pilot game is dripping with theme and potential, but I am wavering between pilots being possibly a card with two numbers on it, versus a card with a name, a picture, a number, and a special power. Having pilots be interchangeable is bad for theme, but does allow them to be upgraded simply by swapping the cards out for ones with higher numbers.

(On inspirations: I couldn't have started on the hippie game before I played The Big Cheese and Gloria Mundi, and I couldn't have visualized the pilot game before playing Arkham Horror, Pandemic, Shadows over Camelot, Dominion, and Glory to Rome. A post for another time, certainly.)

What game mechanic do you particularly like? What game handles the mechanic most deftly? How does the game procedure that uses the mechanic feel, and what does it evoke?


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