Monday, January 30, 2012

Global Game Jam 2012 Post Mortem

Having participated in three game jams last year, I didn't quite feel like doing a full-scale project this time so I kind of pre-decided to make a board game instead. This year the theme was a picture instead of a word: 

The Concept

I had lots of thoughts about infinity and cycles after seeing the theme. The snake is eating its tail - i.e. it is feeding itself. This was pretty much what I wanted to do. A short game that is played repeatedly, and each time the game is played the game itself grows. The game feeds itself. After viewing the keynote and getting the theme into my head, I bounced some ideas with other jammers and then I went home for a while to gather inspiration. Well, actually I went to eat and watch How I Met Your Mother, but hey, same difference right? When I got to the actual jam site (we had the introduction elsewhere) I had three options: a game where player powers are retained from session to session, a game where world state is retained from session to session or a game where game rules change but are retained from session to session. The game should also be impossible to win on the first playthroughs. So far so good, but where's the game?

My friend, who was in my team in the last two game jams, had an idea about a rogue-like where upon finishing the game, the player's character would become the new boss. "What about the players that don't finish?" I asked - and suddenly I had a game concept. Here it is:

The game is a cooperative board game, which takes a very short time to play. It starts as a one player game. The first player dies very quickly, but in death they gain powers depending on what killed them. The game is then started again, but now with two players: the first player is a ghost aiding the second player. The second player will inevitably die quite quickly. Enter third player, now aided by two ghosts. This will go on until there's enough ghosts to get the last player through the game. The game is meant for gaming conventions as a social game that will gather people together and serve as great passtime between longer games. Ending up with this idea was most likely influenced by the local gaming con that was going on in the same building.

The Design

So I had my killer concept. What I didn't have was a team. I really didn't have any idea for the actual game mechanics either, but I knew it needed to be fast and easy to learn, since new players would be arriving into the table every five minutes or so. Faced with these problems I actually just thought "screw this", went home and watched some more How I Met Your Mother.

The designer never sleeps. Well, not until he is satisfied with his design, or really exhausted. I wasn't actually expecting to make a game this year at all at this point. Sure enough, ideas started to come about as soon as I closed my eyes. By the time I fell asleep I had the game mechanics mostly figured out. On Saturday morning I got off my bed feeling a lot better, and did the component math while taking a shower. I had just pretty much solved all my problems and went back to the jam site, hooked my laptop and started working.

The Game 

The game's working title was Ghost Legion Death Dungeon, which is pretty much the worst name I've come up in a long time. The players explore a dungeon made of square tiles, which will look eerily familiar to anyone who's played Labyrinth. The end conditions are simple: if the players manage to defeat the dungeon boss by pushing through 9 layers of dungeon tiles and spending a bucketload of power tokens, they win. The players lose if they don't find a new hero after the previous one dies.

Gameplay ended up being really simple: monsters, switches and power-ups are printed on some of the tiles. Cubes (stolen from El Grande) of five colors represent power tokens which are the only player resource. Monsters have four statistics: the amount of power tokens that need to be spent to challenge the monster (survive its initial attack), the monster's weakness - spending power tokens of this color boosts attacks against it, kill reward - a small power token reward for defeating the monster, and finally, death reward - the larger amount of power tokens granted to the hero's ghost they die against this monster. Power-ups are simple, they just grant free power tokens for the hero.

Finally since my dungeons would be randomly generated, there was a real chance of getting stuck. To combat this issue I introduced switches. These allow the hero to rotate tiles in the dungeon to create new paths or optimize existing ones. Most switches are trapped though, killing the hero in the process of triggering - such is the life of heroes. Heroes do receive power tokens when killed by traps. Finally to prevent cheap play, I had some rules against backtracking and running into dead ends.

As you can see, I went with abstract power tokens instead of anything specific. Remember, this is a game where new players enter every round and the expectation is that none of these players have played this game before. Can't take forever to explain the rules. Overall, the game is really really simple. The players simply gather resources as a team by 1) killing monsters and 2) guiding the hero to profitable death. A round ends when the hero dies, at which point all players regain their spent power tokens and all monsters in the dungeon respawn. Since players can also freely spend their power as a team, the mechanic is really not different from gathering those tokens into a collective pool.

The fun in this game is not in the finer mechanics of how enemies are fought and defeated but in the higher level mechanic of adding new players to the game. To ensure that players would not have as much reservations, I added a rule that allows players to simply leave the game. All their power tokens are lost so it's  a big loss for the team, but the game can go on if new players are found.


The cool thing about analog prototypes is that they are often much faster to produce. My prototype was finished in about four hours. I ran three playtests on Saturday. I started with a solo playtest just to see how the game would roll out. It wasn't half bad. Okay, it was pretty lame playing alone, but the mechanics were really fast to play.

The next playtest involved other jammers. A game jam can be a tough environment for testing board games - especially ones that require a lot of players! At this point I had no idea how many players it would take to win the game but I guessed that it would be at least ten. I started the game, took the first player position, went into the dungeon and died. Then I invited the next player, explained very quickly what the game's about and in we went together. After a few more rounds there were a bunch of us standing around the table discussing which paths to clear and how the hero should die this time... It was actually really fun! When we hit nine or so players, we started to have deserters what with people being busy with their own projects. We decided to forfeit since it didn't look like we could find enough new players to cope with the loss of power tokens.

My goal was to playtest the game in an authentic target environment: a gaming con! And we had one next door, what luck! In I went, set my prototype, started the game and started to search for new players. At first I had a hard time finding the second player, but then one card game ended and I promptly abducted all the players. With a bunch of players around the table it was much easier to find more players on the following rounds, and this time we managed to beat the game with eleven players. Go us! The game took about an hour and involved all players pretty well. Looked like everyone was having fun and, most importantly, they got a gaming experience like no other. It's not every day that you are invited to play a game and then told "These guys went into the dungeon before you, and we are expecting you to die next. Just try to do so in a profitable way."

Overall I the test sessions were enjoyable. The mechanics were a bit messy with ten players but that's pretty much the only negative feedback I got. I also explained my idea to, well, anyone willing to listen and people were really curious about it. With feedback this encouraging I'll be sure to polish the game for the next event I participate in. With better components the game should be even easier to understand.

Submit... Failed

You won't find this game on the Global Game Jam site. I made my components using a pencil. I intended to make printable components available for download, but I grossly underestimated the time it would take me to do so. I didn't really have any good tools for it, and by the time I realized this I didn't have the time to write a script that would help me with the task. I also spent some time testing another jammer's board game prototype. However, I don't really mind lacking a submit this year. Testing my game requires a lot of people and I honestly don't believe many players are even willing to print board game prototypes.

The Aftermath

Although I didn't +1 to the number of games made this year, it was a successful and far more relaxing game jam than any of the previous ones. Furthermore, my game was true to the jamming spirit: something experimental with no guarantee of it working at all. To my delight it did work. It was fun to watch new players' expressions when they entered the table and also to see how they actively participated in the ghost team's play after their death.This game has the potential to bring new people together, and you don't even need a group to start it. Moreover, it doesn't even require long-time commitment.

I'm not particularly proud of the finer mechanics of the game or its strategic depth. There really isn't much of the latter. The game's difficulty is mostly dictated by the number of available players.However, the finer mechanics are fairly easy to polish with solo testing. Most importantly the core idea works and that alone makes me more than happy for my weekend's achievement.

The game was finally titled Ghost Brigade after one of the best Finnish metal bands. So, to end this lengthy post with hopeful thoughts: "Ghost Brigade - coming soon to a gaming convention near you!"

ps. Anyone want to do dungeon themed art?

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