Design: Small betrayals

The last problem I want to work out with the game is the issue of betrayal. At the moment the game tends to be strongly co-operative until close to the end, when players start turning on each other in order to ensure their own survival. This isn’t such a bad thing, but I would like to introduce a little more friction earlier in the game — small betrayals which don’t cause the collapse of the party.

The problem is that as things stand most betrayals are relatively dangerous. Sure, you can chicken out in combat, but the result is too extreme: even a single point of damage is a significant loss to the whole party, not to be considered lightly. Continue reading

Theory: Discovery and Mastery

To me, game design is fundamentally about “procedural rhetoric” — the design of mechanical systems to create experiences. While games may well include more traditional forms of art — images, story, music — it is the interaction between the player and the systems of the game that sets games apart as a medium.

Raph Koster talks about the pleasure of games as arising from the discovery of patterns in these systems and mastering control over them. This coincides neatly with the learning theories of Piaget and Kolb. Learning is the process of discovering patterns in a messy concrete system (Piaget’s “accommodation”, Kolb’s “observation and theorising”) and then using those patterns to influence the system (Piaget’s “assimilation”, Kolb’s “active experimentation”). From the 8-kinds-of-fun framework, this comprises two distinct but related pleasures: the pleasure of discovering patterns in a complex sea of data, and the challenge of using those patterns to master control of the system.

This observation influences our design. Continue reading

Design: Target experience

item_cardsI find in my design process it helps to have a concrete idea of the target experience I am designing towards. At first this starts out vague and general but over time it should develop towards something definite. This help the design process by pruning out unnecessary mechanics. For every mechanic I add, I ask myself how it contributes to the experience I want to create.

When describing this experience, I find the “8 kinds of fun” of Hunicke, LeBlanc and Zubek to be a useful tool. It encourages me to think of my goals from a number of different perspectives. I have massaged their categories a little over time and added a ninth (Subversion).

So here is a 9-kinds-of-fun analysis of The Road:
Continue reading

Breakfast

…on the fourth day they approached an abandoned petrol station, hoping to scavenge something of value. The battles of the past two days had taken their toll; both Angela and Francis were showing their wounds. When a pair of undead horrors broke forth from the bathroom, Francis lost his nerve and cowered in the corner while the others attacked.

The zombies tore into Angela and she fell, spasming wildly in death. The others recognised the signs — they had little time to end her misery before she too joined the animated dead. Sarah drew her pistol. With a shot she put her friend down.

An accusatory silence settled over the camp that night. Francis nursed his wounds, knowing the others blamed him for Angela’s death. He settled down to an uneasy sleep while Michael stood watch.

He would not see the sunrise.

* * * *

The next morning Sarah awoke to the smell of roasting meat and the scraping of stone on metal. Michael sat nearby, sharpening the cleaver that had once been Francis’.

They ate in silence and moved on down the road.

Design: Choices – Where to go?

Each day the players are presented with a choice of which location to visit next. They must make a consensus decision between the two places on offer. The main deciding factor here is a risk/reward trade-off. The amount of loot and number of Z-cards at each location convey the potential reward and risk at each location, respectively. Of course these numbers are only an estimate, the decision is not totally informed. Three Z cards will on average provide 2 zombies, but it may be zero or it may be many more depending on the draw of the cards. Likewise the loot might be valuable or rubbish.

The choice can be better informed in two ways:

  1. Counting cards: As the game progresses, players who have been counting the number of zombie and safe cards they have seen will have a better estimate of the odds at an unvisited place – at least until the deck is reshuffled. I have seen an experienced team successfully deduce the exact contents of a pile after several ‘days’ of play by remembering every encounter.

    I am reluctant to design a game which particularly advantages this practice, since it encourages a kind of play that does not appeal to a lot of players. Of course, they don’t have to do it, but if there is a significant advantage to doing it they will either do so (and be bored) or not do it and feel they are suffering for it. Fortunately I think the reward for this kind of play is small enough that it can allow players who do it to feel clever while not making players who don’t do it feel like they are losing out.

  2. The binoculars specifically provide the players with the power to look at one pile of Z cards. This makes them more powerful. If they play it right, every decision can be made with full knowledge of the Z-cards. This can sometimes make the choices much easier, but the ‘draw two’ cards still leave a lot of room for uncertainty. This is a common design problem — rewarding the player with power can take away the challenge. In this case it could be balanced out by having a hand limit; providing power at the cost of carrying capacity.

In addition to the simple risk/reward relationship, I want to add more individual powers to locations to involve more incomparables in the choice. So the highway gets you to the goal faster (but has no loot), the hospital gives you health, the police station ammo, etc. An interesting situation arises when the players put off visiting the hospital (because they don’t need health yet) and then encounter a highway. If they take the highway they will be forced to discard the hospital also. I’d like to add more interactions between locations like this. At the moment only the highway and the research centre have any interest effect on the other location.

The requirement for a consensus decision here isn’t usually a big deal. There is usually some discussion about the best decision, which is good, but I have yet to see major disagreement arise. In particular, unlike the other choices in the game, usually the outcome that is best for the group is the best for each individual. It is probably good that there is at least one choice in the game for which this is the case.

Design: Choices – Whether to carry meat.

This is one that I am quite happy with. Meat is obviously useful — not only to eat but also to distract zombies — and sometimes it is quite abundant. Those occasions feel like a real win, until the players realise that it is quite dangerous to carry with them. Each piece of meet carried is one extra Z card, which averages to a 66% chance of an extra zombie in the next encounter. So there is a real risk/reward tradeoff.

As we discussed in the Escalation post, the overall cost of adding an extra card is greater the more cards there are. So this choice will have different significance between the early and late games.

The thing I particularly like about this choice is that the choice is individual but the risk is mutual. So I may choose to carry meat and put everyone at risk, so that I get to eat next turn. If everyone has this attitude, however, the next day is bound to be deadly. So it is a social quandary, which is what this game is about.

Design: Choices – When to eat?

One of the important questions in the game is: who gets to eat and when?

In playtesting I have generally found this to be a pretty straightforward problem for most groups. Food is shared equally with preference given to the least healthy players. Occasionally one player will lie about what they have in their hand and keep something they might have shared, but there is clearly no value in going hungry when you can eat. So as interesting choices go, this isn’t a big one – it is not balanced.

I’m thinking of adding a risk/reward trade-off to food. My idea is to change the rules so that players do not lose health immediately if they don’t eat; instead they gain a ‘hunger’ token. Being hungry makes you weak and increases your danger in battle. I’m not sure exactly how to manage that.

My hopes with this are a) it makes individual decisions to eat or go hungry an interesting risk/reward trade-off, and b) difference players will want to resolve that trade-off differently, resulting in disagreement and the sense that some players are eating more than their fair share.

One of the problems with this is that at the moment the chance elements in combat are:

  1. how many zombies turn up
  2. what the zombies do
  3. who the zombies target

None of these seems very appropriate to be affected by hunger. I have a thought to include a separate “success” roll on any action. When you act, you roll a die to decide if you succeed. If the number is less than or equal to your total hunger + tiredness, you ‘trip’ and do nothing that turn.

Design: Choices – Who to play?

At the moment the choice of characters is deliberately minimal — nothing more than a name. I am reluctant to give people too much in the way of character notes to play as I want the choices they make to be personal rather than hiding behind a character. That said, some of the most interesting games have come when people invested their character with particular personality and played as such, so having some details to base their imaginings off may be helpful.

Also, they may be interesting variety in giving different characters specific starting equipment. The nurse has a first-aid kit. The ex-cop has a gun. The butcher has a cleaver (a lousy weapon but good for getting more food out of corpses). Perhaps I could create a surplus of these and allow the players to choose or distribute them randomly.

Design: Interesting choices

I’m reviewing all the major choices in the game to see if they can be made more interesting. So first I thought I’d catalogue what the main choices players make are, and then look at each in turn to consider whether it works or how it might be improved.

As it stands, they are:

  1. What character to play.
  2. Who eats each day.
  3. Whether to risk carrying meat.
  4. Where to go next.
  5. Whether to attack, defend or run from zombies.
  6. What weapon to use in a fight.
  7. Who to target in mixed zombie/human fights.
  8. How to divide the loot.
  9. Whether to sleep at night.
  10. If/When to turn on the other players.
  11. Who gets to go on the plane.

A Final Road

An observer’s report:

Four strangers met on the road. It was an uneasy alliance. Sarah decided that the only way they’d survive was through trust. She let everyone know that she was short on food but was willing to fight. The others weren’t so forthcoming. Michael hid his weapons from the others; Francis and Angela remained silent.

The first time a zombie approached, the weak link in their team became evident. While Sarah, Michael and Angela attacked willingly, Francis fled. Sarah was injured but the zombie was dispatched. They group searched for supplies, but there was nothing much of value: one useless shoe, a broken radio, one bullet. Ever the negotiator, Sarah suggested that they distribute these items randomly. She took the radio, Angela the shoe. Michael pocketed the bullet. Francis returned, sheepishly. The others decided to forgive him: four weapons are better than one, Sarah said.

Bad move. In the night, Francis took his axe and struck the sleeping Sarah. A zombie attacked, causing more injury to all but Francis: yet again, he ran away. In the morning, more zombies appeared, injuring Angela and Sarah. Francis watched from a distance, waiting for the group to die, hoping to salvage whatever food they had. Michael saw her. He pulled out a gun: he’d hoped to keep the possession of this a personal secret, but he’d seen where selfishness leads. He shot Francis. Francis fought on. Sarah rushed towards him, wielding her cleaver. Francis, mortally wounded, staggered away into the scrub. The others searched for him, but his body was not to be found. Even in death, Francis remained selfish: they couldn’t even use his body for sustenance. There was very little food left. Michael ate his last tin of beans. Angela shared her canned meat with the weakening Sarah.

In the distance they saw an army camp. The group was momentarily enticed by the possibility of gathering more food, but they were afraid that the base would also be swarming with zombies. And who knows how the soldiers would treat them? The base is a honey trap, Sarah said. The group continued down the highway. They tried to avoid zombies, but it’s hard to move stealthily when you’re limping and exhausted. This time, Michael was the target. Now everyone was injured, and Michael only had one bullet left. The next day, Angela gave her last tin of beans to Michael.

They saw two signs: one to a graveyard; the other to the hospital. Despite their weak position, Michael pushed for the graveyard: he figured that this could be the centre of the zombie’s power. Going there might decrease the threat later on. Sarah indicated her body, falling apart. She was no use in battle like this: she needed the hospital. The group advanced towards the hospital. Four zombies greeted them. Michael fired his last bullet. A zombie was defeated but the zombies turned on Angela. There remained four zombies—one of them was a zombie Angela.

Michael and Sarah stood together. A bulletless gun. Only a knife and a cleaver. They knew that whoever attacked would probably die. A heroic moment. Michael attacked.
Sarah now faced five zombies. Zombie Michael approached. Sarah knew that six zombies would emerge from the hospital that day.