Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Titanomachia: Considering the Design Philosophy

Recently I started following a blog where the author has been posting intelligent articles about games and game design. One point made by the author was that war-games tend to have the same elements, glossed as four 'Ms,' meaning Movement, Missiles, Melee, and Morale. While I'd go further and suggest that a better set of elements would be Time, Space, and Material, that's more general to games than war-games. War-games presuppose a certain space, time, and material within which material moves through space and time, addressing other material over space and time, and occasionally addressing space (like objectives, board quarters) and time (games ending after a certain minimal material threshold is reached, or extending the game when it has not). Because I have a raging hard-on for philosophy over the actual work of game design, and because I'm feeling in a rut, I thought this might be a good place to stick my oar in.

Because I've identified several problems with the design of Titanomachia, and it's problems with the specifications themselves; I'm not sure it's even the kind of game I could enjoy. One of the notable elements of war-gaming is the relative complexity, at least in material if not in their relationships; indeed where there's more material the rules are often correspondingly simplified (or at least should be to some degree to reduce the cognitive load on the players). It's also a genre that, by its nature, is about managing resources. One particular appeal in war-gaming that I've lately noticed, although it's obvious in more abstract wargames like Chess, is the manipulate of elements for some synergistic effect. Put another way, people love it when a plan comes together. Games where there's two elements that collide in a relatively simple, and hence easily predictable fashion tend to be boring games (if insightful, as in the cases of the Driving game or the Hawk-Dove game).

In Titanomachia the specifications call for a precise minimum of two (sets of) elements, the Titans, and put them in a head-on collision. Indeed, much of the design work I've done has been trying to avoid the tendency of giant robot games to put two giant robots down and mash them together while making sound-effects. I don't like that sort of play. However, when that sort of play is ordered and complicated by rules aiming to have that mashing-together be imaginary, and governed by some clever puzzle of rules, and ordered by cards, it still turns out the same. The reason Combat Cards, Malifaux, and their ilk work is because the actions of relatively few modesl on the board are moderated by the actions of the cards in the hands of the players; the two dimensional action on the board is increased to three with the cards. Where there's only two elements, two points, there's only one dimensional action, and increasing that to two does not noticeably improve the game. There are already plenty of more convenient one-dimensional games like Rock-Scissors-Paper and they are terrible marketing for moving little widgets sold as game pieces.

Hence the feeling of being stuck in a rut: There's really no way to replace a card-system that merely adds on dimension to a one-dimensional game if what you want, what the specifications call for, is a three-dimensional game. While an interesting intellectual exercise...not, actually it's not an interesting intellectual exercise because doing so reveals the problem with the cards that I had hoped was an issue with the rules instantiated by the cards rather than a problem with the specifications. The problem is that the specifications for dueling games is a bad specification. I think that's why Monsterpocalypse is such a heroic failure, at least from the perspective of a game anyone wants to play despite the opportunity to have giant monsters duke it out. I think that's why dueling games tend to be card-games, and why the general feedback I received from the card-based version of Titanomachia has been "Why don't you make this a card game like Magic: The Gathering?" Because where there's an attempt to make machinery to produce more dimensions to the one-dimension of a simple duel, between two elements on the board, you might as well dispense with the board and expand the machinery that is clearly not hampered by all the elements of board-gaming. I have cited the similarity of Bohnanza to Settlers of Catan before, and I have finally, I think, recognized what my brain was trying to tell me. Likewise a game like Carcassonne dispenses with frivolities like cards in favour of directly applying card-mechanics to the tiles constituting the board.

So, in order to make the game work, I think I have to move the goal-posts, the specifications. However, here's where there is trouble: more than one Titan per side and the game loses something of what makes the game interesting from a representative, or imaginative point of view, and the Titans tend to be unitary despite Iain Banks' Culture universe getting on perfectly well with multi-vector warships. There have been games where unitary objects are treated as multiple models, such as the original Watcher in the Water for the Lord of the Rings game. Not sure how to make that work, but it's a place to start, I suppose.

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