Sunday, 22 February 2015

Whistful Thinking

Hi everyone!

I want to design a board or card game. Just for practice and lulz so I was looking for physical games that I do enjoy for inspiration. I do like the more complicated board games that are about but I recently had a LOT of fun playing whist, which is a trick-taking card game played with a standard 52 card deck.

Basically whist is a 4 player game, everyone gets 13 cards. A trump suite is chosen (let's say hearts but could be any suite). A player will put down a card they have, called the lead card. Each player then puts down a card of the same suite as the lead, preferably a higher number card as to beat it. Alternatively the player can play the trump suite (say a 4 of hearts), which will always win and can only be beaten by another trump card (a 5 of hearts or higher) with higher value. After all 4 players have gone the winner gets the 'trick' and leads the next round. This goes on until no one has any cards.

I like that it is quick to play, easy to learn, and very fun to play. So this is the base on which I'd like to start designing a game.

But I've not really done this yet. I've not actually thought of any ideas on how to expand it, nor done much research on Whist-like games except that I don't think there is a game that are whist-like (not 100% sure, let me know if there is!)

But I did get distracted thinking of how this would be themed. I like the idea of each suite being warriors/soldiers/creatures of varying elemental based armies. (I'll, uhm, get to the game design stuff later, I want to do theming now). Though I do think that adding some theme or story to the game might help with thinking what mechanics would be interesting.

Like in Magic the Gathering, the themeing is technically unimportant to the raw mechanics, but oh so important when thinking about what mechanics to implement. Each color has a different feel that affects the design of those cards.

So here is my attempt at creating a theme that is consistent with the current rules of whist. It starts off with a bunch of naive attempts that don't quite make sense, I eventually lock down what elements of whist are important for themeatic considerations, and then I finally come up with a theme that actually makes some sense. I then cap off this blog post with a larger point about how theming and how it can affect the ideas and design of the game and game elements.

So, the 4 suites would be soldiers or creatures of:

  • Water - swamp dwellers
  • Air - flying
  • Earth - subterranean diggers
  • A fourth one that I've not thought up yet, fire / lava based maybe
So that isn't a particularly awe inspiring start, it's pretty cliche but it'll do for now. There would be 13 creatures per type, each more powerful than their inferiors. The trumps are represented by different terrains or elemental effects:
  • Swamps / Flooding
  • Floating islands / Strong wind or hurricanes
  • Underground caverns / Sinkholes
  • Volcanoes / Wildfires
A sinkhole in Guatemala...
F***ing terrifying.
The idea being that the trump suite is the power element, creatures of that element will get an advantage that will ensure they win the fight no matter what. If there are floods then the water based creature will always win (except if beaten by a more powerful water creature), But they problem here is that if a, say, air based creature leads the trick, the rules of whist says only other air based creatures will be able to win. 

So I was thinking that maybe the leading suite determines the terrain, so playing an earth creature as lead means you are fighting underground, but if the trump was water, then it means the underground caverns were flooded and water creatures always win

So, lets expand on all the options (first pass):
  • Lead is earth: Underground caverns mean that the fire, flying, and water creatures are ineffective, unless:
    • It is flooded, in which case water creatures always win
    • There are flash fires
    • There are strong winds, in which case flying creatures always win... err nope!
  • Lead is water: Swamps mean that fire, air, and subterranean creatures are ineffective, unless
    • There are wildfires, in which case fire creatures always win
    • There is a hurricane, in which case flying creatures always win (erm... I guess)
    • There are sinkholes, in which subterranean creatures always win (err, that kinda makes sense, does it? no? ok...)
... ok I'm stopping there this isn't working :p

Onward to idea number next!

Maybe I should think of the trump as the terrain and the lead as the elemental effect. So let's try this again. Let's say trump is water, so we are in the swamp and water will always win. If fire/air/earth leads they can still win (unless trumped). Ok this is looking better already. So if fire leads then it means there are wildfires. So only fire creatures will get involved in the fight, but we are still in swamp lands so swamp creatures will still always win... ok not the most sensical but not terrible. 

Let's try enumerate this again (second pass):
  • Trump is water: Swamplands mean that swamp creatures always win.
    • Wildfires mean that only fire creatures can fight (kinda...)
    • Sinkholes mean only subterranean creatures can fight
    • Hurricanes mean that only flying creatures can fight (uhm ...)
  • Trump is fire: Volcanoes mean that fire creatures always win
    • Sinkholes mean that only subterranean creatures can fight
    • Hurricanes mean that only flying creatures can fight (err ...)
    • Flooding means that only swamp creatures can fight
  • Trump is earth: Underground caverns mean that subterranean creatures always win
    • Wildfires mean that only fire creatures will fight (uhm, in a cave? hmm...)
    • Hurricanes mean that only air creatures can fight (uhm, in a cave!? no...)
    • Flooding means that only swamp creatures can fight (I'll accept this)
  • Trump is air: Floating islands mean that flying creatures will always win
    • Wildfires mean that only fire creatures can only fight
    • Sinkholes mean that only subterranean creatures can fight
    • Flooding means that only swamp creatures can fight

This is generally the outcome when flying creatures try fight underground

Ok so this is going a little better at least. Lets replace hurricanes with earthquakes, since it's becoming clear that the leads being elemental effects are less about giving a certain elemental creatures an advantage and more about disabling the other elemental creatures from fighting at all (unless they are trump), but the terrain ensures that the trump elemental creatures always always win. The only other problem is wildfires in a cave. Maybe let's replace wildfires with lava flows? We can't use this because it's almost too powerful. Swamplands should give swamp creatures the ability to win no matter what, but with lava flowing through a swamp. Well it wouldn't really be a swamp after that.

Let's put that thought on hold. I would just like to list what we've found so far:
  1. We need distinct representations for each set of playing objects
  2. The thing representing trump set must give that set ultimate advantage no matter the lead set
  3. The thing representing the lead set must be something that allows only that set to engage in the trick with any effect (whilst still allowing trumps to engage in the trick too)
In our case:
  1. Sets are differing creatures types: fire, flying, swamp, and subterranean
  2. Trumps are the terrain or area the battle is taking place
  3. Leads are elemental effects that disallow other creature types from fighting (while the terrain will always ensure that its creature type will always win)
So were doing pretty well with our theme, but are running into too many problems. The wildfire doesn't quite make sense in the subterranean terrain or in a swamp. So let's rather think of what effect would disallow swamp, flying and subterranean creatures from fighting. Leading ideas are intense heat or hot topsoil, but these aren't great. Also earthquakes are quite quite powerful so those aren't working either since that elemental effect can outweigh the advantage of the terrain (an earthquake in a swamp will probably mean swamp creatures will die too).

Theming with terrain and elemental effects, I think, might not be that effective since it's very difficult to come up with elemental effects (the lead) that don't override the ultimate advantage of the terrain (the trump).

So I might need to rethink this a touch. I don't have any great ideas right now but what I do have is 3 constraints to follow that will allow me to better come up with ideas that will work. I might even return to having elemental effects being the trump, but make the effect super powerful or an effect that will make the creatures super powerful. The lead can be represented by a minor terrain buff. Just enough to allows creatures of that element to survive over the others, not enough to overpower the super power effect.

Ok, let's try this: 
  1. Sets are again elements (Water, Flying , Subterranean, and Fire)
  2. Trump is a super buff
  3. Lead is the terrain
So (Element set / Super buff trump / Terrain  lead):
  • Water / Heavy rain and flooding / Wetlands
  • Flying / Earthquakes / High cliff faces
  • Subterranean / Sinkholes / Subterranean caverns
  • Fire / Magma Flows / Charred Wasteland
So this could work! I'm not totally sold on the fire type. I'm sure I can come up with something less cliche but no matter! Each of the super buffs will destroy the advantage of the other terrains while preserving the advantage of that creature type. For water I had to use a double whammy effect since I couldn't come up with a single one that would affect both overground and underground landscapes. Hell, to simplify this all we could even replace the super buffs with elemental deities that will help their creatures types out in battle. The deity that s out is the trump, ain't no one gonna win a god assisted fight! 

And with that I'll stop my eager over (the top) thinking on the topic. From confused attempts we managed to come up with constraints or important points for theming. Using that it's not quite as hard to reframe the game with a different theme. There is still the problem of how these representations will physically play out. First thought is perhaps a central board/card with the four terrains layed out. The leading player (who will be the first player for that trick) will place their creature on the appropriate terrain (thus giving it the advantage). The trump (chosen beforehand) can go in the middle of the four terrains. 

"BUT!", I hear you cry out, "now you can place a fire creature on the wetlands terrain! Oh noes this doesn't make sense in terms of whist rules! Also basically all you have done now is make a themed deck of cards with a redundant board in the middle and pretty pictures"

Some sweet themed cards ("Alchemy playing cards") ... couldn't find elemental style ones,
just imagine Magic the Gathering cards with less text and more image

Yup, you are correct, there is no reason to have the 4 terrains actually there. The first card played determines the terrain type and is hence quite redundant. So it's not ideal now, but maybe with more rules it will make more sense. Maybe we can have lots of terrains in a Settlers of Catan-like hex layout and the battle takes places. Maybe the 4 terrains can be placed in random orientations and you can only battle in the same or adjacent terrain as the last battle. Maybe you can place a water creature in the subterranean caverns and essentially force the next player to play their earth creatures. Maybe it's fun, maybe not... maybe there's a better way to fit the rules of whist whilst reinforcing our theme rather than introducing extra objects. But I can't think of any right now.

My point is that with a theme in place we can now think of the game mechanics in a different light and come up with different rules that reinforce the theme. We could make whist a cooking game about making the best cake. The sets could be different ingredients, the lead would be the key ingredient and the trump would be the cake judge who would prefer a certain ingredient regardless of the rest of the cake (disclaimer: I haven't thought it through 100% but you get the point). 

But how would that game get expanded? I am no longer thinking of battle and territory, I'm thinking ingredients and coloured sprinkles as bonuses. I'm thinking of stacking up the cards to make a layers of an awesome cake and whoever has the 'best' ingredient gets credit from the cake judges. I'm thinking of specials to bride the cake judges. Maybe rules that will have certain effects if you mix two ingredients one after the other.

So in the end I guess I just find it interesting that framing a game in a different light nudges one to think about that game in different ways. 

Yeah, sorry it took 2000 words to get to that rather obvious conclusion.