25 January, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #4: Counter Maps

Over the past two years I’ve developed a dozen or so concepts for games, some of which have been focused araound competitive agendas, while others have related to narrative ideas and storytelling.

Some have used cards as a randomising agent, while others have used dice. Most have had certain aspects of play restricted, while other aspects have been allowed to develop in a freeform manner.

I guess that’s one of the reasons for writing up these game mechanisms, to see what limitations on gameplay can be developed, and how these limitations influence the play.

One of the more common mechanisms I’ve been using has involved a map laid out at the start of play by the players themselves.

The specific ritual of laying down the map seems to help set up a lot of the feeling and atmosphere of the game. Particularly from a metagame perspective.

The basic premise is simple. A few different types of poker chip are used to lay out a map. Each type of chip represents something different on the map.

I’ve typically used white chips to represent clear locations.

Red chips mark dangerous places or potential encounters.

Green chips represent a forest or a fertility/recharge point.

Black chips are impassable, and player must find a way around them rather than through them.

During actual game play, players move figures around on the map made up of the poker chips.

The method of map movement is really no different to most hex-map based movement systems used in many strategy games. The trick is in the versatility of the poker chips and the setting up of the map.

The versatility basically means that no two games need ever be the same. Slightly different configurations of ships can lead to vastly different strategies becoming important. Just like tactical adjustments being required when fighting warfare in different environments. A one-space gap between two black tokens could become a strategic pass that needs to be guarded during one game, while a two-space gap might be a thoroughfare that is simply too hard to secure.

The setting up of the map becomes important because it helps get players into a mindset about how the game will be played.

If all of the players take turns contributing to the map, then it makes sense that the players will take turns during the course of the game. If they are all contributing to the map development equally, then it can be assumed that the players will start on an equal footing when the gameplay starts. Conversely, if a referee lays out all of the chips, then it can probably be assumed that the referee will be an adjudicator throughout the course of the game, and they probably have a specific mission that needs to be accomplished by the players.

While the map layout helps to inform the players of how the game works, the nature of individual tokens can help to evoke a specific atmosphere for the characters.

Making the white tokens represent open plains, while the green tokens represent dense forest, gives the game world a certain feel. While making the white tokens represent icy waste, while the green tokens represent patches of warm forests, give the world a very different feel.

Another aspect to consider here is the number of different tokens used.

Too few token types and the game doesn’t have a lot of potential for diversity. Too many types and it can get confusing. This all comes down to the level of complexity in the game, and the number of token types can help to inform players of what to expect.

Two types of token mean that there won’t be a lot of interaction between the rules and the environment. A simple black and white option might indicate that there are some places that the characters can go, while there are other places that the character simply can’t go. Or maybe one colour represents freely passable terrain while the other colour represents and obstacle that needs to be addressed. [The rules may also need to address what is represented by the empty spaces around and between the tokens].

Three types of tokens allow for a bit more depth. Certain tokens might be easily passable, others may hinder slightly, while the third type completely blocks passage.

More than five token types and things can get really interesting, but once you get to this level of complexity it should start to become clear to the players that the types of tokens used in building the map will play a more subtle role in their interactions with the others mechanisms that form the rule set.

Elves gain bonuses in forests represented by green tokens, Dwarves gain bonuses in mountains represented by black tokens, Djinni get bonuses in deserts represented by yellow tokens, Merfolk get bonuses in water represented by blue tokens...you get the idea.

For the moment I’ve tried to limit game designs to five different types of tokens, mostly though, this has been a limitation based on the available tokens I have at my disposal.
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