19 March, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #12: "SNAP!"

For a while I've been tying to think of mechanisms that can be used to bring a certain emotional response into a role-playing game.

I've heard a few stories about a game called Dread, where the mechanism uses a tower of Jenga blocks to build the tension. I haven't actually seen it in play, so I'm not 100% about the mechanisms specifics, but it seems to be the case that every time you want to accomplish something within the story, you pull out one of the Jenga blocks and add it back to the top of the tower. The first couple of times this is easy, but as the game progresses it gets harder and the tension mounts. I'm sure that something appropriately dramatic occurs when the tower crashes to the ground.

It seems to give a sense of immediacy to a situation, and a visceral sense of defeat when the tower collapses after a false move. The feeling of dread builds as players realise that their next action may force them to confront an ever more unstable tower.

Over the past few months I've been looking for something similar in a few styles of gameplay. Perhaps something subtle that builds as the game draws to a climax or maybe a mechanism that gets the adrenaline pumping for scenes of combat or pursuit.

The card game of Snap recently came to mind and I think it bears some exploration.

The game play is deceptively simple.

Each player throws down a card in turn. If any two cards of the same face value are played, then it becomes a race to throw one's hand down on the pile and scream "Snap!". Variants of the game have the successful player claiming the cards (in which case the objective is to claim the entire deck), or passing the cards to their opponent (in which case the objective is to dispose of your entire deck).

It's an easy game that most people in the western world seem to know in some form or another and it includes numbers and other values that could easily be used for game mechanism purposes. It relies on a combination of perceptive awareness and physical reflexes, and gives the players a chance to really focus on something.

Other traditional card games like "Old Maid" (or here) could be used for other types of event resolution, but these would require something a bit more strategic. Snap is quick and precise...you either get the snap or you don't, all in one hit.

That made me think that it could be suitable for a combat resolution system.

Two combatants dodging and weaving in a firefight, or two pugilists looking for the right moment to punch their opponent when there appears a slight break in the defences.

Each play of cards could represent a second of game time, with a simple unmatched exchange of cards indicating that no-one has seen a good chance to make a strike.

I've had a day or two to think about this mechanism and while a few things instantly came to mind, some deeper ideas have started to develop.

Instantly I thought of the numbers that are being matched. If a player calls "Snap" on a pair of 2s, how is this different to calling "Snap" on a pair of Kings? It would be natural to assume that the pair of kings would be a better hit. But then I had a follow up thought regarding this...

Should easy hits be more likely to occur than nasty hits? Most games echo this notion, especially where better successes require more skill (or luck).

The second notion would be to link suits to special effects in the game. A player with a basic level of skill would just be looking for the matches of face value. A player with a skill benefit might gain an additional degree of success if the last card played had a particular suit. A player with exceptional skill might gain this additional degree of success if either card in the pair belongs to that suit.

Suddenly the game of Snap reflects the abilities of the characters within the world rather than just rewarding the reflexes and perception of the players. It this becomes more viable as a game mechanism.

Other concerns can also be addressed through the snapping of cards, and players can also be forced into ethical dilemmas of whether to "snap" or not. A hitman is running out of bullets, he's got two left in his clip...he's hoping that a pair of jacks or better will occur so that he can take out his rival, a pair of fives to tens will seriously impair his enemy, so he's willing to take that risk because the last bullet should be able to finish the job...he sees a pair of threes come up, does he waste the bullet to shoot his enemy, or does he wait for a better shot to come up later? After a split second of hesitation he feels a sharp pain shooting through his leg, the enemy took the chance.

As I've thought about the concept in depth, I've also considered how it could be used with the previous idea on hit locations. Once a double has been snapped, simply draw the next card (low card out of the snapped double and the new draw is used for hit location, high card is used for base damage).

I'm sure that further thought will develop new ways that the mechanism can be used.
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