A relic hunt by Jeff Warrender and Steve Sisk

Sunday, July 31, 2011

New directions: leads

Some recent progress on a new archaeology game makes me think the time is ripe for trying to revisit this one and see it to completion. So there may be a flurry of posts over the next few weeks -- or maybe not.

As previously discussed, in the last functional playtest version of the game, the map contained 12 cities, and into each were placed "enemy cubes" after a player visited a theme card or looked up a clue. A player arriving in a city had to face a challenge, and the cubes set the difficulty of the challenge. This system had two virtues: (a) it added some interesting "topography" to the board that might influence players' decisions of where to go, and (b) it was simple. But, it also had two main detriments; (a) as more and more cubes came out, the game slowed down, because players needed to spend more time drawing cards to pass the challenges, and (b) it was kind of boring. So in the most recent non-functional playtest version of the game, we replaced this system with "encounter cards", and when you arrive in a city, you flip a card, which shows a location-specific scene with a challenge you must pass and a corresponding reward (if you pass) or punishment (if you fail). Although many aspects of that ruleset didn't work, I think this one is worth trying to preserve, because it could help enhance the theming in the game.

I think it's important that the encounter cards connect to the actual gameplay in some interesting way. If it's just a barrier that you have to surmount to get on to the stuff you're actually interested in doing (visiting theme cards, looking up clues, etc), then it's really nothing more than a random (but visually interesting) card drain, and isn't really a big improvement over the previous system. The last non-functional version had the rule that one of the consequences of passing some of the challenges would be a "lead" to a theme card, which would let you look at a level 2 clue to a theme card's whereabouts (otherwise, you had to guess). This proved too complex, but I had the (better?) idea that instead passing a challenge could provide "lead cubes" or perhaps "lead check marks", and each theme card would have a "lead threshold" that you have to exceed to actually "find" the card. In other words, the theme cards are laid out in the cities, but you can't actually visit a card until you "find" the card with enough lead points. I like this idea but it adds yet another currency and yet another layer to the hunt.

Neverthless, I really like what this is trying to achieve thematically -- it seems to have a very cinematic flair...you arrive in Calcutta and travel to the hotel, where you ask for the room of Marcus Brody; he's not there, but a hastily scribbled note points you to his true whereabouts. This seems like exactly the kind of thing the game needs, but how to actually achieve it without cluttering the player with too much book-keeping, and too many choices?

My most recent idea may be more promising. It is, basically, to embrace this game's tendencies towards being a Fantasy Flight style game, with tons of cards and tons of flavor text, and resist the Euro-esque impulse to homogenize everything into a clean, you-can-explain-it-in-five-minutes package. To wit: Imagine that a player is dealt one (several?) "lead card" to start, which explicitly spells out the above scenario: "You arrive at your flat to find the door kicked in; the place is empty, but someone has rifled through the papers on your desk. On the floor, amidst the clutter, you find a hastily scribbled note from Marcus Brody. It reads: 'They've found me...will try to meet you in Calcutta at the hotel.' Travel to the hotel in Calcutta to receive the Marcus Brody card."

In game mechanical terms, to act on this lead, you would travel to Calcutta and draw an encounter from the "hotel" deck; and if you pass the encounter, the encounter card could have an icon indicating that it lets you reveal and resolve a lead card that points you to that location, OR receive a new lead card if you're not working on one currently.

This means that cards would come out in dribs and drabs, but the process of acquiring them could be more thematic. And most importantly, it could communicate one of the main ideas that I think the game currently lacks: a sense of wanting to go here rather than there. If all locations are equally useful, then cobbling together a strategy is more mechanical; this way, the game steers you a bit, and in a thematic way, but the rules governing the implementation are still pretty uniform across the various cards, and they integrate the encounter cards with the lead cards, so it doesn't add too much complexity. It will add some length, of course.

This is one of the things I'll be thinking about more in the near future.

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