Design: Shaky Hands

This is going to be one of those ‘write up a game idea’ posts I do – if that’s not your jam, that’s okay! It’s just going to be me taking notes on an idea, and trying to explain it to a general audience. In this case, I’m not approaching a game aesthetic or art resources, but instead I’m approaching a purely mechanical idea to see what fictions can connect to it and what material components I’d need.

Alright, first up, do you know the game Mountains of Madness? I didn’t, it was a Lovecraft game that was genuinely outside of my familiarity, that’s a surprise to me. I’m used to seeing it everywhere, so seeing something genuinely new – and about a specific text! – was pretty interesting.

Let's Play MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS! | Overboard, Episode 1

I got this idea watching Polygon’s board game club, Overboard, playing Mountains of Madness. In this game, players have hands of cards that they aren’t allowed to talk about and they’re trying to play cards from their hand to hit a target range. In the course of this game you acquire madness traits that mean you can’t communicate about what’s in your hand in particular ways, information being polluted by these rules about how to handle the mechanics of this communication. Again, though: You can’t communicate clearly about things in your hand.

This is a gameplay boundary that I don’t dislike in the way this game uses it, but it’s a design type I always see as something I wish I could route around. The idea that a player can – entirely unintentionally – break game rules and disrupt the game state – by just letting information slip is frustrating. Another similar problem is that players can route around communication hindrance, and it comes up to players to decide how they handle the distinction between saying things and communicating them in another way.

Basically, if I can, I want to make sure that players can’t accidentally cheat, and then find that out after it’s too late to address that or change it. That can create a specific kind of bad feeling. How could I design a game loop that:

  • Avoids a ‘players can’t communicate about this‘ rule
  • Presents a tool for players to push their luck in an unreliable way
  • Still allows the ‘target ranges’ design collaboratively
  • Avoids it being alpha-gameable – ‘why don’t you just play your N and Y into this?’

I then present the play loop:

Players are cooperating to try and hit target ranges on a series of challenge cards. So a card may flip up that needs 16-19 points of Scrungly type, then all the players need to play that many points into the pool; you want to hit it but not go over.

Each player can look at the cards in their hand, which have a variety of suits and values; some of those cards are Scrungly, some aren’t.

You decide how many you want to put into the common pool to oppose The Bad Thing. You put that many at random from your hand, and then you get to look at your hand, and swap one card from your hand into that pile. So if you contrbute only one card, you can guarantee what that card is. But if it’s two or three cards – which you may need to do for large target numbers – you can’t -guarantee- what you’ll give, but you can steer it a little.

If you go over the target range you fail, if you go under the target range, you fail.

That’s the rudimentary loop, but that loop is explicitly open to ensure that there can be a lot of related or complicating player experiences depending on flavour. Flavour can invite a lot of different other mechanical dimensions, too! Foooor example:

It could be a game about too many cooks where you’re all contributing food to a pot and if you overdo an ingredient it can spoil the whole experience. Food needing to be cooked in the right time frame means that you have a reason to rush through that experience. This could be very gentle, and it could invite a really varied kind of food stuff cards. This feels like it’s either a game about cooking as a job (which adds its own pressures) or it’s cooking as a communal activity and therefore more friendly, more collaborative. This would want to make the puzzle hard because there’s no tension from the players’ individual reasons.

It could be about making unstable magical potions or magitech nuclear scientists where the design relies on a flavour of something uncertain and dangerous, a brewing and bubbling problem that could explode if you fuck it up. But this may want to give credit to the person who ‘did the most’ so you’re rewarded for ditching cards out of your hand in high volume, which means that safe choices to succeed on the puzzle are counterincentive to unsafe choices that let you, the individual win. This is a meaner version of the game and should also include cards that let players interact with one another. This probably wants some randomness but it might just be an entirely doable deck of cards game.

Some fairly standard abstracted fictions for this kind of design are explorers and adventurers – going to a location and encountering a challenge of a difficulty range you’ve got to work through. This gets you a bunch of typical assets, it should be fine. It lets you add things like being injured, magical effects on particular problems, it’s a perfectly solid way to use this mechanic. Not bad, but basic. See also cyberpunk hackers and the like – basically, ‘the group are collaborating against challenges’ is already a pretty useful game form. This would want some kind of a map or grid to work through.

But hey, hey, what about limiting how many players can contribute to a thing at once? What if it’s something where two or three players at a time get to work together (like, Cosmic Encounter rules). What if it’s wrestlers? Then you have the mechanical need for cooperation, since wrestlers are working together, you have different styles for shows, you can even have the game generate random cards of players who need to work together, and you can add things like injury cards, things that get jammed into your deck. Player powers for individual special moves, too! This could also be a good version of the game where you’re advancing popularity, where players are cooperating to get points but competing on who has the most points. That probably wants some kind of a board to track points, some ways to track individual player points – and maybe even tokens for alliances and allegiances. Moonrakers springs to mind for an example.

Next step for me is to go look up resources for aesthetics I can attach to stuff!