Feinting Couch

Ah, the age of adventure, of conquest, of nobility and of duels. Yes, the time when if someone defied you, you pulled off your glove and you threw it to the ground and demanded she meet you on the battlefield with god as your witnesses. Sublimated homosexuality and swords with reach, raucous adventure and getting out of town just ahead of the local law, it’s a question not about who did it first, but who did it best.

And the best… needs an audience.

En Garde!

Feinting Couch (prototype name) is a game (prototype) that has finally cracked a nut for me in design of representing an auction game where you’re not trying for first place, you’re trying for second. Players each play reckless duelists prone to partying hard and causing incidents all across different courts of what’s probably going to look like France, choosing each turn just how stupid they’re going to be in any given court.

Each round, players place face-down cards symbolising how their particular duelist has caused a fuss in each of a number of political courts. When everyone’s placed cards in each of the courts, players flip up their cards and see who is the most famous, the most renowned, the most rambunctious duelist in town… and then that person is immediately kicked out of town for making a fuss. If there are ties? All of you, get out, we don’t need you causing your sublimated homosexuality as metaphorised through swordplay here! Go do that in the wilds, on the highway, under the dewy rain!

Each player who remains in court, having managed to have a lot of fun but not so much fun that they ‘re the literal worst, gets to win that court. You play through three rounds of three courts, or until one player has four courts. Winner of the game is the player with the most points from their court cards, and that’s kind of the whole game.

This game has been stuck in my head for a while now because it has had a big problem with its fiction ever since it started. The first idea was that you’re all the heads of expeditions sending out Indiana Jones style explorers, going to temples, but the nature of the deadly temples meant that the first person to get to any given temple was immediately going to fucking die, and therefore, it was the second place winner of the auction who got anywhere.

Problem: Dudes raiding temples for treasures is, as themes, both very common and easily racist. It still painted the exercise of ‘go to an ancient ruin and steal stuff’ as the thing players want to do, and while it was very funny to imagine players hitting the wall and getting smooshed when they went to these places, it still was about playing interlopers stealing stuff. Throwing that theme way, I wanted to conceive of a lot of different alternative themes.

The second-place theme, ironically, was players playing bugs that wanted to make noise so they could attract mates. The noisiest bug every round gets eaten by a bird, the next noisiest is the one who attracts a mate. Kinda a fun idea, but also, do I really wanna make a game about ‘oh this is the one about bugs fucking,’ especially when a cartoony take on that would inevitably, wind up with a lot of high-femme bug art, and I dunno, it feels like a great way to be heteronormative and weirdo at the same time.

The game that I want to make now is a game about cool duelists getting into trouble and fleeing towns that are on fire. I don’t actually know that much about this period of history. I don’t know much about actual duelists. I don’t even know that much about setting towns on fire. It’s really a thing I didn’t get enough practice on when I was a kid, it’s a real shame.

I feel like this is one of those times where what I’m referring to needs pre-loading and I’m not well equipped to do it. Do you know who Juliet D’aubigny is? Do you know who Centurii-chan is? Do you know what ‘Rapier Girls’ are as a genre? Do you know someone who gets extremely hot and bothered about queers in ruffled shirts with side shaves and possibly drinking wine in an impossibly bisexual way? What about that one picture of Anne Hathaway crossdressing for a Shakespeare play? If I say ‘sexy anime Guybrush Threepwood’ have I lost you?

That’s kind of the spot aesthetically I want to land.

I have no idea how to explain it except to find someone who’s already familiar with it and say, ‘yea, that.’ If you’re reading this on tumblr and think you know someone whose art would be a fit, tell me about them so I can at the very least talk to them about what this game should look like and maybe get the right formal language about it.

The game’s form is a single deck of standard-sized playing cards in a standard tuck box deck. A standard deck of cards is 54 cards, and doesn’t tend to have a rulebook in it, but you know, sometimes. It’d be a typical mid-sized Invincible Ink game at that size, which is a good form factor for our normal needs to sell games.

This 54 cards creates a constraint on the design, and that constraint at the moment is the question of how many players can this game support?

The game loop runs:

  • Players play cards from their hands to each of three of courts in a blind auction. You can play multiple cards to a court, but everyone can see that you did that and everyone can see who has already bit.
  • The cards are revealed, those bidding cards are discarded, and players draw another set of cards to do another round of bidding.

This means the deck of cards needs to have enough cards for multiple players to engage in this loop in an interesting way that gives you strategic choices. If you all start with the same cards in each hand, then the choices become more about memorisation of patterns, rather than about bluffing with a dynamically shifting experience. Therefore, players need to have more cards available to them, for a ‘deck’ than they have in any given turn of play.

Since I want players to have unpredictable hands, that still nonetheless reward some attention paid to what players are already paying then, I want to make sure that the player’s hand size does not neatly divide into the deck size. So, if a player has 3 cards in hand, their remaining deck needs to be 4, 5, or 7 cards. If a player has 4 cards in hand, their remaining deck needs to be 5 or 7 – every card the player has will get put into their hand, but never entirely predictably.

Like, let’s say that the deck is 6 cards, and the player starts with 4 drawn. That means their first turn, entirely unpredictable, but their second turn, you know what half of it is, if you memorised those numbers. The next turn, they discard those cards, and you know half their hand again, and then you get a fresh set. This seems to reward a lot of memorisation.

We also need some cards for courts – players are going to be bidding on three at a time, after all – which means that courts need to similarly be represented in some volume.

And again, how many players can this game support?

What I want is for each player’s deck to be equal and symmetrical. Therefore, of ‘player cards,’ each player adds an extra multiple. Heads-up duel game? 54 cards could be split clean down the middle, two 27s. Bit unwieldy, not necessary, but still an option.

I asked my mastodon what a tuckbox of the type felt like to them, how many players they expected, and most people seemed to be okay with the game being for 2-4 or 2-5 players. Well, if the courts and the players occupy the same space, that means the game could be expressed as 54/6, and that’s nine cards. Nine cards is a great number for hands of four. It runs like this:

  • First turn, four cards, five in deck. No known information.
  • Second turn, four cards in hand, four in discard, one in deck. Almost complete information, but crucially not actually complete.
  • Third turn, four cards in hand, five in deck, and only one card in hand known. At this point the loop resets.

Okay, that means nine cards is our player count. That’s great, and now I get to throw in my next little tweak to the math of this game: Your cards are not valued 1-9. Your cards are valued -2 to 7. If you bid two cards on a Court, you’re not necessarily bidding up to a high number, you might be trying to sack out a value down to something lower.

(Oh and I think if bids for a court don’t break 0, then the court is incensed and nobody gets nothing from it so the -2 and -1 cards aren’t just inherently the best bids for things.)

Does the game need this structure of 9 player cards for 5 players and 9 court cards? Nooo it could also work out smoothly, mathematically if players had 6 cards and and then the game could handle 8 players and 6 courts, but that feels like burning space. Most groups with eight players are going to play something even looser, where physical proximity isn’t as important, like Werewolf or Resistance or Secret Hitler or something.

There, that’s a description of a game prototype. Now I just gotta make the thing, and that means finding artists who do this exact very specfic genre of trashy queer duelists. The fantasy is that I somehow get this blog post in front of Centurii-chan and she likes the idea enough to let me license a bunch of her art of Rapier-chan and the like. Understand even in my fantasy, I’m still paying for things, because I respect workers.

Diary out!