Prototype 23.04 — Blood Work

There’s not been much public work on this one. Most of my public spaces are annoyingly, lacking in engagement from the audience I’m used to — a very awkward thing which means I might start making points of using maybe even a discord? To get people to talk to me about the stuff I’m doing so they can engage with it? Not sure.

Either way, I have been thinking a lot about necromancy, about death and life, and the ways systems feed on one another so of course I’ve been thinking about multi-level marketing cults and vampirism.

There’s this game design that I’ve seen iterated on a bit by designers but I never feel I’ve successfully cracked the nut to make satisfying to me. Much in the same way that Dominion represents a game engine so perfect that its first iteration is still outperforming its developments even though it’s obviously ropy, there’s a similar challenge with the game Machi Koro.

We at Invincible Ink have made a straightforward Machi Koro-derived game, Cafe Romantica. It tries to address the spread and scope of that game, and put more of the game under your control while still having unreliability involved in it.

The engine in question is that you have a tableau of cards, public information, where you roll a dice and the dice number indicates what the cards trigger to do things. This lets you build up resources, or attack other players, or diminish available options for people. All that typical stuff.

I like this design because it gives you something you can build, it gives you a resolution mechanic that works reliably, but it also generates uncertainty. It has problems, though. Like, the start of the game can be enormously unreliable. It’s possible to spend the first few turns rolling a dice and nothing happens.

A common way to solve this is to make it so your starter cards reliably cover a certain number of things, but that then makes later turns a little less variable. Another common solution is to make it so there’s a given flat income that goes away after the game is advanced too far, but that can leave detritus around and leave players feeling like they lose something for playing too far.

What I’ve got here is something that can both translate to a meaningful mechanical expression of a theme in a setting and which makes this builder, dice-roll-and-trigger mechanic something you can customise without making later turns boring and repetitive.

First here’s a diagram of a mid-game play state for one player. The horizontal card, numbered 6, is your starter card, with all the other cars underneath attributed to higher up cards that ‘own’ them. There’d be markers on the cards to make this kind of structure easier to read. Now, every card has at most one number on it, and when you roll, you get the number, and then you choose where you put the dice roll, representing an opportunity in the event.

Here’s an example. You roll a 2, and pick where you put it – in this case, on the 2, but the thing is, this represents some part of the network getting an opportunity to act. The 2’s action kicks resources up to the person in charge of them, the 4, and that in turn, up to the person above.

This isn’t just all cascading goodies, though:

The thing is, cards that can coordinate need resources to do the coordination. If 2 triggers, they generate resources, and then they trigger 4, but to take advantage, 4 needs to spend some resources, the – there.

The result is that you get to build the engine which is not totally under your control but which you can steer to some extent. Also, because this builds slowly, and I want the game to speed up towards the end, the next step is that as the game gets longer and longer, more and more dice get added to the pool, so you wind up rolling multiples, and maybe triggering multiple ‘lines’ in your organisation.

That’s the builder structure, what’s a card need, then, using it?

Here are all the things I think I need, blocked out on a card. To see what that looks like, here’s a more detailed mockup using some basic zones and some shitty generative art made at dezgo.

Now, looking at this card, I can already see something about it I’m missing: How many cards can this coordinate? How do I signal the things that can be part of chains and things that end chains? And I also didn’t describe the ‘counter number.’

See it’s not just that rolling a number can trigger a card. Every card has a number on it that says if this is the rolled number, I cannot trigger. You don’t want to attach cards to one another if one of them firing off causes someone upstream to stop the effect, but you don’t always get the opportunity to build perfect organisations.

Also, this counter system may mean I don’t need the tax system, too.

Now, the fiction at work here is that you’re vampires, creating your own little covens and networks of conspiracy to represent the ways you’re exploiting your position as a predator in this ecosystem. This is a builder game where some elements of the build can be lost, characters can be killed in brawls in the streets, thralls can be stolen by other more magnetic vampires, locations can be destroyed, but the further up the chain anything is, the more protected it is.

I also wanted to add in an element of dice drafting; maybe the active player rolls a bunch of dice, then everyone takes one dice from the pool, with the steady increasing pool advantaging the player whose turn it is.

Finally, I want to have a Liar’s Dice mechanic as well, where the vampires managing these resources all have the opportunity to roll something in secret and make a bluff about raiding a common resource for ancient artifacts. Originally the idea was that this was about assassinating great sleeping Nosferatus, commiting some kind of dreadful sin that everyone wants to stop you doing but which also, everyone is overjoyed to see happen. The idea there is a sort of gamble – where you need a very specific opportunity.

I like the idea of helping in that setup by using a preloading system like you see in Wingspan, where you start with 5 resources and 5 cards, and you need to choose to keep at most 5 of each in total; so you know, 1 card, 4 resources, or 3 cards, 2 resources, that kind of thing.

Something else I think is cool is that if I do use this idea and maybe even raise money for it, I have a lot of friends who have vampire OCs or Vampire: The Masqeurade characters who can be dotted into this game engine as references.

I like this idea and I think I may continue to work on it in May, to make more and more elaborate prototypes and give people more time to talk about and engage with iterations on it.