Prototype 22.09 — Lane Chase

Every month of 2022, I am trying, as part of both my PhD project and my all-purpose general game development, develop if not a whole game for game development, a project start, such that I can make playtest prototypes. This is a sort of report of the process throughout the month.

What I started with this month was this:

This little Y unit that creates, in a player space, and in the process created lanes.

I didn’t get much time to work on this prototype this month. Honestly, I didn’t really get any time — this project hit a wall early on because this month had other demands. I’m embarrassed by it but I’m also just admitting it. This month has to marking crushes and a pressure point on the non-fun bits of the PhD (you know, all the paperwork that is meant to build off this design).

But still, this idea yielded some thoughts.

I’m trying to model a MOBA game where you have your base, you have lanes that people need to choose to attack or defend and how well, or how hard. There’s a lot of stuff going on, but in the vaguest sense, I’m thinking about the lanes as ‘background’ material, choices you make to deform and change the basic game state and that you can interrupt with other stuff.

Note that this doesn’t have to be a combat thing. This could be used to create trade hubs or merchant cities moving stuff around. The central island could be an imperial capital you’re all beholden to and must send some traffic or trophy, or it could be some sort of communal project that everyone needs to contribute to.

I can see a few ways to handle these lanes, and I want to explain them procedurally. This is how I approach a bunch of game ideas – run through all the options I can think up and then consider what they imply.

Option 1 — The mobs don’t change, players don’t have control. This is kinda the ‘zero position’ for this idea. In this situation, each lane produces (say), 2 points of units and sends them down each lane, each turn. Wait, are these units persistent? Are they additive?

One option for this is simply having the card say something on it like ‘each turn, there are two mobs’ worth of strength in this lane.’ That, to me, feels a lot more like a passive effect like lava or radiation where anyone in that lane takes some damage and expends some effort, but it doesn’t have the same feeling of having Some Little Guys going down them.

Also, if everyone’s lanes are generating the same strength, this can create less a feeling of ‘I’m sending these down that lane to them’ and more ‘I am generating these things in this lane I have to fight.’ You can lose the continuity of influence where something moves from position A to B to C, of feeling like the entity is travelling that way.

Option 1.1 – The mobs change, the players don’t have control. Each turn, a number of units, again, let’s say two per lane, just appear and go running down into them. These numbers have to be randomised someway – ones, twos, threes, that kinda thing. This can be done with tokens really easily – you pull some tokens out of a bag, one for each lane, and slap them down on the lanes, then flip them over, and that’s the strength in that lane.

This is okay, but it also feels like it’s most like a cooperative game, not a competitive one. At this point there’s a force that is agnostic to you and that is going to attack you and the other players, then it just seems to me like there’s this force that all players are opposing and can lose to.

Option 2.1 – The mobs don’t change, the players do have control. Now, in this idea, players are getting an unreliable grouping of mobs and choosing what lanes to send them down or how much. But how do those little mobs work?

Option 2.1.1 – The mobs are simple fungible tokens represented 1:1. Think like little cubes. You get some cubes each round and you choose how many cubes to send to each lane. This makes strategy very open, and it makes all the little mob pieces functionally identical. This can allow for simple conflict, which is cool and fast, but it also means that players need some way to do things in secret or the order players fill their lanes is tracked. Otherwise, the player who places mobs in a lane first are making their strategic strength obvious.

Option – As Above, but you bid into the lanes. What’s that mean? It means that you place a cube in each lane you’re going to place one in. Then everyone else does the same, in order, until everyone’s placed all they want. Cute idea, but also this is slow, and that honestly feels a bit to me like this should be the whole game. In a trader version of this, it could be that you’re showing how loaded traders are when they go to each city.

Option 2.1.2 – The mobs are cards. This gives a lot of room for information and it allows the introduction of a lot of other card game mechanics. Mobs can be placed in the lanes face-down to make them secret, mobs can have reactionary abilities, players can have decks of cards to randomise the variety of mobs available from turn to turn, factions can be customised based on who gets what in their deck. This is cool. I think this design was being used in Space Lion, a game that I remembered thinking was cool. They cancelled on Gamefound, and I understand they’re doing stuff on Kickstarter now, so I’ve not paid attention. It’s okay to get an idea from someplace, and it’s okay to do your own spin on them.

Man, I hope that game comes to retail.

Anyway, that’s a fine place to start, but it does create a demand for every mob to be represented by a card. Much like the cubes and the bidding, this feels like this should be the whole of the game.

Which is an option!

Option 2.1.3 – The mobs are tokens, pulled from a common bag. Hey, now this is interesting. You can have tokens be two-sided, so players can place them at their leisure, then flip them up to show things to one another. This creates a potential material budget though; you need at least 3 tokens per player count, and probably more. If you want them to hang around on the board, you need even more.

You could have them reset every round, where they thud into defenses and die like bugs on windshields, but then you reduce the feelings of persistence. They might be a bit fragile, and it can reduce access to mechanics about things like bottlenecks or combining mobs.

Tokens are a good option but they can introduce a material concern; does everyone get unique mobs? Are they factional? How many factions do you get based on that?

Option 2.1.4 – The mobs are rolled, giving each player a budget. You roll a dice, you note down what strength you’re sending into each lane, and then each player reveals to their opponents what they sent down, and then that gets worked out. Prediction is important, dice are materially convenient, gives players rooms to make decisions. In this, the mobs are probably generic, because tracking special rules without cards seems annnnoying.

Option 2.1.5 The mobs are rolled, and the dice are the mobs. This may need custom dice though because you do need a way to ‘send nothing’ – or do you? I wonder. Hmm.

Option 3.1 – The Mobs aren’t controlled, but what controls the mobs is. This would be a deck building option. So you flip a card and it says lane 1 gets this, lane 2 gets this, lane 3 gets this, and you get to buy cards that add to your deck and change the effects on the cards.

This is just the kind of thinking that goes into one mechanic in a complex prototype. I want to return to this, maybe in November.