The Mind And The Heart (but the card games)

If you don’t already know what it is, The Mind is a 2018 card game with a mechanical system so seemingly simple as to seem nonexistent. There’s a deck of cards that just show a bunch of numbers. You shuffle up the cards, deal some of them out, and then, without communicating, each player lays out the cards they have, into a stack, in order. And you may think ‘that sounds easy’ but it’s fiendishly engaging because you’re all playing into the same stack and the only information people are getting from one another is the timing of the playing of the cards. There’s more to it than that, but the core of the game is just that: playing cards from your hand based on your ability to determine that you think it’s the lowest available card, with only intuitive communication and timing to assist you.

I find this system really interesting because it really does put paid to how simple a game system can be when there’s machinery holding onto the memory and the game state – the cards communicate for the players, they remember for the players and the game personalises itself really quickly. If I can play The Mind with my mum and sister that’s a different game with different invisible communication and timing than the game to the one I play with my niblings. It creates the phenomenon of people feeling psychic and feeling clever that they managed something, but also not at all feeling hard done by when they fail because the game is so hard when viewed outside of those moments of intuition.

Hearts, if you’re not familiar with it, is a trick-taking game, a few hundred years old, but differing from most of the well-known examples of the genre because it’s a trick evasion game. In Hearts, you do the standard trick taking game things, where you need to play out cards into a trick to folllow suit, but if you wind up winning a trick where hearts are the suit, you eat a penalty. This means strategically the best way to play the game is to try and avoid ever winning any tricks, because the penalties from the hearts overwhelm any points you could be getting by any other means.

And the two games just coincidentally are named while I think about simple card games about romance.

When you make games that are romantic, or have a theme of romance, there’s often a simplification that tends towards the swell of feelings. I can think of plenty of games where the abstraction at the heart of the game makes thinking very hard but going by the vibe very easy. While feelings are important in romances, though, there’s a very good thing to be said for being thoughtful, and making a game that has some way to be strategic, right?

A long time ago, I said: A gift of the magi game about buying gifts for your polycule.

Here then is my thinking about this idea, now, as if I was going to actually do it:

  • If it’s a polycule, it’s a multiplayer game (for now, maybe a solo variant could exist).
  • I want it to be full of compatibilities; if I give you gift A+, and you have in your hand A-, you can take them together and that represents a successful gift-giving. But your A- can still be given, so I have to think you didn’t give that A- this turn.
  • The game wants to avoid tricks where every player, at once, fails to give an appropriate gift, creating a ‘real bummer’ of a gift day
  • The compatibilities could be nested; so instead of as simple as A+ and A-, it could be A!, A@ and A#; any two of them is a successful gift
  • In this situation, though, you have to be given a gift to connect it to another gift and lock it away, scoring points for it; if you have A! and A# in your hand, you can either give them both to someone over two turns, or you can sit tight on one in the hopes you get it given back OR you can hold onto them and hope someone else at the table gives you an A@, so you can lock one away.
  • As gifts get locked though, this means that their thirds start to clog up the pool, reducing the number of good options. This means that gifted gifts are probably meant to be public info so people can work out what in their hand is useless.
  • What about a communication option, so people who are screwed (and have nothing they can meaningfully give in hand) have a way to signal it?
  • I like the idea that these cards are all played at the same time, and timing is part of it, but since this is about a somewhat complex process, it probably needs to be silent and then revealed. I do like the rip of tension you get when a player plays a face-down card and then reveals it on a timer.
  • Notionally I want this to be fully cooperative with three or more players
  • What if the cards also have abilities, like letting you signal a piece of information, reveal a card, draw more cards, look at people’s stuff –
  • maybe very expensive gifts reduce your number of cards going forwards, and make you discard (and that’s a chance to get dud cards out of the pool?)
  • Are there total garbage gifts, gifts that signify a failure on your part or a limitation? I don’t want it to feel like the point of the gifts is to be expensive, because this is a game about understanding people, how they feel and what they want.
  • I should look into assets for it. If I can mostly find fantasy adventurer stuff, what if the gag is that each player is a member of an adventuring party who are all dating.

This is the kind of thinking that I do on the first parse of a design idea. This is probably enough to start prototyping with playing cards, to run players through a short hand or two, or maybe mock up multiple players. It can be really difficult though to do solo playtesting of hidden information games.

For some reason.

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