Thursday, 24 December 2009

Monopoly as Horror

Right up front, here's what I'm arguing for: Monopoly should be viewed as a horror game that forcibly destroys and consumes all the protagonists. And now let me explain why I think that.

The basic form of Monopoly starts the players with cash and no property. They take it in turns to make random moves around a cyclic track. After each move they can make choices to buy property, sell property or modify property. Players are eliminated when they have no more property or cash, and eventually all wealth and property is controlled by a single player.

I'm going to abstract this by one step, removing some of the ostensible symbols along the way.

The movement of the players is cyclical and random. Control of when and how the players can move is not controlled by the players at all. Each player must move, there is no alternative. Furthermore, each player must move a distance that they do not determine. Imagine these same two conditions in something like a dimly-lit house or hedge maze and we begin to see the basis of the horror situation. Furthermore, in this game form there is no exit from the house or maze, and the player will encounter the same room or feature over and over again. The players must move when they are told, where they are told, and to the same locations over and over again.

Accumulation is a necessary phenomenon, forced by both the cyclical movement and the survival instinct. Failure to accumulate guarantees the destruction of that player. Embracing the phenomenon generates faster accumulation. But the accumulation comes at a price: the destruction of the other players. Accumulation is the means for the survival of the self as well as destruction of the other. Ultimately, the monopolising player accumulates enough power to become the final agent of destruction who - in a final act of empty horror - rules over all the possessions in a city inhabited by a trail of corpses.

So I return to my original point: Monopoly is a horror game. Players move against their will to places they didn't choose and which they will revisit repeatedly. They do this in order to become the means by which all other players will be destroyed, leaving only a concrete cemetery to rule.

It all seems pretty bleak at this point, but there's a little ray of hope hiding in the rules, a way to avoid destroying or being destroyed.

No one buys anything.

Continue the movement around the board and accumulate the cash, but don't exchange it for anything in the game. Pay the occasional fine from Community Chest or Chance as you must, but it won't ever be enough to drain all your cash. The way out of the horror of Monopoly is a cooperative effort not to buy anything in order that everyone survives.

I've no idea whether this was the intent of Monopoly (probably wasn't) but I think we can draw a parallel for the moral choice to compete or cooperate. The former leads to lonely desolation and the latter leads to community survival.

Even the worst games make moral statements, often unintended.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Wishes Come True

Back in January I posted my 2009 gaming wish list. Now it's time to see how many wishes came true.

1. Run games for others, without necessarily organising them.
This happened once in 2009, when I made it to Newcastle for the EGG meeting in August. All I had to do was turn up with a game ready to run. Nice!

2. Organise another Go Play Brisbane
Done. I didn't get around to organising the second one, though, on account of some other commitments. Watch for Go Play Brisbane in 2010.

3. Run indie games at Gen Con Oz
Done, done and done. With a giant d12 on a stick, and tables of gaming goodness, this was the gaming highlight of my year. It was coupled with two good seminars as well, in which the gaming prowess of others came to the fore. Honestly, it makes me feel good to be able to help others find new games or to design their own games.

4. Burning Wheel Campaign
This one didn't happen. However, there are still 7 days left in 2009 for me to at least try Burning Wheel.

5. Try at least 2 new games
Indeed! Poison'd, A Penny For My Thoughts and Zombie Cinema immediately come to mind. I'm glad I tried them. I'm still undecided about buying Penny, but the Aussie dollar is strong at the moment...

So that was my 2009 wishlist, just about wrapped up. It was ambitious and I didn't achieve all of it, but I managed most of it. 2010 has its own wishlist, and you'll just have to wait to find out what it is.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Chess, Warhammer Style

Turn sequence is an important part of any game. The order of initiative is established by some games to reflect the abilities of characters, and it's a common mechanism. The idea of each player taking a turn in sequence is seen as a fair system to arbitrate the activity of players. Nevertheless, it has some problems.

The biggest problem is the downtime for other players. In a group of four or more players, with complex characters in a system that allows for loads of options, any player who uses their turn to deliberate will enlarge the downtime for others. I've not yet read a game system that forbids this, meaning that the system allows for long, deliberate turns that make other players snooze or reach for books and other distractions.

Once, I heard an actual play recording of Escape Or Die! by Fred Hicks. The game includes a mechanism to help with this problem. Play moved around the circle, with each player framing a scene for the character on the left. In the background, a timer was counting down a number of minutes (one less than the number of remaining characters). If the timer expired, Doom was increased by one. The only way to reset the timer was to make a complete lap around the circle of players. Listening to the game, I enjoyed the tension of the doom clock and the chorus of "Doooooom!" when it reached zero. I also remember one player who liked to narrate long, drawn-out scenes and actions - oh the frustration! His penchant for elaboration chewed into that timer, leaving less and less time for others to play, but at the same time engaging the players because they knew they'd have less time to frame a scene and act it out.

Another choice is a game I've neither played nor read: Sons of Liberty. From what I can glean here and there, there are no turns, in the sense that I've discussed above. If you have cards in your hand that let you take an action, you can play your turn. If anyone spots an actual play recording of this, let me know. I can only imagine the potential chaos.

Board games typically make use of a turn sequence. Monotony, er... Monopoly is the classic example. It not only has a lengthening downtime, it also has a horribly demotivating death spiral. I don't play it for those two reasons. It's rarely fun for everyone.

If you're wondering about the significance of this on your favourite games, and perhaps thinking that I'm spilling a lot of pixels for no real benefit, consider changing the turn sequence mechanism of chess. Chess has alternating turns in which each player is allowed to move a single piece (complex moves like Castling notwithstanding). Now suppose you were to play chess with the same turn structure as Warhammer. Players take it in turns but on each turn can move every piece once. What does that do to your chess strategy? [1]

Perhaps take it further and apply a Sons of Liberty approach. You can move one piece at a time, but you can keep moving pieces as fast as you can move your hand from a finished move to another piece. What does that do to your chess game?

The mechanism for turn sequence has far ranging effects on the game. It's the framework for the framework, so to speak. In thinking about my own game-in-development, this is a key area I've yet to decide upon. At the moment I'm ruminating over the Escape Or Die! concept and a highly procedural concept (e.g., A Penny for my Thoughts). We'll just have to see how it goes.

1. Conversely, what would it do to your Warhammer strategy if you could move only one piece or squad in your turn?

Friday, 4 December 2009

John Cleese on Creativity

OK, all you budding game designers. Take about 11 minutes out of your day to watch this. It's John Cleese speaking about his experiences and thoughts on creativity. He has plenty of credibility in this area, as one of the Monty Python writers, so I hope you can learn from him for your own game design.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Mature Appreciation

Something I've noticed about indie gamers (and especially indie game designers) is that they seem to bring a maturity to the table. I don't mean that they're immune to making fart jokes or anything like that, but that they seem more inclined to be there for the game and for the overall experience of the game as the designer intended.

I could go so far as to characterise this as a willingness to experience someone else's work. It reminds me of the approach taken by some art lovers who go to galleries in order to understand what someone else has created. It requires that the viewer make the effort to really see the piece, to know the context in which the piece was created, and to explore the feelings stirred up by the piece.

This is not my argument for the proposition that RPGs are art. What I'm saying here is that I've noticed in many indie gamers the same form of appreciation as is evident in people who appreciate art. It's a maturity that wants to understand someone else's opinion and perspective, and I like it.