Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Six Pilgrims

I’ve diverted slightly from some of my projects at the start of the new year to pursue a quick exercise channeling some recent inspiration into a personal challenge. The inspiration came from my recent admiration of the interesting “randomizers as pieces” element of CoinAge and an urge to explore the issue of whether mechanics or theme came first in designing a game (a topic I’d like to address in a future Game Design Journal entry). The result is a quick, abstract game with a medieval theme called Six Pilgrims. I apologize in advance...this is one of those posts where I ramble through my creative process, so please bear with me.

One of the elements I liked about Coin Age was how each player’s casting of the coins served both to randomly determine what action they could take in a turn and also define the available pieces to deploy on the map. Once placed the pieced didn’t move, but played a role in the territory control aspect of the game. Using randomizers as pieces appealed to me as a concept, though I wasn’t quite sure where I’d go with that.

I wanted to experiment with an idea of using six-sided dice as both randomizers and pieces in an abstract game I could lightly overlay with some basic theme elements. I decided to use a simple gridded playing surface like a chess board, though I chose to narrow that down to six dice on a six-by-six square grid; this would accommodate my intention to use a seventh die to randomly affect dice during play. I also imposed upon myself the condition that the game rules serve both a solitaire player as well as two players head-to-head (each using six dice on the board and a seventh one on the side). For my “randomizers as pieces” element I determined that during set-up players would roll each playing-piece die and deploy it on the resulting space within a column; for instance, rolling a “4” would place that die in the fourth square up from the player’s side of the board. In this way one die would occupy each column at a variable “height.” I wanted to use a roll of the seventh die at the beginning of each turn to randomly determine one column whose die would “drop” one space, possibly even moving it off the bottom edge of the board and out of play.

I played around with a game objective motivating players to manipulate the dice on the board. Moving off the top of the board seemed diametrically opposed to the “downward” movement randomly determined at the beginning of each turn; so I settled on lateral movement, making the random “drop” each turn a nuisance and a means of eliminating pieces that might score at the game’s end. I decided a die could move off the right edge of the board only if all the dice lined up on the same row; for extra depth I allowed other dice of the departing die’s value to leave as well...so if a die valued at “5” departed the right edge of the board, all the other dice in the line showing “5” leave, too. This led to a short list of player actions each turn: move one die up or down one space; move one die to the right one space into an unoccupied column (possible only after dice start moving off the board); change the value of one die by one pip (to increase scoring or enable multiple, similar dice to move off the board). No action could affect the single die “dropped” by the random roll at the beginning of that turn. After outlining these rules in a far more clearly organized manner – and determining how conflicting dice would work with two opposing players – I ran a few solitaire games for myself to iron out the kinks and adjust the rules to those hastily explained above.

When creating games I generally tend to focus on a theme first – one that engages a personal interest – then develop mechanics based on a fulfilling game experience keyed to that theme. This exercise in employing a “randomizers as pieces” element proved quite the opposite of how I normally go about conceiving of and developing a game. I now had a set of mechanics I liked, but no theme to add some flavor (or even an interesting title) to an abstract set of rules.

Two generalized themes became apparent in the rules as I’d envisioned them: falling down and off the bottom of the board; and bringing the dice into alignment to “escape” off the right side of the board. I was immediately reminded of and inspired by a review of the Titanic SOS game (which fired my subsequent search for material about that game). I also thought about other themes involving evacuation or escape in my general field of interests such as history, science fiction, and fantasy, like abandoning a damaged spacecraft or leaving a doomed planet. Meh. Nothing really came together to excite me or provide some basic theme elements (like a title) to enhance the rules. I looked at the dice sitting on my chess board, thought about the medieval origins and importance of chess, and thought what general medieval setting ideas I had floating around. Then it dawned on me: it might fit the Infinite Cathedral fantasy roleplaying setting I’ve had on the back burner for a few years.

I envisioned the Infinite Cathedralas an alternate plane of existence where people were magically and inexplicably dumped from various other medieval realities, a vast expanse of mostly ruined cathedral architecture, grids of columned naves and transepts with cloisters in the spaces between them. Inhabitants (and their trapped descendents) frequently face a choice between accepting their fate and settling down in small enclaves or continuing a seemingly hopeless quest for some means of returning to their home worlds. With the religious overtones of the Infinite Cathedral and a built-in escape motif I found a thematic means of framing my abstract rules. The dice represent six pilgrims seeking to escape or “ascend” from the infinite bounds of the cathedral, with the downward mechanic symbolizing the pull of despair threatening to deter them from their quest. For one to “ascend” they must all align geographically and philosophically.

To complete this exercise I need to revise my draft rules, include a few diagrams and examples, work up a print-and-play board, and send it off to my usual keen playtesters; but overall I’m pleased with this simple diversion.

As always, I encourage constructive feedback and civilized discussion. Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.