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Board Game Prototyping

Iterative game design claims that prototyping is the best way to design and fine-tune gameplay. It’s probably true, but you have to be very careful with the gap between the game design and prototype. How to translate a prototype into a videogame?

Iterative game design claims that prototyping is the best way to design and fine-tune gameplay. It’s probably true, but you have to be very careful with the gap between the game design and prototype.

I’m prototyping my Texas Chainsaw Massacre 4-player horror videogame with a 5-player board game. In the videogame, all players cooperate against a non-player antagonist. In the prototype, 4 players cooperate against the antagonist, controlled by the fifth player. This schema allows an extra single-player videogame mode in which the player controls the antagonist. Just in case someone wants to take a look from the dark side. 

Focusing on the 4 player cooperative board game prototype, each player creates a player character choosing its sex, age, health, intelligence, sex-appeal, skills and past relationships with other player characters (brother/sister, boy/girlfriend, ex-boy/girlfriend or best friend). Sex, age, intelligence and sex-appeal are only aesthetic attributes. Health determines the number of attacks that a player character can receive before being knocked out.  And for the skills, each player picks up a card from the skills deck. Each skill card provides the ability to perform a concrete action (attack + 1, free or heal a player character, run or hide).

In order to introduce mild competitive dynamics within the cooperative group of player characters, each player picks up a card from the objectives deck. Objectives (maximize clues, maximize love/hate relationships, minimize relationships, minimize damage taken/captures) are supposed to be secret in order to enhance egoistical choices which add some extra spice to game choices. Are you sacrificing a health point for your girlfriend? What if you’ve got the minimize damage taken objective? And what if she has the maximize love/hate relationships objective and she’s planning to broke up? In the prototype, it’s easy for each player to keep the objective card secret and take meaningful choices. But in the videogame, there’s only one screen for all players. If the screen shows the objectives, they will no longer be secret since all players could see them at once.

This little inconvenient becomes a real issue in multi-player game design. Videogames with a single screen display for all players can’t use partial information in their game design. That’s not exactly a problem per se. Most cooperative multi-player games are not affected, since we can assume players share all game information. But for competitive multi-player games we need to tackle the lack of partial information.

In my little board game prototype, the easiest solution is to make objectives common to all players. Instead of keeping the objective card secret, all cards are shown as a common set of objectives for all players. At the end of the game, if a player has achieved an objective gains an extra reward. There’s a primary choice between being cooperative or going for the competitive objectives. And there’s a secondary choice between going for one or many objectives. So there’s still secret partial information, but it’s only in the player’s mind. This common objective dynamic enhances both cooperative-competitive role shifting and dynamic player alliances.

Another important issue is storytelling. Since all TexasChainsaw Massacre movies begin with a group of youngsters arriving at the land of evil, it seems natural that all player characters begin at the initial location (the highway). The van in which they were travelling needs to be repaired. While the players search some help, they find horrifying clues and secondary characters that finally lead to the evil antagonist.

In order to mimic this archetypical horror story structure, some game locations require that the players pick up a random story event card. Story event cards (minor antagonist encounter, clue/object/hideout discovery, trap, stumble, split up from other player characters, escape) provide some conflicts which force the players to make meaningful choices. Therefore, the main storyline of the game is randomly generated while the player characters move through the game board.

Outcome rules (rules that specify when the game ends) also define the game interactive story: 

  1. Failure outcome rule: if all player characters are captured or dead, the game ends.
  2. Victory outcome rule: if a player reaches an escape story event, come back to the highway and declares to run away, the game ends.

And yet remains the last element of storytelling: the evil antagonist. All 4 players are cooperating against a common enemy which in the game board prototype is controlled by another player. The player controlling the antagonist can chase the youngsters, capture them in two predefined locations (the basement and the shed) or kill them with the chainsaw. The behavior of the antagonist clearly defines the game story. In the board game prototype this leads to different play styles and different story structures, which will be translated into different rules or AI algorithms for the antagonist. A torture-oriented antagonist will certainly capture player characters and slowly kill them, while a slaughter-oriented antagonist will make no hostages. How can I make that into a videogame? I’m still wondering.

Certainly, there’s a lot of prototyping going on. And it’s difficult to see how it will translate to an XBOX 360 videogame.

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