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Digital Drama - More Lessons from the Tabletop

What if the drama of Game of Thrones was made into a multiplayer video game? I examine this question by looking at how several recent board games have gone beyond getting players playing together into actually telling compelling stories.

Cross-posted from Glenalysis game design blog.



The Multiplayer Experience

      I'm a big fan of competitive, online multiplayer games. The thrill of a competition of wits and reflexes against another human being has a great visceral appeal, and makes the experience fresh and interesting every time. Yet in the interest of diversity, I have found other multiplayer experiences just as engaging, and perhaps more so, in the realm of tabletop gaming. While lacking the twitch-based gameplay of an electronic game, they compensate in other ways by offering a deeper gameplay experience that creates not just competition, but drama, among the players, something I have rarely really seen explored in electronic game design.

      The appeal of these "drama" board games goes beyond the creature comfort of live people gathered around a table. The mechanics they employ actually force interesting conflicts and dilemmas among the players, ones that requires as much skill in diplomacy as they do in strategy, and forge stronger, more memorable connections between players.

      Consider Game of Thrones, an excellent example of compelling drama. The interplay between characters, the unexpected betrayals, the struggle for power, all of these make for a memorable and engrossing experience for the audience. Is it possible to create a multiplayer game that could create this kind of drama?

Tales of the Tabletop
      While perhaps not quite on the scale of the war for the Iron Throne, there are several board games out there with some interesting design decisions that can create compelling conflicts among the players, beyond a simple struggle for the highest score. Moreover, some of these choices seem to fly in the face of conventional electronic game design, yet nonetheless work brilliantly. Perhaps in analyzing these ideas we may yet discover a way to translate their magic into the digital realm.

  • Cosmic Encounter - The Rise and Fall of Power
          Traditionally in online multiplayer games, the goal of a game designer is to make sure that every race, class, or equivalent choice is kept in balance with one another. No one should have an overwhelming advantage over the other, allowing the game to be focused on skill rather than luck. This concept goes back as far as even the rules of most sports, where everyone plays by the same rules and fairness is the main tenet of those rules.

          A game like Cosmic Encounter challenges this notion by deliberately making some races more powerful than others. When I first came across the Virus in an earlier edition of the game, I was convinced this game wasn't properly playtested and that this race was blatantly imbalanced. Yet my opinion changed in the newer Fantasy Flight edition of the game, where they started labeling races on how difficult they were to play, from green for easiest to red for hardest.

          Strangely, the races with the most powerful abilities end up being the hardest ones to play. This is because regardless of how strong your alien power may be, creating alliances and striking deals with other players is essential for your success. Being able to dominate in armed conflicts does you little good if every other player in the game has ganged up against you. This "imbalance" also creates interesting scenarios where players playing one of the "weaker" races can have some fulfilling underdog moments, conquering their more powerful rivals.

          Beyond alien powers are a variety of cards with the ability to dramatically turn the tables if used at the right time. Cards like "Card Zap" which can temporarily disable an opponent's alien power, or "Mobeus Tubes" which can make everyone get their lost ships back can quickly derail someone's plans and force them to have to rethink their strategy. It is this volatility that makes for dramatic turnarounds and can level the playing field between competitive and casual players.

  • Battlestar Galactica - Trust and Secrets
          Cooperative games can be a great way to bring people together and to have a good time, especially if its among friends. The sense of shared triumph is a powerful drive for both electronic and tabletop games alike. But what if there was a saboteur in your midst, secretly plotting the destruction of the rest of the team?

          This is the conflict that Battlestar Galactica brings to the table. Among your crew of human survivors is a Cylon, a humanoid robot secretly plotting the demise of humanity. While the humans are trying to stop Crises from decimating their precious resources, Cylons are actively trying to make it happen, making a major part of the human's success hinging on figuring out who is a Cylon.

          This element is built upon two mechanics. The first is loyalty cards. Each player is given a secret loyalty card at the start of the game to determine if they are a human or Cylon. So long as a Cylon remains unrevealed, they are able to act and perform the same actions as any other human. If they choose to reveal, they can utilize a special action on their loyalty card (such as locking someone in the brig), and then begin to send even more dangers at the humans. That said, a hidden Cylon can do far more harm than a Cylon in the open.

          This mechanic works alongside the mechanic of Crisis Checks. At the end of every player's turn, a Crisis card is revealed, often requiring a crisis check to determine its success or failure. To win a crisis check, players must contribute enough cards so that the total sum of the value of those cards meets or exceeds the difficulty of the crisis. Each Crisis has a list of valid colors that count in favor of the check, with all other colors counting against.
          Each player has their own hand of cards, and draws cards of particular colors/types each turn based on their character. Galen, for instance, draws 1 Politics, 2 Leadership, and 2 Engineering each turn. When a player contributes cards to the Crisis check, they do so in secret, and cannot reveal how much they are contributing. After each player has submitted cards or abstained, two cards are added from the destiny deck, a randomized deck containing two of each card type. All of the crisis check cards are then shuffled, and the cards counting for or against are tallied up to see if the Crisis is averted.

          The trick comes down to figuring out who is the most likely person to have thrown in the wrong cards for the check. Knowing what kind of cards each character can get gives you a hint of who it might be, but with the randomess of the destiny deck one can never be certain. Thus much of the drama of the game is in carefully scrutinizing everyone's actions and determining who might be the Cylon (or Cylons).

          Thus comes the second major element of the game - information. While most of the time you will be trying to deduce whether the other players are Cylons or not, there are a few ways players are able to gain access to information no one else have. The "Launch Scout" card, for instance, allows a player to peak at the next Crisis or Destination card and decide whether to put it on the bottom of the deck or keep it on top. Other abilities allow you to see other people's loyalty cards. When combined with the drama of trust the game evokes, it creates a compelling tension toward working with a character that has access to secret information, while still being suspicious of them.

  • Twilight Imperium - Uneasy Alliances
          Twilight Imperium adds a bit more nuance to the drama of trust BSG goes for. The goal of every game is to reach 10 victory points, which are earned by completing various objectives. Players select these objectives from objective cards, with some being public for all other players to see, and others are hidden from all but the player that took them. These objectives can vary from producing a certain number of ships, controlling specific planets, obtaining a certain number of trade goods, or many others. Thus often it is less about players contending over a single, zero-sum objective, but are pursuing many various paths that may or may not be in direct conflict with one another.
          This creates an interesting dynamic where not only is the line between friend and foe blurred, but players are given only partial information to make decisions on their would-be friends or foes. Thus the game becomes about taking risks and examining many parallel victory paths in order to succeed at your own while thwarting others.

The Power of People
      At the heart of each of these game's dramatic mechanics is tension between competing elements, working like a tug-of-war against each other. For Cosmic Encounter, this is in-game power of a player versus their skill with diplomacy. For Battlestar Galactica, it is trusting your team versus being suspicious. For Twilight Imperium it is knowledge versus the unknown. Each of these elements of tension create a constant sense of suspense for players, and puts the players themselves in the spotlight, rather than the game itself.

      But to have true player-driven drama, it is not enough just to have elements of tension. Most any game has them, from RTSes where you must manage how many workers versus fighting units to build, to survival horror games where you must ration your bullets and health items. To make the players the heroes and villains of your drama, very specific elements must be considered.

The Pillars of Player-Driven Drama
      Thus if one was to make a player drama game, here is perhaps a few things to consider:

  • Complex Interdependence
          In order to create a compelling drama, there must be a compelling reason for players to work together and interact with each other, beyond simple chatter or as an extra body to fight a boss. To do this, you need to give players the ability to bring something unique to the table, be that information, or some special ability, or some other like element.

          In terms of tension, there must also be a reason to distrust or be wary around other players as well. This encourages players to keep an eye on each other, indirectly making players work more closely together (and perhaps grow closer as friends). It also sets up for a memorable moment when you find out your once great BFF was planning to stab you in the back the whole time.

          The trick is making the game have the right kind of pacing to allow players to attend to their own actions while still being able to scrutinize others. Tabletop games solve this by having the game be turn-based, which gives players plenty of downtime to be able to watch what other people are doing and form strategies.

          For video games, this same effect can be accomplished through appropriate pacing of the game flow. Compare the non-stop action of something like Team Fortress 2 to the more punctuated action of an RTS game like Starcraft 2. In TF2, you all but need to have voice chat on and multitask to find out what's going on and what you need to do. For SC2, though, because you have many non-confrontational actions at your disposal (expanding, teching, scouting), there is plenty of time to be able to get a read on your opponent and/or your allies.

  • A Different Kind of Balance
          One commonality between many drama-oriented board games is that while there is an element of competition, they are not heavily skill-based. While experienced player may have an edge over a novice one, randomness levels the playing field by giving the opportunity for that novice player to pull out ahead, or for the more experienced player to suffer a setback.

          Having unexpected things occur is one of the major hallmarks of dramatic storytelling, and thus adds a sense of excitement when they come up. The challenge for a designer comes in making a game that, while random, gives players just the right amount of control what happens, provide equal opportunity for success and failure for everyone, and ensure that regardless of your luck, the game is still interesting.

          It's important for players to feel like they are in control, and that they can put their well-earned power in the game to good use. This is something Cosmic Encounter does very well, as players can look at their cards and plan ahead what their next few turns might look like. While there are unexpected events in the game, the player has enough control so they know when they are making a risky move vs playing safe.

          Contrast this to a game like Talisman, which does not handle randomness nearly as well. The player has almost no control over the outcome of the game, with luck being more based on the roll of the dice than a player's cunning. Worse still is that it is very easy for advantages or disadvantages to snowball and cause massive disparities among players. While perhaps good for lighthearted entertainment, it is not the best approach when creating a dramatic game.

  • The Blank Slate
          Alongside randomization, having the games be session-based, rather than persistent, opens up a lot of doors in the dramatic realm. For one, even if a player has a terrible time one game, there is always the incentive to come back in the hopes that they're luck would turn around next time. It also allows players to reach much greater heights of power and success in the game without causing a major imbalance.

          Competitive multiplayer games have done this for years, but it is much less common for larger social and MMO games, which instead opt for persistence. While people certainly enjoy creating their own customized cities and worlds in social games, or gradually accumulating in power by gaining loot in an MMO, I feel like this undermines the dramatic element of the game.

          Games with a lot of ups and downs, where players can achieve great feats within the span of a couple hours, tend to have much more emotional richness when compared to the much slower pace of persistent games. It is the difference between having a great, memorable time and forging new friendships vs forming a pick-up group to do a routine quest with people you will likely never speak to again.

          You could make the argument that those games are designed that way to keep people hooked as long as possible, and to keep them coming back. I would argue that just as many people come back again and again in multiplayer games too, even over a decade after the game's release (like Starcraft). Perhaps it is time to re-examine the idea of persistence in these genres, if only for a little more variety.


Livening Things Up
      Some people play games to escape their stressful and busy lives. Others come to games because their lives are boring and would like to liven things up. For those in the second camp, who wouldn't want a tumultuous drama of fueding families, deception, and hidden plots? I think we are sorely lacking dramatic games in the digital world, and I think we should seek to change that.

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