November 2, 2011

Opening Arguments: Designing the Witch Trial

I've decided to steam ahead full on my design of Witch Trial, the sudden urgency being that this is National Game Design Month and I desire so much to be cool and hip. And what better way than to design a board game in a month!

I wrote about Witch Trial previously, but to save you time here's a quick summary. Initially, I wanted to create a detective game. I love Law and Order: SVU and CSI: Miami. They are just fun. But, I didn't want to make a game based in modern times. I feel it's not exciting or different enough. I love history, so I began thinking about mystery-like novels such asUmberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. From this, a friend suggested the witch scene from Monty Python's The Holy Grail. From there, I took the concept of a witch trial, picked colonial Salem, Massachusetts as a setting, and decided the game would be about the trial itself, not the discovery or the escape, but the trial.

I have been trained at work to design very quickly due to deadlines. However, designing board games are my hobby, so I take my time. Really, I work in two phases: concept and design.

My goals for the concept phase are to pick a theme, a few core mechanics, number of players, time to play the game, and general flow and feel of the game. Basically, my concept phase is when I put a line in the sand for high level and philosophical concepts that will guide the rest of the game. This phase takes me days, weeks, sometimes months. I often do it passively, and by that I mean my best ideas come to me when I'm walking my dog and I stop to write them on my iPhone. Or when I'm in the shower. Or when I'm running. I don't set a deadline on this phase and I don't force it.

Interestingly enough, my game's best ideas and often the things I change the least are created during this lazy, lethargic phase.

Here's what I have currently for Witch Trial:

Two-player game. Farmageddon is 2-4 and Frontier Scoundrels is 3-5 players. I've played some incredibly good games lately that are either two players only, or work well with two players. In particular, Mr. Jack in New York. I thought focusing on two players would provide me with a new design challenge, but also, would focus the game. Besides, if one player is the prosecution and the other the defense, I'm not sure there's room for a third or fourth.

Courtroom Entities. I want there to be various courtroom entities the two players must manipulate, work around, and compete over. In a way it's an area control mechanic, but I also want these entities to have a certain amount of life to them. In electronic games we'd refer to them as NPCs. For Witch Trial, this means the judge, whom you might manipulate for short-term parliamentary trickery. It means the jury members. It means the witch on the stand and witnesses you call forth.

Deckbuilding. I know, I know. This is the flavor of the month (year?) and there's a lot of me too games. But, I think deckbuilding is a brilliant mechanic. I think it's a mechanic we've just barely explored -- hell, most of the me-twos are just inferior Dominion clones. Eminent Domain brought in several new elements that made it compelling. Princess of the Dragon Throne uses deckbuilding and based on the description it sounds amazing. A friend of mine created an excellent racing game that's based upon a deckbuilding mechanic. Another friend in my board game group just bought a war game that uses a deckbuilding mechanic. Ultimately, I feel that saying I'm going to go with a deckbuilding mechanic is no better or worse than me saying I'm building a game with dice. It's a tool to create an experience.

A few things made deckbuilding compelling for me. One, I really like it. Two, the phrase "build your case" came to me rather quickly and it just seemed perfect for the setting. You're the defense lawyer trying to prove your client's innocence. How will you do it? How will you stop the prosecution?

I fully realize I need to create something new. I'm not sure I'll have a big, killer new mechanic, but I believe it's perfectly fine to create several small, cohesive changes that create a different experience on the whole. Blizzard has been doing this for years!

Most deckbuilding games start each player with identical cards every game. For Witch Trial,  the prosecution and defense will begin with one or two unique cards each game that are incredibly powerful if used correctly. I've really wanted to build in such a mechanic to guide a player's strategy for a while now and I think this is a right place to do it. I believe this is one of the features that the Alien Frontiers: Factions expansion adds and if so, awesome.

I also want players to interact more with each other. I love Dominion, but I don't love how in each game the players can play in isolation, then come back and say "hey, my strategy earned X points. How about yours?" This doesn't mean I want this to be a sucker punch, "haha my cards are better" type game. I more intend this to be a bit of a cat and mouse, chess-like experience where you have a strategy, you work to execute it, but also work to counter your opponent's. I think the fact that this is a two-player game will help this further. I know all too well how hard it is to balance a game with three players get to take a turn before you get to go again.

I also think there is something interesting about having more single-use cards, or single-use options. Alien Frontiers does this with alien tech, in that each card has a useful option that you may use every turn, or an incredibly powerful option that you must discard the card to use. Dominion does this with a few cards and Ascension gives you a way to get rid of bad cards and trim your deck. I want to make this a more common element to bring the sense of timing more forward.

I'd like some of your decisions to span multiple turns. Again, many current deckbuilding games have very little persistence aside from your deck. I want to do something that will change what you do on your turn in a more meaningful, dramatic way. This is perhaps a component of the single-use mechanic I listed above. I get to use a card once, but deciding when to use it, and on whom, is the real issue.

Finally, I currently envision a mechanic where you build favor with the jury then spend it to create a big combo. If you have 4 of 6 jurors believing every word you say, then perhaps it's time to reveal the key element of your case. Or is it? The challenge is whether I can make this system robust enough where it's not just a matter of building up the jury and cashing in a card. How can I make the jury a tool but also a liability? How can I factor the judge and witnesses into this?

Components. This will be primarily a card-based game. However, I want to get some nice colored wooden tokens for the jury. I'm a big fan of cards. Initially I thought about having a dice-mechanic to modify things, but I'm leaning away from that. I'm not sure it's fun to have random drawing and random dice.

I still need to answer a few questions.

Will the witch's actual innocence or guilt factor into things, or will that be irrelevant? I think it'd be a little disappointing if the Witch was just a nameless token you were fighting over.

I'm currently trying to figure out how many decks there will be to draw from, how that's decided (like Dominion? Ascension?), and how that factors into the rest of the game. Not a small question!

What will be the phases of play? What do I do on my turn and in what order? Last night I was drawing out the play space with decks, discards, various entities, and I started thinking about how a typical turn would play out. It was a very useful exercise and I think I'll have a first pass shortly.

Next Steps
I'll need to answer some of the questions listed above and start creating some content. Facts, witnesses, questions, statements -- these are all things I need to start creating. Game design is often a chicken and egg scenario where you cannot finish your systems without some content, and you cannot complete content without systems.


Josh Edwards said...

One thing that may be interesting to do is to have cards that are useful to play from your hand, thus you would want to keep them in your deck so you can keep drawing them and playing them, but they also have the "once per game" ability where you can play them and they are no longer in your deck (bummer), but they help progress you towards swaying the jurors.

Grant said...

@Josh Yep, that is what I was thinking about. You can use it over and over as you build, or use it once for a really big move (if you do it correctly). I think that's a great choice that evolves as the game plays.

FarmerLenny said...

I really like the concept, and it's coming along nicely since your last post.

One idea that would be awesome (especially in a two-player DBG) is to have split cards--that is, a card has one effect for the defense, one for the prosecution. For example, a piece of evidence could be used to prove innocence or guilt, of varying degrees for both sides. This would foster interaction because taking a piece of evidence could be defensive or offensive.

All this to say, this idea has lots of potential; I'm excited to see what you come up with.

Grant said...

@FarmerLenny Thanks for the kind words. That's a great suggestion. I've had a floating concept about truths, i.e. elements that either side would have and your suggestion might provide the way by which I could include them. I.e. a truth means one thing for the defense, another for the prosecution. And in some cases, simply denying your opponent the card could be more effective than using it for yourself.