Monday, August 21

Organic Games

I'd like to talk a little bit about my card games. I have two: one is called City Thief, or Thief in the City, or Thief: The Meta Game, and the other is called Medieval Duct Tape Combat. They are very different games, but they share certain elements: organic elements of growth and decay, elements which will be present in all games of my design, which is why my design company will be called (is called?) Organic Games.

How can a card game involve elements of growth and decay? Good question. First of all, these are not the kind of card games your grandparents played. There are no suits or ranks, pairs, runs, left bowers, bids, or any of that nonsense. These cards are made up of words: metaphors for real or imaginary things. For example, in Thief, some of the cards represent places in the City where the game takes place: a Bank, Houses, Pawn Shops, etc., or options like Hired Goons, Alarm Ringer, or Sneaky Manoever. In Medieval Duct Tape Combat, the cards represent attacks each player can use against their opponent, Vicious Two-Handed Overhead Sword Chop, perhaps. The important thing about these games is that the number of word-symbols is not limited to what was there when the players sit down to play: the pool of word-symbols, the number of concepts that are at play, gets larger as the game progresses through the direct input of the players involved. How can this happen? Simple. In Thief, certain cards allow or even require a player to add something to the game. For example, someone might draw a card called Expansion that requires them to put a new location into play, so they take a blank card, think up a suitable place, write it down along with any gameplay effects there may be, and put it into play. There are other cards a player may draw which allows them to create a card of any type. In Medieval Duct Tape Combat, creating a new card is an option available to the players at all times, and only requires the spending of a few Skill Points, which measure how much ability and momentum each player has.

In both games there are also ways cards can be destroyed: in Thief there is a card called Fire, which might destroy a location, plus there are a few cards which give players the option to destroy a card if they want to. In Medieval Duct Tape Combat, destroying the opponents cards is a key objective. From one angle, the games are about survival of the fittest: the best cards stick around, while the least effective or most vulnerable get axed.

Every card is affected by these organic processes of growth and decay, which means the games are never unchanging or static but are constantly in a state of flux. Even the rules change and grow as new cards are added and the interactions between the new and the old must be worked out. (I'm speaking mainly of Thief here, since that has had the most playtesting, and is thus the one I'm most confident in.) It is entirely possible that after several plays, none of the original cards will remain, having been completely replaced by new additions. But if this is the case, then where is the game? Is a game that has no constant elements still called a game? I think the answer is yes, but I think it's a new kind of game we haven't seen before.

I've started to think of my card games as Meta-Games, or Infinite Games: games in which the underlying structure, or skeleton, allows for the constant evolution of the cards, which are the subtance of the game. The two elements, the structure or rules and the cards themselves, form an organic whole. Players have control over what their character does during the game, but they also have limited control over the size and shape of the game itself. From James Carse's "Finite and Infite Games": "Finite players play within boundaries, infinite players play with boundaries... The task [of an infinite game] is to design rules that will allow the players to continue the game by taking limits into play... Since limits are taken into play, the play itself cannot be limited." What keeps everything together despite the constant flux of boundaries and substance is the System of game mechanics. Thief is a very flexible system that can incorporate and adapt to an enormous number of introduced concepts, a number limited only by the imagination of the players.

I've had two very successful games of Thief in the past couple of months that added lots of interesting new cards. One had seven players (Brandon, Brooke, Phil, Brooks, Peter, Emily, and myself), the other had two (me and Jesse). These games saw the introduction of a Garrotte, a Gluten-Free Bakery, a Dark Unlit House, a Twenty Dollar High, J.L.'s Pizza, a Depanneur, and a Hole in the Wall. Plus many other bugs were ironed out and new ideas were tossed around and some adopted. I find it so exciting to see what contributions each player might come up with. For me, when I play the game I see a city like London of the Sherlock Holmes stories, with gas-lit lamps and hansom cabs, and so I introduce cards that reflect that scenario. But others, who may picture a more contemporary city, add things relevant to that vision, such as a Palm Pilot©. The Palm Pilot© was one of the first cards added to the game by someone other than myself (by Jeff), and it's still around after more than three years. So far players have not had much difficulty adding new cards to the game: they just take a look around the city they have in their imagination, pick something that would make that city more fun or more real to them, and then write it down on a card.

One of the things that I like most about Thief is that nobody has to get it right the first time. Nothing is true, everything is permitted. Hanni added a card that allowed a player to do something he called Networking, but he didn't specify what that meant. He started the Networking meme, and he knew someone down the road would come up with a good idea to finish it. Nothing yet, though. Perhaps when more than one player is Networking, they can work together to make a break in. The point is, ideas can be started but they don't have to be finished. Everything can be changed around, so if something doesn't work right away, that's no problem. If you are reading this and are interested in playing, perhaps because you have an idea for what Networking does, drop me a line. I'm always up for a game.


At 11:29 PM, Blogger Johnathan said...

I very much want to play your games with you, you far-away swine. As well, I want to play this:
Which always reminds me of a proto-Tubby game.


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