Designing for Special

I discovered a new PC game this week that has completely captured my imagination. This doesn't happen very often these days. About five years ago I more or less stopped playing video games as a typical hobby, opting instead to read, go for a walk, and most commonly, design tabletop games. The problem is that I've seen, well, everything. I can only play the same shooter so many times. 

The game that captured me is Holdfast: Nations at War, by Anvil Game Studios. You find find it on Steam for $19.99 in Early Access. Although it is early access, it feels quite polished. It's more that it lacks feature than it lacks quality. The game is a massive scale (150 players) third person shooter set in the Napoleonic Wars. You will act as a lone infantryman or officer on the British or French side. You will fire woefully inaccurate and shortranged muskets, you will reload slowly, and you will charge with a bayonet. 

It's amazing. The reason, is that it's so unique. Instead of the game telling you "this 10 meter by 10 meter patch of ground is worth 10 points per second," you'll naturally gravitate and fight desperately for positions in hills, or ruined courtyards. Players with headphones will take on the roll as officers. They will call for men to form a line - and people do! - and along with a banner carrier, a drummer, and a fifer, we'll march together to a hill, form line, and fire when ordered. It isn't just the lovely bit of roleplaying, but the fact that these tactics are fun, satisfying, and effective. A well coordinated charge will take the position. If you can form up and hold, more men can join you and you can flank, then take the next position.

The game is special.

Below, you can see us firing from a hill in the line with our officer standing dutifully behind us. You can see the bodies of comrades knocked out by cannot shot or well-placed shots. 

Below this, you can see us charging together. You can see my officer to the left, the puffs of smoke in the distance, and the ruins we hope to take.

Although I don't suspect this will happen in tabletop for me any time soon, particularly due to the wealth of titles still being released and older ones yet to be played, it is something I think about constantly as a designer. There are so many set collection games, particularly on Kickstarter. When I see one, I immediately ask "why is this better than Coloretto? If not better, different?" Every few years when a trick taker blows up, everyone shows up with a trick taker. Again, I ask why it's better? Why it's unique? The key here is not that you slightly twist one thing, but make changes that meaningfully change the experience of the genre.

Holdfast does that. Titanfall does that. Warcraft III did it for the RTS genre. World in Conflict did brilliant things for the RTS multiplayer genre. 

Something Joshua and I discovered painfully while making Hocus was how difficult it is to create meaningfully different content. We had a few dozens spells that we thought we're interesting, but in hindsight, we had to admit that we'd made a few dozens ways of drawing cards. The net result was similar, if not idential. We hadn't created meaningfully different content. In the end, I believe we did, but it took a very long time. It's a lesson I won't forget, and when I play games with "variable player powers" I often find they've really offered "pointless rules variances."

Are you designing something special, or just something else? And, how does one design something special? I think it's a big challenge, but also, the incentives aren't always there. The market (both consumers and publishers) reward familiarity. Players want more of that thing they know they like, which is why we still see half-twists on the deckbuilding formula proving very profitable! If the incentive as a designer isn't there, either because you won't get signed or the market won't pay for it, why do it? I think that's the challenge and I think it's where the healthy middle ground comes into play. I don't think I've discovered it myself, though I haven't always made the best effort to do so. 

In my observation, I think there are a few good rules to which one must abide to reach this middle ground. Firstly, constrain the amount of special and innovation in a single package. If possible, pick one single neat mechanism that really stands out. Reiner Knizia's El Dorado seems to do this with their card purchasing pool. I think Concordia's neatest concept is that your deck is both your actions and your victory conditions. A Feast for Odin is a fairly simple worker placement game, but with a novel cost curve for actions and a simple tweak on the Tetris-like tile formula. 

Secondly, try to anchor your innovation to a demonstrably strong theme or a demonstrably strong mechanical genre. This makes for a far better pitch when in the elevator with a publisher or when on a shelf before a customer. Wrap your scary and new inside a deckbuilder, or drafting game, or zombie experience, or tale of knights. In many ways this is a continuation of the first point - limit your innovation, but it's a slight twist in that you're finding the right partner for your idea. 

Thirdly, your idea needs to be meaningfully different. Why should I buy your game versus Coloretto? Or Caverna? Or Call of Duty? Or League of Legends? Chances are, there's a fantastic competitor in print, with great art, and a strong publisher. Therefore, you need to be meaningfully different. I think this is where we tend to fail the most. I think we convince ourselves that our coat of paint is meaningfully different - it isn't - or that this tiny twist really changes how I place my worker - it doesn't. This is where you have to learn to be your own producer, your own shoulder devil, the one saying "Hey, this isn't really different." Many years ago I made a deckbuilder and after 8 months I had to admit I'd painstakingly crafted a worse Ascension. 

Finally, and I hate the "simple uber alles" mandate, but I think innovation with less complexity is more palatable. I think you can go too far. So far we've seen a few dice crafting games (Rattlebones, Dice Forge), but none have had enough meat to really keep people interested. Then, you have games that do not baby you and they can become the #2 game of all time. Therefore, just as easily as I can prove my point, I can also disprove it. The key is to focus your complexity in the right place. Your complexity needs to serve what makes the game special. You need to be able to defend it. The single most complex card in Five Ravens is the 6. I think there are ways to execute her more simply, and perhaps if a publisher signs the game we can explore that, but I kept her in the game because she leads to fascinating, fun, and hilarious moments. She's by far the most interesting card, so although I know she'll lead to the most rules questions, she pulls her weight around. Choose the right complexity for your new ideas. 

I think novelty and innovation is what truly grows any industry. I think it's also a low batting average. Sometimes you're going to strike out swinging, other times you'll create something remarkable. One of the benefits of tabletop versus video games is that we can experiment rapidly and at a low cost. If you're a publisher who needs to pay the bills, this may not be a priority versus paying employees, but for those of us who are creatively motivated designers, we can pave the way. Your goal should not always be to get the game signed, but sometimes to design something special. 

Schacht gave us Coloretto my sophomore year in college. We're good. 

What are you doing to make the next game with such a monumental impact?