Inspiration for Inspiration's Sake

I've had a very interesting experience lately designing a new game and I thought it was worth sharing, as it may be a tool I use in the future, and may be something that could aid you in your efforts.

Barbarus is a design I've been working on for months and it's a solid, fine design. It isn't great, and I have doubts on whether it can be great and unique, so I took a step back. Like we did on Hocus, I evaluated the moments I really enjoyed about the design.

  • Playing cards face down.
  • The moment of the reveal of the cards.
  • Interactive, but not mean.
  • Playing cards towards a specific goal that others share.

As we did with Hocus, I set Barbarus completely aside, pulled out a deck of cards and a notebook, and begin working from those principals. I removed the Ace, King, Queen, Jack, 10, and 2 from every suit, and set the rest of the cards aside. I thought, what if each player represented a suit, and the cards all had a specific use.

I thought about the key elements of a feudal kingdom. Many of the cards leaned right into it.

  • Ace = Assassin
  • King = Ruler
  • Queen = Ambassador
  • Jack = Commander
  • 10 = Heir
  • 2 = Peasant

I then created 5 parts of the Kingdom and set the game in the midst of a civil war. Four lords, or houses, capturing parts of the Kingdom to ascend to the throne.

While iterating on the game after a few tests, I realized something: I effectively created Dune. Yes, Dune, the phenomenal, groundbreaking science fiction novel based on the desert world Arrakis and the Great Houses subservient to the Padishah Emperor Shaddam the IV. Dune is my favorite book, one that I've read 3 or more times, and one of my favorite fictions. It's probably not too surprising that I subconsciously stumbled into a design that abstracts it.

I'm not the only one who takes such inspiration. Just last year, San Francisco artist Tom Kraky drew extensively within the universe. You can see his Part 1 and Part 2. If you Google "Dune Illustrations," and variations on that search, you will see hundreds of pieces from so many artists. Some just illustrate the Fremen, or the sandworms, or the Baron Harkonnen. Others draw Stilgar and Count Fenring and the Sardaukar.

The key, is that unlike Star Wars or Lord of the Rings or Star Trek there has never been a definitive representation of the book in a visual medium. The world is so strange, so unique, and so alien, that it's open to literally infinite interpretations.

It's a wonderful garden for creativity.

It's also more or less an impossible license. Not that I have the capital to obtain any famous IP, I certainly cannot obtain one that Fantasy Flight Games was unable to get. Therefore, obviously, this isn't really a Dune game.

But, there is so much killer inspiration for mechanisms.

  • The galaxy is a feudal one, with Great Houses owning their planets, at the behest of the Emperor, who oversees it all.
  • The Emperor's power stems from his command of the Sardaukar -- the greatest soldiers in the galaxy.
  • All the Great Houses are reigned in by the Guild -- the only faction with control to interplanetary travel. Even the Emperor cannot land his army if the Guild doesn't allow it.
  • None of the Great Houses have technology like thinking computers, so they have humans trained and conditioned to be computers. Mentats.
  • The Bene Gesserit work from the shadows forming alliances to work towards their plans generations in the making.
  • Open warfare is difficult, so the great houses use assassins, forbidden technology, and other subtle methods to exact revenge and negotiate the hard way.
  • Everyone requires the Spice Melange, a substance that allows every faction their powers, but only comes from a single planet.

Effectively, every faction is balanced by another faction. There is open warfare, diplomacy, betrayal, and assassinations. It's a brilliant universe.

I've been using this universe to inspire my thinking, to create new mechanisms, introduce subtle asymmetric balance to represent the Harkonnen preference for Assassination or the Atreides focus on loyalty.

Had I sought to replicate "fantasy" or "science fiction," I might have found some of these ideas, but not others. By referencing Dune, and using a fiction I know incredibly well and love even more, I was able to quickly come up with good, compelling ideas that were exciting to me.

For your next design, or even your current one, consider choosing a favorite book, movie, or comic to inspire you. Peg your design to that world and see where it leads you. The goal isn't to obtain the license, but to use your familiarity and passion for an exciting new idea. In the end, I won't be selling or pitching a Dune game. I'll be pitching one about intrigue and secret moves and deduction. But, the first few chapters are definitely steeped in a brilliant world imagined by one of the greats.

Perhaps you might benefit similarly?