Literary Game Design 2: Designing Conflict

Sometimes, you can be working on the same idea from two different angles, and it takes you a while to realize it. The previous article, Games as Stories, was one angle. I’m also starting a new game design, and was getting a bit overwhelmed with everything that I was trying to do at once. I started looking at some of the basic ways I was trying to make the game interesting. And I noticed the parallels between the classes of conflict and the ways to make decisions interesting. But I called them by slightly different names. Player versus player conflict is competition. Player versus randomness conflict is just another way of saying luck. Player versus rules sets boundaries. Internal conflict of player versus self is what I call struggle. Finally, player versus feedback is difficult to name, but I think challenge is a good term for it.

Some definitions of what makes a game focus on the idea that a game is characterized by creating artificial obstacles. These forms of conflict are the obstacles. Players get frustrated by obstacles that are too hard to pass and get annoyed by obstacles that have too little resistance. So by considering these forms of conflict individually, we can be better at deciding how to use them.

In my observation, the first three categories are discussed all the time. I think that’s because they are easier to recognize, and easier to adjust. What am I doing to add competition to the game? Is interaction direct or indirect, or is there very little at all? I dislike competition in the form of combat, but I still like players to be competing during the game, not just at the end. How much does luck effect the player? Is mitigating and dealing with that randomness a big part of the game? What kind of randomness am I working with? Is I like games with low amount of luck (which doesn’t necessarily mean low randomness). What kind of barriers am I setting up for players to pass? Is it easy to do what you want to do, or does it involve a large number of steps? [I discover that I never wrote about things like game weight, depth, complication and complexity, without which this is difficult to explain precisely.] I like when game mechanisms interact and have multiple levels, with different ways around any barrier.

Struggle deserves more attention because I don’t hear much discussion about it. And maybe it is harder to implement than other forms of conflict. What are players giving up to advance? In some games, each turn puts the players closer to their end goal. But in other games, you might have turns where you actually end up worse off (in the short term). I have scrapped a lot of game designs where that path is too linear. New Bedford started too linear. You collected things, used them to get other things, and eventually collected points. But once you had to pay for whales, you had to decide whether it was more helpful to use your resources to try and build an engine, or convert them to money directly.

Challenge is another form of conflict which is hard to implement, because feedback is so difficult to implement well. How will players decisions impact their future options? How much control do players have once a chain of events has been put into motion? The “feed your people” mechanism used in many worker placement games is one of the prime examples of this. An extra worker increases your ability to do stuff in the future, but also requires you to do more stuff to support it. Once you start down that road, you can be worse off if you don’t keep at it.

So let me consider some of these categories of conflict with the new game I’m working on. For competition I have some aspects of worker placement with limited-use actions. I am also including a number of different areas to claim on the board, that will encourage players to race to finish them. I usually have trouble coming up with good competition unless my core mechanic includes it from the start. I think putting it in afterwards is much more difficult and frequently results in lazy design. So I’m hoping that I have enough competition and not too many things to do on the board.

For luck, I’m rolling dice to use as workers. I’ve been trying to do more with dice because there are a lot of games that use dice in a way I don’t like. While Stone Age does interesting stuff by effectively assigning different numbers of dice for different purposes, too often I found that the dice rolls took away my agency. [The degree to which players find that fun varies, but it makes a game really unenjoyable for me]. Marco Polo, on the other hand, handled dice really well, and I never felt like I had a bad roll, but there was still conflict trying to decide how to use them. So I’m aiming for something that incorporates some of the best features of both those games and a few more.

For barriers, I’m creating several levels of task that need to be completed. You need to collect resources, then use them to create a secondary resource. The secondary resource can be used in multiple ways to get to points, if you’ve created a powerful enough secondary resource. [I’m being purposefully vague about the theme until I have the game in a more playable state]. You also need certain dice rolls and combinations of dice to accomplish different tasks. I suspect I may need one other level of obstacle, which may become clearer as I start playing.

I’m still a little light on the struggle. Players aren’t giving up much of their collected resources or progress to advance. It’s mostly giving up opportunity to take different actions, when there are many you want to take. I need to find more ways of making players give up resources that they wouldn’t otherwise want to or have to give up, so that players are trying to decide how to use them. It will probably involve forcing the player to continue to use resources so they have to decide if they can afford the future cost.

Finally, for challenge, almost every task leads towards gaining some kind of advancement that changes your abilities. There will be ways to collect dice and use them more often, which changes a lot of the economy within the game. But other actions reward different paths, so it may be worth it more to focus on a path or to spread out. And as with the struggle, the continued resource requirements will hopefully also lead to levels of feedback where you might realize that you don’t have enough resources when it’s too late to do anything about it.

These decisions give me the core for what I want the game to be. It’s far from a complete game design, in fact, it is only the barest beginning of one. As I flesh out the theme, these goals give me an outline that I my design choices should fit into. Competition. Luck. Boundaries. Struggle. Challenge. Each new element should reinforce or rely on one of these core areas of conflict, and the theme will guide how they fit together. I think that’s an important point of my heavier designs [as this game is to be]: the theme will be integrated with the core decision process, so that each form of conflict feels appropriate to my theme. And now I really need to start working on that, because I wanted to have a working prototype by August, and it’s going to be a case of designer versus clock, for me to get this done on the schedule I’ve set for myself. But at least I have a good start.

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