Design Blog 03 – Tabletop Maize
Today I’m going to continue with the design stuff and talk about a pretty cool step in the design process. It’s a good idea before you start into the long period of building your game to try and find out if it’s actually any fun to play. But how can you find out what your video game will be like before you make it? Well, you can’t. But what you can do is make it in a different form. A form that is incredibly cheap and can be made in a day – a board game! In addition to being cheap and quick to make, once you have a board game version of your game if you want to test out a new item or mechanic you can, with pen and paper, test it out with this version instead of spending time and resources adding it into the game with no idea of how well it will fit.
And so that is what we did. Before we started working on the project as it is now, we made a Maize board game. This was an incredibly fun task as a favourite pastime amongst the team is board game nights. The rules of the game have changed several times, due to it being too easy, or bordering on impossible. It’s all about finding the balance of difficulty and fun. They are likely to change again, but here are some of the features of the game as they stand now.
The first step was to find the main mechanics of the game and think of a way to represent them in a board game format. For the procedurally generated layout, I looked to games like Zombies and Carcassonne, which instead of having a set board, build up the play area from decks of tiles, shuffed each time so the map is always different. So Simon and I sat down with some paper and pencils and spent an inordinate amount of time cutting out paper tiles and drawing ruled (well, ruled at first, eventually we got lazy) squares and little details on them.
The board is built up from two decks of tiles; one for corridors and the other for rooms. Each tile has nine squares on it. The player character (pictured below) occupies one of these squares at a time.
The player has a viewing distance of one tile and tiles are placed as the game goes on based on visibility, e.g as the player can see them. For example in the picture below, the end pieces are placed as the player has a line of sight to them but as he is not in the centre no piece has been added to the right as he cannot see it.
As the game goes on the board gradually becomes a sprawling maze.
Deciding how the game would actually be played was tricky, as our game is a real time first person game, and real time board games are rare to the point of being almost non existent. Some way was needed to represent the time the player would spend moving about and exploring the ship and also the random element of them messing up (e.g running into a wall, deciding which route to take, getting stuck or lost). The system that ended up being used for this was an action point system (Taken from the wonderful XCOM/Fallout games). At the start of each player turn the player rolls a d6 (that’s just a six sided die for all you non tabletop gamers out there), and the result of this roll determines their action points for this turn. These points can be spent on movement, picking up items, opening/closing/locking doors, etc. and are really just a representation of the time spent doing these things in the video game. The player’s turn ends either when they decide to end it or they have run out of action points.
The monster (pictured below) is not initially on the board, and is instead represented by an alertness meter. This increases as the game goes on, mainly from event cards (explained further down), a few other things and represents the time during the game when the player is not being chased by the monster but gradually increasing its awareness of them. While the alertness meter is below 10 the player just takes consecutive turns, but when it reaches 10 the monster is placed on the board a set distance from the player and the chase begins.
At this point the player and the monster alternate turns, and the monster on its turn rolls a d4 (four sided die, in case you didn’t figure it out yourself) and its action points are decided. Unlike the player however the monster spends all its points on movement and moves towards the player using the smallest number of squares available. The player can use this behaviour to help them escape, for example it takes the monster several points to break down a locked door, so it might not be the fastest route to the player, but because a door only takes up one square it will be the shortest route, and so that’s the one the monster will take. If the monster catches up to the player it’s game over, and if the player successfully hides from the monster it is removed from the board and the alertness meter is reset to 0.
While technically one player could play both roles, in the game the player will not be directly aware of how their actions are affecting the monster’s awareness of them, and so we like to have someone else play the monster, and keep the alert meter hidden from the player. This adds the element of mystery and tension that would be otherwise be missing from this version of the game.
Items and Events
In addition to the tile decks there are two decks of cards, Events and Room Cards.
Event cards are drawn at the end of the player’s turn. These are almost universally negative and represent the more random ‘things can go wrong at any time’ aspect of the game. The concept of these are based on similar features of two of my favourite board games of all time: Red November and Pandemic, brutally difficult, tense, and sometimes hilarious games. The in-game events represented by these cards are things like the player accidentally setting off an alarm, getting stuck in the floor or turning the corner and walking right into the monsters field of view. They also are mainly responsibly for incrementing the alertness counter. (In our two-player method of playing the game the monster player always draws these cards, keeping their effects hidden from the player). If the player has spent more than half (rounded up) of their action points on a particular turn, this is the equivalent of them taking a lot of action in a short amount of time in the video game, and in this case 2 event cards are drawn, otherwise only one is drawn.
Room cards are, as the name suggests cards associated with rooms in the game. When a room tile is placed down, two room cards are placed down with it. On these cards there will be one of three things:
– Item Cards
These cards are, well, items. They can be carried about by the player and activated at any time for an advantageous effect. Alternatively they could be one of the valuable key items the retrieval of which are the goal of the game.
These are best thought of as positive events. They are not picked up by the player, but stay in the room in which they were found and can be activated by the player when they’re in the room. For example, an in-game equivalent would be a TV. Not something you’d carry around with you, but you could turn it on and leave it on as a distraction for the monster, buying you time. You would of course have to be in the room at the time to set it up though.
– Hiding Spots:
Hiding spots are a valuable resource in the game as they are the only way to be rid of the monster once it’s on the board. Much like opportunities they stay in the room in which they were found. When the player activates a hiding place card (which they must be in the room to do) their turn ends, the appropriate number of event cards are drawn and the monster gets a chance to move closer. On their next turn the player rolls a d6. A six is needed for a successful hide, but this roll can be modified. For example if the monster is 7-8 squares away from the player they will have a plus 3 to their roll, while if the monster is only 1 or 2 squares away from the player they will need to roll a natural six.
Wow that was a long blog, thanks if you read all of it but if not I won’t hold it against you, I did get a little carried away. Anyway all this talk about the game makes me want to go play it, so I’ll see you later.