Monday, January 13

Narrative in Games

I've had a good week of gaming this week, trying to fill the hole left in my life by the absent wife and daughter. Last weekend I made it to Newcastle Gamers for their all day session on Saturday (it was my first visit in months!) and then Dave came round on Sunday night for X-Wing minis. Monday and Thursday were Games Nights, Saturday was Newcastle Gamers again and Sunday we played Twilight Imperium :-) On top of all that, Tuesday I played Codename: Vacuum at lunchtime with Dave and then in the evening it was Newcastle Playtest.

What struck me about the beginning of the week (and Twilight Imperium!) was the stand out games had great narratives. During play you felt like you were telling a story. On Saturday I'd played A Study in Emerald, Snowdonia and Battlestar Galactica among others. Those three stood out for the clearly defined story we were telling. Sunday's X-Wing minis was a blast and Dave loved it so much that he was still singing its praises at work on Monday to anyone who'd listen. We'd played three games: the introductory game, then a 50 and finally 100 point battle. In each game there was ebb and flow, critical moments when everything hung in the balance - the crap dice roll where the battered, limping Tie Fighter manages to weave between the lasers just long enough to take out the Y-Wing, the epic dice roll where the tricked out B-Wing loses its shields and takes some damage suddenly changing the balance of power dramatically. It was great: there was a story unfolding before our very eyes, and we had (some!) control over it. After Twilight Imperium we spent a good half hour (after a ten hour game!) talking about the highs and lows of the game: massive fleets mutually annihilating each other, the cheeky action card that stops someone claiming an objective, etc.

Our group even creates narrative around games so simple that they don't even have a theme. There's Helga the imaginary milkmaid who turns up when someone sends a card round a few time in No Thanks! when only they can benefit from it, and Gunther the 70s porn star who turns up in a game of [6|11] Nimmt! when someone is about to get shafted!

I was reminded of Joe Gola's awesome Amun Re session report. The game was just a framework that the story hung off. Playing the game is a form of collective story telling.

Tuesday lunchtime Dave and I sat down for our first game of Vacuum in a good couple of months. I'd mothballed Vacuum during November while I concentrated on Zombology for NaGa DeMon and then I'd been too busy in December to do anything at all really. We were trying out a new trade mechanism inspired by Dan, my Newcastle Playtest co-host. Dave and I have played at least fifty games together, and this was the first major change to Trade. We were focussed on getting our heads round the new mechanism and a feel for whether or not it worked. At the end Dave had some concerns about the fact the you discarded the trade cards into an opponent's graveyard - he didn't like the lack of control over your deck that implied (he usually runs an extremely lean deck). Thematically it made sense to me - if you trade with someone they get a trade benefit and it fit my aim that trade be a non-combative form of interaction in the game where you do something that provides a trade benefit to both player and target. Plus it was much simpler to track than the previous mechanism.

So far so good. It was one in a long series of games of Vacuum Dave and I have played and felt much like any other. We explored the solar system, Dave captured lots of locations (a favourite tactic of his) but didn't whale on me (unusual!). I focussed on researching the tech tree and striving towards the Knowledge goal, which I brought in a few turns before the end of the game. Dave's deck was unusually chubby and he couldn't get the right combination of cards together to chose a Conquest victory, so I managed to bring in the second victory condition: Exploration which he beat me on, but not by enough to win. Like the fifty games before it there wasn't a particularly overarching story to the game - we were just cracking on with it. The only stand out moments came from the exploration mechanism.

For the first fifty odd plays, the exploration mechanism involved drawing a given number of cards from a deck and picking the best one to bring into play. It was pretty dull. In September or October last year Paul Thompson suggested spicing it up: "If I'm playing a steampunk game I expect to be finding resources or exploiting natives or being attacked". Off the back of that suggestion, I changed the exploration mechanic to bring both less randomness (you choose a location to explore) and more (each location has an event on it that could be good, bad or indifferent). In our lunchtime game I'd explored Geostationary Orbit early on and found a Silicate Consciousness, adding an advanced Artificial Intelligence card to my deck very early in the game. A few turns later Dave had discovered a Heat Ray which improved the strength of all his military units. The final stand out moment was Dave's two or three attempts to explore Pluto, all of which failed with contact lost to his probe. It was noteworthy: "Pluto is hard to explore!"

That evening I played Vacuum again at Newcastle Playtest with Dan and it was a completely different experience. In the second turn Dan sent a probe to Earth-Moon L1 and discovered a really unfriendly alien race. Each turn they attacked our strongest location with a military strength of 25! At this early point in the game our total military strength was 4 or 5 each. Dan lost control of the US (his homeland) and then I promptly lost control of France (mine). All of a sudden it was the third turn of the game, neither of us controlled any territory, had any income or any real chance of capturing territory until the overwhelming might of the alien aggressors was vanquished. Going deep underground the French Resistance and the US minutemen researched martial technologies and assembled military power. Trading (what I can only imagine were packets of fags and tinned goods - that's cigarettes and canned goods for my American audience!) between each other to gain the income we needed to fund our boffins to develop some decent military units. Slowly we accrued military strength while researching other technologies and occasionally sending out a probe to try to find something helpful. Occasionally we managed to find a seam of valuable materials which we could exploit for a turn until the aliens promptly wiped them clean of human presence. Finally I got to the point where I had a couple of warships and an armada on ready alert - only 16 military strength - but I had more armadas in my deck and a reasonable chance of drawing one next turn, so I sent out a sortie and captured Atlantis. At the end of my turn I drew a new hand: all armadas! The hand was so good I had to show Dan! My next turn rolled around, and when the aliens came knocking I had 42 military strength - an auspicious number :-) I annihilated them and then sent the two unused armadas over the scorched earth to claim the US and France. Dan meanwhile had managed to launch an orbital weapons platform, ready to defend his (as yet non-existant) territories with the threat of nuclear rain from orbit. For the rest of the game we both had the large militaries we'd acquired early on to defeat the aliens. I used mine to conquer a large chunk of the solar system, Dan used his to raid my territories, safe in the knowledge that his nuclear threat would prevent reprisal - most turns I could see off his predation, but I lost several locations to him during the game. The game eventually ended when I chose Conquest as a scoring condition and Dan quickly got Knowledge in before I had a chance to get Population as the second.

The game had such a strong narrative that I had to relate it to Dave in the office the next morning (and in fact to you here). The game lasted just under an hour (not bad for Dan's second game) and fully one third of that we were under assault, severely limited in what we could do. It was hard, but it felt like we were under assault, too afraid to show our faces until we'd built up the military we'd need to defend a territory against the alien scourge. It's rare that aggressor card turns up in a game, and especially rare to see it so early. The game was unusual and totally different as a result. It's not all good news though, in his feedback email Dan described the aggressors as 'annoying' which is probably something I need to pay particular heed to.

Dave and I have had some ideas about how to bring this level of excitement to some of the other strategies in the game. I'm really excited about Vacuum again :-D

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