I’ve dabbled in making board games before. Roughly 3 times or more. 2 of those times were miserable failures. 3rd time was the charm, but not good enough by my standards. Mainly because I want to make something better than a solo playable board game that’s a Resident Evil rip-off (I wasn’t happy with the other Resident Evil board/card games that were made). But at least I can say I designed at least one system that actually works. It works, and it is fun for a while, but it’s probably never going to be published. I want something better.
Something more ambitious. Something that can actually be played multiplayer. The thing is, it’s easier to design a solo game than it is to design a multiplayer game (that isn’t co-op), at least in my opinion. Because the one thing that is invaluable in gaming is going against other players. Especially since they are more versatile and adaptable than any AI that can be imposed in a physical copy of a board game (computer assisted AI does not count; that’s fucking cheating; any board game that requires an app or electronic device to make it capable of being good is not a true board game).
If there’s anything I’ve learned over the years of my failures, it’s that it’s best to keep things as simple as possible. You have to break the mechanics down to their most abstract form. The question is what is the best way to go about doing this, when creating a self-contained RPG-like experience? I’ve played games like Magic Realm, Mage Knight, Legends of Andor, Wizard’s Quest, Mice and Mystics, Gloom of Kilforth, Hero Quest, and to a lesser extent Tales of Arabian Nights (have not played Gloomhaven, not sure I ever will). I have a general idea of what types of fantasy RPG board games exist that aren’t actual T-RPGs. And I know what kind of experience I want that none of those games have provided.
Magic Realm, probably as good as a sandbox RPG board game is ever going to get without being a scenario-based system. The way it encourages players to experiment in play-styles until they finally learn some subtle tactic with each character that makes them click, let alone just learning the general survival strategies (this is a game that can end as prematurely as a virgin’s first time having sex without ever having masturbated). It’s more focused on the gameplay than it is the narrative, but the narrative speaks for itself through the actions of the gameplay. My intention is to do the reverse, having the narrative being more of a focus. But this is tricky, because in order for it to be a good game with high replay value, it can’t be scenario-based, and it can’t be so reliant on narrative that you’re reading a paragraph of text for each encounter.
Tales of Arabian Nights, this was the game that went all-in on a storybook narrative approach that isn’t scenario-based. Basically a choose-your-own-adventure game, with a giant book of stuff involving encounters, giving you options, and having a dice roll to see how those options play out. Problem is, this isn’t a game with any strategy to it whatsoever. This is something you just pick up and play just to see what sort of hi-jinks you get to encounter on each playthrough. It removes the actual gameplay from the game. If nothing else, this is a prime example of why you shouldn’t get too narrative-driven with your game. It still needs engaging gameplay where you can make tactical decisions that actually matter (as in there is more than one good choice to make amidst several lesser ones ranging from so-so to bad).
Mage Knight, excellent in terms of gameplay. It’s a glorified deck-builder where you learn how best to optimize engaging in and winning battles, leveling up, building your deck, and moving through the map. While good, the demand for efficiency kills off any desire for exploration and fulfilling ones curiosity for exploring the world like Magic Realm allows. There isn’t anything wrong with this per-se, as it’s designed to be a game meant to get gamers to play it as optimally as possible, which is how any respectable game that wishes to be taken seriously should be. But it’s not something an RPG board game should be. The kind I’m looking for shouldn’t be that lean. It needs to allow for some amount of sub-optimal play for the sake of exploration and experimentation. Not too much, but enough so that it’s somewhat encouraged. Like being able to do a couple side quests before running out of time to do a main quest.
Legends of Andor, pretty much the same issue as Mage Knight, but without the deck-building. This game is nothing short of a puzzle that players must figure out how to solve. This means optimal plays with no room for errors. Games like that get dull fairly quickly.
Mice and Mystics, the dreaded scenario-based games. How I despise board games like these, unless they’re called Space Hulk. First of all, like Legends of Andor, there isn’t much desire to replay a scenario once you’ve already gone through it. Second of all, it’s a dice-chuck fest. Which makes combat too luck-based. At least with Magic Realm, it’s controllable luck to the point where there are battles you could walk into knowing it’s a guaranteed win; and even if it wasn’t, there’s enough tactics to make you think. Games like Mice and Mystics, you just roll the dice and hope for the best. Not really all that fun.
Gloom of Kilforth, here’s the biggest problem I have with that game. In spite of having different character that emphasize on combat, stealth, or charisma for getting through obstacles (which are very abstract by the way, to the point where it’s not as thematic as the art on the cards), the gameplay is exactly the same. It always results in chucking dice. Not exactly a good way to distinguish a warrior from a rogue from a paladin.
Which brings me to what I want out of an RPG board game. Aside from more focus on the narrative (which I’m still not 100% sure how to do yet), it needs to feel more like an RPG. And how does one go about making a board game feel like an RPG from a game mechanics standpoint? It’s easy to get on the right track of you consider how videogames do it (or at least try to do it well). For example look at Deus Ex (either the original or Human Revolution). Aside from the fact that there’s a leveling system, you know what that RPG game has? Different ways to approach a situation. You could be stealthy and try to avoid combat as often as possible, while utilizing hacking skills, lockpicking skills, or stealth kills. You could be a tank that blows through humans and machines. In Planescape: Torment (or Torment: Tides of Numenara), you could be someone who talks their way out of most situations, or fights his way through; let alone being someone who can detect traps or just plow through them with little regard while you just heal up with a potion or something. In Baldur’s Gate or Diablo, you can play as a warrior or a heavy magic user. In Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, you have several different vampire types to choose from who each have a unique play style that truly makes it feel like a different game each time you play even though you are playing through much of the same missions and getting the same results.
In other words, different play styles. Not just making a decision to avoid one scenario so you can encounter another, or choosing which missions to go on. I’m talking about killing everyone with a sword or gun, or blasting them apart with magic, sneaking past the opposition, deciding to break into something locked up, talking your way through things. Those are entirely different ways of playing through an encounter. How does one go about replicating this feeling in a board game? By incorporating a game within a game. Having a small minigame for each playstyle. Taking a mechanic from one game, stripping it down to it’s most bare-bones and essential features, and adapting it to suit my needs for this game. A game with several different mechanics and making them work. If you don’t think this is possible, I’d advise you to take a really good look at this board game called Vast: The Crystal Caverns. It’s probably the most asymmetrical game ever created, where each character plays so completely different from the other that they come with their own unique ruleset that no one else follows. Yet that clash of different games melded together into a single board game managed to work. It can be done.
And I’ve already thought of one idea on how one aspect can be made to work. Starting with how to make one feel like a thief. Take the game Yahtzee (which King of Tokyo incorporated in its own way). Rolling 5 dice, then getting 2 rerolls of whichever dice you want, hoping to form certain sets or patterns. Something like that can be used to emulate the feel of picking a lock, with the dice acting as the lock pick feeding its way into the lock and attempting unlock it. The same sort of thing can be done for pick-pocketing. That’s one mini-game within a host of others.
There also needs to be one for combat, of course. Pretty sure melee and ranged combat should basically be the same. Magic-based could be different, and probably should, as learning and wielding magic often requires more precise planning than the more reactionary styles of swinging swords and shooting arrows. Currently thinking of something that might be deck-building (leveling up lets you draft a card or two from certain sets), with a playstyle like that of 21. “Hit me,” meaning you play a card and build up combos while the opponent can play something to stop the combos and possible counterattack (the fighting card game Yomi does something like this, minus any deckbuilding). Unsure of the details, but that’s probably the best fit for combat.
Charisma, talking your way through situations. Now this is tricky. How does one go about emulating the feel of something like this without going too far into narration (ie reading a paragraph)? How does one abstract conversation? Well… I do know of a videogame that does this. HoneyPop. Oh yeah, I knew these hentai games would come in handy some day. Basically do something along the lines of pattern-matching. When it comes down to it, dating-sim games like those are all about learning to say the right thing at the right time to the right person. And there’s only so many ways they can diversify the amount of personality traits and quirks someone can have. So I would need to make a list of personality traits, with some actual personal history to the significant characters. How your character starts determines what sort of patterns he can match, and having a higher charisma level increases the amount of patterns he can work with. But you can’t just know the answer, otherwise there would be no challenge. So it’s hidden information as to what patterns an NPC has that you should even be matching. You learn it by either interacting with them, or interacting with another NPC who can give you information about them. Which is why there should be a restriction on how often you can actually converse with an NPC. Hence why there should be a limited number of rounds per phase of the game (taking the lesson from Mage Knight and Legends of Andor, not so few rounds that you can’t explore a bit and do side quests, but enough to where you’re not given an indefinite amount of time to talk your way through a problem). Which is why characters with a higher charisma rating are able to do more “talking” actions each round compared to those with a lower charisma rating. Can’t say I’ve played many pattern-matching games that seem to fit the bill of what I’m looking for here. But the good ones I’ve played all have one thing in common. You draw random chits/counters out of a bag in the hopes of matching some pattern. Like Azul, or Ra (the latter is more of a bidding game than a pattern-matching game).
Stealth. Best I can think of is going back to 21 again, but don’t want to replicate combat mechanics for this. Drawing and playing a card from the top of a stealth deck (which can be improved via deck building, or deck improving ala Forbidden Stars, where you can replace cards from your deck rather than just adding cards to it). Having a push-your-luck mechanic is the best I can think of for replicating the tension of sneaking around and trying not to get caught.
These are just rough ideas, with the only one I’ve thought through to a respectable degree being the lockpicking mechanic. The biggest task is figuring out how to make these mechanics fit together in one big game. A game that actually has a game-winning object you can proceed to. A game with an actual game board that you need to navigate. That is occupied by players and NPCs, and villages, and towns, and monsters. It has to be occupied. And not like Magic Realm, where the kingdom is long gone and only a few groups remain in isolation in the land. I want this to be a living breathing world, that is somewhat simulator-based. Where the game keeps chugging along, having NPCs do various things, whether you interact with them or not. How some things happen that are beyond your control, yet you are able to exert some influence on some aspects of it that affect how things progress (or regress). It’s ambitious, and prone to failure (especially with my procrastination habits), but I tend to get ambitious sometimes. It helps to just type out thoughts as they come to me to help with the progress. It’s not enough to just sit down and think, as those moments can be fleeting. Engaging in getting my thoughts out there helps with my own development process.