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17 Dec 2012

Game development blog no.4

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This is part of a series. You can read the previous entry here: Game development blog no.3

Several weeks have passed since we last updated you on "the corruption game" - aka, Kleptocracy. We've been redesigning the game from a fundamentally different angle. Which isn't to say the first attempt wasn't working - I think there's mileage in that still - but I find a mixture of destructive and iterative approaches to game design bring out the best results.

So this new direction is inspired by - brace yourselves - Monopoly. I know what you're thinking: we're either idiots or this is another one of our cynical marketing ploys. Both, probably. The truth is, many years ago, I wouldn't dare go near Monopoly and all its heavy baggage. It's over-familiar, clichéd and hated amongst gamers (a hate that is only semi-justified, incidentally). So what's going on?

Well the core idea of Kleptocracy is that of working your way around a society, insinuating yourself in various circles, gaining influence and trying to keep others from becoming equally influence - all the while syphoning off big bucks. When we took a step back from this, it was clear that we could quite naturally represent this as your prototype, roll-and-move board track. Why not? Because it's both unoriginal and mechanically flawed (it rests on a frustrating amount of luck), that's why. But suddenly those things start to look like challenges ... Can we make a roll-and-move game that is rewarding to play and familiar-yet-different?

Additionally, while you inevitably invite the scorn and dismissal of the elite for producing something that looks superficially trite, you also make everyone else relax as they can immediately recognise something familiar and known to them. And in this day and age, giving new players a visual or emotional anchor is vital to retaining their attention while you go through the rules.

All that said, I'm clearly a little uneasy about my own choice as I'm spending so much time pre-emptively defending a design decision that hasn't even been fully implemented yet. Time will tell... Meanwhile, something within this game has lead to a new game:

Another new game? Spare us!

Sigh, yes, sorry. While trying to work out how the "make up your own rules" mechanic might work for the president in Kleptocracy, I stumbled onto the idea of laying out key rule "ingredients" and having the president interpret them or manipulate them into a new rule. I really liked the idea of the law being fuzzy and the head of state being the person to interpret the law in their own favour.

After a day of messing around with cards with single words and phrases and even making my own random word generating script, I realised this was a whole other game. And the perfect theme suggested itself - instead of a president interpreting the law, what if players were high priests interpreting the Word of God to suit their own agenda?

This seemed much more fun! I built a quick prototype in a day and we tested it last Tuesday. When I say test, I unpacked it, explained it, then repacked it again. There was a crucial flaw that would allow players to vote not for the best interpretation of the divine message (what I was after), but to vote strategically for whatever would best help them in the game. This is a pretty common problem and there are numerous work-arounds from anonymising the source to giving incentives for voting for something else that doesn't directly benefit you.

I've done neither of those and instead made it into a bit more of a bluffing game where the personal interests of each player are far less known. Let's see how it works tomorrow. My ideal is still to make a very open language game that is supported by robust scoring/ voting, but I think I need to learn a lot more about both language and player psychology before I can pull that one off.

Posted by Andy S on 17 December 2012 - 3 comments

Comments so far:

  1. Sounds greatV from Larkhill - 18 December 2012
  2. Grand Master Meio from The 3rd Moon - 11 January 2013
  3. Looks like your project died out. You have my sympathies. In all honesty though, it's obvious it wouldn't ever make it anywhere. You'll never sell your board games when 2+2=5.Some man from a very "free" place - 29 January 2013

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04 Dec 2012

An early Christmas present

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One year ago we launched War on Terror, the application on the App Store and were very pleasantly surprised to see it shoot high enough up the charts to (briefly) beat Risk. That's all we ever wanted from life, so thank you, everyone who contributed to that.

We've occasionally dropped the price of the app for brief periods now-and-again, more as experimentation than any planned activity. For those of you interested, mindless fiddling with pricing has very little effect on an app that has little or no exposure.

But to celebrate one year on the App Store (and let's face it, it's a small miracle we got accepted in the first place, let alone still there after a year) we've gone a bit crazy and will be making the app completely FREE, for the first time ever, for a limited period, from tomorrow: Wednesday 5th December. Get it here.

And that's not all ...

Remember that top-secret app we've been working on? No, of course you don't, it was top secret. Anyway, we're just going to leave this here for now:

Posted by TerrorBull Games on 4 December 2012 - 3 comments

Comments so far:

  1. Well done boys, you're in the top 20 of all games where I am. Not bad going for an indie-satire-boardgame-spin-off. What's your secret?Sandy from Cork - 6 December 2012
  2. Thus game is so awesome. I have not put it down. But it's like disney because it has a meaning behind it. P.S. can't wait for guantanagotchiThespywholovesterrorbull from Somewhere playing the war on terror - 17 December 2012
  3. You guys really open my eyes to the sort of stuff the govt. is doing and how much they twist stories in there favourVincent shoegaard from Surrey - 17 December 2012

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02 Nov 2012

Crunch to hit Russia

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As we reported previously, Russian publishers, Igrato, are licencing Crunch and it's set to be released later this month (obviously, in Russian, just in case that's not clear).

The fun bit is that when we started talking, Igrato asked if we could include a special card for Russian audiences. That sounded like a great idea and we went through the game anew and came up with a choice of 4 possible "russacised" cards.

We tried to produce a range of card ideas from "cheeky" to "uncomfortably near the knuckle" since we didn't know Igrato's tastes at this point. Well, when we presented the cards to them, to our delight and surprise, Igrato wanted all of them.

New Russian Cards

Distracting Propaganda Friends With Putin

Pesky Journalist What Pesky Journalist

For those in need of a quick refresher, these cards refer to (left-right, top-bottom): (1) Putin supposedly "discovered" two ancient Greek urns while on his third scuba dive. He emerged with the remarkably clean artefacts just as some passing journalists were on the beach. (2) Putin rose through the ranks of the KGB and then the FSB and is widely reported to run the Kremlin in a similar manner. (The text was our attempt at translating "KGB Yearbook" into Russian. It's since been corrected!). (3) Outspoken critic of Putin and the Kremlin, Anna Politkovskaya wrote the shocking book, "Putin's Russia" and was a general annoyance to those in power. (4) Tragically, like several journalists before her, she was assassinated ... on Putin's birthday, no less.

As well as bravely licencing Crunch, Igrato are also desperately trying to find a way to bring War on Terror to Russia, using ex-military balaclavas, no less. And of course Igrato are also behind our recent interest in Russian politics and the game that is crying out to be made there. So show them some love; they're doing great work.

Posted by TerrorBull Games on 2 November 2012 - 1 comment

Comments so far:

  1. Any chance of releasing these as an expansion pack?James from Worthing, UK - 19 December 2012

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31 Oct 2012

Game development blog no.3

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This is part of a series. You can read the previous entry here: Game development blog no.2

The Corruption Game is now going by the working title of "Kleptocracy". Unfortunately, I have to report that this development is probably the only satisfying move in the right direct that the game has taken over the past week.

Last night, on the surface, we had a very negative playtest of the game as it stands. This game is split into roughly two areas of focus - one is each player (a member of the Russian cabinet) trying to build up as much influence as possible in various areas of Russian life (Church, Media, Business, Energy, FSB etc.) and the second is the role of President that gets passed around between players and deliberately distorts the whole game in the president's favour.

We only played two rounds, before the analysis of the game overtook any immersion in the game and we stopped playing. The game was too bitty, lacked focus and was all about the president while the other players didn't have much a sense of identity or many meaningful choices to make. There was also no risk for the individual cabinet members as they sought to gain influence - their actions didn't intrude upon anyone else's, nor were there any particular tricky decisions to make en route.

Out of all those very valid criticisms, I'm only concerned about the lack of focus and the lack of risk or jeopardy. Everything else I pretty much expected. It's a tough leap of faith to take, but I know well enough by now that the games I design feel pretty broken until they're about 75% complete. I put this down to relying on human interaction as the "glue" that holds everything else together. So, for example, something that would feel bitty and unstructured in an abstract strategy game can work wonderfully as distraction and pressure in a game that plays off the players.

The game does indeed need a focus though and I think I might be getting too bogged down in this idea of the President being able to make up rules - I might shelve that temporarily while I work out what the heart of the game should be.

The other problem is risk. I did wonder when I decided upon the game's narrative whether there is much natural risk in those roles. After all, when you're a member of the power elite, how much risk do you really run? Losing your power? And what does that mean, is it just falling out of favour with those more powerful than you? Is it losing opportunity and prospects to advance your position? It's a hard thing to define.

This is where political game design makes things so difficult. To stay true to the objective of the game and to keep the game as a useful satire, the risk the players need to be introduced to has to also be meaningful; it has to stem from something recognisable and real.

You see, with "regular" game design, if you need a game element like the introduction of risk, you can do almost anything. Granted you are probably thinking of a theme and a narrative and you need something that is intuitive, but otherwise your options are wide open. The freedom is there to bolt onto the game whatever is required. But this rarely works with "critical games", where the mechanics and the theme are tightly interwoven.

The process that I'm now faced with is a bit more convoluted - I have to go back to source, re-read about the nature of endemic corruption and probe the subject until I can identify a real-world risk in that system ... then I have to retranslate that risk back into the game in order to arrive at a conflicting mechanic that not only makes sense, but heightens the realism and roleplay elements of the game.

This approach means every design decision takes about ten times longer than it should and is bundled up in further hours of research into the subject matter, but it's immensely rewarding to get it right. (I think we struck lucky in War on Terror when from the beginning we had this notion of funding terrorism that - once on the board - could be potentially used by any player).

So, this week's lesson is: You're going to have test sessions where it feels like there's so much going wrong, the easiest thing to do is start-over. Sometimes that's exactly what you need to do, but sometimes the last thing you should do is listen to every single criticism. You need to identify the critical faults. In order to help me do that, I try and jot down everyone's comments as they speak and then write a brief "counter" underneath each one. Afterwards, when I can view things more objectively, I read through those counter-arguments and work out which still stand and put those criticisms completely out of my mind. I safely dismiss them entirely. After all, if I'm wrong and they're really valid after all, they'll surface again soon enough!

Sometimes, a bit of blind faith in your own vision is occasionally needed to see you through the rocky patches.

Posted by Andy S on 31 October 2012 - 2 comments

Comments so far:

  1. Looking at Russia today, isn't the risk being put in prison for something like tax evasion, as a number of oligarchs who tried to challenge Putin have been. You might need to widen the players roles to more than just members of the cabinet - they could be primarily politicians or primarily oligarchs, maybe even Church Primates (though that last one might be hard to work in well). Each player could have a certain amount of power, of money, of media control, of popularity, of influence in different spheres. Let's call them "stats". Between elections, players could do actions that increase their own stats (however you manage that), or reduce other players stats. These actions may well have side effects - skeletons in your closet that can be used against you down the road. There would then be alliances between players (shifting alliances of course) that would lead to changes in how you accumulate power/money/influence. Come the election, there would be a "vote" where players used their stats (and maybe cards to boost stats) to elect the next president (after the requisite horse trading for favours etc). One mechanism could be cards that you can't use on yourself - maybe for appearance sake or whatever. So rather than increasing your own stats, it increases someone elses. But when you do that for someone, they have to reveal one of the skeletons they have in their closet. Other cards can attack players if they have a matching skeleton in their closet (eg put them in prison for tax evasion). It would be great if the game play could sometimes lead to one player becoming the power behind the throne - they never become president themselves, but they have so much dirt on the other key players that they become untouchable, picking and choosing presidents as they come and go. Also, with the creating new rules/laws aspect, maybe the new laws have to get enough support from other players in order to pass. A similar mechanism to electing the president could be used. Only the president would be able to propose stuff to vote on though. Would have to be done carefully to not get too complicated, but the mechanics could work. And let me know if you want play testers - always happy to help out :) HamishHamish from Work - 31 October 2012
  2. Hey Hamish! Wow, all those are wonderful, rich suggestions. Certainly fired off a lot of thoughts - I like the idea of having something that you need to hide, skeletons in the closet as you put it. And I also like the idea of building up some sort of reputation that can give you leverage at different points in the game. Maybe this is exactly what "influence" is. Part of what I'm looking at right now is exactly what this currency of influence is, where it comes from, how it's manipulated etc. Thanks for your awesome comment. As soon as there's a stable(ish) game to be played, I'll drag you down the pub to give it a spin.Andrew from The Bunker - 31 October 2012

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17 Oct 2012

Game development blog no.2

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This is part of a series. You can read the previous entry here: Game development blog no.1

So in the true spirit of wayward development, on top of the previous four games mentioned in my last post, there's now a fifth, new game. And if that weren't enough, this new game has shot straight to the top of our priority list; it hasn't even been played yet. We did warn you this would be quite a random process.

Corruption (working title)

This latest game is about corruption, specifically corruption in Russia, but it will be built around elements that I hope will be recognisable in any corrupt regime or system.

Why Russian corruption? Aren't there countries more deserving of criticism? Yes, absolutely, but there are two main reasons why we've alighted on this subject. The first is that, quite simply, we were asked to consider it. The Russian game publishers, Igrato, are currently in the process of licencing Crunch from us (more about that soon). One day they said, "you could make a great game about Russian corruption".

We thought about it a bit and I started doing some research. I watched this great-creepy documentary about the "Nashi" (scarily reminiscent of Hitler youth), this excellent BBC series, Putin, Russia and the West, and am nearing the end of the rather dramatically titled Mafia State: How one reporter became an enemy of the brutal new Russia (which to be fair is a pretty gripping read). And of course, Putin's Russia by Anna Politkovskaya is on the list too... The more I read, the more common themes start to re-emerge - and they are incredibly juicy.

After all, corruption is a juicy subject - and that's the second reason this seemed like a good pick. Who doesn't enjoy the chance to play a corrupt, evil megalomaniac?

What I'm particularly interested in is how a mix of self-interest and fear allows corruption to take root and flourish. I'm also intrigued by how rulers like Putin and Berlusconi manage to harness such popularity through a mixture of charm, bluster and machismo and how they preside over what is really a functioning autocracy that still maintains all the signposts of a democracy. What's really fascinating is that someone like Putin has more-or-less unlimited power, but he regulates himself to ensure he never crosses a line that would break this democratic façade.

What's really fascinating is that someone like Putin has more-or-less unlimited power, but he regulates himself to ensure he never crosses a line that would break this democratic façade. So I've been constructing a prototype for a couple of weeks and because of time constraints, all I got round to last night was laying out the board and elements and talking everyone through the rules. As a side-note, I can recommend this as an excellent first "road test". Don't feel you need a full group to test your new idea - just getting it all out and talking through how it plays (and fielding the inevitable questions) is a really effective way of not just discovering holes in your rules but of ordering your ideas too. Something that feels self-evident to you can suddenly feel bloated and fuzzy when you try and communicate it to others.

The game so far uses a mixture of two currencies - money and influence - to help players gain control of the game. Ultimately the win is about getting the most money, but I'm already wondering whether this is too simplistic and whether there shouldn't be more recognition of how "power" is often the goal, with money being a happy result of having power. Also, I think I need to move away from Junta wherever possible.

On that note, I was aware right from the start that escaping the shadow of Junta would be a big ask when designing a game about state corruption. Money, violence, bribery, coups, power-struggles ... these subjects are all covered by Junta and retreading this ground is pretty much inevitable. We even played a (rare) seven-player game of Junta last week to refresh our minds of this hilariously chaotic game and as a genuine fan of the game I have the tough task of making sure that any similarity is "homage" and not "ripoff"!

Without a game report to write, I'll leave you with the ingredient that generated most discussion. I want the President in "Corruption" to be able to write new rules into the game. Not select from a range of new rules, but literally rewrite the rules. And I want the other players - and their ability to organise, stick their necks out and work together - to be the only check on this potentially devastating power.

Certainly if anything is asking for a game to be broken, it's allowing the players to start making up rules. But then, players do this anyway, whether we (or even they) recognise it or not. I'm just taking that idea to an extreme. And while I had in mind that this would be a side-play to the main game, it sparked such interest and thought that I'm already wondering if it should be brought more centre-stage. I guess we'll find out how successful it is as an idea first!

Posted by Andy S on 17 October 2012 - 5 comments

Comments so far:

  1. Calvinball!! That was the first thing to go through my mind when you said 'rewrite the rules'. Check out the 'Calvin and Hobbes' comic if you don't have a clue what I'm talking about; they're such a fount of creativity that checking them out is a good idea anyway. On a somewhat more serious note 'rewriting the rules must be bound by some rules that are not rewritable, or else one could just say 'new rule: I win!' (which is the equivalent of pulling a gun in the middle of a conversation) and that isn't the point, I would think. Take a look at the 'fluxx' series of games; there one adds, alters or removes rules by playing cards, so there is freedom, but restricted to what the doesn't violate the core definition of the activity engaged in (like pulling a gun in a conversation does). For the intrigue aspect of the game, you definitely should take a look at Diplomacy (specifically its 'everyones actions are revealed at the same time' mechanic) but you probably new that already. Best of wishes!David Holt from Amsterdam - 20 October 2012
  2. Hi David, I know Calvinball - but had long forgotten about it, so thanks for reminding me. I just spent some enjoyable minutes refreshing myself. I think the "no rules, within rules" mantra is a bit of a cop out. I accept it begrudgingly though - however, I really want to push this idea. My current solution is that a new rule doesn't immediately become law, that there's a "cooling off" period to allow the other players to react, but reacting itself is costly. So in this manner I want the player proposing the new rule to regulate themselves - not because they're bound by a framework of inexorable meta-rules, but because they need to tread that fine line between pushing an advantage and taking the piss!TerrorBull Games - 30 October 2012
  3. Ah, but the 'cooling off period' is itself a meta-rule. Of course reaction should cost you, but ultimately, even the ruler of Russia (or the US, or China, or whatever) cannot implement his rules unless he manages to convince, bribe or scare enough of the other 'powers that be (ptb)'. And there are always other ptb, in russia that would be the olicharchs, the church, the KGB etc. So maybe the president makes the rules (and I wouldn't rotate this role, Putin doesn't do so either even if Medvedev was figurehead for a while), but the ptb have to vote them in or out, and the president can only overrule them at a cost to his credibility; too much overruling and rebellion occurs. So you get an interaction where the president can oust any one of the ptb, but not without making the rest stronger. Then the president has to 'play all ends against the middle', while the ptb have to manipulate the president into helping their interests. Just some ideas for you. best of wishes!David Holt from Amsterdam - 1 November 2012
  4. Excellent ideas there, David - I genuinely like them all. I'm aware that the cooling-off is a meta-rule, but one that is closer to real life than some meta-rule that might state "Make up any rule, but you may never be president for longer than 4 turns". What I want is to invite extreme ideas - like president proposes "I'm going to be president for life" and allow the other players (who represent the ptb) to respond and for them to be the checks and balance that are needed to keep the game together, rather than a cold, intransigent set of rules in a booklet. But I think we're saying the same thing here more-or-less. Should the President ever rotate? Hmmm, really tough choice. The president can't be truly immutable, otherwise rebellion wouldn't work. But equally, it can't rotate too easily otherwise there's no fear of autocracy setting in. Ideally, I'd like to get a sense of endemic corruption going where following presidents continue where the previous one left off as they see the system benefits them - so even when there's a change of role, the nature of the role persists. Thanks again for your thoughts, it's awesome to get such interesting extra input on this.TerrorBull Games - 1 November 2012
  5. Just happy to help, no matter to how small a degree. I agree that the president should be able to be kicked out, either as a result of general rebellion or of having to hand out too much favours to one person (the final favour being 'OK, you will be president now and I will .. own Gazprom and a Datsja/mansion on the black sea coast' or something like that). Maybe it can even be a 'power move', as in 'Ok, now you are president, and you owe me a huge favour for it, so I manipulate you and strengthen my position vis-a-vis the other ptb (like the 'owning Gazprom' example I gave above) while being out of the limelight and so regaining credibility ... by criticizing the 'corrupt government' (no cynicism is too extreme here! :-p )!' Peace and Lolz too you!David Holt from Amsterdam - 2 November 2012

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