My So Called Games
January 06, 2006
As feared, this week has not permitted the luxury of working on any serious posts. So, as my last post before my trip to India, here's some highly esoteric nonsense: a record of my (mostly unpublished) board, card and tabletop RPGs. No videogame content here, so if that's what you're into you can move along to greener pastures!
I want to start by saying I have a clear memory of when I fell in love with the idea of making games. I'm not sure how old I was - between 3 and 5, I think. I remember boxes of some breakfast cereal or other that had 'Dr. Who' games printed on the back of the box. Dead simple roll-and-move path chases, you know the kind of thing (I presume Candyland is in this vein, but it doesn't exist outside of the US that I know of). It was apparent to me that making games was quite easy - and that it was something that I really wanted to do. It was more than twenty years later that I discovered how to make money doing it, though.
I have omitted from this list various games which were never finished, or didn't work particular well, or that I have forgotten entirely. To include everything would be a monumental effort - and a complete waste of my time and yours!
I hope a few people find this in some way interesting!
I think this is my first game, but I could be wrong. This was a platform conversion from the arcade to the playground - it was based upon the Tank game in the original Tron (Bally Midway, 1982).
Playgrounds in the UK and elsewhere have 'tramlines' painted upon them for sporting games. Because there are often different sets for basketball, tennis and so forth, they form a lattice of interconnecting lines and intersections.
The basis of the game was as follows. One or two players are the Prey. They can run or walk along the lines in any means they wish, and change direction freely. They are chased by all the other players who are the Hunters - Prey is eliminated if tagged by a Hunter, and there are always at least twice as many Hunters as Prey. The Hunters are restricted in two ways: (1) they must walk. (2) they cannot turn around; they must walk forward turning only at junction nodes between lines.
This game worked fantastically well, and was lots of fun for both prey and hunters.
Another arcade to playground conversion, this time of one of my favourite arcade games of all time, Joust (Williams, 1982). This one just requires a large area which is bounded on all four sides in some way, and has a clear dividing line about a third or a quarter along its length.
The basis of the arcade game is that in a collision between two combatants, whomever is higher wins. In the playground version, one end of the playground is 'top' and one is the ground. Players start on the ground and run around freely in the space. They try to tag each other - whoever is closer to the 'top' of the play area wins in a tag, and the other player is out.
You may already be thinking that you just go and camp at the 'top' end of the play area. Well, this is where that dividing line in the upper third of the field comes in. Players may only stay above this line for the count of ten, which they do out loud (as bit like the Indian game of Kabbadi).
This makes camping at or below the line dangerous - as 'raiders' will escape from pursuit by running into the top end of the field - and hence eventually come plummeting out of the top end near the end of their count of ten, taking out anyone who happens to be in their way.
Basically, every game of Joust was a group of people running around madly like flies, and lunging at other players if they came close and were 'higher' - but when you're 10 what could be more fun!
My first tabletop RPG. Here is the whole of the rules. All characters and monsters are expressed as a single number (Power). Characters begin by rolling 3d6 for their starting Power. Combat (the only part of the rules) is resolved by rolling one six sided die for every 10 points of Power (minimum 1). Health is equal to Power, and is decreased by the damage rolled in combat. Also, rolling a six is an instant kill (although players are not affected by this, only monsters). I think more powerful monsters could survive a number of instant kills equal to the number of dice they can roll. Finally, your Power increases by 1 for each 10 points of monster Power slain.
Dead simple game, but hey, I was only 11.
My first remembered boardgame. This one is a classic, although I don't believe I have any extant parts for it. Players control a team of about 4 condemned convicts who battle to the death in a square-grid arena with walls and doors. Random events were resolved with a die with red and yellow dots in one of those things you press down and it goes ker-chuk (stolen from another less interesting game). Red is a kill or success, yellow is a failure.
Scattered around the Arena are equipment pods. When a convict reaches a pod, they draw a card. Most are equipment items, which include weapons, explosives and droid parts; some are 'Draw Two' or 'Draw Three' cards, and there is also a Trap! card which blows up the equipment pod.
Explosions are the most important part of the game, represented by cardboard cutout circles in two sizes - small (covers one square) and large (covers about nine). Everything under an explosion circle is destroyed - convicts, equipment and walls/doors.
Two things kept the game interesting. Firstly, the explosion counters were fun - small explosions could be used as short cuts through walls, and large explosions could be used to take out convicts behind walls. Secondly, the droid parts: remote control (you need two RC cards: give one to a convict, and one is dropped with other equipment to control it - usually making remote detonated bombs), brain pod (gives you an extra player), manipulators (allows an RC or brain pod to use equipment) and tracks (allows equipment to move when controlled by an RC or brain pod).
I did try and remake the game in the 1990's but I think it was more fun when I was 12.
A conventional card game created in an eight hour coach journey to the Lake District. It's simple to learn, and quite good fun to play. The rules can be found here.
My first sci-fi tabletop RPG. The original rules were a mess, cobbled together from many different sources, and the first campaign spent weeks making the ship and its crew, and then came to an end in the first seassion because silly play destroyed the ship. But there was something of value here, and I was to make several future editions. More on this later.
Another conventional card game. I don't know why I haven't written the rules for this out at any point. It's unusual, as players must discard in order to pick up: discard a face card and draw only one, or a 2-10 in order to draw two cards. The goal is to get hold of all four aces. This is achieved by trying to collect a set of four value cards to 'burn' another player and steal their aces, or to collect sets of three face cards to 'steal' the ace of that suit.
What makes this game interesting is the card limit, and how you avoid it. You can have 10 cards, but no more - but you can conceal your number of cards by any means you like as long as you're honest when challenged. You gamble when you accuse someone - because if you're wrong you get burned. But get it right, and they're burned and you get their aces.
You can choose to go to sleep, which means you don't have to play cards, and can pick up cards that other players discard. There is a strict hierarchy which determines who must play if everyone goes to sleep.
It's hard to get this game across in an informal description, but despite an often long end game, this is surprisingly good fun. Last played just last year, so it still has some legs.
The Music Game Thing (1989, first printing 1993)
This is the classic highly competitive card-based boardgame which has a special place in the heart of a few of my friends, who played it extensively. In essence, you own a music label, purchase artists, and then release singles and albums or go on tours.
The game is paced by a deck of twelve month cards, each of which has special abilities: concerts are worth more in the summer, for instance. There is a sense of progress, as an artist's Fame increases from successful singles and albums, which in turn gives them bonuses on die rolls, and allows them to play bigger venues - and eventually attempt the world tour.
What made the game were the binding verbal deals and the Disaster! card (which causes a player to discard their entire hand) and the Sabotage! card (which cancels any other card). Almost all games seemed to devolve into a series of deals centred about the playing or not playing of these two cards at some point - classically, the person with Sabotage would blackmail whomever had the World Tour into a share of the profits, for instance.
The rules are, I confess, a bit of a mess, containing too many ad hoc solutions to problems (such as limits to number of singles and album cards in hand) but the game still manages to be fun - and everyone loves the Christmas Single battles that happen at the end of each year!
The rules and card templates are available online.
Avatar (1992, first printing 1993)
My first published RPG, produced using funds from the role playing society I chaired at University, and distributed free to members of that society. A second edition was funded by me and sold in tiny numbers, but had a much nicer cover and comb binding (the original has a glue binding which fell apart all too easily).
The game is packed full of reasonably innovative rules, although character generation is a touch complex - although there is a computer tool to take the hassle out of it.
Each campaign begins with what is known as the World Building Game, in which the players participate in the creation of the game world using a semi-formal set of mechanics. This not only created some intriguing settings, but ensured the players were emotionally and intellectually invested in the world. The Avatar campaigns are among my favourites that I ran (and I ran a lot of different campaigns - two a week in the 90’s).
Another striking aspect of Avatar was that to play a mage is to begin a descent into madness. You can have as much power as you like as a mage - it will just quicken your plummet into insanity. This led to some excellent opportunities for role play.
The rules are now available free online (although I still have printed copies of the game which are free to good homes - provided I can hand it to you in person, as I don't want to have to mail them).
The computer character generation tool is also available online.
Outlands 4th Edition (first printing 1994)
This is a massively detailed sci fi RPG, which is nonetheless easy to play. The complexity comes from the vast number of embedded rules which constitute both miniature games (singularity shots - the means by which ships travel through space - can be a challenging and fun game in themselves) and embedded mechanics for building vehicles, droids, animals, starships and stellar systems. Even generating a character is a game - as the player works through each year of the characters life, making career decisions and making friends and enemies.
The goal of Outlands was to create a gestalt sci fi role playing game incorporating classic elements of different sci fi settings in the same way that D&D was built around combining elements of classic fantasy games. However, the background of Outlands is more coherent, in my opinion.
Discovering that races cannot be copyrighted allowed the game to include the Fremen (from 'Dune') as a race, and the game is also influenced by the setting of 'Alien' and 'Aliens' (although there are no alien races at all), the space western 'Outland', and also the Walter Jon Williams book 'Angel Station'.
It was also influenced by many cyberpunk novels, and included a wide selection of futuristic wetware enhancements. For instance, one can copy one's personality into software, and then use that software to run drones. There's no DRM on your own consciousness, so you can have many different copies of your engrams running at once, provided you have sufficiently complex computer.
My favourite tabletop RPG campaign of all time - nicknamed "Space Dallas" - was an Outlands game. There was no combat in that game, as I recall. The players were all members of the Tetsuyama family, the owners of a moderately wealthy corporation, and the story was all about the family politics. At one point, one of the players was reduced to tears by a genuinely heartbreaking family crisis. Truly wonderful.
This one has never been made available online, and is completely out of print. One day, I want to make a cRPG out of the mechanics, although I doubt it will ever happen. I still use the chapter on making stellar systems as a reference, as it was based upon one of the Astrophysics courses I took at University.
This is a card-based boardgame similar to The Music Game Thingy, but based around the US presidential election. Each player is a presidential candidate, and accumulates Influence cards (affecting different voting demographics) and Policy cards (including the Vague Promises policy) by playing face down cards representing personal secrets. Other players then try to uncover scandals in these personal cards in order to ruin their rival's careers.
Culminating in the final state-by-state election race, I like this one even more than The Music Game Thingy. The rules are much tighter for a start, although it is still a highly cut-throat and competitive game.
Completely out of print, the files might still exist somewhere.
Star Fleet Empires (1994?)
Task Force Games, who published Star Fleet Battles, own a bastard 'Star Trek' license having purchased the rights to the classic 'Star Trek' vessels from Franz Joseph who drew the blueprints. At some point in the early 1990's (I think it was in 1994, but can't be bothered to rummage through my diaries to check) they ran a game design competition.
I entered two games. This one, Star Fleet Empires, was fantastic fun, but fairly conventional. It's similar to games like Twilight Imperium but it plays much faster and more tightly. Some of the mechanics were reused in a later game, Final Frontier.
Star Fleet Officers (1994?)
This is the other game I entered into the Task Force Games competition - and it won! This was the first concrete evidence I had that my game designs were actually quite good. For some reason, the fact that many of my friends had enjoyed playing them did not convince me.
A fast and silly game, players are space officers who collect Plot Devices in order to attempt various Missions to earn promotions. Missions are resolved as an auction: players bid against other players, basically vying to see how far they can push their luck.
The auction mechanic was so good, I reused it in a later game, Legends.
Eternal Champion Trading Card Game (1995)
This was never printed. Mike gave me his agent's card after a reading of his novel Blood in Manchester, but his agent just said flatly that all game rights were with Chaosium. I decided not to pursue it with them because, frankly, it was already too late to be moving into the trading card game market, and although the prototype was fun to play there were a million possible Eternal Champion games, and no reason for Chaosium to prefer mine over one they could devise themselves.
Shifter (1993, first printing 1996)
This one is a bug nuts crazy tabletop RPG game which could only be enjoyed by sci fi geeks. Players are interdimensional demolition experts who travel back in time to destroy any timelines which threaten the far future from which they hail.
Your character (known as a shifter) can be literally anything - a sentient pig (such as Barry Oink the Third), a talking toaster or an Elvis clone. There are four classes - the skilled Teknics, superpowered Psykers, infintely clever Seers or the undefeatable combat gods known as Gaunts. Shifters use technology to host their consciousness in the bodies of any creature in any timeline - and the timelines get very silly at times.
Almost every game eventually results in one or more shifters "going rogue" and then being hunted down by the other players until their probability of existence (the closest thing to health in the game) is exhausted. There's much use of spurious time powers - if things don't work out the way you want, just rewind time a few minutes and try again!
Fast paced, manic and ludicrous in the extreme, I still have a soft spot for this, despite its unpolished feel. I also have quite a few copies of the game which are free to a good home subject to my not having to mail them.
The game is also freely available online.
This is my favourite conventional card game, and I still play it to this day. Good fun with several players, it's also a highly competitive game when played head to head. The game is about trying to go out by playing all your cards, while denying your opponents the chance to do so, and also 'stealing' piles of cards for bonus points.
The rules are available online, along with an explanation of its rather odd name, and I will happily teach it to anyone who wants to learn a new card game.
This is a storytelling conventional card game, in which players play different fantastical empires battling it out for supremacy. The rules, which are available online, were written while I was in Amsterdam with friends and so are somewhat... erm... unusual.
I thought this was going to be the last tabletop RPG I made. A good friend of mine who has been in all my favourite tabletop RPG campaigns expressed his desire for an RPG which boiled the mechanics down to their essence. So, over the space of one drunken night, we conceived Contract, which ignores all the aleatory elements of RPGs (i.e. dice rolls) and instead concentrates on facilitating storytelling.
Character generation is the process of drawing up a character 'contract' which both player and GM agree to, and players act in the game by playing 'chips' of different colours representing the degree of success. The GM returns these chips to the player according to how in character they feel the player has been.
I still occasionally (well, very rarely) run Call of Cthulhu one-offs using Contract and jellybeans for sanity.
The rules - which fit onto the back of the character sheet - are available online.
Final Frontier (1998?)
This is a clever remake of Star Fleet Empires, designed using the 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' universe. I wanted to get the license from Paramount and market this as a hobbygame, but I never managed to find anyone in Paramount who would return my emails so it never happened.
Although the game plays slightly too slowly (3-4 hours a game), it's basic play of moving starships between different systems in the pursuit of secret goals is extremely satisfying, and it has numerous nice touches including little furry Tribble counters which I found in a craft shop in Knoxville.
I feel you can already see my game design skills getting sharper with this game.
Alpha Strike (1998?)
I had completely forgotten this, which is a starship combat game using only a conventional deck of cards. I don't even know if it's ever been played. The only reason I'm even mentioning it is because the rules are available online. If anyone gives it a try, please let me know how it plays!
Guild of Thieves (1999)
This is a dead simple card game which uses a trick from stage magic to create a puzzle, which the players then compete to be the first to solve. I haven't played it in years, but I seem to remember it was good fun. The rules are available online.
This is perhaps my favourite game. Using the auction mechanics from Star Fleet Officers, players engage in heroic fantasy quests, trying to collect certain classes of cards to win (for instance, the Minotaur Shaman needs a Title, a Friend, a Treasure and a Spell to win, I think).
Fluid, fast paced play, a satisfying sense of progress as the player acquires new cards (as each one improves their statistics) and a real sense of adventure make this one of the gems in my irrelevant back catalogue.
This was also one of the first "three hour games" - games that were made in their entirety in just three hours total. Most three hour games are drawn on Dutch Ivory Board cards, which I keep in stock at all times.
A revised version of the original cards was made recently, although only handmade versions of this game exist. I often travel with it, so if you fancy a game at some point, it might be a possibility.
As I mentioned before, I thought that Contract would be the end of my tabletop RPG games - but I had one more in me. I had wanted to make the Micronauts RPG since I first started making games. I absolutely adored the Bill Mantlo/Michael Golden Marvel comics based on this classic Mego toy line (I had the toys as a kid too). I also loved the more mature Peter B. Gillis comics that followed on (The New Voyages). They were imaginative space opera, brimming over with silly fun.
Although named after the Micronaut toys and comics, the game can be used to play any space opera setting.
I think the motivation for this was the dawning realisation that while one can factor dice out of RPGs, rolling dice is actually a lot of fun! That, and fulfilling my lifelong dream of putting together a Micronauts RPG.
I never tried to publish it because of the legal insanity involving the collapse of Mego in the 1970's and other complex intellectual property Gordian knots, but you can find the entire game (which has pleasantly short rules) online.
This is just a rip off of Cluedo but with characters and locations based around my friends and an utterly silly board. Made on a whim. It might be the only boardgame I made during the stressful early years while I was getting International Hobo off the ground.
Another three hour game, based on an earlier unfinished game called Hollyweird. In essence, players run movie studies and attempt to gather the Stars, Locations and Props required to shoot various types of scene: Disaster, Rescue, Love Scene, Escape and Climax.
Most overtly competitive elements were factored out: to play well is to strike good deals with the other studios in order to borrow their stars and so forth. Good fun, but players who thrive on competition feel somewhat unsatisfied with it.
Heads & Tails (2004)
Yet another three hour game, this one made in a hotel room in Amsterdam. In essence, you start as an amoeba and gradually acquire heads, bodies and tails in order to evolve into the most complex organism you can. The silly drawings which you line up to make the creatures can be quite entertaining, but it's the speed of play which has kept this one in circulation, as a game is over in 30 minutes or less.
Black Sun (2005)
Which brings us to Black Sun, which I have written about recently, and for which I will publish both the rules and the design process that created those rules sometime in the future, if I can find the time.
If anything is apparent from this catalogue of obscurity, it is that making games is in my blood and it is a fortunate happenstance indeed that I have ended up in a job which pays me for doing so. Perhaps, it was inevitable that I would end up here. Certainly, I am grateful to have found my place in the world.
If I have a lesson for anyone who wants to make games, it is that there is no substitute for experience. Make games... make lots of games... make lots of different games - and have fun doing it! I know I did.
No idea if I will have time to blog while I'm in India, but if not I'll be back in a little over a week.
Wow, nostalgia... I just wanted to say that I thought I still had an Arena board somewhere, but it might have gotten lost whilst at my present addy (you know the score), and that The Music Game Thingy card templates were never included with the online copy of the rules.
As an aside - if you find any old rules (or card templates) let me know and we can try and get them online!
Good luck in India!
Posted by: Neil | January 10, 2006 at 02:11 PM
Cheers mate! I am in India *right now*. I have just finished being accosted by dozens of Indian business people at least half of which had no idea who I was, but really wanted to talk to me about what they did. :)
Anyway, I guess I should do what I really logged on to do... See you soon!
Posted by: Chris | January 12, 2006 at 01:48 PM
Nice one. Hope it is all going well out there. I am at home *right now* (I should be in work, but amn't due to The Foot).
This morning I took delivery of some silky smooth Chips au Poker. Let's get ready to make a betting decision based soley on the value of those two cards!
Posted by: Neil | January 13, 2006 at 02:57 PM
Hoping your trip is fruitful, Chris... and thank you for the "long view" of your career as a game designers. So often we forget that our love for games is so firmly rooted in childhood. I never played your playground games as a child but just reading the description got the 10-year-old inside of me rather excited :)
It reminded me of the games my siblings and I evolved to liven dreary outings with adults: typically some formulation of us being scientists or astronauts in a very hazardous environ. Anything from sidewalk cracks to other people (if it were in a crowded city) were deadly poisonous or otherwise lethal upon contact, transforming any dull stroll into a trial of skillfull evasion.
It's still a joy to see how small children immediately take to this type of improvisational play (dare I say paidia?), and volunteer their own rule amendments/additions as they go along. An excellent and rather nostalgic post, glad you took the time for such an inventory!
Posted by: Jack Monahan | January 14, 2006 at 07:47 AM