While working on Manaforge, I've had one recurring problem: the game's story.

Mechanically, the development process has been relatively straightforward. Sure, the game has gone through many iterations. I've added new ideas, stripped out and/or replaced mechanics, added rules, patched up corner cases, corrected most of the balance issues (there are still some, but they get less severe with each iteration), playtested, rinse, repeat...  you get the idea.

But for some reason, the overall story behind the game has been hard to pin down.

When the game was first created, it had no theme at all. It was an abstract game about rolling dice to obtain colored 'dots', which were spent on cards that gave more dots. Dice had colors too, and each die typically gave more dots of its own color. Each card had a point value; at the end of the game, you tallied up the point values of your cards. For a first iteration, this worked just fine.

When the time came to start working a theme into the game, I decided on a theme about four gentlemen, with wildly different occupations, trying to settle an argument about who was best at their job. Each type of 'dot' became a 'currency' of sorts; red, yellow, green, and blue translated into Hard Work, Money, Influence, and Knowledge, respectively. The four players had the same colors, so the player's occupations became Construction Worker, Investment Banker, Celebrity Gambler, and University Professor, respectively. Cards in the game had names like 'Build a Skyscraper', 'Venture Capital', 'Tournament Win', and 'Scientific Breakthrough'.

The game was named 'Facets', both a play on the 'different facets of life' of each character, and a reference to the sides of the dice.

I thought it was a clever idea, but nobody that played the game really 'got' the theme. Quite possibly because the game didn't have any art at that point (just colored dots), but the connection was there if you looked. Apparently nobody else saw it the same way.

So, going on the idea of 'do what you know', I rethemed the game to be high fantasy, my favorite genre. (Also one of the most overused ones. Oh well.)

The colored dots became 'mana'. The four colors became the four elements. (When I tell a player that the 'fire' die has no sides that give 'water' mana, the understanding is pretty much immediate.) The cards that the players are purchasing are now 'spells'; you're using your mana to cast the spell. Spells create objects or call up magical effects. Spells in play become 'artifacts' or 'equipment', spells with only an instantaneous effect are 'sorceries' or 'evocations'. Dice represent the 'aether', the unstable flow of ambient magical energy around the wizards; rolling the dice shows the player what types of mana they can isolate and harness at that point in time. The game's three decks of cards became 'morning', 'afternoon', and 'evening', designating that the events of the game take place over a single day. 'Coins' (tokens that represented dots that could be carried over between turns) became 'mana crystals', magical batteries that keep mana contained until it is needed. (Unconstrained mana tends to dissipate if not used.) 'Goal' cards that gave player-specific special sources of victory points became 'character' cards, showing what types of magic your wizard specializes in.

All well and good, the game's mechanics fit reasonably well with the theme. The problem is the story. Why are the characters doing this?

The current story is that the players are defending a city from invading monsters. The player that creates the best defense wins a prize. Problem is, that doesn't really convey the feel of the game.

Just telling the players that they're defending a city makes it sound like they're defending it together. No, it's a contest. But by that point I've already made the wrong first impression. The game is competitive, not cooperative.

Telling the players that they're crafting equipment and defenses sounds too behind-the-scenes for the likes of such mighty wizards. They should be on the front lines, fireballing and lightning-bolting those monsters into the next lifetime.

Also, the game is about building an economic engine; what's so heroic about sitting in your workshop and cobbling together a staff that can increase your lightning power when there is a target-rich environment right outside your door?

I'm reluctant to part with the story I've crafted so far. I know it doesn't fit well, and I'm assuming I will have to change it at some point, but I don't want to replace it until I'm certain that the new story is the right one. To make matters worse, I'm also fighting comparisons to the board game Seasons, which while that game is mechanically different from mine, thematically it is very similar. I want to make certain my game distinct.

I don't have the answer to this question. Yet. I'm hoping enough playtests will make the answer obvious.

 


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