Designing Around The Problem 2

Designing Gaslands is a voyage of discovery for me as a games designer. This blog is a way for me to consider the process and try to communicate what I’m learning from it. During this process, I’ve hit on a games design strategy that I wanted to explore here. For now, I’m calling the approach “designing around the problem”.

I have already written about “minimum viable game“, and this is like “minimum viable fragment”. Exploration of a fragment of the larger game system by designing a game that ONLY features that one system.

Back in October 2015, I released a major update to the beta rules. This mostly tightened up the movement rules, and provided a broader array of vehicles, weapons and upgrades. I knew that the next update had to contain the campaign system. In my imagining of the game, the campaign system was not just a way of linking games together, it was the central differentiator for Gaslands over other similar games.

I sat down several times to write the campaign system as notes in my notebook. Ideas came slowly, and I realised that I didn’t real know enough about how the “arc” of the campaign should feel to write any compelling rules. My co-conspirator John and I agreed that a campaign should describe a race season, but exactly how to do this was unclear.

Given my personal commitment to write a game a month, even whilst Gaslands was in full development, I attempted to design around the problem of the campaign system and explore it in a smaller game fragment. I wrote a casual little push-your-luck dice game that used the skid dice in which each player is a team and you race to win the season. Each round is a race, and the game ends when one player wins a five races.

Other than a fun use of the skid dice I wanted to produce, what did writing this Gaslands dice game illuminate with regards to the campaign system for the main game?

The main thing I discovered, and what you’ll see in the very simple campaign system that made it in the final book, was very interesting. In the dice game, each player starts each race with five dice. Regardless of the outcome of the previous race, all players always start again with five dice. At race starts on an even keel.

Most of the classic wargame campaign systems that I have played, particularly those from GW, have a big emphasis on rewarding the victors and punishing the losers. From the start of the second game in a campaign in Necromunda, or Bloodbowl, or Frostgrave or Mordheim, the stakes are “unfair”.

In my experience, weaker or less experienced players are punished and better players are rewarded. “As it should be”, some will say, “I should be rewarded for playing better, or what’s the point of mastering the game?” Whilst I agree that the more skilful or clever player should be rewarded within the confines of a SINGLE GAME, my experience is that rewarding this at the campaign level has a significantly negative effect on the meta-game. Players that get hammered in the first game don’t just have a bad time in the first game, they are now very likely to had a bad time in EVERY SUBSEQUENT GAME.

We have all been part of campaigns were the players doing worst have dropped out. We shrug and assume that’s just the way of things. I think this is actually a symtom of bad design. A game should be fun all the way through, for all players, right up until a winner is chosen, or what’s the point in playing it?

Considering the campaign as a meta-game, through writing a dice game and a card game, led me to the (possibly surprising) decision to dump the old school style progression system all together and go with a simple escalation format. Each player is simply gifted a number of additional cans before each game in the campaign. Each player beginning each game on a roughly equal footing. Better players are still more likely to win over weaker players, but weaker players aren’t playing at an additional mechanical disadvantage. Players who made smarter choices in team construction at the start of the season at likely still in a stronger position, but other players have a chance to learn and adjust their team. Players are rewarded for taking part, and hopefully want to see the campaign through, even if that aren’t going to win, because they get new toys and good games throughout the campaign.

I’m interested to see how the community reacts to this design decision. I suspect that there will be a number of players who feel that the campaign system is light-weight and should have had a vehicle damage system or a reward and progression system linked to in-game performance, but I hope this article goes some way to showing why I think that’s the system I choose is the stronger and the more fun option.

If you want to find out for yourself, head over to our store and pick the game up now!