Passages & Plunder – Underworldbuilding

Passages & Plunder is a board game of exploration and greed I’m working on. There’s a playtest version available, try it! This post is a (somewhat retroactive) design diary that won’t make much sense unless you’ve played it, so there.

As this blog will readily attest, I play a lot of roleplaying games. And I like some roleplaying in my board games, too. It’s no surprise I’ve made a game about dungeoncrawl management with very subtle allusions to D&D that encourages players to talk to one another. Not only that, it encourages players to sometimes do so from the in-world perspective. The very first thing players have to do as they set up the game is come up with the name for their colony – this determines the first player. There’s a space on the central board to write it down, and ideally in the final published version there’ll be a gloss “panel” there fit for an erasable marker. Furthermore, whenever players do something that would earn them the favor of one of the sponsors, they’re supposed to loudly proclaim they did it in the sponsor’s name.

Beyond the prescribed in-character moments, there’re the actual interactions players have with one another. The most common ones are arguing about who should be helping the colony, or why what you did was actually not that bad. These are mechanical concepts being discussed: how many colonists you’ve spent on the colony last turn, how protected the colony is, how likely an attack is. Still, some amount of in-character banter sneaks in. The trick, I think, is in having simple mechanics and evocative setting.

The social deduction genre is a great example of the former. Take Resistance, or its (IMO) superior version Secret Hitler, or Sheriff of Nottingham. The actual mechanics are trivial. You are either a fascist or you’re not. You either have contraband, or you don’t. And yet players frequently argue about not just the mechanical bits, but the story of the game as well. “You say there’re only apples in the bag, where’d you get them? It’s not apple season.” (In-character accusations of fascism are somewhat rarer, I’ll admit.) When we’re not too busy calculating the probabilities and figuring out the next move, we naturally pay more attention to the flavor. Which is not to say you’re doing it wrong if you’ve never bothered with the (paper-thin) flavor, of course. It all depends on the group.

While P&P is more complex than these games, I did try to keep the actual gameplay simple. You only have a few options at a time, a few colonists to send out each turn. And everything you do, absolutely everything, is visibly either selfish or cooperative, or both. So any time someone is being selfish, it is obvious. And therefore open to challenge by the other players. Why did you do this? In-character spin comes naturally at this point. Another major element is the mayor. Not just the first player, it’s a moving spotlight that grants extra powers and extra scrutiny to those it highlights. I’ve even witnessed newly minted mayors do a little speech, promising how their rule will be better for everyone.

And then there’s the setting. There’s no detailed backstory. No lore as such. Fantasy settings are a dime a dozen, and a board game is hardly the place to develop another one. Instead, there are evocative (I hope) bits and pieces scattered throughout. There’re the diary entries below each calamity. Had to come up with lots of different ways of saying “it’s dark and spooky” for those, lots of different kinds of darkness. Not everyone reads the flavor text, but it’s nice to have it there. Then there are the titles of all the cards, and some day the art. You meet Giant Furry Slugs in the Underworld. Empress Elect can be one of your sponsors. They provoke questions. Tiny lights in a dark cave, that your imagination composes into a picture more terrifying than whatever I could describe in detail. More entertaining, I mean. Certainly.

Finally, I tried to tell a story with the mechanics of individual cards. Take Dragon’s Lair, for instance. When there are multiple Task block present on a card, you can choose which one to do. So in order to plunder the dragon’s lair, you can either fight lots; or investigate a bit, but increase menace in the process. Kill the dragon, or just steal its treasure and piss it off.

The end result, I hope, is a game that enables you, every now and then, to create a memorable story. Likely about yelling at your friends.

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