And now for something completely different. Not a roleplaying game at all. A board game. A board game that I’ve been working on for the last year and a bit, and that’s approaching the public playtesting stage. Slowly. Inexorably. There’s been a lot of private playtesting done with various groups of friends, and the game is in the late stage of its development, but it’s been stuck in that stage for a while. This post, and any follow-ups, are my attempts at self-motivation masquerading as a design diary. By making it public, I’m committing to seeing it through to the end.
What is the game about? To borrow from the rules it took me a month to write: “Welcome to Passages & Plunder, a game of exploration and greed. In it, players are in charge of a colony recently established in the newly discovered underworld. Their task is to protect the colony, explore the dark tunnels and obtain as much treasure as they can. All the players lose if the colony gets overrun. But only the player who has brought back the most treasure will win!”
Okay, but what does this actually mean? First of all, it means I’m easily amused. But it’s not a coincidence the name is evocative of D&D. I wanted to convey that old-school spirit of dungeon crawling. Each expedition your colonists go on is an adventure for them. The players act as quest givers, the movers and shakers of their little underground city. Which is not to say it is yet another emulator of D&D, I’ve tried to create a distinct, somewhat weird world.
More importantly, it means the game is a cooperative one, that gradually transitions into competitive. I’m trying to have my cake and eat it, too: one of the main issues any cooperative game faces is an experienced player taking over and telling everyone what to do. This doesn’t happen here, as everyone is in it for themselves, even if they’re forced to work together. And work together they do. Another common pitfall many games face is solitary gameplay, where players barely have any way to influence or interact with others, and therefore might as well be playing separately. While players in P&P have little ways to actively affect each other, short of exiling someone particularly uncooperative, they must rely on each other to survive. The rules and moves are kept purposefully simple and transparent, so that each action players take, they may have to justify to others. At its core, Passages & Plunder is about how much others will let you get away with, and how much you can rely on them to do their part.
This is what board games are best at, what distinguishes them from other forms of entertainment in my opinion: the social aspect. You play with your friends through the medium that the game provides. I’ve tried to maintain the balance between the fun of just solving the puzzle of the game and exploring the underworld, and letting players interact. Everything in the game serves one or both of those goals.
Does it succeed? In the very first playtest of the very first raw version, two of my good friends, somewhat drunk at the time, ended up yelling at each other about who should feed the colony. I knew I had something good right then. And yes, it is that kind of game, that tests friendships. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I know, but that’s the way it ended up.
Now that you know what the game is about, here’s what the game is, what major elements it has, and why it has them.
It is out to get you. Each turn, its menace grows, which makes it harder to defend the colony. It is a timer of sorts, an ever-increasing pressure. There is no set amount of turns the players get; rather, they evacuate when they feel like they won’t be able to hold out another turn. And if they’re doing well and really pushing into the depths, the underworld will push back, increasing menace. It is a self-adjusting difficulty. Eventually, it gets so high that the players have no choice but to evacuate, signalling the end of the game.
Each turn, a calamity strikes, presenting another challenge to overcome or survive. The severity of the calamity scales with menace. This makes the underworld less passive, not just waiting for players to come and plunder it, but fighting back.
The board itself is a map of passages, with expedition cards placed on them at the start. They are the places and locals you’ll plunder. At the edges of the board are deep expeditions, with greater challenges and greater rewards. I’ve tried to create a sense of place, of delving further and further into the hostile tunnels. This is one of the areas that needs some extra work, I feel, but I’ll get to that in a future post.
The game starts with players collectively coming up with a name for the colony. Again, a sense of place, of ownership. There are buildings to be constructed, spells to be cast, and colonists to be sent out on expeditions. The colony aspect of the game is entirely cooperative. Spells benefit the colony. Buildings benefit the colony. Colonists don’t belong to any one player, but are recruited by them each turn.
The main way players accomplish things is by assigning these colonists to various tasks. It’s not really a worker placement game, though: the colonists differ from one another in their skills. This is the main mechanic of the game: a given task may require 3 “points” of labor, and to accomplish it enough colonists must be sent that, together, have these 3 points. There are 4 skills, and each colonist has 1-3 in all of them. This means that even if a colonist is ill-suited to a task, they still can contribute. And so it becomes an uncomfortable choice, and another way to argue about not “wasting” your colonists on a crucial task, because they could do so much more elsewhere. It’s all about the temptation, and the justification.
Another important part of the design is the “chunkiness” of choices. You can’t make symbolic gestures, can’t donate 10% of your income to the colony. If you only have 3 colonists in a turn, what you do with each of them matters.
There are no dice rolls involved. There is hidden information represented by cards (oh, so many cards), but most of those cards can be revealed with a bit of effort. You can plot out your turn from the start, but can you trust others to do their part? You can scout out an expedition before embarking on it, but what if others beat you to the punch? Whatever happens, you only have yourself to blame.
The colony being cooperative means players don’t build up a power base. Instead, each turn they start on a sort-of equal footing. Again, it’s not about having the best strategy, it’s about manipulating your friends. Which is not to say you can’t have a strategy. You can scout ahead and learn which colonists to recruit this turn. You can make a show of being useful, and demand allowances for future transgressions.
This still felt like it wasn’t enough, like the game only really mattered in the second half, when the colony was decently established and competition could begin in earnest. To remedy that, I’ve recently added secret agendas, fulfillment of which grants bonus points at the end. These are long-term goals dependent on the overall state of the colony, such as how many colonists there were, or how high the menace has risen. They introduce something to strive for over the entire game. Agendas are yet to be tested, but I have high hopes.
The game starts cooperative. But everyone knows that at some point, all pretense will fly out of the window. At some point, the temptation of profit will get too high. Will you be guilted into saving the colony while your friends stuff their coffers? Will you be stuck with an impossible choice between losing because you’re dead and losing because someone else won? There are quite a lot of interesting dynamics that crop up, but I’ll save them for another post, this one’s gotten too long as it is. Hopefully, it’s given you a good idea of the game, and, even more hopefully, some of you are now interested enough to give it a try when the public playtest is ready.