03 July, 2012

Zero Sum and Closed Environments

For a long time I’ve been toying with zero sum concepts in games. By this, I mean a limited pool of resources shared among the players, perhaps even extending the concept to a limited pool of resources shared between players and antagonists.

There are a few ways you can play with a zero sum environment. Some of which I’ve touched on with “The Eighth Sea”, others with “FUBAR”, some have been scattered through my unfinished works, and a few ideas I’ve kept in mind for future projects. Many “euro” style board games incorporate the design methodology, and I’ve been looking at them as a source of inspiration lately.

A zero sum environment may be a known quantifiable figure at the beginning of play, or it may be an unknown ecosystem. It may manifest through play in a number of ways.

Consider a deck of cards used as a central mechanism for play. If those cards are not shuffled during the course of play, then there are a distinctly finite number of cards that can be played. Once a card is played it is discarded from the mix and the pool of potential cards becomes a step less mysterious…when there are only a few cards remaining, the final end game can be predicted (“all the kings have been played and so have three queens, whoever has the last queen in their hand has an action where they cannot be beaten”).

Allowing the deck to be shuffled and redrawn after every action opens the play environment back up again.

We can look at options where the cards are fully dealt out to the players, perhaps even including mechanisms where players are able to trade their cards. This brings an element of economy into the game, where everyone might be after specific types of cards of certain rank or certain suit. Trick taking games come to mind. Similar games where cards aren’t fully dealt out at the start of play are also possible, and games like “Settlers of Catan” are possible (even though this latter game begins with most of the cards undealt).

Perhaps none of the finite resource pool begins distributed among the players…consider the finite number of properties in monopoly (each depicted by a card in a deck, each having varying degrees of value associated with them, and each capable of becoming more powerful when taken in a specific combination).

In the Eighth Sea, I play with “zero sum” in a few ways. The first is through the deck not being shuffled until a joker reveals itself. Play escalates until a black or red joke appears; a red joker always providing a positive twist of fate for the time travelling swashbucklers in the story, a black joker providing a complication or negative twist of fate. These set beats for the story; irregular and awkward beats but beats none the less.

Separate to the core deck and the recurring jokers, the Eighth Sea uses a zero sum mechanism called the winds. Each player is given four cards; two black and two red (in actual play this has drifted to each player gaining four poker chips; two positive and two negative). Players may affect one another’s actions by applying their winds to an action…apply a positive/red to someone and their difficulty is reduced, apply a negative/black to them and their difficulty is increased. Once you apply your wind, you get a random wind back (positive/red or negative/black). Those who keep applying red/positives to their allies have a higher likelihood of ending up with a personal pool filled with black/negatives…and vice versa. As an added twist to the mechanism, a player must face their own cards at the climax of the story.

The final way that the Eighth Sea plays with zero sum lies in its application of difficulty to tasks performed by the characters. When characters succeed, their future base difficulties are slightly raised (but they get closer to their goal). Conversely when characters fail, their future difficulties get slightly lower (but they stay stagnant with respect to their goal). This is hand-waved by saying that an enemy mounts stronger resistance against those people seen as a threat while easing off against those who are less threatening.

FUBAR works as a bit of a divergent evolution of the concept; with a single finite pool of tokens reflecting both the character’s progress in the story and the remaining obstacles standing in their way.  

Knowing that there is a zero sum mechanism at work within a game creates a new level of play, a meta-game separate to the obvious, but which becomes clearer as it restrains choices throughout the course of events.

I wanted to write a game for the “Little Spaces” RPG challenge over on 1km1kt, and I kept wanting to incorporate something along the lines of zero sum to reflect the limited space and limited resources available to the characters. Every time I created something, it ended up not leading in the direction I’d hoped and I abandoned it.

My first idea (tentatively titled “Lagrange”) involved exploration of a 1 mile radius rotating space station. This station locked in a static orbit at of the lagrange points where the gravity of a planet and it’s moon cancel out. The basic premise involves two decks of cards and a pool of resources. A deck of cards is distributed with four cards each across twelve outer ring sectors of the station and the final four at a central hub. These four cards define the type of scene encountered, the base difficulty ad any complications. The second deck is drawn from as the players encounter these scenes and try to work out what went wrong on the station. Do the players use their high cards early to build momentum against the climax? Or do they hold on to their high cards and risk failure at the beginning for a better chance of success if they do reach the climax? To make things a bit more interesting, I was going to divide players up into certain roles (scientist, security, engineer, etc.) giving them each bonuses in specific situations or against specific suits of cards.

I still think the idea has some great legs to it, but I couldn’t just if submitting it to a 24hr contest when I spent a couple of hours each day over the course of a week on it. I’d like to spend a solid few more days getting it right rather than throwing it out to the public as a half-finished notion.

My second idea (tentatively titled “the Bodhisattva’s smile”) involved a group of holy Buddhist mystics living in a cave and granting audience to pilgrims who sought to reach enlightenment. The whole concept of a Bodhisattva in Buddhism is an ascetic to has almost transcended, but has instead chosen to stay in the physical world to help others on their journey to enlightenment. Players would take turns as the pilgrim and the bodhisattva, using a quirky system I developed. They would offer their advice and have two types of outcomes: the Pilgrim’s outcome might be a success (enlightenment) or a failure (hubris), and the Bodhisattva’s outcome might push them to transcendence, might earn them respect as a spiritual leader or might lead them into their own hubris and away from enlightenment.

This is the kind of game where I want to do justice to the concept rather than rush it through. I had a dozen zero sum ideas for this one as well.

Anyway…enough blogging, back to the design work.
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