Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Time Travel and Board games

I've discussed before how time travel is hard, and though there have been several attempts at games based on it, the closest I've seen to one that works really well is Khronos. Khronos is a pretty interesting game, but it's really hard and somewhat tedious to see the implications of your actions.

I had never really planned on trying to design a game about time travel, at least not until I got some kind of good idea for it. A recent (February) Game Design Showdown was about going back in time, and that got me thinking about the subject a little bit. What I came up with was a cooperative game (another genre I haven't really worked on much) idea:

Like so many science experiments, this one went horribly wrong. In a bid for the Nobel Prize, a brilliant but eccentric physicist got a bit overzealous with a new discovery, and inadvertently created a tear in the space-time continuum. This tear is unstable, and in time would grow and eventually unravel space-time altogether - and that would be bad for everyone.

It's up to a team of scientists to find a way to fix space-time before the instability grows too much and the world turns inside out. The only problem is, the tear in space-time has begun to cause 'Rewinds' - instances in which time literally rewinds and the scientists are pushed back to a previous point in their endeavor.

Players work together to navigate a tree of decisions, each leading to 1 of 2 paths. At the end of each branch of the tree is a Result card, some with a favorable result - the scientists fix space-time and save the day... and some less favorable - game over! with each turn there's a chance that the instability of space-time triggers a Rewind, pushing players back some number of decision points. The worse the tear gets, the bigger the Rewind. If time rewinds past the beginning of the game, then that's all she wrote!

The main mechanism of this game was to be that players must make choices with little or no information at first, then as they move on more information becomes available. Then when a Rewind occurs, players can use the newer information in order to re-do a prior choice they made. On a players turn they first roll some dice, and then they can do one of several things - each option might be restricted in some way by the die roll. In addition, whenever the roll totals 7 (or perhaps is over some threshold), a Rewind occurs and players are pushed back along the decision tree some number of spaces. An Instability track indicates how far back the Rewind takes the team, and after the Rewind, the Instability increases (the next Rewind will be bigger).

Today I put a little thought into some details - I envision a deck of 'choice cards' which would be shuffled and dealt out in a triangular 'trellis' pattern. The last (8th) row of the trellis would be made up of Result cards - maybe 5 bad ("game over, you lose") and 3 good ("WIN!"). Maybe 1 of the good cards is extra good, so players can try to find that particular result as opposed to just any of the 3 good result cards for a harder game.

Each decision point has 2 possible outcomes, each leading to one of the decision points in the next row. The point of the game is to navigate through these decision points to one of the Result cards in the 8th row - but of course you want it to be one of the winning Result cards.

Possible actions on your turn would include:

- Peek at some of the Result cards - the closer you are to the 8th row the fewer you look at, narrowing it down. After peeking at them you shuffle them and replace them. Thus if you do it in the beginning, you see that indeed 3 of the 8 cards are 'winners' and 5 are not. If you do it from the third row you look at 6 adjacent result cards... and from the 6th row you look at just 3. They have to be the three you could still reach without rewinding - so if they all are losers then you'll want to rewind and try another path.

- Get resources - based on the die roll maybe you collect certain colored cards which will be needed to progress to the next row.

- Advance - pay the listed cost in cards in order to advance to the next Decision Point (next row). Depending on which of the 2 paths you wish to take you might need a different combination of cards to pay.

- Force Rewind - Players can trigger a rewind, backing up time and moving the group to an earlier decision point - but this of course makes the Instability grow - too much and space-time will unravel.

- Repair Instability - There should be some way (at some times) to repair the instability somewhat, moving the track back, effectively lengthening the game - giving players more time to successfully finish before the space-time continuum unravels.
This could be based in part on arriving at certain cards - the end card could repair the Instability a certain number of units, so maybe you actually have to hit more than one of them. And some cards along the way might do that too. This would also add weight to an action that allows players to look at the 2 upcoming Decision Points, to help decide which direction they want to go: "This one has a Repair icon on it, let's collect the stuff we need to go this way!" Maybe some Decision Points are worse and they cause an instability bump when they're revealed. The Peek action mentioned above could also be used in the midgame, not just to look at the Result cards but any upcoming Decision Points. Maybe look at 1 of the possible Decision Point cards and put it back, or all of the possible Decision Points in a column and then shuffle them.

further thoughts on this will be forthcoming... eventually.


ekted said...

Among many others, I've got a Messing With History game idea in the back of my head that has never quite coalesced. The trouble with Messing With History games is that players are essentially temporally omniscient, being able to react--in the past--to things other players do in the future. Once I solve this problem, maybe something good will happen. Or will have happened.

Seth Jaffee said...

I see what you mean - if players exist in different times simultaneously then that could be a real problem!

In this idea all players exist in the same time, and the timestream simply rewinds occasionally, like when Superman flew around the earth to reverse it's spin... only slightly less unrealistic ;)

In the other idea I just posted players go back to different times, but the game action never happens then, you just send someone back in time to pick something up and come back. And the thing they're picking up is something that, according to history, disappeared, broke or got lost anyway.

Scurra said...

Ooops. I've replied to the wrong posting. D'oh.
Maybe I can go back in time and move it to the right one?