Sunday, April 26, 2015

Puzzling out game mechanisms

In case you hadn't heard, I recently ad my hip joint replaced with a shiny new one. Literally shiny:

So I've spent the last couple of weeks at my parents' house. My mother is fond of jigsaw puzzles, so I've been spending a little time helping her put some together.

If you're reading this post, then you know I'm a game designer at heart. So it stands to reason that I might start to think about jigsaw as a game mechanism. I've actually thought about this before - sort of...

Some time ago I worked with Juan Carballal (from the Board Game Designers Forum) and Andy Van Zandt (now a developer for TMG) on a "dice building" game about hunting pirates called Admirals of the Spanish Main. The idea was to try to outdo Quarriors! as a dice building game. More accurately perhaps: to make a game with dice building as a mechanism rather than a Dicebuilder in a way similar to how Eminent Domain is a game with deck building that's not a Deckbuilder (or Dominion clone).

In Admirals of the Spanish Main you would take actions, each associated with a particular colored die. These actions would move your along the board, earn you new dice at ports, allow you to fight and capture nefarious pirates, and let you collect pieces of a treasure map.

It's that last one, the treasure map, which is relevant here. In AotSM, certain rewards allow you to draw map pieces out of a bag, the object of which is to piece together the treasure map pictured on the player board below. Duplicates of the same piece are useless, but there's a large end game bonus for completing the map, so one strategy you could employ involved earning many map piece draws, hoping to complete the map by the end of the game. There exist benefits in the game such as "when you draw map pieces, draw 1 additional piece and then discard one," giving you better odds of finding useful pieces.

Sadly, playtest feedback largely amounted to "if we're playing a game with pirates, we want to BE the pirates!" So we sort of gave up on that one, though I would like to revisit it one day, because I thought it had potential.

One Idea

Getting this blog post back on track, the point of that interlude was to talk about the similarity of that map mechanism to a jigsaw puzzle. Of course, I just used square tiles, but puzzle tabs would fit here, and would be novel. Of course, it may be awkward to draw tiles blindly out of a bag, and have some edge pieces and some not. This could be handled by making the player board be the edge of the puzzle, then all of the pieces could have tabs.

But is this using jigsaw in a meaningful way? Obviously not, as I did approximate it with square tiles. Though it could be a nice, novel way to present that aspect of the game. How then could jigsaw be used as a mechanism? Well, building on the map mechanism I was just talking about, here's one thought I had:

First, create several different (maybe 3?) small puzzles like the map above, 3x3 or maybe 4x4 in size. Presumably the images would be similar enough that it's not immediately obvious which puzzle each piece goes to. There would be multiple copies of each, of course, so that players can all draw from a common pool. Another option is that each player could have 1 copy of each puzzle to draw from, ensuring nobody is blocked out of completing a puzzle due to luck of the draw.

Then, have some aspect of the game involve drawing tiles at random, and solving a puzzle could be the point of the game, or could confer some benefit. The idea that sparked this line of thought was that players could work on putting together their jigsaw puzzles off turn, for something to do during down time.

Another Idea

The above idea was interesting but still doesn't really feel like using jigsaw in a meaningful way. Again, those could be replaced by square tiles. Another, different idea for using jigsaw in a more meaningful way might be this:

Imagine a deduction game in which there are like 9 different puzzles. Each puzzle would be similar in art style, and have maybe 3 common features with each other puzzle (thanks to the technology of Spot It). The reason for all that is to obfuscate which puzzle you're working on in any given game, for replayability.

Each of these puzzles would be in its own bag, and for any given game you'd use only one of them. Over the course of the game, pieces would come out at random, and players would need to piece together the puzzle, either as the goal of the game, or maybe better in order to then glean information toward the solution of the game.

Perhaps this would work well as a cooperative game, with a crime-fighting theme. I think that would be pretty thematic, as hunting down where pieces of a puzzle goes feels like a reasonable approximation of using clues to solve a crime. All players working on the same puzzle seems like it would lend itself nicely to a cooperative game, and has the added benefit that someone like my mother, who is not fond of games, but does enjoy jigsaw puzzles, to enjoy such a game with someone like me, who enjoys jigsaw puzzles as well as other challenges such as solving a crime.

This may be a more thematic use of jigsaw as a mechanism, but is it meaningful? Or can the pieces all be square tiles there as well? I suppose it's possible that puzzle tabs could be used to help solve a jigsaw puzzle in addition to the art on the tile, so maybe that counts?

In either case, even if it's not really a meaningful use of jigsaw, it seems to me like both of these ideas could have some merit.


AlexC said...

I fear the mechanic of "this game ships with 9 puzzles, pull pieces out until you can identify which one you're playing with" would degenerate a bit too easily into "So far I know it's either A, D, E, G or H. This new piece... is only in A, C or D so I know we must be in A or D." That would only be interesting in-game if the choices you were making were strongly affected by what the hidden puzzle identity was. If you had the opportunity to make moves that'd be very useful in games A, B, or C, but outright detrimental in G, H or I, that could be interesting. But it still feels like you're not actually using jigsaw solving so much as just ruling out possibilities from a big lookup table.

Perhaps you should step back and consider what it is about jigsaws that you're wanting to use. The physical connectivity of jigsaws is pretty cool, and could have made for a cool tweak to Steam Works had that not had quite so many weird variations on the standard pattern in the decks :) But I get the impression you're more after something reflecting the deductive feeling of gradually unlocking more of the whole picture.

What about the frequent feeling when doing jigsaws of "I've got a new piece here and I don't know where it fits"? With the attendant assumption that "there must be a place where it fits" (unlike most modular board game tiles which are designed to be able to combine together in any number of ways). The problem is, in jigsaw solving basically you have time to either find the unique spot where the piece fits, or conclude that you can't yet connect it to anything else. Unless you're wanting to go for a real-time mechanic, that doesn't make for very interesting board game decisions. In what way could you translate into a board game context that uncertainty about where is the unique position where this piece fits?

Seth Jaffee said...

Alex, I think you're right... in my 9-puzzle idea I guess I'd hoped that the practical application would be less "I recall that this piece goes in A, C, or D" and more like "I can't tell what that guy is looking at yet" (even when in the past you did a puzzle that had a similar guy looking at a particular thing).

To be clear, unlike many jigsaw puzzles, I do not expect a picture of the final image would be provided here, so unless you literally memorize each puzzle after doing all 9, you'd probably have a hard time doing the elimination as you describe.

I do like your comments about "where does this sepcific piece fit?" And this may be where jigsaw becomes meaningful... you could have square tiles where the art doesn't match, but if you have irregular jigsaw shapes, you can use the shape to help determine where pieces fit.

I guess using shape to help you fit pieces is the ONLY real way to make Jigsaw meaningful, or any different than just square pieces (imaginary jigsaw, if you will).

Going back to the "we're in one of 9 puzzles this game, and I'm not sure which one" frame of mind... assuming it's true that players are unlikely to have done all 9 puzzles and memorized them, does that sound like plenty of replayability? It seems like a single player could play several times, even if they end up in the same puzzle (they may not know it for sure until late game), they could reasonably get some replay out of the game.

Alternatively, assume you could only play each puzzle once... so what? As long as you play a different puzzle each time, you could get several plays out of the game, and expansion packs could include just a new puzzle. Consider a game like Tragedy Looper - you can't really re-play a scenario in that game because you already know the solution. I don't see this as being different.

This brings up an interesting point. As a designer, when thinking about replayablity, I may be tempted to think about "infinite replayability or bust." When in reality, a game is doing pretty well if it gets played just a couple of times. With the cult of the new, getting the same game to the table more than twice might be considered a victory for some games.

Tragedy Looper is a good example - obviously it's not infinitely replayable. although it does have the advantage that a player who knows the scenario can play as the mastermind with a group of new players. Perhaps the puzzle based game could feature a "mastermind" type of role as well, to add replayability for players who have 'solved' a particular puzzle.

One more idea is to have the board be made up of the jigsaw pieces, which might lend a real feeling of exploration to the game - you're literally searching for a path through the board.

AlexC said...

Good point on replayability. The experience would be rather different if players go and read spoilers, but if you ship the individual jigsaws in sealed envelopes like Risk Legacy and encourage players not to open them until they play the game, I think that'd be fine. You're right that a game that gets played 9 times is doing well given the current saturation of the market - I look at our shelves and there are plenty of games I love that I haven't managed to play 9 times.

You're also right that using shape to fit pieces together (and getting more from it than just the image provides) is the only difference between using jigsaw pieces and squares. Of course, square pieces could provide a number of jigsaw-like experiences (and would be more robust to repeated play than actual physically jigsawed pieces).

I'm not sure what having a board made up of jigsaw pieces would add over Carcassone-style square (or hexagonal) board pieces with rules about what kinds of edges can touch what other kinds of edges. I do love games like Octiles, Tantrix, Metro etc where you're searching for a path through the tangled tracks on the board, but I don't see that jigsaw pieces particularly contribute to that experience.

AlexC said...

One further note that just occurred on this topic: Risk Legacy and Pandemic Legacy appear to be embracing the idea that the contents of the box can only be played 12 times (or whatever the number is), in exchange for providing a sweeping overall campaign feeling to unite those twelve plays into feeling like parts of something larger with ongoing continuity. There's a few people who've done something similar with Magic: the Gathering that they call Cube Legacy, for example this project.

Now the sense of multiple games building into something larger is a very interesting development in gaming which deserves its own discussion thread. But it's interesting for the discussion we were having here that they do seem to also consider that it'll be okay to make a game that can basically only be played twelve times unless you don't do what the instructions say.