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.