It’s been a short while and Connor and I have had another “game dev” session! He brought his journal with him and it had some ideas! So, we went about play testing some of the ideas from the first session and some of the ideas in his journal.
The Story… So Far…
For this particular game, we already have a platform with a story. It’s a rather simple story without all that backstory that enriches characters. The story is essentially: “Escape the city on the helicopter or capture enough zombies surviving won’t be an issue.” Pretty simple and straightforward. We could always expand this later with, perhaps an actual story? Maybe a few named characters? Who knows!
So we have a story, now we need goals. Goals tell players how to win. The original is “escape” but typically comes down to “prevent your opponents from escaping” in actual play. This becomes boring and ends in a long slog through the game until someone flips a table or everybody just gives up.
We didn’t want to play a game like that. We want a fun, albeit challenging, game to play with friends that resolved in a reasonable amount of time. These are our goals. With these goals in mind, we couldn’t see any other ways to win other than “escape.” So we made the game goal “escape with your friends” to set the tone that this game is cooperative!
But escaping is hard, and the original had somewhat of a fail-safe: collect 25 zombies. That sounds reasonable to keep, maybe “25 zombies for each player playing the game”? That seemed better so we went with that!
So if a story is the who, what, when and where and the goal is the why, mechanics are the how. This is how a game is played. In Monopoly, you move around the board buying properties and building houses and hotels so you can collect money. Build and buy enough and your opponents can’t pay the bills and go bankrupt. These mechanics (dice, properties, rent, houses, hotels, mortgaging, passing go, Change, Community Chest) are all the mechanics of how you play Monopoly. They also fit in with the story of being a real estate mogul and the goal of being the last one in the game. This synergy is hard to hit with mechanics unless the story and the goal are related and aligned.
Card Change Up
So most of the cards in the standard deck revolve around messing with other players. We knew we needed to replace those. In our previous brainstorming session we talked about getting players to work together instead of against each other so we though of how new cards could be added to help that happen. As you could probably imagine, this lead to extremely over powering cards like “Capture all Zombies.” So we talked about the different aspects of games like the story/ploy, player goals, and game mechanics and how they all worked together.
Search and Replace
We struggled with the current card mechanics and how to change them. There was definitely something off with the standard game because it focused more on sending zombies to the opposing players than surviving. What zombie apocalypse has people fighting against the world and not teaming up? So we removed all the “opposition” cards that hurt your new teammates and thought up some alternate cards. We came up with a few replacements and wrote them down on a piece of paper. I broke out the card protection sleeves slipped the original card in it and the piece of paper in front of the card. Boom low budget prototyping.
After adding some risky cards and some beneficial cards it quickly became clear that we needed to change up the deck mechanic and introduce a search mechanic. So we split the deck into “Items” and “Search” decks. We added some proxy cards into the Search deck for drawing an Item (currently the only way to do get an item). This seemed great! We got more weapons and there are risks of searching (like finding a zombie or misplacing/breaking a weapon). This mechanic helped a lot. it got more weapons and items in play and it organically made us stick together for protection. It was a great step in feel for the way we imagined this game playing out.
We found the standard weapon mechanic too limiting. It requires you to go to a specific building after finding a weapon to actually use the weapon. This seemed backwards to us. Once you find a weapon you should be able to use it. So, we lifted that restriction and found that they suddenly became way too powerful! We talked about balance (which is a rather difficult concept to understand). So I offered up a “durability” check when you use a weapon to balance this mechanic. This introduced some risk to using a weapon since it can break. It worked great but weapons were still too powerful. The original game has a concept of increasing your combat roll with a bullet token. We opted to keep that mechanic as more of a general representation of “effort” when you are in combat without a weapon — you may or may not need it. But, once you have a weapon, you aren’t making combat rolls. So this seemed to be a little uneven. We decided to have using a weapon cost a bullet token as ammunition in addition to the “durability” roll. This ended up working out great so far! You have the safety of a weapon but if it breaks, you’re low on effort/energy since a disheartening event just occurred and your risk just increased.
Life or Death
We only kept the basic weapons in the game. Some of them remained one-time use (grenade and Molotov) and we buffed some of them (shotgun has a range of 1). We still didn’t end up searching as much as we hoped. While the search and item decks seemed to have complementing risk and reward, opting to search seemed too much of a risk in itself. We hadn’t changed any of the main mechanics so that you were more likely to want to search. So, we took out heart tokens from building spawns and added Armor to the items deck. Other than First Aid Kits the only way to get life now is through Armor. But, there are limited armor items in the deck (need to still play test that one with more people). So, we talked about repairing items. If a weapon or armor breaks, we just tap it (turn it sideways) to mark it as broken. Broken items can be fixed with a Repair Kit.
Sharing is Caring
This is going great! We have weapons to survive, a reason to search for things, and a way to fix the things we found. What about helping others though? We talked about Pandemic and how researchers can share their research. What if players could share their inventory items? We tried it out. Players have to be on the same square and the active player can forego moving to give 1 item to a player on their square. This seems balanced. It requires communication on trades, planning for meeting up, and both players essentially sacrificing their movement (the receiving player has to use their movement to get to the trading player). This happened almost immediately with armor when Connor found 2 pieces. It sparked the talk on armor tokens remaining on their respective armor cards and how it travels with the armor.
This session was awesome! We have a semi-playable version of our modified Zombies!!! co-operative game. Brainstorming is one thing, but seeing your ideas in action and how it plays out is so much more informational. We almost immediately saw flaws in our ideas, discussed them, did a quick brainstorming session on how to fix it, then tried out the new way. These iterations helped Connor understand how players interact with different mechanics and how they all play together. He’s still got his journal and he’s still writing down ideas. We are both looking forward to the next “game dev” session!