This game design article comes from Brad Lawrence, co-designer and -publisher of Victoriana, the cooperative board game of intrigue and investigation in the world of Victorian literature.
Play-us Ex Machina
My design partner and I love cooperative games.
There’s something about the collaboration required to overcome the common enemy—the game itself—and emerge victorious. Perhaps that’s why we gravitated toward creating a game and launching a Kickstarter project: it’s the ultimate co-op experience.
But for as much as we love co-ops, we can’t ignore the warts. Too often, it can feel as though you’re playing a machine, not a game. Turn over a card, react to the situation said card creates, and repeat ad infinitum. This isn’t to dog co-ops with this approach (some of which number among our favorites), but it puts the players in a perpetually reactive position. The games are entirely about surviving an engine of destruction, which can be very enticing at first, so games, it starts to feel more like solving an SAT math problem than racing to save the world. but after 10 or
We wanted a story. We wanted to have more control. We wanted the machine behind the curtain to be more concealed. We wanted a co-op game that responded to us rather than vice versa. We think Victoriana accomplishes that.
How’d we do it? There are two major ideas at work:
One is the loneliest number—and the most predictable.
Co-ops rely on mathematical systems to simulate an opponent—usually a single large engine of randomness that creates decision points for players. The use of a single engine like this means, sooner or later, players will begin to identify optimal decisions. When players start to feel like they have no better option than to do one particular thing, gameplay becomes predictable. And predictable is the beginning of the end of fun.
Like a good mutual fund, Victoriana diversifies. Instead of one large engine that drives the game, there are many smaller ones. Some are completely unpredictable and will continually surprise players, some are very player-inclusive and allow you to control their outcomes, and others are in between. This diversity not only prevents the game’s mechanisms from seeming so stark, it also means increased replayability. No two games of Victoriana ever play the same way because of how the multiple systems interact and the permutations they create.
Just because the 19th century was all about trains doesn’t mean we should railroad you.
By their nature, co-ops chug along without you. Once the cogs and gears start turning, there’s little you can do to alter them besides win or lose. Victoriana is different.
The game presents you with a goal and time to achieve it. How you go after it is up to you. Don’t like the way the game’s initial leads are set up? Ignore them and go in a different direction. An agent causing you problems? Take him out. Or not. The decisions are yours. There are very few optimal decision points, and you always have to manage the consequences of your choices.
The better you are at Victoriana, the more challenging it becomes. The game reacts to your successes just as much as its ultimatum punishes your failures. We think this makes the game feel more alive, like you’re actually hunting a mastermind and his minions instead of playing a board game version of Sudoku.
Creating games is one of the most challenging endeavors I can think of. It’s a designer’s goal to find the evasive intersection of theme, mechanics, social interaction, and fun. That’s a doozy of a Venn diagram, especially since everyone has a different opinion about where that perfect intersection lies.
Victoriana lands in a sweet spot for us, and we think it does some innovative things along the way. We hope you’ll feel the same.
But enough talk. There’s a conspiracy to foil. God save the Queen!
B.J. Gailey and Brad Lawrence have been playing and designing games together since the late 1990s. Victoriana is the result of four years and literally hundreds of playtests—we’re proud to share our creation with you.