Gangster Derby Design Diary#1 Constant Threat

 “Ambivalence”, that is not a word I thought I would normally start a blog with as it indicates uncertainty  I tend to have very specific feelings about something, but when I received the artwork for my game Gangster Derby, I couldn’t help but feel extremely excited and extremely demotivated at the same time.

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What Rising Wolf has illustrated for me is an exciting scene: a thrilling high speed car chase where our players are just a few steps ahead of the pursuing police. This illustration was meant to depict the sensations of playing the game. By all accounts this was the perfect delivery, the conflicting feeling, however, stems from exactly that – the illustration was perfect but the game wasn’t.

Who wouldn’t want to play this game?
Illustrated by Jennifer Teh of Rising Wolf (Rising Wolf)

It is no easy task to try and replicate the sensations of a car chase in a card game, so I had to breakdown that sensation into digestible blocks, and the question I always asked myself was: “how much further can I abstractify this feeling?” The result from such a thought exercise led me to recent experience at board game café meetup:

Being primarily a solo gamer, my comfort zone for gaming always lingered around the cooperative games or “multiplayer” solitaire style games. Pandemic, Viticulture, and Spirit Island are all my jam when I’m having a quiet evening in. What attracted me about these games was the fact that I had total control of the game and its elements; I knew how I could be hurt and how to dish out the pain when necessary. I could plan my moves ahead, because I knew (mostly) what options the opposition had. As such I was never really exposed to deductive-style games, especially those with strong social elements. To think that your victory was entirely dependent on the actions/inactions of another person, it was not an appealing proposition.

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Fast forward to January 2020, I found myself in a board game event where most players were exclusively interested in social deduction games (like Ultimate Werewolf and Codenames). Being the ever INFP Mediator personality, I complied and found myself learning to play these games I once painted with a brush of ridicule due to their casual nature, and oh boy was I ever so wrong about these games.

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The game that stood out to me most that night was Coup, a game centered around lying about your identity, whilst players are trying to eliminate each other. The best thing about the game was not the deceit, nor the thrill of finally gathering enough resources to finally remove a competitor from the game, but the social dynamics that change as the game advances. Players were forming allegiances, backstabbing each other, forgoing obvious strategic targets just to satisfy egos – it was a bleeding free-for-all. This was all coming from a rule book that was less than one A4 page, and only describing legal player actions. The meat of the game, however, came from the players themselves: their emotions, their biases, their suspicions, and even their personalities. This was emergent gaming at its best, and that delivered a sense of pure suspense that I could never find in other games – the sensation of Constant Threat.

Now to be clear, this is commentary with the benefit of hind sight and some introspection, I’m not some blank-eyed psycho analysing and deducing the nuances of human behaviour whilst trying to lie through my teeth, hoping that no one can call my bluff. But that constant sense of dread, the fear of the unknowable (as this is controlled entirely by another player), and making decisions based on the people involved rather than some sort of “turn efficiency” (The staple of Euro style board games), was a thrill that I couldn’t shake off, months after playing the game. I didn’t just play a game, I had an experience, a story to tell, an epiphany.

I look back at all the games that I enjoyed playing with others, I realised that the sense of “Constant Threat” was ever prevalent (albeit not as intense as the sensation delivered by Coup):

  1. Monopoly Deal:  The constant fear as to whether someone had a card to undo all my properties (collected sets), or worse yet, take over the entire set.
  2. Dead of Winter: The fear of having a betrayer in your midst, as you are slogging through an hour long campaign. Worst part being, as all players will have some sort of weird in-game personality trait, you can’t tell if they are just trying to fulfill their victory condition, or that they are actively trying to cause everyone to fail.  

So how does that relate back to Gangster Derby? Well, despite being a game about the underbelly crime organisations, there wasn’t any real sense of “Constant Threat” that one should experience when operating within that part of society. Whilst the “Pursuit” deck was designed to give you that sense of excitement (modelled after the suspense from revealing Black Jack cards), it lacked the raw emotional sense of “Constant Threat” that came along with being pursued by the cops.

That’s when I decided to take a cue from “Game Theory”, the theory of interaction between humans. In the most famous example of Game Theory – The Prisoners Dilemma, players are given a choice of continuing the status quo (whereby all parties will receive equal amounts of benefits), or to betray that peace so that they can benefit more from it. The thing about being on the short end of a deal, is that people tend to want to even the playing field. In retaliation to the person who first upset the order, those who were disadvantaged will look for other ways to disrupt the new state of the “game”, such that it would seem to either benefit themselves more or reposition itself to be as fair as it once was. This realignment will continue to bounce back and forth, until they reach some form of new status quo – Nash’s Equilibrium. Whilst I’m not looking to make Gangster Derby a simulation of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, I see the appeal of its set up in relation to what I’m trying to achieve in terms of game feel.     

This research has led me to implement the “Informant” action of the game. As an action, at any time during the game, a player is allowed to become an informant to the police, which offers them a straight up bonus of Honour points (which is Victory condition of the game), and an on-going bonus which exempts them from Bust events, helping the player to preserve Honour points. The other players instead will receive an on-going penalty throughout the duration that the “informant” status is in effect (3 rounds). This effect may only be played once per game per player, and is entirely optional. Initial play tests have proven that the effect helps achieve what I wanted – an invisible and constant threat that can initiate at any time, by anyone. There is no big set up to pull this off, and no warning to the players, purely based on the musings or vendetta of another player.

The Informant action
Victims of the Informant

Originally I designed it such that it can only be activated once per game and that it would last till the final rounds (the game originally had set turns, currently it is race style game where the end game triggers when a player has achieved the required Honour points), so that if 1 player has become an informant, no one else could. Whilst it achieved the sensation I was going for, initial play tests have shown that it became frustrating to certain players, and was seen as unfair. Whilst I would have argued that the real world was also unfair, I took the criticisms to heart and modified it to the current rules as stated above.

I was rather reluctant in implementing this new mechanic at first, as this meant additional components and more rules for the players to memorise, taking away from the “design elegance” philosophy I try to adhere to in all my games. However, I’m more interested in making a great gaming experience, rather than making a supposedly “smart” and elegant game that can only be appreciated by enthusiasts or other designers.

Taken from … again.

Time will tell as to whether this was a good addition, but this whole thought exercise has opened my eyes to many design philosophies that I would have otherwise ignored due to my gaming preferences. I hope this passage helps you to push the limits of your game design, as it has for me.

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