May 272008

Back in the earlier Internet days, about a dozen ago (that’s 1996-97-ish, for those of you who are either math-addled or from the future), I had fancied myself a bit of a web game developer. I had a website with couple medium-sized multiplayer online games, your standard strategic exploration and combat and tech tree stuff, one about cavemen and one about nanotech spaceship-clouds. Maybe had fifteen thousand registered users, give or take, which for the time was pretty decent. It was all old school play-by-web, with frames and javascript and database-driven Perl CGI backends and whatnot – all pretty gnarly and poorly maintained, and it all eventually collapsed under its own weight after I lost interest after a business deal fell through and I started to focus more on my day job, which was basically the same thing, only for clients who actually paid us.

I’d never try to resurrect those exact same games – the designs were clunky, the code wasn’t anything to be proud of, and the old player base is long, long gone – but I’ve still got design documents in various stages of decay sitting around for a good half dozen totally decent web-based games that could be thrown together, given a bit of care and time. A little bit of playtesting and polishing here, a chunk of content generation there, spray the Rails hose at it, and voila. Sounds reasonable enough. Unfortunately, as a freelance developer, overbooked stage performer, and relatively new father, most of my billable and non-billable hours are spoken for, and most of my game design time is directed towards the tabletop side of things. Also, the landscape is much different now than it was then – there are hundreds of browser-based games out there, many of them possessing much greater polish and love than I could ever hope to give them, unless I quit my life or something. Still, the projects are on the stack, and someday, they might get gotten to.

But, that’s not what I’m here to talk about. I’m here to talk about something that I don’t think I’ve seen yet, and if I’m not able to make it happen right now, I’d love to see someone else try it out. So, off into the collective consciousness we go: I’d like to see a set of web-based games that are totally different play-wise, theme-wise, and other-wise, but all their players operated on the same set of data that described the world, and the resources in it. So, say, you’d have one set of players flying around, mining asteroids and fighting aliens and space pirates in your typical 4x/Elite-style galactic trader game, another set of players hacking away at monsters in a fantasy world based dungeon crawl, another bunch of players fighting over city blocks and illicit businesses in a gang war game, and maybe another set doing something interesting in some stock market financial simulation thing. Or whatever.

But! When players do stuff in one of the games, it doesn’t just affect their game world, it becomes part of all the others, too – all the games work on one big database, but they all provide radically different views and available actions on that world data. So, your gangland activity in one game generates the monsters that the dungeon crawlers fight. The trading of goods in starports across the galaxy and the selling of loot in medieval towns are reflected in the stock exchange in the financial sim. The players that become leaders of the Mages’ Guild in one game are portrayed as mob bosses in another. A shrewd investor cashing in a bunch of hot commodities in one world causes a medical emergency for an outpost on the galactic rim. You could even hook generated game data into real-world sources like weather patterns, the actual stock markets, RSS feeds, twitter chatter, all kinds of fun stuff. There are so many ways to weave totally different game worlds together, and the really fun part is, you really wouldn’t have to tell anyone about it. Players on one web game are the alien menace in another, and nobody knows except the admins – until the day that the master plan leaks, which leads to all kinds of awesome.

Sure, there are some technical and design challenges involved with a scheme like this, but in my mind, totally worthwhile ones. Who knows – maybe this is already happening, and the veil hasn’t been lifted yet. And I guess I’ve blown my cover already, so if I ever do get around to doing something like this, it’ll come as no surprise. Still, potentially fun times ahead. Keep watching the skies.

Hey, do you want to win a free copy of Coalescence? I know you do. Well, how about that, and a free copy of Honeypot, to boot? There is no resisting a deal as sweet as that, right? So, what you need to do is get on over to BoardGameGeek, and check out the contest I just posted up there.

All you need to do is identify these nine stellar objects, and tell us what they are, and if you’re the first one to get them all right, the tubes are yours. Head on over for the official scoop!

Coalescence Contest Image

May 192008

Over the weekend, I realized an important aspect of suits in game design. They restrict options and therefore increase tension.

Imagine a game of Lost Cities where all of the cards were of the same suit and they could be played on any expedition. Now instead of a 20% chance of drawing the suit you need, you have a 100% chance. The discarding aspect of the game would be pretty pointless. In short, all of the interesting decisions go out the window.

This seems pretty obvious in retrospect. In fact, I’ve added suits before to games for that very reason. I guess I was just oblivious with my perpetually undone game, Venture Forth, which was lacking suits. The game gave you lots of options, but ultimately felt flat. I added suits yesterday and all of a sudden the tension in the game started to come out! Behold the power of suits!

May 072008

Last night at our design meeting, I mentioned a game that I thought related to the topic at hand. We were discussing designing a game with a space ship control panel, when I remembered this game called Wormhole that had that very thing.

According to the entry on

‘Wormhole’ by is a tabletop space combat game which promises an affordable yet paradigm shifting gaming experience. Taking the “virtual board game” concept to the bleeding edge; instead of forcing overpriced lead miniatures on players Wormhole offers a complete fleet of high quality 3-D models that you print and build from your home printer. This feature alone gives players the opportunity to build massive fleets without breaking the bank.

Wormhole promises “cinematic” space combat with visual style and presentation not yet seen in the genre. Rules are easy to understand but offer a scaling level of depth for a variety of play styles. Wormhole also introduces an interactive damage and orders system which removes heavy book-keeping tasks and replaces it with a “control panel-like” interface (you feel absolutely in control, barking orders to your fleet). A number of unique gaming elements conspire to make Wormhole a truly immersive and completely original gaming experience.

Notice how in the top right picture how the panel is modular!

I don’t know if it is just the lighting, but this looks awesome!

And here are the ships you actually play the game with.