Today I want to write about different game design decision and how they affect a game, or not. All of this is about the turn-based survival game Schwarzwald that I am currently working on.
Some Design is Fluff
A game is a multimedia presentation at its core. Players absorb it through the visuals, the audio, the text presented. That is why most games that focus solely on game mechanics and use placeholder graphics and sound are rarely successful. Note that sometimes graphics may seem simple but actually a lot of design and effort went into making them. In the field of design, taking away is as important as adding.
In Schwarzwald, one such design is the retreating forest as visible in this series of screenshots:
The more players gather wood in the forest, the more trees are replaced by stumps, indicating that the forest is not an endless resource when, in fact, it actually is. The effect is just tuned so that it is extremely unlikely that any game will ever reach the point where visually there are no trees left. The whole purpose of the effect is to make the game events feel more real, more like having an actual effect on the environment as well. It is a case of verisimilitude.
Some Design is Effect
Other parts of game design strive, of course, to expand the depth and/or width of gameplay. In these cases, there is an actual game mechanic that is created or changed, and this will affect the gameplay.
In such design decisions, the mechanics and the effect on the game are the primary concerns. An example from my game is the addition of the watchtower and the well.
These buildings add an entire new category of buildings to the game, because they are common projects. These buildings are shared among all the villagers and cannot be taken control of. That already creates a small exclusion zone in the center of the map, a few squares that will always stay common land.
Here is the game mechanics of them that will be in the game manual after the next up
The well is a common project, it is in the center of the village and shared by all families. It provides water for the peasants and to water the fields. All peasants are assumed to get their own water from the well themselves, so this part is not simulated in the game. However, to water fields, a lot of water is required constantly. For this reason, the well needs to be manned every day by at least one peasant. It doesn’t matter who.
If the well is not manned, all fields will suffer from drought. But since there is natural rain and wetness in the ground, lack of water by itself will not destroy a field. The damage depends on how well (pun not intended) the field is. If it has the full value of 6, there is a 50% chance it will lose one. If its value is 5, there is a 25% chance of a loss, and if the value is 4, a 10% chance. Fields that are already damaged beyond that, whether by animals or lack of water, will suffer no further ill effect.
As you can see, it is vital that someone mans the well every day. How to manage this is up to the players in the game to resolve. To allow time for communication, the well has no effect on the first day.
The watchtower is also a common project, like the well, with similar rules. Its purpose is to look out for signs of creatures in the forest during the day, and to check where good gathering locations are.
If the tower is not manned, peasants going into the forest to gather have to be on the lookout by themselves and can spend less time gathering with no directions to good spots. As a result, there is a 33% chance for every gathering action to return with one resource less. Yes, this means those gathering stone could return empty-handed.
Clearly, same as the well, it is vital that someone mans the watchtower. How to manage this is again up to the players to organize. Like the well, the watchtower has no effect on the first day.
Clearly, this changes the gameplay of all players in the game, given the considerable effects. However, it does not do it in the same way as, say, a new type of field to plant would do. Because for both of them, one player has to sacrifice one peasant for the day for the benefit of everyone. The peasant that mans the well or tower can not plant, harvest, gather or build, which is a loss for the player who provides him. The benefit, on the other hand, is for everyone.
I expect that players will organize some kind of shift system, agreeing on who will man these two on which day. However, there are intentional break points in the system. If you do not go gathering in the forest, you have no advantage from manning the tower. If its your turn, the tower is a net loss for you. In other cases you could still tell yourself that it’s also to your advantage (even though it is not — sending the peasant gathering would statistically speaking always give you a higher yield).
The same is true for the well with a twist. If you don’t have any fields and are not planting any, manning the well is also a net loss. However, given the way the well works, if you have a large number of fields then manning the well could actually be to your personal advantage, statistically speaking. So even though they work by the same mechanics, these two buildings are actually not identical in their effect on gameplay.
And that is one way to create depth in a game. If all enemies are the same, just with different numbers and graphics, the game is shallow no matter how many there are. But if there are meaningful differences in game mechanics, the game gains depth. And those differences do not have to be very big and very visible. In the above example, watchtower and well are sufficiently similar that players can grasp both of them with the same basic concept — it needs to be manned or we all suffer a disadvantage — and yet they are sufficiently different to make players understand that they are not entirely the same. Both by the stated effects (they affect completely different parts of the game) and in their visuals.
And with that the circle closes. Visuals have a meaning, too. There are whole books written on colours and other design choices, and the same is true of game elements. That the well and tower are intentionally chosen to be very different in looks and mental concept is intentional. It would have been possible to give the same function as the watchtower to something more similar to the well in appearance, something smaller like a village blackboard or a meeting place with chairs and tables. But putting one into a massive big square tower and the other into a small, round structure helps to establish just how different they are.