Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Swashbuckler and the importance of game themes

After my recent post on Little Green Guys with Guns, I thought I should maybe give homage to a little-known game with similar mechanics that I bought in college, circa 1989, from The Games People Play, a great game store in Cambridge that's still open and doing well. That game is Swashbuckler, from Yaquinto Games. The main idea here was that you were taking part in a chaotic bar fight. You had a bunch of available actions, including moves, fencing attacks, turns, and then more colorful swashbuckler-style moves (throw mug, flip table, yank carpet, swing from chandelier). You'd string together a sequence of 2-6 of these moves, then execute them, all players together, one phase at a time. Sometimes, your plans would work; other times, your opponent would move, or you'd fall down, or you'd get a distracting hat waved in your face. Then you'd get a chance to plan more moves, and the game continued until somebody won the fight (or until the Gendarmes were summoned). This plan-then-resolve mechanic has been used by many other games, too, like the more famous Robo Rally.

The game was fun because of an interesting confluence of features. The basic mechanic was fun - planning counfounded unknowingly by the moves of others - combined with D&D-style hit points and die rolls to resolve the various attacks and events. But enjoyment the game provided owed perhaps an equal amount to the swashbuckler theme, which drew heavily from the Three Musketeers and old Errol Flynn-era pirate movies. It wouldn't have been nearly as fun if the pieces and moves were more abstract. It was great fun shifting the counters to knock over book shelves or pull the carpets around, and to imagine the swordplay. In the other games I've played with similar mechanics (e.g. LGGWG, Robo Rally), the fun mechanic is still there, and it is complemented by the other theme choices quite well.

Actually, in the later games, the mechanic part is updated and simplified. Swashbuckler had a complex notation system where you'd write one- and two-letter codes for your moves on a turn grid, including appropriate rest phases after strenuous moves, which was kind of a pain. Robo Rally has the moves on cards, which is much simpler, and LGGWG has a visual interface for move planning, so both of these make it easier to play. But both sacrifice some complexity to this end - the variety of available moves in each of the later games is much less than in Swashbuckler. So, you're somewhere on the axis where you trade ease-of-play for complexity-of-strategy, although Swashbuckler was really crying out for some more simple way to make moves.

But all three games have a really fun world in which the action takes place, whether it's a tavern brawl between French fencers, a crazy robot battle, or alien worlds with inexplicably hostile one-eyed green guys. One lesson I'd like to learn here is that mechanics aren't everything. Many game designers spend all their time figuring out how to make a great new thing for players to do, or a way to play, and they disdain any design that's not innovative. Others are more willing to re-use old or classic mechanics, but they still want the game's structure to be different or "new" in some way. The theme or setting often isn't seen as important at all, but I think it really is, and is a neglected part of many game designs, sometimes just tacked on at the end.

The most successful games, from classics like Risk, Monopoly, and Stratego to modern successes like Ticket to Ride and Settlers of Catan, all wed their mechanics (which are pretty fun) to their themes, which logically couple the game mechanics to a real-world metaphor which makes sense and is fun to imagine. And there are even cases where the metaphor works well enough that the mechanics can be pretty lame - think Go Fish or War as examples.

So, here's to the metaphor - To it, I hoist high a foamy pewter mug of mead, at least before I hurl it at the mincing dandy who's tormenting the mademoiselle in the corner over there.

(Image from Joe Scoleri via BoardGameGeek)

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