Why Themes Are Impactful! Century: Golem Edition

Good themes can make games better.
Let’s see why, then ask what this means about us as humans.


Case Study: Golem Edition

Century: Golem Edition is basically the exact same game as Century: Spice Road. Some players like the theme of Spice Road because of the wooden bowls and/or the familiarity of the theme. I much prefer Golem Edition, however. The ‘story’ of Golem Edition - discovering crystals, trading them up for better crystals, crafting golems - feels way cooler than farming and trading wooden cubes (spices) for what Spice Road vaguely labels as “score cards” (pictures of cities).

First I’ll describe three good parts of Golem Edition’s theme. Then, we’ll talk about human experience!

1. The theme is unique and invokes wonder.

Exploring for crystals, trading them up with friendly folk, getting big golems that do stuff like build boats or play music: this is a unique theme, and an idyllic world.

To play this game is to be a part of this world. If nothing more than curiosity for what it feels like to DIY golems, this theme makes engagement with Golem Edition sound appealing even before knowing the rules.

2. The crystals feel cooler than wooden cubes.

Fun fact: these crystals are all the exact same cut. However, their design (weight distribution, balancing points, translucence) makes them look unique from one another. Nice!

Considering that players hold and move crystals dozens of times each game, the amount of quality that goes into those pieces is very important as it’s the primary point of contact. Luckily, they feel great, look great and even make cool colour palettes with each other.

The fact that these actually look like crystals is a victory over the abstract cubes that Spice Road uses. Players of Golem Edition engage with the theme (crystals) almost every turn, keeping them in the fantasy of the game.

3. The art is cute - each golem tells a story.

This is how I got my parents into Century. Each golem does something different! These giant powerful beings, acting as playgrounds and anchors and grape-stompers… it’s super endearing. The constituent crystals are even visible in the golems!

This art sets great tone and makes each golem feel desirable; e.g., instead of working towards “score cards” (as labeled in Spice Road) you work towards making giant rock friends. Yeah, they’re also only worth points. But on the other hand, you’ve just assembled a roaming desert house. Acquiring cards to your section of the table, in a direct physical way, lets you look closer at the art and appreciate what’s going on.

Playing any game multiple times wears away its theme, but giving you extra reasons to want these cards is a great way to get you into the game in the first place.


Extrapolation: “Experience”

There’s plenty of games without themes. Many puzzle games like Tetris do just fine.

But when games do have themes, I believe they provide opportunities for us as humans to live multiple experiences: we simulate multiple lives through the lens of imagination and the robust ability for us to (amazingly!) draw experience and conclusions from the things we imagine.

golem.png

It’s altogether not that different from practicing instruments or doing mock presentations, except with one additional layer of abstraction.

I posit that when we practice most things, it makes us better at the specific thing we’re practicing. But when we use imagination [whether in a book, movie, game, etc], in exchange for not developing one focused skill, we see a multiplicity of experiences that we can draw from.

For example, while one person’s experience playing Golem Edition may develop efficient planning ability, another person’s experience with Golem Edition may develop their ability to set goals and highlight what they need to get there. Still, others may get value and rejuvenation out of spending time in an idyllic setting with no visible human conflict.

A good theme makes games more interesting to play, yes. But more than that, a good theme makes it easier for players to extrapolate experience from whatever’s going on in a game. Themes helpfully demonstrate how mechanics relate to real-life problems like ‘thinking ahead’, ‘finding efficient opportunities’ or ‘setting goals and working towards them’.

Experience is difficult to qualify yet seems to be an integral focus of desire for many humans in their everyday lives. Seems good if a game can do that.

 

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Captain’s Log: Cordelia and Brutus

LoyaltyToken.png

Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty
According to my bond; no more nor less.
-Cordelia, Act I, Scene I (King Lear)

Captain’s Gambit features a wide range of interesting and unique captains. Some of those captains have changed a lot as the game has developed (I’m looking at you, Iago). But a few captains have remained basically the same since the very beginning. Today I wanted to highlight two of the oldest captains in Captain’s Gambit: Cordelia and Brutus!

Long Live the King!

Fun fact about Cordelia: she wasn’t always named Cordelia! The captain was originally named after her father, King Lear. Despite the different name, King Lear functioned basically identically to how Cordelia works today. In fact, here’s the original captain text:

During Setup, place a blue token in front of another player. If that player wins, you also win – regardless of personal health.

The way I conceptualized King Lear was that, like in the play, his goal is to find an heir to his throne. So at the beginning of the game he chooses someone to be his successor, and will then do anything in his power to ensure their victory. I really liked King Lear because he was fundamentally a passive captain. Unlike more aggressive captains like Hamlet or Lady Macbeth, Lear was content to primarily protect their target rather than add to the bloodshed.

But something didn’t feel quite right about Lear. While he was fun to play, the player they marked ended up having a very high win rate. When a player was marked by Lear, they always played really recklessly because they knew that someone had their back. This meant they could fully focus on their win objective while ignoring their own safety. At the same time, we also wanted to add one more captain to the game to bring the total up to 8. This is when Alvin found a way to kill two kings with one dagger…

The King is Dead!

Our solution came in the form of Brutus. Like in the play, Brutus acts as a loyal servant until ultimately they betray and kill their ruler. Here was his original text:

During Setup, place a blue token in front of another player. You must deal the killing blow to that player. Once you do, reveal this card to immediately win.

The key here is that the tokens used by King Lear and Brutus look identical. This means that if you received a blue token either King Lear is helping you or Brutus is trying to kill you and you don’t know which. This uncertainty immediately stopped the reckless behaviour and evened out the win rates.

It also helped that Brutus ended up being fun to play. One of our favourite strategies to see is when Brutus players pretend to be King Lear by helping their target until their target starts to trust them. Then, once they’ve dropped their guard, they go in for the kill! We love this strategy not just because it takes some skill to pull off, but because it fits the lore so well.

Long May They Reign!

The only significant change that happened to these captains was renaming King Lear to Cordelia. While this was partially done to help gender balance the game a bit, we also felt that Cordelia fit the captain design a bit better. Now instead of choosing an heir, Cordelia is pledging her loyalty and devotion to her king. And this devotion is so great she is even willing to lay down her own life for them.

Like all the other captains, both Cordelia and Brutus have had some significant improvements to their character art. Here’s how they have both changed since their origins in MS Paint:

That’s about it for these two captains. Personally, out of all twelve captains these two are my personal favourites. I love how well their designs complement one another and how much fun they are to both play with and against. So the next time you’re playing Captain’s Gambit and someone gives you a loyalty token, just remember to watch your back.

 

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P.S. It’s a lot of fun to play a game where both Cordelia and Brutus mark the same captain. It’s probably not the best choice if you’re trying to win, but it makes for a very memorable game!

Captain's Log: The Backstory of Blood in Captain's Gambit

Iago, Round V Blood 3 (Captain’s Gambit)

Iago, Round V Blood 3 (Captain’s Gambit)

Let him command, 
And to obey shall be in me remorse, 
What bloody business ever.

- Iago, Act III Scene 3 (Othello)

Of all the mechanics I designed for Captain’s Gambit I think blood is my favourite. Today I’ll recount (as best as I can) how we formed the idea.

Backstory

From the beginning, Captain’s Gambit was always a game that involved Shakespearian characters. Mitchell’s original pitch was something like “An All-Stars Smash Bros-Like Crossover with Shakespeare Characters”. In fact, the reason we made a social deception game was because it was a nod to the way theatre has so much intrigue (in tragedies) and trickery (in comedies). So Shakespeare has been with us from the start.

At this point in the development of CG, while the game was functional - it had permits, captains, energy and health - we had three big problems.

  1. The game was lacking in “something special”. (low priority - we had time to think)

  2. The game was too slow and prone to stalemates. (medium priority)

  3. We were low on design space for new captains (high priority - we needed more immediately)

To get inspiration on solving the latter of these problems, I pored through the works of Shakespeare to see what the most popular characters were up to. And it turns out a good majority of those characters are murderers. As Alvin and/or Ethan suggested that we needed more aggressive characters to fix problem #2, it seemed that focusing on a murder-y character would be a good idea.

But… the third problem got in the way of the second. We couldn’t think of any other ways for people to win via aggression. We had:

  • Kill a specific person (Hamlet)

  • Kill everyone, but have an upside (Romeo and Juliet: teamwork)

  • ????

And that’s where my imagination ended.

Meanwhile, on a simultaneous, secret note, I really wanted specifically Lady Macbeth in the game but couldn’t think of how to implement her. So I returned to the source material and read up on what she was about, so that if we could make any aggressive character work it would at least be her.

The two most general parts about Lady Macbeth are…
- she gets her husband to do some murder so they can ascend to the throne.
- she gets blood on her hands, and washing never gets rid of (her perception of) it.

“There is blood on our hands again // From the bedroom is where we will // Bring it back to the start again“ -either Macbeth or DFA 1979…

“There is blood on our hands again // From the bedroom is where we will // Bring it back to the start again“ -either Macbeth or DFA 1979…

It was in that moment I decided Captain’s Gambit should have some kind of blood mechanic, and that Lady Macbeth would use it somehow. All we had to do was figure out what blood would be used for. I at least knew one thing for sure, and when I proposed the mechanic I made sure that everyone else knew it too: captains that gain blood can never wash it off.

Sure, A cool lore starting point. But what would it actually do?

Luckily, brainstorming only took about 5 seconds before we decided that blood could be our “positive feedback loop” mechanic. Essentially, a positive feedback loop (in game design terms) isn’t necessarily a happy thing for the player - like someone with a psych background would assume - but rather it’s a mechanic that makes the game state accelerate over time. Positive feedback loops are important to make sure that games don’t run into stalemates, by making it easier for players to do more of the thing they just did.

Our first draft of blood’s mechanic ended up sticking through all the way until today. The positive feedback loop is this: attacking people gives you blood, and blood increases your attack damage. The end result is that a game’s average damage dealt will always increase the further the game goes.

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Thus, even if we didn’t cap the game at 12 rounds, it’s pretty likely that you’ll die before you get there. We liked the feeling of increasing stakes as time goes on, as well as the option of “leveling up” your damage with enough blood. The threat of inevitable lethal damage alone would force captains to be active about their win conditions instead of perpetuating stalemates.

So, back to Lady Macbeth. You can see my beautiful MS paint drawing to the right. And here’s our first draft for her: “Have more blood on your hands than any Captain by the end of the game, regardless of whether or not you survive.”

We’ve since moved that win condition to Iago, and given Lady Macbeth her own accession ability, but it was this first card that made many other ‘bloody captains’ possible. And just like that, blood ended up being one of the integral mechanics to Captain’s Gambit.

The blood mechanic does a whole bunch of things at once, which I love:

  • It’s a win condition for many captains

  • It’s a positive feedback loop to accelerate the game

  • It encourages players to attack earlier on, to benefit from having blood-empowered attacks

  • It allows players at the table to quickly recognize who’s been aggressive all game

  • It forces aggressive players to plan around the fact that everyone knows they’ve been fighting

  • It makes players choose between being benevolent or aggressive, since blood also reduces healing done

  • It adds to the lore and mood of the game by having a visible effect for your past actions

And that is my story about blood, my favourite mechanic. While there is still room for changes with regards to its specifics, I promise you will never be able to wash it off your hands.

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