Game Chef 2013 Design Notes

One of the things I prefer to put into a Game Chef entry is at least a little bit of commentary on the design–process, reasons, maybe discarded ideas. This year, I didn’t have time, so I’m putting the commentary up here.

First of all, here’s a link to my Game Chef 2013 entry, (D)Evolution Terraforming, Inc.

The mechanics are inspired by Swords Without Masters, Durance, and Zero, with a significant helping of my own ideas, and with the number of scenes for a game based on my experiences playing Fiasco and Project Ninja Panda Taco.

The setting & tone are inspired primarily by Office Space & Hyperdrive, perhaps salted with a few bits of Brazil, Fawlty Towers, and Red Dwarf.

Now on to the notes.

The Setup

First of all, where I started: Game Chef 2013 posted the theme and ingredients May 17, and the deadline was May 26, midnight. This year all of them were iconographic images.




Brain freeze

Mail shirt

Apple maggot

Paper lantern


Unfortunately, these images didn’t really inspire me right off the bat. So we sat down and started brainstorming. I actually wish I hadn’t discovered that the theme image was named “lift”, because elevator was pretty far down the list as we were brainstorming, and once I realized it was intended to represent an elevator I found myself actively working to avoid a literal or even figurative use of “elevator”, which might’ve blocked some potentially good ideas.

Anyway, we latched onto two ideas that seemed particularly interesting, both focusing on the theme image as a representation of moving “upward” or “downward” evolutionarily, drawing on the generally-untrue notion that evolution has a directionality or a goal. In this view, the humanoid figure–particularly given that it is only vaguely human–is juxtaposed with symbolic arrows that represent “higher” and “lower” states, which I chose to interpret as being about evolutionary ascension rather than spiritual.

The creature crawling out of the apple obviously fit with this evolutionary theme, but I was stumped on the other images.

First Mechanical Idea

The basic idea was that the arrows on the theme icon would indicate a choice, and the other tiles would be laid around it to determine what is being chosen between. More on that later.

The core of the game was characters choosing their own “evolutionary” destiny, becoming more or less well-adapted in some sense. Thematically, I wanted to set that in juxtaposition with some other situation, however–I didn’t want a game just about evolving, I wanted that to be the backdrop for some other conflict. This idea evolved into bringing office politics into the mix. I wanted to contrast the physical climbing of the evolutionary ladder with the social climbing of the office totem pole. It works well because the stereotype of large corporations has distinct stratification, with people at different levels having very different capabilities. The “twist”, such as it is, is that the promotions and demotions of the office world are the cause, and the physical changes in capabilities are the result.

In order to build on the theme of change, I decided that the “office” in question is a terraforming crew.

That just left one little detail to figure out–mechanics. I still really liked the tiles idea, but what would the tiles stand for? What would they do? Were they a resolution mechanic? Or maybe a mood-setting mechanic like the dice in Swords Without Masters or Durance. If the latter, would there be a resolution mechanic? Scene or action?

That’s when the epiphany struck: the shirt icon made me think of the trappings of status–how we use clothes as symbols and markers or role. So it could be a theme tied to the office politics side of things, and the worm in the apple could be a theme tied to the evolution/terraforming side of things, I just needed to make the others fit. And once I had two pinned down, the others just fell into place: a lantern is technology, and the face/skull/brain is a person (as distinct from their external aspects). So I had two pairs: nature and science/technology; socially-constructed self and inherent self.

Oh, I should say: the Game Chef rules only require using 2 of the 4 ingredients. But I really like the idea of laying tiles around a central tile, and since squares have 4 sides I wanted to use all 4. I could’ve looked through the icon library that these 5 images were taken from for something else, but if I was going to use 4 images anyway, I figured I may as well use the 4 provided–at least if I could make them work.

Now that I had thematic meanings for all the tiles, it was obvious to me that they weren’t going to do action resolution, but instead would be involved in setting or directing scenes. I decided I wanted a more character-centric mechanic, too, and skills seemed like a good choice to contrast with the big nebulous elements of the tiles.

In order to reinforce the “office politics” feel, I didn’t want to use a conventional skill list. Instead, I took a skills list from an old copy of What Color is Your Parachute? I have (which in turn was quoting an even older edition of the government’s Dictionary of Occupational Titles). I’m not sure how well it actually works–in the long run, I’ll probably tweak the skill list to be a bit more utilitarian and clear-cut.

Then I needed some mechanics for the skills. I had originally wanted to go with a variation of the Zero skill mechanics: one target number for everything, roll over for using a skill, roll under for doing something you don’t have the skill for. In the end, the math wouldn’t’ve made that work, because I wanted unskilled use to be tied together with acquiring new “adaptations” and therefore skills, and the Zero mechanic would’ve meant that the more skills you had, the easier it was to get more skills. So the only part I kept was having a single target number, based on the number of skills you have.

An example tile layout

Example layout

Something I’d toyed with right from the start was having the tiles have meaning based on orientation as well as placement. That evolved into the subthemes, and once I knew that it was a scene-setting game with the tiles setting the scene and characters having skills, i figured out what the subthemes were for: Characters would remain simple, being nothing more than a few skills, name, and job position, and the subthemes would provide the roleplaying constraints. And by using the interaction of player position and tile orientation, each player would have different motives or goals in each scene–different from the other players, and different from scene to scene.

That could be a bit random, but I think that plays well into helping the game feel a bit farcical–I want (D)Evolution Terraforming, Inc., to feel like Office Space or Hyperdrive or maybe Brazil.

Next Steps

Going forward, I want to polish this very rough draft, at a minimum, and see how it looks. I was very time constrained this year, so I basically wrote the game on Sunday, and it definitely shows–not much flavor text, no examples, several bits rushed or implied. And then, if the core idea is solid, see if I can turn it into a proper short-form game. One idea is to have an opening situation generator of some sort, so people don’t have to come up with the disaster themselves.


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