Burette and Beaker: A Diceless, GM-less Game Involving Chemical Synthesis

edited April 2018 in Make Stuff!
Hi everyone. Sorry if this isn't the right place for this -- I think it is, but I may be wrong. Here goes.

One of my favourite academic subjects has always been chemistry. I like how you can take a bundle of a hundred common elements or so and combine them into a billion materials. Unrelatedly, I've also wondered about games where the players get better faster than the characters do -- obviously all players improve at role-play and manipulating the systems of the game, but their characters tend to become more powerful in the game world at the same time. I thought about a game that could be played a couple of times over, with new characters every time, where the power was bound up in player skill and practice rather than character stats. Thornwatch does something similar with its concept of knots, but I wanted something that couldn't be reduced to a token. So, I present...

...Burette and Beaker!

As far as I know, it's the only game currently available where the major mechanic, beyond that of narrating actions, involves working out how to synthesize a chemical in the lab. AND it's CC-BY licensed (International 4.0), so it's free and remixable! Don't worry -- no knowledge of chemistry is required beyond the basic concepts of atoms and molecules. If you passed your GCSE, you'll be more than fine. (On that note, if the chemistry is confusing, please let me know so I can explain in more detail.)

It's also probably extremely broken. It's very, very 0.1: I'm expecting at least two or three more releases before I've got something decent. I don't have a regular gaming group or anyone properly experienced to play with, so I'm giving it to the community here to ask for feedback. Tell me what you think!

Update: version 0.2 is out, bringing improved challenge mechanics, narrative penalties for longer and more involved syntheses, and a revamped reaction list!

(This version is not backward-compatible with version 0.1, due to changes in the allowed reactions.)



  • That's novel and interesting: I like the use of academic terminology throughout the game.

    My main reservation would be the pitch: "You'll suck at this game the first time you play it because it has a steep learning curve if you're not a chemist, but you'll be better at it the next time you play." Any game that needs me to learn it through replay and isn't intended to be easy to pick up had better be amazing, like it needs to make me go "Wow, this is awesome, I really need to play this more!" This game looks fun but the level of 'system mastery' required seems more like a barrier to play than an invitation.
  • edited March 2018
    Very good point -- I'll reword that in the next version. To reassure you, I'd meant to say that it would appear to be a little bit arcane at first, but still eminently doable, much like air combat in The Few. It's not meant to come across as "you'll suck at first" -- if you play it with people who also aren't chemists, they'll probably only start out by suggesting fairly simple molecules at first anyway, or ones that look complicated but are actually easily broken down into a few simple steps, rather than ones that properly take the puzzle system to its limits.

    Thanks for the advice!
  • Hi. A few comments in no particular order:

    I like the research paper format. I’d go further. Give the game a methods section, a conclusion, etc. (not sure if “results” fits, maybe you can figure that out. Maybe that’s the reaction rules...).

    I think your audience is a fairly small slice of gamers existing at the intersection of those who have some interest in organic chemistry, like gmLess story games, and have a post secondary educational background.

    I’d avoid secrets. IMHO, A story game works best when all creator/players have full knowledge of character drives and “chemistry”. It allows players to lean into the dramatic possibilities.

    I feel like the game mechanic could be integrated into the story more fully. How could it serve as more than a resolution mechanic? Could number of steps in the synthesis somehow produce narrative complications? Could the various synthesis and decomposition steps you listed each have a narrative/emotional implication?
    Could synthesis of a compound be a collaborative effort when narratively appropriate?

    That’s all I’ve got time for. About to cross a national border and putting phone into airplane mode.
    Thx for sharing. Keep developing. A very novel idea that deserves to be explored.

  • Also. I love the name and wonder if you could use more lab equipment within the game. Like maybe a Florence flask is used for one reaction and a titration whatnot for a second and a mortise and pestle or an alembic for another etc. since this game is complex in the execution of its basic mechanic, chunking the reaction possibilities... putting them on cards and giving each a concrete thing to associate them with (afore mentioned lab equipment) might help.
    I teach a half year of chemistry to high school freshman (so O chem is a distant memory from 30 years ago) but it’s a bit daunting to me... how can you make it more accessible?

    One little thing: don’t suggest structural formulae using invisible (assumed) carbons and hydrogen’s. If a group is familiar enough they can make these short cuts on their own.
  • Collaborative synthesis will definitely be a thing in version 0.2 -- thanks. I like the idea of complex syntheses leading to complex narratives; maybe the loser of each challenge gets to name one complication for every two or three steps the winner's synthesis takes?

    I feel there are two problems with associating equipment with reactions:
    1. The equipment for most GCSE or A Level reactions in "real life" is the same: you either mix it in a flask, or you heat it under reflux, or you distil it. I'd have to make things up entirely to have a different piece of equipment for each reaction.
    2. It would add another layer of complexity. I will certainly consider ways of chunking the possible reactions, and putting them on cards might well be useful, but I feel it will just make it more difficult if players have to think "I want to do X, so I need the burette, because that does reaction Y", rather than "I want to do X, so I need reaction Y".

    First playtest might be this evening, if I'm lucky, so we'll see how that goes!
  • Hello, the reactions are an interesting resolution tool.
    There's a whole part of the library I'd like to suggest : XIXth century science fiction and offsprings. Dr Jeckyll, Invisible man et alii. Make them wonder.
  • edited April 2018
    As in the top post: version 0.2 is out, taking a lot of your feedback, as well as early playtest results, into account. Thanks, everyone!

    I'll be working on this over Easter and possibly playing it with some different groups, so any more comments would be greatly appreciated as we move towards 1.0.
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