[Gems] A Simple Game

edited February 2011 in Story Games
Hi Story Games,

This is my first post here, so I'll try to avoid any huge faux pas (how about those racial and/or religious minorities? So bad!)

I've been trying my hand at game design lately, with mixed results. Basically, my first real game hit a design wall and won't get up. It was too complicated, ambitious, and basically I don't yet have the experience for it.

So I've started on something simpler. The game is called Gems, and you can download a .pdf version here.

I'm describing it as a slapstick heist. Basically, the four player characters are rounded up by The Boss for "one last job" - stealing a bunch of gems.

The mechanics have been hijacked straight from Hearts (the card game). There are three rounds, each detailing a specific part of the heist: Scope, Hit, and Escape.

We play Hearts, and each time somebody plays a card, they narrate a section of the story. Whenever somebody "wins" a heart, they narrate some way their character has screwed up big time, and receive a white counter.

Whenever somebody "wins" the queen of spades, they narrate something absolutely terrible that has happened, that nobody could have foreseen. They then receive a black counter.

Whenever somebody with a black counter wins any hand, they have the option of narrating another absolutely terrible thing, that nobody could have foreseen. However, this time, they get to pass the black counter on to somebody else.

The only narrative conditions are: each of the three rounds is about a different part of the story, and, one way or another, the players always return with the gems.

In the end game, each player counts up their counters. A white counter is worth one point of blame, while a black counter is worth five points of blame. The character with the most blame has lost, and is punished by The Boss in some setting specific manner (executed, hit with a frying pan, et cetera).

That's pretty much it. I've posted in the Little Ideas section, because at this stage I'm not sure what exactly I want feedback about.

So I'll start at the most important point: does this seem interesting to you?


  • I think putting a story game overlay onto a traditional card game is a great idea. No idea if it's been done before or not (but I'd love to hear about other examples).

    A few questions:
    Each player narrates as soon as they play a card?
    Does it matter who takes a trick if it doesn't contain hearts?
    Is taking 2 or 3 hearts any different from taking 1?
  • Thanks for the questions!

    1) Yes, each time a card is played, that player narrates.

    2) It does not matter who takes a trick if it doesn't contain hearts or the queen of spades. However, winning a trick does mean a player can pass on a black counter if they have one.

    3) For each heart you take, your character has messed up in some way. If your idiot savant character takes two hearts, perhaps they forgot to bring the ammunition AND their shoe laces are untied.

    It's a very simple game, although in the .pdf I detail a few more things. Each character has an area of weakness (mental, physical, emotional, or social) which is triggered every time they win a heart. So a character could be defined by having an emotional weakness (extremely impulsive) or by having a social weakness (an ex-wife in every port). Then, each time they win a heart, their character has messed up in a way related to that weakness. A player receives one white blame counter for each heart they win.

    Over the course of a game, 39 of these white blame counters will be handed out. There are also three black blame counters (one per queen of spades per round). Black counters are worth more blame, but can be passed around whenever a player wins a trick. This should hopefully add a wrinkle to the Hearts mechanic, where traditionally winning tricks is always bad. In fact, it is worth taking four hearts if it means you can then get rid of one black counter.

    Does that clear things up?

    I think Gems is probably a little too simple at this stage. How mechanically complex should a competitive game like this be?
  • Posted By: happysmellyfishI think Gems is probably a little too simple at this stage. How mechanically complex should a competitive game like this be?
    There's a good answer to your question, but it's not exactly useful. The answer that jumps to my mind is "as complex as needed, but no more." Which is a thing shaped like itself.

    To be a bit more useful, let's talk about game design theory. First, why hearts, and not, say, spades, or poker, or any other card game? Why not use cards but with a different set of rules? One relevant point: layering meaning on top of an existing mechanical scheme (rather than creating mechanical constructs from your intent) reverses the flow of design.

    Put more simply (Yes, I'm always too wordy) the mechanics in your game should support your theme. I'll set aside concerns about the regular play of hearts to answer your actual question: your game trades on campy slapstick moments of dark humor and your mechanics should represent a growing tangle of complications. It seems like what you want is a growing level of complexity in your game. Consider dropping the card game and keeping the counters with some system by which people can shift their blame from themselves to the other players. Have that system's fundamental rules change with each phase of the game.
  • ... and I totally meant to say, regardless of system questions, I think your writing voice is spot on, and the doc was fun to read.
  • Hi Worldnamer - thanks for the comments.
    First, why hearts, and not, say, spades, or poker, or any other card game? Why not use cards but with a different set of rules?

    I think there are some benefits to using already well known mechanics. Firstly, they're well known, which may be a benefit in itself. People can play these games automatically, which can be a good thing. Secondly, they've had a whole bunch of playtesting. As far as I know, games like Poker and Bridge, Chess and Checkers, can not easily be "broken." For a game designer, that's kind of nice. Thirdly, some of these games really have been boiled down into their core components. What is Hearts about? Avoiding a certain element.

    To get back to this specific game, Gems is actually my second attempt at turning Hearts into a storytelling game. The reason the first failed is probably important here. The first time, I rather generically layered meaning over card mechanics. I turned each suit into a theme. I turned each game into a different act. I then had it in my head that conspiracy was a cool meta-narrative. I then had it in my head that the players should all be script writers.

    Basically, I designed my way out of the original premise. I needed to do what you've suggested, and rethink whether I needed Hearts at all. For what it's worth, I still think that first game (Secret Hearts) has potential. I just don't think I'm mature enough to make it work.

    So I've returned to Hearts, and I should probably return to the point of this post as well. I think there are a lot of really cool mechanics out there, that just need to be unlocked. What does Hearts "do"?

    First up, the players are trying to avoid something. This instantly puts an interesting slant on things. These aren't gold coins, power, or victory points. They're anti-points, and you don't want them. They could be Insanity (for a Cthulhu setting), or Hubris (for a magical setting). I settled on Blame as the anti-points, because it seems to promote the most interplay. It makes sense to think, "I need to have less Blame than the others." It seems strange to think, "I need to be less Insane than the others."

    Secondly, most tricks are more or less unimportant. At the start of a game, it's not a big deal to win this or that. As long as you're not winning hearts, it's not important. This could be seen as a negative - some of the game is apparently filler. But, from my experience with Secret Hearts, this may be a good thing for storytelling games. Some stuff really is mere detail. Let people say what they want to. As long as the overarching meta-narrative is strong, nobody is going to get bored.

    Thirdly, once a player starts to win tricks, they tend to keep winning them. Remember, because they're winning anti-points, this is very bad for them. What could that mean in terms of storytelling? To me, it implies things getting out of control, and of that trouble being directly related to that player. Hence, the idea of Blame. It also makes me think of incompetence. That player, at that moment, really sucks in gamist terms. So that's why Gems has a slapstick goal. The characters aren't heroes.

    There's a lot more - games tend to end with a flurry of hearts cards being won, the queen of spades is a whole different kind of anti-point - but that was my thought process.
    ...your game trades on campy slapstick moments of dark humor and your mechanics should represent a growing tangle of complications. It seems like what you want is a growing level of complexity in your game.

    Tonight we playtested the Gems mechanics, without any storytelling whatsoever, and that (kind of) happened. Because a black counter is handed out during each of the acts, by the end there are three being shuffled around. So there is growing complexity, but not as much as I'd hoped. However, what was interesting, is we were talking about the "jump the moon" mechanic. One of the players had a pile of white counters in front of them, and felt they had no chance of winning. Under the rules as written, jumping the moon only lets you redistribute the counters you've won during that act - so a total of 13. I decided to make a change, so that if you jumped the moon, you could redistribute ALL of your white counters - so a possible, though unlikely, total of 39. That player was back in the game, and started paying a lot more attention.

    Of course, they jumped the moon. In the last act, from first trick to last, they won every single card. It was a really nice twist, that come from behind, pushing all of those white anti-points onto everybody else.

    I want the narrative version of THAT moment!
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