Yesterday I awoke without Internet. My devices were flashing and beeping, parched and panting for their data streams. Cycling the modem’s power did nothing. I had no choice but to call the cable company.
“I’m terribly sorry, but I’m afraid the whole area is suffering an outage right now. I’m sorry. We thought we had it fixed but… I’m sorry. We can text you when it’s back up if you’d like? Sorry?”
I was actually okay with a regional outage. It meant that (a) it wasn’t my fault, and (b) I didn’t have to sit around for 4-24 hours waiting for a technician to come out, grunt at the cable modem, call his boss, and just replace the thing like we all knew he was going to do anyway.
As originally pitched, the game is cooperative: all the players work together to beat the invading giant spiders, who are controlled by a deck of cards and the game rules. That’s great in theory. But as I looked for ways to implement this analog A.I., I began to have second thoughts.
The problem is that spider game-play is very tactical.
For one thing, much of the spiders’ strategy is about choking off human resources, which means knowing where and when to invade. (“I could easily take this metal resource from the blue player, but he already has lots of metal on the other side of the board, so I’m better off focusing on his food production.”)
For another, the spiders have to regulate the density of their eight-legged troops. Sometimes, it’s better to have lots of spiders spread out thinly over the battlefield; other times, it’s best to clump the troops into just a few spaces.
While it’s possible to design a set of rules and components that can simulate these tactical decisions, it’s much easier to let another player handle the tactics, and give that player a bunch of fun decisions to make.
Easier isn’t always better, but easier is faster. And the faster you get a game prototyped and playtested, the faster you can start iterating it into a good game.
I spent most of Saturday in the Distractovision studio. I sat in a swivel chair that would make a Bond villain jealous (complete with cat!), while professional audio and video people pointed lights, mics, and cameras at my increasingly-sweaty face.
Needless to say, I had a blast.
It’s too early to say more, but I’d encourage you to check out and subscribe to the Distractovision YouTube channel. They’ve got some great game- and geek-related videos up there already, and have plenty more on the way.
What can I say? I’m a sucker for alliteration.
Mechanics: Cooperative Play, Trading
Victory Condition: Fill in all the spots
Clearly, this is a game about various groups of humans working together to drive out the invading spiders. (I mean, what else could it possibly be about?)
- Game Board: The board represents a large region of Shunadar which has been conquered by the invading spiders. It’s divided into spaces (which are probably hexes in the initial prototype, but might be more organic when it’s done). Some spaces contain resources, which the players need in order to retake the land. Resource include:
- Population: You need people to fight spiders.
- Food: You need food to feed the people.
- Metal: You need metal to turn people into soldiers.
- Milk of the Earth: You need milk to create potions.
- Troop Counters: These counters represent each player’s troops. The counters are color-coded by player and may have stats on them. There are probably multiple types of troops.
- Spider Counters: These counters represent the alien spiders that have invaded the land. There are at least two types of spiders—basic and advanced.
- Nest Counters: These counters represent spots on the board where the spiders have created their nests. This is where new spiders come into play.
- Resource Cards: These cards represent population, food, metal, and milk. Each has its own deck, and players draw them as they collect those resources.
- Spider Cards: These cards drive the game’s “A.I.” and determine how spiders on the board move, gain reinforcements, or perform special actions like casting spells.
- Dice: Your basic six-sided dice, used for combat resolution.
Playing the Game
The game is played in rounds. Each round has a number of phases, which are played through in order.
Resource Phase: For each resource space they control, players simultaneously draw resource cards of that type into their hands.
Turns Phase: The players take turns performing one action per turn, until everyone passes. On your turn, you may do one of the following:
- Trade with another player any number of your resource cards for any number of theirs.
- Spend people, iron, and milk resources to put units into play.
- Different units have different stats and resources costs.
- You may put into play as many units as you can afford for one action, but must put them all into the same space which you already control.
- Spend X food to move X units from one hex into an adjacent one.
Combat Phase: If player units and spiders are in the same space on the board, they fight! (I admit I’m not sure exactly how this will work, but basically, players roll dice based on what types and quantities of units they have in the space. If they roll well enough, some of the spiders are killed and any survivors are pushed out of the space. If not, the player units are killed and/or pushed out of the space. I clearly need to figure this out for the next iteration.)
Spider Phase: Finally, draw and resolve a number of spider cards equal to the number of players. Each spider card says how many spiders to add to the board (such as , “Add two basic spiders to each nest!” or “Add an advanced spider to any empty nest”), and instruction for how they move (“Any spiders adjacent to players units move into those units’ spaces”).
Game End and Victory
Like all good cooperative games, this one’s on a timer. The players lose if the last spider card is drawn. They win when there are no spiders on the board.
This design is even rougher than most of the random games that appear on the blog. As I worked through the process of inventorying the components, I realized there was more to the game than I’d originally thought–in a good way; it’s got some serious depth to it. But it means it’ll take more than a couple blog posts to whip into shape. I’ll continue to hack away at it for science of course. Just don’t expect brilliance by the end of the week.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve developed Empire of Venom & Silk, a fun fantasy storyworld full of grim heroics and giant spiders. That’s cool, but it’s also pointless.
A storyworld exists so that we can tell stories within it. Those stories can take many different forms: short fiction, long novels, video games, interactive trading card apps, holiday movies on the Hallmark channel… the list is endless. But if we never actually tell any of those stories, the storyworld doesn’t matter. It’s just a bare, lonely canvas without a stroke of paint on it.
So while I continue to refine the details of our web-covered land, I’m mulling over what stories we can tell in it, and what form those stories will take. Fiction seems an obvious choice (rumor has it novelist James Shade has a few idea for such an endeavor). And yes, I’m fully intending to do a tabletop RPG, since that’s exactly the sort of thing I do.
But over the weekend, I had an idea for another story. Another game. Specifically, a cooperative board game in which the players work together to defeat the spider menace.
It’s little more than series of notes at the moment, but I’ll be fleshing it out here on the blog, where I’ll be answering questions, collecting suggestions, and generally demonstrating the process (not unlike what I’ve been doing with Doomed Colony). Will it be any good? Come back on Wednesday and we’ll start finding out together.
The records are unclear as to how long the people of Shunadar have lived in the land. Scholars believe it’s been hundreds of years, but probably less than a thousand. What they all agree on, however, is that when they arrived, the “elder shrines” were already here.
These so-called “shrines” include towering obelisks, clusters of standing stones, and—most dramatically—enormous sculptures of human heads.
The ancient heads, commonly known as “stone faces,” stand 6-12 feet tall. The faces are those of stylized humans, though some feature extra eyes, mouths, or jagged teeth. Some faces stand alone, while others appear in groups of three or more, and never look at each other.
Each elder shrine appears to have been carved from a single black stone drawn up from the bedrock itself. While many are worn, cracked, or broken from erosion, most still display carvings that are assumed to be ancient writing. What the writing says is anyone’s guess. (The lords of Orzah-Shun, who claim their ancestors erected the shrines, also claim to be able to read the writing, but refuse to do so for fear of offending their dark gods.)
It’s possible the shrines are, in fact, related to the ancient Orzan deities. While no one knows if the sites even were shrines in the old days, there are enough incidents of strange occurrences around the stones that the people of Shunadar typically avoid them if they can.
Empire of Venom and Silk is a low-fantasy storyworld. Magic exists, but it’s found only in the shadowy corners of the setting, and while it can be powerful, it isn’t reliable enough to have a major cultural impact. (Think of the magic in Fritz Lieber’s Lankhmar books and you’ll get the idea.)
The main form of magic in the setting is alchemy, and alchemists (as noted previously) are lone, mad scientist types. It’s not entirely their fault that they’re mad. It’s the chemicals, you see. They cause certain changes in the minds and bodies of those who spend time with them. The main culprit is a substance known as Milk of the Earth.
Milk of the Earth is a slimy, naturally-occurring substance secreted by strange (some might say alien) fungus found deep underground. If enough of it accumulates in one place, living creatures in that area tend to become mutated in unpredictable ways. While some mutants turn into unnatural monsters, most are simply deformed and die.
Different types of Milk are found in different locations. The deeper the source, the more powerful the Milk is believed to be. Alchemists jealously guard their Milk sources; people kill and die to discover and protect the secrets of a Milk site.
Alchemists work with the Milk to create potent, magical elixirs. Some work from ancient recipes and formulas that have been passed down, lost, found, and stolen for centuries. Others focus on creating their own elixirs from scratch. In any case, the end results are potions that can heal, strengthen, or modify their targets—or weaken them to the point of destruction.
As a storyworld element, Milk of the Earth is a catch-all McGuffin. Like the sonic screwdriver from Doctor Who, or kryptonite from the old Smallville TV show, Milk (and its resultant elixirs) can do whatever it needs to do in order to tell the story you’re trying to tell. Does it make super-soldiers? High-class narcotic addicts? Enchanted swords? Yes, yes, and yes. The key is that because alchemists are solitary and secretive, there’s little risk of any story-destroying magic potion getting loose and, well, destroying the story.
And of course, as the product of a hideous alien fungus, Milk of the Earth brings a nice touch of creepy old-school horror to the land of Shunadar.
While I don’t do reviews here on the blog, I do like to drop a recommendation every now and then, and this is one of those times.
So… Captain America Civil War… I saw it over the weekend. Do I recommend it? That depends.
Did you watch and enjoy Winter Soldier? Do you like Spider-Man (the character, not any specific movie)? Are you okay with a movie that delivers quality action and characters, but just enough story to justify the action and characters?
If you answered “yes” to these questions, then yes, I’d recommend Civil War.
Even if you answered “no,” it might still be worth watching if only to figure out how the movie makers packed so many characters into the film without it feeling bloated or fragmented. (Even Age of Ultron couldn’t pull off that trick.)
And for those who have seen it, if (like me) you’re have a little trouble suspending disbelief over the Accords (“Despite your best efforts, some people were killed in the process of you saving the lives of everyone else on Earth, and we’re real upset about that!”), consider this: the Accords aren’t really about limiting collateral damage. They’re about taking the Avengers out of the hands of Americans.
Remember, the Avengers started out as a SHIELD (i.e., American) project. Even with SHIELD officially dead, the Avengers HQ and major members are still based out of the US — and their poster boy is called Captain America for crying out loud! It was bad enough when the Americans had yet another batch of WMDs in their arsenal, but now that the arsenal isn’t even being controlled by the government, the rest of the world felt threatened. The civilian casualties are just the excuse they need to justify their actions.
At least, that’s how I see it. 🙂
As we move on to the second pat of our brief gazetteer, it occurs to me that while we’ve got a great name for this storyworld, I haven’t mentioned the name for the setting itself: that is, the name the inhabitants use for the place they live:
That said, let’s continue our tour around Shunadar by visiting…
The Hunting Grounds (Shuna-Korvassa)
Before the invasion, these rugged plains were populated by vast herds of bison-like honsu and the people who hunted them. Now the hunters have become the hunted as the spiders swarm into the region looking for prey.
Poraz: This trading town near the border of the Webbed Lands is officially under spider control, but is actually a hotbed of corruption, rebellion, and criminal activities. The leaders of the town keep the spiders off their back through extensive bribes of honsu meat and human captives.
House of Stone: Storms are common in the hunting grounds: terrible, violent storms full of deadly lightning and lashing hail. Thick-walled shelters dot the countryside; when a storm is coming, the locals know to make their way to the nearest shelter. The most famous of these is a large keep with walls of smooth stone. No one knows who built it, but it’s been here for centuries and is now a sanctuary against not only storms, but attacking spiders as well.
The Stronghold (Maza-Shun)
Separated by distance (and raging rivers) from much of Shunadar, this coastal region has been spared the worst of the spider invasion. While the nobles of Maza-Shun pursue isolationist policies in order to protect themselves against the spiders, the religious leaders are preaching that there is a moral imperative to help the resistance and take in whatever refugees they can.
Maza: This port city is a bustling hub of commerce, where ships regularly come and go to other continents and other ports on Shunadar. Business is down after the invasion, of course, but life has continued on well enough that many nobles are able to pretend that the spiders are someone else’s problem.
Rhaza: Once a small trading village, the town of Rhaza is now swollen with refugees from the hunting grounds and parts further west. While some worry about the influx of strangers, others are forging them into an effective militia to defend their new home from invading spiders.
Unstoppable Turtle: Wealthy merchants sail up and down the rivers of Maza-Shun and style themselves “river lords.” The largest of their “floating palaces” is the Unstoppable Turtle, a massive river boat defended by hundreds of soldiers. Since spiders don’t like crossing water, the Turtle does seem truly unstoppable, but its captain is more concerned with his next paycheck than fighting off his homeland’s invaders.
The Dominion of Shadow (Orzah-Shun)
The realm of Orzah-Shun is a decrepit, crumbling shell of what it once was. According to the lords of Orzah, they are the original inhabitants of Shunadar and its true, rightful rulers. According to everyone else, the Orzan people are strange and terrifying, given to mass slavery, twisted alchemical experiments, and the worship of ancient dark gods. Whether due to the protection of its shadowy pantheon or just its remoteness, Orzah-Shun has not yet been invaded by the spiders, and its leaders hope to keep it that way.
Orzah: The twin hearts of the crumbling capitol are the Palace of the Immortal Queen and the Temple of Unspoken Truths. No one outside Orzah-Shun has entered either of these sites and lived, nor can they speak of them without shuddering.
The Black Keep: This fortress marks the edge of Orzan territory, and is full of slave-soldiers who have been prepared to die in defense of their homeland.
Temple of the Sunken Ones: On the edge of the sea is a towering temple that’s open to the tides. According to legend, acolytes of the dark gods come here to seek forbidden wisdom from the things that slither beneath the waves.
Welcome to the first part of a brief gazetteer of the Empire of Venom and Silk.
Before we get too deep into our tour, I wanted to take a moment to discuss naming conventions. The word “shun” in the native language basically means “land.” When it’s used as a suffix, (such as in “Zira-Shun”) it means that the land is associated with the named city (in this case, the city of Zira). When it’s used as a prefix, the word is “shuna” and what comes after is a description of the territory, rather than a proper name. For example, “Shuna-Darshado” means “land of the of pale people.”
I’m fascinated by language. You can tell a lot about a culture by what words its people use. I’m no more a linguist than I am a cartographer, but I like to add little touches like this where I can when world-building.
With that out of the way, let’s kick off our tour by visiting…
The Webbed Lands (Zira-Shun)
Zira-Shun is the heart of the occupation. The spiders rule from the top of a feudal system that they did not create, but merely took over. Amongst the citizenry and lower nobility, life is harder than it once was, but they still live to serve those of the upper classes as they did before the invasion. Some citizens prove themselves loyal spider-thralls and earn perks by informing on “traitors” and serving as the invaders’ eyes and ears on the street.
Zira: The capital of Zira-Shun is home to the Ziran royalty, who have (mostly) sworn loyalty to their occupiers. Spider soldiers patrol the streets to ensure the city remains under control.
Ahbiz: Once a small, rich city known for its alchemists and practitioners of ancient, forbidden arcane arts, Ahbiz is now the spiders’ citadel. The only humans who enter the city are captives. The only ones who leave are spider-riding thralls adorned in silk robes and weird armor.
Croplands: Zira’s lands are the breadbasket of the region. Human slaves work the fields and orchards beneath the watchful eyes of both guard spiders and their human taskmasters.
The Fallen Realm (Namzi-Shun)
When the spiders erupted from Ahbiz, they headed west to Namzi and its lands. The Namzi army did its best to stop the invaders, but was able only to slow them long enough for the other citizens to flee the area. The spiders devastated the Namzi lands and slew or captured everyone they found. It was because of this brutality that, when the spiders turned their attention to Zira, the Ziran nobility surrendered rather than endanger their province.
Namzi: The city has been given over to the monstrous creatures that live nearby and the animalistic giant spiders known as “stalkers.” It’s been abandoned by all but a few die-hard survivalists, a strange cult of spider-worshipers, and the occasional band of treasure-hunting scavengers.
The Mines: The hills south of Namzi are rich in ore, which the spiders’ slaves dig out until they die. Ore from this large mine complex is hauled on the backs of enormous spiders to Zira, where it’s forged into tools and weapons of spidery design.
Charnel Fields: During the invasion, the plains and hills between Namzi and Ahbiz were soaked in the blood of the fallen. Today, the battlefield is known to be haunted by ghosts, ghouls, and other undead creatures.
The Pale Forest (Shuna-Darshado)
While a handful of people have always lived in the vast, wooded wilderness south of the mountains, the region was only truly settled about a century ago. A large colony of pale-skinned people from across the sea came ashore on the western coast, then quickly moved inland. The natives aren’t sure what to make of these newcomers with their strange appearance, strange gods, and even stranger customs.
The pale ones are known to be expert hunters and trappers. For the most part, they keep to themselves, though small groups of them occasionally travel northward and join civilization.
When the spiders first invaded, they ignored the forest, and streams of refugees fled southward. Even now, it seems the region is too far away (as the route is either over mountains or around them) with too little reward to justify a full invasion. There are occasional spider raids, but nothing the pale people can’t avoid or withstand.
I’m no cartographer, but I enjoy playing with their tools, much like my toddler enjoys playing with my hammer and screwdrivers. Only difference is that when I drop Photoshop on my foot, it doesn’t hurt quite so much.
So yes, my skills are lacking, but I’ve nevertheless managed to create a prototype map of the region that’s been invaded and occupied by giant spiders. The labels are all mine (and I’ll go into what they represent later this week), but the basic land mass was randomly generated using this online Polygon Map Generation tool. The tool’s a blast to play with, and creates relatively realistic land masses, so I’d definitely recommend using it at least as a starting point for your own world-building projects.
Next: A brief tour of the Empire of Venom and Silk