Posts Tagged ‘ludology; Iterative Games’

Iteration and progression in games: Iterative Games

Lately, I have been playing a number of little games on my computer: Reus, FTL and Now Boarding, among a few others. In all three, you play a series of relatively short games. But each game will impact the next game in some way. That made me think of how important iteration is in many games. Thus, I’ll be doing a small series on iteration, progression and entropy in games, both computer games, board games and roleplaying games.

Iteration means repetition. From Wikipedia:

Iteration is the act of repeating a process with the aim of approaching a desired goal, target or result. Each repetition of the process is also called an “iteration”, and the results of one iteration are used as the starting point for the next iteration.

Many, many games use iteration – the basic turn-taking that is present in a vast majority of board games, and in the combat system of many, many roleplaying games, is one example of this. Take a game like Race for the Galaxy: You choose a role, reveal all roles, then go through the phases selected from lowest to highest. Rinse, repeat.

Today, though, I want to look at what I would call “iterative games” – games where a central part of the game is playing it several times, often in a row. Usually there’s a mechanical effect of one game on the next, but sometimes the effect is very subtle. The spill-over might just be each player’s feeling for the social dynamics of the group – like which player is more likely to bluff, or to fall for a bluff. I’d like to give a few examples below.

Poker

One of the best examples I can think of is poker. The game as written is roughly this: the players are dealt some cards, they bet, then change or add some cards, then bet some more. Players may fold if they don’t want to follow the betting. If there’s more than one player left at the end of the round, the players compare their cards and see who has the best hand. That’s it – the winner takes the pot.

But you can’t really play just one game of poker. The real game of poker is what emerges after you’ve played a few hands: chips are redistributed and players start getting a feeling for each other. The real game ends when only one player remains at the table.

In other words, a play-session of poker consists of playing a string of games; with one game determine the starting layout for the next game. If one player has more money than the others, he can afford to be bolder, while someone who has lost most of their chips might be forced to take desperate measures, going all in on a mediocre hand to try to get back into the game. Which might of course lead to the next game having one less player.

Reus

In the computer game, Reus, you play a planet-deity, expressing your will through four elemental giants. Each game is called an “age”, and the idea is that you and your giants go through periods of activity interspersed by periods of sleep. While you sleep everything reverts to a flat and barren state.

Each age starts with an empty planet. The giants can add terrain and resources to the land, attracting people to settle and build on the planet. Each age lasts a set amount of time before the giants (and you) fall back asleep. At the end of each age, you earn achievements which unlock things for future ages: more advanced resources, more advanced projects that the humans can build, and longer ages, allowing you to achieve more in each age.

As such, each game starts with a blank slate. But you will be able to do more things than you could in previous games, and you will be faced with more difficult achievements to fulfil. Each iteration of the game is both a game in itself, but also a part of a larger arc of playing the game.

Spirit of the Century

Roleplaying games are not usually thought of as iterative in the sense that I just described – you play a campaign that keeps progressing, or you play a one-off thing. But there are actually a few of them out there. One example is Spirit of the Century. The game is designed to accommodate a string of linked but independent stories. At the beginning of a campaign, you get everybody together to make characters. Before each session the GM will find out who will be part of that session, and design a scenario to fit those heroes, taking cues from the aspects on their sheets.

At the end of each session, you don’t hand out experience points, but players may change their aspects to reflect things that happened during the game. There are some progression rules in the game, allowing players to add one more aspect every two games, and also a new stunt once in a while.

Spirit of the Century could be used to play the “big plotline” campaigns that traditional roleplaying games often excel in. But the strength of the game is in the episodic games, where you get a group together and play a game based on those characters. In TV-terms, this is more like the Simpsons or Star Trek than it’s like Lost or 24. It’s important to note, though, that that doesn’t mean it has a static starting point: each episode will change the backstory of the character, giving him new facets, reflected in new aspects.

Magic the Gathering (or Pokemon, or Netrunner, or…)

When Magic: the Gathering came out, it created a whole new genre of games unto itself: the Collectible Card Game, or CCG. What defines this genre is not something that is written in the actual rules of the game. That is because, just like in poker, the real game of a CCG is not what is written in the rules – it is what happens as you play the game over and over. Thus, CCG is a whole genre of iterative games. Lately the genre has evolved into the Living Card Game (LCG), and most of what I say about the CCG goes for the LCG as well.

In the basic game of Magic, two people sit down with each their deck of cards. They keep playing until someone loses all their life or runs out of cards.

The real game of Magic is on a larger scope, however. While you can get a readymade deck and just sit down to play, really playing Magic means collecting cards and assembling your own deck. You buy cards in random booster packs, and then select ones from your collection that complement each other to make a well-balanced deck. When you have a finished deck, you take it out to play with it, then take it home to tune it based on what worked and what didn’t.

This also means that success in Magic doesn’t necessarily mean winning more than you lose. The designers of magic have described three personas of magic players: Timmy, Spike and Johnny (read the very interesting article defining the personas here). Two out of the three care more about how they win than how often: Timmy wants to get out his huge cards and smash his opponent, while Johnny wants his carefully constructed engine of cards to kick in and do what they were designed to do. Only Spike wants to have a deck that can beat them every time.

Magic shares this meta-game with other CCG’s and LCG’s, like Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh and Android Netrunner. For the people who seriously play these games, sitting down to play is as much a way to test your deck as designing a deck is preparation for play. In this way, these games are iterative: you play, then reset, adjust, and play again.

Other iterative games

A few other iterative games, off my cuff here:

  • Las Vegas: In this game, you play three rounds. Each round is basically the same, and the winner is the one who earned the most money at the end. Only difference is the knowledge of how much money everybody else has.
  • Meyer and Cheat: small bluffing games with dice often played while drinking in Denmark.  It is customary to play more than one round of either
  • Rummy, Whist, Bridge, Hearts, Oh Hell!: In these games, you play a number of games, totalling the number of points you get in each round. The winner is the one who earns the most (or least, in the case of Hearts) points at the end, or the first to a certain number of points.
  • Classic D&D: In classic D&D (which I’ve never really played, so I have some reservations) you make a party, go down the dungeon, come up, divide loot and level up. Rinse, repeat. Plot-arcs optional.
  • Hinterlandet: Morten Greis’ remake of classic dungeoncrawl is even more so. You bring your character, then go out to a dungeon, hopefully returns to town with loot and experience, say bye bye, and take your character home. Next time, you may play with someone else, and your character is better for having been out before.
  • Kingdom of Loathing: In KoL (as it’s known among friends) you play through 13 levels of questing and levelling up. When you are done, you can “ascend”, which basically means starting over with a new character class at level 1. You get to keep your stuff (though you can’t access all of it), just as you can make skills carry over from ascension to ascension. Each time you ascend, you can modify your next run-through of the game, restricting what you can do or gaining special items to help you in this incarnation.

The march of progress!

That’s it for purely iterative games. Tomorrow, I’ll post something about games that do the opposite: progression and entropy in games. The third post in this series will deal with ways of mixing iteration and progression/entropy in games.

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