I have the attention span of a gnat, and while I’ve come up with a number of game designs over the years the chances of any of them even approaching a finished state is zero. The one that I like best, and that I made most progress with, was based loosely on the Irish myth of the Táin Bó Cúailnge. In the game, players would represent heroes competing for the magical bull of Ulster. Each would command a hero with asymmetric powers as well as ordinary warriors, and a key strategy driver would be deciding whether their heroes should be fighting on the front line, or spending time in the land of faerie, improving their powers.
The theme was a late addition to an original idea born out of a desire to fulfil a long-held ambition to play a fantasy adventure game that managed to combine convincing narrative, lots of player interaction, character development and some strategy. This combination seems to have eluded designers down the ages. The closest candidate, World of Warcraft the Adventure game, ended up bombing fairly badly. So I figured I’d have a go myself.
When I thought about it, the problems with creating a game like this started to crystallise for me. In adventure games players traditionally represent single characters or small bands of adventurers. That usually means a single avatar on the board. If you want direct interaction then it’s difficult to give the players any good reason to congregate close enough to allow them to fight with one another. And virtually any approach you take is going to revolve around reducing the scope of the game world, which in turn reduces variety and narrative. As if this were not enough, a single avatar means a single I-win-you-lose style of interaction in which it becomes very difficult to stop enormous power differentials developing very quickly and rendering the game pointless for weaker characters.
The more I dwelt on this awkward mix of problems the more it seemed that the solution was simply to expand the game beyond being about the heroes alone. But you had to keep the focus on them, else it wasn’t much of an adventure game. My solution, inspired by the fantasy wargame Dragon Pass, was to have the heroes as being single powerful military units amongst other much weaker troops in a hybrid adventure/war game. That immediately created a pleasing strategy problem for the players over where to deploy these single units that would be the equivalent of small armies on their own. To keep the focus on the heroes they’d be able to move away from battle and go on quests to gain items and abilities, which deepened that same pleasing strategy problem.
From that point, the game developed into one about Irish Myth solely from my desire to use a theme that wasn’t just fantasy boilerplate. But I digress. After my usual style it’s taken a lengthy introduction to get to the point of the article which is, simply, that the more I’ve thought about it the more it seems clear that “extending” the traditional basic gamelplay trops of an adventure game is the only sure way to inject some more interaction and some more strategy into the genre. So why haven’t more experienced and more professional designers than me picked up the idea before?
Some of you may have spotted that an old game closely matching my description of the perfect fantasy adventure already exists. That game is Magic Realm. However, it doesn't pass muster for me for two key reasons. The first is that it's legendary impenetrability and long setup and play times render it basically unplayable for me and, I suspect, most other modern gamers. Not to mention the fact that I'm doubtful that Magic Realm is good enough to be worth the effort - although I'm doubtful that any game is good enough to be worth tackling a rule book the size of Magic Realm's. The second is its peculiar and heady model of player interaction. The open manner in which players can choose to compete or cooperate in a variety of different ways and the subtle and shifting map of favours, grudges and allegences that this creates is one of the very best things about Magic Realm in my opinion, but you can't really cast is as strictly competitive, even though there is an eventual winner. And I'm looking for a strictly competitive game.
But interestingly Magic Realm does fit my theory that in order to make an adventure game fit all my criteria, it has to go beyond the traditional confines of the genre. Magic Realm does so with natives, groups of non-player characters with whom you can develop relationships, trading with them, fighting with them or even hiring them to support you during your adventures. This is an elements that's very much not normally in canon for games of this style which prefer instead to focus on enemies to be overcome, and which pushes Magic Realm very slightly in the direction of the sort of war game/ adventure hybrid I had a stab at making with my Irish game.
It’s worth noting that that Irish Myth game is a fairly old design, dating back several years. It’s also the one I thought most highly of and figured might be worth developing. And so when I first read about Runewars my initial reaction was “bugger, Fantasy Flight Games have got in there first”. However, a closer examination of the game and the slow unfolding of its qualities as gamers got their grubby mits on the title and put it through its paces revealed that the designers may have missed a trick. While a critical and commercial success, it seems clear that Runewars is really a fantasy conquest game onto which heroic adventuring has been tacked to offer a few extra strategic options.
The same could be said of another possible candidate to fit the bill, Conquest of Nerath. Except that Conquest of Nerath, adventuring is even more of an afterthought and one that’s almost totally been abstracted out. Heroes are simply units you can buy to add to your forces, and their adventures are one-shot face-offs between the heroes and a monster or two for the reward of a single treasure, which benefits your faction rather than the heroes themselves. So again, fun game but not what we’re looking for.
Then things went quiet for a little while. And if I hadn’t been busy raising children I might have gone back to my design, dusted it off, and had another go at improving it. But then the Mage Knight board game arrived. In Mage Knight the focus is very squarely on the adventures, but central to the development of your hero is extending the ability to recruit and retain ever larger and more powerful bands of mercenaries and followers so that by the end of the game each player is virtually in charge of their own small private army.
Mage Knight is a particularly interesting case in point because it's probably the closest any game has ever come (bar Magic Realm, which, as we discussed earlier has it's own issues) to fulfilling the criteria of my ideal adventure game. And in doing so it too had to make a nod toward becoming more like a war game with its bands to troops to recruit and use. But while good, I have some issues with Mage Knight. The way it's card-driven model occasional throws up some idiotic combinations that completely shatter the theme ("I am an all-powerful warrior-Mage who doesn't even need to sleep! But today, oddly, I can't walk more than a few paces"). Its often glacially slow pace and very long play time. The overly predictive combat. And it would still benefit from a little more variety and interaction. So, good, but not great. And it's still very much a traditional adventure game in many ways, with the external elements being an afterthought. Indeed I can't help thinking that if it didn't stick quite so rigidly to that mould, it might have found better ways of solving some of the other issues with the design.
So, even after several clever and close-run attempts, I'm still waiting for my perfect adventure game and, more incredibly, for designers to really make use of the sizeable unexplored space presented by hybridising the adventure game with other formats. Perhaps the same hurdles that drove me to creating my Irish Myth game eventually prove the undoing of most of these sorts of designs. I haven't progressed far enough with my own to properly understand that, and probably never will. But I doubt it's something a clever and skilled designer couldn't overcome. I suspect that ultimately the enemy is the theme itself. The motif of the adventurer and the heroic quest is as old as writing itself, and its familiarity is part of its appeal. It speaks deeply to particular cultural and emotional centres in us in a manner that few other archetypes can managed. It could well be the the simple act of adulterating that purity is ultimately what sabotages our attempts to make it better.