Organic, Thematic, and Never Static…Game Mechanics

by | Oct 15, 2016

Great Things Come From Failure

I have made virtually every mistake you can think of when it comes to creating game mechanics for Wu Wei. I make it a personal challenge to take every rule or concept out to the extreme limit. Bear with me for a moment while I recount an example of this principle in action:

Matching the movement of the player pieces to the five elements led me to give each player five moves where they had to keep track of the direction they were headed. This led me to the idea of terrains and confrontations between players. I experimented with the idea of certain players having more familiarity with certain areas of the board and “claiming” that area like a well-practiced martial arts move. After testing some of these ideas I realized that keeping track of your direction on a board comprised of octagon and squares was really hard! Also, I didn’t want the game to feel like a war game (even though it is influenced by Sun Tzu). I scratched the familiarity with certain areas idea. I did, however, like the terrains and the idea of player confrontation led me to developing a polarity between disciples and masters. And now that players didn’t need to change direction as part of their five moves, the total movement needed to be reduced. People were flying around the board unchallenged! I chose three moves because 3 is the golden number in almost all religions and it corresponded to the concept of the three treasures (jing, chi, shen) and the three energy centers known as the Upper, Middle, and Lower Dan Tien. I was originally inspired by the five elements for the movements until I discovered that the concept of the three treasures was a better option. This is the type of logic governing every change I make to the rules.

Examining elements from several different perspectives while being governed by the principles of martial arts and Chinese philosophy is a great way to design a game and great way to walk through life. I don’t expect everyone to design this way or use martial arts as a muse. I’m just saying that you should use your original source material and continued inspirations as a compass when you design game mechanics. Do your best to create something original. Forget about trends. Forget about getting rich. It’s okay to borrow from other games as long as you march to the beat of your own drum. Do your best and be open to failure. There are so many lessons to be learned from mistakes. Great things come from failure.

Octagons in a World of Hexagons

Why did I choose octagons to make my board? Well, originally I was looking at the bagua which is an eight-sided symbol with the yin yang in the center and the eight triagrams around it. In the I Ching (The Taoist Book of Changes), these trigrams are combined to created the 64 chapters of this amazing book called the I Ching that helps you navigate your life. It seemed like a really cool place to start. You may have noticed that there is a circle on the inside of each octagon. This is a popular theme in Chinese architecture and design. It appears as the bagua mirror which is used to ward off evil spirits. This shape can also be found under bridges and as the entrance to a garden. Lattice work is also a big part of Chinese design so I figured a board made with bagua mirrors would be an auspicious start. Then I tried to figure out how many pieces would be required for the board. I started looking at the origins of different numbers and settled on a 5 x 5 grid of octagons based on the Chinese numerology concept that 5 represented humanity and a 6 x 6 grid of squares based on the Chinese numerology concept that 6 represented the heavens. I want this game to appeal to people on many levels (some of them subconscious) and I want it to be balanced. Sometimes I feel like one of those guys stacking rocks in the river.

Circles and Triangles and Squares… oh my!

I knew that I wanted the octagons to represent the seasons and I wanted to relate those seasons to the five elements in some way. As I continued my experiments I discovered that each season had a different element and that Earth was shown as either late Summer or between the seasons. I decided to make it a between the seasons element and relegated it to the back of all the octagons. This became the genesis of the Emperor character. I’ll chat about that some other time.

This left me with the square pieces between the octagons. I started thinking about what these might represent and eventually I came up with Temples, Towns, and Palaces as the ubiquitous Chinese destinations. At first I considered making these spots literal outlines of buildings but then I recalled lessons about movement from my teacher Sijo Carl Totton. He told us about the square, circle, and triangle principles of movement and how every move in the martial arts is made up of these shapes. This is actually a big concept from Aikido that illustrates the shape of things in the universe. When you go from 2D to 3D these shapes become spheres, cubes, and pyramids. I also flashed on the video game controller from PlayStation and then kids learning in elementary school. These truly are the universal shapes so I wanted to feature them. The squares eventually became the temples, the circles the towns, and the triangles the palaces. Later on I would develop the individual effects of these destinations. Temples change the season, towns change the element, and palaces allow you to build walls and change terrains. In a way you can think of these destinations as nerve centers or acupuncture points. In martial arts, these are targets that create a certain effect. The same can be said of this game.

The Universe
by Sengai Gibbon
Japanese monk

Long Term Strategy and Strategic Agility

I have friends that approach games in a systematic fashion. They analyze and practice long term strategies that they bring to the table with the goal of dominating and capturing eternal table top glory. I can tell you from personal experience that this can be pretty boring. When I see this behavior I typically become a wild card and concentrate less on winning the game and more on ruining their predetermined plan. I think it’s funny. Others may totally disagree with me and I understand your perspective but I’m more interested in the interaction between players. I want to throw out the script and unmask the conniving conqueror. It’s fun! In fact, some of my favorite games contain some sort of betrayal mechanic. Check out Battlestar Gallactica, Game of Thrones, Betrayal at the House on Haunted Hill, Cutthroat Caverns, and Dead of Winter for some examples of great betrayal mechanics. This type of action requires you to assess the player while your taking in the circumstances of the game and rules. It’s a whole different dimension and it’s probably the one that keeps me at the table.

All of that being said, I created a game that requires you to adjust your strategy from turn to turn while trying to achieve the overall objective of collecting five cards and returning to the center of the board. Players are required to make a move every turn and as a result the circumstances can change dramatically. Players can also team up to stop the leader from running away with victory. There can be clever sequences of events that will stop the unprepared player. The only catch is that every time you waste a turn blocking others you are using energy and movement that could be used to further your goals. As a result, players tend to stay totally engaged with the game because there’s always a chance they can win. The best players need a clever balance of strikes and blocks in order to achieve their goals. The players that tend to struggle are the long term strategists because their painstakingly plotted move is suddenly blocked. I built this dastardly game to mirror the mindset required for a real fight. You can go in thinking you are going to grapple and then you wind up punching and kicking. Circumstances change and you need a number of skills in your arsenal. You need to work the angles. Welcome to the geometry of combat!

Layers of Sediment

Like my knowledge of martial arts and Taoist philosophy, my experience with board game design hasn’t been a single giant step forward. It’s been layers of sediment. That experience continues. I’m hoping that I’ll get to the end of this road with Wu Wei: Journey of the Changing Path some time soon but I know that it cannot be forced. No matter how hard I work, the final result will only appear when it is truly ready. Anything else would be a product of my ego and would only serve as a monument to my impatience. This game isn’t for me. This game is for you.