Saturday, July 08, 2006

Ruminations on games designed to be played with LEGO bricks.

Thinking out loud:

In the spring of 1999, I was introduced to the potential of LEGO as an adult toy. We had a big meeting of everyone in our division at IBM, and the inspirational talk was given by Fred Martin of the MIT Media Lab. His presentation was about personal computing, ranging from the use of PCs they way we know them today, computers in appliances, and most interestingly, personal robotics. He talked about how LEGO's recently introduced Mindstorms LEGO Robotics Invention Kit was a huge success, in part because something like half the sets were purchased by adults for their own use. Having always been intrigued by robots, but never enough to shell out for any of the robot kits released over the previous 20 years or so, I wandered down to Toys R Us and came home with a Mindstorms set. Of course, being internet savvy, it didn't take me long to start searching the internet for what people were doing with their LEGO robots. Along the way, I saw a 6' long model of the Titanic, impressive castles, and amazingly, a miniatures wargame with role playing aspects using the pirate ships, designed by Steve Jackson (of Steve Jackson Games).

Within months, I purchased almost every pirate set I could lay my hands on in the Raleigh/Durham North Carolina area. In the spring of 2000, talk started about having a convention for LEGO fans up in DC. I immediately expressed interest, and suggested the Pirate Game would be a cool thing to play. So in June, and the first BrickFest, I rented an SUV (I didn't have a reliable vehicle for the trip) and drove up to DC with the back stuffed with pirate ships, stuff to build islands, and several pirate themed forts. Finally I would get my chance to check out this cool game. It was a lot of fun to run (and lots of fun for several of the players - though many had no RPG exposure, and chafed at the way the game was run). Over the next several years, I ran the game at BrickFest, and in 2002, I ventured to GenCon to run it as part of the newly formed GameLUG (Gaming LEGO Users Group) offerings.

By the end of 2003, I was becoming disillusioned with the game. A big issue was how subjective the interesting parts of the game were. The special islands which provided the most role playing opportunity are very subjective, which may be ok, but clashed with the essential wargame nature of the game. They also didn’t play well with the reward mechanics. And the reward mechanics were really screwed up, they rewarded players for not engaging. If you wandered around to small islands, digging for treasure and picking up stranded pirates, avoiding the special islands, and especially avoiding fighting the other players, the reward in treasure was huge. Especially when, with your huge, relatively un-blooded crew, you swept in after two other players had a fight, and captured one or both of their ships.

There are a number of other games out there, but not have appealed to me very much. BrickWars, while it still has some role playing potential, is very minimal, plus, it features destruction of the props which makes for intensive prep. BrickQuest is an interesting dungeon style game, but it has more in common with the board games with miniatures like Dragon Strike (and presumably some of those new nifty looking games that are coming out). Brick Battles is a simple war game, though I really haven’t looked into it much. Pirate Wars is another pirate game, but I’m not sure it would really have anything over Evil Stevie’s Pirate Game. Mechaton and BrickMech are pure wargames, and feature a genre of little interest to me.

One thing I’ve thought about recently is how Steve Jackson ran the game at BricksWest 2002. He split the players into two sides. This eliminates the problem of two players duking it out, weakening themselves, and falling prey to a third player. That is one of the fundamental problems with the Pirate Game, the reward for fighting another player does not offset the losses. In Risk, when you fight another player, you capture territory, which earns you cards to cash in for more troops (plus the territory is valuable in its own right).

This got me to thinking about how the mechanics of an RPG help support a creative agenda. In traditional D&D play, which supports a gamist agenda, there is an interesting instability of the game. The rules suggest combat is the primary way to deal with NPCs, but the game offers possibilities of bypassing opposition by climbing walls or finding secret doors. Another option is to try and talk an NPC out of fighting you. These options are highly subjective, and I think that subjectivity is what leaves room for the creativity that makes the RPG something more than a wargame. On the flip side, games like Dogs in the Vinyard normalize everything into one conflict resolution system. This dramatically reduces the impact of creativity on the mechanics of winning a conflict, however, that leaves room to assign meaning to the decisions made. The GM can probe the players decisions by creating different situations and seeing how the player reacts. The end is that the players address premise and create theme, for strong narativist play. Games like RuneQuest use realism, and mechanics that help define the social structure of the campaign world, to provide support for a simulationist agenda.

Now here’s another problem with the games that use LEGO bricks: These games make very little use of the construction toy aspect of LEGO toys. BrickWars makes some use in the destruction of props (since the destroyed props may be rebuilt easily, or recycled into parts for new props). Most of the games do allow exchanging of equipment and such, which traditional miniatures games don’t facilitate (though if you used action figures, you would have that same flexibility). And of course, the fact that you can click pieces together means you can hang your pirate crew from the ratlines and stand them on the spars and such. But overall, the games do not provide for creative building with the bricks outside of prep for the game.

I’ve thought long and hard about how to make creative building part of a construction toy game. Lately, I have been considered putting the word out that I’m interested in creating a construction toy RPG that features more creative building. My thought would be to get a bunch of interested folks to come over to my house. My thought would be that rather than starting off by focusing on game rules, we would start by focusing on the creative building. Participants would be encouraged to bring any LEGO creations they might have (whether they be their own design, or just a LEGO kit assembled per the instructions). I would make my huge collection available, and a big table to set up on. We might decide to build a town, or a countryside, or a pirate ocean, or a moonbase, or something entirely wacky. We might even decide to abandon the table for the larger area of the floor. Participants would be encouraged to go beyond just the models though, and start creating shared stories. As play progressed, we could watch for places we need formal mechanics. Perhaps after a few sessions, I would have some ideas to work with to create a game, or perhaps we’d jointly construct a playable game from that play.

References: My LEGO gaming page provides links to many of the games mentioned above.