July 8, 2014

Emissary's Thematic Conundrums

Emissary was originally designed for the PnP Express/In-a-Tin Design contest using the Decktet. It was envisioned as a card game "express" version of Hegemonic transplanted into the fantastic and odd world of the Decktet universe. If you are curious about the gameplay of Emissary, check out this prior post on the topic: Emissary: A Study in Brain-burn and Emergence

As much as I love the Decktet, using the Decktet cards posed some playability challenges. Players had to mentally map the card's ranks into a Tier structure used in Emissary, each of which had certain implications for the cost of using those cards. It was hard for players to keep it all straight in their mind (and required a reference card at a minimum) and as a consequence the flow of the game bottlenecked a little bit.

If the game was to mature beyond its roots I felt it had to deviate away from the Decktet. Custom cards could facilitate learning the game and streamline the play considerably by using clear iconography to identify the various ways of interacting with the cards (costs, build allowances, etc.). But this opened up a whole separate question, what to "theme" it around. I was torn whether to embrace the games forefather (Hegemonic) and go with a spacey theme, or do something more subdued and landscap-y. I couldn't decide so I did both!

Onward to the eye-candy!

"Landscape" Theme

The landscape theme uses the Decktet colors as follows. Blue = wetlands, Green = Forests, Orange = Fields, Yellow = Deserts, White = Tundra, and Brown = Mountains. The resulting "map" creates an interesting interweaving landscape of different terrains. I did these illustrations myself (in Illustrator) and I think they turned out reasonably well given my hackr-drawing skills.
Should this design move forward, I'd like to refine it into more of a fantastical looking landscape with each terrain type being occupied by some fantastical race of beings - keeping in mind that in the world of Emissary the landscape is always shifting and changing! So it might grow into more of a terraforming theme, with giant Avian-lizard things living in the swamps, and of course mole-trolls in the mountains and dryad-tree people spreading love in the woodlands.

"Space" Theme

The space theme was predicated on the idea that the players are actually another consortium of alien races from a DIFFERENT galaxy sending political "Emissaries" to the galaxy of Hegemonic to build up influence within the Great Houses of the Human empires of Hegemonic. In way, player's are competing for influence among the great houses ON TOP of a game of Hegemonic playing out across the map. Double whoa!

Realizing the Conundrum

If someone, not knowing anything about Emissary, were to try it out, I have no doubt it would come across as quite abstract. In the same way that (I was surprised to find out) most people seem to feel that Hegemonic is far more abstract than I think it is. In Emissary, the actions were near perfect 1-to-1 mapping of the classic 4X elements. You explore by revealing cards, you expand by placing influence tokens, you exploit by generating resources from occupied cards, and you exterminate by attacking your opponent's influence. It doesn't get much more clear cut than that in my mind.

Yet I am realizing that my interpretation of theme is more amenable to abstraction. I've always been an advocate of marrying theme and mechanics - yet I've also come to recognize that the association between theme and mechanics means different things to different people. Some people can build off an abstract sense of things and project/imagine the theme at work; others require something much more visceral and tangible to "feel the theme."

At the end of the day, I never thought of myself as a designer that would have a game that lends itself to being easily re-themed. Yet I'm also increasingly not too bothered about that reality. Theme IS important to me in terms of inspiring the design and the resulting mechanics. But I don't feel a pressing need to make the theme some vivid "OMFG!!!!" kind of the thing. If the game that emerges at the end of the day comes across more abstract - I'm totally fine with that.

As with Emissary - we will see where it goes. I have some tweaks in the works but otherwise I'm very excited with how the game has shaped up, and I'm hoping good things are in its future.

As for the theme? Maybe I'll leave it up to a vote!

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