November 5, 2014

All Roads Lead to Amber

So has anyone read Roger Zelazny's Amber novels? For those that haven't, or need a refresher, here is the gist:

The Chronicles of Amber is a 10 book sequence split into 2 parts. Part 1 was written between '70 and '78. And Part 2 was written between '85 and '91. These are fantasy novels set in an alternate reality, of which Earth as we know it exists as one of many different worlds/realms. The basic universe exists as a sort of continuum between chaos and order, with the Courts of Chaos and the Logrus on one end and Amber and the Pattern on the other. All of reality is spread between these two poles.

The stories are quite engrossing and all 10 books are about as long as one book from the Games of Thrones (for reference). The major plots revolve around various Lords and Ladies of Amber (or Chaos) going about their power grabs in all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The books mostly focus on the political intrigues and dynamics between the characters, and not the usual fantasy trappings - its almost the progenitor for something like the Game of Thrones in that regard. But better and more concise in my opinion.

Other than a rather odd (diceless apparently!) RPG set in the Amber universe, there haven't been many games using the Amber setting (although I've heard rumors of it being difficult to license). This is about to change!

I recently finished re-reading the Chronicles of Amber (for the 3rd or 4th time now?) and have been kicking ideas around for a game based on it. At a high level, I'm interesting in creating a game of multiple cat-and-mouse type deductions, secret goals/agendas, and variable winning arrangements; all in a sand-boxy environment that lets unique narratives emerge from game to game. Principally, each player might have 1 (or more?) objectives constructed from a variable set of random inputs/clues. Players would need to be moving around the universe/realms finding what they need for their own mission while trying to deduce what everyone else is up to and stop them where they can.

The books rely heavily on characters forming temporary alliances for some mutual gain - while at the same time trying to deduce each other's motives. So I imagine part of the game being a social deduction game, but with players being able to cut a deal and combine forces to accomplish a feat in exchange for revealing one part of your goal-clues to the other players. It's could be quite thematic and consistent with the feeling in the book. As you get closer and closer to your own goal, you have to reveal more and more of it to the other players, making it possible for them to stop you - but of course they are in the same position! Combine that with fixed and variable win conditions and alliances it could a pretty interesting game space!

The Badger Deck

As I've written elsewhere, I have a growing infatuation with game systems, e.g. card systems like the Decktet. Most recently, I've acquired a Badger Deck, designed and illustrated by Dennis Bennett. The Badger Deck is a spectacular 10-suited deck with 32 ranks in each suit (numbers 0-20, Fool, Ace, Jack, Queen, King, Princess, Wizard, Sorceress, Hero, Monster, Castle). The deck is a monstrous 320 cards in total size, but it provides a lot of room to implement lots of different design ideas. One other thing I like is that the suit colors lend themselves to various sub-divisions, e.g. warm vs. cool colors. Blues/purples vs. Red/Yellow/orange vs. Greens which adds a further dimension to how the deck structure can be used.

For the time being, it seems like a perfect fit as a base system for developing this Amber game. And with the Badger Deck just becoming available through various Print-on-Demand (POD) services, there just might be a few people interested in playing the Amber game!

The Scions of Amber
Working title & working rules
2-6 players

Disclaimer: This is a rough working ruleset - lots of streamlining and ironing out is still needed!

Gameplay Overview

In the "Scions of Amber" (working title?) each player assumes a hidden Lineage, marking them as a descendent of Amber, or the Courts of Chaos, or an Independent Realm. In addition to a Lineage, each player also has a secret Agenda that determines what they need to do in order to win. One player could be a descendent of Amber seeking to steal the throne of Amber for themselves, or a member of the Courts of Chaos seeking to destroy the Pattern that gives life to Amber. Players must try and deduce other players' goals and prevent them from winning, while at the same time trying to accomplish their own goal. Players can work together and it is even possible for two players to conspire and win at the same time!

The game plays across a map of cards (Realms) that are arranged on the table during setup, with Amber on one end of the map and the Courts of Chaos on the other end. Meeting the secret Agenda will require not only the right combination of cards, but also being in the right location on the map. Players will traverse the map of cards searching locations for needed resource cards while also interacting with other players. Interactions include trading cards or information, traveling together, or even attacking and attempting to steal someone else's card or reveal their secrets!

Components & Setup

Needed Components
- Badger Deck
- One 6-sided dice "Pawn" for each player

Cards in the Badger Deck are used as follows:

Realm Map comprised of the following cards:
- All 10 Castle Cards
- Monster of Hearts and Spades
- Extra Phoenix Card (0 of coins)

Realm Map Setup:

(1) Place the Phoenix card (0 of Coins) in the center of the table, this card represents Earth.

(2) Make a pile of cards containing the Castles of Hearts/Flowers/Diamonds (Chaos realms) and another pile containing the Castles of Spades/Clubs/Coins (Amber realms). Shuffle the remaining 4 Castle cards and deal two to each of the piles.

(3) To one side of Earth will be the Amber Realms, the other side will be the Chaos Realms. For each side, deal a 2 x 2 block of cards from that sides deck and then place the remaining card above or below earth. Last, place the associated Monster card (Hearts or Spades) at the end of each side. See diagram below:

Give the cards plenty of space (more cards will be placed on-top of these cards). Note in the diagram the gray dashed lines that indicate valid movement paths between the cards.

(4) Place the Castle of Amber (Monster of Spades / the Unicorn) at the far end of the Amber Realms. Place the Courts of Chaos (the Monster of Hearts / the Serpent) at the far end of the Court Realms per the diagram above.

Lineage Cards
- All ACE cards (12 total)

These cards represent who the player is and what their lineage is, which will determine what realm locations must be visited to accomplish their goal.

Setup: Shuffle these cards and deal 1 to each player.
- Amber Lineage: Spades, Clubs, Coins
- Courts Lineage: Hearts, Diamonds, Flowers
- Independent Lineage: Pyramids, Bats, Stars and Moons

Set the remaining Lineage (Hero) cards aside, they will not be used.

Agenda Cards
- Wizard and Sorceress of Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades, Coins, and Flowers (12 cards total)

Setup: Shuffle the cards and deal 1 to each player.

Set the remaining Wizard and Sorceress Cards aside, they will not be used.

Resource Cards
- Card ranks 1 thru 9, Jack, Princess, Queen, King, Hero and Fool of the following six suits: Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts, Spades, Coins, and Flowers. There will be 15 cards of each suit, and a total of 90 cards.


(1) Put all of the "Amber" resource cards (Clubs, Spades, and Coins) into a pile and all of the "Chaos" resource cards (Hearts, Diamonds, Flowers) into a pile. Shuffle each pile separately.

(2) Deal two cards from the Amber deck to each Realm in the Amber portion of the board and two cards to Earth. Place these cards face down and perpendicular to the Realm cards such that the Realm Cards' suit icon can still be seen. Do the same with the Chaos deck, dealing 2 cards to each Chaos Realm card and 2 cards to earth. Do not deal any cards onto earth.

(3) Shuffle the remaining cards together and deal cards to each player depending on the number of players in the game. For 2-4 players, give each player 5 cards. For 5 and 6 players, give each player 4 cards.

(4) Deal two additional cards from the deck to each Realm again (excluding Earth). There will be four cards face down at each Realm. Put the remaining cards next the board in a resource Draw Pile.

Final Setup

(1) Each player should take their d6 Pawn token and place it on earth with the "4" value facing up. The shown dice value reflect the players' current power level.

Game Objective

Each players' Agenda card ("Wizard or Sorceress") will have a suit listed on it (either an Amber suit or a Chaos suit). In order to win, players must meet three objectives, in order, by playing hands of cards containing that suit onto the table:

- Objective #1: Play cards with a total value of 15 or more, while in any location.

- Objective #2: Play cards with a total value of 30 or more, while in a location of the same lineage as your lineage (Ace) card. E.G., if you have an Amber lineage, you must be on any Amber suited location.

- Objective #3: Play cards with a total value of 45 or more, while in the location matching your lineage card.

Players can accomplish their objective on their turn by laying down a legal play of cards from their hand that equal (or exceed) the value of the current objective and that contain at least one card in Agenda's suit. Face cards, with the exception of the Fool, are all valued at 10.

A legal play of cards must be one of the following:

FLUSH: All cards are a FLUSH of a suit matching the Agenda's suit.

SAME RANK: All cards are of the SAME RANK with one card containing the Agenda's suit.

STRAIGHT: All cards are a STRAIGHT in order, with at least one card containing the Agenda's suit. Rank of face cards = J, P, Q, K, H. The Fool rank cards can be treated as any rank for purposes of forming a straight, but do not contribute anything towards the total value of the resulting straight - they are "valueless wilds."

When making a play, cards are placed face up in front of the player and left in place for the remainder of the game.

When a player has completed their third and final objective, they will win the game

Sequence of Play + Actions

Choose a player to begin the game. Each player will perform actions during their turn (described below) before the next player's turn. Play proceeds clockwise around the table and continues until one or more players have accomplished their goal.

During a players turn, a player may perform one "Movement Action" and one "Basic Action" and any number of "Free Actions." Actions may be performed in any order during a player's turn. Free actions may also be taken when it is NOT your turn.

Free Actions

Investigate: You may look at any face down resource cards in the location where your pawn marker is located.

Trade: You may agree to trade with another player when their pawn is in the same location as your pawn. You may reveal any or all (or none) of the cards in your hand and openly negotiate any trade deal. Agreed upon trades must be made immediately.

Movement Actions

Simple Movement: The player moves their pawn to an adjacent card (see the map above for valid movement paths). Other players in the same location the player moved from may chose to "tag along" and may move with you during your movement without impacting their turn.

"Trumping" Movement: The player may move their pawn to any one face-up FACE card in any realm by discarding a card from their hand that matches the suit of the face up card.

Hellride Movement: The player may move across multiple cards in as a single move. Each card moved to beyond the first requires playing a card from your hand and placing it face up on that location OR by reducing the power your power by a point (turning the dice down a value). Players may not use Free actions during a hellride.

Walk the Pattern or Logrus: The Pattern exists and can only be walked at the Castle or Monster of Spades (unicorn) and the Logrus exists only at the Castle or Monster of Hearts (serpent). The player may chose to walk the Pattern or Logrus if in the appropriate location AND provided they are of the right lineage (don't reveal your lineage card) by discarding an Amber suited or Chaos suited card (for Pattern or Logrus respectively). Independent lineage characters cannot walk the Pattern or Logrus.

After walking the Pattern or Logrus, the player does all of the following:
- Must their pawn to any location card that does not contain a Pattern or Logrus.
- Looks at the top 3 cards in the draw pile and choses one card to add to their hand, returning the remaining cards to the draw pile in order.
- Adds 2 to their current power level by adjusting their d6 pawn (may not exceed a maximum of 6).

Basic Actions

Exchange 1-for-1: You may exchange one card from your hand with any Resource card (face down or face up) in the location where your pawn is.

Exchange by value: You may exchange one or more cards from your hand with one or more Resource cards on the current location provided the total value of your cards is equal to or higher than the total value of the resource cards being collected. You may also use power (adjusting your d6 pawn down) to add to your trade total.

For example: You could exchange a 7 and 8 (value 15) for a Jack, 1 and 2 (value 14).

Resting: A player may rest while located on the earth card. If the player has fewer cards then their initial hand limit (4 or 5 cards depending on the number of players in the game) they may draw one card. If their current power level is less than 4, they may also add one power.

Independent Lineage players that rest may chose to refill their hand to the hand limit in one resting period and also gain one additional power (2 per rest) up to a maximum of 6 (instead of the 4 power limit for resting non-independent players).

Achieve Objective: Reduce your power by one to play a set of cards to meet one of the objectives (see previous section). If you are already at 1 power, you'll need to rest first! Once the new set of cards is played, the old set of cards is discarded to a discard pile next to the draw deck.

Challenge a Player: You may challenge a player that you share a location with, with the exception of earth (players cannot challenge other players on earth). The Challenged player may either accept the challenge or try to flee.

If the challenge was Accepted, both players chose and reveal a card from their hand simultaneously. After revealing the cards, players may consume power (adjusting their d6 down) to improve their score, starting with the defender and alternating back and forth. The player with the highest ranked card (face card rank = J, P, Q, K, H) wins and may do one of the following:
- Look at the loser's hand of cards and take one card
- Look at the loser's Agenda or Lineage card, and places it back face-down.

If the challenged player chose to flee, the fleeing player immediately enters into a hellride and must move at least two cards away by discarding cards from their hand and/or consuming power as described above for Hellrides.

Ending a Turn / Ending the Game

At the end of each player's turn, add cards from the draw deck to any location cards with less then four resource cards (whether they are face up or face down). Place these new resource cards face down.

The Game Ends when a player has completed their third and final objective. Any other players who are in position to complete their own final objective by being in the required location and having the right cards in hand, may also reveal their cards and win as well - this opens up the possibility to collaborate on a joint-win if players want.

Designer Notes

A few final thoughts on the game design + concept ...

(1) The "intent" is to make this a deduction game with a mild spatial element. Players have to piece together their own objective while looking for opportunities to deduce and foil the efforts of the other players.

(2) I want players to always feel a thin line between cooperation for mutual interest (moving together, trading, etc.) with the possibility of backstabbing each other at some crucial moment (hence the challenge system). We'll see how this all plays out.

(3) I've found that giving players a slip of paper to keep some notes can be helpful - who is discarding what suits? Are they doing it because they don't need that suit, or are they trying to throw you off?

(4) The balance between Exchange 1-for-1 versus Exchange for value is interesting. Low value cards may not be great for achieving an objective, but you can 1-for-1 exchange a low card for a high value card, so having a lot of low value cards is a good thing. At the same time, being able to exchange one high value card for 2 or more low value cards gets you more low value cards for future 1-for-1 trading. I think this is an interesting system.

(5) The power / resting / logrus-pattern walking mechanic is one that I feel is quite thematic to the books. Earth was a place of respite for the most part, to recover and talk on neutral ground - hence players needing to head to earth to rest and also gain some more cards. Of course, Chaos or Amberites can walk the Logrus/Pattern to get more power and set themselves up for a win (potentially).

If you have a badger deck (or even if you don't!) I'd appreciate any feedback on the design after reading the rules or giving it a play through.


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