Last Tuesday at Quarterstaff, I wound up playing two games with a very similar underlying meta-principle. I say “meta-principle” because it’s not so much a design principle, but as an ethos that guides design principles. In the case of these games, the rules are minimal and repetitive with a humorous theme overlying them; the implication is it’s up to the players to bring their energy to the game and make it pop.
Feeling the yen to play some games that don’t normally get any table time, I had brought along a handful of Cheapass titles and my box o’ bits — the gimmick of Cheapass Games being they only sell the unique parts of a game and owners raid their other games for tokens, dice, money and so on. On spreading the selection on the table, the consensus chose Witch Trial. Players are lawyers hustling to assemble cases out of spurious charges and easily-persecuted fringe members of society — unmarried women, orphans, old grouches and so on. It’s not so much about serving justice as it is racking up enormous legal fees, as the learned counsel are more concerned about accruing prestige in the form of financial wealth than they are, say, serving the law.
The actual mechanical part of the game boils down to combining charges — Abuse of Laudanum, Golfing, that sort of thing — with suspects to generate a number called the Jury Value, the higher the better. The prosecuting and defending lawyers can play additional cards to modify that value in the form of witnesses, new evidence and trumping up charges. It’s all really straightforward and not at all stimulating mechanically.
The real fun in Witch Trial comes from the players getting into the mindset and acting out their roles as shyster lawyers. The fun in accusing Meek Little Sarah of Golfing comes from spinning out the story about why that’s such a terrible thing and Sarah must pay. The trial itself, the exchange of modifier cards, livens up as well when the defense unveils their surprise witness with a verbal flourish and the prosecution loudly proclaims the accused wields a Hypnotic Gaze. John went so far as to take on the mannerisms of a posh barrister, harrumphing and declaiming long, involved oratories for his own glorification.
Once that wound up, Luke pulled out Ninja Burger, which works with that same meta-principle of the players injecting the fun into the algorithms of the rules. Each player is an employee at a Ninja Burger franchise, embarking on bizarre delivery runs to bring fast food to every imaginable corner of the globe. A mission has a number of arduous tasks to complete before the food can be delivered. The ninja resolves these tasks by rolling three dice, hoping for a result equal to or less than their rating in the required skill. Missions have a success reward and fail penalty, which typically move the player towards the goal of gaining sufficient honor or back in some regard. There is also the usual complement of ways to that aid the person who plays them or messes with their competitors, called Fortune cards in this game.
Since the core of the game boils down to repeatedly rolling three dice and hoping for results under your ninja’s skill ratings, the fun of Ninja Burger, like Witch Trial, comes from two things: reading out the descriptions of missions and Fortune cards and the players’ own contributions to liven up the action. Someone who acts out the highs and lows of their delivery mission to NORAD, running afoul of guards but distracting them with sleeping powder, say, is going to get a lot more entertainment out of Ninja Burger than another person who wants a resource engine with which to play.