Artiste June-July

I’m aware that the information that I’ve put out about the artiste game has been somewhat disjointed, so this week’s people’s project post will bring everything that’s happened over the past month and a half together to give a coherent account of what the game is, where it’s at and where it’s going. If you’ve been following the project closely then skip the second paragraph after the second image to get into things that are not being discussed for a second time.

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I started working with The People’s Orchestra to make a card game that’d bring all of the things that are enjoyable about hobby gaming to a new audience: People who enjoy all of the things that are awesome about orchestras. Over the course of the last month and a bit we developed three games together, progress was extremely rapid due to TPO having a seemingly inexhaustible supply of volunteers. I knew that most of game design was playtesting, but I didn’t realise just how much of playtesting was waiting for times that playtesters were available until I didn’t have to do it anymore!

It quickly became clear that one of the games was a clear winner. In the first set of tests it was the favourite, but it seemed that it might have peaked early and that other efforts might catch up with it. However despite lavishing more time and effort on improving the other games and making tweaks to this one in between, it pulled further and further ahead with each iteration. Last week the decision was made to drop the other projects and focus our efforts on the Artiste game.

The game itself is extremely expandable and our manufacturing situation means that we’ve got room for more than enough cards to make the game over again with no significant increase in cost. Making a 24 card deck is not dramatically cheaper than making a 54 card deck due to the degree of specialisation in manufacturers who make standard decks of cards. As a result the last week has been spent developing small expansions to the game with the intent of testing various combinations and ultimately bundling a couple of them with the main game at no extra cost to anyone.

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The game focuses on an orchestra plagued by an artiste. He thinks that he knows everything and is constantly taking up instruments he has no understanding of and correcting others about their areas of expertise. The players complain to the manager that he has to go! However everyone has a different idea about who the artiste is and uses their different specialisations to try to prove their point of view to the manager. Ultimately he chooses one player to eject from the audience and then everyone wins or loses based upon the result of that decision – their particular role determining what they’re hoping will happen.

Gameplay is simple. Each player has a card on the table in front of them. On their first turn they look at the card and do whatever it says. On their second turn they take one card from in front of another player and may swap it with their own card – this is done under the table so only that player knows if the cards were swapped. Each players first turn again consists of looking at the card that’s now in front of them and using its power. Finally all players look at their cards to see how they win the game, the manager reveals themself and everyone tries to talk them into ejecting the right person from the orchestra.

The manager wins if he ejects the artiste and the artiste wins if he’s not ejected, so there is always at least one winner and one loser. The majority of other players win if the artiste is ejected so most players will side with the manager and try to give him true and useful information about the cards that they’ve seen or swapped. However a few have other ideas and may offer misleading advice in the hopes of achieving their particular dreams.

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For those of you familiar with existing social deduction games, the goal here is to generate a social deduction game that overcomes two key weaknesses of the genre. The first is the requirement for a lengthy ‘secret action’ in which the majority of players have nothing interesting to do and derive no enjoyment from the game. This is achieved by having powers function ambiguously, there are a lot of powers that to the outside will look like “Mel showed Lisa a card” or “Dave swapped Sue and Bobs cards” but that have some extra effect or are subject to some restriction. A player isn’t obliged to read out their power when they use it, simply to do whatever it says on the tin.

The second is the possibility of lengthy circular discussions. Some games can grind to a halt as opinions are tied and two players argue back and forth over the merits of a particular approach. Putting all of the power in the hands of one player (The manager) but all of the best information in the hands of other players maintains the need for discussion and the opportunities for deception but empowers a dictator to say “Enough discussion, I’ve made up my mind – this is how it ends.”

Making the game approachable for a non-gaming audience is also a key part of the brief, so cutting it down to one card per person with two pieces of information (a power and a winning condition) helps a lot in that respect. Each game only takes a few minutes to play, so for players who find that they get things best by doing them once and seeing why a particular outcome occurred it’s easy enough to whizz through the first round.

The core of the game is still under development but the mainstay of the recent work has been in developing ten card expansions for players to add once they’re confident about the base rules.

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The ‘love is in the air’ expansion deals with an orchestra in which emotions are running high and relationships between the players is starting to have an impact. New roles are added which can assign pairs of players to be lovers, altering their win conditions and victory conditions are based on these. Whether it’s a romantic violinist who wants to see the lovers win or a smitten player who wants the artiste to fall in love with them who is ejected ceases to be the only thing which matters.

In ‘tech rehersal’ one player takes the role of a technician and other player start the game with glitch cards. These affect their game, perhaps making them reveal their role card or allowing them to act twice. The tech wins by squashing all of the bugs, but only has the capacity to destroy one and put a new one into play – they need help from the other players to meet their victory condition and the tech cards can have powerful effects so there’s something to offer in return.

Flamboyant players might enjoy the ‘performance’ expansion, which adds roles which have roleplaying effects rather than powers. They win if the manager does and can make his job easier by clearly demonstrating who they are, but any player can start whispering or singing or talking like a pirate at any time – so those with nefarious motivations can muddy the waters.

As with the lovers the ‘critical acclaim’ expansion adds a new objective. It’s possible for individuals to be recognised for their musical talents and some of the new roles consider that more important than ejecting the artiste. However the manager is not allowed to eject the player who’s got the award nomination, so the Artiste wants it just as badly as the Ambitious Violinist.

Finally tricksters of all stripes will enjoy the ‘artistes’ expansion, which offers a collection of optional artistes to replace the main one. It also expands the scope of the game, allowing a bigger game to take place with multiple artistes and includes a few characters more suited to larger games. The new artistes also allow players to adjust the challenge level to suit them as some artistes require more than simply not being ejected to feel like they’ve succeeded.

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These expansions are untested so far and there won’t be room to include all of them with the base game, but it’s an exciting stage for the project to be at and I find myself looking forward to each new playtesing opportunity.

Play on!

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