The weight of tiny decisions in microgames. / by Nathan Harrison

photo credit:  Sebastian Vargas  ( Instagram )

photo credit: Sebastian Vargas (Instagram)

I recently made a game and plopped a PDF of it here on the site without much fanfare, but given that some cool things came out of the process of making & refining it (including the game itself!), I wanted to share a little more.

The prompt was a simple one: design a game in 200 words. Sure, there was the option to design a setting in that space, or a simple rule for another system, but why not explore the most minimalist option in the 200 words? Microgames and game poems are an area I’ve been really interested in, so I took a crack at that.

If I hadn’t been kicking an idea around already, I think this might have been a lot harder than it was! I had a simple end state in mind, and some ideas of what players would do before then that made sense to leave open-ended, so designing to that concept helped a lot.

The original idea I’d been mulling was for a freeform game that capped the experience by having everyone write a single 140-character tweet. (Id also imagined the game might be fully playable online, but alas, the needs of that goal demanded more room than I had.) Stumbling into a Wikipedia hole that spat me out in front of some famous gravestone inscriptions gave that idea more form — when combined with the RPG design challenge to do all that in 200 words, the final result was Epitaph.

The hardest part wasn’t polishing the rough draft of the game down to 200 words from about 260, but the importance of tiny design choices. Two examples! One of the rules states this:

“When you lay a vertical card, the player who wrote it adds a single theme word to it, reflecting something from that scene.”

Originally, that last clause read “reflecting the theme of that scene.” That ended up feeling both too repetitive, and too likely to always be an emotional or dramatic label for the scene’s content rather than something more personal and distinct. I also felt it ultimately made the writing players actions less meaningful — the player narrating the scene would likely be the one to dictate the theme, and the writer would probably just pick a word to match that tone. So instead of that, and rather than inviting fuss about archetypes or other detached analytical views, I wanted to provide the writer with more of an opportunity for shared authorship.

As for the second example of a small change, the last line of the game provides this instruction:

“Any theme words on your cards must be included.”

I kept toying with the idea that I might switch that to “Only two theme words from your cards may be included,” unsure of which play experience to highlight. The difficulty in trying to squeeze all of a full life into a few last words? Or the concept that any summation of a life must, by definition, leave things out?

I decided to stick with the tougher requirement, since the second concept still holds true anyway. 140 characters isn’t much, and no matter what, there will have been far more of note created in the previous scenes than could ever be fit into that space.

Hemming and hawing about that final line made me wonder how much attention I would have given that choice without the weight of the 200-word limit dangling over the endeavor. Would the design in any other circumstances gotten that finely-considered analysis? I’m not sure. I’m inclined to say no, though, and that’s a valuable lesson to take away. There’s no rule so small or self-obvious that it isn’t worth considering how a refinement or change might echo through the design & actual play of a game.