Fast vs. slow in game design

The two projects I’m working on, Delve and Corona, represent different ends of a continuum of game design, which leads to some interesting moments as I close one document and open the other. I literally have to adopt a different kind of mindset in order to think about and build systems for each one. Those mindsets bleed over into all of the different layers of game design, and like a Gram stain, that makes it useful when stepping back to examine some of the processes that go on in game design.

For instance, Delve is meant to be a fast, pick-up-and-play experience. Dice rolling is kept to a minimum (two dice, pick one, effects based on color) and the characters are thumbnail sketches of familiar adventurer archetypes. The Player’s Guide is going to be a couple of sheets of paper folded into a pamphlet that you print yourself. One of the core conceits actually throws the map out the window, and you just dive into corridor after corridor blindly, building tension (and Adventure Points) until you’re ready to vent that accumulated pressure in a boss fight. As a consequence, the process of designing it also takes on something of a reckless, headlong feel; I’ve always envisioned it as something thrown out with an artful lack of polish and readily accessible without much though – the Player’s Guide for free, the Gamemaster’s Guide for cheap. There’s pretty much no art, a simple background (stripped out for those reading or printing on truly lo-fi equipment), and some icons for reference. It’s a punk-esque, DIY game on purpose. I think of it as always on the verge of coming out, no matter how long I work on it.

By contrast, Corona is taking a slower time to develop, because everything about Corona bespeaks deliberation. The game is stately and procedural, in keeping with the tone of high-ranking agents managing a solar system from the court of a psychic god-king. The text is clean and simple, ornamented only with page banners color-coded to the chapter, but is long and meticulously orderly, bordering on an arcane text of laws and statutes. Gameplay, likewise, borders on the sort of old-school wargame managed over weeks by grognards in carefully maintained basement war rooms, and in-game actions typically take broad swathes of time – an action in Corona corresponds less to an agent swinging a sword than to marshaling a fleet, or not so much telling a rumor as implementing a government propaganda program – punctuated by assembly in court to keep up with the ongoing intrigues of the different bureaucracies. It always feels like the big game that is coming down the pipeline slowly, compared to Delve.