Monday, November 10, 2014

Game Stories: Countdowns of DOOM

Tick, tock, tick, tock...

The Doomsday Clock: an ever-popular tool of evil masterminds with nuclear launches impending. Also found alongside self-destruct buttons. It's a little silly, but the principle behind it is rather straightforward, and it's a principle that finds its way into a lot of game designs.

A Doomsday Clock is a way to put pressure on the players while not actually doing anything detrimental to them. It's an impending threat, and if it happens, things are going to be bad (and probably end the game). It hangs over their heads constantly, reminding them that they're on a deadline. It does that by its presence alone. That's some powerful hold there. Doomsday Clocks look different in different games, but they all have the same element of acting as an impending threat. Let's look at some examples.

The Lord of the Rings
There's a lot of small ways that this game gives off a sense of theme. The most resonant one is the bit of the board where the Eye of Sauron marches steadily onwards towards the Hobbits, who are also being drawn towards it. It marks the corruption of various party members, and once the Eye of Sauron catches up with a hobbit, the poor lil' fella succumbs to corruption and is removed from the game. Ouch. It doesn't feel like much of a threat, but then suddenly your hobbit is only two spaces away from the Eye of Sauron and MAKE IT STOP MAKE IT STOP IT'S COMING.

If you've played enough games, you probably saw this coming. Pandemic is a game built around putting the pressure on the players. Its visual cue of DOOM? Those cubes. As diseases spread from city to city, cubes begin to pile up on the board. This is a problem for two reasons. One, you don't want too many cubes to pile up in the same places, or bad things happen. Two, if you run out of cubes, you all lose anyway. This countdown is reversible, but that doesn't make it any less of an impending threat, because it comes at you every turn. Your efforts are almost always focused on staving off the tide of infection.

I talked about Hanabi previously, and this time I'm discussing a very simple visual countdown it uses: the fuse that ends the game! When you make a mistake in Hanabi, the fuse creeps closer to going off, which means that you've lost the game. It's a fun visual cue: you stack the discs up, and then remove one each time someone makes a mistake. When you reveal the explosion (the last disc, on the left in this picture), KA-BOOM! You can never get a disc back, and there aren't many of them. It's a very present reminder of the consequences for making a mistake.

Countdowns and You
So what goes into a countdown? I see three main aspects: a threat, a reminder, and progress. A good countdown needs a threat that will happen if you can't stop it. There also has to be a constant reminder that the countdown is progressing to the awful, horrible end. Finally, you need to have a simple way to progress the countdown that comes either constantly (making it a timer) or from players' mistakes. It's a looming threat that you can't ignore forever (or for very long!).

What does a countdown do? It adds a constant tension and weight to your actions. If a countdown happens every turn, such as in Pandemic, you know that every single one of your actions holds a certain amount of consequence: you can't afford to waste an action, because the countdown is moving one step closer to the end. If it only happens when you mess up, then your actions hold weight because you don't want to make a mistake. And if it's a little of both, then I'm very sorry.

But that just means the Countdown of DOOM is working.