Monday, December 15, 2014

Game Stories: Friday

Like I said previously, I'm going to be making more Game Stories posts about the big picture of a game. I want to talk about how all the mini-narratives of a game come together to create the overall experience, tying theme and gameplay together. This week, that means talking about Friedemann Friese's Friday, a solitaire game about helping Robinson Crusoe off of the deserted island so that you can get some peace and quiet.

In Friday, your job is to shape Robinson Crusoe into a hale and clever survivalist, steering him towards obstacles that will help to better him and to defeat his weaknesses. It's a deckbuilding game where you build your deck by beating the hazards of the island. It's a difficult game to master, but it's rewarding as you keep learning how to play the game well. So what are the parts that come together to tell the story of the game?

Building and Culling
As with most deckbuilding games, adding cards to your deck (and culling the weak cards) is a core strategy. When you face an obstacle, you play up to a certain number of cards from your deck. The cards all have different values, and you have to get a high enough sum between all of the cards to beat the obstacle. So, if you have a lot of weak cards in your deck, you run the risk of losing against too many hazards.

You gain new cards by defeating hazards: each hazard converts into a new, strong card that immediately goes into your discard pile, which will be reshuffled. The tougher the hazard is, the stronger the card. (In a very clever bit of design, Friese manages this by putting the hazard on one half of the card and the reward on the other half. By flipping it upside-down, you turn a hazard into a card for your deck!) So, when you win against hazards, you get better cards!

Of course, it would be easy if that were all there was to the story. Instead, you sometimes lose against a hazard, if you don't have enough strength between all of your cards. You lose a life point for each point that you missed the target by. If your cards summed up to 4, and the hazard was 6, you'd lose two life points. But, there's an upside! You can learn from your mistakes. For every life point you lose, you can destroy a card that you played! Sure, lose too many life points and you'll lose the game, but you'll have to spend some life to cull the worst cards you have.

You get to choose which hazard to fight (between the two hazards that you draw), and that's the most important decision point of the game at times.

Time Marches On
There's also two ways that the game puts a time pressure on the player: increasing difficulty and aging cards. These are game elements that ensure that you're never able to remain complacent--you must continuously improve Robinson's skills and weed out his weaknesses.

There's four stages of difficulty in Friday: Green, Yellow, Red, and PIRATES! For the first three, there's three different values for hazards. The first time you run through the hazard deck, you use the Green numbers. The second time, you use the Yellow numbers. The third time through, you use the Red numbers. After you survive the Red hazard level, you have to fight two Pirates, which are like bosses in the game. Also, because you add defeated hazards to your deck, the hazard deck keeps getting smaller and smaller, which means that you have less and less time to upgrade your deck in each phase.

Aging cards are another pressure: each time you reshuffle your deck, you shuffle in an aging card. These are harder to destroy, and range from mildly detrimental to crippling. The more aging cards you draw, the worse they get. As you're trying to adapt to the mounting pressure of the increasing hazards, you have to also work to eliminate the continually-worsening aging cards from your deck, so that they don't hurt you on subsequent runs.

Putting It Together
You can probably see it already: the point of Friday is to put you in a pressure-cooker. As any good survival game should do, it doesn't let you stay still while you build up, but forces you to aggressively improve and to take risks. By offering some very simple decision points, it gives you a lot of control over the game in very easy-to-understand ways, and then gives you the constraints. It's up to you to figure out how to win within those limitations.

The narrative that comes out of this is one part desperation, one part planning, and one part clever play. It's a game design that forces you to act in the moment, by removing your sense of security. Any time, you could be hit with a bad draw, and you have to be ready for it. There's a few games that do a good job of putting pressure on the player, but few do it as well as Friday does.