Legend: A Game of Maps is a tabletop treasure-hunting & code-breaking game in which players take on the role of an expert code breaker in the year 1908. They are working for an organization trying to solve a centuries-old puzzle, the parts of which are hidden in a series of antique documents and maps.
Legends say these documents and maps lead to a vast treasure, but only by solving each game and bringing them together can one discover the truth.
Here I will give a breakdown of my thoughts behind the designs, why I created them the way I did, and thoughts about how these designs worked (or didn’t). You can read about the lessons I’ve learned near the bottom of this page, in case you just want to jump ahead.
The idea of Legend: A Game of Maps came to me sometime in 2014. I have always loved antique maps and anything history-related, and wanted to combine this love with my passion for treasure hunts. Over some time (years, probably) I had accumulated ideas for different kinds of puzzles and riddles, and so had quite a lot already put on paper in the form of notes, sketches and the like.
When I finally went to create the first game, I originally made it for a close friend to solve. Having an intended audience was paramount in how the game was developed. More on this later.
So I wrote the story first, sketching a map as I went. Later, I would adjust the map and story accordingly in order to include all of the elements in a way that was both interactive and fun. It’s like a breadcrumb trail: it needs to be difficult enough to create a challenge, make enough sense to not frustrate the player, and lead (eventually) to the sought after goal. In this case, the location of a sailing ship lost hundreds of years ago.
One aspect of designing games, which I’d like to mention now, is how elements of a puzzle can be ‘peppered’ throughout an experience so that players are rewarded for paying attention. These ‘seeds’ as I like to call them are fantastic in creating a tangle of complicated puzzles which (for me) are fun to bring together into a solution…the moment a player experiences the ‘aha!’ That’s what I’m going after with my game designs.
I think virtually all games have the hurdle of creating an experience that is both fun and challenging at the same time. Whether its how to grow crops before the winter winds come, or how to defeat the aquatic dragon who just won’t go back to sleep, I think games must create a challenge that can be enjoyed.
In making Legend: A Game of Maps, my first struggle was how I could get the player invested. I normally do A TON of research, and in this case researching history gave me a lot of ideas and context on how I could do that.
I found something called ‘dead reckoning,’ a naval form of navigation where a sailor basically directs his/her course based on the last place they were. It’s not too great of a method (since a minor mistake early on can have huge impacts on later navigation), but it sure as heck works for a game mechanic!!!
Having this game mechanic worked out, I then began writing journal entries by a sailor lost at sea. The sailor would be writing down everywhere he went in journal form, which was great because in doing so he was also imparting story, and some of his entries would only be descriptions and not measurements. This allowed for a great symbiosis between the journal and the map, as players would need to work with both in tandem in order to follow the sailor’s journey.
As I wrote the sailor’s journal entries, I also created the map. Like I said, I had a rough design already in place, but working with the journal helped me flesh-out the minor details which I was able to put into the map.
(Side note: I insist on making the rewards of any game I make awesome. Players have spent time, energy and money and deserve to get an awesome, even memorable payoff. I feel that the ending of a game is best if it makes the player(s) smile and feel great when they finish.)
As I mentioned above, I created this game with a friend in mind. She would be the one working her way through the puzzles and riddles in order to find the lost ship. I said earlier that this was a very important fact. Having an intended audience, I could ask myself, “What would she do here?”
I noted that in some areas I had to simplify things that were just too complicated, and in other areas make things more difficult since I felt they were too obvious of solutions. I’ll get into some detail here, so if you’re a player interested in trying the game out, spoilers ahead!
To create a challenging game, it must have difficulty, I thought. And to make it fun, it cannot be so difficult that it frustrates. I also had to create payoffs. This means that a player’s work must be rewarded. They need to feel the accomplishment.
One thing I learned is that GAMES HAVE TO BE PLAYER-ORIENTED. They must serve the player more than me, the designer. I can love working on a game, but if it doesn’t intrigue a player or if it just isn’t fun, it isn’t worth it. I can’t say how many times I’ve stopped playing a game because it was either too frustrating, or too boring.
Also, I learned that PLAYERS ARE DIFFERENT. Way different from each other. Some are clever, fast and spot details. Others are slower in their investigation, like to savor the story, and just take their time.
I’ve received a lot of feedback over the years about these games, and I strongly believe that players are different. I cannot make a game that everyone likes, it just isn’t possible. So now I have an intended audience and try to make the best dang game possible for these people (it’s really nice when people appreciate this, too!)
Some of the feedback I’ve gotten are that things are just too difficult, and others say it’s way too easy. How could I reconcile these to make it a great experience for all players?
What I’ve decided upon is ‘difficulty levels.’ Meaning, there are two or three goals in each game, from beginner to advanced. These goals are built-in, there’s nothing a player has to do additionally. They can decide to either go for the easier of the goals, or challenge themselves with the harder ones.
Doing this allows for me to make a game as challenging as I feel is realistic, while creating a game that is approachable.
Some families like to solve my games together. Others play them as individuals. Others even work with another player online, with both owning a game. And ages vary, as well. I’ve had kids working with their parents to solve my games. I put an Age Rating on each game, not so much as for content but for difficulty level. All my games are PG (Parental Guidance, in movie terminology), but can be solved by any age, if help is provided.
This leads me to one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned. I initially did not want to include answers with my games, because I wanted to make them as immersive as possible. Instead, I invited players (through a letter dated 1908 included with each game) to contact (email) me if they got stuck and to also send me their answers to have them checked.
Now, I didn’t mind this because I enjoyed receiving emails from players and liked responding to their questions, giving them suggestions and/or hints, and telling them if their answers were correct or not. It gave me a pulse on how they were doing, what was working, what wasn’t, etc., but there were some people who shied away from my games because a ‘hint system’ was not made available. I’ve seen games with answers included, sometimes in the form of a small puzzle you solve to see if you are right, or the answers are in a sealed envelope, but I didn’t like these options too much. They weren’t story-connected enough for me.
I finally acquiesced and made a hint system and put it online, but in a format which I felt was in line with the rest of the story. I made it themed, and it seems to have drawn in new players, which is really great. Having a game be too daunting, and thus driving potential players away, isn’t good, either.
As I said above, a good game (in my humble opinion) has to be player-oriented. I know I’d be turned-off if I thought a game was going to be too frustrating.
So, to summarize:
Thanks for reading!
All work © Ron M. Francesangelo