Legend: A Game of Maps

Part II

 

 

In this second installment in the Legend: A Game of Maps series, the story deepens as players move from a single map in Part 1 to several larger, and much more detailed, documents.

The map in Part 2 is large and is paired with a fragment of a Maya codex (book). The others documents consist of a highly detailed letter from a sailor to his family, nine cards with tiny blocks cut out of them like windows, and a mysterious artifact with strings on both ends.

Game Design

Since a lot of my general design methods are talked about at length on the page detailing Part 1, I’ll only go into some Part 2-specific methodology on this page. However, I’d like to highlight my comments on how I instill AI into my tabletop games (found below in the section ‘Under the Hood’).

Warning, spoilers ahead!

Development

What had I gotten myself into? I asked myself. Part 1 was a simple, albeit challenging set of documents with a fairly straightforward design. Part 2 wasn’t so neat and tidy.

The Legend: A Game of Maps series is intended to be a seven-part series, where each game is a standalone product (can be solved on its own aside from the other games) but to solve the overarching mystery a player will have to use all the games together. I’ve already mapped out the framework of the whole series and story line so that I don’t paint myself into a game design corner later on. That being said, Part 2 exploded in complexity and detail.

Whiteboard sketch of map & puzzle locations

My first thought with this game was the map: I wanted it bigger and better than the one in Part 1. It had to look impressive, be true to reality/history, and have fused within it myriad puzzles, clues and secrets. So I started with the map (I love whiteboards!). The Caribbean has been rife with piracy, as most know, and so it was a great location to dig into.

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 puzzle game designs.

Rudimentary map I created

Along with this map, I wanted something that made sense to be included with a sea chart (map) of the Caribbean. I delved into the Maya culture, did lots of research and ended up creating a timeline so as to be historically accurate regarding when and where all these documents and story points were from.

Again, I try to place the story and ALL the game assets seamlessly into history so that players could say, ‘Yeah, that makes sense to me’ about any given game element.

Close-up of two pages of the Maya codex

This is super-important because it creates an immersive experience. Some of the players of my games are casual players, but others are history buffs and even graduate-level scholars in certain areas of history (i.e. Egyptology). A lot of detail might be lost on a casual player, but it’s neat when a history buff notices something and can confirm its accuracy, time in history and so on.

So I decided to break the game into two parts: one focused on the Caribbean, the other centered on the Mediterranean. Simply put, the Mediterranean half follows on the heels of the player’s accomplishments in Part 1, and the Caribbean half expands the story, branching into new territories and cultures. This is a worldwide mystery, after all!

The finished map of the Caribbean, loaded with secrets!

Challenges

Right off the bat, since I was dealing with a much larger, more complicated series of documents, I was faced with the same concern I had for Part 1 – the differing levels of skill and interest of players. Again, some would want to solve the game casually, while others were hungry for a challenge they could sink their teeth into.

Creating the ‘hint system’ online solved much of this quandary, allowing players to seek hints and even solutions to each step in the game as they see fit.

Another challenge was taming the mounting complexity of the riddles and puzzles in this game. Below I outline how I did that and expound on my beliefs toward building AI into my games.

Under the Hood

On a related note, I’d like to discuss AI.  In video game terms, AI (Artificial Intelligence) determines what computer-controlled characters/monsters/etc do, how they behave, where they go and so forth.  It’s what makes these games so alive, I think.  But what about tabletop games?  Could they have AI as well?

I believe so, yes. I’ve taken great pains to instill a certain level of ‘AI’ into these games so that players feel they are working AGAINST the game itself, as if the game WANTS to keep its secrets and will do anything to protect them. It even anticipates the player’s actions.

This is like the ‘choose your own adventure’ series of books popular in the 1980s and 1990s – your choices steer the story, and thus it ‘reacts’ to your decisions.

Layers upon layers of puzzles

How is this possible in tabletop games? Allow me to show you some examples of how I did this. Below you see the ‘under the hood’ details of the sailor’s letter next to the game’s playable version. On the left, you can see where the hidden messages are located in the letter (they are colored-coded to help me organize them). On the right is the final version the player receives. I tried to make it look (and read!) completely realistic, as if it had nothing to hide. I wanted it to look like an ordinary, plain letter.

Hidden messages
Player's letter

Historically, this is known as a grille cipher. Imagine a normal letter, and also a similarly-sized sheet of copper. In the copper sheet are little cut-out windows. When the intended recipient (the one possessing the secret grille/copper sheet) places the

Grille card over letter

windowed copper sheet over the letter, the words that show through the windows create a new message.

So it’s a message hidden in plain sight (this was used to send secret messages through mail which was often examined by the enemy).

I wanted to use this concept somewhere in Game 2, but I felt having a single sheet with cut out windows would look too obvious.

So, I cut that ‘normal’ sheet into nine equally-sized cards, placing on each symbols which would later be used to orient and match the cards over-top the sailor’s letter. This, I will never do again. 🙂 It was so complicated and difficult to do this but I’m really glad it worked, and players seem to get a kick out of it as well.

On top of the letter, the nine cards could be placed in different combinations, in different locations, etc. to reveal separate messages. Doing this allowed me to pack a lot of secret messages into one simple, ordinary-looking letter, and it also gave me the primary mechanic for this half of Game 2.

Nine grille cards with cut-out windows

Lessons Learned

The complexity of Game 2 is very high, but I didn’t want that to affect the player’s experience.

This is really, really important to me. I think the vast majority of the complication and ‘inner workings’ of a game’s design should be on my side, creating a clean, seemingly-normal experience on the player’s side. It’s like a beautiful race car: elegant and clean externally, with a lot of complicated wizardry under the hood.

Close-up of Caribbean map

A driver doesn’t need to know how it all works, either. They just operate the steering wheel and pedals and the vehicle does the rest, bringing them to all kinds of incredible places!

Takeaways:

Thanks for reading!

 All work © Ron M. Francesangelo