Gamebook store

Thursday 24 December 2015

Life - it gets everywhere

Back in the 1980s I designed a few simple boardgames for Discovery, an educational partwork magazine for children published by Marshall Cavendish. This game, "Survival of the Fittest", was included in their Charles Darwin issue.

I don't make any great claims for this. I designed it in a day or two and it was only ever intended as a fun play-around with the concept of evolution. Judging by the illustrations on the counters (not included here) the editors seem to have assumed the player was taking the part of a species. In fact you are playing different biological domains (if not entirely different DNA codes) although on any given turn you are playing a species within that domain. Easy enough to survive in warm tropical oceans, but can you make it all the way to the South Pole? If you do you'll probably be lichen, but at least you'll be the winning lichen.

If you want to try it out, you can download the game board and attribute cards here. The rules are below. And happy Christmas!

A game of natural selection for 2 to 5 players

The track on the board represents different habitats across the globe. Players start in the OCEAN DEEPS and try to reach the POLAR ICE CAP. In doing so, they move through different habitats, and have to mutate (that is, change by developing new characteristics) in order to survive in new surroundings. The species most able to adapt to its surroundings – not necessarily the most complex – will be the one most likely to survive.

Cut out the cards. (Do not cut along the diagonals – that is, each card should be rectangular.) You will also need dice and a counter to represent each player.

Each card shows two characteristics. All players must begin with a Swimming or Slithering characteristic, so put the seven cards with these characteristics face down. Each player takes one, and all the remaining cards are then put face-down beside the board. This is the Gene Pool.

Each player chooses a playing piece and places it on the OCEAN DEEPS space. Roll the dice to see who will go first. When each player has finished a turn, play passes clockwise to the next person.

Each turn, you can do one of three things:

  1. Migrate
  2. Mutate
  3. Roll for a Global Change

Migrating allows you to move your playing piece to the next space on the track. Look at this space to see if it lists any of the characteristics shown on your card(s) as advantages (+1) or disadvantages (-1). If you have neither, you have to roll 4, 5 or 6 to move on. Add 1 to the number you roll for each advantageous characteristic you possess; subtract 1 for each disadvantageous characteristic. If you roll a 6, you can have another go straight away. In assessing your advantages and disadvantages, you must also take into account any Special Characteristics (see below ).

A player has the Camouflage/Slithering and Pack Hunting/Courtship cards. This describes their organism’s current attributes. They are on the TIDAL FLATS space and want to migrate to the EVERGLADES space, and are lucky enough to have two characteristics listed as advantages (+1) for EVERGLADES. If the player rolls a 2 or more, they can  move to this space.

Mutating gives you a chance to change the characteristics of your organism. You use your turn to take a random card from the Gene Pool. If neither of the colours on the new card matches one you already have. you must return the card to the Gene Pool. If the new card matches, you can keep it and discard the old one if you wish. Whether or not you keep the new card, play then passes to the next player.

You can never retain more than two cards (listing a maximum of four characteristics) at any one time. You begin the game with a single card which represents a simple organism. You can increase this to two cards (representing a complex organism) when you take and retain a card from the Gene Pool. If you choose to become a complex organism (by retaining two cards) then you cannot return to being a simple organism except through a Global Change.

Cards are kept face up in front of you at all times. You do not have to show other players a card you have drawn from the Gene Pool unless you decide to keep it.

Rolling for a Global Change allows you to check to see if drastic environmental effects are happening to the whole planet. You roll the dice and consult the Global Change Table below. Global Changes affect all players regardless of habitat. Most are fairly extreme, doing no good to any player, but they can be useful for slowing up a player who is on the verge of winning.

Some characteristics have special effects, so keep a sharp eye on your card(s) to see if you have ones that help or hinder your survival. The game gradually shows you how organisms react to each other and their habitats in the battle to survive.

Sexual Reproduction This is incompatible with the characteristics Hermaphroditic and Parthenogenesis (both methods of reproduction which do not require a partner), and so if you have a card with either characteristic, you cannot keep Sexual Reproduction unless you discard the other card in the same turn. Sexual Reproduction counts as a disadvantage (-1) in all habitats. However, when you have this characteristic and opt to Mutate, you can draw two cards from the Gene Pool. (Remember you can only hold a maximum of two cards at a time.)

Sharp Claws counts as an advantage (+1) in all habitats, but only for a complex organism (2 cards).

Thick Hide counts as an advantage (+1) in all habitats. However you cannot hold this card at the same time as Climbing or Flight. If you already have Thick Hide, you cannot keep a card with Climbing or Flight unless you discard Thick Hide in the same turn.

Shell always counts as an advantage (+1), but does not go with Flight, Running, Climbing and Leaping, so if you have cards with any of these characteristics, you cannot keep Shell unless you discard the other card.

Intelligence is useless in isolation, but allows you to add 1 to any other advantage you possess when Migrating.

Symbiosis can be used when you are on the same space as another player who also has Symbiosis. You combine your advantages and disadvantages with those of the other player when rolling to Migrate. If this roll is successful, both players move to the next space.

Parasitic only works when you are one space behind another player. You can Migrate automatically to the other player's space without rolling the dice.

Parthenogenesis is an advantage (+1) in all habitats but only for a simple organism (one card).

  1. Environmental catastrophe threatens extinction. Each player takes one card from the Gene Pool. If one of the colours on the card matches a colour you already have, discard your current card(s) and play on with the one you have just drawn. If none of the colours match, you become extinct and start again in OCEAN DEEPS with a new species.
  2. Loss of ozone layer wipes out higher life-forms. Every player is reduced to a simple organism (one card). Players who previously had two cards miss a go, but can choose which of their two cards they will discard. Players with only one card play on.
  3. Ice Age. All players with complex organisms (two cards) move backwards three spaces to avoid the spreading glaciation. For each of the following characteristics that you possess, move back one less space: Fur, Fat and Hibernation.
  4. Solar activity promotes genetic changes. Every player puts a card back into the Gene Pool and replaces it with a new one drawn at random.
  5. A fierce new predator develops. Any player who does not currently have a red- and/or green-coloured characteristic must move back four spaces.
  6. Disease ravages whole populations. Any player who does not currently have a blue-coloured characteristic must move back a number of spaces determined by rolling the dice.

Friday 18 December 2015

All I want for Christmas

Seems a bit cheeky to ask, but I reckon Santa knows I've been nice. If I can have one wish, what would really make a big difference to the future of Fabled Lands Publishing as a whole would be to get more reviews on Amazon.

Reviews are what Amazon's search engine notices and flags up for other potential readers. The best book in the world with two or three reviews will languish in obscurity. But even real stinker with 50+ reviews (yeah, I'm looking at you, Dan Brown) is the rolling snowball that will get bigger and bigger until all you can see are little feet and heads poking out like the cover of Coils of Hate.

If everybody who regularly reads this blog could find the time to review a single gamebook on Amazon right now, that would bring gamebooks back into the spotlight overnight. If just one person in ten who's reading this went and wrote a quick review of, say, The Court of Hidden Faces then we'd break the 50+ barrier in time for Christmas.

I know a lot of people still enjoy gamebooks - and not just the folks who were there in the '80s and '90s, but a whole new generation too. But as long as the hobby stays in the shadows, publishers will continue to ignore it. A slew of reviews on Amazon would crash through their bubble of complacency like that Titantic-shaped starship on that episode of Doctor Who.

So if you ever got pleasure from one of my or Jamie's or Oliver's gamebooks - or anyone else's, come to that; I've included a few notable ones in the list below - and you can find a couple of minutes just to write one or two sentences as an Amazon review, you could make our Christmas wish come true. You don't even have to buy a copy. Here are a few suggestions - just pick one of these titles, or choose another favourite gamebook if you prefer. No turkeys in this lot, I guarantee it.

Tune in on Christmas Eve for the seasonal FL freebie. And in the meantime, rest you merry.

Friday 11 December 2015

Time out

I'm sure nobody wants a reading list for the weekend. Oh, you do? Well, you're in luck. Below I've listed some of the top alternate history stories of the last decade or two.

In a nutshell, alt-fic is about that Sliding Doors moment when a choice turns out to be a keystone event: making a new friend or losing an old one, a betrayal that can't be forgiven or a good deed that will never be forgotten. Or apes taking over the planet. (Well, of course, they did that either way. But that's a detail.)

In a sense all these stories are about time travel, but time is just the setting for the stuff that really matters, which are those moments where "two roads diverge in a yellow wood". It could be Roman legions in airships, astronauts flipping up their visors to reveal lizard snouts - cool stuff like that. But those foreground alt-realities won't bite unless they resonate with the deeper character themes. Brian Cox (no, not that one) says it best in this rant from Adaptation. Ignore the book links below if you must, but you have to watch that. Trust me. It's less than two minutes.

As Cox/McKee says, all stories are about that. In a TV show that works, the central theme is seamlessly woven through the story world: Buffy, Elementary, The Shield, The Sopranos. Other shows (naming no names), it feels like they picked the setting because it was cool and then nailed the themes on afterwards.

And then there's Doctor Who. Is there a single theme running through the whole thing, or is the strength of the show not in the fact that they can rejuvenate the lead every few years, but in being able to refocus and tell a completely fresh story every time they bring in a new companion?

Food for thought. And while mulling that over, if you really really want, here are those alt-reality sources. Lots of "if the Nazis had won" stories here, strangely enough. I suppose in a hundred years it will be ISIS:



Friday 4 December 2015

What would Weegee do?

You know what’s wrong with violence? It’s too easy. Sure, violence solves problems. But not in an interesting way.

Hobby boardgames are a great source of game design ideas. That’s because you can see just how the rules fit together to create interesting gameplay. And the very best hobby boardgames come out of Germany – classics like Adel Verpflichtet (rivalry and theft in the antique-collecting world), Intrigue (Renaissance courtiers) and Settlers of Catan (colonists).

What these great games have in common, apart from the meticulous logic of the Teutonic mind, is that none of them is based on violence.

There’s a good reason for that, of course. Modern Germans are not as a rule very fond of games of war. Consequently, designers of hobby boardgames in Germany have been denied the easy solution of violence. So they have been forced to make their gameplay really good instead.

Think about how that might work in computer games design. First-person shooters, say. There have been plenty of excellent, innovative FPSs, but the core factor in almost all is still violence. You run around and you aim to snipe away the other guy’s hit points without losing your own. But what if you had to design a first-person shooter without the shooting? There are plenty of themes to choose from. Let’s think about a Swinging Sixties paparazzi FPS where you have to scoot around town getting snapshots of all the celebrities.

In the absence of violence, we’d need to find other factors to make the game interesting. What are the resources? You can’t be everywhere at once, so time is an obvious one. Another is film. Maybe I need to get my scoop in for the late edition in order to pick up another roll of film. So do I go back for another roll, or delay until I get one more shot? Should I develop my film (pre-digital, remember) in a back alley, risking sabotage from other paparazzi, or do I take it safely to the lab?

Okay, I don’t doubt you can come up with a dozen better ideas than this. The point is that, if you can’t fall back on violence, whether in a videogame or a gamebook, you will be devising choices that have to be really rewarding in their own right. Afterwards, if you like, you can plug the violence back in. But not because you need it for easy gameplay, only because it’s fun.