IFComp 2016: The Game of Worlds TOURNAMENT!

Spoilers follow the break.

Here’s another one that pushes the limits of what the Comp is about, albeit in a different direction than the others I’ve commented on: instead of emphasizing story over interactivity, it is almost purely ludic, game as game with just the merest wisp of narrative around it.

The Game of Worlds is sort of like a cross between Yu-Gi-Oh and Civilization. Two players — which is to say, you and a computer-controlled opponent — each have their own alien species vying for domination of a planet, with stats indicating global population and army size, number of continents controlled, degree of technological development, and certain attributes like “hardy” or “creative”. You take turns playing cards from your hands, and these cards affect the situation on the planet in various ways. Some examples of card effects: give your lifeforms the Intellectual attribute (speeds development but slows population growth), steal an entire continent from your opponent, cut your opponent’s military recruitment in half for 8 turns. The world simulation isn’t particularly detailed as strategy games go, but it’s complex enough that you really wouldn’t want to play this as a card game without a computer to manage everything, even if you knew all the rules of the simulation. You don’t, and much of it is non-obvious.

After playing several matches, I had enough of an understanding that I could stumble my way to victory about half the time, mainly by capitalizing on early advantages. It’s very much a positive feedback game, where the more you’re winning, the easier it is to keep on winning. After five consecutive victories — something most easily achieved by saving the game after each — you win the tournament. But this almost seems inconsequential; after you win the tournament, the host congratulates you, and then you just leave the arena and the game ends, same as if you lost. Clearly the consequences of the tournament are less important to the author than the experience of it.

There’s basically two levels to that experience — maybe three, depending on how you count the planet. At the outermost level, the tournament is being held in a tall-tale sci-fi setting with goofy sci-fi verbiage: “Only the Game of Worlds can take your mind away from the crushing obligations of a Vociferant worker. And finally, a wildcard into the Tournament of the Perfect Aphelion – only held once every ten progressions.” In this fiction, the planets used in the game are real, physical things, miniature worlds orbiting “Sunstones” in the gaming arena. The lifeforms inhabiting these worlds have procedurally-generated descriptions, making them large and furry or small and tentacled or whatever, so we’re given to understand that they, too, are real beings, and probably unaware of the game that they were created for. You are as a god to them, and it’s worth emphasizing that the “you” in that sentence is not the player, but the player character, who exists in the same story as the beings he’s playing god over.

Secondly, there’s the cards. Despite controlling the fates of real beings, they’re assigned their own fiction, one with a more arcane feel. The cards are illustrated with bizarre antique woodcuts, many of them depicting monsters or apocalyptic scenes, and they’re given archaic-sounding names and flavor texts: Scion of Uther, Moon of Silver Ruin, The Empress. It’s a contrast to the sci-fi context, but at least the more apocalyptic cards fit with the playing-god theme noted above. So I suppose that’s the real point of the game, or at least of its theming.

Some notes on the UI: This game was written in Inform, but it’s really meant to be played in the context of a web page. The major items, including the card names, appear as clickable hyperlinks, but more importantly, the web page surrounds the the Glulx window with a graphical border that isn’t just decorative. Through some magic, it contains information about the state of the game. This is where the card illustrations are displayed.

The existence of graphical elements and hyperlinks may have made me less satisfied with the text portions of the card game. There’s certainly things to complain about there. You can get a description of the state of the world with the command “X LIFE”, but it leaves out any mention of persistent card effects — it took me a long time to figure out that these are listed in the room description instead. You can select a card to look at with a hyperlink, but once you’re looking at it, you have to actually type its name in order to play it. You end every single turn with the command “END TURN”. There is some reason to make the player confirm it, because you have a limited ability to counter cards, but you have to type “END TURN” even when there’s nothing you can do, and it would be so much more bearable if you could just click on a button. Ultimately, you could wrap the entire card game in a GUI, and it would play better for it. But then, forcing the player to interact through the parser could be important to making the player think about the fictional context that they interact with the same way. On the other hand, the way it is right now, I spent nearly all my play time thinking about the card game, not the story.

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