Monday, April 16, 2018

Five or So Questions on Two-Player Games and Star Crossed

Hi all! I have a stellar interview today with Alex Roberts about two player games and her new game Star Crossed, a game that uses a block tower (like Jenga) to tell stories of forbidden romance. It's currently on Kickstarter! Why don't you check out her responses?

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Art by Jess Fink of a man in a long, fancy jacket and beige pants with a ruff collar sitting across the table from a purple being with a pink ponytail thing, also in fancy dress, both gazing romantically at each other while one pulls a block from the tower.
Alex Roberts, being intensely cute *and* talented.
Tell me why you care about two-player games, and how that ties into Star Crossed. What excites you about them?

For me, the joy of roleplaying games is in the connection with other players; not that we told a great story but that we told it together, not that we played cool characters but that we built this great character dynamic, or had these special shared moments with them. That's a kind of satisfaction you can only get from this art form. So, having identified what I'm after, the challenge I get as a designer is to figure out how to generate that effect, and intensify it. Frankly, it's a miracle that strong moments of connection ever happen at tables of five people - that's a lot of interests, ideas, desires, and boundaries to align! It's wonderful when everyone in a group is totally on the same wavelength, but it's rare. With Star Crossed, I wanted a feeling of intense creative connection, as frequently and intensely as possible. I wanted to see it right from character generation.

183 Days, by Sara Williamson and James Stuart, is a huge inspiration to me because playing it was a profound act of connecting to another person. And of course I have to mention Emily Care Boss' Breaking the Ice - also a game experience where I felt very much in tune with the other player, and it was in a gentler, less intense, and more playful way. I really fell in love with those games, which I think put me in a certain design head space. Even the >2 player games I love have a dyadic focus in some way. Avery Alder's A Place to Fuck Each Other is for 3 players, but the scenes are always between two characters, and the GM role gets passed around. Danielle Lewon's Kagematsu can take up to 5 players, but every scene is an intense one-on-one with the GM (and the other players do not get bored, trust me.)

Also... there's a practical aspect to 2-player gaming. Scheduling is hard. Not everyone you know is into roleplaying. A lot of adults organize themselves into intimate dyadic relationships. It helps to have some 2-player options on your shelf!


As a designer, how do you mechanically make two-player games interesting?

It's easy! You've got two people to think about. They're going to be focused on each other by default. Helping them be present to the scene and invested in what's happening will just take giving them something that keeps their creative energy moving without being distracting. Remember that mechanics don't produce great ideas; the players do that. The game itself is just a hamster wheel. It enables and allows running; it doesn't have to provide an incentive because hamsters love running. And people love being creative! I'm oversimplifying by the way; if anyone else gave an answer like this I would complicate the heck out of it.

Oh, and you can prototype mechanics so rapidly in a 2-player game because you only need to ask one person for help!

Art by Jess Fink of a fallen block tower between a blue-translucent person and a dark skinned feminine person in a lab coat.
Is there a difference between designing for romantic relationships versus platonic or familial?

I would say that designing for romantic relationships isn't a specific enough focus! The relationships in Star Crossed are almost always romantic, but sometimes they're entirely sexual, and sometimes they can't fit into any category I know. They are only united by the quality of compelling impossibility. I'm designing to produce desirable relationships that can't be. So how do you make players want a relationship to work? Fortunately for me, you start by telling them it probably can't.

If you're trying to give players tools to generate interesting relationships, I would say drill down and get as specific as you can, or help them do so. Family? Vague. Parent and child? Ok. Distant parent and over-achieving child? Now you're onto something. And even that can be made so much more detailed and interesting. You could make a game where one person plays the Distant Parent, and the other the Over-achieving Child. And it would be so replayable. Hm, that's a good idea, actually.


An image from a playtest of Star Crossed of a tower in a precarious state, with someone in the background covering their face in excitement and anticipation.
How do you playtest a game like Star Crossed, or really any two-player game, and make sure it's not just like those two specific people getting the good play out of it?

You test with a lot of different people, in a lot of different relationships to each other. For example, it was especially important to me that some folks on the ace/aro spectrum play and have a good time. Also: it was sweet to hear couples enjoying the game, but to me, a much greater test was putting it in front of total strangers. I played it with a complete stranger myself actually, at a con. It was fun. I was relieved.


I always talk about how game mechanics feel in design, not just about how they function. What are some mechanics you see in two-player games like these, and specifically Star Crossed, make players feel?

Well, I have to call out 183 Days for using a card that prompts extended eye contact. It's so effective! Is closeness an emotion? Being relaxed, happy, and connecting those emotions to the person you are currently with--that's what it does. And I think Star Crossed does the connecting part too, but in a more panicked "we're in this together" kind of way. Which is great. I ask playtesters what they felt while playing; that's often my first question. They usually mention excitement, trepidation, nervousness, joy--even though the stories sometimes end sadly, there's quite an emotional journey to get there. Of course, I don't have to ask about certain things. When I see players laughing, putting their hands over their mouths, even making little squeals of excitement! That's when I know I'm nailing it.

Art by Jess Fink of an astronaut and a satyr playing with a block tower that is positioned on top of a spaceship pod.

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Thanks so much to Alex for the interview! I hope you've all enjoyed the interview and that you'll click over to the Kickstarter for Star Crossed and fall in love!


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