Complex Simplicity

It’s been a busy week. Not only have all the members of Houseplant Games had to finish up their finals (because we make good decisions), but we’ve had to finalize videos, edit pages, and do everything else that needed to be done to make the Shoudo Kickstarter happen. It wasn’t easy, but after a few 20-hour workdays we’ve made it to where we are now.

While I could try to gush about all the support we’ve received from friends and family and our other backers on Kickstarter, I’m not really the emotional type (just ask the other guys at HPG – I’m basically a human computer), so I’d like to take this week to talk about Shoudo and all the things that I think make it great. We’ll discuss how it came to be, the design philosophies that helped to shape what it became, and all the ways the mechanics interact to make it the diverse and infinitely replayable game that it is.

Shoudo  in action

Shoudo in action

Shoudo started off as the brainchild of Trip Gauntt – and not always a pretty one at that. Some of the base mechanics were already there – three armies, territories that could be burned, and capturing the Daimyo castle to win. Others, though… Well, let’s just say that exponentially increasing combat advantages are terrible. There were many differences from modern Shoudo, not the least of which were its name and setting – Shoudo used to be Sigil, and it had a western fantasy theme.

From September 2016 through December, we worked to refine the game’s mechanics. Faction powers were added and workshopped, the territory cards were divided so that they each supported only one army, and combat was changed from a dice-pool system to one that used a single die plus modifiers. Many other changes were made – too many to account for here – but over those first three months a great game was chiseled from the marble of Trip’s original idea.

In February of 2017, we formed Houseplant Games (I’ll leave the story of how our name came to be for another day). The first weeks were exciting and energetic – we signed contracts, set up a rough website, and overall were enveloped in the excitement of starting a new company. Once April hit, though, we encountered our first real challenge – someone else had launched a Kickstarter project for a game called Sigil, and what’s worse, it even had a western fantasy theme! While I won’t say we panicked, the general mood at the company wasn’t far off. Since we’d never had to handle something like this before, we were initially aghast. What would we do? Our great idea had been taken! But after we got past the initial wave of fear, we refocused and made a decision – Sigil had to die, and a new game must rise from its ashes, even better than before!

Well, it wasn’t quite so dramatic as that. We decided to change the title and theme of the game, and after a day of brainstorming we settled on three possible choices – Italian fantasy, ancient Greece, and feudal Japan. You can probably tell which one we chose, but at the time there were people in all three camps. After a week of research and discussion, the other two choices were cut, and only Japan remained. From there, we set out to recreate Sigil as Shoudo. I’ll leave the rest of that tale for a future article. For now, it’s time to talk mechanics!

Landscape, by Isen'in Hoin Eishin

Landscape, by Isen'in Hoin Eishin

Shoudo has always been, at its core, a simple game. Each tile on the board contains information only about a single army, a single clan, and a single combat bonus. Each turn consists of a collection of simple actions, with the one exception to the rule being combat; though even it is resolved through three rolls of the dice. The game takes the strategy of commanding armies in a war and condenses it to an easily consumed 20-minute portion.

To achieve this simplicity, we held ourselves to a rigorous standard while developing the game – if a mechanic wasn’t strictly necessary, it would be cut. If a mechanic was rarely being used, it was cut. If a mechanic was even a little bit too complicated and confusing for a new player to understand, it was cut. A lot of possible mechanics died because of this, but the game ended up better for it. There are several mechanics which we ended up cutting that, while they did add some nuance to the game, added too much complexity. Shoudo needed to be a simple game, and discipline in development helped to achieve that.

The second design principle we used in Shoudo was that the game should always move towards its conclusion. No mechanic in the game, apart from the Restore Shrine action, allows a player to recover something that has been lost. Instead, to recover from a devastating loss you are forced to take risks and go on the offensive. This is one of the factors that allows the game to always finish in under 30 minutes. Both players are constantly incentivized to drive the game to its conclusion, leading to a game in which the balance of power is constantly changing and where victory is possible even in the direst straits.

Trip and Garrett contemplate their moves in a game of  Shoudo

Trip and Garrett contemplate their moves in a game of Shoudo

Between these two philosophies, Shoudo is always able to surprise me when I play it. Even after hundreds of games across a half dozen different iterations, I am still discovering new strategies, and I still know that I have a long way to go before I can truly call myself a master of the game. It is this aspect of the game that I love most: a new player can always defeat a veteran, and a veteran will never be bored of the game.

I hope you’ve enjoyed our discussion of Shoudo’s roots and the philosophies that shaped it. Next time I’ll be back to writing about the lessons we can learn from games, so join me then to discover how games help you to learn how to achieve balance in your life! In the meantime, you can support Shoudo on Kickstarter!

じゃあね (see you later)!