2015-10-09 - Game Design
Yesterday Damien Summers new game Chesh was released on iOS. I would describe Chesh as a random version of Chess in which pawn movement and board size varies to different degrees. You can download Chesh on the App Store, here’s a short trailer to get an idea of it’s gameplay:
Relearn to play
First of all i want to make clear that i believe that Chesh’s idea and design is really clever. Each game starts with different visual representations of pawns and the player has to completely relearn the patterns in which they move while playing them game. The same time your opponent has the same problem. Which pawn will do what. There is a very interesting aspect in that where using a pawn will partially reveal it’s movement pattern to your opponent. Because pawns are mirrored for both players you get more and more information on the possibilities of the plays your opponent has while the game continues. Michael Brough wrote a very elaborate blog post about why Chesh’s design is good on his Blog. I recommend reading it and everything Michael writes there (i’m a fan of his work in general).
Just recently one of my other favorite designers Frank Lantz wrote an interesting piece about what seems to be a (new?) movement in games of procedural gameplay rules. He talks about how Serpentes uses a system of ever changing power-ups that force the player to relearn the game each time he restarts. I feel that Chesh’s system of changing movement patterns evokes the same feelings, where the old notion of learn to play is dropped for a more chaotic relearn to play.
Design vs. Accessibility
While the idea of changing pawn movement is fresh and exciting, Damien decided to enforce this design with a bold gameplay rule.
Once you’ve selected a pawn you can’t deselect it. While in any other Chesslike you’re able the reconsider moves with deselection Chesh forces you to commit to a move with selecting a pawn. This has a very big consequence: if your pawn can’t move to a free spot you have to kill one of your other pawns. The very first moment where i realized that i can’t deselect my pawn the whole concept of the game sort of broke down for me. I instantly posted on twitter and got a response from Damien:
@tinytouchtales You’re locked into a move once you choose it, because if you weren’t, the game would lose its entire memorization aspect.
— Demon Summoner (@DamianSommer) October 8, 2015
So what would happen if we take away the forced selection?
Players instantly would have access to all informations that the own and the opponents pawns have. Which would obviously degrade Chesh to a bad version of Chess. My first solution to this issue was to integrate a penalty for the deselection of pawns. Something that would create the risk of losing the game when deselecting to many times. But this would just add another negative feedback loop and would punish the player in another awkward way.
But what would happen if you wouldn’t mirror all pawns for players and allow deselecting?
This way you could maintain an interesting balance between hidden information, memorization and accessibility of play. While you have the full control over mirrored pawns, the pawns of your opponent that are unknown are still bound to the memorization effect. This means you still need to observe and remember pawn movements of your opponent but you would always be in full control of your own moves. One downside would be that this variant would kill the self-destruction aspect of your pawns, which is an interesting side effect of forced selection but could be removed in favor of the new design. Another interesting consequence of the new design would be the natural difficulty curve. The more unknown pawns each player has, the higher the memorization effect for both. This way you could introduce difficulty levels for each game from which beginner and expert players would benefit.
I know that proposing design changes is always tricky since the original author has obviously spent way more time with it’s game design than i have. But i think that the game could benefit from players being able to play with less friction while still maintaining a healthy amount of complexity through memorization.
Note: Obviously this design change proposal is untested and it could lead to an awkward unplayable thing and i do respect the design decisions Damien has made for his version of Chesh.