One of my favorite card games of all time is a little game from an Italian publisher called Bang! Aside from the incessant semi-inappropriate jokes stemming from the title, it’s a surprisingly fun Spaghetti-Western inspired rendition.
The base mechanics are pretty simple; there are four roles, Sheriff, Deputy, Outlaws, and Renegade. In a game of 7 (the recommended number) there’s 1 Sheriff, 2 Deputies, 3 Outlaws, and 1 Renegade. Now, your victory condition is determined by your role: as Sheriff, you want to kill the Outlaws and Renegade, Deputy wants to protect the Sheriff, Outlaws want to kill the Sheriff, and the Renegade wants to be the last man standing. A little caveat about the Renegade is that if the Sheriff dies before the Outlaws, Outlaws win, and though this may seem insignificant, it’s what makes the game.
Now things get a little more complicated. Everyone’s role is hidden except the Sheriff who starts with an extra life (which is actually a huge deal).
At first glance, you’d think the game is completely broken, and you’d be right. Outlaws, if they can band together quickly can pile that Sheriff like there’s no tomorrow, but if they can’t, the Sheriff can pick them off one by one (assuming he doesn’t accidentally hit his own deputy). From my experience, Sheriff and Deputies win about 70% of the time, and Outlaws win about 29% of the time.
Out of every time I’ve played though, I’ve only seen the Renegade win twice. First off, he has to plow through everyone else, and then he has to show-down with the Sheriff all on his own, and the Sheriff’s extra life is OP. However, the Renegade is by far the most fun role to play, and though I have yet to win as him, I practically squeal for joy each time I’m dealt his card (I don’t actually squeal. That would give it away 😉 )
The best strategy for the Renegade is to pretend to be a Deputy. The best Renegade can help the Sheriff to kill the Outlaws and then trick the Sheriff into killing his own Deputies. In other words, he’s the liar, playing mind games with all the other players and forcing everyone to guess who everyone else is. Without the Renegade everyone’s role are obvious; Outlaws shoot the Sheriff, Deputies don’t. With, however, is where the fun starts, and the appeal of the game is the mind games the players pull with each other.
So how does this all apply to video games and storytelling? Well it has a direct connection to multiplayer games. If you can set up a system where one player is in conflict with another and keeps the other guessing what his next move is, you can build tension without doing anything! In essence, by facing off against each other, players can create their own story. This is especially true if they can compete in non-combat ways, such as who gets which npc to vote for someone on the city council. It’s this concealment of motives that keeps players on the edge of their seat, keeps them thinking, and keeps them enjoying themselves.
For storytelling, it works in the same way. The lack of information from one party forces the other to guess, so by withholding the antagonist’s goals, you force the protagonist to use his grey matter to come up with a solution. As pointed out in a previous post, this progression by discovery rather than by checklist is inherently more satisfying and feels more like plot than a chore. It can even work the other way around a player wants to do some kind of sneaky role, hiding things from the npc’s who may want nothing more than to toss him in prison.
I recently got into an intense Pokémon battle with one of my friends, and it came down to my Vaporeon (low on health) against her massive three-headed Hydreigon, also running low on health. My Vaporeon had leftovers, so if I could just hold the dragon off, I could heal enough to tank another hit, but if she decided to switch out for something more suited to destroying water type, I didn’t want to waste my turn with protect. In essence, I was faced with a decision: I could use protect which would be optimal if the Hydreigon attacked, or I could attack, which would be optimal if the Hydreigon switched.
In the end I decided to protect, and sure enough it tried to attack me. Once I had enough health to keep going, I just massacred with my cute little Vaporeon and won the battle. It taught me something, though. Without even trying, my opponent had played a mind game with me, had me guessing what her next move would be, and that built both tension leading up to my decision as well as the satisfaction of guessing right.
In my experience, too often multiplayer games come down to skill rather than strategy, and though it’s exciting, it doesn’t really engage the player There’s nothing wrong with it, but we can do so much better by fostering an environment where players have to use both learned skill and tactics to emerge victorious.