[The Strongest Link] Some initial thoughts

Started by hix, April 12, 2011, 11:55:38 PM

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Out of this month's Ronnies entries, I was most interested to read The Strongest Link, a game about group decision-making. This is a topic I'd like to write design a game about about someday, so I thought I'd dig into it a bit more and share some things I noticed. Paul: I hope this is useful (and I appreciate that you wrote it in five hours)!

A game of Strongest Link begins with defining the decision to be made, then generating a simple character (consists of a name and motivation) who advocates for a particular outcome of that decision. There are four rounds of discussion and voting: these discussions consist of a public presentation and then an opportunity for Diplomacy-like secret negotiations. After that, there is a final tally of votes and discussion about the process.

What I like about The Strongest Link is that it is relatively unexplored topic for.games (Executive Decision by Greg Stolze is the only other one I can think of off the top of my head).

The game begins by choosing the genre and overall goal (or decision to be made). In order to play, I feel like I'd need to have more guidance about how to find a goal that we as a group all care about enough to play through its decision-making process. In addition, I'd really like to have more of a sense of:

  • how important this decision is to the world of the story / the setting
  • how the characters we are portraying fit into the world of the story

    I think this lack of concrete setting could become problematic when you are playing. At the moment, when players are negotiating in secret, they are just negotiating based on their motivation. There are no concrete facts (other than the tokens they have earned during each voting round) about the world for them to argue a case about.

    For example, a player can make a case based on their character's passion for power or own need for order. They can also make a case that if you don't act them, the person who currently has the most 'positive' tokens will win the game.

    What players can't do is talk about what the actual ramifications of the decision will be. They can't talk about why one player's decision will be easier to implement than another's: the options advocated by every player are equally plausible, credible, and possible. Not only that, but players can just make up any fact they want during these secret negotiations. They can lie. They can state that facts about the fictional setting are true (if those facts give them an advantage in negotiations), while other players and other secret negotiations can state completely different sets of facts are true.

    For example, how would you deal with the situation of one player saying that if they capitulate to the dragons' demands then the whole world will be burned, while another player is saying that she has signed a pact with the dragons that means everyone in the world were given 12 gold pieces every year in gratitude for helping them out?

    - - -    - - -    - - -

    The game also seems torn between design two design goals: (i) to model a group decision-making process, and (ii) to create a competitive Diplomacy-style game of backstabbing and alliances.(*) What I realised while reading The Strongest Link was that Diplomacy has some concrete 'stuff' to negotiate about: the position on the board, the turn by turn changes earn alliances and how they affect capturing power bases, and the overall goal of winning the game. Does this game need something more concrete to negotiate around?

    (*) Obviously these two things can often be similar!

    I'd find it helpful if you outlined what types of fun you expect people to have at different stages of playing the game, and once they've finished the game. Like, in the real world, what sort of social vibe do you think it will create in the group? How will that change from start of the game to the end? The clearest statement of that in the rules at the moment is this:

    QuoteThe Strongest Link is about how we make decisions as a group without exploring how
    successful the overall decision is in reaching the group's goal. You all work to come up with a
    goal to work towards, but when it gets interesting is in where your individual character stakes his
    flag and is willing to put everything he's got into backing it.

    You also say:

    QuoteAfter the final tally is taken, allow the group some time to go over the decisions that were made
    in the game. Discuss why you went one way or another and what contributed to your decisionmaking
    process. Speculate on the effects of the path chosen by the group.

    I don't know if the game achieves your goal. I suspect you'll actually end up discussing the process of this particular game (the secret negotiations and voting rounds], rather than decision making. I guess I'm not sure how much insight following these instructions will give you.

    That's all I've got after an initial read-through. I look forward to hearing what Paul and others thought.

Find out more about Left Coast (a game about writers, inspired by the life of Philip K. Dick) on Twitter: @leftcoastrpg

Ron Edwards

And this turns out to be the feedback thread! Paul Vogt's The Strongest Link fell into my "Baking" category, which by now I hope people are pretty familiar with. The game has some intriguing parts, but I can't understand certain aspects, or I think that the way the aspects interact is missing their potential, or both. In this case, it's both.

Regarding the Ronnies terms, clearly "chains" is all there in spades, very well-interpreted and full of interesting notions. "Lust" is weak, however, in a way I've noted across a number of the entries. It seems to me that this term needs to be more than simply "a character's goals," connoting a certain identifiable quality of desire and the actions associated with it. I don't necessarily mean erotic, but definitely features which are observed in erotic lust apply. And then the interesting question becomes "for what," and whether the lust gets a positive or negative spin in a given context.

And on to discussing the game.

Is there any fiction during play?
I'm talking about more than simply setting. I'm talking about whether there's any ongoing attention to what characters in a situation (and necessarily a setting) are doing in it, and how they and the situation undergo changes.

As far as I can tell, no there isn't, not textually. Which on the face of it would make The Strongest Link into a straightforward social/people/party game and not an RPG in any imaginable sense, and not eligible even as an entry into the Ronnies. I chose to think instead that the hints of fictional prep indicate that during play itself, people do, somehow, describe actions and provide dialogue for their characters. It would seem to fit best into the Wheeling and Dealing section, but since it's not mentioned, I don't know if we're supposed to carry out all that activity in character, for instance. Or whether or how we're supposed to set our characters into an imagined situation, where they can take action, and if so, then how are such actions established into the SIS for everyone; or if instead they're kind of floating in a void but able to talk to one another about some situation.

The two red dials
In my essay Gamism: Step On Up, I talk about how competition has to be assessed both among the players, and among the characters, and in terms of the breadth of possible ways to employ role-playing, they are independent dials. I think that's going to help a lot in thinking about this draft.

The real-people dial is clearly on full-bore: this is a competitive game, and what's more, like Highlander, there is only one winner and the resulting under-mob of looo-zers. Tooth and claw for sure, but what's most important, emergent from a webwork of alliances which is in turn based on some combination of logic and salesmanship.

What's crucial is what qualities result in such a victory. Part of the game is, to be sure, to discover this, but I think that the imagined situation will itself provide certain frameworks that lean toward and away from various potential qualities. That's one of the reasons that the nature of the fiction - how it both provides context for and gets used for the competitive discussions - is really a big deal and can't be brushed over lightly.

So that leads into the second dial, the thing that's going on among the characters, or [Exploration[Situation]] in my jargon. And unfortunately, in the Before the Game Begins / Genre and Goal section, two possibilities are described and I really don't think that one of them is a good plan. To clarify, I see a big difference between (i) a group with a common goal but with differing individual perspectives on how to get there vs. (ii) a bunch of individuals competing to beat the others with different approaches. The latter makes more of a parallel with the real-people dial which I actually think is not a good idea.

For example, I think it makes sense for you, me, Bob, Diane, and Larry to play in full-bore one-wins competition, regarding a fictional situation in which our characters are striving together to (um) survive a desperate trek through arid wilderness, beset by djinni or whatever. But I think it makes less sense for us to play in that fashion regarding a fictional situation in which our characters are seeking to survive individually in that same wilderness, and necessarily at one another's expense.

The above point is not generic; I'm talking about this particular game and no other. For this particular game, if the characters are in a zero-sum one-wins balls-out competition, then there is no reason for any player to listen to any other player about the best way to get things done. Whereas if the characters are mostly-or-entirely trying to cooperate to get something really difficult done, then the players have ample reason to consider what one another is saying.

As I hope you can see, this very procedural and conceptual point ties directly back into the weakness of "lust" as a term - i.e., whose.

The end of play / the resolution of the situation
I get how a person wins through accumulating the best net gain of positive tokens. What I don't know is whether the fictional situation changed along the way as we did all the rounds. And most significantly, I don't know whether we even describe what happens to that situation, and to our characters, once we find out who wins. There simply isn't any text about this at all.

I'm pretty sure you do know how those two things are related, perhaps even seeing it as so obvious that you didn't have to include it. For me, seated here in the cheap seats and admittedly not especially bright, please explain it - because I'm also pretty sure that what you have in mind could be fun.

Best, Ron

Ron Edwards

Shoot, I forgot a couple of things from my notes.

I see 13 listed motivations not 16. Were there three that you excluded?

Declaration of Motivation: the voting mechanism seems misplaced to me, for a game in which we are competing over what's being proposed.

Best, Ron


Wow, thanks for the feedback guys, it's very helpful in this first attempt at writing a game. First to answer your last question - I inserted the word "applicable" before the 16 to denote that only 13 really apply to this kind of decision-making process. It's probably too subtle for the average reader to pick up, and I should have been more clear in my writing on that part. To answer your question, Ron, about the ending and the actual change of the story throughout play, I think I imagined it as a sort of collaborative story-telling process much in the same vein as players work together to tell the fiction of Fiasco from round to round. This may play at odds with the fairly cutthroat theme of Wheeling and Dealing phase of each round, so some clearer definition of who gets to narrate how the situation changes (possibly based on the tokens received - a positive token means you get to contribute one aspect to the story?) would probably be beneficial.

I think this gets down to what I'm reading as the big missing piece for both of you - a defined context for the game. Looking back at the rules, I think my greatest weakness is that I'm awfully vague and unspecific when it comes to a lot of the rules because I was trying to build a set of rules you could throw any genre on top of to play the game. I think, were I to re-write it, I would probably focus more on the idea of the movie-studio and players-as-executives angle. In that context I could include very concrete examples and even a script of how I would imagine a round of play actually playing out in the real world.

I really do appreciate this feedback. This isn't my first attempt at game design, but it is the first time I've tried doing something without a GM, character sheets, and stat blocks. It was a very fun time and I look forward to trying my hand again in the future.

Ron Edwards

Work up a re-write! You can submit it right into the very same 1KMT1KT page you already made. I'm interested.

Best, Ron