You may have noticed a lack of posts, this is because I was and still somewhat am pretty ill. When I’m in this state I tend to do better posting out really “out there” ideas since I can’t focus or draw sensible conclusions anyway – so I solicited suggestions on what aspect shouldn’t be in a game so that I can theorycraft it. I had a lot of great suggestions from radioactive waste to flaying, but the one that caught my attention was fire. As a design exercise, let’s think about how one could (reasonably) incorporate fire into a game.
So the first thing to come to mind is safety. A game that winds up incinerating itself or its players is going to do poorly in the marketplace, may get you arrested and has some ethical concerns.
Fortunately we’ve had fire for a very long time and it’s been dangerous throughout, so as a species we’ve put a considerable amount of thought into fire safety. While it would be awesome to create a game in which you set fire to one side of the board and need to escape before it burns out from under you, standing on the shoulders of giants and using fire in a form that’s more controlled is probably a better bet. If I had to create a game with fire, I think that the humble candle would offer an excellent choice.
While some people do burn their house down with candles most people are capable of interacting with one safely and it has a lot of cool properties. It creates light. It creates heat. It changes shape. It operates in real time. It is cheap for a player to replace. It expires.
Let’s talk about how these might contribute to the design of our hypothetical fire game.
So the creation of light is normally not a big deal. Most games are intended to be played in a well lit room and extra light isn’t really doing anything. However a few games use light in various exciting ways.
Khet uses lasers to indicate when a piece is taken. The strategy of the game is about moving your mirrored pieces into position in order to reflect a beam into your opponent’s king. Light sensors exist, so one could imagine a game in which you are moving candles around a board trying to shine light onto some areas but not others.
Alternatively there’s been a recent successful Kickstarter for The Depths of Duragnar in which the board is shrouded in darkness and players move pieces with LEDs around to try to see what’s going on. The dungeonmaster uses night vision goggles to see where the monsters are, but the players discover them by manipulating their light sources. Something along these lines could be interesting: Imagine a situation in which your pieces (maybe tea lights) had to move to a certain space in order to be lit and then could move around to uncover areas of the board, being lost if they burned out without a revealed path home.
Heat is an even trickier aspect, I can’t think of a single game that uses heat as a mechanic. Heat sensors exist in the same way that light sensors do, but I’m not certain that this would achieve anyone. I could imagine an extremely tactile game in which the pieces are candles and ice cubes and gameplay involves melting the cubes. Perhaps you have a fire and ice player, with the fire player winning if the cubes are melted and the ice player winning if they can manoeuvre the candle into a position it can’t move surrounded by unmelted cubes. I imagine such a game would be really hard to balance though, as the dimensions of the ice cube tray the players used and the room temperature of the building that they happened to be in would have a significant impact on gameplay. It’s fun to imagine something so tactile though.
Shape changing is interesting, but hard to leverage. A candle goes through several shapes on its way to melting, but none of them are particularly exciting. It is cool that you can melt a couple of candles together and have that (kinda) work. Perhaps some sort of resource management game where you’re running around getting cylinders of wax to add to the bottom of your wick. Victory for creating particular patterns of colours? Or for having a particular colour melt and run down the candle onto another? That could be a very pretty game. It does fly in the face of “candles are cheap and easy to replace for repeated plays” though.
An alternative to taking advantage of the candle forming is to focus on the wax. We’ve all had the experience of very precisely trying to drip wax onto a target, there might be enough of a dexterity challenge to build a game around it. Particularly as wax forms some sort of limited resource, you could choose between a little tip and a small drip or pouring it all out knowing that you’ll have little left for next turn. Could you make a board out of something heat proof that you could easily scrape wax off at the end of a game?
Next on the list is real time: This feels like it could be a good one. I had a formative experience playing a DBM tournament (seriously, does anyone actually pronounce the name of that game?) in which an opponent wanted a particular ending turn. They knew they’d lose if they played to conclusion and due to the rules of the tournament they’d lose if we ran out of time with the board state as it was. They calculated that they could get the board state into a draw for one turn, so needed the game to end in that turn. This meant they watched the clock and fiddled with minis until they could pass turn with a few seconds until time out.
I’m still not sure why they weren’t kicked out of the competition, but the point is: Fixed times are exploitable. There is a place for ambiguous timers and some games do that. Heck some games that aren’t even real time do it: Look at Malifauxes “draw to see if the game ends this turn” mechanic (Which works brilliantly). A candle could make a great timer because it’s an ambiguous timer: It’s super hard to look at it and know exactly how much time is left.
So where’s that going to be valuable? Anywhere that uncertainty and tension are beneficial. Probably not in a deeply strategic game, but maybe some sort of investigation game with a cthulish theme. Perhaps the investigators have a candle that’s lit at the start of the game and they lose if it goes out, as the game progresses negative events might cause them to have to shave bits off (perhaps to use in the game? Combined with the wax idea above: Shave something off your soul candle to mark an eldar sign, stick your wax on the board, the icons it covers no longer apply). There’s room for a game there.
The aborted Chronos Conquest had an interesting mechanic in which pieces were represented by sand timers and you could only move a piece once its sand had run out. The notion was to create something between a strategy game and a real time game in which decisions had to be rapid, but there was a hard limit on how quickly they could be implemented – creating something more thoughtful than the average real time game. It’s a shame that one never saw the light of day, I’d like to have played it.
There might be space for something like that. Pieces as candles with marks on them. When the candle burns down to a mark the piece is allowed to take another move. Perhaps players can voluntarily extinguish and relight candles – with there being some advantage to having physically bigger pieces (They can take or displace smaller pieces?) So there’s a tension between charging up to make a move and preserving strength.
So this post turned into a lot of talk about candles rather than fire in general – I don’t think that’s insensible since they’re a relatively reliable, cheap and safe way to harness fire for game design – but there’s definitely other ways to use fire and some untapped idea space there.
The posts I make while ill are always a bit more meandering and out there, but hopefully this is enjoyable from the perspective of being a sideways glance at using something that’d normally be disregarded and looking for design opportunities in all of the wrong places.
Have fun and if you burn your house down it wasn’t my idea.