Cthulu Gloom: exploring game mechanics with low stakes

Cthulhu Gloom

A friend of mine got me a card game called Cthulu Gloom for my birthday a few months ago. I didn’t really get a chance to play it until recently, partly because it’s so much easier to pick up a new video game and learn the rules in a virtual environment than it is to actually read a pamphlet full of foreign-looking text and try to suss out how to play something you’ve never seen before.

Still, I took the time to play a few practice rounds on my own before sitting my co-worker down on our lunch break and forcing him to have fun with me. Having now taught the game to two more people, I’m beginning to realize what a huge advantage table top/card games can be when thinking about designing video games.

The game is fairly simple to learn with only a few “exception” rules that don’t really get in the way of the main gameplay. The point of the game is to saddle up your characters with upgrade cards then remove them from the game semi-permanently along with all their upgrades. Whoever removes all their characters and has the most upgrades on those removed characters wins.

“Without much effort put into the assets of a game, I could work out a complex system of rules that could ostensibly translate into something huge like a video game.”

 Since I haven’t actually taken the time to learn many new table top games in, I don’t know, the last ten years, it was jarring for me to have to sift through the instructions and try to think abstractly about what the text was talking about. Story cards? Madness traits? Untimely deaths? It was a lot to take in, especially since the “booklet” was just a sheet of letter-size paper with a wall of text on both sides.

But I got through it and soon my girlfriend and I were playing once every couple nights (she beat me basically every time because, despite all this grand talk, I still suck at games in general). Just like any video game, I started to pick up strategies here and there that would often pay off in the long run, although these plans were often met with counter-attacks from my opponent.

The more I thought about how my experience with the game went, the more I started to realize just how valuable writing rules for a simple game like this can be. Without much effort put into the assets of a game (i.e. the art, the packaging, the flavor, etc), I could work out a complex system of rules that could ostensibly translate into something huge like a video game.

cthulu gloom cards

Did I mention the cards are clear?

I can think of tons of video games that took the combat and character systems from D&D and basically transferred them directly into a video game. Newer games like Mass Effect, Destiny, even small mobile games draw on these systems even today. Things like gaining experience points and upgrading speed or strength statistics all came from table top games.

I guess this isn’t some grand revelation, but I do think it’s an important thing to remind people of when they’re first thinking of making video games (for a living or otherwise): games are games, no matter the format. There are plenty of tools out there for testing out your game’s mechanics that don’t require programming or illustration or animation skills.

Grab a stack of paper and start cutting out game pieces. Do your math on a calculator and a notepad. Use play-doh to represent your characters. Hell, you can even print off existing artwork and just use it as a placeholder for the end product. Overall it seems like that would pay off a lot more than spending fifteen weeks animating all your objects in a game engine only to realize that the game is fundamentally broken.

“Everything requires SOME level of polish before you can really distribute it, but the standard of polish that I thought I would need has dropped dramatically.”

As far as writing goes, use programs like Twine to get started. There are even organizational softwares like Kurzweil 3000 that can be an enormous help when trying to organize your thoughts. Hell, even Evernote has helped me collate the slew of thoughts that pop in and out of my head.

The truth is, I haven’t made any games yet. Just like anyone who plays a lot of games, I’ve definitely had some ideas about what kind of game I’d like to make, but I haven’t really dedicated any time to making them happen. I haven’t followed through with testing out mechanics or even trying to implement any idea in any form (except maybe in Twine because it’s just so damn easy).

Having now gotten a pretty good grip on Cthulu Gloom, however, I think I’m probably ready to start delving back into game designing, especially since I now realize how much lower the stakes can be. I don’t have to make some flashy, ten gigabyte game to make something that’s fun and entertaining to play. Sure, everything requires SOME level of polish before you can really distribute it, but the standard of polish that I thought I would need has dropped dramatically thanks to this simple little game.


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