I’ve recently started getting into board games and I’ve become obsessed with the excellent review site Shut Up & Sit Down. In one of their podcasts (I can’t remember which one) they talked about an interview with video game designer Sid Meier. He was asked “which comes first: the theme or the mechanics?”
It’s a good question. Games seem to work well when the theme and mechanics complement and reinforce each other, but this must be a hard balance to strike.
His answer was something along the lines of this: first you pick a topic that you enjoy (mediaeval sieges, competitive winemaking, beehive management), then you identify what’s fun about it, and base your mechanics on that.
So what’s a topic I enjoy?
I spend quite a lot of time dancing to Swing and Hot Jazz from the 20’s and 30s. The solo dance form to that music is variously referred to as Solo Jazz, Jazz Roots, Solo Charleston or Authentic jazz.
Sometimes it’s just social, sometimes it’s for formal or informal competition. You can dance it on your own, simultaneously with other people, or one at a time showing off in a jam.
But my favourite form is one-on-one, face-to face: trading one phrase at a time – showing your own ideas about the music but also taking what the other guy did and improving on it: duplicate and elaborate.
…which I realised a few days ago sounds like a pretty interesting concept for a game.
If I took what is fun about solo jazz dancing, and expressed that in terms of game mechanics: what would that look like?
Things that are fun about solo jazz dancing:
You can take inspiration from your opponent
This is one of the most exciting things for me about dancing: the interaction with another human and the possibility of copying and elaborating on what they’re doing. Of course, player interaction is a key part of any exciting game.
- Cards which let you replicate, parody or elaborate on a step that the previous dancer performed
- Cards which let you steal cards your opponent has played
- Gaining lots of points (Kudos?) lets your opponent draw extra cards. This could be the only way of adding new cards to your deck or your hand?
- Dancing a step that your opponent danced in the previous round, but doing it somehow better should result in extra kudos
Letting your opponent draw extra cards in response to your awesomeness might be a really effective way to balance the game: you get more points, but your opponent gets more options and so has more chance of catching up.
On the other hand this might discourage players from being too inspiring. I feel like if it’s a valid strategy to deny your opponent cards that’s the opposite of what we want, and isn’t really in-keeping with the theme. If that became a problem then perhaps the solution would be to inspiration depend on you doing stuff.
You can take inspiration from the music
A basic step or variation at the right time can be as exciting as a flash step done out of place. Dancing well is all about taking what you’ve got in yourself, and combining it with what the music is giving you.
- Bonuses in the last couple of phrases, because the music gets more energetic
- Representing the music as a separate set of cards, with bonuses for playing particular steps or rhythms at the appropriate times
You can put steps together in interesting combinations
It’s not about dancing pre-existing steps: it’s about taking bits of steps and doing them differently, or mashing them together in wierd and wonderful juxtapositions to make something new.
- Combining step cards to make higher-scoring steps.
- Step cards which can be played as a whole card, or covered up by other cards to make a new step.
- Adding on steps which don’t really take up any time to the beginning or end: Stomp-offs, Fall-off-the-log etc.
There are a lot of strong characters in the Lindy Hop/Authentic jazz scene. Lots of quotes lend themselves to the idea of special cards:
- “dance it once and it’s yours, dance it twice and it’s mine” – Frankie Manning – If your opponent exactly repeats something twice, put all those cards in your hand
- “I know only one count and that is Count Basie” – Frankie Manning – Modify or ignore the time that a step takes to do
- “If you change nothing, nothing will change” – Dax Hock – If any player (including you) repeats a sequence, force them to pick up those cards again (could be used to punish another player or help yourself hold onto cards you want
Dancers have individual styles
- Some sort of deck-building mechanic to allow players to customise the cards at their disposal. Somehow encourage them to individualise them
- Each player has a special character card which gives them a unique special ability and means that the same steps played by different players can behave differently
- Individualised styling modifiers? Once a particular styling card is played, only the player who played it can play stylings of that type
It’s not really that competitive
Even in high-level dance competitions it’s not really about hardcore rivalry: dancers enjoy each other’s successes:
- Cooperative play? Maximising combined kudos rather than necessarily coming out ahead. Like in Consentacle which is apparently about maximising a shared pool of satisfaction (?)
- Subjective judging of which combo was the coolest/best for the music
Things that are exciting about solo jazz dancing:
Some steps are flashy but risky
- Special flash step cards with a potentially high kudos score
- They might go really well or go wrong, so include a dice roll
- Low rolls result in a points penalty, or a handicap to the step which follows: you fluffed the step and now you need to recover
Variations make things interesting
There are many different ways to do any given step.
- Modifiers or ‘Buffs’ on steps which increase their score or momentum: e.g. “In the style of Al Minns” or “elongated” or “in reverse” or “double time”
- Doing a step differently from your opponent in some way has a benefit (or skips a penalty?)
Your mind goes blank
Anyone who’s ever been in a solo jazz competition will tell you about that time that, no matter how much they had practiced and how much they knew how to do, in the heat of the moment they can only remember a limited number of steps or even totally run out of ideas:
- Limited hand size? Discard down after each round (but let you keep your big finishing flash steps for the end)
- Cards which give you a benefit but require you to discard cards
- Cards which force the opponent to discard (because they’re stunned or panicked by your awesomeness?)
- If you’re in a position where you need to play a card, draw from your deck until you find a step and play that card (the first thing which comes into your head)
Holding back your big flash steps for when they can be most effective feels both interesting and thematic, but I’m not sure whether holding cards back to ensure that you have a sufficient number of cards in the next round is desirable.
You have to make decisions in real time
I wonder if there’s a way of maintaining a certain pace and sense of urgency – introducing the possibility of poor decision making and mistakes:
- Play the game along to a real swing track? That would add some urgency, as well as control over the tempo, but would exclude people who don’t have an ear for the phrasing
- Chess-clock style? Somehow encourage players to play as quickly as possible. Get a bonus for seconds left on the clock? Or have your opponent draw only when you start laying cards: you want to play as quickly as possible to minimise their planning time (not sure if that makes sense?)
- Somehow model time as a resource, like in Stronghold. Perhaps you can draw more cards, but your opponent (who is the waiting, observing dancer) gets to draw two cards for each one you draw.
Audience reaction can spur you on
- Maybe this is just a justification for the momentum mechanic?
- A special card: your friends cheer you on from the crowd, giving you a momentum bonus or a buff to your next move.
Some constraints which might be interesting:
Follow the structure of the music
Most swing music follows a clearly recognisable structure, phrases making up choruses e.g. with an AABA pattern, choruses
- Each step has a length (e.g. 4 counts or 8 counts) and players need to make up fixed sizes of step sequences: e.g. 4 sets of 8 or maybe just 32 in total (one phrase)
- Somehow represent the music as the landscape against which steps are being played
You need momentum to pull off harder steps
Bashing out flash step after flash step is exhausting for both dancer and viewer. Perhaps a mechanic to pad things out would be useful:
- In addition to kudos points, certain steps or modifiers could add or subtract from ‘momentum’
- Harder flash steps can only be played if the player has built up enough momentum
- Certain steps, like a heel click or an over-the-top end landing heavily so have a negative effect on momentum
- Force the player to make decisions between points now or building up momentum to get more points – as though the dancer is chilling out with a basic step, psyching themselves up for something big
- Excess momentum could be used to improve the odds of dice rolls
Steps start and end on a certain foot
…or on a certain count (e.g. 8 or 1)
- Step cards are restricted in how they can be played consecutively: the start foot of one step must match (or be the opposite of?) the previous step
- Transition cards that let you smoothly put two mismatching steps together with a bonus
- ‘Fudge’ cards that let you put too mismatching steps together for a penalty
Harder steps are more tiring?
- The opposite of momentum: accumulate fatigue points from various steps, making things harder to pull off and/or decreasing your odds on dice rolls.
Some other thematic ideas:
- Cards which copy the previous sequence played, or mirror it, e.g. play a Suzi Q Left step, then play a “and back the other way” card which counts as a Suzi Q Right step
Variety of formats
Most competitions are based around 2-phrase chunks (64 beats, or 8 charleston steps) – that’s probably too much for a pacy game, but socially it’s not uncommon to trade single phrases, or just arbitrary amounts of time.
- Some kind of “long phrases are better, but short phrases go first” mechanism, like in Epic Spell Wars. Though that wouldn’t really fit well with the reality
- The first player dictates how long the next round is going to be and the following player has to match that
- A round where players are laying cards simultaneously. maybe negotiating what they’re going to play to maximise shared points?
Group together steps in sets for extra points
Not sure this is actually in keeping with the theme: stringing together 4 charleston-based steps isn’t necessarily worth applause.
- Roughly categorise steps as e.g. charleston, shuffling, travelling, vertical, rotational. Making sets of steps in the same category, or having one of each kind gives a bonus
(Yes that’s me)
Qualities that are valued in solo jazz dancing
There are a lot of ideas above, and I’m sure more will occur to me. Throwing all of them at a game would almost certainly result in an incoherent mess.
The trick must be to select and tweak a set of mechanics which encourage players to play in a way which is consistent with the overall theme. That might mean making sure that playing well involves embodying the following qualities: