The best games generate a new feeling players haven’t felt before. They resonate with us. Magic: The Gathering isn’t just fun because it allows us to fight epic fantasy battles. It’s fun because those wars are waged over a battleground of ideology. The five color factions are thematic – the emotion of red, the logic of blue, the instinct of green. Players select a color based on their own personality. It’s a mechanical system, but it triggers an emotional reaction in us. A feeling.
Great games make players feel something, and finding ways to harness that feeling is the holy grail of game design, the ultimate goal of the creative explorer.
~ Location-Specific Card Caching ~
When I was 10 I read Interstellar Pig, a sci-fi novel by William Sleator. It describes space-faring aliens searching the galaxy for the mysterious interstellar pig. The aliens also play a tabletop game that simulates their search for the pig. In the game-within-the-book each planet has its own environment and abilities, but the resources change based on what cards are on the planet. Cards stay in play – they aren’t drawn from a public deck and are rarely discarded after use. Instead, the players pick them up from a planet and keep them as long as they want, dropping them back onto another planet when they aren’t needed.
This book was one of the primary inspirations for my game Chaosmos, and I tried to boil the mechanism (which I call area-caching) down to its essentials.
Players deal out the cards to envelopes that correspond to specific planet locations on the game board. As players travel around the board, they can open up the ‘cache’ for each location they visit, exchanging cards freely between their hand and the envelope.
Area-caching allows the powers in the game to be fluid, and lets players adapt to each other’s strategies by picking up items they need right now and hiding items they will need later. Different items are useful at different times, so there’s no ideal hand as a result – it’s a fluid economy of equipment.
One unique aspect of area-caching is its combination of hidden information, tactics, and bluffing. Players are limited in how many cards they can carry, and different cards are useful in different situations, so the art is in deducing which cards are where, just as much as choosing which cards to take. If you leave something behind, it will still be there when you return (unless someone else steals it first). This offers you a very fun feeling of control.
In Chaosmos, the universe is ending and players assume the roles of aliens trying to save themselves before time runs out. Everyone is looking for the Ovoid, a mysterious artifact that will allow the holder to become master of the new universe once the old one collapses. The Ovoid is the singular win condition, and it starts the game hidden on one of the planets. Through deduction, combat, and clever strategies, players try to discover the Ovoid and keep it hidden from their opponents so they have it when the game ends.
Area-caching works particularly well for Chaosmos, since it creates a number of hiding places for keeping the Ovoid safe. Combat allows opponents to trade cards with your hand, so it can be dangerous to hold on to the Ovoid early in the game. You might stash it inside one of the planet caches, keeping it obscured from the other players… but hopefully waiting for your triumphant return.
In addition, Chaosmos makes use of secret cards like Traps and Vaults that protect the Ovoid when you leave it inside of a planet. This creates tension between the player trying to keep the Ovoid hidden from the players trying to discover it, and rewards you for making choices your opponents can’t predict.
Chaosmos is one of the first board games to use area-caching as a mechanic, but it won’t be the last. It’s perfectly suited to any game with hidden information and area movement, fostering a player-driven narrative that will delight gamers for many years to come. Area-caching is just a mechanism, but it creates a new feeling. And feeling is the reason we play games.