Game Design: Project Shuriken

Thursday posts look at game design using things that I’m working on as examples. This makes them part design diary and part theoretical discussion. Note that these are real games that I’m currently working on for Quirkworthy, so I don’t know if they will end up being published, or how much they will change in the process of development. In the end they may turn out to be duds, in which case we can explore why they didn’t work. Whatever happens, I hope that you’ll find some interesting morsels along the way.

I’ll start with a game that I initially came up with during a train journey. This starting point alone illustrates two important maxims:

  • Always carry a notebook.
  • Write down ideas as soon as you have them.



I use the Notes app on my iphone for most notes these days. However, I do still carry a notebook on train journeys, and I can write faster than I can type on my phone which gives an advantage to the old school approach there. In addition, I find it easier to draw on a piece of paper, though that is changing as I get more used to the various apps. Still, on your phone you don’t have a stylus worth spit, so you’re reduced to finger painting…

Whatever format(s) you choose, make sure that you have some way of taking notes nearby at all times. You never know when you may have a great idea, and they are fleeting. Write them down as soon as you can. Writing down 10 that turn out to be meh on later study is definitely worth it if you also capture 1 good one that you would otherwise have forgotten. More than once I’ve had a great idea that I convinced myself was so good and so elegant that I didn’t need to write it down as I couldn’t possibly forget it. Then I forgot it.

Write it down. Do it immediately.


Project Shuriken

I’m calling it that because I don’t have a name I like yet. That’ll come. Either way, this initial idea I had on the train was for a game of competing ninja clans.

The story is that they are trying to impress the Imperial staff so that they will gain their patronage. To do this, they have been given a test. The various ninja clans who are in the running (represented by the players) are despatched to a province that is full of seditious mutterings and dubious behaviour. They need to prove themselves by finding out who is loyal and who is a traitor. If anyone. Could all be just rumours.

The game plays out with each player allocating their ninjas to various missions. These can be spying, assassination, theft or whatever. Generally not assassinations as that raises too many alarms.

So far, so average.

What I thought was clever, and why I’m doing something with this idea rather than the hundreds of other ones in my notebooks, is the next bit. The targets of these mission are 3 or 4 local families. They are all different, and have varying strengths and weaknesses. Each family has a number of defined characters within in it, usually the heads of the families. The missions available to the players are not only the Imperial ones, but also ones generated by the families themselves, both as protection and spying, attack, and so on as they vie for power among themselves.

Players could even take both the infiltration mission against a family and that same family’s defence mission. They can then choose to deliberately fail whichever one was of most benefit.

I also want to track how the families feel about each other, and have this influence which missions they offer, and against whom.

Overall, the players should feel like they have wandered into a living environment which they can take part in, but which won’t stop and wait for them if they fail to act. It’s an idea I’ve used before. It’s hard to get right, but great when it works. Definitely worth the effort.

The original notes also include some example layouts and more mechanical details. That’s all well and good, but it’s more illustrative of the sort of flow I wanted to have rather than hard and fast rules. This flow is what you’d expect from the description: players win “contracts” and allocate resources to completing missions. Depending on the type of mission they end in different ways and there are rewards for completing and failing. In the background, the Imperial envoys are watching. Eventually the game ends and one of the player’s clans is adjudged the winner.

I’ll get into more detail next time. Till then, keep your notebooks handy!

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14 Responses to Game Design: Project Shuriken

  1. BRIAN says:

    Sounds like fun!

    Love it!

  2. Adam Poots says:

    For me, world building is most interesting when there is a fundamental difference in how that world works compared to our own. Certain rules that influence or change or everything is developed. Like water floats, or time always flows backwards for a minute every hour. For this ninja world, I would up the ante! Perhaps calling yourself a ninja or being identified as one by enough people would instantly kill you for seemingly supernatural reasons that may or may not ever be revealed to the readers. How would a world develop, wherein a word that has a meaning could instantly kill a person? What changed to bring this about? Etc etc. Anyway, just my 2 cents. It has been a pleasure to read your blog posts again.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      Thanks Adam. Sounds like you’re a bolder chap than I! The world of Project Shuriken isn’t as extreme as that, though it has its moments. However, for this first foray I’ve chosen a small game in a relatively sane corner of it. The oddness is elsewhere. Offstage. For the moment.

      The scary challenge I find with including such radical changes to basic physical realities is dealing with all the ramifications. There are so many ripples from any such change that I worry about getting them all, and the more I poke at the fringes the more I find that needs work. It’s like pulling a thread on a jumper and watching the whole thing unravel, so I generally leave the laws of physics alone. That said, one of my other worlds uses words in the magic, which is a little as you suggest, and a little like Earthsea magic.

      Also, I have to say that your suggestions remind me of reading SF short stories in old Analog magazines, where all manner of weirdness held sway. And that’s a good thing! I have a lot of nostalgia for them 🙂

  3. Awesome to see that you are updating again 👍👍👍

    It is interesting that I’ve been doodling a computer program with similar idea to Project Shuriken. It would be some kind of simulated Cyberpunk faction system, where faction leaders try to attain/maintain higher rank in their own faction while backstabbing each other, stealing/destroying assets of other factions and such. My idea is that this system could randomly generate a world and “play” it for X generations all on its own. End result would give a world with fleshed out factions, some history and political situations. After that it could still continue “playing” in conjunction with game that is using it. Producing missions for player to execute and taking mission results into account when determining what happens to each faction next.

    This was inspired by earlier topic about stories in games. I’m a fan of stories that emerge from gameplay, because I think that when playing a game, it should be players story where player should have ways to influence what happens. With this system, player could have ready made situation where there are 3 big evil corporations with greedy values and lots of power and then there would be some activist group that opposes values of those 3 corporations, but has little power or influence. Player could then side with any of factions presented, maybe fighting uphill battle by supporting activists. Or maybe player could work as double-agent between corporations. Or maybe they would first work for activists and then betray them when big corporate suit gives them good enough offer.

    Of course such AI heavy system is a really hard thing to develop so I’m currently just trying to think how I would do it and if it even would be possible for my resources and skills. One thing I’m not sure, is if players action would have satisfying amount of impact. They did something smart like this with Radiant AI of Elder Scroll games and had to tune it down because it was too independent.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      Sounds like an exciting world to play in. An ambitious project, but worthwhile!

      My thinking is that a clever AI-generated background like this is fine as long as the players get to do things that are important to them. Following this line, the key is to realise that the AI does not have to be in direct opposition to the players; it could simply be creating a living background over which the players overlay their stories.

      When people refer to AI systems in games they often mean AI opponents. This is fine, but it isn’t the same as what I’m suggesting here.

      In my case, the AI families are there to add character and richness to the background story and in doing so generate a variety of opportunities for the players to exploit. This combination of potential missions will be different each time, as will their impacts. In effect, this simply replicates the environment the players would find themselves were this a real situation. They then continue that real world perspective and complete missions, and reap the relevant rewards.

  4. tomsonn says:

    That could be a really fun game. And really, all you need here as far as “story” and “worldbuilding” go, are good visuals to set the mood and some brief well-written capsule descriptions. Because we all know the rest is cliché feudal japan, and that’s fine, plenty of people like that. So do I.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      As you say, I don’t need a lot to evoke the setting. I thought it best to start with something relatively contained in that sense.

      It would be unfair to leave you thinking that this was entirely the normal fantasy feudal Japan we’ve seen before. However, mostly that won’t be apparent in this context, unless you know a lot about variations in period styles.

      • tomsonn says:

        Well, if you have to be a specialist to see the difference between regular fantasy feudal japan and what you’re doing, then for 99% of your audience, it actually is regular FF japan. Really, it’s good enough. I’d be more impressed with someone who can give me a strong, flavorful version of a cliché than someone who manages to put in a lot of things that will impress specialists but on the surface fails to make the game stand out. You see that a lot in (pseudo-) historical stuff.

  5. tornquistd says:

    Interesting setting. My first thought is the players could be the families and a trick taking system could be used to trigger desired results in the ninja cards for or against the families.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      You could do that, but I’d rather not for this particular game. The reason is firstly because players tend to not do what you want without being heavily constrained, and will blunder off down awkward paths at every turn. Here, one of the main jobs of the families is to tell the main story and illuminate some of the world, and as this is the first outing of this background I want to keep that story fairly controlled. Also, the ninjas are the main protagonists in this scene, so it seemed appropriate that they be represented by the players.

      You could definitely do a game where the players took the role of families, and I did have some notes for one a little like that where the players had to manage the fortunes of different samurai families over generations. Very different style of game though.

      Of course, if this idea inspires you to do what you suggest, I’d be happy to play it 🙂

      • tornquistd says:

        Doing a card game is temping however I am busy contracting my scope to complete what I am working on. I am sure I would learn something by working on a card game like that and as always play testing would be educational. I am just completing a major shift in design on my project and am having life get in the way of getting a prototype done and into play testing. I have some good feelings about where I am at so it is exciting to get into play testing to see if I avoid getting crushed by reality. If the core works I will be working a large amounts of story line.

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