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The Emotional Element in Games

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Momerath's picture
Joined: 01/16/2009

I have been developing a cooperative firefighting game for 1-4 players. The game revolves around entering a burning building, fighting back the flames, searching for victims, and carrying them outside. Mechanically, most of the game's subsystems revolve around rolling two dice, which represent coordinates on the board. The dice determine how the fire spreads, where and whether victims are found, and targeting for the (powerful, but fairly indiscrimate) hose cannon on the fire engine. I recently received feedback from a blind playtest. Some of the criticism was related to the mechanics, and is easily fixed. The most common critique, however, was that the game needed a more "human" or "emotional" element. This has me stymied. Of course, the game rewards players for treating and rescuing victims (each rescue brings players closer to victory). It penalizes players for fatalities, whether it is a victim or their own players (the firefighters, who of course may become "victims" of the fire themselves if they aren't careful!). Each death increments a slider which can cause automatic defeat if it gets too high. An alternate losing condition is if the house sustains too much damage, in which case it collapses on everyone.

But of course, at heart these are all very mechanical processes. The victims don't count except as instruments of scoring. If they get caught in a conflagration and die, no widows will mourn, and no small children will cry. I don't know how to make players relate with a wooden meeple on an emotional level.

I am curious if anyone has confronted this issue before, and if they have any suggestions. How do you create an emotional connection in games? Are there any games that are especially good at creating an atmosphere and drawing in the players? Obviously, role-playing games are all about this, but I think at the end of the day I'd like to keep this a board game.

Joined: 07/18/2009
As far as getting the players

As far as getting the players connected to their own characters, I thought that games like "Necromunda" did this very well.

Basically, what you would do is just a tiny bit of role playing. Have the players create a named firestation and give all their characters names. They are members of that stations crew. As they play, their characters improve in ability, gain aspects like bravado(green firefighters roll a fear check before rushing into a building that's about to collapse, but not you) , or fear (if there is a trapped child, you ignore all other victims until the child is safe, because of that one time when you lost one), etc. etc. At the end of the game, depending on how the players were wounded they roll on a chart to see if they have any lasting debilitation. If they successfully rescued all the babies, old ladies and even Rover from the 12th floor of the burning apartment complex, they get to roll for a beneficial aspect or attribute. If a member of the firestation dies, they can make a new character, but it will be a newbie with low abilities.

I don't know if this would work for you, but I nearly lost it when one of my units in Necromunda that had started off as a green recruit and after a couple dozen games was poised to become the new team leader got instantly vaporized with a lucky grenade within seconds of a game starting. 12 years on and I still remember that unit's name too.

Joined: 08/01/2008
Maybe your game doesn't

Maybe your game doesn't reflect the heart-pounding suspense people associate with firefighting. I would suggest adding some kind of press-your-luck mechanism-- those do a lot do ratchet up the suspense.

simons's picture
Joined: 12/28/2008

I'm not sure how your game is set up, but I feel like artwork can be a big driving factor. Language can work to your favor as well if it is charged enough. When you rescue a victim, put them in a "family" box; or alternatively, when a victim dies, put them in a "widow/orphans" box.

One alternative to the Necromunda idea, what if each of your players had a character with a special ability, and some kind of backstory associated with it. That way you're not just a meeple, you're Jimmy, the kind-hearted 3rd generation fire-fighter, who lost his dad in a fire.

Pastor_Mora's picture
Joined: 01/05/2010
Focus in what emotion you are looking for

If your game is not "emotional" enought, or "captivating" in some way, I think you shoud focus in what emotion you are looking for to give the players. Maybe the question would be easier to address if you say "how can I get my game scarier? (or) chaotic? (or) (the word for everything happening too fast here)?". As for your theme, I think of one basic dicothomy:

FEAR / BRAVERY (you have to be brave to became a firefighter): From what I've understood of what I've read in your post, you can handle this with the fire-spreading mechanics part (mind that I don't know how your board manages spaces). If fire can spawn randomly in any room, there is not much of a risk-management desision to make. Any place can be a death-trap (this looks like a wasted opportunity). As an alternative, if fire can fill a room progresively before spreading to the next, you know when you are heading into danger, and you are presented with a risk-management decision that will result in a brave or corward choice. I'm thinking of a fire-spreading mechanic, but it may not fit your board. But I also think of a "Medal Reward" element, scored at the end of the game, for victims rescued when a room was 75% filled with fire, for example. If you keep track of player wounds, you could reward the most wounded player that kept going in. If you use charisma, convincing an old lady to hold on next to a window till rescue arrives could score you bonus points.

Finally, remember (you surely know this already) that firefighters are not called in just to put out fires. From floods, chemical spills, collapsed buildings, suicidal people, to and cats in trees, you have many scenarios to work in.

Keep thinking!

red hare
red hare's picture
Joined: 11/09/2009
change the game's setting

ok, besides the other suggestions I gave in the email, what if you change the time period and location of the game? Right now it's set up to be a modern fire fighter with all of his equipment fighting a fire in a generic house. What if you put it about 100 years earlier, possibly in a small town setting. In this case, you don't have professionals fighting the fire, but volunteers from the town. Perhaps each player can choose one of the town folk to put out the fire. Some folks will have different abilities/ advantages. The fire could take place at a randomly drawn home from the small town. For example, the fire could take place at the Johnson's house. The rest of the rown joins him in trying to save the people and stop the fire. Of course, firefighting at this point of time was primitive so people were often trying to just get valuable possessions out of the house if it was a lost cause. So perhaps you're not just trying to save victims in the house. If your volunteer team thinks they might lose the house, then they can try to save the bed or furniture or whatever.

In the case of using a small town and it's volunteer fire fighters, if there are victims then the town just got smaller. If the house is lost, your team of volunteer fire fighters just got smaller too because some folks had to move away.

So with this new setting, players might feel more empathy for not just the fire fighters but the victims as well. Every victim and firefighter has a name and a face and a family. Also, if the game consisted of several fires and not just a single fire, then the effects of previous fires could build and give the game another dynamic.

And just one more possibility with a small town setting. There could be a chance that the fire spreads to an adjacent home during a round, which could be an even bigger catastrophy. Players would have to consider how many fire fighters should be trying to save victims and how many should be stopping the fire from spreading.

Another possible change to the setting is to pick a specific famous fire. It could be the Great Fire of London in 1666 or the one caused by the San Francisco earthquake. Or even have it set in London during WWII and your players are dealing with not just the fire spreading naturally but by bombs dropped during a German air raid.

I like Gregory's suggestion of developing a firefighter's skills/ career/ background as well.

You have lots of different directions to go with because I think your concept is interesting and unique. Perhaps just adjusting the theme to a small town or a specific famous fire will draw in your players more.

Good luck!

Joined: 11/05/2009
The emotional experience in a

The emotional experience in a game is a result of a lot of small things that make up a whole. I think the most important things have already been mentioned
--Character identification: As already said: Named characters and a named team. Character background.
--Character arc during the game: Powerups are powerful emotional drives in many genres, especially RPG's. The idea above of morale checks is excellent.
--Positive reinforcements: The damsel kisses her rescuer, the mother cries when the baby is delivered to her.
--Negative reinforcement: Guilt when you fail to rescue a victim. Response of family hearing their loved ones died.
In order to have negative reinforcement work the victims must also be humanized: They must have names and family members in the crowd behind the yellow tape. Somebody already mentioned pets.
--Mood: The artwork is important in setting the mood.
--Suspense. This is important for the story arc.
+ Tension arc: The fire gets progressively more out of control. The victims are more difficult to reach. The absolute toughest part of the game should be right before it ends. The feeling of absolute hopelessness and then finally you manage to grasp victory from the jaws of defeat.
+ Uncertainty/ unknown. How many victims are there? Victims have to be found: You hear a scream but don't know where it comes from. The mother says her teenage daugter is missing but she could be at her friends place, etc.
+ Time limits:
The victim stopped yelling 2 minutes ago. If she was overtaken by fumes she may have another three minutes to live. Save the victim in two turns or shes dead.
The whole building will blow. Every turn the chance increases or decreases by x %. Players can modify this percentage by containing the fire, turning off gas lines, having x amount of waterlines operational. Random events can increase or decrease this chance. Show it on a meter, so everyone knows what % the chance is. If the chance is 40%, will you rush in to save a baby? What if it is 50 %, or 60%? Then let the players roll dice to see if it happens at the start of each turn. When the building blows the game is over. If everyone is out by then the game is won. Not knowing when the inevitable disaster will happen is a powerful suspense mechanism, and suspense make for powerful emotions.

Edit: After reading the above, I think my ideas may make it too serious. Will it still be fun? Maybe the answer then would be to make it cartooney, like clowns in a circus putting out a haystack fire sort of thing?

Good luck anyway!

Momerath's picture
Joined: 01/16/2009
These are some very good

These are some very good ideas! I'm not sure I could actually implement more than a couple, but maybe there is a market for a good firefighting RPG! I am looking for a "simple fix" if possible, as a publisher has advised me that my game in its present state is "too complex." That's a subjective opinion, obviously, but if anything I'd like to pare down a bit with the rules and components.

Artwork for the victims is certainly doable, and would be an easy way to add character.

I especially liked the suggestion of a small-town volunteer force that rescues people (and property) from a burning building. Maybe it only circumvents my basic problem, but if the firefighters are also the victims then there is no question that fatalities are going to hurt. If each player starts with three volunteers (let's say), then losing one in the flames will cost that player 1/3 of his firefighting force. And historically, firefighting teams were much larger in terms of manpower - it was necessary to form long chains to "pass the buckets."

Perhaps I should clarify how fatalities work. If a victim dies, the "deaths" slider increments upwards, but a new victim may be easily found (in most cases). If a firefighter (player) dies, the deaths slider increments, but that player may re-enter the game on his next turn as a "just arrived" firefighter from outside the building. This is a bit contrived, but what should I do - kick the "dead" players out of the game? That would at least be realistic...

Joined: 11/05/2009
Respawning players is

Respawning players is perfectly ok, it happens in a lot of adventure style games like Descent.
You dont have to do an RPG to implement many of the suggestions. But you are right in the sense that the game mechanics my preclude many of them. If it is an abstract Euro style game that is not really dependent on the theme it may not work. Otherwise you may use event cards with flavour text.

larienna's picture
Joined: 07/28/2008
The feeling of a game

I have not played your game, but right now your game might feel more like a puzzle solving game.

Ask your self what a firefighter would feel. What is the thrill of actually beign in a house full of fire and try to find a mechanic that would stimulate that feeling.

The objective is that you want the game to give to the player the feeling of actually be real fire fighter.

- Pushing your luck could be good mechanics.

- Beign on the edge of dying could make the player scared of doing something risky. That also mean no respawn since it reduce the level of drama when somebody dies. (unless the morale drops, see below)

- If a victim dies, it could reduce the morale of all fire fighters which could make die roll harder for example. So players will try to push themselves to rescue the victims else everybody will suffer.

Taavet's picture
Joined: 08/15/2008
Player Roles

This would probably severly change the game you currently have but what about adding player roles?

One player controls the house/fire trying to burn stuff up. One player controls all the victims which have very limited movement and get easily disoriented. Another player controls the Firefighters in the house using their gear to limit the burning by the house/fire player. The last player is outside manning the firetruck and the crowd.

Just a thought. It could help players connect with the role they are playing and add to replay value as the game would be different for all the various roles. It might have to be more of a coop with everyone against the house/fire player.

Joined: 11/24/2009
2 suggestions

A) I could see this being a very emotional game, your mechanics should lend to that, as the one poster suggested maybe a press your luck mechanic "Whew, I made it out! Should I go back in?!?" or hard decisions like having to choose between saving 2 or more people. What about the family pet?

B) Don't just take the word of 1 group. I have playtested the same game with 3 different groups and gotten three diferent reactions. Thank them for their input and get a second opinion.

Joined: 04/19/2010
Emotional symbols


Is there any way to incorporate symbols to increase emotional reactions? I'm thinking white crosses on cards or as little pieces you have to get if a victim dies (maybe instead of a deaths slider). Maybe coffins?. For successful saves, there could be medals or individualized cards for the saved victim (like Granny Smith or little Jessica, etc). Or, the cards with the individual victims have white crosses on the back. They are face up (to profile) if you save them and face down (cross) if they die. You could have firefighter profile cards that work the same way with attributes etc. and crosses on the back if they die (with some kind of firefighter symbol in the corners or something).

How long is an entire game? What about adding a timer that buzzes to get people worked up or some kind of count down element to make the player(s) feel rushed? The sound of a siren causes emotional arousal too. I know this means more cost to make though. :(

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