Last week, a game jam hosted by the London College of Communication (LCC), where students from across the BA and MA game design courses came together to try and create a game across the two days.
There were several different games produced over the weekend, with the game jam’s theme of ‘alliteration’ leaving things wide open for students to get creative. One of the more interesting projects was board game Felines Fighting Fish which saw, as you might imagine, felines and fish trying to give each other a beatdown. As a board game, it was inspired by several popular esports titles.
The first playtest of Felines Fighting Fish with hexagonal board
The team, made up of first and second year LCC game design students, Harry Wren, Nayef Abahsain, Mohamad Ali Awarkeh and James Briggs, are all keen MOBA fans, and the Dota 2 Kiev Major was on a screen nearby for most of the event - with the team stopping occasionally to peer at a strong play or interesting draft.
Coming out of the team’s enthusiasm for MOBA’s and their ilk is Felines Fighting Fish, a team-based strategy with a team of three cats and a team of three fish fighting to control territory across the board. Each tile has a different points value, meaning the tiles in the center of the board are hotly contested, leading to brutal combat.
A fun part of watching the jam unfold was being able to watch the students’ games go through many iterations. As a participant in several game jams myself, I found the speed at which they iterated impressive, and the game morphed from being a physical ‘throw-beanbags-at-each-other’ faceoff game to this tense tactical board game in just a few hours.
A later iteration, with nice looking playing pieces, and a board drawn with a ruler
“The feline theme came from a t-shirt with a cat on it,” said Ali Awarkeh, as a laugh rippled out over the group. “As soon as the theme came out, we sat down and tried to write down as many ideas as possible, and we came to the idea that we all liked cats.”
The fish came in as a natural enemy. “We thought that after the fish had endured years of cat oppression, they’d want to take everything back, and march out of the water.”
A large part of the challenge was trying to make the cats and fish feel distinct, without unbalancing things too much. The team credit the versatility of making a physical game for letting them to fine-tune the design without having to commit. “It’s a much more physical hands-on experience over digital games, and being able to get feedback instantaneously was the main reason we could refine our design so quickly” said Abahsain.
“It was good to run a test of the game and then say ‘right, now we need to tweak this mechanic and just immediately change how that works. Iteration is quick and snappy with a physical game.” said Ali Awarkeh. Around him, the remains of days worth of paper prototypes litter the desks, including a bizarre hexagonal map (didn’t work out, Ali Awarkeh said with a shrug), initial character ideas (a whale isn’t a fish, says Wren sadly) and a rulesheet, half scribbled over (older prototype, mentions Briggs.)
Not a fish
By the end of the first day, the team had already discarded a variety of different ideas and mechanics, and were trying to work out how to resolve an actual fight. This is the one of the hardest aspects of tabletop design because, while video games can bring some sizzle with animations, sound or just a liberal amount of screenshake, physical games are only as satisfying as the mechanics.
At the start, that meant the punching in FFF wasn’t very satisfying at all. Players looking to engage in combat would have to move adjacent to each other and then each throw a D20. The highest number on the dice won, but it didn’t work because there’s no strategy to a dice roll, and no way to increase your chances of a successful punch-up. Later, this morphed into a system that was Rock, Paper, Scissors except definitely, 100%, legally distinct. This added a little more strategy to the system, but still wasn’t really “gameable”.
Eventually, the system they came up with was flawed, but served a purpose: players adjacent to people on the enemy team attacking or being attacked would also get to join the attack, throwing themselves into the combat as well. It makes the system a little easier to strategise, with three players surrounding the enemy being able to deliver a guaranteed single point of damage if they agree on which symbol they should throw. Still, while interesting it’s still a mechanic that doesn’t fit the motif, but fit the amount of time the team had to build the game.
The finished game, ready to be exhibited
It’s saved somewhat by the different combatants, who have more in common with League of Legend’s Champions than most board game pieces. “We got the idea of maybe doing a 3 versus 3 from League of Legends 3v3 mode. Obviously, it’s very team based, and relies on people working closely together. The other inspiration was Catan, where we got the idea of conquering areas and then fighting each other.” says Wren, as Ali Awarkeh cuts in: “League is definitely the biggest inspiration, with everyone playing their own characters that also have their own roles: so you’ve got a big supporty tank, a warrior that we tried to make feel like an AD carry, and then a little rogue, like Dota’s Riki who just moves around quickly trying to be a nuisance.”
The characters feel unique, too. One of the fish can move quickly around the board using water as a shortcut, while felines can move diagonally, pouncing towards enemies.
Although, as they finalised the game mechanics, the team decided that they wanted it to be a little more forgiving than a MOBA for those on the losing side. “Balancing involved us trying to constantly make it fun and fair, but we also wanted to make it fair on both sides throughout the entire game. With several MOBA’s and competitive games, if you get beat early you can feel completely stuck. We didn’t want that in our game, so we tried to give you ways to get back into the game instead of giving the enemy team an advantage and questioning ‘why are we even on the board’”
In play, the finalised version of the game is tense. It has rough edges, and some of the rules were a little fudged, but it was a compelling way to spend 30 minutes. It’s interesting to see esports, and the way that their design is bleeding down to the next generation of game designers, have an effect on this small game jam, where students are pulling apart many MOBA-esque elements and trying to reappropriate them for a new generation of games, whether that’s physical or digital.