November 26, 2008

Worrywart and Stressor

This week's Game Design Challenge (from was to design a card game around the theme of "insomnia". This was tricky. Insomnia generally isn't a choice, so figuring out how to model it while including an interesting choice was difficult. I ended up with two very different designs, both of which are complete games that I'm somewhat proud of, so I figured that I'd show them here as I submitted them. Ladies and Gentlemen, I present Worrywart and Stressor!



The topic of insomnia is serious, weighty, and grim. This game isn't.

Worrywart is a wacky social game of collaborative storytelling, which employs a deck cards for pacing and structure.

There are four players. Each player is assigned a suit at random. The player who gets Hearts is designated the Protagonist, and the other suits are assigned amongst the Villains.

The worrywart is trying to go to sleep by putting his worries to rest, but his insomnia keeps them in the fore of his mind. Each turn consists of one of the players narrating the worrywart's stream of consciousness, keeping in mind the details of the past. The Villains try to amplify the worrywart's worries, while the Protagonist tries to bring all of these worries to a happy conclusion.

The game starts with each of the Villains introducing some independent Worry that strikes the worrywart while he lies in bed. Each Worry can be as ludicrous or as plebeian as the players like. For example:
"Gosh, I wonder if Sarah from work likes me; we had a bit of an argument today."
"I must've been in the wrong frame of mind thanks to the heroin addiction that I just picked up."
"But not even heroin can comfort me after today's hostile encounter with alien invaders. How am I ever going to convince them not to blow up the planet?"

The deck is then shuffled and placed between the players. The game then proceeds in a series of turns. During each turn, a card is flipped from the top of the deck and discarded. The suit of this flipped card indicates which player is active this turn.

The active player gets to add one small bit of narration to the stream of consciousness. There are three rules that must be followed here:
1) Each turn may only add *one* new factual detail about the worrywart's life.
2) The new narration must be based on the original three Worries introduced at the start of the game.
3) Previous narration is canon, i.e. all details introduced by previous players must be regarded as true.

This creates an interesting dynamic in which the players must combine good facts with bad. A possible scenario, alternating Villain and Protagonist turns:
"Gosh, I wonder if Sarah at work likes me; we had a bit of an argument at work."
"Well, we've always been pretty friendly in the past. It's probably nothing."
"Although I probably shouldn't have made that sexist joke so loudly."
"I guess the joke didn't really matter in the long run, since we've got a hot date set up for tomorrow."
"A pity that I'm gay. I always get the wrong hot dates."
"Wait, silly me! Sarah is a guy! What an unfortunate name he has; I always get confused."

The story will rapidly get crazy as the players try to one-up each other. This is OK.

The game ends when the Protagonist brings all Worries to a happy close, as judged by consensus (it's not really a competitive game), or when the players agree to stop playing or start over.

The use of card suits ensures that the Villains will have three times as many turns as the Protagonist, so winning will be a difficult matter, but insomnia isn't supposed to be easy to beat. The Protagonist's strategy is generally to try to combine the Worries in creative ways so that he or she can deal with them all in one fell swoop. For instance, the Protagonist might try to put his Worries to rest by deciding to take Sarah on a date to an alien methadone clinic. Or something.



This game attempts to abstractly model the individual experience of insomnia. The design is based on three premises:

1) An individual's insomnia is not correlated to any other person's, so the game should be solitaire-type or based on a mutually independent "race" structure of competition. (Stressor uses the latter.)
2) Although sleep should always be difficult, the less sleep a player gets in one night, the easier it should be to get to sleep on the next night, as the insomniac is more tired (a long-term beneficial negative feedback loop).
3) The longer it takes a player to go to sleep on any given night, the harder it becomes to fall asleep, as the insomniac becomes stressed about sleep itself (a short-term harmful positive feedback loop).

The game is played over a series of seven rounds, each consisting of four turns. Each round represents a full night and each turn represents two hours of intended sleep time, from 10:00 PM to 6:00 AM.

For 2-6 players.

How to play:

1) Round begins. Shuffle the cards and deal two to each player. Cards represent "subjects of thought" which can either calm your mind or stress you out even further. Hearts card are "good thoughts" and all other suits are worries. The magnitude of effect of each card corresponds to the card's number. Face cards act as tens, and aces count as ones.

2) Turn begins. The first player in the rotation is dealt a new card.

3) The first player chooses whether or not to attempt to go to sleep. To sleep, the player must choose a good thought (a Heart card) to focus on. This card is placed down in front of the player, and another card is dealt to replace it in the player's hand. The player must then play a total number of cards equal to however many cards are in his or her hand at this point, picking up a new replacement card after each one is played.

If, after the requisite number of cards has been played, the sum of the values of the worries is less than or equal to DOUBLE the value of the Heart card that is being focused on, then the player successfully falls asleep. Heart cards that are played after the focused card have a value of zero. The player may abort the sleep attempt after picking up a replacement card. Should the sleep attempt fail or be aborted, the player discards all of the played cards and keeps whatever cards are now in his or her hand.

If the attempt is successful, the player turns in all cards and waits for the next round to begin. The player receives a number of points equal to four minus the number of turns that have been completed. For example, falling asleep on the first turn yields 4 points, falling asleep on the third turn yields 2 points, and players that do not fall asleep during a round receive no points.

4) Repeat steps 2-3 for all other players.

5) Repeat steps 2-4 three more times for a total of four turns per round.

6) Repeat steps 1-5 six times for a total of seven rounds. There is one change to step 1: players that did not fall asleep during the previous round may keep one card of their choice from that previous round in their hand and are only dealt one new card at the start of the new round.

7) The player who has accumulated the most points wins.

Later sleep attempts require more cards to be played, so it will become harder to fall asleep as the hours roll by. Also, players who get no sleep will have an easier time falling sleep on the next night since they can carry a card over. This satisfies the original premises.

The key moment of gameplay takes place in step 3. If the player chooses to attempt to fall asleep, he or she only has complete information about the Heart card that forms the foundation of the attempt. Since cards get replaced as they are played, fully half of the "worry" cards that will be available are not known when the choice is made. And although it is generally easier to fall asleep earlier, there is always a chance that a better Heart card will be dealt to the player later on, and a failure is generally devastating, so waiting until a later turn may be the best option. These dynamics should provide a satisfying, interesting choice as the core mechanic.


Behrooz 'Bezman' Shahriari said...

I really like the idea of Worrywart - seems unique. More like a way to play than an actual game, since (as you say) it's not about winning. I can imagine arguments about whether or not the worry was 'solved' or not - that's the one thing that makes me hesitant in trying to play it with others.

"Stressor" seems far more interesting as a 'conventional' game though it may need tweaking. Though you say "a failure is generally devastating", a player could intentionally fail on their first turn, getting rid of a bunch of high-value worries and preparing to get some points later.

Although if your turn is over as soon as you 'go bust' my worries may be unfounded, given the low number of cards you start with.

Behrooz 'Bezman' Shahriari said...

Actually, having played a solitaire version of this game, my concern was totally unwarranted. I was too used to having a bunch of cards at my disposal.

It acually seems to work fairly well in the abstract, seemingly modelling insomnia at an abstract level - just as the challenge called for.

As a fun game though, I feel the 'solitaire' part works against it.

Also, I feel that success is mainly based around the cards you're dealt and that the choices you can make aren't terribly interesting. Given that we aren't certain of drawing a heart, let alone a higher one and that an average card value is 6.5 it seems 'correct' to try and wake as soon as possible - certainly with 6 or more and maybe even with a 3 depending on the cards in hand.

For the record, I got 11pts. Fell asleep on 3 nights, the other 4 I never had a chance and there was nothing I could have done to get to sleep despite that bad luck.

E McNeill said...

I'm not so worried about arguments within Worrywart. I'd hope that people start playing the game with full knowledge that it will get crazy, so they'll just play along with whatever other people say until everybody gets bored. If people are too concerned about winning, I'd tell them that they're playing it wrong. :)

I'm sure that Stressor really does need tweaking; I confess that I submitted Stressor without ever playtesting it. On that note, thank you for trying it out! To my shame and horror, I hadn't even thought of the possibility of using a sleep attempt to flush out the bad cards, though I'm glad to see that it didn't become much of an issue.

You're right that the game involves too much luck in its current state. I'd imagine that most playthroughs will involve alternating between getting no sleep and getting full nights of sleep, thanks to the carrying over of one card upon failure.