Making a “Platypus” Board Game of Strange Parts

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This is a guest post by Joey Vigour, Designer of Chaosmos

What does a platypus have to do with board games?

Nothing. The DNA of a platypus proves a bizarre triple lineage from birds, reptiles, and mammals. Animals that don’t specialize usually die out sooner or later, but the platypus is uniquely balanced; it has a bill, it uses electro-location, it has a venomous stinger, and even though it’s technically a mammal, it lays eggs. But it works. It’s here to stay.

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Credit: Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation

I think a lot of board gamers cite simplicity and elegance as crowning virtues. I personally am a fan of the game Go, and I’m extremely interested in Conway’s Game of Life (a computer simulation from 1970 where you place a few “cells” and then watch as the game’s 4 simple rules spawn long evolutions of chaos and order).

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Despite my interest in elegance and simplicity, most of my favorite board games use a significant number of rule-breaking exceptions that allow the game’s possibilities to veer toward infinite. I’m thinking of Cosmic Encounter (the aliens), Magic the Gathering, Race for the Galaxy or 51st State (the cards), or the new Kickstarter game Lagoon (the tiles). Possessing a special ability gives the player a feeling of power, and feeling powerful in a game is FUN. These games are still theoretically easy to teach, they just use a lot of exceptions. They are good games, but they aren’t platypuses.

Some games Frankenstein too far off the path (with expansions especially). There’s a reason Arkham Horror is not eight times the fun with all eight expansions at once– the parts aren’t all needed to make a smoother experience. It’s a genetic monster, but it doesn’t work. Not like a platypus.

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Credit: Markus (DeePee) on BoardGameGeek

Twilight Imperium is a platypus. It’s a dice-chucking Ameritrash game that uses a Eurostyle victory point system, plus the role-selection taken from Puerto Rico, plus the voting mechanic from Warrior Knights (and others). It works. It’s a platypus.

Chaos in the Old World is a platypus. REX is a platypus. Battlestar Galactica is a platypus.

Chaosmos is a platypus.

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Chaosmos is a board game featuring many elements commonly found in other games, but used in a new way. It has exploration but it isn’t a 4X game. It uses miniatures and combat but it isn’t a wargame. It has resources but it isn’t a Euro. You are steadily adapting decks, but it isn’t a deckbuilder. It uses a unique element of deduction but it isn’t a hidden roles game per se. It works because the elements synergize. You are exploring planets to find one card. But you need action point resources to do so. You need combat if the card is in someone else’s hand. You need to draft from the Cosmic Pool because you are also set-collecting. It is, to repeat for dramatic (or comical) effect, a platypus.

Why do platypus games work? I’ll offer two suggestions and then humbly step back since I’m no game expert.

1. Platypus games work because they have a simple core.

Twilight Imperium is a simple game- each player expands their empire. The interesting part is that resources are limited, so what follows after the first round of expansion is a massive amount of social interaction. What makes the players interact? Variable player powers! Role-selection each turn! Voting! Each Frankenstein part fits perfectly because the core of the game is so simple and solid.

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2. Platypus games work because their theme unifies their disparate elements in an intuitive way.

Why can the Hacan deploy troops anywhere in REX, and why do others pay them for the opportunity to do the same? Well, obviously because they rent out the jetpacks needed to land the troops! (See also: the Spacing Guild in the Dune board game). It’s ok if some of the mechanics inspired some of the theme– sometimes that’s the way games are designed. But thematic synergy helps.

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Could Chaosmos have been a simpler game? Yes, it could have been, and it works as a simpler game. New players might find it a bit more accessible. I’ve even tested the game as a themeless grouping of 10 stacks of cards, and other variations. But I keep going back to this version. Unique and interesting cards and effect combine together to make it just work. I love it. It’s a bit lopsided, but so is a perfect little platypus.

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