A Song of Tales Designer's Diary: Origins
A few years ago, now I was at a wedding of a close friend and I ended up in a conversation with a stranger at my table centering on two things, that I was a game designer and that I lived near Canterbury. The stranger asked if there were games based on the Canterbury tales, I said that there were, but none that captured its spirit. It was that conversation that lead me to begin designing our latest game, A Song of Tales.
As I said, there are games based on the Canterbury Tales, but they tend to be about moving along the path of pilgrimage, either as a race game or a resource management game of sin and faith. None (that I know of) attempt to create, or re-create the sort of game that the Canterbury Tales is. By which I mean, the Canterbury Tales is a story of a game, or at least a contest, between its characters, they are competing to tell their tales. Now, there have been competitive story telling games in the past, but they all centered on purely adversarial story telling. Which is to say, one player would tell their story, scoring points, until another player wrested story control away from them to start their own telling and score their own points. This has a few issues, primary among them that if anyone actually enjoys the story their friend is telling they are in the unenviable position of needing to stop something fun and interesting in order to score points and win the game. A central idea of any game design for me is to never make stopping the fun how you win. What wins the game and what is fun in the game should always be the same thing. These existing story telling games take a format of ‘No, but’ rather than ‘Yes, and’, breaking the central rule of improvisation. They also go against the flow of the Canterbury tales themselves, where characters interrupt to add to tales before letting them continue, bigger and better than before. Lastly, these existing games often put players in the position of simply sitting back and waiting for their chance to interrupt rather than truly listening to their opponents, which is not how any conversation between friends should work.
As such I wanted to write a story telling game that wasn’t about ruining other player’s stories, but I also didn’t want to write a co-operative story telling game, or one scored based on opinions and feelings. Co-op story telling games are great, but frankly, RPGs do this sort of thing much better and more easily than any boardgame. I believe in only making games in a given format that work with the strengths of the format rather than trying to make a second rate version of a thing from something that isn’t suited to making it. Additionally, I don’t much like the idea of games scored on opinions, while fine for very casual gamers these always boil down to popularity contests or simply the victory of who is willing to drop the pretense of casual fun first in my experience.
So, I wanted to create a game about telling stories, which was competitive and objectively scored and encouraged players to extend and expand on their opponent’s stories while hoping that they reached their completion. As I mentioned before, most story telling games at the moment use the concept of an interrupt, to steal the story. This is based on the excitement of being allowed to breach normal rules of etiquette in the game space to interrupt another person, which is a great idea, but it wouldn’t work for the collaborative story telling I was looking for. Instead in my game the interrupt would be used to add to the story being told. Rather than interrupting with a “That’s great, but let me tell you about this…” players will be interrupting with a “Yes I’ve heard of that person, didn’t they have the most amazing pair of ruby slipper that…” for a short period before handing the story back, grown and embellished. So, this led to a few ideas, firstly that the game would have key points, names or phrases that had to be included, an interrupt would add these key points which would extend a story and increase its final score. Secondly that the stories would be split into natural break points to allow interrupts to slot into story breaks. A simple way to break a story into parts is with a timer, which flowed easily into another central idea of the game, that players would need to speak continually under time pressure, but more importantly, would need to remember to get all the key points into their story before the timer ran out. Now there were chapter cards to represent the beginning, middle and end of the story to designate the breaks in the tale. Each chapter card would have a snatch of story on it, which could connect to a player’s character, play chapter cards connected to your character into your story to score extra points. This also allowed another twist in the tale since players would have to guide their story back to their upcoming chapter cards, rambling and spiraling would be no good.
At that point the core of the game was established, a Teller of the tale would choose and play a series of chapter cards outlining a story that they would have to tell, hitting key points and finishing within a set time. Listeners would contribute responses, both making the tale more difficult to complete and increasing the score that the Teller would reap in return for a completed tale, while boosting their own score also. Finally, there would be a Watcher each round, tasked with checking that the tale is completed according to the rules.
As mentioned, initially this game was designed as a form of Canterbury Tales game which meant that it had a sort of race movement mechanic with movement progressing on a set track to Canterbury and returning (as was the plan for the original story). While this made sense for the theme of the Tales it was fiddly and made the game too much about the movement and not enough about the telling of the tales. Additionally, the Canterbury Tales are quite niche, and not a generally popular niche at that. On removing the movement track the idea of setting the game around a fire place, possibly a campfire, but something that people would gather around to tell stories came up, which made much more sense and allowed the game to centre on the story telling. Movement was a mechanic for designating Listeners and claiming story cards, but there was less significant tactics and planning needed within it, which was much more suitable. It also led us to a new theme, world folk tales, so now the game will have stories from Europe, Africa, Japan and Arabia with connected characters.
So, that’s the core of the beginning, a first prototype was put together, and it was time for internal testing.