Drunk Dungeon: hangover report

21 May 2012 | 6 comments

Friday night saw the debut of Drunk Dungeon, a game commissioned by the NYU Game Center for their annual No Quarter event. There’s a nice preview of the evening from curator Charles Pratt here, but I wanted to write my own quick introduction to the world’s most ornate drinking game.

Drunk Dungeon was conceived as an ambient party game. The concept is explained on the right, or you can read more detailed rules here.  I wanted to make something that reflected No Quarter’s unique atmosphere – here’s beer, there’s conversation, there’s an audience of world-class game experts mixed up with curious newcomers. The glorious, daunting thing about a No Quarter commission is that it comes with no strings attached – there are absolutely no curatorial requirements or recommendations at all – so in the end I invented some for myself. I wanted to make a game that would intertwine itself with the event, rather than just sit in the middle of it.

There were lots of false starts involved in zeroing in on a design that would do that – there’ll be a follow-up Making Of post were you’ll be able to see just how dumb some of them were – but I realised early on that I wanted to make something that was inviting rather than coercive. If you work in games at the moment, you’re probably having a lot of conversations with people who are excited about what games can ‘do’ for them – help drive networking at a conference event, help sell more candy bars, encourage people to floss more. To my great regret I never made it along to Eric Zimmerman’s talk at this year’s GDC, but his title – ‘Let the Games Be Games: Aesthetics, Instrumentalization & Game Design’ twanged a sore spot for me that’s been building up for some time now.

Games are hugely powerful in their ability to drive human action, and I’m fascinated by that potential, but I really wanted to take this opportunity to make something that wasn’t trying to do anything else. I just wanted this to be a bit of opt-in fun, that was rewarding at any level of involvement, including none. And I wanted it to be a game that drew heavily on its social context without strong-arming anyone to be social. I wanted it to be meaningful and fun to play without requiring you to talk or interact unless you wanted to.

From those objectives, Drunk Dungeon emerged. It’s clearly heavily inspired by The A-maze-ing Labyrinth, which remains one of my favourite boardgames. There’s an electrifying moment the first time you played that game, when you realise that you get to mess with the board, and I wanted to give players a tiny taste of that in Drunk Dungeon – not least because the maze-building adds a crucial creative, collaborative element in the middle of a competitive game. And the minute you make the decision to use coasters (sidenote: I have discovered that there is no term in English as impenetrable to Americans as ‘beer mat’, so I’ve made my peace with ‘coasters’. British readers should think ‘beer mat’ throughout, or ‘beer map’ if they have a weakness for dumb game puns), you realise you have an option to make a beautiful artifact out of something that’s usually just a slops sponge. I’d written a lot last year about how games trigger inadvertent creativity and this seemed like a great opportunity to play with that. So my hope was that there were at least four degrees of rewarding involvement you could have with the game.

1) Get a pretty coaster to take home with you

2) Add it to the map without really knowing what you were doing, but getting to share in co-creating this big, colourful, shining thing

3) Make a couple of meaningful moves in the game and move your team toward victory

4) Get involved enough to start spotting tactics and become a team mini-captain, advising and marshalling other players to draw them deeper into the game.

To accomplish all of that it was really important that the coasters and the map were beautiful, that it was possible to play at a light and independent way, and that there was enough meat on the game’s bones that it rewarded deeper scrutiny.

Did it work? I think yes, mostly. There’ll be another What Next follow-up post where I’ll run through all the things that I got wrong with the current version, and where we’ll be taking it next. But on the night, a lot of people stole the coasters (success!), a lot of people placed a few tiles, enjoyed looking at the thing, and wandered off to play all the other great No Quarter games (success!) and a lot of people hung around the table, arguing tactics and sweet-talking other players into helping them (success!)

Those successes wouldn’t have come about without the initial commission from Game Center, and their support and assistance throughout the game’s production, nor without all the people in Hide&Seek and beyond who helped develop and produce it. To them I raise a swizzle-stick laden, hi-jac coddled, inky-bottomed glass.


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