Advanced Dungeons & Dragons came out when I was a kid. It forever changed my world. Before I played AD&D (or even knew it existed), I’d go into the backyard, deep into the woods, and I’d take a stick and cull the field of weeds with swipe after swipe, leaving my hands blistered and raw.
That was… kind of fun.
But after I found AD&D, I went back into those woods, and looked for seed pods (that were ingredients for a potion of invisibility). I would take a stick, cut it in half, whittle a design into it, and instead of a weedbeater, it became a magic wand, capable (as long as I charged it) of casting incredible druid spells. Little stones became runes imbued with magic, the stream became an elvish river, a tree house was a magical fort, protected with crow feathers that warded away vampires.
I was completely immersed in an experience.
To begin to be immersed in an experience requires a trick of the mind. You need to forget about yourself, for a while. You know, the part of you that says:
“Magic isn’t real.”
“Rocks are rocks.”
“Garlic repels vampires, not crow feathers…”
We need to put ourselves aside, and live in a state of temporary disbelief. But to be wholly and utterly immersed in something does not require a trick. In fact, you are not completely immersed if you are doing anything at all other than experiencing what there is to experience. And that’s what I aimed to do with Cutthroat Kingdoms.
Cutthroat Kingdoms began as an idea to let mere mortals, like you and I, experience what it would be like to be inside a movie. I don’t mean as actors who have to speak a script, or pretend they’re falling when they’re just suspended by fishing line in front of a green screen. No. I mean… I wanted people to be able to know what it would be like to be sitting around a grand marble war table in a castle high above the town, elbow to elbow with the other five highlords or ladies of the realm, negotiating title, land and birthright. I didn’t, actually, want it to be a game. I wanted it to be an experience.
Games have very concrete mechanics. These mechanics make a really good game feel like an amazing puzzle. They’re a toothbrush for the brain! But when a player gets lost in an experience, and becomes the game, without even noticing… that’s the real magic. The best magic trick is the magic trick that is real.
In Cutthroat Kingdoms, I designed a way for players to interact with one another freely, and openly. In a normal game, you have very clear rules on what you can, and cannot do. In Cutthroat Kingdoms, you make the rules. A lot of people thought I was crazy.
“Nobody will know what to do!”
“If I can do anything I want, won’t it just be complete chaos?”
“That’s not a game, that’s life.”
The last statement was music to my ears. The actual mechanics of the game pull players (slowly at first) into their roles as lord or lady of a highborn family. You’re deploying soldiers to territories, purchasing mercenaries from the market, or trying to avoid the plague. But, ever so slowly… the game begins to take on a very different feeling.
The very first time a player wants to pass through a neighbors lands to acquire new territory, they must ask the intervening player permission. This simple mechanic isn’t even really a mechanic. You’re literally asking them…
“Hey, can I do a thing?”
In that moment, the game, and therefore the immersion, begins. The neighbor may not like this person. In fact, the neighbor being asked may want that territory for themselves. Maybe she is appalled that this player would move through her lands only to take possession of an area that brings in a substantial amount of revenue. Could you imagine him doing this without even giving her a smile or a gift? So the neighbor answers:
“Why do you want to pass through my lands? What’s your intention?”
The player stops. This gets complicated. Does he tell her the truth? That he secretly wants to wedge her out on both sides and force her to have to deal with him every time she wants to move? Of course he couldn’t say that, she would know he had dark intentions.
“I want to share in the profit of your neighboring territory.”
“Okay, well, what’s your idea of sharing?”
That’s when he’s forced to acquiesce. He needs to do something for her, so he doesn’t burn a bridge. If he acts on his initial plan to wedge her out, he may lose a potential political partner later in the game. What if he needs her to form a wall against his right flank in case another house comes storming in on him? She could be useful. Besides, if she says no, his only option is to go to war with her, and the cost of that war would be not in his economic interest.
“If you let me pass through your lands,” he says, “I’ll give you half of what I make on Corynthia.”
She smiles, sticks out her hand.
“It’s a deal.”
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is Cutthroat Kingdoms. Above is an actual moment of gameplay. It’s not a game, it’s an experience, and it’s certainly something you can get lost inside for a very, very long time. To be completely immersed inside an experience requires a certain level of freedom, freedom for a player to actually become the game itself, to become the characters, the coins, the meeples, the little wooden cubes. When your own words, the deals you craft, the lies (or truth) you tell, when all of that matters in the context of the game, you’re living inside it, not playing it. I wanted to get lost like I did when I was a kid, to see the woods in a whole different light. And in Cutthroat Kingdoms, I can. The stones turn into runes for me now. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
– Bryan Merlonghi, Designer of Cutthroat Kingdoms