Kodex

Gaming with LEGOs

Me and my nephew concocted an XCOM-ish game out of a bunch of dice and LEGOs. I took a picture of this game and tweeted it, and I subsequently got a question regarding the rules. As such I figured I should jot down some stuff about the whole thing here.

I’m an old Warhammer 40k player. For those not in the know, 40k is a sci-fi tabletop wargame played with miniatures. The players take turns and use dice and measuring sticks to determine the outcome of movement, shooting and so on. A while back me and my six year old nephew Simon were going through some stuff in the attic when we came across a few of my old 40k models. Naturally, he was curious about these skull covered plastic tanks. I briefly explained that it was a sort of game played with dice and when he asked if it could be played with his toys as well, it got me thinking.

The question made me realise that pretty much any assortment of toys can be turned into a game by just adding dice and some sort of distance measurement. So, for his birthday I gave him a bunch of dice and we set about scouring his room for something to make a game out of. As the floor was covered in LEGOs it didn’t take long to see the possibilites.

The basic idea was to have two teams of LEGO figures pitted against each other, and it’s around here that I started seeing an analogue, LEGO version of XCom for my inner eye (in the turn based squad game with destructible environment sense). We built a scene using a regular LEGO baseplate and put together a squad of three LEGO figures each, where each one could choose one ‘weapon’ (only variants non-lethal sleep lasers allowed I’m afraid) and one special ability that we agreed upon before hand.

Finally, we had to have some sort of objective. So Simon placed three objects to skirmish over across the board (a deactivated robot, a laser sword doubling as a metal detector, and a diamond). The goal of the game was to capture all three objects, bring them to a space ship and take off.

For the actual gameplay, we used the basic outline from 40k. Each turn consists of phases; first a movement phase were you move your figures, then a shooting phase, and finally a do-other-stuff phase (using special abilites and so on).

This was made more complex by rules like running, where you could skip your shooting phase in exchange for a dice roll worth of extra movement. The way we measured movement (and distance in general) was one of the great benefits of using LEGOs. We just measured everything in LEGO-notches!

For example, the basic movement of each figure was 8 notches, which was easy to conceptualise for Simon since it was the same as the length of two standard 2x4 blocks. Every time we needed to measure something like the area of effect for an ability, we could just quickly whip up a custom measuring stick for that purpose.

This brings me to the advantages of using LEGO as a medium for constructing games. Apart from the built in measuring mentioned above, the most obvious perk is the inherent flexibility in the units and the board. It’s easy to represent pieces of equipment and so on by just slapping them onto your figures or vehicles. Likewise, it becomes easy to keep track of stuff that’s been depleted (like one shot pieces of gear and so on) by just removing them. And of course, with LEGO you have a game engine with out-of-the-box destructible environments! That’s more than most of the digital XCom-clones have to show for themselves.

This flexibility also extends to the peripherals of the game. As one of the figures took the game’s first “hit”, we realised we needed a way to keep track of hit points. This was easily solved by taking a 4x4 block for each figure and adding a 1x1 piece for each hit point. We kept track of which hit point block was which via its colour. So basically, we built a LEGO squad gui!

After we had played the game through (Simon won by the way, by a hair’s breadth!), the experience left me with some thoughts.

Playing an ad hoc game like this with a six year old brings a whole new meaning to the concept of “random events”. It quickly entered a kind of borderland between game and play, where my nephew would suddenly announce the arrival of new characters of unclear allegience, or introduce whimsical weapons like the foam spraying UFO-strike.

He never conjured up these events in order to get an unfair advantage, it was just him running along with his imagination. As such, a lot of the fun in the game came in the tension between the rules we had agreed upon in the beginning, and these wierd happenings. I found that he had a lot of patience with the basic ruleset as long as I was open to his on-the-fly ideas (many of which were simply genius, like having to solve a little LEGO puzzle in order to open a locked door).

LEGO is of course a great toy, and it’s also a great tool for testing and visualising stuff (like Nathan Yau posted about recently). I also feel that it’s a great toolset for sketching out game systems. It would be interesting to develop the concept further and try to go more explicitly for the XCom angle, with a separate Geoscape board and some premade buildings for the different landing sites. I guess the challenge would be to balance features and playability.

Well, if you have LEGOs and dice, go for it!

Thank you for your time,

Anton

If you enjoyed reading this I’d love to hear, so please drop me a mail on anton@hairminator.com or give me a shout on Twitter where I am @guldalder

I don’t normally blog about games or anything, but should I write something one off (like this piece) I’ll most probably announce it on Twitter.

[Edit]

I was informed of brikwars.com by Post-Internet Syndrome on RPS, and a Matt W mailed me a link to an excellent looking Kickstarter; Mobile Frame Zero: Rapid Attack.