Five Tabletop Games for Creating Stuff

We already know that Procedural Content Generation (PCG) is a masterful tool for building games. But can PGC become a game by itself? This seems a silly question at first. After all, what is the purpose of generating something if we do not use it afterward?

However, if you think that a bit more, you know that there is something else. If you are interested in PCG, you know that most enjoyment comes from the creation itself.

Therefore, the question is easy: of course, that PCG can be a game! And to prove that, I am going to show you five of the most beautiful examples of that I played in recent years.

Once Upon a Time

The art of the game box cover.
Figure 1. The art of the game box cover.

The first “PCG game” that comes to my mind is Once Upon a Time, and it is not recent at all! However, I think it may be useful to show you what I mean for PCG games.

If you are not aware, Once Upon a Time is a storytelling game, and the story is generated by a shuffled deck of cards. Each player starts telling their fable using the cards in their hand (for instance: a king, a princess, a sword, a deception, and so on). Other players may interrupt the current player and continue the story with their card. The game goes on until a player finally ends the story emptying their hand (and providing a satisfactory ending under the sole judgment of the other players).

As you can see, there is no content in the game other than a randomness source to stimulate players’ creativity. The game does not come out after the creation of something; the game IS the creative process.

The game is enjoyable and straightforward. However, telling a story is quite natural. Humanity got entertained by stories since its beginning. Is it possible to extend the PCG-as-game model to a more complex PCG “algorithm”?

Yes, of course.

Ex Novo

Ex Novo Logo

In my personal experience, there is a strong correlation between people who love games (especially RPGs) and PCG and people who love drawing maps. Maybe they do not do that all at the same level. Someone may be a professional mapmaker drawing maps every day; others are hobbyist mapmakers who enjoy looking or thinking at their personal fictional world.

If you fall into this category (as I do), Ex Novo is the game for you. Ex Novo is a playable city-generator with the goal of constructing fictional villages and towns, and it can be played alone or with friends.

Ex Novo is a prime example of PGC as a game. The entire goal of the game is to draw a map of a fictional city. Players’ enjoyment comes solely from filling in the details and the backstory of that piece of the world using suggestions from a random pool of events.

An example map taken from the official website.
Figure 2. An example map taken from the official website.

The game goes like this: you draw a bare “landscape” (always selected randomly from a table using dice), and then each player plays their turn. A random event is drafted randomly in each turn, and the player needs to narrate the event and update the map accordingly.

Some events may hint a faction taking power over another, or it can suggest an incoming war or the destruction of a district. The entire game lies in the creation of the city map and history.

Sure, Ex Novo could be just a tool to generate maps and background info for fiction or RPGs sessions (and I definitely used it for that), but the process itself is fun.

You can check this game on the official page.

Ex-Umbra

Ex Umbra Logo

As you can imagine from the look similarity, Ex Umbra is a spin-off of Ex Novo, and they share the same game approach. However, this time, you are not building a city; you are building a single dungeon (for instance, it may be located in the city you just created on Ex Novo).

The game is slightly more complicated than Ex Novo and, I think, it is more suitable for people that really love “dungeons” and RPGs. For instance, it uses cards and tokens, which is a bit more constrained than its “parent.”

A set of examples taken from the Ex Umbra home page.
Figure 3. A set of examples taken from the Ex Umbra home page.

Nevertheless, it is a nice game both for “just playing” and for creating dungeons to be used in other places (such as D&D sessions).

Check the game on Ex Umbra’s home page

RISE

Rise

RISE is similar to Ex Umbra in its core idea: the goal is to build a dungeon. However, it is more structured, and it is for solo playing only. See that like a tabletop version of Dungeon Keeper (Bullfrog Productions, 1997) . There are more rules to follow, and the game also includes units, stockpiles, resources and everything else is needed for a nice dungeon management game. So, in some sense, PCG is not only the entirety of the game like in the previous games. Nevertheless, it plays an important role.

The randomness source is a simple deck of cards. Every turn, you draw a card and see what you need to do. For instance, imagine you draw a 3 of ❤. The seed means that the new “room” you opened contained resources, so you add 3 resource points to your pool. If you draw a J♣, then this means that you found some natural formation. You go to the table, and you read the J♣:

Look, Keeper! An oubliette! This terrible prison contains a powerful monster (40 STR) which might join us if we let it out. If you do, roll 1D4. On a 1, it is friendly. Otherwise, combat starts.

As you can see, the game also contains combat, but because it is not PCG related, I will not go into details.

Anyway, I am not giving justice to this game. It is way cooler than how I am describing it. You should really check it out. (or check the various variants: DELVE – the dwarves non-evil version, and UMBRA – the Sci-Fi version).

You can check the game (and the other variants) on RISE official home page.

The Deep Forest

The Deep Forest is another PCG game for 2-4 players: this time no solo play. I cannot describe it better than the official manual:

This is a map-drawing game. You collectively explore the struggles of a community of monsters, trying to rebuild and heal after driving off the human occupiers. It’s a game about community, difficult choices, and decolonization. When you play, you make decisions about the community, decisions that get recorded on a map that is constantly evolving. Parts of the map are literal cartography, while other parts are symbolic. Players work together to create and steer this community, but they also play devil’s advocate and introduce problems and tensions into the game.

Each turn represents a week (52 cards = 52 weeks, after all) and every card seed is a season (how convenient!). Every turn you chose a card and follows the rules to rebuild the community (or until the King of Spades, the Hero, abruptly ends the game).

This game is more role-playing that the others and it is for these reasons that there is no solo playing. The map here is not the core of the game, the real game is the emerging narrative and the story the players create.

Give it a try. It is free, after all.

Conclusions

Here I presented five games based on “stuff” creation (maps, town, dungeons, and full-fledged stories). They are really fascinating games that I encourage you to check out. I like these creation-based games a lot. They are the perfect middle point between my love for creation and my love for games.

Have you played any of them? Do you know other games like this? What are your favorites? Let me know!

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