The Little Game Chef competition offers a theme each year, giving two weeks to design a roleplaying game to that theme, using a handful of “ingredients”. This year, the theme was comedy, using the ingredients “bond”, “holiday”, “starfish” and “recall”. Somewhat obsessed with the notion of “bond” as meaning “chemical bond”, I tried to create a story game using molecular models as game elements.

The resulting game, Valence, is… not good. As currently written, it’s about an eighth of a semi-interesting idea. Eero Tuovinen, one of the contest’s judges, summarized the game’s most glaring flaw, saying “the fiction does not breathe, for the game is much too concerned with making the novelty equipment work.”

Another bit of spot-on criticism comes from judge Graham Walmsley, who said “I can’t work out what a story would be like.” Part of the reason for this is that I totally failed to describe what “the Design” is or how it works. A more important part of the reason is that I’m not entirely sure what “the Design” is or how it works. What was in my head when writing it was a realm based around a sort of “dream logic”. That is, something sort of real, but where form is mutable and extremely odd events are just taken in stride, a bit like the oldest game of all from the “A Hope in Hell” issue of Sandman. Thinking about it now, the game might be better served by pitching the Design as a world of cartoon logic, where it is not out of place to, say, pull a big mallet out of thin air. Or something. If I ever figure this out, I’ll probably write a new version of the game.

I’m not sure yet if there is really a good game hidden somewhere in Valence. If there is, I suspect it will be a good deal longer. I had the definite sense when writing it that I was building an “abridged” version of what was in my head, in order to avoid violating the contest’s “make it short” directive (and, even then, the result was too long).

Of the (many) ideas in my head that I totally failed to explain in the game, one is the idea that the chemical world treats the notion of “identity” as much more fluid than the real world does. Part of the point of bonding with another atom is that you “infect” the atom with your personality and agenda, and vice versa.

One thing I thought of a bit too late was how to use the models to coerce the players into interacting with each other. If you read the game, you’ll see a lot of stuff about atomic bonds, but the game carefully avoids having the players (who all play carbon atoms) bonding to each other. Instead, maybe such bonding should be the center point of the game. This notion, combined with the “infection” mentioned above, could be fairly rich, but also runs the risk of deprotagonizing and asshattery.

A bit of criticism that I don’t totally agree with concerns the quantity of moving “props” in the game (molecular models, cards, Post-its, sheets, etc.). There certainly are quite a lot of fiddly bits; however, I’m not entirely sure that’s bad. It seems to me that the type of person who would even be attracted to playing a game that revolves around manipulating molecular models is probably exactly the type of person who actually likes a lot of fiddly bits. (I know I do.) Conversely, a person who doesn’t like fiddly bits is probably not going to like a game that requires them to mess with molecular models. Still, there is such a thing as too many fiddly bits. Food for thought.

I may have more to say about Valence in the future. It’s also totally possible that I won’t. Meanwhile, I’m releasing Valence under a liberal Creative Commons license, if you should happen to want to turn it into something playable.