My favorite experiences involve contrasts. This is why games that mostly lean into a power fantasy, or games that try too hard to create a gritty experience, only hold my interest for a short time. When I designed Tides of Gold, I wanted to explore a game that tried to weave these two elements together. The fantastical experiences would be inspiring and fun, but the difficult decisions would introduce a sense of meaningful, weighty decisions.
There were two reasons for this.
One, I know in my game groups, our desire to play something light or challenging can be heavily influenced by real life circumstances. I wanted a game that allowed groups to adapt the tone of their campaign session-to-session, depending on their mood and IRL circumstances..
Two, my strongest memories in game campaigns are the bittersweet ones. The sessions that mixed humor with loss, heroic success with sacrifice, or over-the-top antics with a serious underlying theme. I wanted to design a game intended to create these moments more often in play: the contrast of inspiring and gritty.
The rest of this post is going to review how I designed Tides of Gold with this contrast in mind.
Tides of Gold is a somewhat deceptive game. If you skim through the world you will see a lot of elements that appeal to power fantasies: become super-powered pirates fighting sea monsters and building your fortune. If you play about 1-3 sessions, you'll experience epic raids, swashbuckling, stunning moments of magic, and earn heaps of gold. Unlike Blades in the Dark, your characters use an emotional anchor to cope with stress rather than a vice, and if you become overstressed you get unmoored (i.e. homesick) rather than tramautized.
It can all feel like a Saturday morning cartoon. And this is by design.
But stick around a little longer, and reality starts to gnaw at you.
Anytime you take a downtime phase, to recover from harm or decrease your stress or train some skills, you get raided by competing factions. And all that gold you built up? The more you have, the more dangerous (and costly) the raid. So you should probably invest that gold into the long-term improvement of your pirate operation.
But as it turns out...everything in the world costs money. Want to stay in port for downtime? Costs money. Want to take some more downtime actions? Cost money. Want to convince someone to work for you? Costs money. Oh yeah, you felt homesick but didn't want to spend downtime reconnecting with your anchor? Costs money. Repair your ship which got damaged during one of those heroic escapades? Costs money.
You can choose not to pay for most of these services, but now you're accumulating a debt in that port. You can avoid that port...but there are only 9 ports total, and eventually, you'll have to pay.
The game also requires you crew to maintain its momentum. The game has four distinct phases: scores (basically your pirate raids/operations), downtime (recovering and pursuing personal goals), trade (selling cargo and learning about lucrative opportunities), and an odyssey phase (sailing across the ocean). There is no required order for the phases, just two restrictions. One, you can't repeat a phase immediately, you have to complete a different phase before returning to it. Two, you have to go to a port for downtime within a set number of phases (defined by your ship model). And downtime in port is when you pay coin to dock and risk getting raided by other factions.
Oh and one more restriction: the number of actions you can take during a trade phase is limited by the crew's Wealth level. In the beginning, you can sell the cargo you stole OR you can search the market for good deals OR you can hunt around for rumors of lucrative targets OR you can invest your gold to work towards raising your crew's Wealth rating. In between you have to engage in a phase with some risk attached to it: raids during downtime, conflict filled adventure during a score, or threats on the high seas during an odyssey.
This means any efforts to improve your crew long term, or sell cargo for money, requires you to take risks. As play continues, the rotation of phases means the players have a lot of control over how they pursue success, but it also means they have to constantly be on the move. The ship is their home now; they can't stay in any other place for very long.
All of these risks occur within a setting defined by competition. Every score has to be against another faction. That means one, you're making enemies, and two, conflict is inevitable. How the characters approach that conflict will add another form of pressure: your notoriety level.
Each time you enter downtime, you update the crew's notoriety level. If you engaged in a score or if you entered into any conflict with another faction (e.g. refused to pay a rival faction for permission to use their waters during an odyssey phase), you increase your notoriety. A standard, contained operation nets you 2 notoriety, but it can range from 1-6. Even that number can climb. Was killing involved? Another 2 notoriety. Oppose a well known or well conected faction? Or attack a faction within hostile turf? +1 notoriety for each. The tracker maxes out at 9 notoriety. Which means the average PC group will max out their notoriety in 2-3 encounters (because let's be honest, a lot of PCs default to solving problems with killing.)
When you max out your notoriety, you run into a simple truth: pirates are criminals. Your average citizen does not like them. If the crew fills their notoriety tracker, every citizen faction is at war with them. Now docking in port for downtime costs more money, and you get fewer actions during downtime because you aren't welcome.
In Blades in the Dark, if you max out your Heat (its version of notoriety), you gain a Wanted level and restart the tracker. In Blades, the wanted level will make entanglements during downtime more dangerous.
Tides doesn't have the same release valve. There is one notoriety tracker: it goes up and it goes down, but there is no reset.
Narratively, the game takes place across three continents and the ocean they share. There is no centralized authority to track down wanted criminals. In fact, the authorities are basically pirates themselves. So the concept of being "wanted" and arrested doesn't make sense. But in this trade-connected world, reputation is important, and that spreads. People won't throw you into prison, but they will charge you more for their business and hurry you on your way.
Mechanically, Tides is a game about the pressure of competition. If you could clear your notoriety that would (even temporarily) release the pressure. Similarly, going to prison as characters doesn't connect to the main theme of the game, and releases pressure either by eliminating a PC or skipping forward in time. In this world, you have to learn to manage the pressure: learn to operate quietly, be nonviolent, or (as in all problems in this world) build up enough money to make your problems go away. In a related way, the severity of downtime raids (the Tides equivalent of Blades' entanglements) is based on the money you have built up. It serves to underscore that in a competitive world, success makes you a target. Something like a Wanted level doesn't really fit into that mechanic.
Tides of Gold is fundamentally about marrying the power fantasy of adventure with the difficult choices of surviving within a cutthroat society. Not the violent everyone-will-kill-you cutthroat world like most dark or gritty fantasy, but the more pressurized, slow crush of a money driven society.
And that's where we find the long-game of Tides: learning to succeed in this competitive world. Each time you increase your Wealth you get to expand your operation's Fame, Fleet, or Bribery power. Which means eventually you become the one controlling the ports, the seas, and the markets. It just takes learning to keep notoriety down, building alliances with other factions for help, playing the trade phase and dynamic markets to your advantage. And doing it as pirates who can command marvelous automatons and swoop in and save your crewmates from certain death and inspire downtrodden citizens to rally to your cause.
Learning starts in session three or four. When one or more of your PCs is injured, the citizenry is at war with you, your early success has drawn the attention of a dangerous raid, your ship needs repairs, and the markets just shifted, devaluing the cargo in your hull. In that moment you realize the fantasy of doing whatever you want has a cost. Now your options are limited.
But how you fight back is left wide open.
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.