Designer Diary: Police Precinct

Welcome to my blog about the creation of Police Precinct, a semi-cooperative game about police work, crime and corruption...
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Police Precinct: Thoughts behind the theme and the gameplay design

Ole Steiness
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Hello, and welcome to my blog where I talk about the different parts of creating Police Precinct, currently available at Kickstarter, with a short video presentation and all:

The idea
Like many others, I’ve always loved watching police television shows and movies, but I had yet to find a board game about law enforcement. The ones I found were either kids games, or fantasy/super hero games. I wanted something closer to real police work, as I find the theme meaty enough for an exciting game, without having to boost it with magic, super powers, monsters, space ships, aliens, steam punk or the like. On the other hand, I did not want to make a documentary style game with lots of paper work and tedious assignments; I was going for the 80’s TV shows and movies (the Eddie Murphy era, you could say) style and pace, and it would of course need tension and action to be exciting to play. I also wanted it to look and feel like you are actually being a cop handling tense situations and ultimately arresting criminals, in a not-too-simple and not-too-hard game that could be played by most gamers.

Basic game play
I knew from the start that I wanted the players to work together to first and foremost solve a murder crime by moving around a city, by collecting clues, interview witnesses, interrogate suspects, read autopsy reports and so forth. Classic crime scene investigation stuff, translated into a replayable game. By classic I do not mean Agatha Christie / Arthur Conan Doyle murder mysteries (you can have Clue and Mystery Express for that), but rather realistic police work – again, because I find that interesting in itself.

Pandemic crime
I also wanted spice things up by having crime incidents occur throughout the city, requiring police attention, thereby diverting resources away from the actual murder investigation, and having the players choosing what to deal with, from turn to turn. As criminal incidents, I got inspiration from Pandemic, but instead of infection cubes I had three kinds of street crime, and they would be randomly distributed between six different areas, called Bad Neighborhoods, on the game board , as the game progressed. If the police did not respond in time, the precinct would drown in crime, which would turn organized and make things even harder, before finally failing the game for the cops.
The three kinds of street crime was eventually simplified into just one type of crime, as the Event Cards got introduced, and finally they changed from crime to criminals, since it felt less abstract to deal and move around with criminal persons, instead of a token simply depicting a criminal event.

There is something rotten in the precinct
I love Pandemic, but I am not too happy about the fact that there is no player opposition, compared to e.g. the traitor in Shadows Over Camelot and the Cylons in Battlestar: Galactica. It did not take me long to decide to add a corrupt cop, secretly working against the other players. The corrupt cop introduced suspicion and meant that people could question each other, when somebody kept looking at new cards at a murder scene, but never finding anything useful (“is he just unlucky, or is he in fact tampering with evidence?”). This is a feature I have kept right to the end, but I’ve also made it possible for players to play it as a truly cooperative game.

Murder investigation
For a long time, I kept the main game focus on the murder investigation itself, and I tried to be faithful to how actual murder investigation would be carried out: You would have to first locate the body, and then work the crime scene to find trace evidence, examine the body, find and interview the witnesses, find the suspect matching the witness description, interview relatives and neighbors (to find the motive), and then, when you had enough physical evidence and suspect, players would go the the crime lab and compare DNA, finger prints, etc., and then confront the suspect with the hard evidence, as well as witness statements. The suspect would then be able to claim an alibi, which the players would have to get confirmed, or better, disproved. Finally, you could take the suspect to court and have him admit the crime, thereby winning the game for the good cops.

Another gruesome murder: Killing your darling
At some point I added the Event Card deck, which presents various random events and emergencies for the players to deal with, to nuance the game a bit, and to give players more things to deal with. An emergency card presented a challenge with a difficulty to beat, by rolling dice according to your level of skill in that area. It turned out pretty nice, and it gave an opportunity to have players help each other by assisting on location, and by playing cards.
However, with street crime, emergencies and advanced murder investigation, things just got too complex to explain to new gamers, and I did not want to scare away people. So even though the crime investigation mechanic worked very well, I decided to simplify it, but still keeping it faithful to the theme. For this to make any sense, I presented the players with a prime suspect from the start, a gang leader which everybody knows carried out the murder, but has yet to prove. To prove the criminal deed and convict the murderer, I decided to simply have the players go and investigate at different locations, to collect evidence, witness statements, autopsy reports, etc., but it was simplified so that you do not have to actually compare finger prints now, or match witness descriptions with suspects, and stuff like that.
I found it pretty hard to simplify this part, but the murder crime investigation had just gotten too complex, combined with all the other elements in the game. I did, however, keep the thematic crime investigation board, and the players are still tasked with filling it out with classic crime evidence and statements.

Hitting the sweet spot
I think I ended up on some nice spot between a modern murder crime investigation game and a more tense and action packed emergency response game. What I ended up with feels like a board game version of a mix between the COPS TV drama documentary, Beverly Hills Cop and CSI TV show, and I hope that this shines through in the game and lets the player take on any police role that they like in the game: Do you want to actively fight street crime? Fine, jump in a patrol car and rush out to the crime infested Bad ‘Hoods. Do you want to be a clever crime investigator? Fine, flip your car token to an unmarked car, and go search the crime scene, interview witnesses and look at autopsy reports, to solve the murder case.
I set out to create a game that really encompasses the police genre - I wanted the police theme to mix with the game mechanic and end up having the actual gameplay situation look like a still from a police TV show.

I think it worked out well – for me, theme and feel is exactly as important as the gameplay mechanic. I am just excited to see how the final art will look
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