Jason Rohrer makes simple games that challenge perceptions more than they challenge reflexes. His fleeting Passage is a sober meditation of mortality. Sleep is Death plays like a tool for communal story-telling, where an all-powerful game master and along-for-the-ride actor negotiate for control of the plot.
Diamond Trust of London is a digital board game meant to be played head-to-head using two Nintendo DS handhelds. Players compete to score diamonds in Angola and ferry them back to their respective headquarters in either London or Antwerp. The game appears very simple at first blush, but complexity bears out in mechanics that would be hard to pull off on a table top. That’s because much of the decisions in Diamond Trust of London are done in secret. Players huddle over their handhelds plotting, bribing and finagling, hoping to outsmart their competitors and score the most loot to sell back home.
Here’s how it works: Before each month of business players plot their moves in secret, dispatching their agents to regions of Angola, paying said agents for their loyalty and bribing their competitors. A successful bribe will reveal your rival’s planned movements and grant you the opportunity to adjust your plans. This angling makes Diamond Trust of London more than a mere game of logistics and resource management. Played against another human it becomes a game of deception and wits. Know the person on the other side of the screen and you gain an advantage. Unless said person knows you just as well.
The game comes with several levels of AI to play against, but the computer is useful mostly as tutorial. Things truly bear out when played against another human. When it comes to deception there’s only so much a computer program can fake. Wheel and deal against friends and you’ll see their personalities come out in their dealings. Play against a stranger and the way they do business will reveal much about their personality. To encourage folks to get together and play Diamond Trust of London generously allows you to beam copies of the game out to other people’s Nintendo DS handhelds. One cart can see an entire party of diamond dealers. Such parties make for fabulous palate cleansers on board game days.
Play with two carts and each player gets their own adaptive chiptune soundtrack by Tom Bailey. The music transitions between themes when players make decisions, creating a unique vibe for each player. When you’re not playing the card doubles as an “infinite music generator.” Close the DS and put on headphones and the procedurally generated music will automatically flow from theme to theme, providing an endless stream of the game’s tracks.
Jason Rohrer’s previous games often had much to say about the way we live, die and all the stuff we do in between. It is tempting to search for some kind of commentary in this particular game’s theme. Diamond Trust of London offers no overt judgments around the business of the gem trade, but the rules of the game encourage the leveraging of your riches to stack the deck in your favor. Rather than attempt to create a narrative that paints the business as exploitative or dishonest, Roher uses the game’s underlying mechanics to paint the undertaking as one that encourages and maybe even requires misdeeds.
Political implications aside Diamond Trust of London is not just a success in design, but also one of creation. The game’s production on a physical Nintendo DS cart was likely no easy task for a fiercely independent designer without the backing of a major publisher. But crowdsourced financing from Kickstarter and angel investors made Diamond Trust of London a reality and, very likely, a soon-to-be collectible object d’ art. Sounds like a good subject for a strategy game.
Gus Mastrapa is a freelance writer from Apple Valley, CA. His work has appeared in Edge, Variety and Wired. Follow him on Twitter: @Triphibian.