Harpbeat

A game for an even number of people

Mechanic
Two people make up a string: when the invisible line between them is crossed or broken, they both sound their note. Each end of a string should choose the same note to sing: sounds are fine, but words and complex phrases are probably going to complicate things a bit. Groups of strings together make up a harp: if someone walks between all the pairs of the players (or plucks the strings of the harp) at the right speed then a tune gets played.

Building blocks

  • Strings (pairs of players: one pair is one string)
  • Harps (groups of strings. For the moment let’s aim for no more than 5 strings per harp)
  • A plucker (non-player: their job is to walk a continuous and predictable path at a regular rate, around which harps arrange themselves)
  • Conductor (non-player: their job is to set the tune that the harps are trying to produce and to generally organise things)
  • An audience (made up of all the other strings who aren’t in a harp just now, plus anyone passing)

Story
The usual arrangement for concerts is to have clever players and stupid instruments. In Harpbeat, the instrument is clever and the player is the mindless one. Players make up harps, which have to work to make sure the player plays the right tunes on them.
[The point of this is to ensure that the harps have some kind of pressure or tension they need to resolve (in order to make this a gamey activity), without being in direct competition with the plucker (because after all he could just walk away and win, if his intent was to thwart their efforts). Having an inexorable and non-negotiable force to work around should produce enough frustration/tension to make it fun, without setting up an empty competition between the harps and the plucker.]

Gameplay
The conductor sings the tune for the first harp to try and mimic. Harps have to:

  • Choose notes for each string
  • Work out how they’ll arrange themselves around the plucker
  • Go and do it

The audience respond appropriately. The other harps have a turn at the same tune (with their audiences responding in kind), after which the conductor decides which harp got the most positive response from the audience (the winner!).

This basic model of gameplay can be made more challenging, which would probably be welcome after people have had a go at the first tune. For example, tunes could use the same note more than one time (conductor adjusting gameplay) or they could be played faster (the plucker adjusting gameplay), or just be more complicated (conductor again).

Making it harder (variables to tweak)
The factors that members of strings have to balance when aiming for the correct tune are:

  • Pitch (can you sing the sound you’re meant to?)
  • Tune complexity (can you remember it? How many notes are in it? What does that mean for your performance?)
  • Location (are you standing in the right place in relation to the rest of your harp?)
  • Speed (what happens if the plucker speeds up?)

Of these, the best candidates for tweakery are probably speed and complexity, given that these dictate the others, or at least make them harder. Speed is a pretty straightforward variable to tweak (the plucker just walks faster) and the only thing to say about that is probably to warn pluckers not to go too fast without realising; don’t tweak it by accident. Tune complexity needs looking at more carefully, I think.

The main things that go to make up the complexity of a tune here are length (testing the memory and the amount of time people have to not screw up for) and the number of notes involved. The number of notes involved itself complicates things in two ways: more notes (more people) makes harps larger, and so more complicated to manage, and repeating notes makes greater logistical demands on the harps, as they scramble in a confined space (the plucker’s path) to get themselves in the right places in time. Tune complexity probably gives us the best opportunity for structuring the experience of the players, and as messing around with too many variables gets difficult, let’s limit the size of harps straight away and aim for no more than 5 notes in a song for the moment.
So.
First tune: uses 5 notes, no repeated notes (close encounters), 5 notes sound
Second tune: uses 5 notes, first and last note the same, 6 notes sound
Third tune: uses 5 notes, first note is the same as the third note, 6 notes sound.
Needs a bit of work. For example, do we want a silent string, to act as a rest/”note-off” option allowing us to repeat notes immediately (allowing us to do twinkle twinkle?)

The other stuff
Costumes: does the conductor dress up? Does he have a melodica instead of a baton? Does the plucker have headphones in, listening to something else? Can we get hold of an electric wheelchair and sellotape the joystick in a circle, letting the plucker go to sleep/be unconscious/be wearing a blindfold?

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