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Designer Diary & Game Preview: Gunship: First Strike!

Steve Wood
United States
Virginia
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Gunship: First Strike! A hit on Kickstarter and soon available as a PreOrder!
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It's taken twenty long years to get Gunship: First Strike! from the drafting table to the gaming table. This is the story of how my initial concept evolved over many years to turn into something quite different. It's also a story of why you should never give up. I hope that you guys can take something from it.

Gunship: First Strike! started out in 1991 when I was 19 years old as a project to help me deal with a bad break-up. Total immersion in an artistic project is great medicine. The first attempt was called Space Mania and had a system based on the great board game, Block Mania. Any of you who have played that game will see a lot of similarities between the Blocks and the ship below this paragraph. In 1991 there was NO computer-aided design software for guys like me. I'm not saying that it didn't exist, but I certainly did not have it and I had no graphics training in any event. My first boards and cards were all painstakingly hand-drawn and colored in with pencils. I had to create templates with chip board in order to create uniform elements. It took forever – and this was all based on the hope that Games Workshop would even WANT a new board game based on one of its titles that had not been in production for several years, created by a teenager that no one had ever heard of. But it gave me something to do, some hope that one day I would have the skills and experience needed to create my own game.


The game was playtested here and there, forgotten about when the next girlfriend came around, dragged back out during periods of boredom (or break-ups). The years went by, I grew into my 20s, got my first apartment, worked as a waiter here and there. Sometimes I would get inspired and work on it for a few weeks or months, sometimes the board you see here would sit on my drafting table and collect dust. We are in the mid-1990s now: still no major computer help, no massive Internet, and NO BGG.

In 1996 I moved into a more stable environment, moved from the constant party atmosphere of the apartment into a townhouse with my soon-to-be wife. During this time I was able to spend more time working on the game (now titled Battlecruiser Blitz) and had gotten better at drawing and design – as you can hopefully see in the picture at right – but it was still grueling work.

At this point, Kinko's became available and I would make copies there after my long restaurant shifts, usually around 2 or 3 in the morning. I copied things, cut them out with scissors, and glued them onto the board one at a time. I think at one point there was a spill and I had to start all over again. Heck, I am sure that as picky as I am, I probably started all over again several times. A computer would have been great, but the Internet was just getting started, and we were newly married and couldn't afford one – and even if we did have a computer, how was I going to get training? I had no choice but to keep drawing, keep coloring, and keep slogging it out.

But I was getting a little older and starting to realize that this game had way too many pieces (tons of cardboard chits and markers), very complicated rules, and a combat and movement system based entirely on someone else's game. There was no Google or practical way to get in touch with Games Workshop in England to obtain permission. I didn't even know how to ASK permission. I was a young man in his mid-20s with no CLUE what licensing meant or how a business worked. I'm glad that I never pursued this as I would have been shot down in flames, but I still showed the game to anyone who would listen. I worked on new mechanisms and thought of new cards and ways of doing things. This game was never going to go anywhere – but a few years later I got my first break...

In 1999, my game was not doing anything big, but it made a great piece for my artistic portfolio. I decided that waiting tables was not the way to work my way into graphic design, so I started walking into sign and print shops to start a new career. I was turned away several times due to lack of software experience, but when I showed the game to this one place, I was lucky enough to get a chance from a man who ran the smallest sign shop in town. I still owe him a huge debt of gratitude for changing my life, and he is still a friend. Steve M. trained me how to use the graphics software CorelDRAW and I was on my way.

After a few months of learning the basic functions, I created what you see to the left. Yes, it is 8-bit in appearance, the colors are too bright, and it has other flaws – but NOW I had a computer to help me. If you look closely, you will see the little escape pods that years later would become the logo for Escape Pod Games!

Instead of taking hours to draw something that did not work out in playtesting, I could delete it in seconds, try again, and reprint in no time. Although the pic here still says Battlecruiser Blitz, the game had been scaled WAY down to two smaller ships with new objectives and was now called Red Alert! (I would still use that name today if it were not the property of the Star Trek franchise and related games.)

I was happy with my new design tools, but Red Alert was awful. I had to abandon all of the systems that I had borrowed from Block Mania a decade earlier. I had some good ideas, but I was basically starting from scratch and had little time for playtesting. I was working full-time, a lot of friends were getting married and getting jobs – doesn't that just KILL gaming? – and the project sort of went away for a few years again. Instead I started making accessories for Axis and Allies, designing some cards and decals that did pretty good for a while.

But I did not want to spend the rest of my life designing stuff for other people's games – not to mention the risk of a cease-and-desist letter when Avalon Hill suddenly starting making the game again after nearly twenty years. Thus, the space game would reemerge yet again...

At this point we are in the early 2000s. (The exact years start to get hazy for me.) My design skills are getting better as I work as a graphic designer for Steve M.'s brother Ethan (who is still my boss to this day).

As you can see in the pic at right, the old ship is now surrounded by interior spaces. I had decided that the cardboard chit system for the crew, etc. was just too dated and boring, so I was playing around with plastic pieces and trying to create a whole new interior combat system. It was starting to take shape, but once again it was just missing something.

During this period I was really starting to get frustrated. I had been at this for a really long time, yet was getting absolutely nowhere. I had no friends left to do much playtesting, but I had this strong desire to publish a game. I had promised my wife time and time again that THIS was the version that was going to make it, but I was never satisfied. It was starting to get embarrassing. People would ask, "Whatever happened to that game you were going to make?" and all I could say in return was that it was still not ready.

But this version, still called Red Alert, introduced me to some concepts that could work; I just needed more time and more pieces to the puzzle.

Two or three more years passed. I was making a good living, and my wife and I got our first new cars. I started channeling my creativity and sign shop skills into creating carbon fiber parts for the car show crowd. I dumped $10,000 into turning my car into a show car. Once again, I was doing something with someone else's invention. Was I just going to enhance the work of others, or was I going to come up with something of my own? Something that could be truly great? I did not know it, but I was almost there.

The ship at left does not look like a breakthrough, does it? But one day I was bored at work and started playing around with the game again. What if I abandoned the whole concept and started from scratch again, BUT could find a way to keep all of the weapons and some of the best game mechanisms?

This game needed a complete overhaul, and I had nothing to lose. It was then that I decided to create a top view and use cards to keep track of damage – but it didn't stop there. By adding cards to the board, we could create customization. You could pick which weapons you wanted and simply play them on the board – easy and inexpensive. Hey, we can do a shield card, and when you took a hit of damage, you'd have to discard a shield. That's much more fun than tokens – and who doesn't like cards?

Cards could be played from your hand onto the board and show different levels of damage so that the ship would start to look damaged. Oh, we could have Upgrade cards for the generators, etc. and let people build their own ships based on the type of "battle personality" that they have. Isn't the coolest thing about the Millenium Falcon the fact that Han Solo has built and upgraded the thing to his own specs from all kinds of parts?

The ideas started to flow like crazy. All of the mechanisms, all of the rules, all of the weapons, and equipment, and crew – they all came back to me...as cards.

Take a good look and you can see that this ship has a familiar shape. Yep, I took the shape of the previous side-view version, made a copy, mirrored it, and welded them together. A piece of the old became the foundation for the new. In fact, lots of pieces from all of the old versions were coming back and fitting into this new game like missing pieces from an old puzzle. I had found new hope: My design skills were improving each year, and I had a new advantage that I never had before – a neighbor who was ready and willing to conduct daily playtesting. Things were starting to gel!

(Hey, I know it's a long story, but we're getting to the good part! Go ahead and grab a sandwich or something. We'll still be here!)

Chris Saladyga and I had met in my driveway talking about some neighborly thing or another. Turned out we were both gaming geeks, and we started getting together for the occasional game of D&D with his friend Barry Jurek. Chris, Barry and I formed the nucleus of Escape Pod Games after I brought the game over one day to try it out.

Ideas were debated, tested, changed and perfected; the game grew and evolved at a rapid pace. A campaign system was developed to keep us from getting bored with the constant playtesting. Having a couple of like-minded guys to talk about this stuff with had a great effect. My design skills were getting better and better, but it was still not good enough to sell to the general public. That was okay, though, as we knew that we were on to something.

I started handing out fliers for open playtesting at the FLGS, and eventually I had regular playtesting with several groups of people. Everyone loved it. I had a great flow of ideas going, and I got opinions from every type of gamer. I'm not going to reveal what the game was titled at the time because it is a great name that we intend to use later and it also gives away a few things – but let me say that Gunship: First Strike! and its expansions are just the prequels for it (for reasons to be explained below).

Steve Mehr joined me around this time and became my most loyal and enthusiastic teammate. Steve and I played this game a LOT. Finally, after a year or so of this, we decided that we were probably close to moving toward production. We researched companies to print the various components (using my contacts in the sign and printing industry) and got pricing together. Just two problems: The artwork was not good enough, despite what my friends and family said, and the economy hit the brick wall of the mid-2000s. I was not going to be able to borrow any more money against my house, and Kickstarter didn't even exist.

I finally had a great game but no way to do anything about it. No one would consider doing fewer than 5,000 copies at ten bucks each. We had a great game with poor artwork and needed $50,000 in a bad economy. I shelved the project for what I thought was the last time. Maybe one day I would hit the lottery and dig it up, but it did not look promising – yet we are almost to the happy ending.

The game had been shelved for a couple of years or so, and I was facing tough times in my personal life. My wife had cancer and was undergoing treatment for around a year. Chemotherapy makes people sleep a lot while their body recovers, and I found myself with a lot of alone time on my hands. This, and the frustration and terror of almost losing my wife, required me to find an escape. I decided to mess around with the game a bit, if only to pass the time and take my mind off things. I wanted to go back in time and create a prequel for the game, as I thought that going at it from an entirely new angle might prove to be an interesting diversion. I was writing rules and designing again, and I felt alive for the first time in years. By now, I was more than familiar with BGG, and I figured I would take a look around the Board Game Design Forum to see whether I could find any new resources, etc. This is when I hit the jackpot.

By looking at two or three random threads, I found that not only had print-on-demand board game printing made huge leaps, but there was this cool new thing called Kickstarter where people could get funded. All I needed to do now was figure out how to handle my artwork and maybe we could have a go at this.

I did some research for a sci-fi artist and stumbled upon Luca Oleastri. In February of 2011, I sent him an email to see whether he was interested in working with me and requested pricing, attaching a copy of what I had already come up with.

What I got back a few days later was the single most important element of the whole project. Luca took my design and created what was the most beautiful sight I had seen since I started this thing. (See pic at left.) And he didn't even charge me for it! Ever since that day I have had an artist to work with that absolutely nails everything I ask for. He gives me a great price and has also become a great friend. Several months later, we had all of the artwork we could ever need to create a professional game. The box and rulebook were the last two details.(Writing the rulebook was the hardest part of the whole adventure.) After twenty years, the game was finally ready! An awesome website was launched (with the help of another BGG member who has become one of my newest and best friends), and the word continues to spread.

And here is the final Gunship as seen in our prototype from China (another company we never would have found without seeing a banner ad on BGG).

I have enjoyed the nostalgia of sitting here and going back over the years to put this together for you. I know that I can be long-winded and that maybe you were not expecting my whole autobiography, but this is how our game was created. As you can see, it has been a very long time in coming.

•••


With that history out of the way, let's look at how the game plays. Gunship is a tactical space combat game, but it is more than that. It is an entire new SYSTEM with big plans for the future. (Whether or not it HAS a future will be decided by you in the coming days!)

Gunship has no galactic map, no political intrigue, and no resources. Gunship is a BRAWL. You and your opponent custom-build powerful attack vessels and square off in close combat. There are no hexes to count as for the most part, your target is always in range – and so are YOU!

Each of you has your Gunship, a Fighter Squadron, and an Assault Carrier to use as a base. The objective is to destroy the other guy's Carrier. Game play is fast and furious. The Carriers fire long-range shots at each other while you engage your Fighters in dogfights and try to catch the enemy Gunship unescorted for a quick strafing run. The Fighters can't hurt the Carriers – unless you are using the optional kamikaze rules! – but the Gunships are MADE for it. Swoop in for an attack run on the opposing Carrier and nail it with a torpedo – or maybe drop a wingful of thruster bombs for maximum damage. Of course, you'll never do either of these if you don't first survive a deadly barrage of defense cannon fire!

The true stars of the game are the Gunships themselves. At the start of each game, you get to build your Gunship to your own specs using our innovative system of customization. In addition to your standard torpedo launcher, you have four weapon slots, which can be filled with blaster cannons, ion cannons, or thruster bombs. Each weapon has its own unique "personality" and effects. Different combinations allow for different tactics, and you can land inside your own Carrier at any time to switch them up. Keep in mind that while you're safely in your Carrier, the other guy will be taking full advantage of your absence!

One of the coolest features of our game is the damage tracking system. We came up with a really interesting and visual way of doing this Your Gunship starts the game shiny and new, but this won't last long! The Red Gunship below is loaded for making a run at the enemy Carrier:


Below is what it may look like when it returns! This Gunship has had a wing shot off, as well as one of its blaster cannons. Its power generator has been hit, meaning it is now at -1 action. With only one engine and ionization sparking all over the ship, it's a good idea to limp back to the Carrier for some much-needed repairs! Note that you get to actually watch your ship get dented and shot up. Your Gunship board is your tactical status report that lets you know what condition you're in and which weapons are available for attacks.


Consider Gunship: First Strike! to be your "basic training" for the long war ahead. Additional upgrades and new weapons will be launched soon to offer literally hundreds of possible Gunship types for any mission! We're planning new scenarios where you can break orbit and send your Gunships and Fighters down to the surface to engage Tanks and Infantry. Bigger (and meaner) capital ships are just a hyperspace jump away from the action. We plan to fully support our system for years to come if we can get the core game off the ground. I've had plenty of time to get this right, and we have tons of fully-playtested toys to send straight to the assembly lines!

Here are some of the cards that can be used by your Gunship:


Gunship uses cards, boards and dice together in an innovative and exciting way. Some of you may think dice + cards = luckfest, and while there IS a certain random quality (just like real combat), there is also room for quite a bit of strategy and tactics. First, you need to decide what kind of Gunship to build. You have to make sure that you keep the Fighters involved in the right way. There's damage control to manage: Should you raise a shield, or do you need to get that blaster cannon back online? Do you have time to make one last "pit stop" in the Carrier, or should you take your shieldless and battered ship in for one last attack run that might win the game? Plan your turns well because each one counts. Most games are won or lost by a mere handful of hit points!

From the hand of cards that can be played a number of different ways, to the tense decisions that you are sometimes forced to make, Gunship offers a dynamic and (more importantly) FUN space battle experience! If this isn't enough detail, you can head to the Escape Pod Games website for the complete rulebook. If you're more the visual type, here is a quick video of our playtest copy from the publisher, so you have an idea of how it all fits together. (Note: These are NOT the real components!)



Gunship comes with everything that you see here. There's plenty of room in the plastic tray insert for more cards, tokens, etc., and we plan to fill them to overflowing in the coming months!


I've had the pleasure of meeting a lot of you and discussing Gunship during the last several months. I honestly feel that I could not have gotten this far without BGG, and I would be honored to be able to finally bring this game to you and create a new sci-fi universe for you guys to fight in. I know that a lot of you are ready and willing to back us, and your support is deeply appreciated. We have some great promos planned that you can have a sneak peek of on the Kickstarter page of our website. The banner ads going up next week will be your signal to attack! I hope that we can get this great game launched, and that some day this year I will have the fortune of bombing your Carriers at a con or two.

Thanks for reading!

Steve Wood
Escape Pod Games
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Subscribe sub options Mon Feb 6, 2012 8:35 pm
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