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Rethinking Emissary for the "Red Frontier"

Oliver Kiley
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Ann Arbor
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Emissary is a design I’ve been iterating on for a number of years now. And while the vagaries of life pulled me away from design work, recently I’ve had a window of time to resume my eternal tinkering.

For those unfamiliar, Emissary was created for a PnP design competition to either create an express version of a bigger game or a micro-game (or both!). At the time, I was experimenting with a number of games using the Decktet system, and I came upon the idea to take Hegemonic and distill it down to its 4X roots (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) by using the decktet. The resulting design worked quite well and had a vaguely Magnate-like feel to its balance of resource management, hand management, and area control.

GAMEPLAY TUNING

Since then, it’s been a lot of fine tuning over the years to get the balance and pacing smoothed out. The biggest change has been to rethink the victory conditions to be something that doesn’t require as much arithmetic to forecast, as that can be a major source of AP or slowdown. But more importantly, I really prefer games where the victory trigger is discrete. By this, I mean games where there is a single condition that if a player meets it, they win instantly.



Taluva is a favorite game of mine. It’s an abstract tile placement game where you also have three different types of buildings to place, each with their own conditions for placement. If a player gets all of two of three types of buildings down, they win. The backup is that if you run out of tiles, the player with the most huts wins.

I looked into doing something similar to Taluva for Emissary. Eventually, I settled on a system where there are three specific objectives to work towards, and if player can complete two of three they win immediately. One objective, Might, is based on building a region of a certain size (e.g. 5-cards) and having the most influence within that region. Another objective, Economy, is based on building a trade network, with 4-cards of the same rank adjacent. The last objective, Authority, is based on having the most power on Crown cards (and least two controlled crowns).

These objectives do wonders for orienting the gameplay towards more discernable goal posts. They also create more reasons to conduct certain actions, such as “Replace” to swap cards in the map as well as Hostile actions to push players out of key cards. Of course, there is a backup goal system (a much simplified version of the original scoring system) in the event that the map is built out and no one manages to secure two objectives first.

All in all, I really enjoy Emissary and how it’s grown. The latest version of the rules contain a fair number of other streamlining steps to smooth out the actions, turn sequence, and conflicts. The result is a game that, I feel, packs a lot of punch into a small package. It accomplishes my goal of creating choices with tough trade-off decisions and opportunity costs. For example:

Quote:
* Crowns cards in your hand are strong for winning conflicts, but playing them to the map is also needed to achieve am Authority victory.

* Aces are powerful defensively, but can be discarded for three resources, which can open up a lot of options for the Influence Action.

* Getting adjacent ranked cards is great for building up resources and working towards the Economic victory, but often makes it harder to effectively network a large region of the same suit together.

* Always tough to decide what cards to discard: do you keep a card for future use on the map, for resources when you need them, for winning conflicts?

* Moving influence is a cheap way to get onto a card that would otherwise be expensive to influence, but it is less efficient in terms of actions.

* Exploring is good, but has to be timed to not give your opponent an opening to influence the card first.

* Crowns on the board can help anchor your position on the board, but they can easily cut off regions and make it hard to connect.

* Tier 1 cards are cheap to influence, but don’t let you concentrate power very well.

* Tier 3 cards can let you concentrate power, but often gives your opponent an opening to build onto them as well - and they are expensive.

* Sharing influence on an card with an opponent may get you (or them) bonus resources through trade, but might let them (or you) get closer to meeting a victory condition.

Having patted myself on the back for the design work, there still remained one further struggle.

RE-THEMING WOES

One of the big struggles in the design of Emissary, around which I finally made a breakthrough, has to do with theme. Admittedly, Emissary is quite an abstract game mechanically, and so any attempts to theme the game need to be taken with a grain of salt. That said, I was never very satisfied with my efforts to theme the game previously.

Emissary’s theme started out as a play on the Decket’s mythos about being from the land of purple and red and sending Emissary’s to gain influence among various roving clans. It sorta worked. From there I was tinkering ideas for a proper space 4X theme or alternatively some terrestrial fantasy theme.



The challenge is that the design of the game is really dual layered. One layer is the map and specific suits each cards represent. What are these suits? Roving clans? Foreign space empires? Migratory fantasy races? Floating islands? Then comes the question of what the players represent via the layer of their influence over the cards. Is your influence goodwill? Spies and secret agents? Political clout? Mechanically, it was important that a major action be the replace action, allowing you to swap cards on the map around - but it was hard to rationalize what was being swapped from a thematic standpoint.

Long story short, I settled on an idea that I finally feel excited about. It started with a Popular Mechanics article about Mars colonization, that led to me this NASA research paper, about in-situ resource utilization on the Red Planet. It’s a pretty cool read. And so it may be a tad in vogue, but the wheels were turning and I had a compelling idea for theming Emissary at last.

The basic premise is that players represent different enterprises working to prep a new frontier region of the Martian surface for colonization. This prep work is done by working with six different guilds to leverage their expertise in terraforming and building critical infrastructure. The first player able to fulfill two “contracts” (i.e two of the three special victory objectives discussed above) first gain the right to colonize the region and earns the favor of the guilds.

What does this look like in practice?

The resources used in the game, instead of being generic, can now be coupled to basic resource needs for colonization:

* Blue = Water (for drinking and irrigation)
* White = Oxygen (for breathing)
* Yellow = Silica (for glass, dome construction, solar panels)
* Orange =Iron (for construction)
* Brown = Carbon (carbon fiber, plastics, hydrocarbons)
* Green = Plants (food and fiber)

The actions, rather than being so generic, can be framed in interpreted around terraforming and infrastructure building activities:

* Explore = Survey new areas (with a bit of optional terraforming)
* Influence = Build habitat domes and machinery for resource processing
* Collect = Extract and/or produce resources (with partnerships for trading)
* Move = Migrate workers/drones to a new habitat dome
* Replace = Terraform / Reengineer (changing equipment around for a different resource)
* Oust! = Negotiate ownership

Visually, the different types of cards can reflect things in a more thematic way too:

* Origin cards = Contract cards (objectives)
* Tier 1 cards = Barren plains
* Tier 2 cards = Arid foothills
* Tier 3 cards = Rich valley
* Aces = Strategic stockpile
* Crown = Guild outpost

Obviously this retheming will require revamping the background artwork for the game. I have a few ideas for this, but it will take some tinkering before it’s ready for public consumption.

The last element, is the name of the game. While I like Emissary as a name quite a bit, it doesn’t really fit the new theme all that well. After churning through a bunch of different ideas (including lots of really bad puns) I settled on one that I like (for now): Red Frontier. Or maybe it is just Wild Red (like Wild West, but you know, on Mars). Or maybe the full name is: Wild Red Frontier. Gosh, or maybe it’s Emissary: Red Frontier. Hmmm. Seems like there is more work to do after all!

Thanks for tuning in and let me know what you think!

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Fri May 25, 2018 7:32 pm
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Lobotomy Lab: Shipwrights of the North Sea

Oliver Kiley
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Someone Call a Doctor!

So I have a problem, and the name of the problem is The North Sea Trilogy, a series of viking-themed games by Shem Phillips. I'm not usually one to be suckered into being a completion-ist. But alas I have a weakness for viking-stuff. And when that "stuff" happens to be a boardgame coupled with amazing artwork, it is hard for me to resist (apparently).

After acquiring and enjoying Raiders of the North Sea quite immensely, I soon found myself looking into Explorers of the North Sea, a Tikal-like tile placement and action point game in the same North Sea series. Shortly thereafter, when I was in the store succumbing to that temptation, sitting on the shelf right next to Explorers was of course The North Sea Runesaga, which allows you to combine Raiders, Explorers, and Shipwrights of the North Sea into one multi-game campaign. Of course that also meant that I needed to buy Shipwrights, and so oh my god, what have I done.

My wallet considerably lighter, and with smiles on the store clerks' faces, I ambled home in a state of post-purchase bliss.



It was inevitable that Shipwrights wouldn't really click with me. It was an impulse purchase and had I done my usual due diligence its shortcomings would've dissuaded me from ever purchasing it in the first place. After playing through a few partial games by myself, these flaws were immediately apparent: it is a game with fairly dull decisions coupled with far too much downtime, excessive randomness, and a playtime that overstays its welcome. If it were a 30-45 minute filler game, these faults would be more forgivable, but this is a game that can drag on for hours.

And yet I really didn't want to give up on Shipwrights. Raiders is an absolutely amazing game and one of the few worker placement games that has won me over (primarily due to the more interactive nature of the shared workers and fierce competition for raiding spots). Explorers is a solid game on its own, and seeing as I didn't have a "go to" pick-up-and-deliver game, Explorers fit the bill.

But shipwrights! What would we do with you? The prospect of playing the whole Runesaga is considerably less attractive if the opening act is destined to be a tedious slog.

Something had to be done.

Shipwrights needed a lobotomy.



Fortunately, Shipwrights feels like "almost" a solid game, but the pacing and structure of the turn sequence is all off. The ingredients are all there (components, theme, basic ideas, etc.), but the recipe is has everything put together in the wrong order.

Getting specific, here are the issues I was hoping to resolve by lobotomizing the rule set:

(1) Game lasts too long, and getting it under an hour would be great. This is partly due to the victory trigger (once a player builds their 4th ship), partly due to how slowly resources are accumulated for building the ships, and partly due to a high dose of randomness (which can drag the game out if no one gets the cards they need to build things quickly).

(2) The turn structure is dull and non-engaging for the non-active players. Normally, Shipwrights has players drafting 3 cards during each day (full game turn). Except the drafting structure is based on drafting from a single hand of cards three times - and then going around the table a fourth time with each player resolving all of their actions. Ugh. Very slow and not exciting.


The Procedure

Changes to the End Game & Victory Triggers

First, in order to shorten the game length, I made the end game trigger occur when a player has accumulated 10 victory points (instead of 4 ships). Once triggered, the current day is finished and then one final day/round is played (as normal).

Overall, this change greatly speeds up the game. It also creates a more opportunity to create more cheaper ships, which normally aren't worth much in terms of VPs, but help advance the engine building aspect of the game (constructed ships provide various bonuses and/or penalties to your engine). The game also features a bunch of buildings that are worth VP's too, but these were always very difficult to justify playing in comparison to ships. Now there are a hotter commodity.



Changes to the Turn Structure

The next big change has to do with the turn structure itself. Something I thought was brilliant about Raiders' take on worker placement was that the "place a worker, take a worker" system created a very quick rhythm in the game and minimized downtime. It also made the core action mechanic interactive and engaging for all players at the table, since you can be thinking about how your own opportunities are taking shape the entire time. Nothing like this existed in Shipwrights, despite the game feeling like there should be that feeling.

So, what I did was have every player start with a hand of 3 cards. Then, rather than drafting cards one at a time from a single hand of cards that gets passed around, I had players draft from a pool of cards in the middle of the table (pool size is one more card than the number of players in the game). AND most importantly, rather than drafting three cards across three sounds, and then going around again to play cards, each player drafts one card from the pool and then immediately does the following: play one card from your hand, take one worker action, and take one trade action (you can do these in any order).

This change to turn structure accomplished a few crucial things:

In the original rules, each player's turn could be a bit of a convoluted puzzle of deciding which order to play cards, what worker action to take, the timing of when to trade, etc. By constraining the amount you can do at any one time, player turns take less time (less giant puzzle to solve), which keeps the game moving at a brisker pace.

Secondly, having a hand of cards to play from immensely reduces the amount of randomness in the game - or at least lets players mitigate it better. In the original rules, you had to play (or else discard) every card in your hand each day. Very often you'd get stuck with cards that were useless in the present situation and did nothing to help advance your position. This would lead to a lot of turns feeling like dead turns where you could only utilize a fraction of cards (or even none of them). This also contributed to drawing out the game. But now, with having a hand of cards and only drafting and playing one at a time, the decision around what to play is much more interesting and multifaceted. Key cards can be held and played at more opportune times and dead turns are nearly eliminated.

Changes to Resource Abundance

The final bucket of changes have to do with the supply of resources and workers in the game. The biggest immediate change has to do with trading. In the original rules, trading for goods cost 2 gold and 2 workers. The awful part of this is that each worker you have at the end of day generates a gold to use next turn. Players have an incentive to just sit around and do nothing other than build up a large pool of workers so their gold engine doesn't get wrecked when you start spending workers during trade actions or for making ships. This again stalled the pace of the game.

So I merely eliminated the worker requirement for trading entirely. However, trading was also limited to only being taken once per turn, instead of an unlimited number of times as before. As each day now has three player turns (coupled to their drafting action), you can still do up to 3 trades per day, however you need to think a bit more about the timing of them. But it also avoids potential analysis paralysis stemming from having multiple trade actions all occurring at once. Again, it speeds up the game while making the decisions a little more interesting at the same time. Constraints breed depth.

I also changed the way the "Townsfolk Expansion" works. Each player turn, you can now spend one worker to take a townsfolk board action. However, instead of workers being "spent" permanently to the townsfolk board (to be swooped up by an opponent), they are now placed in a "tired" worker pool next to your player board and won't be available for other actions until the next day. Overall, this adds a bit more flexibility to how you use workers, when you spend them, and how you build up your economy.



Recovery Room

If you're curious to get the full details on the rule changes, check out this post over in the game's BGG forums. It should spell things out pretty clearly.

I've had a chance to play the game with these rule changes in effect, and I was immediately far more engaged and excited about the gameplay. As with any major surgery, there are likely to be unanticipated complications. There might be situations where certain card effects aren't less clear and/or where the balance might be off. I'm not going to lie, there might even be glaring loopholes or exploits that are enabled due to these changes. If so, we can always make another visit to the cutting room.

Your turn: Have you played Shipwrights? What are your thoughts on the original gameplay and what these changes might mean? What about the broader topic of "lobotomizing games" through a fundamental shift in their mechanics? Any candidates in need of a lobotomy?
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Fri Apr 20, 2018 9:13 pm
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Smorgasboard 2015-16: What's Going On Edition

Oliver Kiley
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Hello fellow readers! It’s been a little time since posting, but I felt a year-end recap and look-a-head into 2016 was in order. Please bear with the Smorgasboard nature of this post, but do feel free to bounce around, sampling which ever delights strike your fancy.

Today’s Menu:
- Boardgames!
- Articles & contributions!
- Wot I’m Playing!
- Game design projects!

Boardgames

I think over the past year, the nature of my boardgame playing has changed considerably. Two kids in the house, full times jobs (plus an extended sidejob), family obligations, friends having kids, my kids now also having friends, etc. introduces a set of constraints. Days spent hunkered over monstrous game boards and drowning under avalanches of meeples and hexagonal chits have dwindled.



Of course, and as I’ve mentioned before, it isn’t all bad. My daughter (now almost five) continues to like playing and “playing” with all sorts of games; and my two nephews are in the mix as well. We were on a big family trip at the end of last August and collectively played a lot of Eight Minute Empires: Legends, among other games. I had played a number of games previously, but I was surprised how much the kids really got into it. My 7-year old nephew used his allowance to buy his own copy when he returned home! While the game is somewhat dry mechanically (as a simple area control game), the artwork really makes it connect for people. I do love this game.



I also picked up Mice & Mystics over the summer, which was a big hit when trapped inside the cottage on rainy days. The Mouse Guard graphic novels have been making the rounds with the kids in the family, so the Mice & Mystics game slotted into their swirling sphere of perception nicely. It’s a well designed game and perfect for gamer dad facilitating play with the kids. The rule set is loose and flexible enough that we can take some liberties and the game doesn’t totally fall apart. My only complaint is that it can be a lot to setup and tear down quickly, and when you are working with 30 minute attention spans, I end up spending less time playing than organizing bits. But fondling bits never discouraged me … ahem …

I’ve also fallen deeply in love with Shadi Torbeys Oniverse games, as illustrated by Élise Plessis, whichincludes Onirim, Sylvion, and Castellion. First of all, the artwork and presentation is just amazing. I absolutely love the art style and how the boxes are assembled. As single-player games (or two person co-ops), Z-Man hit the mark with creating a compelling experience just in opening the box. It feels like luxury.


Image Credit: KSensei @ BGG


I’ve probably played Onirim 60+ times by now. Mostly in two-person cooperative mode with my wife. The game, in contrast to many cooperatives, feels less like a puzzle and more like a strategic thinking game. By contrast, in Forbidden Island (for instance), you can play nearly perfectly but just get screwed based on how the cards are shuffled. In Onirim, that can certainly happen, but it feels more like you have control, and if you plan and think carefully about your choices, you have ways of nearly eliminating the blind luck of the draw factor. It’s hard to describe, but the game works really well, and I haven’t even dabbled with the seven (!!) included expansions.

I play Sylvion a bunch in solo mode over the summer, and also quite enjoyed the game. The design is based on a lane defense concept, usually seen in videogames, where you are defending your forest from an on-rush fire elementals trying to burn it down. There is an interesting two-stage approach to the design, where in stage one you draft a deck, which you then use in stage two to defend. There are various strategies and synergies to pursue in how you assemble the deck, so there is lots of decision space to explore. As for Castellion, I just got it over the holidays and have only dabbled with it. Unlike the prior card-based Oniverse games, Castellion is tile-based, but I like where the design is going. More on that to come!



I also stumbled across the kickstarter for Keep and picked that up. I had a chance to get it to the table when some friends were over, and I’ve also played a bunch of the two player game with my wife. The game is a simple drafting card game (with 50-some cards) in the vein of Sushi Go. You do the usual “play cards to your tableau and then pass your hand” routine, with scoring occurring all at once at the end based on various synergies between your drafted cards. There is a nifty hidden action element to the game (that I think more could be done with), that adds some wildcards to the experience. It plays quick and is frankly all I’m asking for in a drafting game. Whereas 7 Wonders ends up feeling overwrought, here you get a game that accomplishes nearly all the same things but without the bloat. And it fits in your pocket.

Over the holiday’s I also picked up: Gubs (haven’t played), Dragonwood (meh), Friday (haven’t played, but intrigued!), Red7 (flopped), and the Mouse Guard RPG Boxed set (I’d love to start an RPG with kids in a few years, and this just might work).

One thing that unifies all of the above is that they are all smaller box games. I started out in the hobby gaming world playing more small box games (Drakon, Flux, Muchhkin - don’t judge), and in many ways it is nice coming back more towards that end of the spectrum. Especially in light of having kids with short attention spans and not having the flexibility to spend 20 minutes setting a game up in the first place! Small boxes will inherit the earth. Or something!

Articles & Contributions

I’ve continued to write a number of video game reviews and articles over at eXplorminate (which has been growing its readership steadily over the past year). A few things worth mentioning:

I had an opportunity to play and review Invisible Inc.. If you like turn-based tactics games, Invisible Inc is one of the finest I’ve ever played. It is largely focused on stealth gameplay, set in a sort of corporatized neo-Noire Dick Tracy-esque dystopian cyber-future (how’s that description!). This is like Neuromancer: The Videogame. It has a great sense of style and art direction, with the gameplay being an interwoven tapestry of stealth, spatial planning, hacking, and timing that is really quite intoxicating. One of my favorite games from the past year.

I reviewed a number of other games as well, including This War of Mine, Crowntakers, Eclipse (iOS version). This War of Mine is a pretty engrossing (though somber) survival management game. Crowntakers a pint-sized party-based roguelike romp. And Eclipse is the kingpin 4X boardgame ported to iOS. All solid and fun games in their respective genres.


"Prodigious size alone does not dissuade the sharpened blade."


Most recently, I reviewed Darkest Dungeon, which just released on January 19th. This is worth a moment to describe. Darkest Dungeon is an “operational roguelike,” which means that you are managing a roster of heroes (fools) along with their base of operations (a sleepy-hollow-esque hamlet in this instance). You send your heroes on various quests (battling Lovecraftian horrors in this instance) in hopes of reaching the final goal/mission. It is a roguelike in that your characters have permadeath and you can’t reload when things fail, but it is a little more forgiving as there are always more heroes showing up to test their mettle. The gameplay is really solid and innovative in a few key areas (see the full review), but more than anything the game has a tremendous sense of style. I love the graphic novel look; and the voice over narration, both the writing and the delivery, is outstanding. Excellent little game; if you are into this sort of thing.

Wot I’m Playing

I succumbed to a game, and that game is Payday 2. This is a FPS (first person shooter) game, which is also a 4-person cooperative multiplayer game, and which is also about pulling off all manner of illicit heists. The game takes its cue from the vast swaths of heist-movie history, from Heat to Die Hard, and plenty of other references. I have a longer review in the works, but I’ll share a few things for now...

Not many video games manage to suck more than 20 hours out of me. Payday 2 is one of them, and since last November I’ve logged well over 200 hours. In part, this is because this is one of the first games in the past many years that all my local friends have also got into playing. So while we haven’t been able to get together for boardgame nights as often, we’ve been getting together via Payday 2 to heist the night away. Certainly this is part of the appeal.



To paint a broad picture, the game lets you pick a heist, from a large list, to perform. Heists can range from robbing convenience stores and drilling into bank vaults, to intercepting drug deliveries and breaking comrades out of jail. It’s all morally dark territory for sure; you are playing the bad guys after all! Heists are either “loud” (in which case you go in with guns blazing) or “stealth” (in which case you sneak your way to the objective), or some combination of the two. With 30+ different heists, many of which can be accomplished in very different ways, and a staggering 300+ achievements, there is a lot to see and do in the game.

It also incorporates a rather sophisticated RPG layer. Successful heists earn you money and experience points (XPs) that you use to purchase new gear and learn new skills. There is a staggering 180 skills in the game, 100’s of moddable weapons, along with a host of equipment and other perk specializations. Given that an individual skill build is limited in how many skills it can have active, there are tons of ways to customize how your character works and performs. It’s all quite engaging … and really deep man. The game also strikes a nice balance (IMHO) between being serious and being tongue-in-cheek. This rubs some people the wrong way, but I appreciate the humor the developers have woven into the game.

To be honest, other than a few family boardgames here and there, I haven’t been playing many other games. Payday 2 has clawed me deep.

Design Projects

I’ve continued to advance a number of different design projects.

First up, is my design concept for a pseudo-4X strategy game, Transcend, which I outlined in a prior blog post. This design is for a digital game, and given my total amature status when it comes to programming, might remain a pipe dream … but we shall see.

I did manage to make a few technical steps, using excel of all things. I came across an article that talked about how someone re-created XCOM in excel. I thought to myself, “Well I love spreadsheets, I love excel, I can stumble through scripting … maybe I should see what I can do.” Lo and behold after a few hours (well, more like 10), I came up with this:



Yes, that is all excel, and is a semi-functional mock-up of a UI. On another tab there is a big “generate galaxy” button, that runs VBA scripting to randomly generate a star field of 15-30 stars, generates 0-4 planets in each star system, and assigns planets a few key properties (size, type, etc.). It’s very crude and rudimentary, but it works, and provides a functional basis to start layering lots of other data and attributes into the galaxy generation. Eventually, different excel buttons would turn on/off different data overlays on top of the main star view. I do a lot of data visualization professionally (GIS spatial analytics mostly), and it always bothers me that data in 4X isn’t presented more graphically/spatially (always miserable tables) - so that’s something I definitely want to address with this design.

I also started using excel to build a dynamic model for how the game’s economy and pace of development would proceed. This includes an “end turn” button that lets me queue up orders for planetary improvements, drawing down global resources, and then process the turn. I want Transcend to be much faster paced compared to other 4X games (e.g. get to capstone high-level technologies and developments within 20-30 turns). So experimenting with these dynamic economy models early on are important. I did a cruder version of this (also in excel), when working out the pacing and economy of Hegemonic (which is typically 6-9 turns) - and I think that was one area of the game that really worked well. Resources are in just tight enough supply that you have lots of ways you “could” proceed but have to prioritize down to just a few. I’ll keep plugging away (and I have the next dev diary in the works already).

I’ve also been circling back to one of my first game designs, which is Shifters. I had a chance to playtest it some over the summer during protospiel, and a number of times since. It’s interesting to see how many times this game has been torn down and rebuilt - but finally I’m quite happy with how all the pieces are fitting together. As a game intended to be a lighter weight, take-that style card game, smooth gameplay is important. To this end, there are a few cumbersome spots in the design to streamline. But it is really coming together and I’m contemplating how to best move forward with the design. Probably starting to talk to publishers - but I might also print a number of decks through printer studio and sell it for close to cost via BGG. We’ll see.



And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a wrap.
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Fri Jan 22, 2016 9:41 pm
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Delusions of Grandeur (Part 1)

Oliver Kiley
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Preamble: A Fool’s Quest

It may come as no surprise that I have aspirations to design a 4X game. I’m sure many of you reading the headline have entertained such thoughts as well. And while I have designed and published a 4X board game (and am no stranger to the design process) my spider-sense tells me that designing a 4X video game is like navigating a minefield. There is so much that can blow up. We also appear to be entering a heyday for 4X games, which begs the question “do we need yet another 4X game rampaging through the market?” Probably not. But that isn’t going to stop me from dreaming and putting forward a vision for what I feel would be something unique and different.

I’ve dedicated a fair portion of my writing to critiquing 4X games along a number of different avenues: bad endgame experiences, pacing and flow, strategic depth vs. routine optimization, snowball and steamroller, over-complication, underdeveloped systems, thematic incongruities, and so on. Throughout all of this, I always ask myself “If I’m so quick to critique, how would I do it differently?” For a long time I’ve been striving to understand what it is I’m actually looking for in a 4X game experience. Is it narrative? Is it challenge? Is it immersion? I think it needs to be all of the above, but wrapped together in a way that provides a meaningful and coherent experience.

Through all of this, there is one central thing keeps nagging at me as I look back on the many 4X games I’ve played: 4X games rarely have a satisfactory ending in terms of narrative or gameplay - and often both are lacking.

A design lesson I’ve learned is that, for strategy games at least, the end trigger and win conditions are the game. You have to conceive of a compelling conclusion to your game first, and then work towards building that experience. I think a lot of games do it backwards: they conceive of all the things they want players to do, and then figure out how to wrestle the behemoth they’ve created into a coherent game with some way to end it. How many games patch in new victory conditions post-release? It’s absurd if you think about it. Strategy games need to be designed around the victory conditions so that all the elements can be balanced and directed towards a compelling closure. So I don’t want to fall into the trap of doing it backwards.



4X games are often a letdown in terms of gameplay for reasons that have been discussed considerably of late. How many of you actually bother to finish a 4X game once you have passed the point of knowing victory is inevitable, if only you just hang on and grind through? That’s a problem having to do with the snowball and steamroller. Another issue is that victory conditions themselves are often silo’d as isolated offshoots of disjoined mechanics: you have some arbitrary economic win, or a technological win, or a military win, etc. Gameplay becomes a giant optimization puzzle to hit your chosen goal first. More alarming, this is often a goal you set right at the start of the game, based on race selection, and which rarely is challenged or changed during play. Strategy is about deciding on goals - and how much strategy is there really in a game where you set you set your goal in the the first 5 minutes?

The narrative problem that I have with 4X games can be summarized with this question: What does it mean for an empire to “win”? I’m tired of games built around conquering the world or galaxy, or becoming the supreme ruler, or achieving some technological triviality, or abstractly cornering the market, or whatever else. The end triggers for so many games are painfully arbitrary and hence unsatisfying from a narrative standpoint. More to the point, these sort of winner take all win conditions are not very enlightened or sophisticated, they translate colonialism into space. Whoopee. I think we can do better.

I read a lot of science fiction, particularly space operas from the likes of Isaac Asimov (old school) to Peter F. Hamilton (new school). These narratives are dramatic and visionary. They cover vast sweeps of time, and yet boil down to nail-biting and personal moments as the protagonists strive to stay one step ahead of whatever horrific menace is sweeping across the stars. I’ve never had the sort of tension and sweeping grandeur in a 4X game that you get from a novel - but I have some ideas for how it might happen.

So the challenge I’m laying at my feet is two-fold: First, conceive of a design for a space 4X game that would unify the gameplay with what it means to win through a compelling narrative frame that captures the boldness and imagination of the best of space opera. Second, I want to accomplish this with a game that is tightly designed, relatively quick to play (by 4X standards), and is emergent and engaging with getting bogged down by its own design.


PART 1: A Sketch for a Space Opera



A Dream Transcendent

Imagine for a moment that a game with the tightness and pacing of something like FTL (Faster Than Light) had an unholy union with a narratively curious game like King of Dragon Pass. Except instead of trying to fly a spaceship from point A to point B, as in FTL, you were guiding an empire among the stars. And instead of trying to become the king of all the clans, you were seeking transcendence and an ascension to the next level of galactic consciousness. This is the of the idea for Transcend. Let me elaborate.

First of all, I want to create a 4X game where what it means to win is something positive and evolutionary. Most 4X games presuppose that winning is only by achieving dominance in some way, and that other empire’s are inherently in a zero-sum competition with you. Hence, most 4X games task the player with overseeing yet another colonial era of manifest destiny. I think this is a tired concept, and coming up with something novel and positive means reexamining what it means to “win.”

I think modern humanity, as a whole, could move towards “winning” in some sense by achieving world peace and ending poverty, or achieving an equilibrium with planet Earth. Those are positive goals in my mind. Becoming the supreme ruler of earth doesn’t sound very positive to me - it’s draconian. So in Transcend, there is one singular winning condition: surviving to achieve transcendence with your culture. Achieving transcendence will open up a pathway to a higher plane of existence (e.g. accessing higher dimensional orders of reality) where other transcendent cultures thrive and continue their own quests for evolution and understanding in the universe. It’s a bit Zen-like, eh?

How your culture achieves transcendence will vary in unique ways depending on their physiology, consciousness, and morality. These starting conditions, which will be covered more later on, frames a sequence of positive goals you need to meet to successfully transcend, such as achieving empathy, equity, freedom, creativity, etc.. A race of artificial machines might need to learn empathy and compassion, or a culture of passive space slugs to learn when force is justified, or for humans to move beyond their rigid individualism.



In my mind, these transcendent goals provide a more compelling context for a 4X game’s winning condition than “I’m better/bigger than you.” So the idea isn’t a technological victory or any other specific win trigger, but rather requires players to build a strategy that employs all aspects of their empire as they pursue a series of culture-spanning transformations towards transcendence. This will also (hopefully!) create an opening to recognize and reward cooperation between empires. Such cooperation is a rarity, and most often a friendly handshake is just the precursor to a stab in the back. But here, it is possible for multiple races to Transcend and even work together to achieve it mutually, because it isn’t zero-sum. What I need to transcend may be very different from what you need, and there is room for both of us to succeed if we work together.

Yet achieving transcendence, in the absence of any external threats, must be a challenge on its own. Managing growth and resources so that your culture doesn’t spiral out of control and consume itself along the way, putting transcendence forever out of reach is central to the design. There needs to be internal pressure on the player. In metaphor, the path to transcendence is like navigating through a maze of tightropes, and there are plenty of opportunities to fall off.

There are also things trying to push you off the tightrope.


Whispers in the Dark

My space opera inspired design challenge also needs to apply external pressure on the player to keep them on their toes and prevent players from simply optimizing their way to victory. Enter the Galactic Threats. Galactic Threats are something big and bad that happens to the entire galaxy. Fundamentally their presence requires players to achieve transcendence before the galactic threat wipes you (and everyone else) out.

So the central strategic challenge in the game becomes balancing your own progress towards achieving transcendence while holding enough back to deal with the galactic threat when it shows up. You need to walk the tightrope but be resilient enough to not get pushed off by a strong wind. If you invest too heavily in one aspect of your empire, you might not have the flexibility and foundation in place to react when the threat comes knocking. And while players may be able to slow down the galactic threat, inevitably they will have to transcend to escape it - there is no other way.



Of course there is a further wrinkle: you don’t know what the galactic threat will be. The game will include a series of different threats, and one of them (or more than one on harder difficulties) will randomly be unleashed on the galaxy at some unforeseeable moment. And these threats can take a number of different forms, with only subtle narrative clues and events hinting at the storm to come. For example, an unfathomably massive black hole might appear in center of the galaxy and slowly starts pulling all the star systems into its maw, turn by turn obliterating them. Transcend before your empire is swallowed.

Another threat idea is “Galactic Hot Potato” (working title!), where a mysterious homing beacon is unearthed that starts summoning progressively stronger waves of extradimensional alien forces into the galaxy. Players need to cooperate to “pass the potato” and keep the aliens chasing it around the galaxy. Or maybe you can use spies to sneak it onto an opponent’s world to sic the aliens on them! Regardless, if the aliens get a hold of it, the motherships show up and you are all screwed. Prudent leaders transcend before the motherships show up. Or maybe some wild nano virus starts spreading throughout sentient life and turning your populace against itself.

Holistically, the galactic threats introduce an asynchronous form of opposition that provides a more compelling narrative structure to the game. On a basic level, it gives the player an interesting challenge, greatly lessening the burden for programming other AI empires to give the player a challenging peer-to-peer experience. Additionally, the threat system has the potential to open up more interesting gameplay, with opportunities for cooperation between players to occur as they collectively try to hold back the tide; yet with each culture still racing against the clock to transcend on their own. When combined, these two dynamics (transcendence and galactic threats) can move the genre beyond a mere repetition of the colonial manifest into something bold and new, and more fitting as a “space opera.”


The Supporting Cast: Design Goals

While the Transcendence and Galactic Threat systems address my overarching design goal of creating a challenging and narratively interesting victory system, there are other critical design goals to discuss. Establishing goals for a design is important to guide decision making and to keep the game focused around the experience you are trying to craft. While goals can certainly change, often times the constraint of holding the design to them can breed ingenuity. So what are these other goals? So far I have seven of them:

30 Turns.
I’m longing for a 4X game that I can sit down and play to it’s conclusion in an evening or two and feel like I’ve been challenged and engaged the whole time. Contrary to the “just one more turn” sentiment, I want every turn to have tough choices and tradeoffs to make. I want less turns, but I want them each to matter more. There should never be a turn of “doing nothing but pressing next turn.” I want to compress the normal 4X experience so that all those crazy late-game technologies we drool about are actually employed sooner and have a bearing on the game. I’ve had this notion of structuring the flow and pacing of the entire game around 30 turns, recognizing that if I design for 30, I’ll probably end around 45 or 60 turns. Each turn, to capture the sweeping growth and transcendence of a culture, will need to represent a large chunk of time, and by necessity requires a bit more abstraction throughout the design. But I think that’s okay, because I want to …

Embrace the Fantastical.
Science fiction literature is filled with all sorts of awesome ideas: cultures going post-physical, hive minds, dyson spheres, ring worlds, starbombs, galactic cannons, miniature black holes, Helium mining from super gas giants, getting lost in subspace, etc. Very few 4X games really give you a way to engage with these ideas. With 30 turns, the idea is to bring these fantastical ideas to the forefront and let players utilize them earlier on as part of your grand strategy building on the quest for transcendence. I rather like the design doctrine of letting everything be “overpowered” - the gameplay results are usually far more interesting.

Easy Numbers.
I want most of the numbers in the game the be less than 10. 4X games can quickly spiral into complex math and algorithms that obfuscates the gameplay, requiring players to jump through all sorts of mental gymnastics just to evaluate the potential outcomes of different choices. I want to keep the numbers simple so that evaluation of choices is driven more by a consideration of the context, needs, and opportunities as a discrete option rather than as a mathematical optimization exercise. In other words, I want to enable players to “shoot from the hip” in their decision making, which might also open up the design to a broader audience.



Congruence.
To the extent possible, I want to keep the theme and mechanics in alignment. I dislike, in general, “gamey” systems that exist without a clear connection back to the theme. If a mechanic or system can’t be clearly understood on the basis of it’s theme, then it needs to be reevaluated. If I’m doing something in-game that is totally illogical or counter-intuitive, that’s a problem. Games obviously require abstraction, but I want to abstract the various systems in the game to a comparable level. So many games go into great detail on ship design and combat, yet leave espionage or trade woefully underdeveloped. I want both to be compelling systems, even if that means neither might be as deep on its own.

Feedback.
One issue I have with many 4X games is that they don’t provide enough feedback to the player on the consequences of their choices or as to the state of affairs in the game world. Without adequate feedback and information, it can make it hard to understand why the game state is the way it is, and in turn is hard for players to build heuristics and develop their skills and strategies.

Big Picture Management.
4X games can quickly spiral into a management nightmare for many gamers (myself included). The core systems of the game will be designed starting from the end, i.e., what does an empire look like at the precipice of transcendence and how is managing that state of affairs interesting, engaging, and free of frustration? That’s the goal, and achieving it relates to both the core game system mechanics around empire and colony management as well as the UI approach. I want the game to focus on the “big picture” at the galactic scale, and not get too far in the weeds. Ideally, there would be few menu’s in the game, with information presented visually right in the main viewport.

Strategic Interaction, not Optimization.
I have a nagging feeling that a lot of 4X games are more like optimization puzzles than proper strategy games. Part of this is because interaction between empires is usually limited to warfare. If interactions are based only around warfare, then the player that can optimize best, and build the strongest military engine the fastest, will inevitably win. Typically, there aren’t enough other ways to interact with foreign empires that can apply pressure to the same extent that military force can. As a result, the “strategy” of most 4X games is rather one-dimensional and boils down to learning the optimization puzzle best. I want Transcend to embrace multiple avenues for interaction, both peaceful and aggressive in nature, so that building up a big military isn’t the only way to go and that other emergent opportunities can manifest as well.

In conjunction with the transcendence / galactic threat system, my hope is to create a more tightly designed 4X game. I want players to immediately be faced with compelling situations that require strategic planning, not number crunching, to navigate. I want the game to move at a fast pace to keep narrative constantly evolving over the course of the game, with other empires thrown into a highly interactive geopolitical arena.


Up Next: Species & Core Gameplay Systems (probably)

In Part 2, I will present the core gameplay systems that underpin the design, specifically the Admin System. The Admin system is envisioned as a way to frame the player’s role as the leader of your culture. How Admin relates to exploration, colony management, and the production model will be described in greater detail.

In the meantime, I welcome any discussion, theory-crafting, and criticism of what has been presented thus far. Thanks, and stay tuned!

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A Genomic Framework for Game Analysis

Oliver Kiley
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Ann Arbor
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Theoretical frameworks are conceptual models or tools that help us organize our thinking and enhance our understanding of how different concepts interrelate. Much of Big Game Theory! has focused on developing frameworks to help make sense of games. This effort has been directed towards developing language, terminology and associated concepts to support both game design and game analysis. Whether you are a designer, a critic, or a player, these frameworks can help us articulate an idea, dissect a reaction or "feeling" we have, and be more aware of how games operate "under the hood."

One of my larger ambitions has been towards developing a "Science of Board Games." This post is the latest installment in this line of thinking, expanded to include all games (video games, tabletop games, etc.), and is an effort to unify different frameworks that have been presented by myself and others over the years. A shortcoming of many earlier frameworks is that, while they are useful, they are also not terribly specific. I’m interested in looking at a larger range of terms we use to discuss games and see how all of these terms might integrate into a more cohesive and unified model for understanding games.

The nod to "genomics" in the title of today’s framework relates to two notions. The first is the connection to the Game Genome Project, an on-going effort to map the possible characteristics of games that manifest through a series "traits", such as luck, theme, interactions, pacing, etc., and describe how they build on one another. Different expressions of these traits result in different gameplay experiences. Second, genomics (as in genetic science) relates to analyzing gene structure to understand how they connect to higher order functions. Similarly, I’m interested in how these fundamental traits or "genes" of a game translate into or emerge to create a total experience for players.


Conceptual Starting Points

Games are complex in the the interactions they create, the challenges they provide, the stories they tell, and the subjects they model. Conceptual frameworks have provided a number of approaches for helping designers, critics, and players to make sense of this this complexity. The Genomic Framework, which I will present in the next section, is based on three prior frameworks:

(1) The MDA Framework (Mechanics > Dynamics > Aesthetics) by Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubeck (2004)



(2) Jesse Schell’s Tetrad (Aesthetics, Narrative, Mechanics, Technology) from the Art of Game Design (2008)



(3) The Unified Boardgamery Theory (Players, Theme, Rules, Components) by Oliver Kiley (2014) and based on work by Mark Major (2014).



After presenting my Unified Boardgamery Theory, I received a tremendous amount of discussion and input. As a reminder, my framework presented the four key elements of player, theme, rules, and components in a Venn diagram type arrangement. This diagram showed the relationship between elements as "overlaps", which in hindsight had the side effect of making it hard to read. The overlaps obfuscated a critical aspect of the diagram, which I did not even realized at the time. Rather than a series of overlaps, moving from lower order to higher order characteristics is actually a process that we can map. And we can map it by using the basic concept presented by the MDA Framework.

The MDA Framework presents a sequence of relationships between a game’s fundamental mechanics, the dynamics that are created from the those mechanics, and how players experience those dynamics through an aesthetic response. From a designer’s perspective, this sheds light on how we can approach mechanical design to solicit a particular aesthetic response, and can check this through playtesting to see if the right kind of dynamics are being created. As a player (or even a critic), we can start with our aesthetic response and work backwards to tease apart the dynamics and mechanical systems that created that response.

While the MDA Framework is incredibly useful for thinking about the process how mechanics lead to experiences. But it is generic and not as useful for thinking about the specifics movements and pathways within that process and how they relate to different fundamental properties of games. My question is always "what" are the dynamics that we should be focusing on and what are the fundamental properties that feed into building those dynamics. Both The Unified Boardgamery Theory and Schell’s Tetrad are more specific about what these fundamental inputs are and the characteristics that define them.

Schell’s Tetrad is useful in many respects, but I did not find it universal enough it’s scope to apply towards a broader range of games. For example, the notion of "technology" is cumbersome conceptually in the boardgame world. Also the aesthetics are really a higher order thing in my mind, created from the fundamental mechanical elements (as in MDA), so it feels out of place as a leg of the stool. Lastly, the Tetrad doesn’t address the "players" themselves as one of the fundamental factors in a game framework. Players are just as necessary as rules and components, and their role within any framework attempting to describe games needs to be considered.

My revelation was that the Unified Boardgamery Framework can be re-interpreted as a sequential process of building higher order characteristics from lower order one’s, and that this process matches the MDA Framework. Armed with this insight, I set about reworking my theory into a sequence, rather than as a series of overlaps. The result is something that adds more clarity and specificity to the MDA Framework, while providing a mechanism to integrate and relate the broad range of "trait" and "genetic" terms used to analyze games.


FIDA: A Genomic Framework for Game Analysis

FIDA stands for Fundamental, Intrinsic, Dynamic, and Aesthetic, and each of these terms relates to a different functional order within a game. It is "Genomic" in that it is a "trait-based" framework that identifies key characteristics of games. The Fundamental level includes the four basic building blocks of a game: players, rules, media, and theme. The Intrinsic level describes all six of the combinations of fundamental factors. The Dynamic level results from the Intrinsic-level elements coming together and creating challenge, immersion, narratives, and simulations. And all of these culminate with the Aesthetic level that describes the net experience and greater meanings. While similar to the Unified Boardgamery Theory, the Genomic Framework is structured as a process. And while we can navigate the framework from lower to higher levels, we can also navigate it from higher to lower to see what factors and traits feed into a particular element.



FUNDAMENTAL LEVEL

Players ("Who")
The "players" are the agents that are involved in playing the game. Players, assuming they are human, bring their individual attitudes, values, and motivations to the game. Players can also be artificial or non-human, for example the AI personalities that you play against in a video game like Civilization.

Rules ("How")
These are the process-oriented mechanics of the game that define how interactions take place and how the game state is changed from one moment to the next. In a board game, the rules are generally the "rulebook," and in a video game the rules are coded into the programming. There are a number of critical traits associated with the rules themselves, such as input-and-output operations, use of randomness or chaotic elements, how game systems integrate, establishing objectives, etc.. Rules can also exist outside of the rulebook or programming, such as house rules, rules of conduct, tournament rules, which can also have a bearing on how a game operates.

Theme ("Where, When")
I’ve discussed theme previously, but in the most basic sense theme is about the subject, setting, and scope of the game. The subject could be something like trading or empire building. The setting could be "in the Mediterranean" or "in space". The scope could be "managing a company" or "piloting a ship." What is important is that theme shapes the environment and atmosphere and provides context.

Media ("What")
Media includes the technology, components, playing pieces, equipment, input devices, and everything else that gives physical (and/or digital) form to the game. In the absence of media, a game is just a collection of rules with no way for it to be played. The media often defines the boundaries of the game. While the rules of Chess stipulate how the play the game, the physical 8x8 board bounds the playing area and establishes the geography or landscape of the game. In a first-person RPG video game, the boundaries of the created world define the play space.

INTRINSIC LEVEL

Roles
Roles are a factor of players and theme. Typically, the scope of of the game define what the players’ roles are within the game, e.g. captain of a ship vs. the CEO of company. The role may also define certain associations, thematically, between players or agents. For example, the player as emperor with AIs controlling governors. The role can define the perspective of the player, e.g. first-person or third-person. Roles are important for placing the players into the gameworld, and they define the perspectives and operating assumptions of the player.

Interactions
Interactions are created at the intersection between players and the rules. The types of interactions created by the rules describe the overarching game format (e.g. competitive vs. cooperative) and how direct or indirect the interactions can be. Players, interpreting the rules, may develop internal "goal trees," which are the player-created mental models for how the player navigates choices and works towards accomplishing objectives within the game. Interactions relate to how players affect the game state, by way of the rules, as a consequence relates to player agency and how strongly or weakly a player can affect the game world.

Complexity
Complexity is a function of both the rules and the media. Adding more systems or layers to the rules can increase complexity, as can increasing the extent and geography of the game world. Tic Tac Toe becomes much more complex if the board size increased to a 5x5 grid. Other than changing the goal to require 5 in a row, the basic rules are still the same; yet the gameplay is more complex. Complexity can relate to the size of the breadth of the decision space (e.g. how many places can I go) as well as variability within the game (e.g. 52-cards vs. 104 cards in a deck).

Representation
Representation connects the media of the game, whether digital or physical, with the theme and context. In a video game this includes the graphics (models, textures) and audio (music, sound) that conveys the theme. In a board game, it is typically the artwork, illustrations, and flavor text.

Coherence and Interface are important bridging elements that connect across the framework and in turn feed into the all four of the Dynamic level elements. While they are based on the Foundational elements they are far reaching in their influence on a game’s dynamics and how those are experienced.

Coherence (Bridging Element)
Coherence is the relationship between the theme and rules, and describes the nature of that relationship. Theme can be "pasted on" or deeply connected to the rules and derived carefully from it. Games with greater coherence have better alignment between the rules and mechanics and illogical inconsistencies are relatively minimal. Coherent games can facilitate decision making (and possibly the sense of challenge) by providing a useful metaphor to facilitate decision making. Coherent games have positive impact on the narratives that are created as well as the sense of immersion (i.e. suspension of disbelief). More coherent games can provide better models or simulations of their subject matter, with greater fidelity and accuracy in representation.

Interface (Bridging Element)
The interface connects the players with the media and determines in turn how players interact with all facets of the game. Critical issues relative to interface relate to ergonomics and whether the game is fiddly or streamlined. It can also speak to the pacing and flow of the game and how smooth the experience is for players. Games with lots of upkeep or maintenance tasks, relative to decision-making tasks, may feel more disjointed and clunky. The interface is also critical for providing feedback to the player so that they can perceive and understand changes to the game state and how their actions have affected (or not affected) it.

DYNAMIC LEVEL

Challenge
Challenge relates to depth of gameplay. More challenging games are typically (though not always) more complex games with greater decision depth (i.e. more factors to consider in making good decisions) as a result from player interactions and changing game states. Challenge hinges critically on the interactions between players (and/or the environment) to create unpredictable situations that the player must try to overcome. Challenge relates to player skills and heuristics (i.e. learning effective play), which connects to the Modes of Thinking framework describing the balance and intensity of thought across Logistical, Spatial, and Intuitional types. Elegance is also wrapped up in challenge/depth, and is the relationship between strategic depth and complexity. More elegant games provide the same or greater depth with less complexity as an inelegant game..

Narratives
Narratives are the "created" stories and dramatizations that occur over the course of playing a game. Narratives are player-centric and shaped by the game’s theme. But the rules of the game play a vital role in structuring the narratives that emerge throughout the course of play, by way of interactions. Think of the narrative as a the post-game story you might tell that describes the arc and progression of the game, the rise and fall of players, the dramatic high and low points, the tensions, etc. Games with stronger narratives are typically easier to re-tell, as they create a more engaging and novel experience each time.

Immersion
Immersion is an often used yet rarely defined term - but I think it is central to how we experience and enjoy games. At the simplest level, immersion relates to our suspension of disbelief. More immersive games get us to more effectively buy-into the reality created by the gameworld and re-align our thinking and expectations to conform to that reality. Lots of things can break our sense of immersion: a bad interface or UI that "pulls us out of the game," artwork that doesn’t seem to fit, rules that don’t make any sense, cumbersome controls or ergonomics, no sense of presence in the player’s role, etc.

Simulation
Games, as systems designed to abstract some real or imagined reality, are in effect simulations or models for the subject theme. At the dynamic level, games can function as models or simulations that provide opportunities for learning, study, or engagement that can go beyond simply playing the game as competitive (or cooperative) exercise. These can be witnessed by observing a changing gamestate overtime. And the fidelity of these models can be considered in light of how well (accurately, realistically, etc.) they function as an abstraction of the modeled reality.


AESTHETIC LEVEL

Net Experience & Meanings ("Why")
The net experience level relates to the overall aesthetic reaction and experience the players have. While aesthetic is often used to discuss artistic characteristics, an "aesthetic response" is how someone "feels" about a work, artistic or otherwise, and is quite relevant to games I feel. For players, the line of aesthetic questioning is often "was the game fun?" And for players, what constitutes fun is central to the overall net experience of the game and what players hope to get out of it.

The many-faced monster of "fun" can of course take on a number of different forms; not all types of fun is equal for all players. The MDA Framework provides eight different aspects of fun that players may seek in the games they play. These eight kinds of fun are: Sensation, fellowship, fantasy, discovery, narrative, expression, challenge, submission, etc. Other aesthetic responses are possible as well, such a those that explore meanings beyond the game itself (pushing games into the realm of art perhaps?). All of these responses speak to something gained that transcends beyond the game itself; they are things that you can take with you when the game is over.

Additionally, the "types of fun" a game provides relates directly to the "genre" of the game. While there are many definitions and approaches to game genre classification, I’m attracted to the notion of genre being coupled to net experience, because it relates genre, which is a shorthand descriptor for a broad category of games, to the aesthetic responses that genre is trying to solicit. A fantasy MOBA, a modern FPS shooter, a eurogame, a dudes-on-a-map game, etc. all endeavor to tap into certain combinations of aesthetic responses. And these aesthetic responses come about as a function of different levels and flavors of the four central dynamics (narrative, challenge, immersion, and models).


THE GENOMIC FRAMEWORK IN ACTION

Key Relationships for Designing Games
The Genomic Framework imbeds some other interesting (to me at least!) relationships, especially as a game designer. The four fundamental components each have a close relationship with a certain dynamic: Rules with Challenge, Media with Simulation, Theme with Immersion, and Players with Narrative. And this isn’t by accident! A narrative-focused game, for example an RPG, relies heavily on how players engage with that narrative, and thus Roles and Interactions are quite important (along with the bridging elements, Coherence in particular). From a game design standpoint, focusing on those elements might be more worthwhile compared to focusing on other elements.

There is also a soft relationship between Complexity and Interface and between Roles and Coherence. Again, this is no accident. As the complexity of a game increases, the more critical it is that the interface be effective in presenting the player with information in an organized manner. Similarly, coherence depends in large part on players being assigned roles and perspectives that afford them the means to see and understand the inner workings of a game.

Critiquing and Analyzing Games
For a while now, I’ve used three terms as a way to critique games: challenge, immersion, and narrative. In some respects I’m surprised to see that those three are all central dynamics in the Genomic Framework - since I’ve been kicking these three factors around for longer than I’ve been considering this framework. Or perhaps it isn’t surprising, and this is all a convoluted way of justifying my analysis approach! Regardless, the Genomic Framework adds a fourth dynamic, Simulation, which is not as important for me, given my preferences, but is certainly of critical interest to many other gamers that relish in opportunities to learn and glean deeper insight about a game’s subject matter.

Whether we are analyzing a game as designer to figure out how we might improve the game, or are critiquing the game as a critic (or player), focusing on these four dynamics is vitally important I feel. They provide sufficient flexibility to cover (or relate to) nearly every topic concerning a game. They are tangible enough to still be spoken about with clarity, while being readily relatable back to the intrinsic or fundamental level characteristics. Being able to describe what the created dynamics are will allow the critic to make better predictions of the likely aesthetic responses or use it as a means to explain their own aesthetic responses in greater specificity.

So here is where this all comes full circle: The Genomic Framework provides a structure of relationships between nearly all of the game traits and characteristics I’ve been mapping through the Game Genome Project. It provides a way to slot in a term and our understanding of it along with how it feeds into or is fed by other elements.

What’s Next!?
I’d like to apply this framework towards analyzing a number of different games, to further test the water on how it functions. And of course, your feedback and discussion on the validity, integrity, or preposterous-ness of the framework is always welcomed. Thanks for reading!




Further Reading

https://www.boardgamegeek.com/blogpost/44188/mechanics-dynam...

https://www.boardgamegeek.com/blogpost/43320/what-makes-game...

http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/LuizClaudioSilveiraDuarte/201...

https://lakitusdevcartridge.wordpress.com/2012/07/05/the-ele...
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Mon Aug 10, 2015 4:48 pm
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Emissary's Thematic Conundrums

Oliver Kiley
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Emissary was originally designed for the PnP Express/In-a-Tin Design contest using the Decktet. It was envisioned as a card game "express" version of Hegemonic transplanted into the fantastic and odd world of the Decktet universe. If you are curious about the gameplay of Emissary, check out this prior post on the topic: Emissary: A Study in Brain-burn and Emergence

As much as I love the Decktet, using the Decktet cards posed some playability challenges. Players had to mentally map the card's ranks into a Tier structure used in Emissary, each of which had certain implications for the cost of using those cards. It was hard for players to keep it all straight in their mind (and required a reference card at a minimum) and as a consequence the flow of the game bottlenecked a little bit.

If the game was to mature beyond its roots I felt it had to deviate away from the Decktet. Custom cards could facilitate learning the game and streamline the play considerably by using clear iconography to identify the various ways of interacting with the cards (costs, build allowances, etc.). But this opened up a whole separate question, what to "theme" it around. I was torn whether to embrace the games forefather (Hegemonic) and go with a spacey theme, or do something more subdued and landscap-y. I couldn't decide so I did both!

Onward to the eye-candy!

"Landscape" Theme

The landscape theme uses the Decktet colors as follows. Blue = wetlands, Green = Forests, Orange = Fields, Yellow = Deserts, White = Tundra, and Brown = Mountains. The resulting "map" creates an interesting interweaving landscape of different terrains. I did these illustrations myself (in Illustrator) and I think they turned out reasonably well given my hackr-drawing skills.




Should this design move forward, I'd like to refine it into more of a fantastical looking landscape with each terrain type being occupied by some fantastical race of beings - keeping in mind that in the world of Emissary the landscape is always shifting and changing! So it might grow into more of a terraforming theme, with giant Avian-lizard things living in the swamps, and of course mole-trolls in the mountains and dryad-tree people spreading love in the woodlands.

"Space" Theme

The space theme was predicated on the idea that the players are actually another consortium of alien races from a DIFFERENT galaxy sending political "Emissaries" to the galaxy of Hegemonic to build up influence within the Great Houses of the Human empires of Hegemonic. In way, player's are competing for influence among the great houses ON TOP of a game of Hegemonic playing out across the map. Double whoa!




Realizing the Conundrum

If someone, not knowing anything about Emissary, were to try it out, I have no doubt it would come across as quite abstract. In the same way that (I was surprised to find out) most people seem to feel that Hegemonic is far more abstract than I think it is. In Emissary, the actions were near perfect 1-to-1 mapping of the classic 4X elements. You explore by revealing cards, you expand by placing influence tokens, you exploit by generating resources from occupied cards, and you exterminate by attacking your opponent's influence. It doesn't get much more clear cut than that in my mind.

Yet I am realizing that my interpretation of theme is more amenable to abstraction. I've always been an advocate of marrying theme and mechanics - yet I've also come to recognize that the association between theme and mechanics means different things to different people. Some people can build off an abstract sense of things and project/imagine the theme at work; others require something much more visceral and tangible to "feel the theme."

At the end of the day, I never thought of myself as a designer that would have a game that lends itself to being easily re-themed. Yet I'm also increasingly not too bothered about that reality. Theme IS important to me in terms of inspiring the design and the resulting mechanics. But I don't feel a pressing need to make the theme some vivid "OMFG!!!!" kind of the thing. If the game that emerges at the end of the day comes across more abstract - I'm totally fine with that.

As with Emissary - we will see where it goes. I have some tweaks in the works but otherwise I'm very excited with how the game has shaped up, and I'm hoping good things are in its future.

As for the theme? Maybe I'll leave it up to a vote!

Poll
What card art/theme do you like the most?
"Landscape" all the way!
"Space" is best!
Both are groovy!
Both are wretched!
      78 answers
Poll created by Mezmorki
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Tue Jul 8, 2014 9:37 pm
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A Call to Arms!

Oliver Kiley
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Hello all!

It's been a little while since posting, and among other reasons was the most prominent one: last month saw the birth of our second child and all that entails. Things now seem to be slowing down on the crazy-factor scale, so I'm crawling out of the cave with a little request!

I've talked about Emissary: The Red Frontier in prior blog posts (Emissary: A Study in Brain-burn and Emergence) but I wanted to more formally open up the doors for broader playtesting of the game. It's been tweaked and developed quite a bit more since the last time I talked about it, and I'm now at a point where getting a broader set of opinions and reactions to the game would be just stupendous!

If interested in playtesting, head over here:

Emissary - An Intriguing 4X "Express" Game - Call for PnP Playtesting

Otherwise, here's a little teaser-tiddy about the game, showing off its fancy new (working) card design that departs a bit from the Decktet the game was originally based on. Cheers!



E M I S S A R Y
An intriguing 4x "express" game of territory building and espionage | 2-4 players / 15 min. per Player

A Call for Playtesting!




In Emissary, players will explore locations on the “Map”, comprised of a grid of cards, and will then collect and use resources to build up Influence across these locations. Locations that are adjacent and share a common suit form larger Regions, over which players will compete for having the most relative influence. Points are awarded at the end of the game based on the size of each region as well as how much influence each player has in that region.

Oooooo....
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Fri Apr 25, 2014 6:46 pm
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Hegemonic - A Pictorial History

Oliver Kiley
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James Mathe from Minion Games received the first final production (retail) copy of Hegemonic from the printer, and took a number of unboxing photographs. All I can is that the game looks incredible. Hegemonic is a complex game with a lot of different pieces, and James did an outstanding job getting it all coordinated with the printer. I'm certainly inspired by what I see!

I thought it would be interesting to pause for a moment and do a little photo documentary of Hegemonic’s evolution from the early prototypes to the final copy, making note of some of the important events along the way.

The first steps for the design of Hegemonic occurred around September in 2010. In total, the process has taken roughly 3 years, with the game due to be shipping out to kickstarter backers later this fall.

Enjoy!




February, 2011 - Original GameID image for Hegemonic. The final box cover remains close to this design.


April, 2011 - 3rd version of the prototype setup for 3-players. First in a series of images posted showing off the nicer graphic design for Hegemonic as I was moving into external playtesting stages.


April, 2011 - 3rd version of the prototype. Close up of the player boards and black foam core construction used for the prototype.


October 2011 - 10th version of the prototype. Showing some incremental graphic refinement, but mostly just continued gameplay changes and adjustments. A little over a year of total design time.

April 2012 - 12th version of the prototype. Still foam core.


May 2012 - Back of the box image from of 1 of 3 high level prototypes I built in preparation for shopping the game around to publishers.


June 2012 - A big image for Hegemonic. This one rose to the front page of BGG. Also the first image to show the acrylic laser cut pieces.


June 2012 - The image not taken by me of the game. In this case, it was Jesse Dean of the blog On Gamers' Games during one of his playtests leading up to a preview article about the game.


June 2012 - Close-up of the higher quality prototypes with the acrylic pieces.


November 2012 - Hegemonic has been picked up for publication by Minion Games. This image was taken by James Mathe of Minion Games while demoing the game at BGG.CON 2012.


February 2013 - Kickstarter backers contribute to the naming and backstory development of Hegemonic's expanded selection of leader cards and their special in-game abilities.


April 2013 - Closer to final back of the box image as we get digital files ready for printing.


August 2013 - GenCon 2013 demo of Hegemonic. First images of the plastic unit and base tokens in action.


September 2013 - Unboxing of the first retail copy of Hegemonic. Look at all that stuff!!!!!!


September 2013 - And another one just because!


September 2013 - The minimalistic and mysterious box cover!











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Tue Sep 24, 2013 6:40 pm
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For the Love of the Decktet

Oliver Kiley
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This past father’s day a little package arrived in the mail, which contained the official Decktet book. I’ve owned a copy of the Decktet cards for about two years – and was mostly relying on the Decktet wiki to look up rules for games I heard about and wanted to try. But having the book itself has made all the difference in the world – and has somehow magnified my appreciation and love for the Decktet.

This post will reflect a little on the Decktet and some of the games I’ve played (and enjoyed). In addition, I wanted to use this opportunity to highlight a Decktet game I’m creating – one that is attempting to create a 4X / Civ style game using the Decktet; a tall order for a little deck of 45 cards.




The Curious Case of the Decktet

For those who are not familiar, the Decktet is a set of cards following the pattern of a traditional card deck (with suits and ranks) – but with two key differences. First, the deck contains six suits instead of the usual 4; these being moons, suns, waves, knots, leaves, and wyrms. Second, the 2-9 Rank cards are all double suited cards, which is where the heart of the system lies and is what makes Decktet games refreshing and unique compared to many traditional card games.

Coupled with the inherent intrigue of the card system, the Decktet’s artwork is wonderful. It evokes a sense of otherworldliness in a profoundly familiar yet at the same time fantastical and curiously ambiguous way. Having read most of the Decktet book now, the mystique and sense of history about the deck, its origins, and the places/people/events it represents is even more intriguing. For instance, I love maps, and I was delighted to see one in the back of the Decktet book. And I smiled at the arrow pointing across the sea to the “Land of Purple and Red” – colors not represented into the Decktet’s six suits.






Clever Games in Six Suits

The Decktet is slowly becoming one of my favorite overall “games” – despite being a system that allows you to play many different games on it. The added complexity in the dual suited nature of the cards gives both more opportunities for compelling/interesting decisions in many games and also provides far greater flexibility when it comes to designing games over a traditional card game. Coupled with a few dozen suit tokens (or cubes) – there is a shocking amount of different ways the cards can be used to create different types games.

In addition, I’ve become increasingly enamored with shorter, low rule overhead games that nonetheless pack a punch when it comes to strategy and depth. I’ve never been fond of overly complex games that require players to clamber through a jungle gym obstacle course to get where they want to go. Such games, I feel, often sideline the interaction between players (on the board or above the above) – as playing it requires so much attention be paid to solitary-focused mechanics.

As for the Decktet games themselves, I’ve been playing more of those lately. Here's a run down on some of them:

The preeminent game, at least by the BGG rankings, is Magnate. Magnate is a 2-player dual / area majority game in the same territory as Battle Line; so players are playing cards across five districts in an attempt to have the most control of each. The player that controls a majority of the districts when the game ends is the winner. Driving the card play is a clever resource system, with hints of Settlers of Catan, in that you roll dice to determine which cards will produce resources.

What makes the game really sing is that players have a great deal of latitude to assemble their resource engine in a high risk or low risk due to how the mechanics work for placing cards. So there is almost two games going on at once – one is building your resource engine and the second is plotting out where you place cards to try and control the districts. Can’t say enough great stuff about Magnate.

Next on the cue is Emu Ranchers, which is another 2-player card game, where players are famers raising Emu’s. This one draws its roots heavily from Lost Cities. Like Lost Cities, players are individual building sequences of cards in front of them that share a suit (these sequences representing a growing Emu). Also like Lost Cities, there is a base cost that must be paid at the end of the game for each Emu you have going – so the whole game hinges around a risk-reward proposition of when to start an Emu depending on whether you think you’ll get enough to cover the base cost.

At first I was a little skeptical of Emu Ranchers in comparison to Lost Cities (a game I quite like) – but after 30 or so plays I’m finding it a much more interesting a varied game. Lost Cities, after probably 100 plays, has turned into a bit of an autopilot affair – with all the games playing out in mostly the same pattern. Emu Ranchers, true to many decktet games, gives players a lot of flexibility, and I find the dual suited nature of the cards providing nail-biting decisions throughout the entire game. So this one’s a keeper for sure.

As for others, I’ve played a few rounds of Goblin Market – an interesting market/auction/bidding game. I admit that I’m not the best with this genre of mechanics, and I was a little mystified playing it (although it’s possible I botched the rules). Goblin Market gets a lot of accolades, so I do want to try it more when I get the right group together.

Jacynth is a tile (card) placement game where are trying to form districts. It’s a bit of a Carcassonne inspired game, particularly in that districts can only be occupied by one player, although you can letter “break in” to someone’s district by connecting to it later on. I’ve only played it solo so far.

Adaman is a solo game of hand management and tableau building where you are trying to capture the “personality” cards in deck by using other cards as resources to purchase the personalities. I’ve played half a dozen games and still haven’t won. It’s tricky and engaging, and sucks you in.

Gongor Whist – this is another solo game (that I also still haven’t won!). It is a trick taking game and plays a bit like Wizard in that you bid on how many tricks (exactly) you are going to win. You play against a dummy hand and have the ability to cycle through trump cards. It’s really tricky and fun to play – and really challenges you to keep track of which cards have been played (or not). Struggling to win this game, with the ever increasing tension as the number of trick bid choices diminishes, has made this one of the more memorable and engaging solo games I’ve ever played. I love it.




Emissary: Civ-Lite / 4X Comes to the Decktet

Admiring the Decktet as I do, I couldn’t help trying my hand at designing a game for the system. I was curious about whether I could design an incredibly light “4X” empire building / civilization style game using the decktet. The “In-a-tin / Express PnP Design Contest” provided the right kick-in-the-pants to get me going. So after a long 4th of July weekend at the lake cottage, I worked out a playable ruleset for a Decktet game called Emissary.

I’ve written up some additional notes on the design over on the Emissary WIP Thread for the curious. Or you can take a look at the current rules. I’d love for the Dectket aficionados to give it a try and let me know if they have feedback/thoughts on the gameplay.

Suffice to say – I’m impressed that the design using the Decktet came so easily – a testament I think to the flexibility provided by the card system. As a sort of Hegemonic Express, Emissary has players exploring a map of cards, expanding their influence onto those cards, exploiting resources (to fuel further expansion) and endeavoring to exterminate your opponent’s influence. It’s all premised, thematically, on some Great Empires of the Decktet mythos sending their political agents abroad to win control over and unify unruly (and distant) city states.

The scoring system combines ideas from Magnate and Jacynth, as well as Glen More in a way. Districts are formed across the cards in the map where adjacent cards share common suits. At the end of the game, players earn points for their relative level of influence they have in each district, multiplied by the total size of the district. What’s interesting is that, like in Glen More, the influence part of the scoring equation is based on the difference between your level of influence and the player with the least influence in that district.

I’ve only played 2 and 3-player games solo at this point. The game works and provides interesting choices throughout – but it clearly needs more refinement. If interested in providing feedback, feel free to do so here on in the WIP thread.

Thanks – and if you don’t have a Decktet – the time is right to pick one up. Cheers!
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Wed Jul 10, 2013 4:04 pm
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Skunkworks Update 2012 – Never too Late to the Party!

Oliver Kiley
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Last year I made about post covering the current state of my various game design projects and where they stood. I thought it would be interesting to circle back again this year and see what ended up being worked on and what other ideas are on the cooker. Also – I can’t help this feeling that my designs and concepts are just a hare late to the party – that some idea I have ends up gelling in my mind at the same moment someone else releases a game aiming at something similar, either thematically or mechanically. Who is scanning my brain waves while I sleep? Reveal yourself!

Anyway, onto the business at hand.

Hegemonic

Development of this 4x game, forthcoming from Minion Games, has by far and away taken the bulk of my design time and effort. It has been a lot of work getting it “pitch ready” and that level of effort hasn’t let up since Minion Games picked it up. We are intensely developing the game, streamlining the rules to make play smoother and more efficient while retaining the same level of depth; and of course continuing the never-ending task of balancing + tweaking.

I aim to have a designer dairy published in the near term where I will expand more on the design process – but I will say it has been a challenge and I’ve learned some tough, but valuable, lessons along the way. All in all however, I’m very excited about the game and look forward to its finalization and release next year! I won’t blather on much more about this one … well, maybe just a little:



Late to the 4X Party, eh?

With Hegemonic, I really wanted to reflect some key inspirations of mine into the design, and specifically make a game that embraced more far out kinds of technology and responded to the high level of technology a galactic civilization would need. I read a lot of science fiction; Dan Simmon’s Hyperion Cantos is one of my favorite narratives but I enjoy Peter F. Hamilton’s Commonwealth/Void series, the writing of Alistair Reynolds (Revelation Space), John Wright (Golden Age), Isaac Asimov (Foundation), and countless others. I also enjoy brushing up on theoretical physics. Another source of inspiration is my background in natural resource science and sustainability. In particular, the concept that the various systems that make up our society (industrial, political, scientific, financial cultural, etc.) are all interconnected. For the gameplay, I was inspired by the classic abstract Go, in that I wanted a big open and fluid game space for the space opera to unfold across.

As a point of discussion, Hegemonic inevitably draws questions about its similarities between Eclipse, TI3, and (I’m anticipating) Exodus: Proxima Centauri as well. I’ll be honest – other than some solo Vassal module explorations and reading quite a bit about these other games – I haven’t played them with other humans. And for what it’s worth, the design for Hegemonic was well underway before I even joined BGG or learned about Eclipse. But this all dodging the question at hand!

I had a conversation in another thread about 4X games. And an idea that stuck with me (my own idea I should add), is that 4X games are largely about “what you do;” specifically eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate. The label doesn’t directly eXplain “how you win” – or in other words what the real genre or type of game it is. There are a number of ways of handling the victory condition; and it is no surprise that 4X games are often married to civ/empire building games which in turn typically provide players with a menu of VP options to go after in the course of the game. In Eclipse, the VP’s are mapped to the major 4X activities, VP’s from controlling planets (eXplore + eXpand), VP’s from technology (eXploit?), VP’s from fighting (eXterminate) and of course other sources too.

Hegemonic is probably best defined as 4X “area-control” game, as opposed to a 4X “civilization” game. The play is more abstract as a result, and doesn’t have mechanics that are tightly associated with a particular thematic device. This was an intentional design choice – I wanted to create a game where all the facets of growing your empire and doing the “4X kind of things” was funneled into a primary scoring/victory condition that kept all players engaged and fighting over the same crucial space. It demands a high level of direct interaction among all players – you can’t sit in a corner and Tech yourself to victory.

The closest comparisons for the gameplay style of Hegemonic have been El Grande, Dominant Species, and Tigris & Euphrates. El Grande in terms of game structure (three action phases, then scoring phase), control regions, and the majority scoring rules. Dominant Species through the tile laying and collective board growth mechanics that drives opportunity and differential competition/conflict over different types of areas. Tigris & Euphrates because of the how your empire develops along different tracks spatially, how power and strength in conflicts works, and how empires become intertwined with each other. And there is a little bit of Race for the Galaxy too, in terms of action selection and the importance of deducing your opponent’s likely actions as you plan your own. All-in-all, I think the design is coming together exceedingly well.

STATE OF CRISIS (previously titled “Transitional”)
This has been my next most developed game concept over the past year – and there is a working prototype that I continue to solo-test and tweak. If you are interested, you can check out the rules summary HERE.

Essentially, State of Crisis is a Competitive Co-op game that is one-part political satire and one-part tragedy. The world is on the brink of impending doom from no less than 6 different global crises, from political and economic to environmental and ethical.



The players are shadowy figures (i.e. public representatives) beholden to a set of hidden interest groups. The game revolves around an open negotiation mechanic where players put forth and then support each other’s various initiatives and special projects. These initiatives affect NINE different societal indicators, a series of shared tracks, which represent the current state and health of the body-politic. After a round of negotiation, the position along these tracks dictates whether the separate crises tracks move towards catastrophe or transcendence.

The game works as a sort of “social capitol” resource engine game. Supporting other players’ initiatives is way of turning your general “support” resource into the more powerful “influence” resource that lets to push through powerful initiatives or special projects on your own. So there is always a tension between wanting to support other players’ initiatives because long-term you get resources out of it, but the tradeoff is that the initiative might not something you want to support from a scoring standpoint. Of course – you need to keep your intentions cloaked, because if you are too obvious about what you are and aren’t supporting then other players will be hip to your game.

The game ends when a certain number of the crises tracks are locked in either the “catastrophe” or “transcendence” position. If too many are locked into catastrophe then everyone losses. Otherwise, players score points based on the position of the societal indicators relative to their hidden interest groups.

The cool part of the game is that each players group of scoring cards (their hidden interest groups) can earn points for Catastrophes OR for Transcendences, so there is this shifting space where you need to evaluate whether you push things towards ruin and earn points that way or push towards a brave new future and get points that way. By itself, the game is rigged to go towards ruin so it’s generally easier to earn points for ruinous behavior – but of course if everyone does that you all lose!

The design is still early – but the hope is that it becomes a relatively quick playing negation game for up to 9 people. When things get bad (in terms of Crises, not gameplay!) they quickly slide to worse and the game ends – so it doesn’t drag on. In theory it’s a sort of quasi-party game of slippery slope mitigation that you would want to play 2-3 times in a row during a session – that’s the dream anyway!

Late to the Party?

I’m watching Stronghold’s Article 27 with interest – because there are some parallels between these games. I of course knew nothing about Article 27 until seeing it discussed around Essen 2012 and BGG.CON. How similar are they? I’m not sure exactly – but it will be an important thing to keep an eye on.

ECOLOGICAL / BIOMASS / Needs a Name!
I’ve spent considerable time “in the sketchbook” working out concepts for this game over the past year. I’m really fascinated by ecology and want to create a game that embodies ecological principles + dynamics accurately enough that the game can function as a classroom teaching tool in addition to being a compelling strategy game.

The biggest challenge in this game will be keep it simple enough and quick enough to play that it could conceivably be played in a classroom setting. I’d like to target the playtime around 45-60 minutes and have it be a solid game for 2-4 players, not sure if it will support more or not.

The basic idea is that players are collectively building a series of food webs that stretch across a series of ecosystems / habitat types. Principally it is a tile placement game – but will also hinge on cards to drive how tiles are placed. For example, you might be able to place a carnivore on top of an appropriately sized herbivore, or you could pair a herbivore with an “out compete” card to place on top of someone’s herbivore. Lot of detail still to work out.

Late to the Party?

Obviously there are thematic parallels between games like Dominant Species and Bios: Megafuana. But again, my hope is that Ecological is much quicker to play and more accessible to a wider audience. It will require a careful balance between level of detail/abstraction and “thematic congruency” with actual ecological principals. I’m intrigued to try out Ginkopolis as well, because the mechanics look somewhat similar (3d tile laying + action cards) – but we’ll have to see how it pans out. Ecological will NOT have a resource management aspect to it – so that’s one big difference.



ALL ROADS LEAD TO AMBER
A conversation in a BGG News thread a while ago sparked some misplaced excitement about a new Amber boardgame. Many of us thought it had to do with Roger Zelanzy’s Amber stories from the Golden Era of Fantasy/Sci-Fi –alas, it was not.

But that didn’t stop many of us from kicking around ideas for what we would like to see in an Amber boardgame – a conversation I haven’t forgot and that I continue to mull over. More so because I’m currently re-reading the whole 10 book original Amber series!

For those who don’t know – Amber is a fantasy reality that interweaves with the world we know as Earth along with a whole host of other fantasy worlds lifted from legend and/or that are new creations of Zelanzy’s. The plot revolves around the ruling family of Amber and the lords and ladies from the Courts of Chaos – the chaotic equivalent to Amber’s order – vying for cosmic control and other godly objectives. The series is full of political intrigue (puts Game of Thrones to shame in my opinion) and hidden motives – and has the makings for a great boardgame.

My REALLY REALLY initial idea is that players take the role of some lesser descendant of either the Lords of Chaos or the Amberites (there was a fair amount of procreation across the lines) competing for unique hidden objectives. I’m really intrigued with developing a game design concept, discussed in the Game Genome Project, which allows essentially any combination of winners + losers at the end of the game. Where interests overlap, it would be plausible to join forces (overtly or covertly) for a shared win – or perhaps no one wins, or perhaps everyone wins! This idea hits the heart of the Amber books in my mind, where alliances between the characters are in a constant state of flux, of trust and uncertainty; congeniality and subversion. I want to get that dynamic across in a game.

Of course, there are other “mechanics” at work in the Amber universe that are integral to the plot and action that would be great to replicate – including the use of “Trump” cards to teleport from a location to a contacted individual, “walking through shadow” to new worlds, walking the Pattern/Logrus to gain special powers, building up influence in alternate worlds, etc.. There is a lot of potential to provide a sort of sandbox world and game system that is simple to absorb and play but has a ton of flexibility to create a unique narrative experience in each game. Keeping the narrative and the strategy (political intrigue) equally strong and alive will be a real challenge.



UNNAMED SCI-FI DUNGEON CRAWLER
In the past I’ve been a big miniature gamer – namely Warhammer 40,000, Necromunda, and BattleTech. I’ve “re-designed” a number of Games Workshop games over the years for our playgroup – turning them into the kind of game we always wanted them to be (the hell with the official rules!). I miss this experience and equally so desire a “dungeon crawling” game that is thoroughly a sci-fi game.

I did a little digging into various sci-fi miniature game and boardgame systems and nothing really struck me as close to what I was looking for – I’ve been slowly working on a concept for a hybrid miniatures / boardgame system that brings the character progression experience to a sci-fi boardgame format. The thinking hasn’t evolved too much, so I might as well repost the original concept:

Quote:
Inspired by the sci-fi writings of Peter F. Hamilton, I’ve become captivated by the idea of badass, nano- and bio-tech infused, network hacking, secret agents forming a team to run missions against the threat (remains to be determined). Thematically it’s like Deus Ex meets Matrix meets Shadowrun, except even farther into the future.

Originally, the game was scoped as a miniature game. I’ve decided to move away from that and utilize a highly modular and flexible boardgame system. The basic premise is that player’s will use preset or randomly generated mission templates that define the board, objectives, type of opposition, etc. Players will have their own character, which they can continue to develop from game to game in a campaign format. Characters will reflect a broad spectrum of abilities and play styles, from combat to stealth to special ability oriented types. Play will likely rely on a planning/hidden action order phase, and then an execution phase. Various mechanisms will be employed to keep the opposition dynamic and interesting over the course of the game from turn to turn.

I mentioned wanting a flexible game design system. From a cooperative standpoint, obviously players will need to work together. However, players can seek out special individual awards through unique class abilities, secret agendas/missions, and more. Often these secret agendas will benefit one player and further their advancement at the risk of jeopardizing the mission, so you’ll often need to play it cool until you can pull of a special stunt and earn more points. Ultimately, I’d like to be a system where players could compete against the AI or even in team vs. team formats. The devil’s in the details.
That’s all for that one. I’ll keep getting inspired and jotting down my ideas.

Nano-Mythical
I haven’t worked up much inspiration for advancing Nano-Mythical (see the last blog post) – which is a poker-esque myth-themed empire building game. I think the idea and concept is pretty cool – but I’m not up for digging back into my small library of mythology books for inspiration right now. So it’s on the back burner until I get motivated to work on it again. Maybe next year.

Feud
A much older game concept I developed was a card game using a standard deck of cards called and named Feud. It was a bit like playing Stratego except with cards, and once information was open it stayed open (I have a terrible short-term memory and consequently despise stratego).

Players have a 2x4 grid of cards, doubled up (so there isa a top and bottom card in each position) and the goal is to kill the opposing player’s royal family (Jack, Queen, King). It was a crude concept that worked, and included some clever ideas based on the cards. There was spying, assassination, duels, wars, and skirmishes, all playing out on these opposing 2x4 grids. I’ve been inspired to rework on the concept some more. It’s been years since I last looked at it – but I’ve gained some insight and design thinking that I think could be applied towards advancing the design in a good direction.

Shifters
Last is Shifters – which I’ve also had on the backburner since I’ve focused so much on Hegemonic. Despite being nearly ready to pull the trigger on a small self-publication run a year or so ago, I’ve now decided to hold off on working on this concept. It just wasn’t quite playing out the way I wanted it to. I have since had a few revelations about the design that I think will resolve my worries and make is a much better game – but it pretty much requires throwing everything out the window and starting from the ground up. So I’ll tackle that when I have time to focus on the development more.

I will say that I’m really looking for a game that fills the role that Shifters intends (and largely does) fill in my collection. Namely, a game that is reasonably quick to play for 2-6 players, is a card game with a small footprint, has a high level of interaction and meta-gaming potential, and that is fast paced and keeps everyone engaged throughout the game. I really like the basic concept and structure of the game – it just needs to be implemented with a different approach to the cards to make the gameplay both more engaging and less luck-driven.


CLOSING REMARKS

This concludes the 2012 Edition of the Skunkwork Newsletter. Really, I have more ideas and concepts floating around than I can plausibly design, let alone have an opportunity to playtest! Once Hegemonic’s intense development cycle is finished I can circle back to some of these other concepts and develop them more fully.

Any of these concepts strike your fancy or send you running in terror? Been there done that? See a dimond in the rough? Let me know!
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Mon Dec 3, 2012 5:00 pm
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