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How to Takeover the Galaxy - Hegemonic Style!

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
Michigan
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My Goodess My ...

Great strategy games hinge on creating interesting decision for players to make. Interesting decisions need to have an impact on the game state (i.e. they should not be irrelevant) and there shouldn’t be one "right" decision (otherwise there isn’t a decision at all!). Uncertainty (or risk) in outcomes, a varied decision space, and a balance between short- vs. long-term goals all contribute towards making more interesting decisions.

Over the course of Hegemonic's development, I continually re-evaluate the gameplay to polish the kinds of decisions that players face. And Hegemonic does contain quite a few decision over the course of the game! Below, I’m going to review the primary decisions and associated factors that players need balance during gameplay. I feel that discussing decisions is the best way to convey the feeling of a game for interested players. So here we go!



Decision 1 ... or ... How to explore a galaxy

Hegemonic’s galaxy board is gradually filled out over the course of the game as players place sector tiles (hexes) from a pool onto open board locations. At the start of each turn, players go around the table choosing a tile to place from the pool, and then add another sector from the draw pile to the pool.

Sector tiles indicate locations for building the three different types of bases (industrial complexes, political embassies, martial outposts) in different number of combinations. Furthermore, when playing sector tiles, they can be played anywhere on the board. You aren’t limited to playing next to previously explored sectors or your own territories.

The exploration mechanisms offer a number of decisions which shift over the course of the game. A limited number of tiles are face up in the sector pool, so when it is a player’s turn to choose a tile they have to think critically about what to place AND where to place it.

For example, do you play a tile that supports your own strategic objective (i.e. expanding military bases)? Do you then place that tile next to your empire so it is easy to expand to in the short-term, or do you place it in a position that makes better use of its power later in the game (i.e. a more centralized or aggressive location)? There is a risk proposition built into the sector tile placement. If you place it further away, will you be able to get there first or will someone else beat you to it?

You’ll also need to consider what your opponents are likely going to do. It may be more important to play a tile that an opponent would otherwise take. You’ll need to weigh the benefits of playing to further your own ends versus playing to limit your opponents opportunities. Later in the game as the board fills up more, additional options open up for placing tiles in ways that block or cut off the expansion base types in a way that can hamper your opponents.

Holistically, the exploration mechanisms support a very wide decision space. Like a game of Go, you can play a tile anywhere, and each tile is going to come into play in different ways over the course of the game depending on where it is played. Tile placement has a significant impact on driving your longer term strategies ... and successive tile placements can definitely require you to re-evaluate your strategic direction and/or support a needed shift in new direction. But tile placement is only part of the game. How you take advantage of the evolving board provides an even deeper decision space.

Decision 2 ... or ... How to sequence an empire

The primary actions you take in building your empire occur over action phases, of which three occur each turn. During each action phase, all players simultaneously select one of their seven action cards for the phase. Players flip their cards over and the cards are resolved in numerical order as listed on the cards (actions are numbered 1-5). In the case of ties, the Arbiter (i.e. the lead player) gets to choose who goes first among the tied players.

Deciding which action to perform is a case of balancing what you really want to do against what you think your opponents are going to do and whether their decisions might impact your choice.

For example, the Industrialize, Politicize, and Martialize actions are all #3 action cards and are the main "empire building" actions, allowing you to build bases in new sectors where you have influence. You may want to expand your industrial complexes (using the industrialize action) in a certain valuable sector. But is your opponent ahead of you in turn order and likely to get there first if they also choose Industrialize? Or are they likely to choose a #2 Assault action and try to sabotage your expansion effort before you have a chance to build? Do you instead play the #1 action to block the open base locations and give yourself priority for expanding there later but at an added cost? Do you assault them-instead and cut off their ability to expand to that location? Or do you feign your desire for expanding industry and make a bold political move somewhere else?

The three action phases occurring each turn give you lots of choices for how to sequence your actions around both the turn order and what other players are likely to do. It makes for a good deal of tension and deduction while also creating opportunities for pulling off unanticipated moves and staying one step ahead of your opponents. Furthermore, knowing what actions everyone else has played (after revealing the cards) creates interesting deterrent situations, where you might modify your strategy on the fly to protect yourself against what another player might do on their turn.

Another facet of the action selection mechanic that supports interesting decisions is the opportunity costs faced with performing one action over another. You always left wanting to perform more actions in a phase or turn than you are able to, so managing what actions you take over others is crucial to effective play. For example, the discover action card contains a number of really useful abilities, such as collecting more CAPS, exploring new sectors, or performing additional technology research. But what expansion or board control opportunities are you giving up by spending time discovering more? Tough choices!

Choice 3 ... or ... How to balance the economy

In Hegemonic, each of your base types (complexes, embassies, outposts) generate an amount of capacity (CAPs) at the start of each turn. You use these CAPs to pay for actions, from building new bases to sending fleets on raiding actions. As you build more bases of a certain type, you’ll generate more CAPs. But the cost of bases also goes up with each type.

From a purely economic standpoint, you can generate the most money by always building the cheapest base of the three types that will increase your income (i.e. the lowest marginal cost for the highest marginal benefit). However, a diverse economic approach like this means you will have less power within each of the base types to defend or attack with. Building more bases of one type generally makes each of those bases stronger, but then you’re sacrificing your income potential. So while you need to expand your income, you need to balance this against having sufficient power to protect yourself and conduct offensive moves. If you are too diverse, you’re open to an easy takeover from other players, even though you may be out producing them economically.

There is also a macro-level economic decision you need to make, which is whether you save money to try and become the Arbiter next turn and be able to affect the action sequence. At the end of each turn, the player with the most CAPs remaining automatically gets the Arbiter token. Keeping an eye on other player’s CAPs (CAPs are visible to all players) and whether they are in a position to take the Arbiter position will have a bearing on what actions you select (i.e. maybe you want to hold more money back), or whether you use the capitalize action to generate more CAPs to secure the Arbiter token, etc. The Arbiter does provide a key advantage, and often times you’ll want to sequence your actions and economic flow for an entire turn to secure the arbiter token and set yourself up for a key move the following turn.

Choice 4 ... or ... How to use technology and win the good fight

One of the tougher choices in Hegemonic has to do with the Technology/Resolution (Tech/Res) cards. Each player has a hand of five of these cards, which are used in resolving conflicts or to provide a technology benefit t if played to one of your empire’s three advanced technology slots. The Tech/Res cards range from Tier 1 to Tier 3 in level. Furthermore, each card lists two resolution powers; a general power level (ranging from 1-5) and bonus power level (5-8) that can only be used if the current conflict matches the conditions on the Tech/Res card. The lowest tier cards have the weakest general power (usually 1 or 2) but the highest bonus power. Often too the technology benefit of the weakest cards is very beneficial early on, while the higher tier cards become more useful later in the game.

Hence the tough decisions. Do you keep a particular Tech/Res card in your hand to use in conflicts that are aligned with your larger strategy (i.e. cards with a big bonus power to Agent actions if pursuing a political strategy) or do you play that card for its technological benefit? Cards played for technology can be drawn back into your hand later in lieu of drawing from the draw pile, so you have flexibility later on to shift strategies. Perhaps you play a lower tier card for its technological advantage and then pull it back into your hand for higher resolution power later in the game as conflicts become more frequent.

Tech/Res cards used for conflicts are returned to your hand at certain points in the game and can be used again in subsequent conflicts. There is an intriguing deduction/bluffing element to using your Tech/Res cards in conflicts. You need to balance retaining cards in your hand to carry out your actions effectively (i.e. raiding an enemies complexes) but you also need to consider whether you will be attacked and what cards need to be held back to use in defense. Over the course of the game, you will start to figure out others players’ strengths and can begin to play to their weakness. Do you carry out a secondary target to feign and draw out your opponent’s high power card, thereby making it easier to attack a key location of theirs as your primary target?

The diversity you maintain the cards in your hand is also crucial. You could retain a lot of high power martial cards and be able to clean house with martial actions, but that might leave you really weak in other conflict types and unable to effectively defend yourself. If you use all your high power martial cards attacking, you won’t have any left to defend with.

An additional layer to the conflict resolution that adds interesting choices is how political power is used. All political embassies belong to a political faction depending on the color of the sector tile. Regardless of which players are engaged in a conflict, if either of those players are using political power in the conflict, other players also having political power in the same faction as the engaged faction can lend their power to the engaged player.

And so begins the makings of alliances and negotiations. Do you appeal to a 3rd party to lend their strength in sabotaging a player with a menacing military stronghold? Does the target of your sabotage benefit the 3rd party player at all? Will they require some Non-Aggression agreement for a set number of turns in exchange for helping you out? Do you stick to the deal?

All in all, there are some intriguing decisions for how you work with other players to maintain an even playing field. But don’t expect help if all your requests for political support are clearly self-serving. Again, this creates another decision point where you need to balance doing something that benefits you the most directly versus something with more diffuse benefits across the board but gaining political support in the process.



Choice 5 ... or ... How to achieve Hegemony

The overarching strategic direction you pursue is informed by all of the above elements; the arrangement of sector tiles in the galaxy; the sequence of actions and managing play order; balancing economic with power and arbiter attainment; managing technology/resolution cards; and using political leverage.

Yet the optimal strategic direction you pursue is a dynamic and moving target. The board state can change rapidly with swings of power occurring frequently. Recognizing when to shift strategies and balance your empire’s growth and technologies to be flexible and responsive is critical to success. You might have an opportunity to dominate the board militarily, but doing so makes you a huge target, and a few critical attacks on your outposts could leave you with little to fall back on in shifting to another strategy.

Ultimately, scoring is determined by a combination of your total power on the board (i.e. you want to build as much as you can) AND the distribution of your power across the galaxy (i.e. you want to have more power in each of the galaxy boards than other players). This scoring mechanism creates a wide range of interesting choices that will drive your strategy beyond whether you are pursuing industrial, political, or martial expansion. It informs how you are building those assemblages of bases.

Do you play it safe and expand incrementally, concentrating your total power and excluding others from your territory? Or do you take a dispersed and opportunistic growth strategy, expanding quickly but loosely throughout as many regions as possible to get a foothold in more total area of the board? Or is it a mixture of both? Or do you switch from one approach to other as the game nears completion?

This dynamism is an aspect of Hegemonic that thrills me the most. The strategy is highly layered from a grand strategic level down to a nearly tactical level, from big decisions about "how much power where" to the sequence in which you use your Tech/Res cards in resolving conflicts. All the while you need to keep a close eye on a quickly evolving board state and adjust your machinations accordingly to out plot your opponents’, no doubt devious, designs.
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Thu Dec 1, 2011 4:59 pm
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On the boards ... or ... A Skunkwork Orange

Oliver Kiley
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It is often said that good game designers have many designs spinning around in their heads. Whether having a lot of designs going on at once is an indicator of being a good designer or not is a matter of further speculation. Personally, I have a lot of ideas floating around in my head and I’m striving to be best designer I can.

What are these ideas you ask? Shifters and Hegemonic are two games the furthest along development, so let’s tackle those first.

Shifters

Shifters has been a concept that I started about 9 years ago, and the game has changed substantially along the way. The essence of the game is that players represent shapeshifters competing through a series of trials to be awarded the prestigious title of Grand/Master/Head/King Shapeshifter. Each player has three different "morph" cards in front them representing different animal forms ("morph"ologies) that they have at their disposal. During the main phase of the game, players earn VPs by having animal morphs in play with attributes (like strength, intellect, stealth, etc.) that match the requirements of current trial.

In brief, gameplay consists of a series trials consisting of a varying number of rounds.. Each round, all player’s simultaneously choose a card from their hand to play, then everyone flips them over and they are resolved going around the table. Cards have a wide range of effects. Players can play new morph cards to better their position on the current trial, but can also throw up obstacles restricting other players, steal/swap morph cards from other players, change up the trials, and play defensive cards as well.
The card play has a good deducting/bluffing element to it and of course a high degree of player interaction. Additionally, turn order can really matter, so often you’ll be playing to try and grab the "leader" card, giving you the advantage when it comes to reslving cards for the round.

Perhaps it was fortuitous, but my printing arrangements fell through giving me more time to continue polishing the design and pacing of the game. I continue to get good feedback and suggestions, so I think I will continue to take my time and improve the game going forward. If anyone is interested in playtesting, I have a playtest PnP package that can be sharred.

Hegemonic

Hegemonic is my second game under active/intense development. Hegemonic aims to deliver an abstracted 4X space empire game, playable in +/- 2 hours. A difficult task to be sure. However, I’m very happy and excited about how the gameplay and experience is evolving so far. My playtest group regularly asks to play the game, often not even giving me time to make revisions to the prototype materials, so that’s a good sign!

The design emerged from a desire to create a highly fluid and dynamic game, in which players need to balance a number of important factors/economics, respond to other players tactically and strategically, and maintain flexibility throughout the game. During the design process, I keep asking myself, how do I make decisions more interesting and compelling? Each cycle of revisions strengths and tightens the gameplay.

The basic gameplay of Hegemonic consists of players:
(1) exploring sectors of the galaxy (expore)
(2) building bases and units, including industrial complexes, political embassies and agents, and martial outposts and fleets (expand)
(3) leveraging the power and influence of your bases to expand your networks and attack other players through low-luck conflicts (exterminate)
(4) discovering and advancing technologies to augment your empires capabilities (exploit)

Sounds fairly straight forward right? What makes the game dynamic and engaging is how actions are selected and performed. Each turn has three main action phases. During each action phase, all players will select 1 of 7 action cards to play for the round. Selected cards are revealed simultaneously and carried out in a certain order. Some actions allow you to block your opponents, or directly expand your own empire, attack your opponents, or conduct special research and exploration actions. The order and position of players during action resolution is key to seeing your plans come to fruition. Careful deduction work is critical to timing your actions to best make use of them in light of what your opponents may be doing. Furthermore, each action is fairly limited in its scope, so to successfully realize a major plan or move, you’ll need to string together multiple actions in an effective manner while also mitigating your risks and responding to a constantly shifting board state.

Another aspect of the design I think is working well is that Hegemonic doesn’t reward predictable and sequential expansion of your empire. In many empire building games, each turn you grab adjacent territories, having a nice unified area of control. Hegemonic eliminates all of that. You may be focusing your industrial strength in one area of the galaxy and jump across to the other side to establish political strength. It’s like a game of Go, where the board is wide open initially and how your position your initial moves begins to establish a unique and interwoven field of play.

I’ve written quite a bit about Hegemonic elsewhere. You can grab the current rules here, follow the development thread here, or read a detailed gameplay synopsis here.

Nano-Mythical (working title)

This is a card game design I also started years ago. Originally it was simply named Mythos, but that name is already taken. Grabbing inspiration from Dan Simmon’s books Illium/Olympos, in which a futuristic recreation of the Trojan war unfolds for the bemusement of a post-human civilization (among other things), I re-themed the game slightly to Nano-Mythical, which sees the return of mythological gods of Greek, Norse, Egyptian, Sumerian, Hindu, and Japanese origin. Each player represents a different house-culture of a futuristic society, each fashioning themselves after one of the ancient cultures above. The houses are competing to acquire the most "citizens" to their side in order to gain the right to set the direction for the next great social transcendence. Whowers!

Gameplay combines a number of mechanics, including resource management, hand management, and auctioning/bidding. Each house has a deck of cards, and there is also a general deck. In some ways similar to Poker, players attempt to build a Tableau and hand of cards, betting their "citizen" tokens that they will be able to win the next challenge or competition. The winner will gain more citizens and other players loose them. The cards themselves reflect all manner of mythological entities, including gods, heroes, monsters, temples, artifacts, curses, miracles, etc. The ability to assemble a winning hand hinges on managing your house’s welfare, power, and knowledge. You’ll end up playing some cards to build your tableau to boost those attributes, and using others during the bidding sessions.

The game has a very crude prototype created, and I’m in the process of reworking most of the mechanics to better focus on the gameplay elements described above.

Eco-Logical (working title)

I’ve always liked ecology and the myriad of biological processes and interactions that occur in nature. EcoLogical is a game concept in the very early stages of development where I’m looking to model many of the interactions in a simple and intuitive manner. One objective I have with the game design to make it accessible as a classroom learning tool, perhaps for Middle School age kids. That means it needs to be easy to learn, the mechanics self-evident, and playable in 30 to 45 minutes.

The basic idea (and this is only very rough) is that there are is a series of game boards (probably six) that stitch together represent different abiotic regions across water availability and temperature gradients. Each region will have slots for different tropic levels of organisms (i.e. primary producers, herbivores, carnivores, decompossers, etc.). Each player will have their own pool of tiles in front of them reflecting different organisms (plants or animals!) or adaptations. Player’s will be looking to match (place) organisms into suitable habitat niches and score points for how well "fit" or suited that animals is to the chosen location.



What makes this more than a "find the best spot" game is that player’s also have a hand of cards that represent different ecological actions/events/interactions. These special cards can be paired with tile placements to allow you to do special things. The "mutualism" card might allow you to play a certain species on top of someone else’s allowing you to both score points. Or a landslide card can cause a disturbance that wipes out a few of the primary producer tiles in a region,causing food shortfals that cascade up through the foodchain.

The design, as mentioned, is in its infancy, but I’m excited about the possibilities of this one.

Transitional (working title)

This is one of those game ideas that comes to you in a random burst of insight. A moment of clarity or enlightenment. Of course it remains to be seen whether it works on paper.

Transitional is a game where players start off with various stakes/ownerships in a hypothetical city-state of the early 21st century with various resources and faculties at their dispoal. The object of the game is for players to collectively guide the management, growth, evolution, etc. of this city-state through or around a series of crises, that not surprisingly are crises we face today, a growing economic crisis, social unrest/instability crisis, environmental/energy crisis (global warming), health crisis, etc. The game is cooperative in that player’s have to discuss options or ideas to advance to manage these crises and risks but competitive in that the player most able to influence and shape the future in a way that appeals to their interests will be the ultimate winner.

Of course everyone can also loose if a combination of crises come to fruition. The tricky part is that player’s will need to decide how to respond to each crisis, using a combination of technologies, policies, and strategies aimed at risk avoidance/prevention, risk management/mitigating, or disaster relief. Lots of tough choices!



Each player is given a few cards at the beginning of the game representing their constituents, essentially outlining the unique combination of ways in which they can score points at the end of the game. Player’s keep these secret from each other. Next, players have a hand of cards representing different "initiatives." These initiatives include a range of things, from new technologies, to new policies, to new social/cultural movements, etc.

The gameplay is unique in that it is very unstructured. A "turn" consists of a debate among players. Player’s will consider the current crises level and resources of their city-state and offer up "initiatives" to the group for debate and discussion as to whether they should be implemented. Some initiatives (i.e. big major ones) will require a majority vote or even consensus vote among players to implement. Other initiatives function more like "play anytime" and might not require any approval from other players, you can just play it, immediately changing the gamestate.

Obviously some of these initiatives are going to appeal to certain constituents and not to others. Internally you need to balance what initiatives you are supporting based on what’s going to score you points, but you need to consider how you can work with other players and advance initiatives they are likely to support. Its tricky because some initiatives may advance the onset of one type of crisis while adverting another! When players have collectively played/implemented a certain number of initiatives (or agreed to delay action), time advances, crisis tracks update, players get new cards, and another round of negotiation ensues.

Ultimately the game ends when players are able to stabilize the crises below a certain level and ensure a healthy, stable, and resilient city-state. At that point, everyone reveals their constituents and scoring occurs. What fun!

Armed (working title)

I’ve been longing for a sci-fi, semi-cooperative dungeon crawler type game that is a good blend of RPG and tactical miniature game. I played a lot of Necromunda back in the day, which was awesome. But today there’s a bit too much overhead involved in running a Necromunda campaign. 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 meete The 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.



Few! That’s all for now. Any thoughts or ideas about the game concepts, please share!
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Thu Sep 29, 2011 2:52 pm
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My Dear Dossier - Part I

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
Michigan
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In my first blog post, I said that my next blog post would be about high points in my gaming past (both board and video). Well I made a second blog post on a different subject, counteracting my statements made in the first blog post. If you are still following me, then know that in this blog post, I will attempt to go cover the original intended subject matter for what was supposed to be the second blog post but is in fact the third blog post. Got it? Phew!

My Dear Dossier,

Part I -

I, like many here, have been a gamer for as long as I remember. Growing up in the early 80's was a fun time, as there was a plethora of board games floating around (from a mainstream standpoint) and of course the growing video game industry. Perhaps the best way to proceed is categorically, that is, to take a group/genre of board and/or video game and talk a little about it. I'll cover one or two categories per blog post. I don't want anyone to get too overwhelmed!

Down in the Dungeons and/or Pits in the Land of Roll and Move

Some of my earliest gaming memories, beyond the usual mainstream fare of Mouse Trap, Sorry, Chutes + Ladders, Monopoly, Clue, Chess, etc. was a little game called Shrieks & Creaks. It was a pretty funky roll and move game that featured, among other things, a talking tomestone that told you which terrible fate would befall you during your upcoming move. I played this game constantly. It seemed so deep and engaging at the time. I now realize that it's a pretty much random affair, true to most roll and move games of the time. Oh well, the board looked cool!

The next big memory was playing The New Dungeon! when it was released in 1989, and which I still own. It was a rather simple luck-based game but it was the first real dungeon crawling / quasi-RPG like game I had played. I still play it on occasion and it is still a fun. Although not to serious of a game, there are some big choices to make, namely when to press your luck and try to skip dungeon areas and head down to a lower level than you probably should. You gotta commit to your decisions.

Of course the New Dungeon cemented one of the gaming genres that would still be with me; action-adventure. I played a ton of, and still own, HeroQuest. I played (but didn't like) a number of similar games such as Key to the Kingdom and Dark World. I still remember getting sucked into the adds for Dark World. Unfortunately the game was kinda lame and the level of excitement was no where near what the ads depicted. Who knew!?

In the more modern era, two games in my collection fit this genre, Munchkin and Drakon (third edition). I like the latter better, but neither is a show stopper for me. They are fun on occasion when we're in he right mood. Incidentally, about a year ago or gaming group combined Munchkin WITH the New Dungeon, which worked surprisingly well. Or at least our creation, aptly named MunchUngeon, seemed pretty awesome through our beer goggles and laughter.

To RPG or not?

A few years after the New Dungeon a little game called The New Easy to Master Dungeons & Dragons comes out. I bought it (or the parents did). It was the first real RPG game I owned, even if pretty basic (essentially a very paired down D&D rule set). I was hooked. Except of course I never actually played it. I was however, so hooked that I proceeded to buy all manner of AD&D 2nd edition core rule books, monster manuals, companion books, dragonlance stuff, planescape stuff, and likely more stuff that I can remember.

Despite amassing a pile of books over two feet high, I never once played an RPG. I don't know why. Perhaps I never bothered to ask any of my friends if they wanted to try? I think I ultimately had more fun reading the books/rules than I likely would have got out of actually playing. Maybe that's because I knew I'd end up being the DM, and I had plenty of that taking the role of Zargon the Whatever in HeroQuest, which was still being played quite regularly by friends at the time.

This dabbling in RPGs was however my first foray into game design. At the time in middle-school, I was reading Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series (the third book had just been released). It was a great story, although I admit that I gave up on the series somewhere around book 6 or 9. However, it inspired me to write my own AD&D rule set for a new character class, the "Channeler," inspired of course by the magic system from Wheel of Time. It was awesome. Except I had no idea if it worked or not because I didn't actually play AD&D, much less test my new creation! That was one early lesson in design ... test test test!

Digital killed action-adventure star

So during the mid to late 80's my parents had the good sense to start buying computers for the home. Obviously computers were meant for playing games. The Sierra Quest games, King's Quest, Space Quest, and my favorite HeroQuest, renamed to Quest for Glory due to trademark issues with HeroQuest the boardgame, were staples of my early computerized adventures. Good production, good humor, and engaging story lines.

The Quest for Glory games (there were eventually 5), I feel were quite aways ahead of their time. Great story, great graphics (at the time), and a great combination of RPG + adventure/action elements. The first game was released in 1989 and the fourth and favorite of mine, Quest for Glory IV: Shadows of Darkness, was released in 1994. They featured three character classes, although you could train up any of the skills regardless of your class. Combat was real-time. There were day and night cycles. There was humor and adventure. You had to sleep and eat regularly. You'd get encumbered carrying too much stuff. New things to discover. Oh My! I loved these games, and had played each (with the exception of #5) close to a dozen times.

The mid to late 90's. Now there are lots of other action-adventure-rpg type games that I played. Diablo (‘96) and Diablo II (‘00) fits the category, and I certainly played a lot of those games over the years. While I missed the boat on Daggerfall (also released in ‘96), I got into the The Elder Scrolls (Core Series) world through The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind in 2002. What an amazing game. Let's elaborate.

Morrowind was the first game that I remember playing (and it wasn't all that long ago) where I was blown away with how convincingly another "world" in its entirety was created for me to explore. I'm still amazed how many places there in the game world. It seemed that at every turn there was a little slice of life waiting to be uncovered. Of course its a sandbox (i.e. do anything, be anyone) type game, but it was the first game since the old Quest for Glory series that captivated me in the same way.

Incidentally, I see a lot of parallels between Elder Scrolls and Quest for Glory. I realized after the having added piles of mod's onto Morrowind, that all the tweaks actually made the game it work MORE like Quest for Glory. QfQ used a smooth leveling system where you didn't "level up" in a typical RPG fashion and then get to allocate your new skill/attribute points. Instead, simply doing stuff raised your skills, and as your skills go up, the associated attribute goes up. Want to get better at throwing? Go down the river, collect a bunch of rocks, and start throwing them at stuff until your throwing skill (and strength attribute) go up. To me, that makes the world immerse and real. Some people of course disagree. In any case, without thinking, I modded Morrowind (and subsequently The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion in 2006) to require many of the same things QfQ did. Eating a sleeping requirements, smooth leveling, more weight restrictions, etc.

Post-Apocalyptic Fever

By this point I was becoming a Bethesda fan and naturally started playing Fallout 3 (released in 2008). Again another oversight, but I had never played the original Fallout games. I did however get sucked into the world of Fallout 3 rather thoroughly. For as long as I was playing Elder Scrolls games, I kept wishing for a similar style of game set in science fiction environment. Incidentally I'm still waiting for a good sand-box style game set in a "high science" future (Mass Effect is pretty close, but not sandbox enough). But that's for another time...

I have a been a huge First Person Shooter gamer (more on that in a future post), and the combat in Fallout 3 left a bit to be desired. Plus, it needed the mods ala Morrowind/Oblivion to make me need to eat, drink, sleep, etc. I mean seriously Bethesda ... what were you thinking? You make a post-apocalyptic game dripping with survival elements, but very few survival mechanics were actually in the game? Huh?

After dabbling in a number of mods, I decided to create my own. I've always tinkered with my games, digital or physical, so I was on mostly familiar ground. So, I was borrowing ideas here and there and developing new features and content to transformm the Capitol Wasteland into a truely harsh and unforgiving environment. What was created was Fallout 3 Wanderers Edition (FWE), which went on to become one of the most popular Fallout 3 mods (currently #6 on Fallout 3 Nexus). I learned a ton, met great people who joined the FWE team, and look back on the effort fondly.

What was really exciting about the FWE project is that a few Bethesda developers swung by our corner of the internet to give some positive commentary on the mod. Perhaps I'm over inflating my ego, but many of the gameplay changes that wound up in Fallout: New Vegas were uncannily similar those created by FWE, particularly in the survival aspects of New Vegas's "Hardcore" mode. Ultimately, the FWE team went on to work on "Project Nevada" which is FWE's much improved successor translated to New Vegas. I haven't been involved in the project much due to family committmemnts, but Project Nevada is enjoying a high level of visibility and success, making New Vegas an even greater game.

Where to next?

I'm still waiting for my sci-fi action-rpg-adventure game set in a sandbox environment. Preferably with support for dedicated (personally owned) multi-player servers (NOT an MMO!). In the meantime, I've been outlining board game ideas for a high sci-fi semi-cooperative "dungeon" crawler. Possibly with some persistent RPG elements to tie game sessions together. More on that in a future post.

The next "My Dear Dossier" post will examine another game genre that will likely include First-Person Shooter and Real Time Strategy games ... boardgamers beware!
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Wed Sep 14, 2011 2:46 pm
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Don't Drown in Your Files!

Oliver Kiley
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Game Design + Development - Managing the files!

In this thead, I mentioned linking graphic files is a good thing to do from a productivity standpoint when creating prototypes. A user asked for additional information and suggestions. As I started writing I figured this would be something worth sharing with others as well! Here we go!

I’ve been using the Adobe CS suite, principally Illustrator, Photoshop, and InDesign, for creating artwork and graphics for game prototypes and components. I use these applications, among many others, in my professional work, and managing your files and workflows in a good manner is key to being able to efficiently create prototype materials and generally stay organized. The Adobe CS programs also have the advantage of being able to link files between many of the applications, and having a nice structure to work with upfront can streamline the whole development process.

Below, I will share how I’ve been organizing and structuring my game design/development files, along with some tips and tricks for newer Adobe CS users to consider.

First, it’s good to put a folder structure in place when you start creating a lot of digital files and content. Keeping things organized will help a lot. I usually setup a project folder for a game design project once I start any serious amount of prototype graphic creation, rules documentation, or more detailed design planning (beyond my sketch-book).

Folder Structure

At the top level, there are the following main folders:

Admin
Contains communications, production notes, cost estimates, etc. that might be developed during the course of the design/development process. Can also store contracts with publishers or any other agreements, marketing materials, etc.

Design
Typically contains lots of excel documents, tables, card lists, balance calculations, etc. used throughout the design process.

Graphics
I’ll create a sub-folder for each major type of component in the game. For example, Hegemonic has sub-folders for (1) artwork (original raster images), (2) action cards, (3) technology cards, (4) tokens/chits, (5) player board, (6) sector tiles, (7) galaxy boards.

Each graphic sub-folder contains the main working file for that particular component, such as an Adobe Illustrator file (more on this below). Additional sub-folders are setup for each graphic component, including an Archive folder for saving old versions of the main graphic file, export folders (at 300dpi + 72 dpi usually), and an input folder. If I’m being particularly anal, I’ll create dated archive folders under the export folders as well, so I can save prior versions if I need to refer back to something quickly.

Packages
I generally use InDesign to layout print-sheets for prototype materials (or even for professionally printed materials). I create a sub-folder for the current version/draft of the game, and create an InDesign document for each component (based o the graphics above). These are all added to an InDesign book file as well for easy opening/closing and organization. Later in the production cycle, if you are having someone print your files, you can link their print layout templates into your InDesign files and layout out your components that way.

Each sub-folder contains an Export_PDF sub-folder where I save the component sheets as a single .pdf document, which can be easily printed or distributed.

Playtesting
I take a lot of notes during and after playtesting. This folder contains dated text/word files with any playtesting summaries, notes, or follow-up thoughts. Often, these playtest reports become my combined changelog and punch lists for design or graphic items to work on for the next major revision.

Rules
This is a folder for developing the written rules of the game. It contains the following sub-folders: (1) Archives for saving old versions/drafts (never know when you might need to go back to a prior rule/mechanic!); (2) Export for .pdf versions of the rules; (3) Any number of input folders as needed, which can contain rulebook specific graphic items such as diagrams, logos, titles, etc.

For the first many drafts of the rulebook, I will usually keep in a word document format (or equivalent) since the rules are changing so rapidly. Once the rules are getting closer to a final state AND I want to supplement the rules with relevant diagrams, play examples, etc. I will copy the text into a InDesign file for laying out the rules. Even with using InDesign you can quickly re-lay things out as the rules change once you get a good handle on the program.

Virtual
Contains sub-folders for developing virtual copies of the game for playtesting (i.e. Vassal modules).

That’s it for the folder structure piece.

Production Tips

A few other workflow considerations and pieces of advice:

Think carefully about how you layout and develop specific components, particularly cards and player board type components. You need to be able to quickly make changes during prototyping, so you want to setup your files to that end.

In some of my earlier designs, I created individual Illustrator files for each card in the game. When I needed to change something (like the background, or text size), I suddenly found myself having to open and close dozens of files each time I made a change. Ugh!

There are a few better approaches that I now employ. For each major type of card (i.e. it shares a similar layout/elements) I’ll create one Illustrator file. All the background art, text box backgrounds, etc. can contained in a set of layers. Then all of the content text, icons, etc. are in their own layer for each card. If I wanted to change the text size on all the cards (for example), it becomes easy to turn all the card layers on, and select all the text boxes containing my text to modify and re-size/adjust it in one click. The downside to this approach is that you still have to turn on/off the appropriate background and foreground layers when exporting the card. Often times, I will export all the backgrounds separately from the foreground, and then lay the two together in he print sheet.

Another card design approach is create your background files as above. In another file, you can tile your foregrounds across one or more pages with the backgrounds linked in. This file can then be exported in one pass and linked directly into your print-sheets. With good layer control, you can keep different text/elements on their own layer so it becomes relatively easy to apply changes across all he cards uniformly. If adding Foreground text in InDesign, it’s even easier as you can setup paragraph and text styles for each element that can be quickly changed at the press of a button.

Take advantage of linking files across applications, particularly between exported graphic components and your print-sheets. So long as you consistently export graphics into the same graphic export folder and keep the same file name, your print-sheets will update very quickly with revised graphics when you open them. This is a big time saver. Again, my workflow is to export a graphic component into its Export_300dpi folder. The file is linked from there to the relevant print-sheet in the Packages folder.

Come up with a version tracking system that works for you and use it. I tend to put "_v00X" at the end of my main working files (i.e. Rulebook, graphics components, etc.). Since I don’t link to the main graphic files (I link to exported pdf’s or png’s usually), I’m free to change the file name to correspond with the cureent version/draft number. This is helpful to keep track of what is current versus old and keep tabs on prior versions if you need to go back to something.

That’s it for now! Hopefully these suggestions are helpful.
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Mon Sep 12, 2011 3:29 pm
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About, about, in reel and rout

Oliver Kiley
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Welcome! I’ve slowly been accumulating a list of, what I think, is blog worthy material. But of course I didn’t have a blog in which to post. And I didn’t have a blog because, frankly, I was hung up on what to name it.

Blog’s are supposed to have a catchy and interesting name, right? Be a little witty? Well for me, being witty only extends to making bad puns, so hence the name Big Game Theory!, a mostly humorless play on words. It does at least conjure up some idea of what this blog will be about:

d10-1 Games;

d10-2 Theories, be it on the subject of game design, scientific inquiry, fiction, the search for the theory of everything, or frankly any other topic;

d10-3 Bigness, because bigger is better, except when it isn’t

So there you have it. Now I have blog, so I better get writing! I’ve also decided that I’m going to strive to be more concise in my writing than normal. I’ve often been criticized for being too verbose, so this blog is chance to keep things crisp and to the point. This will inevitably mean lots of bullet lists and convoluted abbreviations.

To kick things off, a little about myself.

1 I’ve recently become a family man, having a 5 month old daughter (well my wife had her, I mostly stood there with my jaw on the floor). It has been amazing and challenging.

2 I’m a landscape architect. My works primarily involves regional, city, and district, planning, urban design, green infrastructure systems, ecological restoration, recreation and non-motorized planning, and community engagement. I don’t mow lawns, trim shrubs, or know the best tree to plant next to your azaleas. For that, you’ll need to go talk to a landscape architect.

3 I’ve been a gamer all my life, including board games, video games (PC mostly), and RPG’s (mostly reading rule books). More specifically, I’m a perpetual game tinkerer. I can rarely play a game, of any kind, and move on without first delving into a litany of ideas about how it could be improved, tweaked, or expanded.

4 Other interests include rock climbing, reading science fiction, tinkering with and playing paintball, cycling (road), and drinking beer.

That’s all for the time being. Next, we’ll be looking at what I feel are highpoints in my gaming past (and maybe yours).

Cheers!
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Thu Sep 1, 2011 3:08 pm
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