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Designer Diary: Going on My Star Trek: Five-Year Mission

David Whitcher
United States
Manchester
Michigan
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Microbadge: Protospiel AlumniMicrobadge: Star Trek fanMicrobadge: Mayfair Games fanMicrobadge: Star Trek: Five-Year Mission fanMicrobadge: U-Con attendee
Board Game: Star Trek: Five-Year Mission
Warning: The following game contains 3, a lot of 6 — 35 4 in three colors, in fact. If you have a 2 allergy, you should stop reading now.

Most games take many years to develop. You start with an idea. You flesh out that idea. You prototype and test it over and over in what often seems like an endless cycle until the game is ready to show a publisher. If you're lucky, you find one right away, but more often than not you show your game to numerous publishers before it's accepted. If it's accepted, the publisher often requests changes to be made to fit their vision of how the game will best serve the audience they are trying to sell to. This is the process I have become accustomed to as a freelance game designer, and Star Trek: Five-Year Mission is no exception except for a few minor details.

From its conception, I designed "Star Trek / Cooperative Dice Game" for Mayfair Games. The game design community normally advises you to stay away from IP, especially big IP, because they are expensive and difficult to get the rights to, thereby making them a big risk. That is why so few publishers deal with them. I have been on the Mayfair Games demo crew for nearly a decade now and had the good fortune to find out that they were interested in doing another Trek game after Star Trek: Catan was released in 2012. I figured the odds of someone approaching them with such a design were a 1 in 10,000 chance, so I decided I would design one for them.

From gallery of dralius
My first ideas were nonstarters: basic card games, board games with star maps to explore, etc. — nothing that hadn't been done with this license. It was several months after Origins 2012 when the idea came to me. I was sitting in a waiting room and quickly scrounged up paper and pencil to make notes for later. This would be a cooperative dice game in which you play the crew of the Enterprise completing dilemmas to score points. A cooperative game lends itself well to the crew of a ship, especially in the Star Trek universe, and since there are many main characters I could design it to be played with a large group.

Unlike most games I have designed, it was a long time between concept and first prototype. The original prototype had three decks of 24 cards each, with each card needing a unique set of requirements in order to complete it. I first had to create the 72 dice sets and a rubric to determine the difficulty of each card. This was not just a matter of calculating the odds of rolling the numbers needed to complete the dice set. There are other factors involved, such as urgent events that must be completed in three minutes. I also had to take into account card effects that hamper play, such as crew injuries and ship damage. Once that was finally done, I made my first prototype and did solo testing. As usual there were changes to be made before moving to testing with the public.

In the game's third iteration, I was ready to take it to one of my local game groups to get feedback. I set up the "H.M.S. Victory" prototype and found a group of four willing to give it a try. "H.M.S. Victory" is a cooperative dice game for 3-7 players in which you play the crew of a ship working together to complete events drawn from decks of varying difficulty. I tested the game in public gaming groups using this alternate theme so that fandom would not play a factor in the feedback I received.

I kept the real theme a secret until I showed it to the Mayfair Games Minister of Product Acquisitions, Alex Yeager, in June 2014. His advice allowed me to finalize the design over the next few months with the help of numerous testers, including dozens of game designers at the 2014 Protospiel held in Chelsea, Michigan, all of whom played it with the "H.M.S. Victory" theme. After several delays, which gave me more time to refine the cards further, the game was pitched to Mayfair by Alex since I was unable to travel to where they were the board was meeting.


From gallery of dralius

Captains old (above) and new (below)

From gallery of dralius


The game was accepted, and since then I've been working with the Mayfair team to get it ready for market. To my surprise, they chose to make Star Trek: Five-Year Mission so that you could play as either the original series crew or the TNG crew. This required another seven player abilities be devised. We also needed new titles and scenes for the additional TNG cards.

Using a later prototype with proposed graphics, we previewed the game at the 2015 Origins Game Fair, which was our last major testing opportunity. With only seven weeks to go and a promise to deliver at Gen Con 2015 — not to mention holding a charity event with actress Marina Sirtis, we had much to do. As of writing this diary, we are on schedule and expect to have plenty of copies of Star Trek: Five-Year Mission on hand for Trek fans to get Marina and me to sign on Saturday, August 1 at Gen Con 2015. Hope to see you there!

David Whitcher

Editor's note: For an overview of the gameplay in Star Trek: Five-Year Mission, head to my ST:5YM preview, which is based on a demo game that I played at Origins 2015. —WEM
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Tue Jul 21, 2015 6:46 pm
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Designer Diary: Making Tahiti Tahiti

David Whitcher
United States
Manchester
Michigan
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Microbadge: Protospiel AlumniMicrobadge: Star Trek fanMicrobadge: Mayfair Games fanMicrobadge: Star Trek: Five-Year Mission fanMicrobadge: U-Con attendee
Board Game: Tahiti
Most of the time when I design a game I start with a very basic concept, possibly pairing a theme or game type with a mechanism I think will be interesting, such as a train game with a modular board that is built during play. From this I try to let the idea evolve, adding in the game mechanisms in as organic of a way as possible, such as having your train require more coal if you have a heavier load.

This is where I started with my first real attempt to make a train game, which was to focus on route-building and deliveries. I decided to use large hexes for the modular board and sticks for rails – some spare Catan parts would do the trick. I put two locations on each hex where you could pick up and drop off freight and the positions where rail could be built cheaply. Freight would be replenished by drawing it unseen from a bag.

From gallery of dralius
A recreation of a hex in the first prototype, the original having been lost in a hard drive crash

I threw together a crude prototype and gave it a solo test. It worked mostly as planned – game designs are rarely gems right from the start. The freight load rule worked well; you could load your train with multiple cars to carry more by paying more coal, allowing you to deliver large loads if you could get to them. What I didn't like was that the route-building was too fiddly and the game too long for what it was. At the time I had other more promising projects, so I put it on my prototype shelf with other misfits and moved on.

Running Off the Rail

At this point you're probably thinking someone messed up and put the wrong title on this diary. Not so, as Tahiti started out as the aforementioned train game. Several months after I had set it aside, I was doing some writing for a different game when the "Modular Train Game" folder caught my eye. After rereading the rules and my notes I was keen to fix it. The problem seemed to stem from building routes, so I tried placing predetermined track on each hex with track exiting on three sides. Depending on how you placed the tiles, there could be dead ends all over the board. Adding more track to the tiles connected everything to everything else, which didn't seem very rail-like either.

I decided to chuck it – not the game but the track. Since trains don't work well without track, I knew that required a theme change. Trucks need roads so that was out, too; planes didn't seem intersting either. I decided that boats delivering to and from islands would work best. I also made the leap of players delivering to a central hub rather than to locations all over the place, which helped jell the theme of islanders gathering food.

I still had the problem of over-connection as some paths needed to be better than others, so I decided to add reefs.

From gallery of dralius
From the first prototype, salvaged from 1.5 Gigs of design files on the hard drive

The reefs would act as a barrier, allowing the player who was placing the island to make it easier or more difficult to get to depending on its location and orientation. This addition required a rule to prevent players from completely blocking off an island, but it worked. I had to change a great deal for this transformation; coal was changed to muscle power, and I removed the currency from the game, changing the goal to collecting instead of becoming wealthy. I changed all the commodities to food and goods that could be scavenged on or around the islands, including fish.

Fish Don't Grow on Trees

Wait, fish? I had introduced a good that needed to be handled differently. I have done my share of fishing and know that the one constant in fishing is uncertainty. I wanted this uncertainty to be reflected in the mechanism for collecting fish but didn't want to add dice to the game.

Turns out that I didn't need dice as I already had a better randomizer: the bag of cubes. Fishing in Tahiti means just that, reaching into the bag and trying to fish out a fish cube. Unlike with dice, the bag's state evolves over the course of the game and you know what that state is based on what has already come out. This makes fishing a risk but one that can be mitigated.

The Goddess Arrives

The game worked well most of the time but there was trouble in paradise. The archipelago building rules allowed players to place an island tile anywhere as long as it shared two sides with other islands. This could cause the archipelago to become quite elongated. When a player placed an island he was not interested in, he would generally place it far from the home island to keep others away from it. This was disastrous as another player might have to travel many hexes from the home island to reach it, traveling around reefs in the process. If the island was six hexes out, it could take three turns to reach it. Three boring turns!

I needed a way to control the archipelago expansion, and this is where the fertility goddess comes in, traveling the edges of the map and guiding where islands may be placed. This mechanism helps drive the archipelago formation in a way that gives everyone an equal share of control. Although the goddess will allow elongation of the archipelago, it can happen only if the players collectively push it in one direction.

Board Game: Tahiti
Print-and-play version of Tahiti, with Haumea showing the way to unexplored islands

Small Change = Big Effect

Tahiti was working well, and I was testing it with a fellow designer to ready the game for Protospiel when it dawned on me that the reefs would be more interesting if they were a decision point rather than just a barrier, the decision being whether to risk goods by traveling over the reef or to stay safe (but spend more time) by going the long way around. Once again I needed a randomizer, so I turned to the bag again.

The Protospiel testing not only went well; some of the testers raved about the game, which is unusual since we typically pick them apart with the goal of improving them. Tahiti was 90% done at this point, which was enough for James Mathe at Minion Games to ask for a submission copy. The remaining 10% was balancing the game and eliminating first-player advantage – which took almost as long as the first 90%.

Kickstarting It

Minion Games has successfully used Kickstarter to fund several games but this one is my first. Finalizing the art, making videos, figuring reward levels, getting the rules (PDF) and print-and-play files ready so people know what they are supporting – all of that took months. Now that the Kickstarter campaign is underway, it's exciting to watch the pledging and read comments from the participants. Hope you're interested in checking it out...

David E. Whitcher
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Sat May 19, 2012 6:30 am
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Designer Diary: Nitro Dice – A Long and Winding Road

David Whitcher
United States
Manchester
Michigan
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Board Game: Nitro Dice
The development and eventual publication of Nitro Dice is a long and convoluted story involving numerous publishers. I will not be naming any of them except for the one – Minion Games – that eventually picked it up.

Way back in the mists of time, circa 2003-2004 I was experimenting with alternate uses for dice in games, attempting to find potential in using them for pretty much anything other than just a randomizer. All manner of dice with common numbering and custom faces were considered and from such experiments came curiosities such as the abstract games Op-Position, Coffee & Tea, and the minimalist Arrow Cubes.

Although I enjoyed creating and playing these games, none of them gripped my attention like the other idea that was spawned by this exploration: a card game which I worked on under the name "Die Racing". Since I was endeavoring to use dice in an unusual manner, it's no surprise I was of a mind to do the same with cards. Die Racing uses dice as cars (with the speed visible at a glance) and segmented cards as the track so there is some real jockeying for position with multiple lanes involved. Players move based on their speed, discarding cards from their hand to change lanes, trying not to discard ones they may need later. The cards are also used to accelerate, break, and place hazards. It's an all-your-eggs-in-one-basket sort of game.

Having had the hydra known as parallel development rear its ugly heads before, I decided to see whether anyone had already done something similar. To be certain, I searched a well-known online game database, which at the time had a couple of thousand items recorded. I looked through every item listed as a race + card game, finding nothing significant similar. With my fears quelled I dug in and worked on the game alone, doing solo tests where I played as all six players to work out the mechanisms. It wasn't long before that process yielded all it could. I knew several other game designers in my area and did my first real playtests with them. As a first filter you can't beat game designers for feedback. The results were encouraging enough to spring the game on some testers who I didn't know personally.

This brings us to our first publisher. While I was testing Die Racing in the Penguicon game room, a publisher in attendance took notice of the novelty of the design and asked to see more. Let's call him "Joe" (not his real name) so that I don't have to keep saying "the publisher". My early prototype was minimalist, printed on 110# card stock which is barely thick enough to shuffle properly and just opaque enough to keep the other players from knowing your hand. It was also quite small.

From gallery of dralius


From gallery of dralius
No, I don't have freakishly large hands. The prototype was really small.

The first prototype had fulfilled its purpose. It was time to make something sturdy for heavy testing. Joe supplied me with hundreds of blank playing cards so that I could make a better prototype. Over several months we tested and refined the design, addressing runaway leaders, the details of cornering, and road-blocking issues. We also changed the focus from point A to point B races to multiple lap races since this is where the hazards really come into their own. Although Joe had great faith in the game, this particular company's process of choosing new titles is done by the board of directors, not just by him. Two of the board members happened to be coming through the area on business and I got to show it to them in person which is always great. After some deliberation, the game was turned down because it wasn't quite right for their product line.

This left me with a fairly polished design but no publisher. Knowing my disappointment, Joe was nice enough to get me in contact with a rather large German publisher he did regular business with. He thought they might be interested since they maintain a large line of card games. Their decision came quickly. They said it was a good game, noted its expandability, and even noticed that multiple sets could be used together – but even with all that they said they couldn't publish it. The reason set me back on my heels a bit. The game was too large for their small boxes and too small for their large boxes. That's right – the game was the wrong size! That's the first time Joe or I had heard this reason but after having it explained to us it made sense.

Being tenacious Joe took the game with him on a trip to Italy and found a publisher that was interested in co-publishing it with their American, Spanish and French partners. More prototypes were made so that each partner could have their own copy. At that time the deck had 112 cards, so I became quite good at building decks. There was a catch, though – they wanted changes, and the changes turned out to be extensive. Road racing is very big in Italy and they thought that the game mechanisms lacked realism. I had at this point been working on this game for over two years but listened to and adressed their concerns. I worked out a way to simulate high-speed cornering within the confines of the current system. It added a full page to the rules, and limited a player's options.

From gallery of dralius
You see it was really quite simple to understand with everything color coded.

I was only moderately happy with the result but still pleased at the prospect of getting published. All of a sudden, however, they changed their mind and wanted it made into a chariot-racing game with new mechanisms to match. While I was trying to get them to reconsider, the Italian economy caught up with them and they dropped all but one title from their development queue for the rest of the year. A while later they decided not to publish the game at all but the partners were still interested as long as a replacement partner could be found. As you can probably guess, that never happened. The search lasted nearly a year.

Once again a ship without a port. The game sat dormant until late 2008 when I started working with an overseas publisher that was looking for multiple games to start a new product line. I showed them several designs, including Die Racing. They immediately became interested in two of them. Neither of the two were Die Racing. They felt it was too complicated for their audience. I offered to simplify it and provided them with a motorcycle-racing themed version for kids. They turned it down again. I couldn't simplify it further without ruining the fundamental mechanisms, so back on the shelf it went.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Fast-forward to July 2010. For those who don't know, I run the game designers conference known as Protospiel in Ann Arbor, Michigan each year. Some attendees arrived the night before the event, which coincided with one of the Ann Arbor Gaming Groups meetings. We hold our meetings at local restaurants, have dinner, then play games. Over dinner I was chatting with Keven Nunn, designer of such games as Duck! Duck! Go!, Rolling Freight and VeloCity. VeloCity is a racing game that was coming out at the time, and it got us talking about racing game mechanisms. I described Die Racing and Kevin, being a race game enthusiast, asked to see it. I dug out one of my better prototypes and packed it along with the other games I still needed to get tested. During a lull, Kevin and I grabbed some willing participants. This is where fate or luck comes in. The game accommodates up to six players, and two of those players were our guests from Minion Games, including the owner James Mathe.

Although he hated the working title, James was interested and asked to take the prototype with him. Having had the game sit on the shelf for such a long time, I wanted to make sure none of the Italian complexity remained in the rules and told him I would deliver it to him at Gen Con, which I did. His testing group gave it a high rating and the usual process of developing the design to fit the publisher's vision started again. He saw it as a drift racing game and that meant adding the nitrous oxide boost. No problem; I liked the idea and easily integrated it without compromising the design. We also added the garage for brutal races where you can't avoid taking damage. That being settled, the game was put on the fast track. Rules layout, editing and artwork commenced. This part was quite enjoyable since I got to weigh in on all aspects from character design to rules layout.

There was still the name issue to deal with. To go with the theme we considered several names including "Nitro Card Racing" but thought that Nitro Dice sounded like more fun and represented the "car dice" better, even though it's not a dice game. The game is due out in June 2011, hopefully in time to have copies for Origins 2011. That's less than a year from submission to publication, but what do you expect – race games should be fast.*

David E. Whitcher

P.S. I'm still friends with Joe.

* Yes, I realize this is an ironic statement for a game that took seven years to get published.
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Wed Jun 8, 2011 6:30 am
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Designer Diary: Snag – Designing In and Outside of the Box

David Whitcher
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Manchester
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Board Game: Snag
Snag is the result of the Blue Panther LLC 2010 Small Games Contest. I don't enter many design contests because I find they distract me from the games on which I'm currently working – and I already have plenty of those. For some reason, this time was different and I decided I would enter.

I caught wind of the contest from a post at the Board Game Designers Forum, and the contest guidelines required that the design use both dice and cards, that the game materials fit in Blue Panther's card/dice tower, and that the game be short.

The length turned out to be the sticking point. Every idea I came up with was obviously going to exceed 30 minutes. After wasting a lot of time just coming up with an idea to work on, I was ready to give up and move on to another project. Sometimes giving up is what you need to do. I don't necessarily mean "giving up" as in "quitting", but "giving up" as in "letting go of the notions that you have yourself locked into". In this case it was little of both.

Having decided that I wasn't going to be able to make the deadline, I stopped trying to create a 30-minute strategy game. That's when it dawned on me that a mix of pattern recognition and speed could be fun. I did a quick write-up of the idea and WHACK I realized I had just designed a party game. This was a surprise to me since in all my years I had never designed a party game of any type, nor had I even tried to do so.

The game came together quickly, which was fortunate since I had used a lot of time on the other concepts. I'm not going to get into much detail about the design process as the game is incredibly simple and most the work involved working out the distribution of card symbols, which I am certain would be a real snore fest to read. Instead, I'll tell you how to play Snag, along with a few things I did that may not be obvious at first glance.

As previously mentioned, the game comes in a dice tower box, with 2D6 – one red die and one blue, each having six of twelve symbols on them – and thirty square cards, each showing four different symbols. Players take turns drawing a card and playing it into a field, then they roll the dice.

From gallery of dralius

The players simultaneously try to find the symbols shown on the dice adjacent to one another on the playing field. The symbols can be on the same card or (preferably) on different cards. When you find a match, you place a finger on each symbol to claim the card(s) on which the symbols are located. In the example above, there are two opportunities to score.

Each player may score only one set, so claim the set on two different cards, if possible. You probably have noticed that a given symbol may appear on either color background, which may or may not match the die color. Color is irrelevant for claiming pairs and is there to help confuse the eye. The game is played until all cards have been exhausted with the winner being the one who claimed the most.

I didn't hold out much hope of winning because I knew Blue Panther didn't publish party games. I even went as far as making a bit of a joke out of my submission by stating that the development team at PyroMyth Games (my business entity) had determined Blue Panther LLC was in need of party games in its line and Snag was designed specifically to fill that gap. I figured if I was going to lose, I might as well have a little joke to myself.

Months passed, and I had all but forgotten the contest when the email reached my inbox. But I didn't read the message, at least not right away simply because I hadn't checked my e-mail. Instead, I learned about it when another game designer congratulated me on winning.

Thinking back on it, being congratulated by my peers is better than an e-mail any day...

David Whitcher

Board Game: Snag
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Sat Apr 9, 2011 7:30 am
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