Musings and Retrospectives

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For SCIENCE! Design Diary - Overview

R. Eric Reuss
United States
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It is wonderful - but very strange - to see For SCIENCE! on Kickstarter.{1}

Part of the strangeness is because of how long I've been working on it - for nearly a decade! (Its original design predates Spirit Island.) When you've been working on something for that long, its prototype state comes to seem the norm.

The other half of it, of course, is the sobering surreality of it hitting Kickstarter during an actual global pandemic, while I am staying isolated in my house.

I should explain, for those not familiar with the game:
Brief Game Overview wrote:
FOR SCIENCE! is a realtime, cooperative, dexterity-and-strategy game. Set in the near-future (perhaps 1-3 decades hence), you play the part of workers - mostly scientists - in a somewhat misfit / corporate-dysfunctional lab, scrambling to combat a series of global pandemics and discover a Master Cure for all of them.

(You can see a graphic showing the following 3 steps here.)

To cure a disease, first you Design the cure using Design Cards.

Then, you physically Build the structure you've designed, using wooden blocks.

Each disease Cured earns you Master Cure tiles, which you puzzle together to capture Insight about the diseases (by making closed regions). When you capture enough Insight, you've won!

But you only have 15 minutes to save the world!

The original inspiration behind the game was me noticing that most dexterity games which required you to build unusual structures tended to dictate exactly what it was you had to build. This meant two things:

That there wasn't much room for creative solutions - you could build the thing as pictured or you couldn't. This also meant that the difficulty-level was baked in: something easy enough that less dextrous folks could handle it would be super-easy for balancing masters.

That it was 100% dexterity / physical-skill. I wanted opportunity for cleverness and thought to impact the difficulty of the physical challenge - in either direction!

I grabbed various blocks and block-like objects I had in my house - a supremely odd mix which included prop ammo cartridges for a semi-live PARANOIA game I ran back in the '90s - and started messing around with ways to make a dynamic challenge system.

Here's some of the very first prototype cards:
From gallery of darker

I quickly discovered two things: First, that this basic connection-graph of what blocks did and didn't touch could result in interesting challenges, and second, that oddly shaped blocks - particularly those that had no 90-degree angles - tended to create a challenge so hard that it was unsatisfying.

I was already thinking that these block-towers reminded me of the model molecules we made in high school chemistry - not directly in structure or in shape, of course, but in *feel* - and quickly settled on a medical theme. I did revisit this initial assumption, but none of the other ideas I came up with worked nearly as well; I wasn't the only one to feel there was a parallel. Of course, there was already this hugely-big disease-fighting co-op called Pandemic which had been released just a couple of years prior.... but I figured that hey, if this game panned out well, I could pitch it to Z-Man as "Pandemic: The Lab", representing the research being done inside of research centers! (Sadly, Pandemic: In The Lab was announced before I got to the point of pitching.)

I guessed that "wooden blocks" were a potential pitfall on price-point, so despite the enticing possibilities of really weird block shapes, I found the most inexpensive set of unit-blocks I could online and got those. (This proved fortuitous, though not for the reason I anticipated: when other folks wanted to make playtest kits of their own, buying a set of blocks for $18 was a lot easier than needing to laboriously re-create custom wooden shapes.)

A bit of playtesting quickly led to a small slew of minor refinements, after which the core system worked really well. People got it pretty quickly; the only thing they tended to need prompting on was that it was legal (and MUCH more effective) to lay down certain shapes on their (flat) sides rather than trying to perform insanely precise balancing atop curves or points. (Which is still legal for balancing virtuosos, but most of us - including me - aren't that.)

It became clear, however, that the game really wanted a third system of some sort. Partly because without something else to interact with, playing with more than four players resulted in too much scarcity of blocks; partly because without some other constraint the Design Cards were too hard to balance (game-balance) - some were just easier to build than others, and once players got a feel for the deck there was nothing preventing them from tearing through looking for the easiest cards which would satisfy a given Disease.

Finding the right 3rd system - which was fun on its own merits, fit with the rest of the game, and appropriately rewarded attention paid to it - took over six years. It's a designer diary all its own, or possibly multiple.

I signed the game with Grey Fox in 2015, under the working name Response Lab Alpha.{2} We eventually settled on SCIENCE! or DIE as a title, only to change it due to an actual global pandemic erupting - I think Grey Fox explained this really well in their statement.

After this long journey, I'm tremendously excited to see it finally coming to life!

(As are a number of playtesters who've been wanting a non-cobbled-together version. :-)

There are many other pieces of the design to be written about / drilled down into; I hope to have time and attention to manage at least a few of them.



{1} = I'm not linking directly there due to BGG guidelines. Here's the BGG forum post if you want to go find it.

{2} = CGE was taking a look at a prototype for a while, but it turned out that the constraints of manufacturing in Europe would either make the game too expensive to sell or the blocks would need to be much smaller. The CGE folks were consummate professionals, and *extremely* gracious about me moving on to a different publisher who could create the game closer to how I'd hoped. I immensely appreciate the feedback they gave me back then, and For SCIENCE! is a better game because of it!
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