Musings and Retrospectives

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For SCIENCE! Design Diary - a long road to a Third System

R. Eric Reuss
United States
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If there were only a single story to the creation of For Science!, it would be the story of the Third System.

Some of the reason For Science! was in development for so long was that I had two kids while working on it. Some was due to Spirit Island taking time and attention. But the largest reason by far was trying to find the right Third System for the game.

. . .

From the very beginning, two pieces of the game worked beautifully and were both fun and compelling. There have been tweaks. but the core of these systems is identical to the first prototype I ever took to a con nearly a decade ago:

Creating Designs with Design Cards (satisfying the constraints of Disease Cards)
Building structures with wooden blocks (satisfying the constraints of the Design you made)

...but I always had three steps to Curing diseases, for the following reasons:

1. Some Design Cards are just easier to Build than others. This is deliberate, and good - it adds a pleasing variation to how difficult the challenges are, and allows players to deliberately Design Cures that are easier to Build. But without some other system to interact with, it's just flatly better to draw easy-to-build cards... and if there's nothing deterring players from blitzing through the Design Deck, the optimal strategy becomes to dig for those cards.

2. Supporting 5-6 players. From the beginning, I wanted to support larger groups; I felt the somewhat chaotic atmosphere would go well with the premise / feel of the game, and would really put a spotlight on teamwork. But my testing seemed to indicate that with just Designing and Curing diseases, in 5-6p there were unavoidable periods of downtime where all the Diseases had Designed Cures (this was pre-Workshops) and there weren't enough blocks for everyone to be building at once. I didn't mind 'working around a finite block supply' being part of the game, but this was more "there's just not enough going on to occupy 5-6p at once".

3. Feel. Part of the feel I was going for was "a little too much for any one person to pay attention to all at once" - or alternately, if you think of each major system as a musical note, I wanted a chord of three notes rather than just a pair.

All told, I went through at least 8 mechanically different concepts for the Third System, with multiple iterations on each of them. They fell into three broad arcs.


My inital concept was that to cure each Disease, after Building it (proof of stability / functionality), you had to manufacture it - I knew that a major issue with real-life vaccines is scaling up production capacity.

Each Design Card featured one or two Manufacturing icons along the side. For the first few systems, they were just geometric shapes, looking like this:

From gallery of darker

At the start of the game, players were given some # of Factory cards, looking like this:

From gallery of darker

To Manufacture a Cure, you had to lay out Factory cards in a grid such that you could "walk" a path of factory cards (making only 90 degree turns) that matched the sequence of symbols along the edge of the Design. (Super-early versions involved an abstracted hex-grid, or "walls" you couldn't travel through, or directional arrows you had to follow. Most of these were never seen by anyone but me.)

It soon became obvious that the abstract grid was confusing players, so I moved to using a board with tiles - and for gameplay reasons, went from 5 icons to 4:

From gallery of darker

Yellow arrows were - VERY abstractly - 'logistics'; green vials 'chemical synthesis', and I hope you recognize DNA.

All of these versions had a major problem, though: the band of "interesting problem" was too narrow. Early on in the game, you could Manufacture things almost trivially, because you had nothing laid out, so no constraints. Late in the game, you had to take it into account while Designing, but once the Design was verified, Manufacturing was nearly always easy or outright impossible. Only in the midgame when you faced tradeoff decisions - "should I use this easy card, we'll have to place lots of Factories to Manufacture it" - was it engaging enough for thought.

I moved to versions where you placed some (or all) of the factories down to start, and spent tokens to move them, like a 15-puzzle:

From gallery of darker

(Tiles not shown; the mini-images are setup locations.)

You no longer needed to have a single giant set of Factories that could Manufacture all Cures you did during the game, you could configure for one Cure, then move on to the next. This was an improvement, but still ran into "this Cure we've Designed is literally impossible for us to Manufacture because we spent all our movement earlier" problems.

I tinkered around with locking/unlocking systems (flipped tiles were locked in place), different ways to move them... nothing quite worked.

I shelved that idea, and briefly tried something simpler, making the Manufacturing much simpler and more abstract: you had to duplicate the Manufacturing symbols by discarding matching-symbol cards from your hands. This functioned, and added a bit of interesting hand management, but was ultimately kind of forgettable.


A bit of hiatus and some serious brainstorming later, I decided that perhaps this problem could be an opportunity for greater thematic grounding: the game at the time felt somewhat unmoored, as it had no central board; each Lab was its own card, so they could be scattered around the table. I felt the game would do better with something to act as a focus-point of attention, and came up with a world-map.

From gallery of darker

I think the NE America star was where the players were (CDC)? Not sure.
(And yes, some regions are specified by continent and others by country. It was a prototype. :-)

There was a bag of materials (cubes) matching the 4 manufacturing colors. How they came onto the map and how you moved them varied, but to Cure a Disease you had to get the materials for it (as specified along the side of the Design Cards) to wherever that Disease was breaking out. (Which I think was on the Disease card?)

This was the first of many times where the following song-and-dance happened: I try something new. I'm enthusiastic about its prospects! I show/send it to Grey Fox, who is also enthusiastic about it! But their playtesting finds that new players don't find it especially interesting.

This was also around the time that Workshops got added to the game - there'd been consistent feedback that (a) players liked Building, and wished there was more of it (at the time, you played to 1 Cured Disease per player, which could easily result in one or more players never Building anything); and (b) that players who were less sure of themselves on the dexterity front would love it if there were smaller Building challenges to tackle. Giving players the ability to do their own little micro- (or not-so-micro-) Builds was a clear win for player enjoyment, at the cost of some complexity - now there were two places to play Design Cards. But it also could hook into the Third System!

I pulled the "factories" concept back off the shelf, but instead of putting them on a grid, they went onto the world map, grounding them in physical space. (Thematically, these were just-in-time manufacturing facilities your corporation could rent on short notice.) Players could add / move / remove factories by doing Workshop builds. This turned into a Money system, where side research in Workshops earned you Money, and you spent money on Factories... and to handle some bad Events, and to deal with Riots (areas on the map that got marked with blocks and were impassable until the rioting was dealt with), and other things I no longer remember.

From gallery of darker

This factory supply/money board postdates Riot mechanics.
From gallery of darker

As gameplay dictated that I lower the # of map nodes, I tried to keep things VERY roughly in line with actual population while still maintaining a network that went all over the world.

This direction seemed really promising. I couldn't even say how many iterations I went through on it - a LOT. And it solved many of the flaws of earlier versions: you needed Money from the very beginning, so nothing was trivial to Manufacture; and as you got later into the game while it was beneficial to match the existing Factory-chains, you could in theory Manufacture anything if you could earn enough Money to throw at the problem. There was some puzzle-y-ness to it, which meshed with the rest of the game, and a good relationship between effort put in and reward received.

But while it overcame these, ultimately, testers didn't find it compelling.

There were a few more iterations using the map - one where Design Cards had locations on them which interacted with the map in some way, one which involved having to Build on the map itself, connecting a Lab with the Disease site; another which involved a Threat Track (which is more about another story, the "how do we throttle card throughput?" question). Same song and dance each time.

(There was also a single post-map iteration that involved earning dice which you rolled to try and match Manufacturing. I wasn't as enthused about this, but was willing to go with it if it tested out well. Same song and dance - no dice.)


Then I had a breakthrough realization, which in hindsight was so obvious that I'm embarrassed it took me such a long time.

When Curing a Disease, building the block structure was engaging, interesting, and tense enough that anything you had to do afterwards was going to be an anticlimax. No third system could ever work, unless I found something that could top the interest of Building!

(In more game-design-jargon terms, it was a problem with the interest curve arc of 'curing a disease'. If you're a game designer and haven't read A Book of Lenses, try to do so at the first available opportunity! Despite it being more focused on video games, probably 80% of it is directly applicable to board game design, and it's super-useful.)

So I started looking at doing something *before* Building, to maintain a good interest curve. I kept the concept of Workshops and Side Research, but instead of earning money, you did Side Research to solve particular problems with Cures - many Design Cards had icons on them (shown below), and you had to earn matching tokens to cover those icons before you could Build it:

From gallery of darker

Note that this is the same Design Cards as above - you can see the easiest-to-Build requires a hard-to-earn skull, while the hardest-to-Build requires no side research at all.

While there was a hierarchy of which icons were "easier" and which were "harder", different Roles could earn different icons more or less readily, which made for interesting Role differentiation and provided different Design incentives depending on which Roles were in play. It was neat! It was colorful! It made easier-to-Build cards harder in other ways! I sent it to Grey Fox, who were also enthusiastic!...

...same song and dance. In hindsight, I'm not super-surprised; while on paper it turned each Disease into a small arc of Builds, in practice it didn't feel different enough from the rest of the game, so while it functioned, the game felt more 2-dimensional, and like these extra requirements weren't adding anything to the overall *experience* of the game.

But my mind had gotten out of the rut it was in for so long, and had a follow-up realization: I'd been thinking that Curing a Disease needed a third system, for all the reasons outlined at the top of this very long post.

But I was wrong. The game really wants a third system, for all those reasons... but that system doesn't need to be part of Curing a single Disease.

That led me to the Master Cure system: Curing a Disease (or doing Side Research in your Workshop) is only two steps, but instead of a flat "Cure N Diseases and you win", each Cure / Workshop build earns you Master Cure tiles, which you puzzle together to capture Insight in closed areas. Capture enough Insight and you win!

From gallery of darker

As I was working on it, I felt so strongly that YES, this was it, finally!... just fiddling around with the Master Cure tiles to try and puzzle them together was fun in a way that no previous system had been on its own. But I'd thought so many times before that I had something that would work that I remained skeptical on principle... until word came back from Grey Fox that yes, players were as enthusiastic about this as we both were!

<cue heartfelt sigh of relief> End dance number.

The Master Cure has gone through a number of iterations, but is still the same core concept - and what I love most about it is how well it handles varying levels of effort: you can't just glance at a bunch of tiles and quickly arrange them in an optimal pattern! So spending time and attention on it is worth it - which is exactly what you want for a system that's fun to tinker with, and that's supposed to have enough to it to engage 1-2 players for much of a 5-6p game.

After a long time, a happy ending! I like to think I've learned a few things along the way, so hopefully for my next game (whatever that proves to be) the wandering won't be so lengthy.
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