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Designer Diary: 1998 ISS

gerard ascensi
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"Next release in 9, 8, 7..."

We are Ferran Renalias and Gerard Ascensi, the designers of 1998 ISS, a game that will be presented this October at SPIEL '22. With this diary, we'd like to share the design process and experience that has made this game evolve since its inception.

Board Game: 1998 ISS

Starting Point: The 19XX Line of Games

In 2019, Mont Tàber published On the Origin of Species, our first game. We started to work on our next game a few months after SPIEL '19. We wanted to make a game for the 19XX series from Looping Games. This collection is known for offering good Eurogames in a small box, and Looping has excellent development work, from which we could learn a lot.

We had to find a 20th-century theme, with mechanisms to support it. The first idea was "The Prohibition", a fixed-size deck-building game (any new card substitutes another) in which you had to create an alcohol smuggling and distribution gang. It didn't work mechanically, and the theme was so good that Looping Games had already signed 1923 Cotton Club with this theme.

So we left that game in a drawer, and maybe in the future we could use some of it for another game.

From gallery of gerardasc
Remote tests of The Prohibition

Looking for a Theme

We needed a new theme. On December 19, 2019, Gerard attended a work conference where there was an astronaut who had visited the International Space Station. We exchanged a couple of messages, then Ferran consulted Wikipedia to ensure that the ISS was created in the 20th century. We had a theme, so we started to compile information on the ISS construction that could help us to decide what the players would be asked to do.

From gallery of gerardasc
The day we decided on the theme, during a dinner in Barcelona

Who Are We, and What Is Our Purpose?

Our first step was answering these two questions for the thematic base of the game. We concluded that we would be the different space agencies that collaborate to assemble the ISS, but at the same time, we're competing to get the most prestige out of it.

The game would happen in the command centers of space agencies, with them giving the orders for the different processes. The game had to reflect that most of the space work is done from Earth, with the space activity a consequence of good planning.

From gallery of gerardasc
Very initial proof of concept, and starting to work in TTS

What Do We Do During the Game?

We thought a selection of actions would be a good fit, so we outlined several: On Earth, building the modules, and preparing the material and training the astronauts; and on the ISS, doing experiments, experiencing the effect of weightlessness on humans, and going on spacewalks.

We looked for interactions to avoid getting a multi-solitaire game:

1. Thematically the game was asking to have launches. We use them mechanically to drive the tempo of the game.

2. We introduced shared resources, the fuel load in the shuttles to trigger taking off, and energy from the solar panels to block actions in space when finished.

3. We added the majority mechanism in module construction that thematically reflects the enormous work in their design and manufacture.

From gallery of gerardasc
The game with the structure of eight actions and the construction of the ISS

We used the lockdown at the beginning of 2020 to test with several people online.The theme fit, and the general mechanisms worked smoothly enough.

In June 2020, we presented an initial prototype of the game to Looping Games. They were convinced that the game could fit the collection, and we signed the contract.

Working with Looping Games

Board Game Publisher: Looping Games
Perepau Llistosella, partner and developer of Looping Games, worked his magic. He kept the game for a few weeks to test it with his group. He solved certain problems of the prototype, which were difficult to see from the position of the designer, and proposed a list of changes to polish the game.

His main change was merging fuel and solar panels into a single concept: the launch countdown. This solved in one go several mechanical problems of the game: "That's one small thematic loss for man, one giant leap for gameplay."

Perepau developed an alternative way of scoring majorities for the Soyuz spacecraft since they do not transport modules into space, and he refined the game, making minor adjustments to unlock some actions not available on the first turn. (Lesson learned: Any action in a game should be available from the start.)

The changes improved the flow of the game, greatly improving the design and creating a much more fun experience.

From gallery of gerardasc
One of the few physical tests of the game (in Caldaus)

We worked in parallel with the editorial development, polishing details and balancing the game. We adjusted the costs of experiments, and the game was practically closed in November 2020.

The last discussion point between us and the publisher was the long-stay score. Obviously the editor was right. We leave it to the reader to find the strategy that breaks the game when the long-stay score increases.

With the game mechanically finished, Perepau asked us to work on something else as we tend to be a bit too "enthusiastic" when polishing the games. We moved to work on a game about completing Mozart's requiem called Lacrimosa, but this story should be told another time...

FEDOR, The Solo Mode

We considered adding a solo mode to the game. The main issue was that neither we nor Perepau played solitaires, and we had never designed one — but a year later, in the middle of 2021, the situation had changed. We learned a lot from Dani García, and we had also designed the solitaire mode for Lacrimosa.

In our research, we discovered F.E.D.O.R. (Final Experimental Demonstration Object Research), a Russian robot created to automate the tasks astronauts perform in space. Nothing further from the truth, the robot spent just a few weeks in orbit as its reliability was not as good as expected.

We like a solitaire mode that recreates the actions and interaction of other people at the table but with a simple maintenance. We created a deck of nine automa cards to randomly determine the action and which of the two countdowns should move. We decided that FEDOR would take actions only on the ISS, simplifying the game flow.

From gallery of gerardasc
Fedor, that friend who wants to help you

The Final Product

Pedro Soto is the illustrator and graphic designer from the 19xx series of Looping Games. He mixes thematic research, product design, usability and coherence of components, and the ability to fit a huge amount of material into a small box.

We were impressed with the first sketches: modules that can fit together when assembling the ISS, the abstract illustration of the themed experiments in a computer, the eight main actions... We loved the solutions to graphic design problems of the prototype. He improved the usability of the final product, and we will try to incorporate his ideas into future prototypes.

From gallery of gerardasc
Action cards; Russian and American ships; experiments; modules and long-term goals

Now we need only to wait for the launch of the game in October 2022. We wish it may land on your table, and you enjoy it, but with space missions you never know. Let's hope we don't say, "Looping, we have a problem..."

Gerard and Ferran
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