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Designer Diary: Core Worlds: Galactic Orders

Andrew Parks
United States
New Jersey
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Core Worlds: Empires (Kickstarter Jan/Feb 2021)
Core Worlds: Empires (Kickstarter Jan/Feb 2021)
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Board Game: Core Worlds: Galactic Orders

As I mentioned in my November 2011 designer diary for Core Worlds, Stronghold Games agreed to publish that game about a year before its release – but even as we were signing the contract for it, Stephen Buonocore of Stronghold asked me to start designing an expansion for it "just in case" things went well with the base set's release and Stronghold decided to move forward with an expansion. I immediately sat down to think about how an expansion for the game might work. Even though I risked spending a lot of time designing something that might never be released, I'm a game designer and I'm already used to working under those conditions!

I've always admired the methodology employed by Tom Lehmann when designing Race for the Galaxy. Tom designed the first two expansions for Race before releasing the base set of the game, which meant that the game was thoroughly playtested with upcoming expansions before ever going to press, so there would be no major changes required to get the expansion to sit well with the original game. The other neat thing this allowed was inserting tiny surprises into the base game that would not trigger until a particular expansion was released. Therefore, certain keywords or icons could appear that had no value until later in the game's life. This showed players that the expansion was not an incongruous add-on, but rather something carefully planned before the base game's release.

Developing the Expansion Theme

With this in mind I set about coming up with the theme for our own expansion. One of the things that has always surrounded the design of Core Worlds was the storyline. We wanted players to enjoy some of the things that made our galaxy unique and not like all the other space games out there. I thought about hidden elements in the Core Worlds galaxy whose full potential had not yet been realized. Looking through the prototype cards for the base game, I looked for some element that might hint at something greater than what appeared on the surface, and I quickly realized that the six Prestige Cards would supply this thematic element. Here we had six cards that were unlike anything else in the game, but which were mechanically very simple. What could I do to take these six simple cards and develop them further in the game's expansion?

And so the theme for Core Worlds: Galactic Orders was born. Amidst the massive civil war between the Galactic Realm and the Barbarian Empires would stand six powerful organizations who were unmoved by the struggle but who were ready to ally themselves with whomever came out on top. Each Order would offer aid in the form of special powers and victory points to its supporters, and these organizations would be ones with whom the players were already familiar: the six Prestige Cards from the base set.

Board Game: Core Worlds: Galactic Orders
Galactic Order Card: Merchant Alliance

Developing the Expansion Mechanisms

But how would it all work? Early on in the development process I decided that the organizations would have their own special oversized cards, and that the players would be able to place Faction Tokens on those cards in order to represent favor they had curried – but I wasn't sure how the players would gain the opportunity to place those tokens. Would there be a new type of action in the game that allowed players to gain favor in a variety of ways? Perhaps players could spend Energy or Action Points to place tokens, or perhaps sacrifice cards to do so? Whatever I came up with was too complicated. Core Worlds at its heart uses an intuitive ruleset and I didn't want to muck things up by adding new types of actions to the game. Besides, wouldn't some of the special powers involve giving Energy discounts or Action Points to the players? How would it make sense to spend Energy and Actions to gain more of the same?

Board Game: Parthenon: Rise of the Aegean
That's when it hit me. These tokens had to come for free. Free stuff is good. Free stuff is fun! Whenever my development team plays a game that gives out free stuff, we call it "Christmas". Sometimes it's fun to have a game that gives free stuff and the strategy lies in how you use that free stuff. We first used that term with our game Parthenon: Rise of the Aegean in which at the start of the round you get flooded with resources based on the production of your Villages and Workshops. About halfway through the game are moments when everyone is grabbing gobs of cards and deciding what to do with them. When that happened during a particular session, my brother Chris exclaimed "It's just like Christmas!" and the term has stuck with us ever since.

Of course, I didn't want players grabbing gobs of anything in Core Worlds. It was a pretty tight resource game and I didn't want to dole out tons of stuff that would upset that balance. However, it occurred to me that I could give out something extra when players purchased something. This was an opportunity to add something cool to the base game that would not trigger until the expansion released: We would add a Galactic Order icon to every single Unit in the base game and have those icons do absolutely nothing! But during the expansion, when you deploy a card with one of these icons, you immediately get to place one of your Faction Tokens on the corresponding Galactic Order card for free, and free stuff equals Christmas!

I immediately phoned Stephen and asked him whether I could add these worthless (but pretty!) icons to all of the cards in the base set, and he was understandably wary. " do realize we may not even do the expansion, right?" he asked. "Yes," I answered. "But if we do the expansion, we'll be ready!" And so with a bit of convincing Stephen agreed. Since we hadn't started graphic design for the base game yet, it meant that we could seamlessly add these icons during the pre-production process.

One issue I foresaw immediately was that if players gained special powers AND victory points from having the most tokens on a particular Galactic Order, there would be too much advantage for a player to focus on a particular Galactic Order Card exclusively. Also, it meant that if one player got ahead in a particular Order, no one would challenge him since they'd have no hope of overtaking him. Thus, I determined that I would give players a strategic choice. If they wanted to gain the special powers associated with a particular Galactic Order, they would have to spend their tokens from that Order. Spending their tokens would not only reduce their majority but also reduce the number of Empire Points they would receive at the end of the game for that Order. Furthermore, a player who had no hope of scoring Empire Points for a particular Order due to another player's dominance could still spend his tokens to achieve that Order's special power, and in many ways a galactic dilettante had much more freedom than a player who was focused on scoring the most points possible from a particular Order.

Board Game: Core Worlds: Galactic Orders
New Tactic / Unit Card: Phantom Ship

Playtesting the Expansion

Now it was time to design the new Units, Tactics, and Worlds. I didn't want to overload the game with too many new cards because that would mess with the balance that came out during the Galactic Phase, so I decided to add only six new Unit/Tactic/World cards to each Galactic Deck. When designing these, I paid special attention to the Unit types that already existed and made sure that everything would remain balanced with the potential endgame bonuses that come from the Core Worlds. By the time these cards were created, we were about three months from going to press with the base game. I knew I had to playtest the expansion a lot over that summer if we were going to be able to tweak the base game based upon findings we discovered with the expansion, so I assembled my core playtest team for that summer, which included two of the lead developers on the base game, Christopher Guild and my brother Christopher. For our fourth playtester, we recruited a new developer, Sara Sterphone, who had been a student in one of my game design classes and who was interested in becoming a video game designer after she graduated. Sara had never played the base game before, so she added a fresh perspective on the whole experience that proved to be invaluable.

Board Game: Core Worlds
And so we played Core Worlds and its new expansion that entire summer. We found that new strategies opened up immensely with the system that we had created, and players were able to devise entirely new plans and overcome obstacles in unprecedented ways. In fact, although we were having a blast, I began to realize that something was mathematically wrong. We were having too much fun. We were beating the snot out of the galaxy's most powerful planets, including the Core Worlds. It was no longer a question of whether or not you could conquer a Core World, but whether you could get two, three, or more! Christmas had imbalanced the galaxy!

We realized we had to add another element to give the enemy a fighting chance, and this led to the development of the new Event Cards. These cards would appear randomly and throw a wrinkle into the players' plans for the current round. Often these Events could be circumvented by using the Galactic Order Cards, and this created some interesting tactical decisions on the part of the players.

The next few playtests, unfortunately, revealed that the Event Cards could cause the pendulum to swing too far in the other direction. Some of the Event Cards hammered particular players more than others, and we were constantly in danger of making a particular Event too easy or too difficult based upon the game's circumstances. (Months later, we would discover a great solution to this thanks to the recommendation of one of our remote teams, led by Jeff Hannes. Jeff noticed that a few Events gave players a choice of how to be affected, and that these Events could still be formidable without being game-breaking for any particular player. Jeff suggested that most of the Events should incorporate this type of decision. It took us a while to figure out how to implement this, but over time Jeff's suggestion was sound and this made the Events an exciting part of the game without ruining anyone's fun.)

Meanwhile, during the summer of massive playtesting, artist Maciej Rebisz and graphic designer Chechu Nieto were working on the base game's artwork, getting it ready for press while I did the text layout. Since I was the one who would be uploading the finished cards to the printer, I got to continuously make small tweaks based upon balance issues we discovered with the expansion. This allowed us to correct a ton of minor issues that would have been too late to fix later, and so this summer of playtesting was proving to be extremely helpful. We knew that we would ultimately have to open up expansion playtesting to remote teams (like Jeff's) over the course of the coming year, but for now we stuck with our core group so that we could dig as deeply as possible into all the new strategies that the expansion offered. Remember: we weren't playtesting the expansion for its own publication (yet!). We were playtesting the expansion only to determine its long term impact on the base game that was about to go to press.

Board Game: Core Worlds: Galactic Orders
Event Card: Imperial Counter Assault

A Moment of Panic

After months of testing the expansion, the base game itself was nearly ready for submission to the printer in Germany. During this time, we realized we had to stop playtesting the expansion and playtest the base game with the new graphic design so that we could discover any potential interface issues. We spent a week doing this, tweaking small graphic issues so they would not impact gameplay after the base game was published.

Well, something happened right after we played the base game without the expansion for the first time. We stared at one another with looks of consternation. The playtest had gone smoothly, and other than a few graphic tweaks, everything was functional and balanced the way it should be – but we realized that, as much fun as we had playing the base game, it was nowhere near the experience of playing with the expansion. I mean, not even in the same league. Sara in particular commented on this as she had been playing the game with the expansion the whole time.

At first we panicked, not sure what to do. Would players still like the base game even though it didn't have all the fun juicy awesomeness of the expansion? And so Chris, Chris, and I thought back to all the time we had spent playtesting the base game in 2009 and 2010. We really enjoyed the game during those playtests, and so had all of our developers and remote testers. We assured ourselves that players who had never played with the expansion would enjoy the base game just as much as we had.

But one thing was for sure. Once you play with the expansion, you will never play without it again!

Board Game: Core Worlds: Galactic Orders
The Trinidad, by Jessada Sutthi

The Moment of Truth

Core Worlds had a strong release and was the most critically successful game we had designed. As positive reviews flooded the Internet, we muttered softly to ourselves, "Wait until they play with the expansion..." But of course, the publication of the expansion was not a forgone conclusion. Stronghold still had to determine that sales of the base game justified printing Core Worlds: Galactic Orders, so we waited for a few months on pins and needles, wondering whether or not fans of the game would be able to enjoy the full Core Worlds experience.

Finally, by the end of the first quarter of 2012, Stronghold made its determination and greenlighted the expansion, much to our excitement. Final playtesting with remote teams went into full throttle, and a new art team was assembled to assist Maciej in creating the new cards. (See my article "The Art of Maciej Rebisz" on BGG News for the full story on our lead artist.) Equally exciting was Stronghold's decision to add an insert to the expansion box so that all of the components from both sets would fit neatly, including bridges and dividers for the cards so that they would no longer have to be kept in individual bags. The full Core Worlds experience would now be contained in one cool box and ready to be opened for a night of galactic conquest unlike any other!

Andrew Parks

Board Game: Core Worlds: Galactic Orders
Box insert with sleeved cards
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