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Designer Diary: Cruel, Cruel Galaxy, or Designing Quantum's Mechanics

Eric Zimmerman
United States
Brooklyn
New York
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designer
Quantum took three-and-a-half years of design and development to create. It's a game of which I am very proud and also one that represents a tremendous amount of work and collaboration. In this designer diary, I wanted to share some of the head-banging frustrations and problem-solving breakthroughs that happened over the course of making the game.

What is Quantum?

To begin, a summary of how the game works. Quantum is a strategy game for two through four players that incorporates elements of tactics, resource management, and empire building. Players each begin the game with a small fleet of three starships on a customizable map built of modular tiles. Your goal is to expand by building Quantum Cubes on planets, along the way growing your fleet and evolving its abilities.

Dice are central to Quantum. Each of your ships is a die, with the face-up number determining the type of ship. That number is the movement of the ship, but also the combat power of the ship, with lower numbers being more powerful. So a [1] die is a slow but powerful battlestation and a [6] die is quick but fragile scout. Each ship also has a unique special ability: The [2] is a commanding flagship that can transport other ships, while the [5] is a maneuverable interceptor that can travel diagonally.

Each turn, you can take three actions, which include moving your ships and attacking enemy ships, bringing a destroyed ship back onto the board, rerolling one of your dice to get a new ship number, and building a Quantum Cube. Constructing Quantum Cubes is how you win the game. Depending on the map layout, players begin with five, six, or seven cubes, and as soon as you place all of your cubes, you win. Each planet has a number, from 7 to 10, and to build a cube, you need to have adjacent ships in orbit that exactly match the planet number. Thus, having the right ship numbers in the right positions at the right moment is key to winning.

For each Quantum Cube you build, you get to select an advance card from several available face-up cards. These cards can give you a one-time special action, such as taking an extra turn, or they can give you one of many permanent powers that you can use for the rest of the game. All of this adds up to a game that is strategically deep but quick to play, usually lasting less than an hour. The modular gameplay, variable map layouts, and wide range of card powers leads to a huge variety of play experiences and many ways to approach game strategy.

The finished game

First Steps

The seed of the idea for what would eventually become Quantum came while I was doodling in the audience during a talk about games and philosophy by the critic and theorist Alex Galloway at the NYU Game Center in 2010. I was freelancing as a designer at a videogame company, and I was thinking about a game that all of the employees of the company might play. It would take place on an office whiteboard, and each staff member would be able to make one move a day, asynchronously, whenever they wanted. The game would have to be simple enough to avoid any rule confusion since you might be taking your turn when no one else was around — but it had to be deep and compelling enough to extend over days or weeks of slow-motion strategic play.

My concept was a team-based game in which players could move units on a grid. To keep it simple, each unit had only a single stat, a number from 1 to 9. That number was its movement rate, so higher numbers could really run circles around lower-numbered units, but lower numbers were more powerful; a lower-numbered unit could destroy a higher-numbered unit if it moved on top of it.

I never created this massively multiplayer board game, but I liked the idea of units with a single stat that combined movement and power, and this led me to sketch out the first version of Quantum. On a piece of newsprint, I drew a large 9x9 grid, and in the middle of each 3x3 square I put a "planet". That first board layout remains the beginner map layout today. In fact, it's amazing that so many of the game's elements were present in that first playthrough. Player units were dice, each die's number was its movement and attack strength, players could take three actions each turn, you could place a cube marker on a planet if your adjacent dice added up to 7, and the goal was to place markers on a majority of the board's nine planets. Each die had a special power, and many of those original dice powers made it into the final game.

I first played the prototype with game scholar Jesper Juul in the kitchen of my Brooklyn apartment, and it was clear that the game was onto something. There was a macro-strategic layer of gradual territorial acquisition, but at the same time you had the micro-tactics of ship-to-ship combat. Plus, there was something uniquely puzzle-like about how the ships' abilities could be used in clever combinations: You could swap two dice, shift the number on one of them, then transport it with a third die to get it to the right planet. Little emergent puzzles popped up in corners of the board, and it was extremely satisfying to solve them by chaining your ship's different abilities.

The biggest challenge of that first prototype was balancing the difficulty of the construction action – the action that lets you place a Quantum Cube marker on a planet. Since cubes are how you win the game, the pacing of that action controls the overall pacing of the game. We tried a few different schemes, such as making a planet capture cost only a single action (too fast) or forcing the capturing ships to remain on the planet for a full turn while constructing (too slow). Jesper and I eventually settled on making construction cost two of your three actions for the turn. Because you generally don't have enough actions to move all of your ships into position and also construct a cube on the same turn, this led to a rhythm where you moved ships into position, then hoped that they could hold their ground until the next turn. (Meanwhile other players might try to swoop in and disrupt your plans.) This general pattern has continued into the final design.

An early prototype

Dice Were Meant to Be Rolled

I quickly made a portable version of the prototype and began playing with other NYC videogame and tabletop designers. The game was fun, but very tight, and it almost became Chess-like in the way players would set up threats and counter-threats across the board. In fact, it was wound too tight, and with two competitive players, the game would get slower and slower as it progressed. I remember game designers Frank Lantz and Charles Pratt desperately trying to finish a match. They always would begin over lunch at the NYU Game Center and would have to quit before the game ended because they were thinking too long about their moves.

Why was the game bogging down? Because combat was completely deterministic. In those early prototypes, players didn't roll dice to determine who won a combat; a lower ship number always beat a higher numbered die. I have to credit game designer Josh DeBonis with adding dice-rolling to Quantum's combat. I resisted adding dice-rolling for weeks, thinking that it would turn my elegant strategy game into a casual dice-tossing fest. I remember Josh picking up a handful of the game's dice and asking me, "How can you give the player all of these dice and not let them roll?"

I am happy to admit that Josh was right and I was wrong. By adding dice-rolling to the game's combat (weighted, of course, with the power of each ship in the exchange), players suddenly started playing more freely, taking risks, and trying out more interesting strategies. The overly-tight, deterministic design gave way to something that combined strategy with something more freewheeling. And lo, it was fun.

Playtesting the Quantum prototype

Playing with Power

Another element that opened up the possibilities of the game during this early prototyping period was the addition of special power cards. While I was working on it, I remember seeing a talk at the Game Developers Conference by Rob Pardo, one of the lead designers of World of Warcraft. According to Rob, one of the philosophies at his company Blizzard was to make the player feel overpowered. According to Rob, special abilities and power-ups should feel mighty and spectacular, rather than just being some kind of incremental stat improvement.

As I started adding the advance cards to the game, I tried to have them embody this approach, especially when it came to the permanent card powers. My goal was that every card should feel incredibly powerful – a potential game winner in the right situation. I loved seeing my playtesters' faces grow greedy as they read the cards, astonished at how good the powers seemed to be.

The challenge of powerful cards, of course, is balancing them. And this was made even more difficult because they don't have a "cost" that could compensate for a difference in power level. You don't pay some kind of currency for cards in Quantum; you simply take the one you want from the available face-up cards, meaning that no one would ever pick cards that seemed weak.

Designing the right mix of cards came down to good old-fashioned balancing and testing. There are a number of heuristics I tried to use in designing the cards to be balanced. For example, no card simply gives players an extra fourth action each turn; instead, some cards give you an extra action, but that action is limited, such as a free move that is only one space. There are also cards that do give you a completely open-ended extra action, but only if certain conditions are met, such as if you have more ships on the map than any other player.

The one card that was just too powerful, no matter how I tried to slice it, was a card that let you construct a Quantum Cube on a planet for a cost of one action instead of the usual two actions. It's amazing how incredibly strong this one advantage turned out to be. It all goes back to the fact that constructing cubes is the backbone of the pacing of Quantum. It took me a while to realize that the rule that makes construction cost two actions is the throttle on the speed of the entire game. By making it cost only one action, the player with that power no longer needed to take two turns to move into position, then capture a planet. They could do it all in a single turn, making it overwhelmingly easy to spread across the board and win.

I am happy with the final set of cards, but I know that players will find some of them too powerful and others completely lame. The truth is that some of the card powers are better on certain kinds of maps, with particular play styles, or in particular situations. And all of them can be used in particular combinations to make powerful card "engines". As Quantum players explore the game in all of its permutations, I look forward to hearing your opinions.

Playing the finished game

Encouraging Battle

When most players learn Quantum for the first time, they are surprised by what seem like unbalanced combat rules. Attackers win ties, giving them the edge in any battle, and furthermore, there is nothing to lose in attacking. (The attacker is not harmed if an attack is unsuccessful.) Beginning players tend to battle a lot, but more experienced players pick their attacks more carefully, sometimes never attacking at all.

Part of my intention for Quantum was to combine a Euro-style race-to-explore design with something that also supported direct player-to-player combat, yet during the development of the game, I encountered a problem: My experienced players stopped fighting each other. With only three actions available on a turn, this made sense: Players were reluctant to spend one of their precious actions on the uncertain activity of attacking another player.

It was during this time that I shifted the combat rules to favor the attacker. Previously, defenders won ties, and attackers did get destroyed if their attack failed. But even after these changes to help out the attacker, most players were still avoiding combat. I added advance cards that pumped up combat abilities – still no help. It seemed hopeless; I had designed a game with a combat system that no one wanted to use!

The solution to this problem was to directly link combat to winning the game. And how do you win the game? By placing Quantum Cubes. That's how the dominance mechanism was born. Your dominance goes up by 1 every time you destroy an enemy ship, and it goes down by 1 each time one of your ships is destroyed. If you can get your dominance to 6, then you get to place a Quantum Cube anywhere on the map.

With dominance in the game, there was a reason to attack other players, beyond just preventing them from advancing on the map. Dominance also added new strategic angles to the game. For example, if you could manage to place a cube or two through dominance, it meant your fleet didn't need to be mobile enough to reach the far corners of the map as the cubes you place with dominance can go anywhere. Players were attacking each other, returning the gameplay to that balanced mix of careful strategy and wild risk-taking. And I was happy.

The Kepler Imperium command sheet

The Ergonomics of Play

Nine months into creating the game, about 90% of the game design – the core rules of play – was complete. There still were small tweaks to be made here and there, but the game was more or less done. However, that last 10% really was the bulk of my work on Quantum. I spent more than two years balancing card powers and ship abilities, designing maps and testing them, and tweaking the layout of the game rules and materials.

I collaborated in this balancing effort with game designer John Sharp, who initially came on board to visually design the prototype materials, but ended up being a great sounding board and partner in developing many aspects of the game experience. Quantum's command sheets, which serve as rule summaries but also help players keep track of their resources, are the result of dozens of iterations. Coming from the videogame world, I think a lot about the interface of a game, and I wanted to make the command sheet as useful as possible.

John and I would add information to the command sheets, take it away, move around the elements, and otherwise try to maximize their usability. At the same time we focused on the narrative feeling of the command sheets. In Quantum, the player is not so much a pilot as a fleet admiral, and the command sheet is the window between the player's decision-making process and the world of the game. At one playtest, game designer Richard Lemarchand sat down to play, looked at his command sheet and said, "This is awesome – I feel like I am sitting down in front of my starship command console." That was just what we wanted to hear.

A selection of advance cards

Words, Words, Words

One strong focus of our work was the language of Quantum: the terms in the rules, the names of the cards and units, and the other words we used in the game. In early prototypes, the titles of the advance cards were more technological: "Ferocious", the card that gives you a combat bonus, was originally called "Armor", while "Energetic", which gives you a movement bonus, was titled "Propulsion".

The names of the card were clear, but they felt generic. Thinking about how to emphasize the player-as-commander, I changed the names from nouns to adjectives. Rather than describing the player's fleet, the cards now described the player. Instead of "Fuel", "Evasion", and "Engineering", the cards now had names like "Brilliant", "Cruel", and "Stubborn". Stone Librande, a game designer who was running a remote playtest group for the game, told me that when a player had accumulated two or three of the adjectives, it started to feel a little like a role-playing game. "I loved being Ravenous and Righteous," he told me. That was exactly what I had been hoping for.

The drawback of moving away from more generic card titles is that they lost some of their clarity. It's easy to guess at the function of a card called "Weapons", but what exactly does "Cruel" mean? We redesigned the cards, ending up with distinct layers of information that include the adjective-based title, a subtitle that gives a functional overview of the card, and more detailed rules text. Later, each card would get a unique illustration as well. So each card signifies in at least four different ways.

For me, every game card is its own miniature system. Designing a card is like designing a building – the aesthetics of the façade exterior should harmonize with the structural function of its use. So everything serves a purpose: nothing is merely "flavor". For example, the card title and image serve as a kind of cognitive "gateway" into understanding the card function. They help orient the player, making the rules component of the card easier to digest (and remember). With about forty different cards, and possibly a dozen or more of them visible to players at any moment, it's important to help players pick up on the general meaning of a card and "grok" its function as quickly as possible. Players should be able to scan a card and get its overall meaning right away. We didn't always achieve this, but we tried!

We also had a strong focus on testing the learnability of Quantum's rules throughout our playtesting process. Although it is painful to watch players struggle through rules for the first time, it's a crucial part of developing a game. We designed a system of diagrams, added a sample game, and endlessly reworked the structure of the rules until they were easy to use. A hidden bonus that comes from testing rules for readability is that when you send a game to a publisher for review, you can be more confident that your rules will easily and correctly communicate your game design.

Four-player Quantum maps

Lessons in Mapmaking

I initially made the Quantum map out of a modular set of tiles to help me try out different layouts and find the best "board" for my board game — but I quickly realized that there was no single perfect map. One of my favorite aspects of the final design of Quantum is the fact that the game maps are made out of modular tiles. The game comes with thirty different map designs, and players are encouraged to design their own.

The layout of a particular map has a huge impact on the experience of a particular game. Large open maps make for games of deep space exploration and resource optimization as players race to expand their empires. Small maps can feel like battle arenas, in which players scramble to keep enough ships in play to construct Quantum Cubes. And there are more kinds of maps as well. Philippe Nouhra, who founded Quantum's publisher Funforge, said that he can tell I come from a videogame background because Quantum maps remind him of level design from digital games.

Moving from one board to many maps multiplied my game design tasks. In addition to balancing the core game systems and economies, as well as the ergonomics of the materials, I suddenly had to test, tweak, and re-test dozens of unique maps. There were many tricky design problems that emerged from Quantum's modular map design. For example, arranging a three-player map on a grid in which one starting position doesn't have a distinct advantage or disadvantage is very hard. Because a small square grid doesn't easily divide into thirds (like hexagons might), one player is often caught between the other two players, or else placed further away from the action.

Playing the Spiral Nebula map

The Shutout

The trickiest part of Quantum map design had to do with what I call the "shut out". It's unfortunately extremely easy to design a map in which one player can be shut out of winning because there simply aren't enough planets left for his Quantum Cubes. To appreciate the problem, you need to know that planets can hold 1-4 Quantum Cubes. The "planet number" you need to match with your adjacent ships in order to construct a cube on a planet is tied to the number of cube slots: a size 7 planet can hold one cube, an size 8 can hold two, a size 9 can hold three, and a size 10 can hold four Quantum Cubes. Most maps mix different planet numbers for the sake of gameplay variety.

The difficulty comes from the fact that any single player can have only one cube on a given planet. In other words, if you place a cube on a planet with more than one slot, you can't place another cube there; this ensures that players travel around the map to place their cubes, rather than camping on a single planet and unloading a bunch of cubes there.

But this also is what can cause a shutout. Take this example (with a simplified extra-tiny map):

     Imagine a four-player map with:
       • four planets of size 7 (that can each hold one cube)
       • two planets of size 10 (that can each hold four cubes)

In this example game, each player has three cubes to place. The example seems okay on first read. Our four players can each place their first cube on one of the size 7 planets, and then everybody can place their second and third cubes on the 10s. But... what if a couple of the players each grab two of the size 7 planets? That means the 7s are all filled up and the other two players simply don't have enough planets available for placing their cubes. So halfway through this game, two of the players would realize there is nothing – absolutely nothing – they can do to win. That would be a horrible game experience!

Of course, one option was to give players the ability to somehow remove the cubes of other players from the map, but that would just extend the game into a longer back-and-forth power struggle, and I like the relatively short length of the game! So instead I had to figure out how to construct maps in which no player could ever be shut out – even if the map had a variety of planet sizes.

I banged my head on this problem for months, and I was never able to mathematically solve the problem with a top-down solution, so instead I worked out a bottom-up "brute force" approach. I tested the viability of each map by playing through a worst case scenario in which one player grabs all of the low-numbered planets first, then the next player does the same, etc. If every player can still make it to the end of the game and be able to win, the map doesn't suffer from shutout. Luckily, I didn't have to actually play the full game; I just dropped Quantum Cubes on planets as if they were being placed there by players, which allowed me to run through my sped-up worst-case games in a shorter period of time.

(I don't want to get too technical here, but the reason why I had the worst-case scenario always start with the lower-numbered planets is that those planets have the fewest cube placement spots. For instance, remember the example above? If all of the planets in the example were size 10s, with four construction spots each, there wouldn't be any possibility for shutout.)

In the end, this brute force method for detecting shutout ended up being so crucial for my map design process that I included it in the rules. It's in the section with tips for players on how to create your own maps. Incidentally, the shutout rule is the reason why the "Relocation" gambit card (which lets you move an opponent's Quantum Cube to a different planet) doesn't let you move it to a higher-numbered planet. Don't ask me to explain it – just trust me that it works.


Here Comes Funforge

For most of its development, Quantum was known as "Armada d6", a name that played off of inspiration from "Armada Dei Gratia VI" but also felt like something fun to play. Who wouldn't want to have an armada of six-sided dice at their command? After "Armada d6" won the Game Design award at the Indiecade International Festival of Independent Games in 2012, I began to approach publishers, but most of them balked at how abstract the game seemed – a bunch of dice on a simple grid – even with John's elegantly designed prototype visuals.

I'm not well connected in the paper game world, so I told all of my videogame designer friends that I had a board game that I wanted to publish. Paris-based digital game designer Olivier LeJade showed the game to Philippe Nouhra, the founder of French boardgame publisher Funforge, and this eventually led to a publishing deal. (Thanks, Olivier!)

During the final six months of development, John and I worked intensively with Funforge, especially the home stretch during the summer of 2013. As we continually tested and modified the rules for playability, finalized game balance, and tweaked map designs, we collaborated with Philippe to overhaul the visual design and game content. I am so happy with the way that Philippe and Funforge were able to lend a distinctive and high-quality style and flair to the game. The scrappy indie darling "Armada d6" was transformed, Cinderella-style, into a high-gloss AAA board game.

Surprisingly, the narrative content came very late. Today the idea of Quantum's universe being powered by quantum-based technologies feels essential – the theme of quantum uncertainty ties directly to the dice that are so central to the game. However, to be honest the name Quantum and the backstory of the game world fell into place only as we were finalizing the game materials and kicking ideas around with Funforge. We settled on the name Quantum not only for the thematic match, but because it felt classic and elegant, evoking the feeling of a sci-fi game with strategic depth.

As late as it happened, the narrative setting of Quantum is far from just a generic sci-fi universe. For me, there is something wonderfully perverse about using gigantic space machines to rip all of the energy and life from a planet, only in order to use the energy to travel to the next star system and do it again. Influenced by writers like Italo Calvino and Philip K. Dick, the alternate Earth history of Quantum weaves together many cultural references and is part weird science and part metaphysical philosophy. It is strange and pretentious and I hope to spin out more of the Quantum universe in future game expansions and releases.

The final product

What's Next?

As I write this design diary, it is still several weeks from Quantum's launch date. I can't wait to see what players will do with the game. I'm particularly excited about seeing all of the maps that will emerge from the player community. For me the sweetest pleasure as a game designer is seeing players do things I never expected, and it is exciting to think about the completely new kinds of maps that you will come up with! Funforge is actually planning a section of the Quantum website where players will be able to upload and share their original map designs.

I'm also starting to think with Funforge about what kinds of expansions we could create for the game. Perhaps something that lets five or six players be able to play, or new kinds of map tiles and map designs. I'd also like to explore how the factions can be different from each other – such as a way to customize your fleet with unique ship abilities. I look forward to hearing what players want to see in the future. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy your time playing Quantum.

Special thanks to John Sharp, Philippe Nouhra, and all of the amazing playtesters that gave so generously of their time and energy during the development of the game.

Eric Zimmerman

•••


Game Preview: Fighting, Rolling, Rocketing, Dying
By W. Eric Martin

Eric Z. has pretty much summarized the rules for Quantum, but since I've played the game twice on a prototype copy sent to me by Funforge, I thought I'd drop in a few quarks of experience.

My first game (with three players) started slow, each of us poking around our corner of the game board, not exactly sure what to do, but each quickly placing a cube on a planet adjacent to our starting system. Then we realized that we were spiraling toward one another on the game board and suddenly we broke out the attacks and started going at it. As Zimmerman notes, you risk little by attacking as long as you have a fair shot of the winning the battle and you wanted to move in the direction of the enemy's ship anyway. Yes, sometimes you fail to wipe out the foe, then he sticks you with a fork the next turn, but them's the breaks.

With all of us being new to the game, we ended up helping one another at different times, pointing out a special power that we hadn't considered. Each turn is indeed a mini-puzzle, with you having three actions and each ship having a possible special power, and trying to decide which ship might do what when can trip you up.

Keep a close eye out for the #3 ships as their power allows them to swap locations with another ship in your fleet. That's what we missed constantly, overlooking opportunities to warp in a battlestation to create a sure-win combat situation or set up a cube placement on a planet. We also overlooked the flagship's ability to transport an ally, with the piggybacking sometimes more than doubling a ship's movement on a turn as the flagship can pick up from and drop off on diagonally adjacent spaces whereas movement is otherwise orthogonal (except for the 5s, of course, the interceptors).

Playing on a prototype copy of the game

One action that Zimmerman didn't mention is reconfigure, which lets you pick up any ship and reroll it until you get a different number. (Think of the Infinite Improbability Drive from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but more improbable as you don't know what your ship will look like in the end.) The power lets you (try to) flip ships from small to large (or vice versa) so that you can attack, move or surround planets. The #6 ships let you reconfigure as a bonus action, and it's cute to imagine hundreds of crew members swarming around the outside of the ship and hammering it into a new configuration.

I was the only one with experience in the second game, this time on a full board of four players, but I barely needed to advise them on anything. They warped; they used the battlestation's special bonus attacks repeatedly; and they hammered each other, while saving most of the punches for me. All the rolls went against me and I couldn't place a cube for the longest time, so I had to keep crawling out of the same corner with my newly deployed ships over and over again. I eventually plopped out a couple of cubes, but they were a salve on my wounds more than an attempt to win.

One of my favorite games is Carl Chudyk's Innovation due to overpowered card combinations that seem out of whack, but are then taken down quickly by some other powerful card combination, leaving players to lurch from front-runner to dogmeat and back again over the course of a game. The special powers in Quantum achieve this feeling as well, with almost every card being greeted with "That seems stupidly broken". Everything's broken all over the place, yet the quest for those powers drives you to do things you might not normally do because you know you'd much rather wield that power than have it used against you. Cruel indeed...
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