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Designer Diary: Eruption – Can't Touch This (Lava)

Chris James
United States
Queen Creek
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Microbadge: Stratus Games fanMicrobadge: Gold Mine fanMicrobadge: Eruption fanMicrobadge: Member of the BGG Community since 2009Microbadge: Launch Pad fan
Board Game: Eruption
Eruption is a competitive volcano-themed game for 2 to 6 players that is being released by Stratus Games in October 2011. The game features a cutthroat survival feel, in which each player must defend his own village from destruction by the wrath of the volcano at the center of the board. To do so, players can build walls of various strengths to hold back the lava, place Lava Tiles strategically to direct lava toward other villages and away from their own, or utilize action cards to rotate, replace, and remove specific tiles and carry out other events related to the eruption of the volcano. As lava comes in contact with each village (as it inevitably will), the village begins to heat up until it is completely burned, ending the game.

Board Game: Eruption

This game has been a lot of fun to design. As a designer, I prefer to start with a theme or simple idea and build upon it, rather than choose from a list of pre-conceived mechanisms and slap a theme on the game later. The volcano theme proved to be very enjoyable and allowed for some interesting and unique mechanisms to be added along the way.

Here are some of the features that have been designed into Eruption:

1. Placement of hex tiles to direct the flow of lava.
The available tiles consist of Lava Tiles, which direct the flow of lava, and Eruption Tiles, which form a new source of lava that can be placed anywhere. The various lava flow configurations on the tiles allow for interesting board layouts and offer the ability to place tiles both offensively and defensively.

Board Game: Eruption
All of the types of game tiles, including an Eruption Tile

2. Strategic wall collection and placement.
Walls are wooden blocks that can be built on any lava flow or at seven points within a village, your choice. You'll need to place them well if you want to have any chance of winning the game, as they help to prevent lava from entering your village. They come in three different strengths – straw, wood and stone – with stronger materials having a higher probability of holding back the lava. Each player starts with one of each type, but must collect more as the game progresses in order to continue to defend against the lava once previous walls burn up.

Board Game: Eruption
Close-up of a village with several walls along its border

3. Thematic and useful action cards.
Quake, Sinkhole, Volcanic Bomb, Aftershock, Rain – these are all examples of the eight action cards that allow you to do anything from rotating or removing existing tiles to cooling down your village. Action cards are also dual-use, with a specific wall material for which they can be traded instead of carrying out the action specified on the card. This creates some tough decisions down the stretch.

Board Game: Eruption

4. Cutthroat interaction.
You are rewarded with action cards for putting lava in contact with a village. Inevitably, you'll have to decide whether to attack a specific player and incur their wrath, or simply hold back with a defensive strategy and miss out on the abilities provided by the cards. Want to take someone down? Land a Lava Tile next to their village to cause damage or destroy one of their strongest walls with a Volcanic Bomb. Just be prepared for reciprocal action.

5. A balanced and effective "catch up" mechanism.
Village temperatures are tracked on the Burn Meter, which surrounds the island on the board and comes with a built-in "catch up" mechanism. As a village heats up, it enters three zones along the Burn Meter that provide cumulative abilities, including building an extra wall on a turn, drawing an action card, and placing two tiles instead of just one. The first player to reach each zone also gets free placement of an Eruption Tile, which can be placed anywhere and causes all other villages to heat up immediately by 30 degrees. What does this mean? It means that if you've somehow escaped the wrath of the volcano (a.k.a. "other players") toward the beginning of the game, prepare to get ganged up on later on as the losing players use their new-found advantages against you.

Board Game: Eruption
Close-up of villages and a portion of the Burn Meter

6. An element of chance to spice things up and add unpredictability.
Will your walls hold up against the lava? Roll the dice to find out. If the lava wins the roll, your wall is toast. The random resolution of wall strength can make it difficult to predict exactly when the next Eruption Tile will be placed. It also can make you rethink your tile placement strategy on any given turn. While tiles and cards are also drawn at random, there are many possibilities for their use, so you'll have to figure out their best use on the fly. If random tile draws aren't your thing, one of the variants included with the game increases the amount of strategy by allowing you to take your pick from three stacks of face-up tiles.

7. An exciting theme and Polynesian-style artwork for visual appeal.
Volcanoes, at least in a game setting, are fun and fascinating. Crisp and colorful artwork and Polynesian-style accents will give this game some nice aesthetics.

Board Game: Eruption
Volcano motif on the corner of the box cover

So how did this all come about?

Heating Up

As mentioned earlier, I like to start with an enjoyable theme and build upon it. After my design of Gold Mine and my contribution to Launch Pad, I was constantly asked, "What's next?" Luckily, I had an idea brewing in my head that I could spurt out on demand: "I'm thinking of a volcano-themed game with villages that have to protect themselves from lava flows." Without having spent any time whatsoever on the actual development of the game, the general theme was all I could supply. Even so, the consistent response was, "OOOOOH!!! That sounds awesome!"

I, of course, thought the idea sounded great as well. There is just something intriguing about volcanoes. Perhaps our fascination with massive explosions (a la Mythbusters) draws us to the sheer amount of power and energy that volcanoes release. Maybe we have an instinctive primal fear of their destructive potential that creates a sense of awe within us, or perhaps the pyromaniac in us is drawn to ponder the idea of molten rock burning up everything in its path and creating new land formations as it cools. For whatever reason, there seems to be a common fascination with the destructive beasts.

Breaking Through the Surface

A theme is worthless unless there is a solid foundation upon which to build an enjoyable board game. I am bombarded with various obscure topics nearly every day that make me stop and think to myself, "What if there were a board game built on that theme? What would it be like?" 99% of the time, I dismiss the thought and chuckle to myself at the absurdity of the idea brewing in my head or the impossibility of designing even a slightly enjoyable game around that theme. However, the volcano idea stuck with me as something I should pursue further. My plans became even more solidified after the startlingly positive response from the mere mention of the theme.

So I set to work. Some things were obvious right off the bat: I knew I needed a board with a volcano in the center and villages surrounding it, equidistant from one another; also, I figured that a tile placement mechanism would be appropriate for creating interesting lava flows to be directed toward the outer edges of the board. I decided that hex tiles would work best in this case, specifically for the interesting potential of six angles of rotation.

Just placing tiles to direct lava toward the villages was clearly not enough to make an enjoyable game. So I thought about what I would do if I lived in a village that was being threatened by molten lava flows, besides dropping everything and running for my life. For the purposes of game play, I figured it wasn't unreasonable for villagers to build barriers to hold back the lava for a while. These barriers (i.e., walls) could consist of different materials of varying strengths (straw, wood and stone) that might be available to an ancient village on a Pacific island where volcanoes are commonly found. A wall built of any of these materials probably wouldn't stand a chance of permanently blocking a river of molten lava, but it seemed to have the potential for interesting game play.

If I were a villager building a wall to shield my village from a lava flow, I figured that the next step after its completion would be to stand back and hope for the best. Ultimately, a dice roll was determined to be the best solution for modeling this scenario. With one die serving as the lava and another as the wall, whichever rolled higher would be the victor. Lava, being the most powerful, would get ties. Stronger materials would have additional points added to the "wall" die to increase its strength against the lava.

One thing was still missing in order for me to have a playable prototype: some means of monitoring the "health" of each village. So I created a simple track around the edges of the board, the beginning stages of the Burn Meter.

As I typically do, I drafted the first prototypes for testing in the ZunTzu platform, which allows me to iron out any initial design flaws in a digital environment prior to wasting time and supplies putting together a physical prototype. After tweaking the design enough to create a somewhat playable game, the first physical prototypes were born – but the game was nowhere near where it needed to be.

Erupting into Production

This is the part of the story where, if this were a movie, music starts playing and months of effort and progress are compressed into a triumphant and dramatic scene, like Rocky running up the stairs. As any game developer can attest, countless hours must be spent testing, fine-tuning, and testing some more. Luckily, some really great people stepped up to the plate to try this game and they have helped improve it dramatically, including Seth Jaffee, the Gamesmiths guild, and numerous testers from near and far from the Stratus Sphere club. There has been a lot of effort put into diversifying the group of playtesters in order to ensure the best experience for a wide variety of gaming backgrounds.

In a nutshell, here is a list of the various tweaks that needed to be made, along with a brief explanation:

• Inclusion of action cards
Just placing Lava Tiles and building walls got boring very quickly. More strategy and interaction was added in the form of various action cards, which were added to and changed over time to include the most useful abilities.

• Wall availability
In the original prototypes, a large number of walls was provided to each player, who could strategically arrange them into a queue at the beginning of the game. This proved to be unsuccessful and was instead replaced with a scarce supply, with the ability to get more walls by placing tiles on resource spaces and trading in action cards for walls.

• Amount of interesting decisions
The ability to build walls not only inside a village, but on specific lava flows was introduced. Dual-use action cards were also created to enforce a decision each time a card is played: whether to carry out the specified action or retrieve an extra wall instead.

• Balance of scores
The game started out with polarized scores (temperatures), with little or no chance of catching up. Once a village started to burn, it kept burning without fail. The inclusion of action cards helped to alleviate this problem significantly. However, an additional catch-up mechanism was needed, and thus the Danger Zones were born. (Insert Kenny Loggins joke here.) After much tweaking, providing extra abilities to players with higher temperatures ultimately proved to offer greater balance. In addition, Eruption Tiles were added, both to enhance the theme and give the losing player the ability to do some additional damage. With these enhancements, the game tends to be fairly close, often with the winner not being decided until the final round of play.

• Game length and pace
Each turn consists of damage assessment, tile placement, action cards, and wall building. Turns tend to move quickly, but even a streamlined game can be over-analyzed and take an exorbitant amount of time to play. From the beginning, there were many obvious tweaks that needed to be made to reduce the number of turns per game and ensure a more enjoyable experience.

First, the original board size was far too large. Since the real fun begins once lava reaches some of the villages, the board size evolved into smaller and smaller designs. The smaller board also allowed for lava flows to more easily "jump" from village to village instead of requiring a direct path to each village. The number of tiles, the number of walls, the length of the Burn Meter, and the resolution of burn damage also needed to be tweaked significantly in order to find the right balance. In the end, a sweet spot of 30 to 60 minutes average play time was achieved, depending on the number of players. This allows enough time for an interesting story arc without becoming overly long.

Board Game: Eruption
The evolution of the Eruption game board, from start to finish

The design of the production artwork and rulebook is a process of tweaking and adjusting all on its own, but Andy Kurzen and Matt Plett have done a nice job of bringing everything together with a visually appealing artistic theme. You can see that rulebook for yourself by downloading the English rules (PDF) from the Stratus Games website. In addition, you can preorder Eruption for delivery in October 2011.

Coupled with high quality components and wooden walls and scoring markers, this game will look and feel fantastic. It has received a lot of positive feedback from playtesters, and I am very pleased with how it has turned out. Many thanks to all who have contributed to this project!

Chris James
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