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Designer Diary: Zeppelin Attack, or The Balloon Goes Up!

Eric Vogel
United States
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Microbadge: Kitara fanMicrobadge: The Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game fanMicrobadge: Cambria fanMicrobadge: Zeppelin Attack fanMicrobadge: Don't Turn Your Back fan
Board Game: Zeppelin Attack!
Somewhat to my surprise, on the morning of January 12, 2012, I opened an email from Fred Hicks of Evil Hat Productions, the subject line of which read, "You're the next contestant on Game Doctor!"

You see, Evil Hat Productions had previously commissioned a card game design from Jeff Tidball called "Zeppelin Armada". This was a game in which the evil mastermind characters from the Spirit of the Century role-playing game fought each other with fleets of airships. I had played the prototype once with Fred and Jeff at Origins 2011. After the design was finished and the artwork was already in process, some of the playtests EHP had done of the game led the Evil Hat team to think they wanted some changes to the design. Chris Hanrahan — in addition to being co-owner of my favorite game store, Endgame — is also part of the leadership team at Evil Hat Productions, and he asked me to do some playtesting of the game and give him my thoughts, so I did, making a few recommendations. Of course, the Evil Hat team first approached Jeff about making the revisions, but Jeff had too many commitments to work on Zeppelin Armada at that time. Thus, with that email I was asked to put my money where my mouth was and to try to implement my proposed fixes myself.

I had never tried to do anything like this before. Normally, I just design games on spec and present the finished product for publishers to evaluate. With this commission, I was working under several restrictions. The overall size of the game needed to be the standard 112-card double deck. It needed to utilize all of the artwork that had already been drawn. It also had to retain certain key thematic elements of Jeff's design. Although Jeff had okayed EHP approaching me to doctor the game, I felt a little guilty about messing with another designer's baby, so my initial approach was to try to be less of a designer and more of a developer. I wanted to try to "fix" the existing game, while changing as little as I could manage. All the while I was doing this, part of my brain was thinking: "If I had a free hand, I would turn this into a deck-building game."

I created about four prototypes using this approach. While these prototypes addressed the issues in the original that I was trying to target, I wasn't happy with the results. To do game development on someone else's design, I needed the original author's participation, and that wasn't possible in this case. As I was thinking about how to deal with this, one of my regular playtesters – Chris Ruggiero, who is also a co-owner of Endgame and one of the designers of Race To Adventure — made his own report to the Evil Hat folks, stating that he thought I needed to be given a freer hand with the game to really make progress with it. That is exactly what they did. I was still under the limitations regarding the numbers of cards, the existing artwork, and some of the card names; I still had to make it a game about fleets of zeppelins fighting, but aside from that I could design whatever kind of card game I wanted to.

From gallery of erichv

Now to back up a little, I had been wanting to design a deck-building game for years. When I first played Dominion, I loved the game but couldn't imagine designing something like it. It seemed like the amount of playtesting it would require would be overwhelming. However, as other deck-building games came along, it started to seem more like something I could do. Ascension, which is probably my favorite deck-building game, seemed more like something I might design. Also, between 2008, when I first played Dominion, and 2012, I had learned a lot as a game designer, particularly about card games. Complex card games initially seemed overwhelming to me because it seemed like it would be impossible to discern the balance of individual cards from within a playtest. However, that changed when I designed Armorica.

Board Game: Armorica
Armorica grew out of an "a-ha" moment in which I realized that I could create a point system for card attributes, use that to determine how much stuff should be on a given card, then instead of playtesting a given card I could playtest the point system as a whole. (E.g., is drawing one card equal in value to scoring 1 VP? Or is drawing two cards equivalent to 1 VP?) That principle has more-or-less informed all of my subsequent card game development.

I had previously spoken to Chris Hanrahan about the possibility of designing something to pitch to Evil Hat, and he had pointed me towards theming a card game within the Don't Rest Your Head franchise, so for a time I had played around with trying to develop a deck-building game that would fit that theme. I never exactly designed that game, but had been playing with a number of ideas for elements of a deck-building game that would be different from any of the deck-building games with which I was familiar. So I now marshalled those together to create what would become the first draft of Zeppelin Attack.

Let me say this: Originality is the hobgoblin of the deck-building game design process because it cannot be totally original and still be a deck-building game. The question becomes how original is original enough? My game had to be purely a card game, and I wanted it to be a true deck-building game. Thus, I expected at the outset that my game would end up somewhere on a continuum of originality, that it would find its originality in disparate mechanisms (rather than one central mechanical innovation) while retaining many of the common deck builder elements, and that it would probably start out somewhat derivative and get more original as it was revised. That was in fact exactly how the process unfolded.

I had observed that the main way in which other deck builders differentiated themselves from Dominion mechanically was by leaving out elements of Dominion. Tanto Cuore has actions, buys, and money that all work exactly as they do in Dominion, and this is part of what makes it feel directly derivative. Thunderstone got rid of actions and changed the money system, but kept the concept of buys. Ascension got rid of both actions and buys and introduced a system of two suits of "money" to compensate for their absence. These variances were enough to make the play of these games feel quite different from that of Dominion.

From gallery of erichv
A game which used some kind of action point system, but got rid of buys, was a little corner of variance in the deck-builder formula that hadn't been explored yet, so I decided to play with that idea at the outset. Based on the artwork that "Zeppelin Armada" already had, the game had to involve zeppelin cards, armament/attack cards, defense cards, and crew cards of some kind. Clearly zeppelins needed to be part of a tableau and not just part of your hand. They would be played from your hand to your tableau, then periodically get knocked out of your tableau into your discard pile only to later reappear in your hand and re-enter your tableau. However, the zeppelins would all have a very novel function; they would provide your action points in the game, with each zeppelin essentially being an action point. Thus, to launch an attack on another player, you need a zeppelin from which to launch the attack and an enemy zeppelin to shoot at. This would make the theme of the game more palpable as well.

I realized that one problem I faced was that with only 112 cards to work with, I couldn't have players buying cards at the rate they do in most deck-builders. In Dominion, Ascension, etc., buying cards is the primary activity of the game, and people expect to buy 1-3 cards every turn. If they did that in a game this size, it would be over in five minutes! I like fast games, but not that fast.

This problem was compounded slightly by the fact that I needed to make the starting decks relatively large. Most deck-builders have starting decks similar to Dominion, in that players start with a fixed amount of two or three types of generic, weak cards. Throughout the time I was playing with ideas for deck-builders, I wanted the starting decks to be more complex, to constitute an "advanced-start" game state. I got the idea from advanced-start options in various video games I had played over the years, such as Masters of Orion II. So I needed to create a mechanism by which players would save up money over multiple turns, to buy a card on average every 2-3 turns.

I also noted that while the money systems in the different deck-builders varied, most of them had infinitely-reusable money like Dominion; when you acquired a money card, you could re-spend it every time it came up in your deck. This mechanism tends to make purchasing power snowball pretty quickly. I decided to make a game in which money would be acquired into your deck, then removed from your deck when you spent it. Instead of acquiring permanent money, you would buy cards that let you acquire new money cards; these would be the Operative cards, which would give me a way to use the character artwork created for "Zeppelin Armada". In turn, this meant that I needed to add a hand management element to the game. In Dominion, you always discard all of your unused cards at the end of the turn, then draw a whole new hand, and most deck-builders have stuck with this mechanism. The exceptions to this are Eminent Domain and A Few Acres of Snow. After playing with different variants of hand-management mechanisms, I settled on just letting players carry over unplayed cards within a hand limit. So if buying cards was going to be a secondary and occasional activity, what was going to be the primary activity of my game? Simple: Combat!

From gallery of erichv
Having targeted attacks against other players is something that the preexisting theme of the old game clearly called for. Attacks had been an element of Dominion, and a lesser element of subsequent deck-builders, but those attacks were always global — that is, directed against all opponents at once — or else they would hit particular opponents based on some criteria that the opponent met (having the most cards in hand, etc.) rather than at the attacker's discretion. Clearly in Zeppelin Attack, players would be aiming at particular other players, and other players would be attempting to block the attacks in some way. I didn't want the combat system to bog down the action of the game; if players had to add up modifiers and compare attack and defense numbers, it would create too much downtime. It was also clear from my playtests that players often found the consequences of losing in combat too punishing, too discouraging. I wanted this game to have a lot of combat, but for the consequences of losing a battle to not be too dire.

I also retained a modified version of one mechanism from Jeff's game that I really liked. He gave the zeppelins in his game a capacity value that determined how powerful of an attack they could launch, and if a zeppelin launched an attack that exceeded its capacity, then the zeppelin took damage. So I decided that the zeppelins should have different capacities for each kind of card they could play, and that any of these capacities could be overloaded. Being attacked or overloaded would force a zeppelin out of a player's tableau and into his discard pile. Since the zeppelin can then be re-drawn and put back in the tableau, losing a zeppelin this way would not be an excessive consequence. So all the cards that the zeppelins deployed — the action cards — would have payload sizes, but not numeric strengths. The notion of using nominal categories without numerical values is one I have always found interesting to play around with as a way of decreasing the proportion of math in the game.

I started with a very simple combat system in which any attack could be blocked by any defense card. This quickly proved to be too simple; there needed to be a greater element of chance in whether an attack would succeed. I eventually moved toward creating suits of attacks and defenses; matching defenses would block attacks, while non-matching defenses would not. I played around with different numbers of these suits, trying to get the odds of drawing the right defense just right. It eventually became clear that the number of suits had to match the number of players, and that the suits would match the player characters in the game thematically.

From gallery of erichv
Another challenge had to do with variable powers. Thematically, each player was going to be a different evil mastermind, so the thematically correct choice was for them to have different starting assets in their decks. As far as I am concerned, variable powers are the bane of my game design existence. They are always thematic, and players always like the idea of them, so they are very attractive to include in a game. However, any number of potentially good games suffer from irredeemable balance problems because of their variable power elements. Creating different powers that are truly equal in value is very difficult. If you have to acquire such powers during the game, then imbalance between them is fine, as long as they are priced right. However, if players start the game with different abilities and assets, then even very tiny differentials in power iterate across the game and create overwhelming advantages for certain players.

Most of my early attempts to make the starting decks different from one another ran into this problem. Eventually the solution was to be found in the attack and defense suits. The same card powers would appear on all the attack, defense and operative cards in each of the starting decks, and all the attack and defense suits would appear in each deck. However, the powers would be matched with different suits in each deck. This provided a way of creating difference, without creating imbalance. The zeppelins in the player's start decks would have the same capacities, but these would be distributed differently across the two zeppelins in each player's starting deck.

Finally, there was an issue with the card effects themselves. At least some cards need to have special text effects in almost any deck-building game. My first thought would be that the attack cards would have powers that worked only if your attack succeeded, and defense effects would work only if you successfully defended. The operative cards that gave you more money would always be effective to ensure that players would not get stuck and be unable to buy more cards. However, it quickly became clear that players did not have enough incentive to attack because if the attack was defended it advantaged your enemy too much.

Player incentive and motivation concerns are a huge part of game design. An action in a game can be highly advantageous, but if it doesn't look advantageous to the players, they won't try it and will never learn its true value. As a designer, you have to manage the appearance of contingencies as much as the reality of them. I finally got around this problem by giving the attacks and defenses two effects each, one that occurs only when they get used successfully, and one that always occurs. This way, attacking is always beneficial and simply becomes more beneficial when it succeeds. It also got me around the problem of a player's hand getting cluttered with defenses he could not use because no one happened to be attacking him; players could use the defenses on their own turn to get lesser benefits. This dual text-effect mechanism added a lot of novelty and a new risk-management consideration to the game. So, as I noted earlier, original mechanisms crept into the game organically over time as I worked to resolve various problems.

Fred Hicks' input also served as a major catalyst for the game becoming more distinctive. While I developed the game over several months, there was a period of one week in which Chris Hanrahan and family were visiting Fred Hicks and his family back east. Chris' son P.K. graciously took on the job of learning Zeppelin Attack and teaching it to everyone there, so Fred, Chris, P.K., and Chris' younger son Ian playtested the game a bunch of times and gave me feedback. I then revised the game and express-mailed it back to them, and they tested again and gave me more feedback. It was probably the most intensive design process I have ever been a part of, and the game really transformed a lot in this period.

From gallery of erichv
The money in the game was originally just called "money" and came in simple denominations of $1, $2 and $3. However, I kept running into a problem with how purchasing power scaled up. If a weak operative card added a $1 card to your deck while a strong one added a $2, then the increment of improvement is 100%; that's a big jump in buying power. This would cause the first person to get a strong operative card to gain too much advantage.

Meanwhile, Fred told me one day that he was making an executive decision that money would be called "fate points" to better tie in to the Spirit of the Century RPG. At first I balked, thinking "Fate is nothing like money" (although in a capitalist society, really, it kind of is). So I then thought: "Well, how can the money operate more like something that would be called fate?" This led me to make two changes. Instead of a bank stocked with different denominations, I created a single, shuffled pile of fate cards that ranged in value from 2-5. A weak operative card would let you draw three and keep the lowest single card, while a strong operative might let you draw three and keep the highest single card.

I also added text effects to the cards. In early iterations of the game, I had experimented with having hero cards that would interfere with the players, a bit like disease cards in Thunderstone. P.K. Hanrahan had given me the cool idea of each mastermind having a nemesis in their starting deck, which when they drew they would have to reveal, shout "Curse you, Mack Silver", and then suffer some negative consequence. As I say, it was a cool, thematic idea that the Evil Hat team liked, but ultimately I could not make it work. I am afraid I disappointed Fred this way several times. Me: "Hey Fred, maybe we can do X!" Fred: "Yeah, X sounds great, do X!" Me, one week later: "Sorry, X doesn't work."

Still, I wanted to incorporate the idea of meddling heroes somehow since thematically that should be a big part of the villain's lives. I added text effects to about 20% of the Fate cards and themed these around the meddling of heroes from the Spirit of the Century RPG. Low value fate cards had global, positive effects that impacted all players, while high value fate cards had negative effects that impacted all players. These changes, taken together with the fate cards being consumed when you spend them, created an economy that was distinct from existing deck-builders.

I seem to recall it was also Fred's input that led me to add the experimental zeppelins. All players start with a flagship, which is a powerful zeppelin that can never be forced out of a player's tableau, thereby ensuring that players can always play at least one action card on their turn. Originally, the ambition was for the flagships to have different special powers, but again, this turned out to imbalance the game. So to give more distinctiveness to each player's deck, we gave each player an expensive zeppelin with thematic special powers that only that player could buy.

All the while, as I was conceptualizing the effects for the individual cards, I was keeping in mind the artwork that was already done. I say it was done because Christian St. Pierre had already done about thirty beautiful pencil drawings based on the card names from Jeff's original game. I did not need to keep the card names the same, but I did need to design cards that would use that artwork. For example, a card in Jeff's game was called "Look, a Monkey!", and Christian had drawn a hilarious and terrifyingly beautiful picture of a spider monkey wielding samurai swords. I needed to design a special attack card for Gorilla Khan's start deck, so I used that picture and called the card "Monkey Samurai Catapult". All the time I was designing, new art from Christian would appear, pencil drawings would become inked drawings, which would then become full color drawings — all gorgeous stuff. In turn, I would try to create card names and powers that would fit these. So oddly enough the art inspired the design in this case, reversing the typical order of such things.

From gallery of erichv

Did I mention that in the middle of all this, I was also designing expansions? Fred and Chris did not actually ask me to design expansions, and I'm not even a big fan of expansions. However, I was a little afraid that if I did not design the expansion(s) at the same time that I did the base game, I would not be able to do so successfully later. Race for the Galaxy was the first game that I thought was genuinely improved by its expansions, and I knew that its first few expansions had been designed at the same time as the base game.

I initially set out to design about four expansions, at least some of which would expand the number of players. However, having the game take more than four players turned out to be infeasible as I would have had to build five attack/defense suits into the base game, which would have made the base set of cards too large. In my opinion, no deck-builder really works well with five players anyway – too much downtime. I also found that once I distilled my expansion mechanisms down to just the ones that seemed novel and clearly added something to the game, I had enough material for only one solid expansion. So I designed one expansion, Doomsday Weapons, that involved zeppelins with onboard text effects, instead of the capacity to play attack or operative cards, and a fifth suit of attacks and defenses that players do not start with and which have global instead of targeted effects. I also gave each player an experimental attack to go along with their experimental zeppelin. The base game is great by itself, but the expansion adds a lot of variety and interesting new strategy. I think I probably could design a good second expansion now that my brain has had a break from the Zeppelin Attack design process, but I'll wait to see how demand shapes up.

The game still went through a lot of tweaking and testing after that point. I tried a lot of interesting ideas that did not work for this particular game, e.g., having the starting cards be worth negative victory points so that your score goes up as you remove them from your deck. It didn't work in this game because of the size of the deck, but I might come back to that idea in another game someday. Removing cards from your deck became a difficulty in this game overall because of the small deck size. I eventually just settled on a standard mechanism through which players could "purge" an action card from their hand or discard pile every time they bought an action card. This way, players could never whittle their decks down to be so small that they drew their whole deck every turn.

The cards available for purchase went from being a totally random row to being randomized stacks of a single type; again, carving out an unexplored variant in-between the existing mechanisms of prior deck-builders. Almost at the very end of the design process, after Chris and Fred felt the game was done, I came up with the notion of representing the points you score in battle by taking cards available for purchase and tucking them underneath your flagship card. This solved a perpetual problem the design had in regards to the game-end timer, so I had to push Chris and Fred a little to accept one more revision to the game late in the process.

From gallery of erichv

Between the different versions I worked on, over the course of roughly a year I created about 33 separate revisions — distinct decks — to reach the final version of the game and about nine versions of the expansion. That was certainly the most revisions that any of my designs has been through. With the benefit of hindsight, what was the impact of all those constraints I was under on the game and the game design process? They probably did make the game design process longer and more laborious than it usually is for me, but I think they were good for the end product ultimately. They served as a kind of random seed that made the game different from what it probably would have been if I were left entirely to my own devices. Like I said, a lot of original mechanisms grew out of finding ways around the external constraints. Up to this point, I'd been going in the direction of making my games simpler and simpler, and with Romans Go Home! I felt like I had gone as far in that direction as I wanted to. It was time to design something more intricate again, and I think the constraints of the commissioned design process helped take my thinking in that direction.

From gallery of erichv
At this point, a lot still needed to happen, but it was largely out of my hands. I have to say that Evil Hat Productions is awesome to work with. They have great in-house talent, hire excellent people, and consistently consulted me along the way – which is very different from how a lot of game publishers work. EHP did some playtesting of its own that I wasn't involved in. Because I wasn't able to make Zeppelin Attack rely 100% on the art Christian had already done for the previous game, particularly with the addition of the expansion, some new art was commissioned from him. Daniel Solis was brought on board to do layout and graphic design, doing some really beautiful and distinctive work and getting some extra mileage out of the art assets we already had. Evil Hat took the time to have me do extensive playtesting once the layout was done to test how well the written rules and the layout were working, and we made significant changes to both as the result of this testing. Karen Twelves was brought in to proofread away my inconsistencies from the card text and the rules. Sean Nitter was made project manager, and he sent me weekly requests for project updates.

Throughout this, there were lots of emails back and forth between everyone on the team. I believe the layout email chain is now up to something like 160 emails. Quality control is a bit of work, but certainly worth it. The Kickstarter for the game was quite successful, and both the base game and the expansion funded. The KS included a cool little two-player card game called Zeppelin Conquest as a PNP backer reward that is now up on DriveThruCards. I also brushed up my somewhat rusty video editing skills — I went to film school once upon a time — so that I could do the Kickstarter videos myself. I have pitched EHP a couple of other designs during the process of creating Zeppelin Attack, which they have optioned, including a worker placement/deck-building game set in the world of Don't Rest Your Head, tentatively titled "Don't Turn Your Back". Fred is working on a suitably creepy layout for that game now, so I hope EHP and I are going to be able to keep working together — and if Zeppelin Attack does well, then I think the sky is the limit!

Eric B. Vogel

From gallery of erichv
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