Designer Diaries by Daniel Grek

Designer Diary entries for games designed by Daniel Grek/Concrete Canoe Games!
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Dirigible Disaster Part 1: Rolling the Dice on The Game Crafter and Learning About Luck Mitigation

Daniel Grek
United States
New Jersey
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Dirigible Disaster
Dirigible Disaster

In the Summer of 2012, I started more seriously prototyping my first game idea. I was still relatively new to the board gaming hobby but thought I had a neat idea for a card game. I mocked up a series of versions to playtest but knew no way to go about making a nicer looking prototype or getting the game into people’s hands. A new gaming friend of mine and established designer recommended I check out a site called The Game Crafter (TGC) is a print on demand service for board and card games and while these designer diary entries do not seek to serve as an ad for the site, it is integral in the story of Dirigible Disaster.

Upon viewing TGC for the first time I learned that the site fosters a tight knit community eager to help out with design ideas and issues its members could present. I spent some time looking over the design tools and parts on the site, perusing the forums, and talking with other users in chat. After a few months of playing around I noticed that TGC also ran contests for game designers. Community members were encouraged to design a game with certain restrictions that include time, parts, cost, and sometimes theme. The contest that was next up was the Steampunk Dice Game Challenge and I thought to myself, “Dan, you’ve been focused on this one idea for a while, maybe it could be good to take a break and try out this contest.”

The design rules were fairly simple:
- The theme of the game had to be steampunk
- Dice rolling had to be one mechanic of the game
- The game could not include cards of any kind

You can read the full rules here:

At the time co-op games were becoming more popular with everyone’s favorite, Pandemic, carving out a spot on tables across Nerd-dom. Pandemic along with other games like Forbidden Island and Red November had found their way into my collection and I wanted to try and jump on the trend. Most cooperative games at the time did not use dice, or like in Red November used only one, and relied heavily on cards so I believed many entrants would avoid co-ops. I decided not only to work in that genre but to use dice in my game quite liberally.

My initial focus was to figure out how to fit the theme into the game as that was a major requirement for the contest that I could work on while at work. My immediate thought was to utilize an airship in the design as one could be given a steampunk feel as well as house a bevy of disasters for players to deal with. The main issue with this idea was that I would run the risk of being too thematically similar too Red November. (For those who have not played Red November, players take control of gnomes on a submarine and must control a variety of negative events such as floods, fires, or engine failure. Each player has 60 “minutes” that can be spent similarly to actions in other games.) I determined that if I could avoid disasters or negative events overly similar to those in Red November and of course have a mechanically different game, I would have no trouble with distinguishing my game. My idea was to at least have three events to worry about but four would be a solid amount. Initially I felt steam leaking from the airship and cogs breaking were obvious choices given the thematic criteria. At this point, though, I wasn’t sure exactly what other events to include in the game. I decided if I could flesh out the backstory of the game and bring life to the airship I would possibly be inspired as to the other events.

Because every game I work on has to have some terrible play on words involved (see: Highway to Shell) I decided the creator of the airship would be named Farns Filoworth. Farns fell in love with the steampunk scene and decided to celebrate it by making a giant steam powered airship that he called “The Victoriana.” Farns wanted to unveil the ship at the next annual Steampunk Gala and Cog Social and carry a group of passengers on its maiden voyage. Passengers! Of course! I could make passengers wandering about an event and they had to be removed from the board before they got “injured” by things like steam. From this point, I decided the last event had to also interact with passengers in order to make the passenger event a bit more critical. I felt the idea of people challenging each other to duels while soaring the sky was kind of thematic and fun so Duels became our final piece of the event puzzle. The events would affect the game as follows:

- Steam Leaks: Would injure passengers when placed into a room with a passenger. Before the round started a steam pressure tracker would be decreased 10% for each steam event on the board. This tracker started the game at 100% and the players would lose if it dropped to zero. As an action during the game in the engine room of the ship (room 9) players could increase the steam pressure by 10%.
- Broken Cogs: There were 12 total Broken Cog Events. If three popped out in the same room a marker was removed from the supply. Having to place an additional cog when the supply was empty would result in a loss for the players
- Duels: Duels would injure any passenger in a room that a duel occurs in. Duels also put bullet holes in the airship and using all the duel cubes would cause the players to lose.
- Passengers: Passengers would wander around random rooms of the airship and get hurt. If 15 Passengers were hurt the players would lose the game.

Now that the theme was prevalent, the events were set, and I can up with a title (Farns Filoworth’s Dirigible Disaster) I could focus on flushing out the mechanics of the game. As I was without the use of cards and dice had to be included in some way, I looked to dice to seed the game board with events. I wanted to have several rooms taking up several floors to space out the players a little bit. And I decided to start off with standard d6’s for determining how many of each event would be placed on the board and a d12 to place each event marker in separate rooms. As mentioned earlier, I wanted to steer into the “using dice” requirement so I wanted to also make the dice part of the clean-up process. The issue with adding dice in here for this mechanic as well is that the luck involved in the game was going to skyrocket unless provisions were put in place. It was luck how many cubes came out, luck with where they went, and luck if you were to roll to get rid of them. I need to think of some ways to combat so much luck in the game to keep it fun for players. I did this in several ways…

1) I decided the game needed to be relatively short (maybe 30 minutes for each play) a lighter type of co-op would be served better with a smaller play time.
2) I decided the more direct timing factor (such as Flashpoint’s victims, Red November’s action points/minutes, or Pandemic’s Player Card deck) would be time. I wanted to have the players work in real time rounds that would limit the amount of cube removal but also keep up an energetic and more engaging pace. Players would have 10 one minute long rounds with new events coming to the board before each round begins. With set up and some discussion this would keep the game closer to 30 minutes.
3) Whereas most games would have you roll larger than a set number to achieve some kind of goal Dirigible Disaster would have players do the opposite. To clean up an event, players would roll a d6 action die and attempt to roll less than or equal to the result rolled that turn for each event. This turns the event die into not only the mechanism for placing events but the difficulty gauge for removing them. It also creates a self-balancing effect by it being easier to address an event the turn more cubes are placed out.
4) With the previous mechanism in place, Dirigible Disaster embraced its inherent luck. Players were now responsible for making choices and decisions not only based on failure criteria but on what actions come with a higher success rate.
5) To help add to the energy, players would only get one action on their turn before they had to pass along the action die to the next player. This rewarded teams that made quick decisions with additional actions in a round and gave a quasi-dexterity spin to the gameplay.
With these ideas in place, Farns Filoworth’s Dirigible Disaster was set up to be a quick, fun, and lighter co-op that would hopefully be fun for a variety of gamer types. The last remaining task for the contest was to take all these ideas and mechanics and balance them so the game reached a fair level of difficulty. As stated before, I started off with standard d6’s for the game but soon learned that created a situation where 6 events could go out at a time, but also could be instantly cleaned up. The game also was too difficult if a large number of steam leaks, cogs, or duels were placed out as the failure conditions they lead to would be hit too quickly. Passengers, on the other hand were more exciting of an event if more were out as their presence did not lead to failure, just their interaction with other events.

Finalizing the die numbers and amount of event markers in the game was obviously a great deal of playtesting and recording results of rolls and actions so I will skip ahead and get to the results of the initial testing:

- Steam leaks: 10 markers total as that would be the amount that would drop steam pressure to zero instantly. The die faces were, [1,2,2,3,3,4] as this allowed for a few markers to be placed a turn but still enable steam pressure to be managed effectively by players.
- Broken Cogs: 12 makers total and the same number distribution on the die. A couple extra markers accounted for the fact that if three cog events occurred in the same room at the same time a marker was removed from the supply. Still something to look out for and could catch players off guard if they aren’t careful.
- Duels: 10 markers and the same distribution of faces on the die as the first two events. The number balanced well with the other events and made them all equally likely to cause the players to lose.
- Passengers: 20 total markers, 15 of which needed to get “injured” for players to lose the game. The distribution on this die was [3,3,3,4,4,5] So there were always a lot of passengers but they were relatively easy to clean from the board.

I felt pretty comfortable with where Farns Filoworth’s Dirigible Disaster was so and after throwing together some “art” drawn by yours truly I submitted the game to the contest and eagerly awaited the results. For this contest the judge selected a series of semifinalists which were judged on the attached rules and the shop page for the game. Then, 5-7 finalists were selected, printed, and shipped to the judge in order to receive more thorough critiquing before the winner was announced. Farns Filoworth’s Dirigible Disaster made it into the semi-finals round and unfortunately missed the cut-off for the finals by 1 point. You can see the full analysis and results for that round posted here but to sum up, the games were judged at this stage on 7 categories each worth a total of 5 points: Use of theme, Art, Rules, Rules Layout, Shop Page, Excitement, Use of Dice.
Read more about the results here:

Farns managed to get 4’s and 5’s in every category except for Art for which it received a (generous) 3. And Chris Leder’s City of Gears would go on to win that contest (and will be a Dice Tower Essentials game at some point in 2016). I was still proud of all I had done, though, for my first “finished” game. I felt like I had learned a lot, made some great contacts, and even built up a confidence in my own design abilities.

For a game that I did originally as practice it seemed I had something interesting and unique in some ways on my hands. If I had better artwork would I have been a finalist? Would I have won?!? I thought at this time I should at least do what I could to improve the look of the box art and the tracker mat and throw it up on The Game Crafter to see how many I could sell. This was just the beginning of my adventure with Farns Filoworth and just a couple years from this point with all new events and amazing art, Dirigible Disaster, as it is now known, would be coming to Kickstarter…

Keep a look out for the future entries in the Dirigible Disaster Designer Diary.

Part 2:

Dirigible Disaster comes to Kickstarter January 12th. Check out its BGG Page or @ConcCanoeGames on Twitter for more updates!

Check out the Kickstarter Preview Page here:
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