In the mind of a game designer

What is a good game? What is the history behind a good game? What does it take to design a good game yourself? With the intention to find answers to those questions, I set out on an exciting journey in the world of game design. The more I travel, the more I learn how much that remains to discover, and I cannot claim that I have found the answers yet. Nevertheless, I would like to send small post cards along the way, sharing my experience both with you and with my future self. All comments will help me on my journey because there is one thing I have learnt: no game is better than its players.
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Designing Apokalypsis

Nicholas Hjelmberg
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This is the twentieth of hopefully many blog posts where I reflect upon my first tentative steps as a game designer.

I fell for it again. Although I had promised my old games to focus on promoting them instead of designing new ones, I couldn't resist the contest Survival Challenge. The requirements included a survival theme and the size of a small box and such a game must be simple and quick to design, right?

My first ideas for Apokalypsis' game mechanisms were simple enough: move meeples from a central city tile to a coastal edge tile, where a ship can be used to sail to safety. Add to that the Tre Kronor Infernum: Fire to Ashes mechanism of drawing coordinate tiles, to determine which ones that will disappear, and a cooperation element, where players may cooperate to help each other up from disappearing tiles or even build bridges to cross them. The only printed components I needed were some terrain hexes. The game shouldn't take more than a week to complete. Why do I never learn?

My initial concept testing showed that the idea was too simple to work. Moving meeples from A to B was too repetitive. Drawing coordinate tiles had too little room for strategy and tactics. Cooperation was rare and (literal) runaway leaders were frequent. But having come this far, I didn't want to accept that the idea couldn't work and started iterating various elements.

* Hex tiles instead of Square tiles
* Areas instead of Coordinates
* Stay on the island instead of Escape from the island
* Push opponents instead of Block opponents
* 2 meeples per tile instead of 1 meeple per tile
* Accept Fate instead of Defy Gods
* Draw 2 omens instead of draw 1 omen

Square tiles are excellent for coordinate mechanisms, since all tiles can be named with a letter and a number (A1 etc.). However, they make movements clunky, particularly when tiles can disappear and players have to spend twice as many moves to move around a missing tile (instead of moving A1-A2-A3, you have to move A1-B1-B2-B3-A3). Hex tiles allows more flexible moves and were a natural choice.

However, hex tiles work less well for coordinates. It requires more time to identify which tile that is referred to by a specific set of coordinates and some combinations of letters and number do not appear at all. Instead, I turned to overlapping areas instead. Some areas could be based on compass points (North, South, East and West) and others on distances from the center (inner, middle and outer circles). Thematically, this made more sense than coordinates, particularly when I translated the distances into cataclysms (volcanic eruption strikes the inner tiles etc.).

Still, even with hexes the gameplay of moving meeples from a central city to coastal ships became repetitive and I also got a (literal) runaway problem, as the first player to be blocked by a disappearing tile would have to rely on all the other players being blocked twice to get in the lead. The simple solution was to let the players stay on the island and move around to avoid the disappearing tiles. Not only did this offer more variation but also equal winning chances, as I could let the winner be determined by the last survivor rather than the most refugees, giving all the players a chance to win as long as they have at least one meeple left.

Nevertheless, more work was required regarding the movement. The early iterations only allowed 1 meeple on each hex, something that offered blocking opportunities in a "escape game". However, since I wanted to have more flexible movements, I couldn't have too many blocked hexes and instead tried a push mechanism. This gave the players not only more ways to move to safe land but also a way to move other players to unsafe land. An excellent take that mechanism! By increasing the limit to 2 meeples on each hex, I made movements even more flexible, while still allowing blocks if both the hex moved to and the hex pushed to are full.

So far so good when it comes to the meeples but what about the tiles? In Tre Kronor Infernum: Fire to Ashes, the players select coordinates and when they happen to intersect, tiles are affected. This works, since there are only 3x3 coordinates for the 9 rooms in the game. However, Apokalypsis' bigger board requires more than that so I started by letting the players draw random cards to determine which tiles to disappear. This was according to the theme of letting the players react to things outside their control but removed too much control from them. How to return the control?

One intriguing idea, that kept being included and excluded, was the idea of defying the Gods. By letting the pile of affected tiles grow until a player decides to reveal them by "defying the Gods" (and draw the wrath of the Gods upon the island), I added a gamble mechanism where players could move their meeples in safety first before causing the other players' meeples to be lost. In reality, this didn't turn out that way as the players got an incentive to defy the Gods every turn. The attempt to add a cost (at least 1 lost meeple to the player defying the Gods) didn't help either as the players now got an incentive to wait too long to ensure that all other players lose more than 1 meeple.

The simple solution was to let the players draw 2 omens and choose 1 while returning the 2nd to the bottom of the pile. This gave them two levels of control. First, they could choose which tiles disappear later in the game (and move to those more safe tiles). Second, they could choose which tiles to disappear earlier in the game (and move away from those less safe tiles). Also, each player's movements could be observed by the other players in an attempt to deduce which omen was chosen and which was discarded.

After all those changes, my "simple and quick game" was still simple and quick but considerably different from the game I started with!

The only thing that didn't change during the design was the theme. Not only was it determined by the contest requirements but it also fit in the series of games set in Ancient Greece that I had started working on recently. Like the other games Demokratia and Politeia (still works in progress), Apokalypsis was given a Greek name and the true (?) island behind the Atlantis myth, Therea, contributed with the historical setting. Although I had never played any Atlantis game, I realized that the theme could be a worn out one, but I felt that the game was different enough from games like Survive: Escape from Atlantis! and Atlantis. (While searching, I also found the interesting and very different game Atlantis, which proves how little a theme tells about how a game plays. I'm surprised it hasn't been commercially published yet.)

So how did the story proceed? Well, the game didn't win the contest but was picked up by a local store so all is well that ends well (unlike the historical Thera that was completely destroyed).
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