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Designer Diary: Launching the Exodus Fleet

Gabriel Cohn
United States
Santa Cruz
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Exodus Fleet is my baby. It's the first real game I designed, and I absolutely love it.

Now, of course, I've already lied. Exodus Fleet wasn't really my first game. Robbery! was. (Yes, it had an exclamation point.) I made that game 22 years ago as a junior in high school. My friends and I spent days creating stacks of cards and chits and a giant board, played the game once, decided it was awful, and chucked it on a shelf.

Upon moving to North Carolina in 2009 and finding I had lots of alone-time in my new environment, and having rediscovered my love of games over my previous five years of living in the SF Bay Area — thanks to Ira Fay, who also happens to be the main co-designer of Robbery! — I decided to pull Robbery! down from the shelf (yes, it still bore the exclamation point after a dozen years) and try to make it a "playable" game. This was a reasonably low bar, and it let me practice some of the basics of game design. I got it to a playable state, but it wasn't moving me…

That's when I set out to make a game that I would want to play. Thus began the journey of the Exodus Fleet.

From the start, I knew I wanted to meet a few clear goals:

(1) It had to be fun. I mean, I wanted it to be so fun that I would want to play it over and over. I'm not someone who buys a ton of games, so I aim for games with a lot of replayability.
(2) I wanted a smooth integration of theme and mechanisms. There needs to be some degree of logic in how player actions represent something in the "real world" of the game.
(3) I wanted a high degree of player interaction. In other words, players' actions need to impact each other.

Of course, having considered these goals, I had to take them on in reverse order.

My first hurdle was to figure out how I would keep everyone involved. A few of my favorite games sprang to mind, and I liberally grabbed ideas. Most importantly, I latched onto the ideas of role selection and auctions as methods to keep everyone involved all the time, but rather than just having one or the other, why not both? Thus, Exodus Fleet features role selection, in which one player chooses the phase everyone will be involved in, and auctions, with everyone bidding on how much they want to perform that action. Players are constantly tracking each other's needs and goals so that they can outsmart each other in the flow of the game from one action to the next.

Player interaction — solved! I'm really proud that Exodus Fleet manages to keep every player involved in every moment of the game.

A few of the ships available for purchase in a typical game.
(Can I say that I love the way the art turned out? I guess I just said it...)

But a game is more than just mechanisms. From the start, I was working with a vision for the world of the game. Exodus Fleet is set in the future. It's a grim world, one in which humanity's best hope is to escape from Earth. (In fact, the original name of the game was "Leaving Earth" — not to be confused with Joe Fatula's game that beat mine to the punch. Oops.) Players take on the role of the leaders of a fleet of ships setting off to explore the galaxy, and they want to take as many people with them as possible.

From this nugget of an idea, I began tweaking the mechanisms to fit the story of the game. Eventually, the game boiled down to five actions that one can take: gather income, mine planets for resources, use those resources to build more ships, transport people off Earth, and explore deep space. Except for income, each of these actions requires hiring people within the fleet — miners, builders, transporters, or explorers — and that's where the role selection and auctions come in.

Theme and mechanisms united — check! Yup, this part of the process came off smoothly. The actions make sense in the world of the game. If you want to mine, you need to hire miners. To do that, you need to outbid your opponents, and when you hire them, you have to have somewhere to store your resources. Did I mention that each ship has a limited amount of storage capacity? That's another factor to take into account as you look around the table.

A standard array of planets displayed on the central board

As I said, one of my main markers for whether a game is fun is the level of replayability. Exodus Fleet definitely packs a punch there. The game features ten different possible starting Command Ships, two different decks of ships that can be built, and a whole bunch of Explorer Cards that can range from occasionally useful to game-changing. Some of the most significant decisions lie in how you build up your fleet: Will you pick ships within one faction, which synergize for more points, or ones that work together to increase the power of particular actions? The random order in which ships are presented for purchase means that players have to reconsider their strategies from game to game. That was a strong point of the game from day one, and something that players seemed to universally enjoy.

One of the player boards for a four-player game
At this point, all of my base game concepts were working smoothly, but alas, I had to make the game fun FOR EVERYONE, EVERY TIME. And that…well, it was more of a struggle. (Apologies to my early playtesters, especially my most frequent one, my wife.) Initial versions of the game were fun for many of the players, and I was quite happy with it, but as I watched with a better and better eye over time — remember, this was my first real attempt at game design — I realized that what many reported as fun, others experienced as misery. It all came down to how the role selection and auctions mixed. (Yes, for those of you creeped out by bidding games, this is the part where I make it a bit less daunting.)

In the earliest versions of the game, players were forced to place face-down bids simultaneously on six different areas. One of those bids — for the "Fleet Admiral" position — gave players the right to control the order in which the other bids happened. (Imagine bidding on the Governor card in Puerto Rico, more or less.) This could make your day or ruin it.

There was definitely a thrill to this version of the game, but there were a number of players who would bid a lot to become the Fleet Admiral and fail, basically ruining the rest of their round, and often their game. They would still report that they enjoyed some things about the game, but I could see that they were often checked out by the time the game ended.

A mid-game set-up from what I first showed publishers at Gen Con 2011;
I can't believe anyone showed interest in it back then!

The auctions needed a fresh approach. First, the Fleet Admiral bidding had to go; players now rotate making decisions on phases. Eventually, the idea that all the phases needed to happen in any sort of particular order fell by the wayside, too. Players can now freely pick any of the actions when it's their turn to choose, with the exception that they can't pick the one that just happened. This frees up so much space to explore different ways to play the game that I'm shocked I didn't come up with it earlier. Some games can be income heavy, others feature a ton of exploring, but all of them feature this element: You have to pay attention to the other players. Anticipating their moves by studying the flow of actions around the table is one of the keys to winning.

Explorer Cards that can
provide hidden advantages
And bidding! The bidding had to be solved. Bidding on six different things at once was out, but even so, placing blind face-down bids could be too chaotic for players who had trouble reading the intentions of their opponents.

Eventually, I hit on a much simpler method: Bids are now placed face-up, one at a time, going once around the table. This solution creates interesting decisions for players to engage in, especially as positional play becomes important. For each of the actions, the lowest bidder is automatically excluded from participating. (They get their money back, plus a small consolation prize.) This means that the first player to bid plays a large part in setting the "over-under" bar around which other players base their decisions.

What's more, this player is also going to choose which action to pursue next. There's lots of opportunities to use this to your advantage; an overwhelming bid can get you into the current action AND you get to choose the next one, or a bid that's right at the pain point of your opponents can force them to drain their reserves, setting you up for an uncontested action on the next phase. In the end, this new form of bidding and the freedom to choose among any of the actions creates a dynamic game in which every decision you make impacts the play of those around you.

Finally, mission accomplished — a fun game! I'm excited for people around the world to be able to play it. I learned a lot along the way, but in the end, I'm just happy that I managed to make a game that keeps players so intensely invested in every moment of the game from start to finish and can be played repeatedly for years to come. (Really. I recently played Exodus Fleet eight times in a 24-hour period, all with new players, and several of them joined in multiple times.) I hope you enjoy the game, and I look forward to hearing the chatter about it as it hits the table at SPIEL '17 and beyond. Thanks for reading!

Gabriel J. Cohn

P.S.: I'm sad I won't be at SPIEL for the release — teaching doesn't allow for much time off — but I hope y'all will hit me up for a game at BGG.CON this year!

A game at Pacificon 2017
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