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Designer Diary: Space Freaks

max wikstrom
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My name is Max Wikström, and apart from being a game designer in the Toadkings company, for my day job I work as a freelance set- and lighting-designer for the theater. I've found that the creative processes involved in both jobs complement each other.

As a player, I have enjoyed a wide variety of games from Stratego to Diplomacy, from Chess to M:TG. One of my big favorites was Diplomacy, with which I competed in the European Championships during the mid-1990s. I also have a thirty-year history of active game mastering with Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (with modified first version rules). I have had the same group of players since the late 1980s.

My latest game is called Space Freaks, and it will be published in Q4 2017 by Lautapelit.fi and Stronghold Games. It is a 2-4 player tactical combat/skirmish-style board game with a strong sci-fi theme mixed with absurdist humor. Thematically, it might be something like the lovechild of Monty Python and Judge Dredd. One game takes around 60-90 minutes of intensive, fast-moving combat.

Space Freaks is a game with lots of possibilities and a huge variety of "right" decisions. One of the best things is that you can really feel the presence of your enemy from the beginning to the end. Good timing is also crucial when it comes to activating the special equipment and weapons supplied by your team sponsor.




In Space Freaks, each player becomes a coach for a team sponsored by one of four galactic mega-corporations. You first design the perfect freak and clone it into a 3-Freak team, then lead them into the Arena of Annihilation for six rounds of thrilling battle. When your freaks die — and they will die — new ones spawn again in the arena. The team that scores the most points by completing missions, occupying landing-zones, or destroying enemy freaks and bases wins. The coach of the winning team becomes a celebrity (or even a living legend) throughout the galaxy.

Aside from me, the core team for Space Freaks' design and development has been my fellow Toadkings: Markku Laine (who also brings his skills as a graphic designer), Saku Tuominen, and Kare Jantunen. Harri Tarkka has been responsible for the characterful illustrations.





How It All Started, and How the Idea Metamorphosed During the Process

From the first ideas to the ready product is a long journey. The original idea was sparked as early as 2014. It is a very important part of a designing process to have your head open for changes and be ready to re-create the game after each test session.

I got the idea for a board game in a science-fiction setting that combined tactical combat with paranoia. Each player would have secretly built a team of three units, comprised of combinations of troopers, defenders, mechanics or medics. Each team (working for a galactic mega-corporation) would have been locked into the closed surroundings of a space station, abandoned mine, or starship, with rooms, corridors and other places of interest. The goal of the game would have been to first escape the compound, and there might have been different ways to succeed in that.

Markku
The part involving paranoia would have been the threats secretly given to the players. This idea remained a component for quite some time, but ended up becoming the mission cards in the final version. This would have made interaction — e.g., the act of trading favors, support, or healing — with other players the key element of the game building a level of paranoia or fear.

After two months of imagining the basic mechanisms of the game, I ended up re-locating the action to an alien planet with a hexagonal grid system, with each player starting from one corner of the map. This open field concept took the design in the direction toward a tactical combat game.

In early 2015, I asked my good friend and fellow Toadking Markku Laine to act as both game and graphic designer, and together we made the first prototype map of Space Freaks / Arena of Annihilation…


First proto map from early 2015


Saku
The Power of a Collective Process

After building up ideas for the prototype, e.g., the map, player game-pieces, markers, and a long list of ideas for blank cards/tokens, I assembled the design group of Markku, Saku, and Kare to attend the first testing/development meeting in February 2015.

Saku is a fellow Toadking and godfather to my four-year-old son Edvin. Saku and I had enjoyed drawing fearsome monsters together in our primary school days. Later came designing games and playing in each other's role-play groups (which is still on-going today and entering its fourth decade).

Markku is also a long-time friend (and also in Saku's D&D group) and a game/graphic designer for Toadkings. Markku did a great job upgrading the graphics of our prototypes throughout the entire design process.

Kare and I have played all sorts of games together over the years, from Machiavelli to Magic: The Gathering. Kare took care of the early versions of the game rules. He is also a master player in Go (four dan Europe).


Mega-corporation icons


The first meeting was a real, creative success, and by the end of the day, we had settled on the idea of a unit (what would later become a Freak) being built up from different body parts and cloned into a three-unit team. We decided that quest cards (later mission cards) could also be played to an opponent, forcing them to take actions in your favor. (In this early version, you would have accrued movement penalties for having more than three quests undone.) We looked into action cards (later sponsor cards) providing special equipment and extra powers. Planetary cards that changed the conditions for the duration of a game round later became Arena-Master cards.


Planetary card proto, Arena Master card final


At this early stage of development, a player could build walls and turrets to defend their base, which in itself was also a turret. The base could have been destroyed and resulted in the player dropping from the game. A player had five pieces of wall at their disposal, two of which contained hidden explosives and two turrets. The game designing process can be very rewarding when abstract ideas start to take shape and slowly the first playable version emerges.


Early player board and quest cards


At first there was no working title, but I knew that it would end up being sci-fi themed. Because of the emphasis being placed on the amassing of body parts, I felt that the look should utilize absurdist humor, while still being a game of serious, tactical combat in the skirmish-style.

I often think of sci-fi having a heavy and sombre feeling to it with its black and dark-blue backgrounds, austere faces, and massive warships. I like that world, too, but I wanted to do something different.




At this initial stage of a game's design, when everything is still makeshift models and a huge pile of messy notes, the most important thing for me is that I get an intuitive feeling of how the game should play out and feel as a ready product. This driving force is essential if one is to endure the very long and often nerve-wracking process of seeing the project to its conclusion because there is always ten times more work than you could have imagined.

Testing, Testing, Testing…

Throughout 2015 and early 2016, the team met twice per month. The evening usually started off by playing the latest version and making notes. We would then make quick changes to the prototype and play through again with more note-taking. After the meeting, I would take the prototype home and spend many long nights cultivating the next version, with Markku upgrading the graphics in tandem.

I feel that one really important facet of game-design is to develop the prototype continuously along the rest of the work. It is such an integral and vital part of the game because it serves as a user-interface for the player. The continuous updating can also help you to know which elements to discard. Some ideas just can't be realized.
As a designer, you go deep into the mechanisms and begin to form strong opinions as you work through the game in your mind's eye. You begin to know all the details by heart. Nevertheless, it is extremely important to test every detail, and patiently make notes for improvements because conflicts arise when a change clashes with other existing rules.

Here are some of the ideas that didn't make it to the final cut:

• The map included a 10x10 grid that allowed for rolling two ten-sided dice that produced a random location for vehicle parts, droid parts, weapon upgrades, independent alien marauders, planetary events, wormholes, and so on. This was quite fun for a time, but the random effect was too strong.

• Collecting ancient/alien tech-tokens either dropped by destroyed aliens/droids or generated from planetary cards could temporarily upgrade your unit range, damage, or movement. What's more, combining three tokens of the same type allowed for the creation of an ultimate body part for your units. Reducing the amount of components ended up taking priority.




• For a long time there were two different kinds of armor: AF ("armor far") that was used against all damage originating from over "range 3", and AC ("armor close") that was used against all damage "range 1-3". We opted for a simplified "armor" statistic, which in turn resulted in the re-balancing of nearly all body parts.

• The penalty of losing movement for having more than three quest cards tabled was interesting when players could play cards to each other (adding paranoia). Forcing opponents to take actions in chosen directions worked well, but it also created a "kingmaker" problem.

• There were also independent aliens/droids that spawned in random locations, always attacking or moving toward the closest target, but again this proved too chaotic.

• More complex "major" quests were allotted to each player secretly at the start of the game that rewarded 5 victory points when completed. These gave the game an added secrecy (and to some extent an extra tactical layer), but we already had four different types of cards.

Development

One of the hardest things in game design is to find an overall balance between the gameplay and the conditions for winning. I wanted to make a game that could be won through skillful play, wherein the random events create an element of surprise, enlivening the replay value.

During testing, we pondered different ways to score victory points, and eventually we discovered the Landing Zone in the middle of the game board. This is a simple, "king-of-the-castle" mechanism that I haven't seen in many other board games. We already had the system to score victory points from mission cards, or from destroying another player's units, but now you could also score points by having units standing in the four, central hexagons at end of your turn. This increased the movement in gameplay, giving players a new direction to move and score points by entering the more open areas of the game board. Damaging other players' home bases became the fourth way of scoring victory points, opening up a huge array of choices to develop one's own tactics in Space Freaks. One final (and fifth) way to score in the end of each player's turn was still to come at this point...




As a player, you don't actually have time to build a game engine within the six rounds of Space Freaks, but you do have a vast amount of choices from unit creation, to the timing in which your cards are revealed, and with choosing tactics and opponents.

The Structure of a Player's Turn

During your turn, first put one of your three mission cards into play, then shoot with your turrets (if applicable). Next, activate your freaks one by one, and during each freak's turn, move the number of hexagons indicated on your leg card. (Some head cards and sponsor cards provide even more movement.) During any part of that movement, you can use your right-hand card weapon to launch one attack. You are also able to use a higher quality weapon from your sponsor cards instead and use any number of non-weapon sponsor cards. Always indicate which freak is using which equipment. At the end of your turn, build more structures if so desired, and finally your dead freaks re-spawn to the Home Base zone.




The player turn has been structured in this way pretty much since the outset. This singular mechanism has always worked very well, and I have been particularly happy that it does not require any dice.



Upgrading the prototype in January 2017


For the system of icons and player boards, we fashioned tens of versions. The challenge was to create as clear a player-interface as possible, and it was hard going. The player board needed to hold a lot of information, starting with the freak template, followed by three freak hit-point totals, plus information regarding all icons. It also needed to include the stats for aliens, droids, turrets, bunkers and the effects of laboratories and healing centers. As the concept developed, we also wanted to display the mega-corporations' names and logos together with some adverts, to flesh out Space Freaks' theme in what is otherwise a rather rule-oriented player board.


Sketch of Arena 2 in November 2016


Player Choices

As a player, you have a wide variety of choices to make each turn. There are many different tactics to consider and always room to create new ones. Most important is to follow the moves of your competitors, and to find your own way to hoard as many victory points as possible during your grueling six rounds.

The head card and freak template naturally dictate much of your game tactics, be they via brute force or stealth, but here are some examples of tactics that have been successfully applied during our test games:

The Second Wind: Play passively during the early game and collect resources from your sponsors, then during the last rounds, time your sprint to the finish.

One-eyed: Secure your home base defenses before beginning a full-frontal assault against one, disadvantaged opponent. Score as many points as possible from that direction.

Unleash Chaos: Forgo your home base, then at the appropriate moment, deploy all freaks (equipped with as effective sponsor cards as possible) behind enemy lines on suicide missions.

Ambush: Protect your freaks with bunkers or turrets or behind rocks, then make surprise attacks on wounded opponents.

Space Freaks Illustrated

When the list of corrections regarding the games mechanisms became short enough, it seemed obvious to begin working on the production design in more detail and get the game into its box.

I contacted illustrator Harri Tarkka in March 2016, and we met up for lunch. I wanted to gauge his interest in the sci-fi genre that I had in mind for Space Freaks. Initially, I suspected that he might have been interested, but when I saw his first sketches of the head dards I was totally convinced that he was our man.

Having a good artistic connection with an illustrator is such a vital part of a game's success. When you get installments of great looking artwork, it motivates you to work on the other aspects of the project. A game's visual setting is such a vital part of making its theme strong and believable.


Zapper, Force Field Generator, Jet Pac and Alien Scythe


In Space Freaks the amount of art and graphic design is huge: 18 head cards, 5 right arms, 6 left arms, 6 torsos, 6 legs, 20 equipment and weapon illustrations for sponsor cards, 35 arena master card illustrations, 27 mission card illustrations, comic strip, box cover and lots, lots more…


Comic strip from the rulebook


Cards in Space Freaks

We have many different cards in Space Freaks. Developing the three decks of sponsor cards, mission cards, and arena master cards was a really big part of the whole game-design process. One of the most time-consuming parts was keeping track of the card details, their synergy and the deck sizes.


Sponsor cards


Here are some cards that didn't make it to the final version of the sponsor deck:

Control alien or droid: Gave a player the power to control another player's alien or droid unit. This card was rejected because one couldn't rely on it tactically.

Counter action: Could counter another player's sponsor card equipment. Playing a trump card during another player's turn seemed to go against the game's mechanisms.

Scout droid: Could spy and look through another player's sponsor cards. This was a fun idea but we found it to be too weak in practice.

Stun pistol and stun grenade: Was a mechanism that froze a freak unit (or even multiple units within grenade range), but it ended up being over-powered and boring, while upsetting the game's balance.


Arena master cards


Here are some cards that didn't make it to the final version of the arena master deck:

Time portal and Accelerate time: These cards altered the amount of game rounds.

Energy conflux: Droids and turrets were stunned for one round, and new structures could not be built.

Putrid fog: Vision (and therefore weapon range) dropped to two hexagons. Freaks that were constructed around a melee template gained too high advantage.

Alien virus: Healing centers did not function for one round. Again this was too weak in practice.


Mission cards


Here are some cards that didn't make it to the final version of the mission deck:

Build turrets and bunkers: At some point we wanted more structures on the game board, but when we changed the cost of building it became obsolete.

Use wormhole: Originally there were more wormholes in play, but still this was too situational to function as a mission.

Annihilate mission (version 2): There was a special mission that gave the possibility of acquiring multiple sponsor cards when you killed different opponents' freaks.

Box Cover

Excluding the game itself, perhaps the most important marketing element of a board game is the box. How does one attract your target audience? How do you deliberately attempt to tell a book by its cover?

Harri had already sketched the body parts and many of the card illustrations, so we were already in-sync artistically when it came time to plan the box's design. At this point, we were also getting input from our experienced publisher, which added yet another layer to the process.

It was quite obvious that we would need at least one freak unit on the cover. I wanted to have a neutral (i.e., human) head for the cover-freak because choosing one of the other head designs might have created a false impression (e.g.; a robot head implies a game about robots).




During this time we were also developing the 3D models of the plastic figures, and I came up with the idea of the astronaut helmet to create the generic impression of a freak's head. Eighteen different heads simply wouldn't have been possible. We used the same concept with the box cover, where the broken helmet depicts a concealed head underneath.

One eureka moment for me was when Harri showed me the first color designs containing a beautiful, pink sky together with a warm, brownish landscape. I had decided earlier not to use the classic deep-blue or black surroundings typically associated with sci-fi. I really think Harri did a tremendous job!




3D Design

I was sure from the start that our game would require plastic figures, and that is always an expensive and complex process. First, one has to convince the publisher that figures are the only solution, then one has to create a solid design that works.




Harri
We worked on a lot of retro-space, reference material and designed the freak unit, alien and droid with Harri. Then we got help from our fellow Toadking, Sami Saramäki, who created the 3D models and gave them their finishing touches. I wanted the spirit of the figures to be a combination of both serious and humorous elements at the same time.




Ropecon 2016

As the gameplay of Space Freaks started to become more and more fluent, it became obvious that we needed others to help test our game and give feedback. We had a middle-term goal to present the game at Helsinki's 2016 Ropecon, with which we were familiar, knowing that there would be many eager testers.

We went with prepared leaflets that posed ten questions about Space Freaks gameplay, and we were lucky to get more than fifty completed forms containing valuable feedback. There were questions about overall game mechanisms, game balance and space for comment on particular cards, the game board, and game components. We had had people from outside of our core group trying out the game before Ropecon, but it is always great to make first contact with random players.




It was really a pleasure to again witness the enthusiasm of the gamer community, and how they are ready to take part in somebody else's design process by contributing long answers to questions and imparting their firsthand impressions.

After Ropecon, we had three development rounds to upgrade both the game and all three of the existing prototypes, which we then passed on to blind testers Maja Stanislawska and Jouni Ilola. With a project of this size, it is really a challenge to create an accurate prototype, one in which the rules and components are so clear that strangers are capable of testing the game fully without assistance.

Approaching Our Publisher, Lautapelit

May 2016 was the point when we had our first, boxed version of Space Freaks ready, so I asked Toni Niittymäki from Lautapelit for a meeting and test-play.

It is always exiting to meet with a publisher and present the prototype of your new game — but when is the best time to do that? How ready should one be with the project really?

I don't know if there's a correct answer, but I do believe that if one intuitively has the feeling that the gameplay is fluent, and that one can answer questions off the top of one's head about the game dynamics, then one is practically there. It also helps to have a picture about what kind of features might interest the publisher.

We signed a contract with Lautapelit in late 2016 to release Space Freaks at SPIEL '17, and I am delighted to say that again our co-operation has been most supportive and creative. It is just wonderful to work with a publisher who shares the same love towards our common goal, and it was through Lautapelit that we also secured a respected American publisher, Stronghold Games, to participate with Space Freaks. Awesome!

Blind Testing

Blind testing is a vital part of the game-design process and should be done as often as possible. In hindsight, we could have undertaken even further blind testing, but we nonetheless ended up making important changes from the resulting feedback. I particularly want to give special thanks to Jyrki Castrén for his thorough, fine-combing through all of the game's details and his sharp observations. Here are some corrections that were applied after blind testing:

• Strike icons were added to right-hand weapon cards, and also to sponsor card weapons, in order to clarify that there are two, different damage types.

• The regeneration head card had a +2 hit point per round instead of a +2 heal per round; this would have been a troublesome mistake.

• Alien and droid statistics were slightly different on the player boards than in the rulebook. (Player boards were also missing Strike icons.) This would have created a lot of confusion.




The Space Freaks Universe and the Arena-Master Character

Mikko
Fleshing out the back story for Space Freaks was interesting. Having so much else on my plate, I was fortunate to receive help from my fellow Toadking, Mikko Punakallio, and good friend Benjamin Vary who is a native, English speaker.

In a matter of weeks in late 2016, we created the background for the mega-corporations and the Arena-Master — a living trophy attached to his body in the form of Myron Musclehead. The Arena-Master is a kind of combined referee come Godfather of the Arena of Annihilation, calling the shots for each unique round while mascot Myron carps away.

Initially, I jotted down some basic ideas for absurdist mega-corporations, purposely choosing lots of cliché elements because they are precisely the ones that lend themselves most easily to humor.

I wanted there to be an independent droid corporation called the Ion Brotherhood, an alien swarm called Zeraxis, and an old, corrupt empire of humans called the Talar Barony. Originally, the fourth faction was a military corporation, but then I was happy to receive an idea from our publisher to use one of the Eclipse races, the Orion Hegemony. Mikko then developed more ideas for the next versions.

For the Orion Hegemony background, it was fun to inject some humorous, personal touches not only about us the game designers, but also relating to our publisher — namely, inside jokes pertaining to aging, fanatical geeks.

I then wanted to make the front side of the player boards a bit lighter graphically, so I created corresponding products for each corporation to be used as adverts. Each corporation also got a team-name:





Chilling at the Publisher

We had the great opportunity to further our test-play at invitation-only game evenings hosted by our publisher. The honest, constructive, and at times tough feedback made for some valuable changes to the game's balance. Here are some of the last improvements made to the Space Freaks rules:

• Adding +1 movement point to each leg card was instrumental in speeding up gameplay.
• Creating "last dash" victory points, awarded for running to opponents' home base zones during your last turn, added another tactical level to the endgame.
• One of the bunkers was omitted from gameplay while the remaining bunker was strengthened, now with the additional possibility for your dead units to spawn inside it.
• Scrapped the rule whereby the X-ray gun wouldn't be affected by retaliation power.
• The overall game-round total was reduced by one, but the game was still long enough to enable a player to win from behind.




Finalizing the Rulebook

Lastly, one crucial component of game design is to create a rulebook that's clear and easy to use. I want to thank our publisher for giving us the opportunity to work with Paul Grogan (Gaming Rules!) who finalized our rules' phrasing and structure. Over a six-week period, there was continuous updating of rules and card texts via email and Skype, resulting in a huge improvement.

Production Design

The production design element of Space Freaks contained more detailed decision-making than could have been imagined. Very often, the publisher handles this stage, but I wanted Toadkings to be involved as much as possible. It could be argued that the last 10% of the project is actually 90% of the work. Ultimately it took a small team: Markku Laine (Toadkings’ graphic designer), Jere Kasanen (Lautapelit), and myself. Here are just some examples of the many elements that fall under production design:

• The layout of the rulebook was a huge undertaking. Innumerable versions spread over different page amounts.
• Examining the available sizes for wooden components, then the Pantone colors for both wooden and plastic components.




• Upon settling on the orange-brown color for the game board, we opted for non-primary colors for the mega-corporations and their accessories.
• Finalizing the graphic design details for all the cards in their different decks. For example, which card printing/cutting techniques might best apply to cards of a particular size.
• Designing an economical layout for the punchboards.
• The design of the back of the box with its various texts and sample pictures/photographs.




Looking back, I can honestly say that despite all of the hard work, the result was immensely satisfying.

It has been a great ride to create this board game, and I'll be spending most of the SPIEL '17 festival at booth number 3:L116 answering your questions and holding test games with my colleagues Kare Jantunen and Saku Tuominen. Illustrator Harri Tarkka will also accompany us some of the time. I look forward to seeing you all!

Let's get to the Arena of Annihilation and freak out!

Max Wikström


There are 19440 possible combinations of a finished freak
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