I ain'tn't dead!
I've been missing for months because my spine exploded and left me unable to walk or do very much of anything. It's not the first time it's happened, it probably won't be the last. I'm bored of it. You're bored of it. Let's get on with talking about games!
After a long absence I'd like to come back with something positive for someone else, so since I was at the UK Games Expo (Running roleplaying games for children - who are vicious!) and spent a fair bit of time at the Playtest UK Stand I thought I'd take some time to analyse the game design decisions in what I thought was the best prototype I played all weekend (including my own!).
Orbit: The International Space Race is a game in development by Juniper Games. You play as a national space agency interested in building rockets and flying out to our solar system to explore planets and do science.
Each turn you do one thing: Upgrading technology, accepting missions, building a rocket or launching a rocket. Then all of your existing rockets barrel haplessly through space in whichever direction you launched them. You can steer a little, but doing so uses up fuel and your ships carry very very little of it. If you plan to land on a planet and then return to Earth you have just enough fuel to change course 0 times so you'd better aim in the right direction first time.
You get points for each thing (Land on this planet, orbit that planet, etc) that you do. You also get a free upgrade if you do it first. You might have missions that give bonuses for taking particular actions or taking particular actions first.
When everyone's had a turn the planets all orbit the sun, as planets tend to, so the relationship between your launchpad and your target is constantly changing.
So what makes this game work?
I've argued before that meaningful choice is critical to good game design and Orbit offers plenty of choices. Very often you can get the first one to a place by going there now - getting the free upgrade for getting there first - but you could do using less fuel if you wait for the planets to align - leaving you more fuel to orbit and then land and generally do more stuff and pick up more points when you get there.
The "What to do on your turn" also matters. The upgrade options are all meaningful - you always *want* your ships to build faster and move faster and carry more fuel and score more points - but you upgrade those things one at a time. All of these are balanced against other actions, perhaps the best course is not to upgrade at all but to build and launch as many ships as you physically can with no regard for quality.
Missions do well here too. You start with a couple of "Do X first" missions which inclines you to get going and make sure you do the thing before anyone else and pick up the bonus. However you also might want to draw more missions so that you know what you're trying to achieve before you launch your first ship or choose your first upgrade. The extra missions you can draw can be worth more points but may be harder (possibly involving multiple planets) and come with a penalty if you fail to achieve them.
In the time I played I took very few "automatic" turns, finding something interesting to think about more often than not.
The mechanics fit together well with the theme.
As an abstract mathematical concept "Get to these places while everything is moving relative to each other all the time" has the attributes necessary to make a good game - but orbitals theme makes it feel right and natural. You never feel cheated that your objective moved further away because your objective is Jupiter and it moved round the sun in the same direction it did last turn and that's what gas giants are supposed to do.
What could be seen as a convoluted series of mechanics in abstract terms are easy to learn. "Your piece gets free moves if its in study mode, but switching to study mode costs one of your steering opportunities per trip" sounds like a mess of exceptions. "Your ship moves with the planet if it's in orbit, but establishing an orbit costs one fuel" is obvious. I'm not sure if the designer even bothered to mention that you moved with a planet if you're in orbit or landed on it - or if we all just assumed the rule because it's so intuitive that you would!
Something that might not have come across so far in my description is that the game is quick! You do one thing on your turn, it takes seconds to do. Then all of your ships fly on, predominantly in the way you already told them to. The turns just fly by.
A game like this could be in danger of creating a large downtime problem. Interactivity is limited to "being first" or "not being first" so you don't do a lot during someone else's turn. That would be frustrating if the turns were long, but I found they were suitably short. I also didn't notice the first half of them because I was busy going "Okay if I build this turn I can launch next turn and Earth will be there, so if I head towards the edge of the solar system then I'll intercept Neptunes orbit in three turns by which point Neptune will be there - so I need to be a turn slower or spend fuel to turn to face it. Spending the fuel is bad, but I'll pass Saturns orbit in two turns and it'll be right there so I'll score points for a flyby if I do it this way..."
Do I have any concerns about the game? Sure! It's in playtesting after all so there are bound to be rough spots around the edges.
The "First to X" obejctives can be a bit unsatisfying in a game with no randomness. If another player decides to go there first and is in the right place in the steating order there is literally nothing you can do to stop them getting there first. If the game needs a mechanical tune up somewhere, a stronger system for resolving what happens when several players reach the same planet on the same turn would be where I'd start.
It's also in danger because it has low randomness and low interaction. The planets move at a fixed speed and direction, your ships fly a predictable distance, other player's actions cannot prevent (or even inconvenience) your ship building and movement. Given that it might be that if you become experienced at the game you start planning all of your moves in the first few turns and don't make any meaningful decisions for the rest of it.
The tools that the designers have to prevent this from happening are the "First to X" objectives and the "First to X" free upgrades. If the bonus points for the initial objectives and the amount of advantage that getting those free upgrades provides are significant enough then every game will be different. The "initial objective" randomiser pushing all players in a different direction and the "first to X" restriction then causing those initial moves to have a knock on impact on what players are willing to do for the rest of the game could drive every game to be different. An important part of the game's success will be how well the team balances those elements.
Overall I was enjoyed the game and was delighted to play something that didn't feel like a slight variation on something I'd played before. If you want to check it out their website is here and I'm sure they'll be trying to get everyone's attention sometime down the line
If you went to the UK Games Expo and tried anything good drop a comment and let me know what I should be keeping an eye on!