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Designer Diary: Junk Orbit, or "I've Got Faaaaith of the Heart!"

Daniel Solis
United States
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Junk Orbit is a game about turning Newton's Third Law into cold hard cash! You launch cargo out of your spaceship, causing the ship to move the same distance in the opposite direction. You're paid for deliveries whether you bring them directly or fling them from the other side of the planet. You get paid either way! Plan your itinerary efficiently, throw a wrench in your opponents' plans, and take care of the junk in your trunk.

Howdy! I'm Daniel and I love space. I'm a sucker for astronaut stories about overcoming precarious obstacles with limited resources. Apollo 13, Gravity, The Martian — I love 'em all. Speaking of Gravity, one of the challenges of space travel is dodging the hazardous cloud of material careening around the planet. Old hardware, decommissioned satellites, lost wrenches, and paint flecks can end your mission real fast. Someone's gotta clean it up, so I made a game about that.

This designer diary is about Junk Orbit, but it's also a retrospective on some early design lessons I picked up from my self-published game Penny Farthing Catapult. Hope you dig it!


Early Design: "It's been a long road gettin' from there to here"

Penny Farthing Catapult was self-published back in 2014. It had some nice responses, but never really struck out into prime time. Still, it taught me some important design lessons that I fully implemented in Junk Orbit.

Penny was initially inspired by Gravwell. I wanted to explore a similar simple method of movement that would expand out into a deeper decision space. I eventually settled on the idea of "you throw something X distance, then move the opposite direction the same distance". It was pretty straightforward as an idea, but the theme eluded me. Orbits seemed to make sense, but I didn't think there was much of a market for it at the time, and I was concerned about direct comparisons to Gravwell.

Early prototype of Penny Farthing Catapult, December 2013

Instead, I brought the theme down to Earth, re-visiting the idea of bumbling Victorian aristocracy that I had first explored in Belle of the Ball. I imagined bored competitive millionaires trying to out-spend each other by literally launching wealth from catapults. The catapults have no breaks, so the recoil on the catapults sends them careening backwards.

The theme worked well enough, and I self-published it shortly thereafter.

Lesson: It's important to get a minimum viable prototype on the table. Don't let it linger in your head too long, but remember that "functional" is the start of the design process, not the end.


Component Constraints: "Unbreak my card"

Penny Farthing Catapult strained at the edges of my physical component limitations for self-publishing. Because I could use only a deck of cards, I included fold-up pawns that stood up like cute little tents. Most customers opted to not damage their cards though, which in turn made it a bit fiddly to move them around.

At the time, the goal of the game was a simple endgame set-collection system. It worked well as a simple goal, but took a bit of time to internalize. I should've pushed myself a bit more back then, but I was primarily concerned with making the game functional. Set collection is certainly that, but it could've had more thematic support.

Print-on-demand edition of Penny Farthing Catapult

Penny Farthing Catapult also had an engine-building "calibration" mechanism that slowed decision-making. Each card in your tableau of that suit let you adjust distances +1 or -1 when you launched that suit, which meant that if you had two "Fine Art" cards in your collection, you could launch "Fine Art 3" any distance from 1 to 5. That's a big decision space for a game area that was essentially a simple circle.

The game had a nice core mechanism, but everything around it wasn't as well considered. Why do you collect what you hit instead of what your pawn lands on? If you're so rich that you launch your treasures away, why are you trying to collect them again in the end? And wait...what's a "penny farthing"?

I was fighting my medium rather than letting my medium do what it does best. In this case, whatever Penny Farthing Catapult wanted to be, it would not be a card game.

Lesson: I got so fixated on getting a minimal functional game that I didn't slow down to consider whether the theme helped sell it. I got distracted by my component constraints rather than being inspired by them.


A New Theme: "Home, Home on LaGrange"

By 2016, I had a couple of published games under my belt and had more time to look back at my old self-published games. I wanted to re-visit some of the designs in my catalog that may be better served with chunky components.

First, I expanded Penny Farthing Catapult's single ring into a figure-8 pattern between Earth and the Moon. The junction in the figure-8 was the Earth-Moon LaGrange point, the volume of space where Moon and Earth's gravitational pulls cancel each other out.

Constructing the beta prototype of Junk Orbit, circa 2016 before BGG.CON

I was delighted to find out how many playtesters were already familiar with the concept of LaGrange points! Turns out gamers are often space fans, too. I still didn't want to use that term in the game itself, but the idea was easy to express in person in certain nerdy crowds.

Once the figure-8 play area was in place, I thought, "Why not add Mars? Just see what happens with a double-figure-8." Technically there's not a LaGrange point between Earth and Mars, but the game worked nonetheless! I added Phobos and Deimos as optional modules to make the play area even more puzzly. This play space provided enough interesting stuff that I didn't need a bunch of the other mechanisms that were getting in the way.

Lesson: It's not too late to re-visit an old game with fresh perspective. Instead of languishing on those mistakes, I sought out what was good and focused on that.


A New Focus: "I'm a rocket, man"

According to some common wisdom, people remember the beginning or end of a game experience, not the middle. I wanted vivid memories of looping around Earth, Moon, and Mars at ridiculous speeds, narrowly dodging the junk lodged by your opponents. Set collection was clouding that fond memory with an accounting exercise.

So I challenged myself to make the game interesting without endgame set collection or the engine-building mechanisms from Penny Farthing Catapult. Both of these choices were deep habits that were threatening to turn into ruts if I didn't break out of them soon.

Beta prototype of Junk Orbit

Next, I changed the goal to pick-up-and-deliver. It's a familiar goal to explain, so I didn't have to worry about laboring over it in a demo. Pick-up-and-deliver presents several achievable goals in the middle of the game rather than a distant goal in the endgame. That is the experience I most desired.

And hey, I didn't completely abandon them anyway! I included a kind of set collection on the B-sides of the planet boards as an advanced mode of play. They're very simple to calculate and designed to keep the focus on the mid-game rather than the endgame. As for the engine-building elements, those would eventually be taken apart to become ship powers that were consistent throughout the game.

Lesson: Some ideas are valuable despite being discarded. Like rocket stages, they help keep the development moving, but eventually must be dropped once they've done their job.


Ship Damage: "When the moon hits your guy"

I specifically avoid violent war and horror themes in my games. The challenge is that I still like to design competitive games. I like creating little imaginary spaces where players can overcome challenges, achieve "beautiful defeats", and crawl to "ugly victories". I just don't want direct conflict to be an implicit path to winning.

Way back in Penny Farthing Catapult, I decided that hitting an opponent should cause *something* to happen, but I didn't want it to sting too much. I borrowed a mechanism from Dead Man's Draw: The hit player must discard a card from their score tableau, but they choose which one to discard. As a result, you want to keep some low-value cards as chaff in case you get hit.

Production version of the Junk Orbit tiles

I wanted to soften this penalty even further in Junk Orbit:

• Instead of discarding from your scoring pile, you discard tiles from your cargo. These are tiles you haven't scored yet, so losing them stings much less.

• You begin the game with three undeliverable tiles that are otherwise used only as fuel, so they're an easy choice to discard.

• Pick-ups are so generous in Junk Orbit that you'll likely replenish your cargo on your next turn anyway.

• As player count increases, so do your chances for being hit. To compensate, four- and five-player modes add Phobos and Deimos to open the play area.

Because of these measures, we had a lot of design opportunities for the "B-side" ship powers and the "Mission Control" promo ship cards. We could take small half-steps toward more direct interaction, while still being mindful not to turn this into a space combat game.

Lesson: Giving plausible deniability for aggressive tactics makes a game feel less like war and more like a tight race.


Game Boards: "Intergalactic, Planetary"

Instead of one consistent board, Junk Orbit separates Earth, Moon, Mars, Phobos, and Deimos into individual modular boards. Because each edge of the board represents a discrete "stop" on the orbiting path, I could convey the real relative sizes of these bodies in terms of polygons: Earth and Mars are nonagons (nine-sided), Moon is a septagon (seven-sided), Phobos is a square, and Deimos is a triangle.

Because the bodies' orbits overlap at key junctions, I decided that the actual named city at those junctions would belong to the larger of the two bodies. That's why though Moon and Earth are linked at Kilimanjaro, there is no corresponding Moon city there; it's considered an Earth city only. Between Moon and Mars, Olympus is treated the same way, treating it solely as a Mars city.

Production version of Junk Orbit boards

As a result, despite having seven edges, the Moon actually has only five named cities of its own. Earth having nine stops and the Moon having five felt just about right to convey their relative scales. I treated Phobos and Deimos a similar way, giving them one fewer city than their actual number of edges. Thus, Phobos has three cities and Deimos has two. They are tiny potatoes, after all.

Conveying Mars' size was trickier. In real life, Mars is smaller than Earth, but the difference is within the margins of abstraction I had established so far. My compromise was to give Mars nine stops, but one of them would be "The Badlands", positioned on the opposite side of Mars, away from the Moon and Earth. I intentionally made sure none of the tiles in the game have "The Badlands" as a destination, so while Mars has the same number of spaces as Earth, it doesn't have the same number of deliverable destinations.

Lesson: Research the real world aspects of your theme. There you're likely to find answers to some mechanical questions that come up in development. Just be conscious that you're creating an abstraction and you can't convey every little detail.


Cities of Junk Orbit: "All about that space"

We were just about ready to send the files to final approval and quality control. I was pretty pleased with how the whole thing turned out! Just then, I saw a comics artist I admire playing a sci-fi game. She noticed that it had map regions named after sci-fi authors, none of whom were women. Not even Ursula Le Guin!

Then I noticed I had done something similar in Junk Orbit's city names. In the process of developing Junk Orbit's boards, I researched the real-life regions of the Moon, Mars, Phobos and Deimos, labeling my fictional cities after those namesakes. Those names tended to be historical astronomers and explorers, all of whom were men. In doing so, I unintentionally perpetuated the erasure of the contributions of women in space science and culture. Thankfully it wasn't too late to update a few of the cities to correct this oversight.

Close-up of the lunar cities in Junk Orbit

Here are the historical references in Junk Orbit's fictional cities:

• "Kepler Crater" was named by Giovanni Ricioli in honor of Johannes Kepler, who devised three laws of planetary motion.

• "Tycho Crater" was also named by Ricioli because Kepler based his work on Tycho Brahe's observations.

• "Johnson" is a fictional city named for Katherine Johnson, whose decades-long career at NASA included plotting trajectories for Apollo 11 and future Mars missions. Check out the book and movie Hidden Figures for more on her epic career.

• "Copernicus Crater" is named after astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus.

• "Hamilton" is a fictional city named for Margaret Hamilton, whose MIT division developed the on-board software for the Apollo program.

• "Olympus" is the largest mountain in our solar system. Situated on the equator, it seemed like a fitting counterpart to Earth's Kilimanjaro space elevator.

• "Le Guin" is a fictional city named for Ursula K. Le Guin, whose novel The Left Hand of Darkness is set on an icy arctic planet.

• "Vallemar" is a shortening of Valle Marineris, a huge canyon system along Mars' equator. I couldn't fit the full name in the space available on the board, and I figured its inhabitants would abbreviate it somehow.

• "Cerberus" is a large dark spot on Mars' surface. I found it humorous that a large "spot" is named for a mythical giant dog. Do you think that was an intentional joke by an astronomer?

• "Bradbury" is a fictional city named for Ray Bradbury, who wrote several short stories set on Mars.

• "The Badlands" is a fictional region. I figured that at this stage in Junk Orbit's story the Martian surface hadn't been completely inhabited yet, leaving big tracts of unpopulated land.

• "Hellas Planitia" has signs of a large glacier insulated under a layer of soil. This game assumes it was the site of a new city.

• "Tharsis" is a continent-sized region of unusually elevated terrain rising from Mars' surface.

• "Solis Lacus" is a dark feature on Mars recorded by Percival Lowell's mistaken observations as Mars' planetary capital. The name has no relation to the designer, but please do forgive the moment of vanity.

• "Gulliver" is a real-world region of Phobos. The book Gulliver's Travels features an incidental observation of two satellites around Mars. The details are off, but it's a funny coincidence.

• "Shelley" is a fictional city named for Mary Shelley, progenitor of science-fiction literature. I thought it fitting that the author of Frankenstein should be the namesake of a city on the moon named "fear".

• "Wendell" is a region of Phobos named after the American astronomer Oliver Wendell. I'm sorry I couldn't find much about his career, but the name was useful in gameplay because there were no other Martian cities that began with "W".

• "Hall" is a fictional city named after Marjorie Hall Harrison, an early 1900s astronomer who wrote the first scientific work modeling the fuel and decay of stellar cores.

• "Ride" is a fictional city named after Sally Ride, the first American woman in space who went on to have an impressive career long after that. Seriously, someone should make a movie about her investigations of the Challenger and Columbia disasters.

I wish I could've made a city named after Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space who preceded Ride by nearly twenty years. Unfortunately, "Tereshkova" was too long to fit in the production constraints at that stage of production. I'm just glad that publisher Renegade Game Studios let me make these edits before it was too late.

Lesson: Historical research is all well and good, but no history is a perfect record. In making the world of Junk Orbit, I had a chance to make a whole new future, and it was very nearly overshadowed by the mistakes of the past.


Art & Flavor: "Whatcha gonna do with all that junk?"

I loved the deep cut references that Renegade peppered throughout Clank! In! Space! I wanted to get at something like that with the ship names and the artwork. The trick is layering more than one reference into a single piece, so it's more of a pastiche instead of a direct photocopy.

Each junk tile's value number is supposed to loosely correlate to its mass. The number is both the VP value for delivering that tile and how much it propels your ship when you launch it from the airlock. On top of that, I tried to keep junk depicted on tiles of the same value roughly the same size, despite being separate pop culture references.

So you'll notice that junk depicted on low-value tiles is typically some kind of handheld device. When you get to the high-end junk tiles, we start getting into large hunks of rock or entire space stations. It was really fun figuring out where and how to incorporate sci-fi Easter eggs within these restrictions. Everyone starts with literal nuts and bolts as their cargo, but you could wind up hauling discarded fusion reactors. (You may even find a certain feline character last seen in Clank! In! Space!)

Junk Orbit box art by Eric Hibbeler

As for the ships, this is where we were able to pull in a lot more flavor. The game almost didn't have ship powers at all, but we found in testing that players would need a reference card for the rules with a reminder of which ship was theirs. That meant we had an opportunity to write a bit more extra text on those reference cards, which meant that each ship could have a special ability.

In most of these cases, Dan Bojanowski and I worked out the game mechanisms of each ship power first with some kind of placeholder name. Once it was finalized, I'd figure out what kind of pop culture reference and humorous flavor text would help convey those mechanisms. We have some pretty obvious references to popular sci-fi movies, but I'm particularly proud that we were able to get a reference to Clipping's hip-hop space opera album "Splendor & Misery". Now that's a deep cut.

Lesson: Easter eggs should be grounded with real mechanisms behind them. Even if it's just for fun, players will appreciate the extra effort it took to properly integrate that reference into the gameplay.


Well, that about does it for this designer diary. In closing, I'd like to thank Dan Bojanowski, who was instrumental in developing Junk Orbit into a 100% solid product. Thanks also to the entire Renegade team for making the whole package look so great. Hope it treats y'all well!

Until next time, Ad Astra! Catch you on the next pass.

Daniel Solis

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