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 Cosmoclasm

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

The inspiration to Cosmoclasm came from many different sources. One was my first attempt at an area control game, Iconoclasm. Indeed, Cosmoclasm first working name was Iconoclasm II until the theme was dropped in favor of the current space theme. One of the unique things about Iconoclasm is the very free placement of tokens, allowing groups to form virtually anywhere on the board and giving individual tokens the ability to become part of and influence many different groups throughout the game. However, the free placement of both own and opponent tokens could also be perceived as too many decisions and lead to analysis paralysis as well as lack of control.

There are other excellent area majority games like China and The King is Dead which don't have this problem. In those games, the cards are used to limit the placement decisions and avoid the problem. However, those games have other dimensions that Iconoclasm doesn't have; the three different majority types of houses, roads and ambassadors in China and the "majority in the majority" in The King is Dead. Yet, the idea that Iconoclasm could be improved didn't leave me.

Another source of inspiration was the Trick Taker Challenge, a contest about trick taking games with a twist. As I hadn't played that many trick taking games, I initially decided to pass the contest, but subconsciously I guess I kept thinking about it.

Finally the third source of inspiration came from Taj Mahal's excellent bidding system. In this game, the players compete for several majorities at the same time and use them to claim point scoring spots on a board. How about letting the players use their card majorities to compete for majorities on the board instead? And how about letting the pieces placed on the board compete for several majorities? The ideas of Iconoclasm and several professional games seemed to meet in one single game.

By that, the game was more or less designed already and I felt that I entered the development stage immediately. Questions to answer covered the shape of the majority areas, the number of suits and symbols of the cards and the theme of the game.

With Iconoclasm in mind, I considered hex-shaped areas first, then switched to square cards for production economy purposes, and then finally settled with hex-shaped cards. For the symbols, I started with four for the four corners of the squares and kept them even after increasing the number of corners to six, since this would leave some corners empty and thus leave some surrounding areas unaffected and more/less interesting for future majority struggles.

The fifth special symbol came early, as I wanted to give the players the power to modify the board. The first idea was to let the winner of the fifth symbol place the next area, presumably next to a corner which he or she has already claimed. However, I was concerned that this would remove control from the other players and make their choices of corners irrelevant. Instead, I made the areas fixed but the order of their resolution variable. This created a good balance, where the winners of the four first majorities could predict the likely order of the future struggles, which the winner of the fifth majority could alter slightly. I also gave the latter winner a bonus card to help him or her take advantage of choosing the next struggle.

The number of suits was initially set to three and further testing indicated that this was a good balance given the five symbols. (Taj Mahal has four suits for six symbols.)

The theme was initially abstract but it quickly became clear that the card and tile placements needed a theme to make sense. Iconoclasm's theme of clashing elements was too abstract to explain the cards so I needed something more concrete. Since the corner placements gave control over several areas, I considered a medieval theme where castles could be placed for each majority in a weapon type (card symbol). A similar theme is used in another game of mine, Mare Balticum, where the players struggle to control historical provinces. However, since Medieval themes are considered too "euro" by many players and possibly by the contest judge as well, I switched to the current space theme with battle stations controlling planets. Still, name Cosmoclasm became a worthy tribute to my old Iconoclasm.

It was also the thought of the contest that paved the way for the asymmetric player abilities, something I normally avoid both in the games I play and in the games I design. But perhaps this asymmetry could be a good thing in an otherwise symmetric game to break potential stalemate situations? I chose fairly light and generic abilities to avoid letting them "play the players" by forcing them into predefined strategies. The ability to switch a symbol, a suit or a card assist in the card playing aspect, the ability to move a battle station assist in the majority playing aspect, and the ability to modify the timing of the planets assist in the timing aspect. All of them come with the cost of forfeiting the play of another card and hence add an interesting decision so I felt I could live with asymmetric player abilities in Cosmoclasm.

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