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Designer Diary: Rocket Jockey

James Spurny
United States
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Thought you might be interested in hearing a little about the game and my design philosophy, so here we go.

My background: I've been a playtester for almost thirty years now (geez) for a broad spectrum of war games, Euros, even some RPG work – but the publication of Rocket Jockey is the first time my name has appeared on the outside of the box. I love games, and my hope as a playtester has always been to make the game more interesting to play. So I'm that guy that is always prodding the designer with "wouldn't this be a cool rule" or "how about if we change this part" or "Kevin, you wrote the wrong game for these components". (Actually happened!) I never thought I had the creativity to do a whole design myself, but I could always spice up someone else's design.

So what makes a good game? To me, game play is about decision making – so more decisions and more varied decisions are what to strive for. Make the player feel he's earned it when he wins. Also, it's got to tell a story you can remember later, either as part of some cool play in the game or an interesting re-creation of the story that the game is creating. Because of that I've never been one for dry abstracts – it's gotta have some theme to it or else all you get is "Remember that cool move..." type of stories. Finally, you want something that feels different from other games, either in theme or game play.

Now, does any of that apply to Rocket Jockey? Hopefully!

Rocket Jockey on display during the 2012 New York Toy Fair

Rocket Jockey started as a "filler for train gamers" card game. Seriously, I saw that as an unfulfilled market. Could I take a cool part of the train game experience and make a quick-playing card game out of it? Without making it a game that played itself and would still gave the opportunity for interesting stuff to happen? Let's see: a stock-owning economic game would probably take longer than I was looking for, a track-building game would need a map, but cargo delivery... Well, there could be something there. So I had a concept: Playing more cards means a more complex and fancier delivery, which means more points. Hey, if it works for Martin Wallace, it can work for me.

At the time I had just sent another game design to a German game company that required every game submission to consist of 66 cards and a rule book – no more, and no less – so Rocket Jockey was also designed with those constraints in mind. I figured I needed about half of that number of cards for a play deck to move cargo somehow, a third for "target" cards to deliver, and a sixth for some sort of rudimentary map. (And if I could squeeze a card here or there out of the target and map sections to make the play deck bigger, so much the better.)

The big question was how to make a movement system interesting with only ten or so map locations. Wait a minute, ten locations? The Sun and nine planets! I love science fiction! It was like a choir singing in the background, as everything kind of just flowed together at that point. Movement cards were orbit change numbers. It made sense that you could fly past a planet on a delivery; maybe that planet was really on the other side of the Sun – or you needed a planetary slingshot to get there with your fuel level. Bigger colonies would be towards the middle of the line of planets, and movement cards with two numbers made a pyramid shape towards the center of the field if you use every combination, which makes sense. Hey, throw in a couple of extra 3's and everything focuses towards Earth! Give the cargo cards the same tilted pyramid and everything matches up. Express cargoes for bonus points! Points for visiting different planets! Orbital Decel and Solar Sail Wild cards (later changed for the current Co-Pilots). Hey, the game could end with Aliens appearing! Whee!

Normally, this is the point where I am supposed to tell about how long and complex the whole process of game design is. Sorry, nope, not this time. Somewhere, some game designer is going to want to strangle me for this, but the above epiphany took all of about an hour-and-a-half from concept to virtually finished design. I roughed out the rules, charted the number of each type of card I wanted, tweaked some numbers, and grinned a lot. The next day I printed out some ratty playtest cards at work and took them to our evening playtest group. This Alpha version wasn't very different from the game that you can buy today; the picture below shows the "Mark II" playtest cards that we were using three days later because our local graphics guru thought the design was too good to be played with ugly cards.

I thought I really had something here. This was a fairly quick-playing game, it felt different, it had a cool theme, and it gave the player lots of chances to make decisions about what he wanted to do. "Draw more cards or grab a quick delivery now before someone else steals it." "Go for a big score with a five card fancy loop-de-loop around Saturn, or focus on getting to a planet I've not been to before." "Go for more scoring at the end of the game, or hold on and try to grab the Aliens – high risk, high reward." The playtest group thought it was a fun, polished game after only a week of testing. It should be a quick, easy sell to a game company, right? Right?

Yeah, right. The original game company I submitted it to said it was too "thinky". Well, yeah, I designed it to make you think while you play. That's a good thing, right? Oh well, somebody else will want it.

Crickets. Other designers in our playtest group were getting published; maybe I was just a playtester. The darn thing sat there so long scientists in real life went and de-commissioned Pluto's status as a planet right out from under me. Well, to heck with them – Pluto makes it feel more "Retro-SF". This really turned into a case of "Never give up! Never surrender!" – sometimes you just gotta be in the right place at the right time. The gaming convention at Rice University (OwlCon) was going to have a representative from Mayfair Games visiting; maybe he'd like a look. So, in between demo sessions of the great game Rolling Freight (by one of our other designers, Kevin Nunn) and running a tourney for Struggle of Empires, I got to play a game of Rocket Jockey with a game company rep and some nice gentleman who just happened to walk by and look interested.

Sometimes it's difficult to tell the difference between hard work and dumb luck.

Mayfair has done an interesting job developing the game. They saw it as more of a family game then my "train gamer filler", so we've taken out some of the more "fiddly" aspects (wild cards you could draft but had to use that turn, a slower but more gamer-balanced endgame) for a smoother set of rules. The core concepts are still there, though – I think both groups will like the game.

I hope you do, too.

James Spurny
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