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Designer Diary: Nemo Rising: Robur the Conqueror, or Journey to the Center of a Game

Andrew Parks
United States
Somerset
New Jersey
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Dungeon Alliance Champions (October 2019)
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Dungeon Alliance Champions (October 2019)
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Board Game: Nemo Rising: Robur the Conqueror
Introduction

In January 2016, I received an introductory email from C. Courtney Joyner, a novelist and screenwriter who was interested in hiring our game design studio, Quixotic Games, to create a board game version of his latest project, Nemo Rising. Nemo Rising was an original screenplay that Courtney was now converting into a steampunk novel for Tor Books, and the book was scheduled for release sometime in 2017. Nothing about the game adaptation was concrete yet, and we didn't talk about the project much for the rest of the year. Towards the end of 2016, after plans for the novel's published release were more concrete, Courtney contacted me again and wanted to discuss the project at greater length.

My immediate response to myself was "Self, you can't do any new projects right now, or they will put you in the mental hospital." At the time, we were working night and day preparing for the imminent launch of our latest Kickstarter project, Dungeon Alliance. We were overseeing the creation of hundreds of pieces of art for the game, working on the graphic design, prepping the project video, and tracking lots of other details. In addition, we were in different stages of development for three different projects at WizKids: Assault of the Giants was on the verge of release; we were in the final development stages for the Return of Khan expansion for Star Trek: Frontiers; and we had just received approval to begin work on Marvel Strike Teams.

I was also teaching game design courses at Rutgers, so I knew there was no way I could add anything else to my life — but then I made the mistake of talking to Courtney about his project in detail. When Courtney described the world that he was building, incorporating different characters, locations, and stories from the works of Jules Verne into a unified series, I knew I couldn't pass up being a part of it.

But I was definitely going to need help.

I recruited one of my developers, Matthew Cattron, a former student of mine who had joined the Quixotic team to help out with the dozens of expansion packs that we had designed for WizKids' D&D Attack Wing back in 2015. Matt and I would now work together as co-designers on Nemo Rising: Robur the Conqueror. Although this would be Matt's first official game design, he had shown lots of talent, drive, and insight when working on D&D Attack Wing, so I knew this was the perfect opportunity for him. Matt would end up doing a tremendous amount of heavy lifting on the Nemo project and developed some of the game's most unique and attractive mechanisms.

Scope of the Game

Throughout 2017, Matt constructed the initial prototype based on our design meetings. The proposal approved by Courtney called for a game that would be accessible to casual gamers who were fans of the novel, yet would still provide strategic depth for experienced gamers. We envisioned a co-operative game for 2-4 players that would involve solving missions in the steampunk world of Captain Nemo and his companions from Nemo Rising. Based on the direction of the industry, we decided that including a solo version would be essential, so we started incorporating that into the design right away to ensure that few rule changes would be required when playing solo. It was equally important to us that the solo venture be a unique experience to be played with just one hero and not simply a way for one player to portray multiple heroes in order to simulate solo play.

Board Game: Ghost Fightin' Treasure Hunters
One of my personal career challenges is that I tend to make games that are sprawling in table space and game time. We knew that would not work for Nemo Rising. One of the most simple but clever co-operative games on the market is Brian Yu's award-winning family game, Ghost Fightin' Treasure Hunters, a game whose deceptive surface design hides an intricate game system. For the past several years, I've played this game in class with my students to teach them the lessons of minimizing rules while maximizing decision points. Ghost Fightin' Treasure Hunters does a great job at this.

Even though we needed to make a game of higher complexity than Ghost Fightin' Treasure Hunters, I was inspired by Yu's game board and its use of rooms and spaces to make the game appear approachable to casual gamers right from the beginning. We therefore decided that we would make a game board with simple movement spaces that connected "rooms", but these rooms would hold large face-down adventure tiles that needed to be revealed during the game. The adventure tiles would also allow us to create different scenarios that would transform the board into variable settings from Verne's universe, whether the caverns of the deep sea, Robur's city in the sky, or the center of the earth.


Board Game: Nemo Rising: Robur the Conqueror
Game in Progress


We didn't want to use a die for movement, so our initial concept was to have a row of action cards that provided action points used for movement and other activities. Players would attempt to complete a procedurally generated mission that could be solved in 30-60 minutes, allowing players to play a short game or multiple sessions in a row if they desired.

Streamlining the Arithmetic

One of Matt's earliest concerns was that the game was overly numerical. Action cards granted a specific number of attribute points that players could spend on tasks or combat, and a second pool of points for generic actions like moving and scouting. Threat cards caused each enemy token to move a large number of single spaces, and each player tracked the health pool for their own hero. Many of the game's mechanisms began to feel like tedious bookkeeping. It was important to Matt that people not feel overwhelmed by record keeping, so he agonized over ways to make the game more approachable while maintaining interesting, co-operative-driven gameplay.

We streamlined many mechanisms over time, like having players receive a set amount of action points each turn instead of deriving them from their chosen action card. One particular breakthrough involved the creation of a mission track that removed the need for individual hero health tracking. Whenever a hero fails to defend against an enemy's attack, the entire team loses points on the mission track. You also lose mission points for failing at important tasks or when choosing powerful action cards. The removal of individual health points not only streamlined the system, but ensured that all players felt the same sense of risk throughout the game. In the end, the constraint of creating a more streamlined design made the game more fun to play for everyone, regardless of their skill level.


From gallery of Andrew Parks
The mission track


Another numerical system that we streamlined involved the difficulty of completing a task or defeating an enemy. Originally, each task and enemy had a "target number" that had to be overcome on a six-sided die, and the strategy of the game involved finding ways to increase your die roll to make these tasks easier — but trying to accumulate sets of bonuses to add to specific die rolls seemed a bit too thinky and old school. We moved instead to a symbol-based system involving the game's three attributes: Brains, Brawn, and Skill.


From gallery of Andrew Parks
Attribute icons


The target number was changed into an attribute requirement. You can achieve the needed attribute(s) in several ways, either by drafting certain action cards, earning special gear cards, or, if all else fails, by rolling the attribute dice (custom dice that feature all three icons). Your strategic goal is to avoid rolling the dice whenever possible, but if you cannot find the correct attributes elsewhere, you can try to push your luck by rolling the dice. In this way, we were able to appeal to players who enjoy using dice to push their luck, but also maintained ways to avoid rolling altogether for those who don't like to rely on chance for success.


From gallery of Andrew Parks
Each action card can be drafted in one of two ways;
after drafting, you "twist" it to declare which ability you want to use


Formulating an Effective (and Dangerous) A.I. System

One of Matt's real breakthroughs involved the A.I. system for placing and moving enemy tokens on the game board. Originally the threat cards simply moved each enemy a large number of spaces in a row, which was tedious and also ineffective because players could predict enemy movement too easily and avoid encounters for most of the game. We needed to simultaneously reduce the level of predictability, increase the degree of peril, and minimize the amount of space-to-space movement for each individual enemy token.

We therefore developed a colored path system that moved certain enemies along either a blue or a red path, meaning that the players could not be sure which direction the enemies would turn at each particular intersection until the current turn's threat card was revealed. The players could prepare for certain possibilities, but they could never be certain exactly what was going to happen next.


From gallery of Andrew Parks
Example of a threat card:
—The first threat action commands all humanoid, bestial, and mechanical enemies to move two spaces along the blue paths.
—The second threat action commands you to deploy a mechanical wasp at enemy entrance #1 on the game board.


Matt took this concept to a new level by having the enemies move only from doorway to doorway, skipping over the intervening spaces unless any heroes were in the way, in which case the enemies would stop and attack them. This meant the enemies were always moving to the same places that the heroes wanted to go. It also meant a lot less physical movement of enemy tokens on the game board since the tokens were moving from strategic point to strategic point rather than just one space at a time.


From gallery of Andrew Parks
Robur's Foot Soldier moves four spaces along the blue paths


This had the effect of ensuring that enemies would always be in the way of players, continuously opening and blocking off paths around the map and forcing players to choose between confrontation and rerouting. Not only did this make enemies feel more meaningful and contribute heavily to the strategic aspect of the game, it also simplified the process of moving the enemies for players and reduced the visual clutter on the game board.

The result was even more than we had hoped for. Enemies now patrol the board in ways that make you hold your breath in anticipation. Over time, if lots of enemy tokens are on the game board, the tokens start skipping over each other for free, creating the appearance that the enemies are consciously starting to close in on the heroes. This system is the one that we are the most proud of developing for Nemo Rising.

Strategic Decision Making

It was important to us that the players' success or failure be based on their strategic choices. Players are constantly having to manage an ever-changing board. Should the active hero take out a few patrolling enemies to reduce clutter, or should they focus directly on the mission and risk the team being overwhelmed later in the game? Newly acquired gear cards open up ways to circumvent the rules of the game, so using them at the perfect moment is often the key to victory. In addition, each location that is revealed on the game board has to be secured in order for the players to gain its full benefits. Once a hero secures a face-up adventure tile, they are presented with a new way to use that location to solve problems elsewhere on the board.


From gallery of Andrew Parks
Fulmer secures the hangar and can now perform a skill task to move to any space in the game


Reigning in the Type-A Player

As we neared the end of the development process in November 2017 (one month before the novel's release), we started showing the game to different publishers on Courtney's behalf. Since we had such a close relationship with WizKids, we took the opportunity to demo the game to Zev Shlasinger, the Director of Boardgames at WizKids, while we were at BGG.CON 2017. Zev gave me my start in the industry back in 2003 when his company Z-Man Games released Ideology: The War of Ideas, so after years of working together I knew he liked games with rich themes and story elements.

Zev enjoyed the game a lot and expressed an immediate interest in publishing it, but he had one major concern that bothered him about all co-operative games: We needed to reign in the Type-A player who tends to control the entire game by telling everyone else what to do. This is a common issue in co-op games, so Matt and I discussed ways to address it. We eventually came up with an optional variant for experienced players called "Stealth Mode" that severely restricts communication among the players during each individual player's turn. Players can still discuss strategies between turns, but once a hero starts moving around, revealing new tiles, and flipping over new cards, the current player has to decide what to do on their own.

To add even more flavor to this rule, we said that players whose heroes were adjacent to each other on the game board or who shared the same adventure tile could communicate freely as long as they were together and it was one of their turns. This created the situation in which a hero might actually spend a couple of action points to move next to another hero to get their take on a particular development during the course of the current turn.


From gallery of Andrew Parks
Sara and Nemo team up against a mechanical sea spider; the heroes are close to each other, but not quite close enough to communicate during stealth mode


Zev was pleased with the variant, and pre-production for Nemo Rising: Robur the Conqueror began in early 2018, with the game hitting the U.S. market on September 18, 2019.

The Future

Part of our design process was to ensure the game would fit a variety of Vernesque settings. The base game comes with two settings: the Undersea Grotto and the City in the Sky, each with its own set of adventure tiles, mission cards, and threat cards. Courtney is excited by the possibility that as he adds new stories to the book series, we can add expansions to the game with new cards and tiles that transform the board into settings such as the Center of the Earth, or even the Moon!

Andrew Parks

From gallery of Andrew Parks
Adventure tiles: generic sides and location side
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