Carpe Astra: Evolution of a Game Design
Jackson Pope
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For the last few years I've been making board games. First by hand in my spare time, now professionally. You can read my previous lists describing progress so far here:

Self-publishing the Hard Way: Highs and Lows
The Hobby Publisher: Phase Two
Making Games For a Living!
Getting a Game Made Professionally

Carpe Astra, my third game will finally be released at the end of November. After numerous delays getting It's Alive! printed, Carpe Astra finally went to the printers in Germany a couple of weeks ago. In preparation for demos at Essen and the big release I thought I'd let you in on how the game has evolved over time.

Thanks to Ted Cheatham for providing information about the design before I got my grubby hands on it.
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1. Board Game: The Big Idea [Average Rating:6.33 Overall Rank:2901]
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The first version of Carpe Astra (known as 'Networking') grew out of a friend of designer Ted Cheatham's request for a favor. Said friend in Cincinnati had recently completed law school and, wanting to relocate to Charleston, S.C., he asked Cheatham whether he knew anyone in the area. Ted didn't know anyone in that town, but he was sure that someone he knew would. He made a few calls on his friend's behalf. This got Ted thinking about the whole networking process, and it is how the game was born.
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2. Board Game Designer: Ted Cheatham
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Ted's first version of the game featured a fixed board made from bits of coloured paper stuck together. Each colour represented a type of contact: Friend, Businessman, Accountant, Lawyer, Doctor or Insurance Agent. In addition, there were four characters who had to be connected through their network to one or more of those groups: Winston Churchill, Mao Tse Tung, Charles de Gaulle and Ida Wells-Barnett.

Each player had a player mat, detailing which groups needed to be connected to which characters.

Players own a network of coloured cubes in adjacent spaces. Each turn, players could move some of their cubes to change their network, with the goal of having cubes in the groups and character that make one of their goals.
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3. Board Game: 1000 Blank White Cards [Average Rating:6.70 Overall Rank:2832]
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Over time the game evolved. The player mats were replaced by individual decks of cards per player. Each card represented a character and one, two or three groups. Players drew two cards into their hand at the beginning of the game, and then replaced a card when they completed it. The first person to complete all their cards was the winner.
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4. Board Game: Tiles [Average Rating:6.01 Unranked]
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The fixed board was replaced by tiles, each representing two groups, e.g. Businessman and Doctor. The tiles were rectangular, each group being a square and arranged like brickwork, so that each group was next to six others. Each turn you added an extra tile to the board until they ran out.
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5. Board Game Publisher: Reiver Games
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At this point Ted submitted the game to me. I played it a few times, and though I liked the networking mechanism, something about it didn't click. I suggested a few changes. Ted was very keen. Ted and I started working together. I'd make a change and suggest it to him for comment and playtesting. He'd come back with further changes which I'd then playtest. This process continued for over a year, and during that time the game evolved from Ted's original idea into something much heavier, but still with the same core.
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6. Board Game: 1960: The Making of the President [Average Rating:7.59 Overall Rank:158]
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I really wasn't convinced about the theme. As you might know from It's Alive!, I'm a sucker for a fun theme, and connecting historical characters to Doctors and Lawyers wasn't doing it for me.

My first thought was a Presidential Election theme. I'm a big fan of The West Wing and with the Clinton/Obama/Guilliani/Romney/McCain scrap on the horizon I thought there might be some interest. I even posted on here for ideas for the six groups - now replaced by issues. I was also thinking of instituting a 'timeline' from primaries, through conventions to election night.
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7. Board Game: Character Clues [Average Rating:4.00 Unranked]
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During this time, the idea of a 'personal character' came about. Originally the characters during belong to any player, each player used them all. Having a personal character lead to a lot of the later ideas (goals and slanders) and allows the players to be a bit more invested in the game.
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8. Board Game: Carpe Astra [Average Rating:6.00 Overall Rank:5067]
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Another idea I had at the time was a similar theme - but set in space! Always a winner for me

Players would be competing to gain control of the galaxy by networking with various groups. Setting it in a fictional universe would open up the game to much nastier elements (bribing, slander and assassination) without any fear of having my ass sued off by one of the campaigns.

Also, time was running out, bringing out a presidential election themed game over a year before the election, when interest is piquing: good. Bringing out a presidential election themed game just after the election when everyone is sick of it: not so good.
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9. Board Game: Hex [Average Rating:6.78 Overall Rank:2548]
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I also wanted to move away from the brickwork tiles. It was nice and original, but the restrictions about placing the tiles in the same orientation seemed unnecessary. Since each group was adjacent to six others, a pair of hexes made sense. Plus space = hexes so that worked too.

The twin hex tiles meant the rules on tile placement could be relaxed too.
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10. Board Game: Events [Average Rating:4.54 Unranked]
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Ted had the idea of using cards to represent the timeline. Ten cards could be placed face down, each turn revealing the event for this turn. He though of lots of possible event cards, including the 'hot topic' ones that made it into the final game.

He also suggested later that you could have a few cards face up, so you could see what events were coming up.
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11. Board Game: Cube Fusion [Average Rating:5.33 Unranked]
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We'd tried a few ideas for the cards. The initial idea of everybody having their own deck had been replaced with a single deck of 'Character X to ...' cards, then 'Your character to ...' and 'Another character to ...' I wanted to write flavour text on the cards, and the 'Your character/ Another character' variant fitted this best, since you could have positive networking for your character, and negative networking (e.g. slander) for another character. This was the version we went for in the end.

The deck was also split in two, so you had the choice of when to score positive goals and when to hit out at your opponents.
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12. Board Game: Money [Average Rating:6.59 Unranked]
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During one of my playtests, a playtester suggested adding money to the game. This would allow you to pay for things. The money led to a lot of things: bribing, paying for a tile, and would later become an integral part of the game. There's now a definite progression, from spending, to saving and finally spending again.
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13. Board Game: Final Score [Average Rating:6.96 Unranked]
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The scoring has been through many incarnations, it was one of the most troubling areas of the game. Initially, the first person to complete all their cards won. Next we tried points for every completed card. This caused problems as you needed to hang onto the cards and in the four-player game you often run out.

We tried a score board, tokens you 'swap up' before settling on the final option: scoring tokens for each guild. The person with the most tokens for each group gains that group's support. Gain enough support and you claim the throne.
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14. Board Game: Hancock's Half Hour [Average Rating:3.50 Unranked]
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Another of my playtesters (thanks Michael!) mis-read the rules of a blind playtest copy I sent them. My fault: badly-written rules (they got a lot better, honest!).

He thought you could only play on one half of a tile, not both. When he realised the mistake he played it 'right', but he'd preferred the one half version. When Ted and I tried it we liked it too, so it stayed. It leads to a much more fluid game, with each player's agents spread out over the board more. This leads to less turtling!
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15. Board Game: Pay Off [Average Rating:0.00 Unranked]
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After the money idea we tried bribing to let you boot another player's agent out of a guild. We tried blind-bidding for control of the guild. This worked, but it slowed the game down a lot as you had no guarantee you'd reach the guild you wanted to. Plus the bribe itself took a while. Further playtesting removed the bidding and just let you bribe automatically, let's face it: an agent isn't going to need that much money to switch sides compared to the bankroll of an intergalactic election campaign!
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16. Board Game: Power Moves [Average Rating:6.25 Unranked]
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With the one half rule, it was often difficult to do what you wanted. Allowing the player more than two moves for the first time fixed that, but to make it interesting we made the first two moves free and additional moves cost one credit. This made it a harder choice, since money gets tight towards the end.
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17. Board Game: Bargain Hunter [Average Rating:4.55 Overall Rank:15032]
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Things got a little cheaper nearer the end, we'd tried paying one, two or three for the tiles, but that was a lot of money compared to what you got, so we knocked it down to one each. Swapping cards went from two to one credit as well.
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18. Board Game: Advanced Space Crusade [Average Rating:6.47 Overall Rank:4758]
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The final touch was to make the face-up cards optional. The face up cards give you more control over your strategy, since you get some control over which cards you're trying to complete. The downside is that it's another choice in a pretty heavy game. Beginners tend to be a bit overwhelmed with all the choices and analysis paralysis might kick in. To combat this we made the face-up cards optional, once you're used to how the game plays out you can try it with them, but we don't recommend it for your first few games!
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19. Board Game: Carpe Astra [Average Rating:6.00 Overall Rank:5067]
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All done! Carpe Astra has gone to the printers, and is due back by the end of November. Until then I'm taking pre-orders on my website for a 30% discount.

Swing by my stand (Hall 4, 4-415) at Essen for a demo, or to buy It's Alive! or Kraków 1325 AD.

Alternatively, you can see some art and read the rules on my website: http://www.reivergames.co.uk/CarpeAstra/index.php
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