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Subject: Flotilla Design Diary rss

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Joshua Howell
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Flotilla began as a failed design experiment. If you’re not familiar with my work as a designer, I frequently push the boundaries on what established mechanics can support in gaming. It’s my joy in design to create something new or reinvent something known in a new way, without the mechanism losing its familiarity for players. So experimentation with mechanisms is a thing I do regularly. And it regularly goes nowhere. This one almost went nowhere, but thankfully brilliant people exist in this industry to give it life.

I had an idea for a game that was radical in its approach to ‘emerging strategies’. Making a good game with emerging strategies is already highly challenging (few published games do this well IMO), but this time I wanted to set a whole new bar. I wanted to create the single most important individual decision in a game experience, you know entry level stuff. The idea had the following goals:

1 – Support two similar, parallel games (Game A and B going forward) that utilize the exact same components together in the same game (I always used Alhambra and Carcassonne as my example when explaining it – they are two city building games with square tiles so they have a natural parallel. Now imagine a game where both exist together – you play Alhambra for a time then shift to playing Carcassonne within the same game using the same tiles.)

2 – Have all players start each game playing Game A and allow each to shift to Game B at their leisure. This supports strategies entirely in Game A, entirely in Game B or a blend of both.

3 – When you shift from Game A to Game B you scoop your play area and use those components to play Game B. The idea is one set of components equally supports both games and once you turn you stay in Game 2 the rest of the game.

4 – Ensure the game supports Games A and B simultaneously and seamlessly knowing as many as 5 players could all be on different threads of play at different paces.

5 – I wanted to make a Euro that would hold up to the best Stefan Feld game, my favorite game designer. Chase your idols right? The working title was BAFF: Build A (ahem…) Feld.

So, like, that sounds easy right? 😊Nothing remotely challenging about swallowing the entire elephant without taking a single bite.

I tried to design a space game where players each colonize a separate moon surrounding one planet. The moon was a personal build area (ala Alhambra). At any point in the game players could stop colonizing the moon and jump down to the planet, a shared play area that races for resources (ala Carcassonne meets Terraforming Mars). But it was clunky as hell and impossible to support using that approach. It took up so much table space it was absurd.

I was stuck and letting it percolate was not helping. Clearing barriers is what I do in my non-design career, in my personal life and in game design – so when I get stuck I get a bit obsessive in my desire to clear the barrier. I either clear it, or shelf it and move on. But this game, this idea rather, didn’t want to be shelfed. I couldn’t let it go.

I decided to turn to Mike Mihealsick, who may be the most versatile and talented mind in the industry. It’s incredibly rare for someone to wield serious chops in both design and development, and he has both in spades. I trusted Mike with my baby, so I put my design challenge to him and asked if he wanted to solve it together. If we couldn’t do it, then I would be satisfied I gave it my all.

I’ll tell you truthfully Mike is the reason Flotilla exists as it does in its final version. His ingenuity and dedication to the vision I laid out made this game a reality.

Together we were still stuck for a few months and even strayed off the mark a bit trying to find our way. We built another space game that entailed exploring beyond our galaxy (personal play area) to bring home discoveries to the Milky Way (shared play area) and become legendary explorers. But everything felt really procedural, clunky and impossible to wrap our arms around. We dubbed the game ‘Two Tables’ because the damn thing literally consumed two entire game tables at the FLGS. It was an unwieldy beast, a collection games that vomited components across two tables.

The first breakthrough did not come until Mike and I went to a game design retreat hosted by JR Honeycutt. We sat down with JR (who is a world class game developer I respect tremendously) for a couple of hours and laid out the design goals for this crazy idea. We didn’t attempt to play the game – it was a hot mess, we were just jamming ideas, picking his brain. He gave us the seed that ultimately grew into the key that unlocked the rest of the design space.

JR has a background in finance and has a really amazing understanding economies in board games and player interactions in board games. He recommended we link the economies of Game A and B. Make players of Game A better at selling and players of Game B better at buying. Create an economy of interactions between the players, a natural source of tension, which also incentivizes players to consider the current economic game state when choosing to shift to Game B. *This was the critical seed*. It was also during this discussion that we came up with the Flotilla theme.

Ultimately the real value of JR’s recommendation was not in the interactive player economy. Over the next several weeks we did try a few iterations with direct buy and sell between players, but the negotiation and haggling was not a good fit and killed pace of play. We also tried a system of just posting goods for other players to buy from directly – but players do not like giving other players value, even at their own gain. So the economy was not flowing and the game grew stagnant.

We ended up sticking with a basic non-interactive economy but one that reflects Game A as sellers and Game B as buyers with a non-interactive bank. Balancing the economy in the center of a seesaw where the players can jump sides was the correct land spot. This created the critical tension of buyer/seller position. All players start the game as sellers, deflating the value of goods, so it’s a real juicy temptation to be that first buyer in a deflated economy and take advantage of the low buy prices. It’s also really strong to be the last player sticking with Game A, as now you’re the only seller in a buyer’s market.

The seesaw metaphor is the key to the game that emerged. JR helped us realize the idea of tight coupling Games A and B together. It started with the economy, but we knew the right answer was to grow it to other design spaces. We had been using a blend of loose couplings or no couplings at all – which is poor way to approach emerging strategies. Mike and I hadn’t really threaded Games A and B together in a meaningful way up until this point. So we zeroed in on the idea Games A and B were not as separated as our early iterations had tried, instead we would focus heavily on the indirect interactions of players on both sides, looking for ways to couple the nature threads of game play in both games.

If you want to know more about the concept of tight coupling, find the Ludology podcast on it from spring of 2018. Gil and Geoff know their stuff and it is a great podcast – Mike and I listened to it for the first time on the road trip that we signed the game on. Fate. The same podcast touches on emerging strategies, which is another highlight of Flotilla.

The second breakthrough came when we decided to make most of the components double-sided and truly define the new ‘Turn The Corner’ mechanic that we created. The mechanic didn’t have handles for teaching the game, and players struggled with the shifting from Game A to B. So we added a tactile reinforcement of changing game modes that feels good and right in the moment - your cards are double-sided, your tiles, your player board, etc. Physically picking up your components and flipping them naturally helps the mind shift mentally to the new game. The visuals also reinforce it.

The third real breakthrough came when we condensed the action selection model so that 50% of the actions remained the same across both game modes, we narrowed the core actions down to 4 key selections and finally ditched the shared play area in Game 2 (something I want to revisit in a later design). This tightened up the learning curve and allowed people to just jump right in by focusing on those 4 core actions alone. You can discover the rest of the game as you play, which fits right in with the emerging strategies approach to the design.

The design retreat mentioned above was in Feb 2018 and by May 2018 we had the game signed. All three of the breakthroughs in the design listed above happened in rapid succession over the course of two hardcore months. Once we locked in on building relationships between the two games everything came together very quickly. Then we just played the game. A lot. We continued developing the game from May to November 2018, when we finalized the game play.

---
Some Flotilla Game Play specifics


I have talked in generic terms about Games A & B so now let me dive into those in specific terms so you can learn a bit about the actual game rather than the theory of it.

Players start the game as Sinksiders, explorers of the new Great Ocean that covers 90% of the globe. It’s toxic, but rife with Old World technology that the new emerging civilization needs. The Sinksider game is about discovering new ocean tiles and diving into the depths of them in search of resources and artifacts. Sinksiders score by discovering islands and building outposts, laying the groundwork for future explorers. They have almost no access to direct funds, so selling the resources they dig up from the toxic ocean is a key to their economy.

Skysiders are residents of the Flotilla. Their game is about building out the Flotilla and expanding its population, stability and value. The tiles you use to build the Flotilla are the backside of the tiles you previously explored as a Sinksider. If you ‘Turn The Corner’ (or flip as play testers regularly say) early, you do still have access to discover new tiles for their Skyside only. Skysiders are also researchers, scientists and engineers. They utilize Old World technology to advance the New World as much as possible. The new government (defined by 4 Guilds) heavily invests in Skyside research, so the they have plenty of access to funds, but almost no access to resources. Therefore, they are naturally buyers of resources in the economy.

Both Sinksiders and Skysiders compete in a shared space for Guild reputation. There are 4 Guilds and regardless of which game mode you’re playing, you want to build your reputation with those Guilds. Generally, the Founders Guild interacts with ocean/Flotilla tiles, Delvers Guild interacts with dive/research dice, Speakers Guild interacts with Guild tracks for Reputation (VP), and Traders Guild interacts with resources and the market.

The couplings we focused on were organic to the theme:
-Sinkside players find survivors while exploring, stranded and alive on remote islands. They bring them back to the Flotilla to join society. The Sinkside player benefits through immediate rewards for finding survivors and Skyside players benefit from a larger population on the Flotilla with diverse skills – represented game-wise by better scoring potential building out the Flotilla tiles the rest of the game.

-Sinkside players find artifacts of the Old World. Sometimes these are just aesthetic, such as the surprisingly preserved Mona Lisa found in ocean ruins of old Europe. Thematically these artifacts raise morale on the Flotilla. Other times they provide advancements in technology. A Sinkside player benefits from the discovery of an artifact with a nice bonus and the Skyside players benefit from the artifacts contribution to the Flotilla’s advancement - reflected in better research dice opportunities the rest of the game.

-Skyside players make discoveries while researching, namely in ship advancement of sonar. A Skyside player receives the discovery bonus while all Sinkside players now have improved dive capability on their dive dice for the rest of the game.

This provides a little insight into what the Sinkside and Skyside players are doing and how their individual big moments as players also subtly affect other players game progress. It’s entirely up to you how long you want to play Sinkside, as you have the ability to go Skyside turn 1 if desired or never, or any point between. Strategies in this game are definitely emergent as you react to other players’ decisions, or the current state of the economy, or where the competition is on scoring objectives, or where the high value opportunities are in shared game spaces, or with key crew member cards you covet, etc.

Mike and I really worked hard to make that decision of when to flip Skyside a big moment, a game defining moment in an industry where the decision matrix is often the key to a game’s value. It’s really a thrilling decision to experience in a game, something new and unique and we hope people will enjoy it.

“So what would you say…you do here?”

I have not yet given a basic description of the actions in the game. The action selection mechanism is modeled after Concordia. You have a set of crew cards and each crew member has a single action. The fine texture on each card stays true to the Guild’s core action, though the number of tiles or dice or transactions, and the means to use them changes based on the card.

If you’re Sinkside you can:
-Add more tiles to your explore area by playing a Founder Guild crew member, who explores and navigates the ocean providing you new tiles.

-Play a Delver Guild crew member to dive with your ships and find resources and survivors, resolved by rolling dive dice.

-Play a Speaker Guild crew member to gain reputation with the Guilds on the Guild tracks and recruit new crew member cards.

-Play a Trader Guild crew member to buy and sell resources, ships or outposts.

Each card does one thing and player turns are typically under 1 minute, providing a crisp pace of play that is always engaging. Players usually have 30 or more turns in a game.

Skyside, the Speakers and Traders fill the same role. The Founders and Delvers however change to:

-Founders still utilize your tiles, but now you have to build them from hand instead of exploring them from a random supply. Building is costly in resources but provides scoring potential.

-Delvers still utilize a dice mechanic to resolve their action, but instead of dive dice to gain resources, they use research dice to gain research grants from the Guilds. Delvers on the Skyside provide the heart of the economy for a player as well as potential to unlock artifact bonuses and improve the point yield on Flotilla building.

That’s all for now! Thanks for checking it out!

JB


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SHAWN WHITE
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Very intrigued. Looking forward to taking this for a spin.
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JR Honeycutt
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I’m so proud and impressed with both of you - the one time I played was an adventure, and definitely hit the beats you described. Can’t wait to see the finished version!

🌊❤️☁️
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Francesc Lopez
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Thanks for the reading.
Did this game show up on the stores without a warning/buzz? or reviews?

EDIT: Cardhaus had it for a few hours as available. Now, it is back to "Estimated Release Date is Oct 31st 2019"
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Michael Mihealsick
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flope wrote:
Thanks for the reading.
Did this game show up on the stores without a warning/buzz? or reviews?

EDIT: Cardhaus had it for a few hours as available. Now, it is back to "Estimated Release Date is Oct 31st 2019"


Nope, it's not out yet. Due out later this year, aiming for an Essen release
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Monkeyb00y
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Amazing commentary on your process from start to finish.
I'm looking forward to learning more and seeing it all together.
I, too, saw it available to purchase before available for pre-order.
The awesome cover made me want to learn more.
After reading the Summary on BGG, I subscribed to keep up with it.
Can't wait to see it!
 
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Jason Brown
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Outstanding dev diary, thanks for the journey!
 
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Wow. I'd just like to say that I've a few designs rattling around myself and this write-up is the only thing anywhere that resembles the sort of game I've been hoping to find or make. I love it! Looking forward to checking it out
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Joshua Howell
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Thanks all for the kind words. I am happy to answer questions that arise from the design diary. Much closer to release I will start a separate thread for game play specific questions.
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Curt Carpenter
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Images?
 
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Joshua Howell
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Images will be added in the coming months. Art assets are still in progress.
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Rupert Rupinette
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Very intrigued by this design. How would you rate its complexity on the BGG weight scale or maybe compared to some other Stefan Feld designs (since you mentioned aspiring to make a Feld-like game)?
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Joshua Howell
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robrizob wrote:
Very intrigued by this design. How would you rate its complexity on the BGG weight scale or maybe compared to some other Stefan Feld designs (since you mentioned aspiring to make a Feld-like game)?


This is actually a very tough question to answer for a few reasons:
1) The Turn the Corner mechanic is completely new (how does it get weighted? - no idea)
2) The game purposefully pushes emergent strategy as it progresses
3) The game features a lot of coupling mechanics

Flotilla is doing multiple entirely new things with its some of its game play. Not having a comparison or anchor for the Turn the Corner mechanic for new players (for example) will make it feel heavier in the weight, as will the emergent strategies and couplings.

It is a heavy Euro for sure. I would be shocked if it falls under 3.5 in weight, but I can't really speculate on how 1-3 will be weighed on the BGG scale.
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Feld Fan
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Do you think this will ever be playable with just 2 players (either with or without a dummy player somehow)? It sounds quite intriguing!
 
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Joshua Howell
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feldfan2014 wrote:
Do you think this will ever be playable with just 2 players (either with or without a dummy player somehow)? It sounds quite intriguing!


We have considered exploring it. It is something we will look at again for sure.
 
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Tyler DeLisle
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Nice, for half a decade I've had a game idea I've been slowly kicking around in my head that is very close to this. Two different games going on concurrently, one of players exploring the ocean, and the other of players building up a colony on a flotilla ala Waterworld. Though my concept was more of a split-4x game complete with combat, this seems much more based on economy and on the Euro side. Either way I'm really excited to see someone with much more expertise create something vaguely similar to an idea that I'd probably never take to fruition, hah. Really looking forward to seeing more on this!
 
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Phil
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JBHowell wrote:
feldfan2014 wrote:
Do you think this will ever be playable with just 2 players (either with or without a dummy player somehow)? It sounds quite intriguing!


We have considered exploring it. It is something we will look at again for sure.


May i connect two thoughts here to make a suggestion that would pretty much please a lot of people while also sounding like a good idea for the game in general (whether it is, is ofcourse debatable)?

So my first thoughts about the games design were, that it seems like players are dependant on each other when they incorporate the roles.
Whether and how that works is another question.

With that in mind i thought that it has nuances of a cooperative game. We all manage the Flotilla and influence it.
Skysiders are about management and research (society long term goals) and sinksiders are about getting the necessary resources to support that, but we all work in our way on the Flotilla.

Regarding the two player request, i would also add a cooperative mode request on top and couple both.

My suggestion:
Create an expansion, that covers both requests independently and thus has two modules:

1.) A cooperative expansion module with new tiles, maybe an event system and/or some sort of opponent (Raiders/Pirates). This would offer a more "narrative" experience to the players, connect them with a common goal (defend, survive, expand), while also discovering specific new tiles that are maybe linked to a narrative and an event card deck, that brings in some randomness, aswell as the needed narration to the campaign.

2.) A two player variant. While bringing the cooperative module with new components, a cooperative mode also makes need of a two player addition. New and necessary components to allow the base game to be played by only two players could be included in this expansion. That means with the expansion the competitive mode could get its 2 player addition and a new coop mode that also works with the 2 player design.

Optional 3.) Since such an expansion would bring new mechanics and components, it might even be possible to also make the competitive game richer, by adding mechanics of the cooperative module to the base game. Or in short, make parts of the coop mode modular.
Lets say the event deck features enough events to be implemented to the base game (minus narrative campaign cards), so the event cards can just be added to the base game.
Maybe new tiles can work for either coop or competitive mode and maybe the opponent(s) from the coop mode (raiders/pirates(scavengers/radiated sea creatures) can also be featured in the competitive mode, to provide a challenge that urges players to cooperate shortly while also offering the chance to plot against other players and screw them over.
A quite good game at that, to give an example, is "lowlands" of the Uwe Rosenberg collection.
Its a game where you manage your sheep farm competitively, but all players have to build a dam together to keep water from flooding in.
They can also choose not to for their potential benefit.


To provide a reference game that did a similar expansion structure:
The Island of El Dorado had a kickstarter for a new expansion not long ago.
The expansion added a new faction, the island monsters, to the game.
The designers not only used that faction to create an AI and thus a cooperative mode, they also made it a fully playable faction for players and even included asymmetrical modes (2 or more versus 1). Players can also play competitive against each other and have the AI control the monsters posing a threat and so making the game more dynamic, as players may have to cooperate against them from time to time.


In short:
The game sounds as if it could benefit from an expansion featuring a 2 player variant, bring a cooperative mode to the table on top, while also making the base game richer.

Im fully aware that the game hasnt even released yet.
However, i see the potential to expand it further and this would be the direction i like to see it go.
 
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