December 3, 2012

Never too Late to the Party! Skunkworks Update 2012

Last year I made about post covering the current state of my various game design projects and where they stood. I thought it would be interesting to circle back again this year and see what ended up being worked on and what other ideas are on the cooker. Also – I can’t help this feeling that my designs and concepts are just a hare late to the party – that some idea I have ends up gelling in my mind at the same moment someone else releases a game aiming at something similar, either thematically or mechanically. Who is scanning my brain waves while I sleep? Reveal yourself! 

Anyway, onto the business at hand.


Development of this 4x game, forthcoming from Minion Games, has by far and away taken the bulk of my design time and effort. It has been a lot of work getting it “pitch ready” and that level of effort hasn’t let up since Minion Games picked it up. We are intensely developing the game, streamlining the rules to make play smoother and more efficient while retaining the same level of depth; and of course continuing the never-ending task of balancing + tweaking.

I aim to have a designer dairy published in the near term where I will expand more on the design process – but I will say it has been a challenge and I’ve learned some tough, but valuable, lessons along the way. All in all however, I’m very excited about the game and look forward to its finalization and release next year! I won’t blather on much more about this one … well, maybe just a little:

Late to the 4X Party, eh?

With Hegemonic, I really wanted to reflect some key inspirations of mine into the design, and specifically make a game that embraced more far out kinds of technology and responded to the high level of technology a galactic civilization would need. I read a lot of science fiction; Dan Simmon’s Hyperion Cantos is one of my favorite narratives but I enjoy Peter F. Hamilton’s Commonwealth/Void series, the writing of Alistair Reynolds (Revelation Space), John Wright (Golden Age), Isaac Asimov (Foundation), and countless others. I also enjoy brushing up on theoretical physics. Another source of inspiration is my background in natural resource science and sustainability. In particular, the concept that the various systems that make up our society (industrial, political, scientific, financial cultural, etc.) are all interconnected. For the gameplay, I was inspired by the classic abstract Go, in that I wanted a big open and fluid game space for the space opera to unfold across.

As a point of discussion, Hegemonic inevitably draws questions about its similarities between Eclipse, TI3, and (I’m anticipating) Exodus: Proxima Centauri as well. I’ll be honest – other than some solo Vassal module explorations and reading quite a bit about these other games – I haven’t played them with other humans. And for what it’s worth, the design for Hegemonic was well underway before I even joined BGG or learned about Eclipse. But this all dodging the question at hand!

I had a conversation in another thread about 4X games. And an idea that stuck with me (my own idea I should add), is that 4X games are largely about “what you do;” specifically eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate. The label doesn’t directly eXplain “how you win” – or in other words what the real genre or type of game it is. There are a number of ways of handling the victory condition; and it is no surprise that 4X games are often married to civ/empire building games which in turn typically provide players with a menu of VP options to go after in the course of the game. In Eclipse, the VP’s are mapped to the major 4X activities, VP’s from controlling planets (eXplore + eXpand), VP’s from technology (eXploit?), VP’s from fighting (eXterminate) and of course other sources too.

Hegemonic is probably best defined as 4X “area-control” game, as opposed to a 4X “civilization” game. The play is more abstract as a result, and doesn’t have mechanics that are tightly associated with a particular thematic device. This was an intentional design choice – I wanted to create a game where all the facets of growing your empire and doing the “4X kind of things” was funneled into a primary scoring/victory condition that kept all players engaged and fighting over the same crucial space. It demands a high level of direct interaction among all players – you can’t sit in a corner and Tech yourself to victory.

The closest comparisons for the gameplay style of Hegemonic have been El Grande, Dominant Species, and Tigris & Euphrates. El Grande in terms of game structure (three action phases, then scoring phase), control regions, and the majority scoring rules. Dominant Species through the tile laying and collective board growth mechanics that drives opportunity and differential competition/conflict over different types of areas. Tigris & Euphrates because of the how your empire develops along different tracks spatially, how power and strength in conflicts works, and how empires become intertwined with each other. And there is a little bit of Race for the Galaxy too, in terms of action selection and the importance of deducing your opponent’s likely actions as you plan your own. All-in-all, I think the design is coming together exceedingly well.

STATE OF CRISIS (previously titled “Transitional”)
This has been my next most developed game concept over the past year – and there is a working prototype that I continue to solo-test and tweak. If you are interested, you can check out the rules summary HERE.

Essentially, State of Crisis is a Competitive Co-op game that is one-part political satire and one-part tragedy. The world is on the brink of impending doom from no less than 6 different global crises, from political and economic to environmental and ethical.

The players are shadowy figures (i.e. public representatives) beholden to a set of hidden interest groups. The game revolves around an open negotiation mechanic where players put forth and then support each other’s various initiatives and special projects. These initiatives affect NINE different societal indicators, a series of shared tracks, which represent the current state and health of the body-politic. After a round of negotiation, the position along these tracks dictates whether the separate crises tracks move towards catastrophe or transcendence.

The game works as a sort of “social capitol” resource engine game. Supporting other players’ initiatives is way of turning your general “support” resource into the more powerful “influence” resource that lets to push through powerful initiatives or special projects on your own. So there is always a tension between wanting to support other players’ initiatives because long-term you get resources out of it, but the tradeoff is that the initiative might not something you want to support from a scoring standpoint. Of course – you need to keep your intentions cloaked, because if you are too obvious about what you are and aren’t supporting then other players will be hip to your game.

The game ends when a certain number of the crises tracks are locked in either the “catastrophe” or “transcendence” position. If too many are locked into catastrophe then everyone losses. Otherwise, players score points based on the position of the societal indicators relative to their hidden interest groups.

The cool part of the game is that each players group of scoring cards (their hidden interest groups) can earn points for Catastrophes OR for Transcendences, so there is this shifting space where you need to evaluate whether you push things towards ruin and earn points that way or push towards a brave new future and get points that way. By itself, the game is rigged to go towards ruin so it’s generally easier to earn points for ruinous behavior – but of course if everyone does that you all lose!

The design is still early – but the hope is that it becomes a relatively quick playing negation game for up to 9 people. When things get bad (in terms of Crises, not gameplay!) they quickly slide to worse and the game ends – so it doesn’t drag on. In theory it’s a sort of quasi-party game of slippery slope mitigation that you would want to play 2-3 times in a row during a session – that’s the dream anyway!

Late to the Party?

I’m watching Stronghold’s Article 27 with interest – because there are some parallels between these games. I of course knew nothing about Article 27 until seeing it discussed around Essen 2012 and BGG.CON. How similar are they? I’m not sure exactly – but it will be an important thing to keep an eye on.

I’ve spent considerable time “in the sketchbook” working out concepts for this game over the past year. I’m really fascinated by ecology and want to create a game that embodies ecological principles + dynamics accurately enough that the game can function as a classroom teaching tool in addition to being a compelling strategy game.

The biggest challenge in this game will be keep it simple enough and quick enough to play that it could conceivably be played in a classroom setting. I’d like to target the playtime around 45-60 minutes and have it be a solid game for 2-4 players, not sure if it will support more or not.

The basic idea is that players are collectively building a series of food webs that stretch across a series of ecosystems / habitat types. Principally it is a tile placement game – but will also hinge on cards to drive how tiles are placed. For example, you might be able to place a carnivore on top of an appropriately sized herbivore, or you could pair a herbivore with an “out compete” card to place on top of someone’s herbivore. Lot of detail still to work out.

Late to the Party?

Obviously there are thematic parallels between games like Dominant Species and Bios: Megafuana. But again, my hope is that Ecological is much quicker to play and more accessible to a wider audience. It will require a careful balance between level of detail/abstraction and “thematic congruency” with actual ecological principals. I’m intrigued to try out Ginkopolis as well, because the mechanics look somewhat similar (3d tile laying + action cards) – but we’ll have to see how it pans out. Ecological will NOT have a resource management aspect to it – so that’s one big difference.

A conversation in a BGG News thread a while ago sparked some misplaced excitement about a new Amber boardgame. Many of us thought it had to do with Roger Zelanzy’s Amber stories from the Golden Era of Fantasy/Sci-Fi –alas, it was not.

But that didn’t stop many of us from kicking around ideas for what we would like to see in an Amber boardgame – a conversation I haven’t forgot and that I continue to mull over. More so because I’m currently re-reading the whole 10 book original Amber series!

For those who don’t know – Amber is a fantasy reality that interweaves with the world we know as Earth along with a whole host of other fantasy worlds lifted from legend and/or that are new creations of Zelanzy’s. The plot revolves around the ruling family of Amber and the lords and ladies from the Courts of Chaos – the chaotic equivalent to Amber’s order – vying for cosmic control and other godly objectives. The series is full of political intrigue (puts Game of Thrones to shame in my opinion) and hidden motives – and has the makings for a great boardgame.

My REALLY REALLY initial idea is that players take the role of some lesser descendant of either the Lords of Chaos or the Amberites (there was a fair amount of procreation across the lines) competing for unique hidden objectives. I’m really intrigued with developing a game design concept, discussed in the Game Genome Project, which allows essentially any combination of winners + losers at the end of the game. Where interests overlap, it would be plausible to join forces (overtly or covertly) for a shared win – or perhaps no one wins, or perhaps everyone wins! This idea hits the heart of the Amber books in my mind, where alliances between the characters are in a constant state of flux, of trust and uncertainty; congeniality and subversion. I want to get that dynamic across in a game.

Of course, there are other “mechanics” at work in the Amber universe that are integral to the plot and action that would be great to replicate – including the use of “Trump” cards to teleport from a location to a contacted individual, “walking through shadow” to new worlds, walking the Pattern/Logrus to gain special powers, building up influence in alternate worlds, etc.. There is a lot of potential to provide a sort of sandbox world and game system that is simple to absorb and play but has a ton of flexibility to create a unique narrative experience in each game. Keeping the narrative and the strategy (political intrigue) equally strong and alive will be a real challenge.

In the past I’ve been a big miniature gamer – namely Warhammer 40,000, Necromunda, and BattleTech. I’ve “re-designed” a number of Games Workshop games over the years for our playgroup – turning them into the kind of game we always wanted them to be (the hell with the official rules!). I miss this experience and equally so desire a “dungeon crawling” game that is thoroughly a sci-fi game.

I did a little digging into various sci-fi miniature game and boardgame systems and nothing really struck me as close to what I was looking for – I’ve been slowly working on a concept for a hybrid miniatures / boardgame system that brings the character progression experience to a sci-fi boardgame format. The thinking hasn’t evolved too much, so I might as well repost the original concept:

Inspired by the sci-fi writings of Peter F. Hamilton, I’ve become captivated by the idea of badass, nano- and bio-tech infused, network hacking, secret agents forming a team to run missions against the threat (remains to be determined). Thematically it’s like Deus Ex meets Matrix meets Shadowrun, except even farther into the future.

Originally, the game was scoped as a miniature game. I’ve decided to move away from that and utilize a highly modular and flexible boardgame system. The basic premise is that player’s will use preset or randomly generated mission templates that define the board, objectives, type of opposition, etc. Players will have their own character, which they can continue to develop from game to game in a campaign format. Characters will reflect a broad spectrum of abilities and play styles, from combat to stealth to special ability oriented types. Play will likely rely on a planning/hidden action order phase, and then an execution phase. Various mechanisms will be employed to keep the opposition dynamic and interesting over the course of the game from turn to turn.

I mentioned wanting a flexible game design system. From a cooperative standpoint, obviously players will need to work together. However, players can seek out special individual awards through unique class abilities, secret agendas/missions, and more. Often these secret agendas will benefit one player and further their advancement at the risk of jeopardizing the mission, so you’ll often need to play it cool until you can pull of a special stunt and earn more points. Ultimately, I’d like to be a system where players could compete against the AI or even in team vs. team formats. The devil’s in the details.

That’s all for that one. I’ll keep getting inspired and jotting down my ideas.

I haven’t worked up much inspiration for advancing Nano-Mythical (see the last blog post) – which is a poker-esque myth-themed empire building game. I think the idea and concept is pretty cool – but I’m not up for digging back into my small library of mythology books for inspiration right now. So it’s on the back burner until I get motivated to work on it again. Maybe next year.

A much older game concept I developed was a card game using a standard deck of cards called and named Feud. It was a bit like playing Stratego except with cards, and once information was open it stayed open (I have a terrible short-term memory and consequently despise stratego).

Players have a 2x4 grid of cards, doubled up (so there isa a top and bottom card in each position) and the goal is to kill the opposing player’s royal family (Jack, Queen, King). It was a crude concept that worked, and included some clever ideas based on the cards. There was spying, assassination, duels, wars, and skirmishes, all playing out on these opposing 2x4 grids. I’ve been inspired to rework on the concept some more. It’s been years since I last looked at it – but I’ve gained some insight and design thinking that I think could be applied towards advancing the design in a good direction.

Last is Shifters – which I’ve also had on the backburner since I’ve focused so much on Hegemonic. Despite being nearly ready to pull the trigger on a small self-publication run a year or so ago, I’ve now decided to hold off on working on this concept. It just wasn’t quite playing out the way I wanted it to. I have since had a few revelations about the design that I think will resolve my worries and make is a much better game – but it pretty much requires throwing everything out the window and starting from the ground up. So I’ll tackle that when I have time to focus on the development more.

I will say that I’m really looking for a game that fills the role that Shifters intends (and largely does) fill in my collection. Namely, a game that is reasonably quick to play for 2-6 players, is a card game with a small footprint, has a high level of interaction and meta-gaming potential, and that is fast paced and keeps everyone engaged throughout the game. I really like the basic concept and structure of the game – it just needs to be implemented with a different approach to the cards to make the gameplay both more engaging and less luck-driven.


This concludes the 2012 Edition of the Skunkwork Newsletter. Really, I have more ideas and concepts floating around than I can plausibly design, let alone have an opportunity to playtest! Once Hegemonic’s intense development cycle is finished I can circle back to some of these other concepts and develop them more fully.

Any of these concepts strike your fancy or send you running in terror? Been there done that? See a dimond in the rough? Let me know!

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