September 29, 2011

On the boards ... or ... A Skunkwork Orange

It is often said that good game designers have many designs spinning around in their heads. Whether having a lot of designs going on at once is an indicator of being a good designer or not is a matter of further speculation. Personally, I have a lot of ideas floating around in my head and I’m striving to be best designer I can.

What are these ideas you ask? Shifters and Hegemonic are two games the furthest along development, so let’s tackle those first.


Shifters has been a concept that I started about 9 years ago, and the game has changed substantially along the way. The essence of the game is that players represent shapeshifters competing through a series of trials to be awarded the prestigious title of Grand/Master/Head/King Shapeshifter. Each player has three different "morph" cards in front them representing different animal forms ("morph"ologies) that they have at their disposal. During the main phase of the game, players earn VPs by having animal morphs in play with attributes (like strength, intellect, stealth, etc.) that match the requirements of current trial.

In brief, gameplay consists of a series trials consisting of a varying number of rounds.. Each round, all player’s simultaneously choose a card from their hand to play, then everyone flips them over and they are resolved going around the table. Cards have a wide range of effects. Players can play new morph cards to better their position on the current trial, but can also throw up obstacles restricting other players, steal/swap morph cards from other players, change up the trials, and play defensive cards as well.
The card play has a good deducting/bluffing element to it and of course a high degree of player interaction. Additionally, turn order can really matter, so often you’ll be playing to try and grab the "leader" card, giving you the advantage when it comes to resolving cards for the round.

Perhaps it was fortuitous, but my printing arrangements fell through giving me more time to continue polishing the design and pacing of the game. I continue to get good feedback and suggestions, so I think I will continue to take my time and improve the game going forward. If anyone is interested in playtesting, I have a playtest PnP package that can be shared.


Hegemonic is my second game under active/intense development. Hegemonic aims to deliver an abstracted 4X space empire game, playable in +/- 2 hours. A difficult task to be sure. However, I’m very happy and excited about how the gameplay and experience is evolving so far. My playtest group regularly asks to play the game, often not even giving me time to make revisions to the prototype materials, so that’s a good sign!

The design emerged from a desire to create a highly fluid and dynamic game, in which players need to balance a number of important factors/economics, respond to other players tactically and strategically, and maintain flexibility throughout the game. During the design process, I keep asking myself, how do I make decisions more interesting and compelling? Each cycle of revisions strengths and tightens the gameplay.

The basic gameplay of Hegemonic consists of players:
(1) exploring sectors of the galaxy (explore)
(2) building bases and units, including industrial complexes, political embassies and agents, and martial outposts and fleets (expand)
(3) leveraging the power and influence of your bases to expand your networks and attack other players through low-luck conflicts (exterminate)
(4) discovering and advancing technologies to augment your empires capabilities (exploit)

Sounds fairly straight forward right? What makes the game dynamic and engaging is how actions are selected and performed. Each turn has three main action phases. During each action phase, all players will select 1 of 7 action cards to play for the round. Selected cards are revealed simultaneously and carried out in a certain order. Some actions allow you to block your opponents, or directly expand your own empire, attack your opponents, or conduct special research and exploration actions. The order and position of players during action resolution is key to seeing your plans come to fruition. Careful deduction work is critical to timing your actions to best make use of them in light of what your opponents may be doing. Furthermore, each action is fairly limited in its scope, so to successfully realize a major plan or move, you’ll need to string together multiple actions in an effective manner while also mitigating your risks and responding to a constantly shifting board state.

Another aspect of the design I think is working well is that Hegemonic doesn’t reward predictable and sequential expansion of your empire. In many empire building games, each turn you grab adjacent territories, having a nice unified area of control. Hegemonic eliminates all of that. You may be focusing your industrial strength in one area of the galaxy and jump across to the other side to establish political strength. It’s like a game of Go, where the board is wide open initially and how your position your initial moves begins to establish a unique and interwoven field of play.

I’ve written quite a bit about Hegemonic elsewhere. You can grab the current rules here, follow the development thread here, or read a detailed gameplay synopsis here.

Nano-Mythical (working title)

This is a card game design I also started years ago. Originally it was simply named Mythos, but that name is already taken. Grabbing inspiration from Dan Simmon’s books Illium/Olympos, in which a futuristic recreation of the Trojan war unfolds for the bemusement of a post-human civilization (among other things), I re-themed the game slightly to Nano-Mythical, which sees the return of mythological gods of Greek, Norse, Egyptian, Sumerian, Hindu, and Japanese origin. Each player represents a different house-culture of a futuristic society, each fashioning themselves after one of the ancient cultures above. The houses are competing to acquire the most "citizens" to their side in order to gain the right to set the direction for the next great social transcendence. Whowers!

Gameplay combines a number of mechanics, including resource management, hand management, and auctioning/bidding. Each house has a deck of cards, and there is also a general deck. In some ways similar to Poker, players attempt to build a Tableau and hand of cards, betting their "citizen" tokens that they will be able to win the next challenge or competition. The winner will gain more citizens and other players loose them. The cards themselves reflect all manner of mythological entities, including gods, heroes, monsters, temples, artifacts, curses, miracles, etc. The ability to assemble a winning hand hinges on managing your house’s welfare, power, and knowledge. You’ll end up playing some cards to build your tableau to boost those attributes, and using others during the bidding sessions.

The game has a very crude prototype created, and I’m in the process of reworking most of the mechanics to better focus on the gameplay elements described above.

Eco-Logical (working title)

I’ve always liked ecology and the myriad of biological processes and interactions that occur in nature. EcoLogical is a game concept in the very early stages of development where I’m looking to model many of the interactions in a simple and intuitive manner. One objective I have with the game design to make it accessible as a classroom learning tool, perhaps for Middle School age kids. That means it needs to be easy to learn, the mechanics self-evident, and playable in 30 to 45 minutes.

The basic idea (and this is only very rough) is that there are is a series of game boards (probably six) that stitch together represent different abiotic regions across water availability and temperature gradients. Each region will have slots for different tropic levels of organisms (i.e. primary producers, herbivores, carnivores, decomposers, etc.). Each player will have their own pool of tiles in front of them reflecting different organisms (plants or animals!) or adaptations. Player’s will be looking to match (place) organisms into suitable habitat niches and score points for how well "fit" or suited that animals is to the chosen location.

What makes this more than a "find the best spot" game is that player’s also have a hand of cards that represent different ecological actions/events/interactions. These special cards can be paired with tile placements to allow you to do special things. The "mutualism" card might allow you to play a certain species on top of someone else’s allowing you to both score points. Or a landslide card can cause a disturbance that wipes out a few of the primary producer tiles in a region, causing food shortfalls that cascade up through the food chain.

The design, as mentioned, is in its infancy, but I’m excited about the possibilities of this one.

Transitional (working title)

This is one of those game ideas that comes to you in a random burst of insight. A moment of clarity or enlightenment. Of course it remains to be seen whether it works on paper.

Transitional is a game where players start off with various stakes/ownerships in a hypothetical city-state of the early 21st century with various resources and faculties at their disposal. The object of the game is for players to collectively guide the management, growth, evolution, etc. of this city-state through or around a series of crises, that not surprisingly are crises we face today, a growing economic crisis, social unrest/instability crisis, environmental/energy crisis (global warming), health crisis, etc. The game is cooperative in that player’s have to discuss options or ideas to advance to manage these crises and risks but competitive in that the player most able to influence and shape the future in a way that appeals to their interests will be the ultimate winner.

Of course everyone can also loose if a combination of crises come to fruition. The tricky part is that player’s will need to decide how to respond to each crisis, using a combination of technologies, policies, and strategies aimed at risk avoidance/prevention, risk management/mitigating, or disaster relief. Lots of tough choices!

Each player is given a few cards at the beginning of the game representing their constituents, essentially outlining the unique combination of ways in which they can score points at the end of the game. Player’s keep these secret from each other. Next, players have a hand of cards representing different "initiatives." These initiatives include a range of things, from new technologies, to new policies, to new social/cultural movements, etc.

The gameplay is unique in that it is very unstructured. A "turn" consists of a debate among players. Player’s will consider the current crises level and resources of their city-state and offer up "initiatives" to the group for debate and discussion as to whether they should be implemented. Some initiatives (i.e. big major ones) will require a majority vote or even consensus vote among players to implement. Other initiatives function more like "play anytime" and might not require any approval from other players, you can just play it, immediately changing the game state.

Obviously some of these initiatives are going to appeal to certain constituents and not to others. Internally you need to balance what initiatives you are supporting based on what’s going to score you points, but you need to consider how you can work with other players and advance initiatives they are likely to support. Its tricky because some initiatives may advance the onset of one type of crisis while adverting another! When players have collectively played/implemented a certain number of initiatives (or agreed to delay action), time advances, crisis tracks update, players get new cards, and another round of negotiation ensues.

Ultimately the game ends when players are able to stabilize the crises below a certain level and ensure a healthy, stable, and resilient city-state. At that point, everyone reveals their constituents and scoring occurs. What fun!

Armed (working title)

I’ve been longing for a sci-fi, semi-cooperative dungeon crawler type game that is a good blend of RPG and tactical miniature game. I played a lot of Necromunda back in the day, which was awesome. But today there’s a bit too much overhead involved in running a Necromunda campaign. 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 The 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.

Few! That’s all for now. Any thoughts or ideas about the game concepts, please share!

This post was originally published on the Big Game Theory! blog on BoardGameGeek, here.

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