July 7, 2014

Designer Diary: Hegemonic, or Reimagining the 4X/Sci-Fi Empire Genre from Sketchbook to Publication


This Designer Diary was originally published at BoardGameGeek News on January 14, 2013.


The Short Version

I've always enjoyed tinkering with and designing games. In the summer of 2010 I started designing a space empire game called Hegemonic, inspired in part by the many sci-fi authors I enjoy. I endeavored to break the mold and create a space empire game with a big open decision space, lots of room for creative and dynamic gameplay, and mechanisms appropriately abstracted to match the theme of galactic domination.

The first prototypes were tested in early 2011 after spending months in a sketchbook working out the concepts. With the help of space artist Alex Skinner, I had an attractive prototype to use and share with willing test subjects. I then spent the next fifteen months, until mid-2012, developing the game, testing with external (blind) playtest groups, and polishing the gameplay.

Towards the end of the summer of 2012, with the help of some BGG friends, I began pitching the game to interested publishers. Minion Games was quick to pick up Hegemonic, and we've been working feverishly this fall and winter getting the game ready for production!

Hegemonic is a space empire game wrapped around an area-control style game. It is has a high level of direct conflict and interaction in the game, yet also feels more "Euro" than many of other space empire games. It is distinct because players' industrial, political, and martial systems all contribute toward their economy and area control, and all of them can be used to initiate conflicts.

If you like big, deep, conflict-driven Eurogames, please continue reading!



The Long Version

To my wife's constant torment, I've been a tinkerer in most things in life. I have a frequent drive to want to "improve" things, most of which probably don't need improvement. When it comes to games, I derive more enjoyment out of thinking about and tweaking them than I do actually playing. It isn't surprising that I've also spent many years designing my own variants, mods, add-ons, and scratch-built games.

I'm always looking to tweak games in little ways that make the game experience more in line with what I want (or, ahem, what my group wants), and this applies broadly to digital games as well as analogue games. So what do I usually aim to achieve? I want a game that has:

-----(1) "Creative" decision spaces
-----(2) Choices that matter
-----(3) Challenge
-----(4) Sense of narrative
-----(5) Excitement
-----(6) Congruency

These points are important because they guide not only my tinkering with existing games but also my endeavors to create new games. This designer's diary will consider these points in relation to the process and evolution of the space empire game, Hegemonic, forthcoming from Minion Games.


Design Journal Excerpts


Introduction: Inspiration + Genesis

I'm not sure what specifically prompted me to design a space empire/4X-style game; it was likely a combination of many things. I do know it was back in the late summer of 2010 and I had been feverishly working on some other game designs when I decided that I'd like to do a space game.

Actually it isn't surprising why I had this impulse. I read a fair amount of science fiction, particularly in the little sub-genre of Space Opera. Dan Simmon's Hyperion Cantos is hands down my favorite narrative of all time – you can even buy the Shrike microbadge I made! – and I had just finished re-reading it. But I've also been enamored with 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 have a minor love affair with theoretical physics – and there is a microbadge for that, too!

In terms of making a space game, I really wanted to take the far-out concepts from science fiction and put them into a game. The really far-out stuff. In looking at the range of other space empire games, I kept having this feeling of disconnect, in which the mechanisms and scale of what players were doing didn't feel at all in line with the scope and scale of the theme, or the technologies were too obvious and uninspiring. (Blasters Level 2!) I wanted a game in which the topology of galactic expansion gave a totally different feel to the gameplay than you get from playing a Risk-like game of linear expansion.

The other major 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. This is a lesson lifted from ecology – and there is yet another microbadge I made for that as well! – that I wanted to inject that into a game. I am not as enamored with empire games that put various aspects of your empire into separate mechanistic silos; I wanted to design a game in which they all were directed towards a common game objective and could interact directly with each other.


Act 1: The Sketchbook

In my professional life, I am in a field that still values the power of drawing and sketching for idea creation, so I spent months working out the basic framework for Hegemonic in a sketchbook, drawing from the inspirations above as well as from other ideas I had been kicking around.

During the early stages of game design, I find it immensely beneficial to focus on the kind of experience you want the game to achieve and clearly state all these ideas as objectives. Design, as an art form, doesn't have correct answers, so having clear, self-created objectives can provide you with a benchmark to evaluate design choices against.

The major design objectives grew out of the list of things I want out of games. I apologize in advance; this turned into a little treatise on game design!

Sense of narrative

I don't mean narrative in terms of theme (e.g., aliens with ray guns or farmers with potatoes). Rather, I mean narrative in terms of dynamic gameplay, with a sense of progression and change over the course of the game. The best barometer for a game with a good narrative is how much post-game chatter there is about what happened. When my friend says after the game, "Oh, dude, I can't believe this happened on turn 3, and then on turn 4 you did this and that changed the whole board state, and suddenly all this other stuff started happening!" That's interesting. There's a link between player choices and events shaping a unique storyline and experience from the session. A good narrative creates good memories – and I want more good memories.

Design Response:
Have elements of the game that relate to all aspects of 4X games, which I interpret as this: eXploration (discovering new places to grow), eXpand (the ability to grow your empire in different ways), eXploit (leverage unique technologies/assets to your advantage), and eXterminate (direct conflict). These core activities provided the basic direction and framework for the game, informing what players would be "doing". Ideally, types of activities would shift over the course of the game to support a narrative arc in which the emphasis changes from build-up to conflict.

"Creative" decision space

I always liked miniature games because they provide an open and fluid landscape (or topology) over which the game is played. Developing winning strategies isn't about optimization (although that can be important). Rather it's about imagination.

A creative decision space allows players to plot daring and unexpected moves, diving into deeper and deeper strategic layers with more experience. The opposite of a creative decision space is a prescriptive space, in which the game comes with pre-wired strategies that the players are supposed to uncover over time. That sounds dreadful to me, so I like creative games.

Design Response:
To create a bigger, more creative decision space, the game needed to provide a lot of choice. Go was the inspiration here and tied into the exploration aspect of the game. Players would draft tiles from a face-up pool of sector tiles AND they could place that tile wherever they wanted on the board. These mechanisms minimized the luck of the draw but also allowed for more creative play. Exploration was to be proactive – not reactive. Essentially, the players are shaping the galaxy (i.e., the board) in a way that supports their strategy rather than having the random results of exploration dictate a viable strategy to a player.

In addition, I wanted to create situations in which players could make big, unexpected (but well-timed and planned) moves to keep the dynamics constantly shifting. Feeding into this was the idea to abandon discrete territory control and allow the players' empires to become intermingled, creating more opportunities for engagement. Thus, the sector tiles contained multiple locations within them that many players could expand into.

Challenge

I play games to be intellectually challenged, whether by the game system itself, the competition between players, or both. I don't want to just sit there like a lump and wait for the next turn to come around. I want to be thinking. This doesn't mean that the game must be complex. Complexity is fine, but it needs to be directed towards enriching the depth in the game; otherwise it's just creating mental hurdles for the sake of seeing who can mentally hurdle the furthest the fastest. In other words, needless complexity creates noise and distracts from the meaningful choices.

Design Response:
Allow empires to have three core ways of developing and intertwining. I wanted the industrial, political, and martial systems to be distinct in operation but to all feed into your empire's overall capacities, all feed into scoring, and all be able to directly affect one another. There is an intricacy in the interactions between these systems that helps make a more creative and challenging decision space.

As players build out the different aspects of their empires, I wanted each of the systems to work differently, so I devised a system for determining "Power" and "Range" uniquely for each type of base and unit. These determine where actions can be targeted and how power feeds into conflicts. The set of rules governing each of these systems is the "engine" that drives the gameplay – and how players network and connect their bases and units together to project power and control over regions is key to winning.

Choices that matter

Ultimately, the choices we make should matter to the outcome as otherwise we are playing a game of chance. I'm comfortable with random elements, but these should be implemented in ways that enable meaningful choices in response rather than detract from choice or dictate a strategy. In short, use random elements for shaping opportunity, not dictating strategy.

Design Response:
The technology cards would be used to reflect your empire's technological advancements AND would be used to help determine conflicts. I wanted every card to be beneficial (again to minimize randomness), and making the cards dual-purposed was a good way to achieve that. I also wanted a feeling of "hand-building", in which you can build up and maintain a hand that supports your strategy rather than having your strategy dictated to you by the cards you draw. The choice of what to keep is more interesting. The game provides ways of flushing your hand if you need to change directions rapidly as well; it's about putting the player in the driver seat of their strategy.

Excitement

I want to have fun with games. If the above things fall in line, usually I'm going to have fun with a game, but other elements play into this, too. A strong theme, nice components, humor, the visual presentation, playtime, etc. – all play into a game being exciting. From the standpoint of gameplay, however, tension is vital for creating excitement. This feeling of tension should be wrapped around every decision in the game to keep everyone at the table engaged.

Design Response:
Encourage conflict and interaction on-the-board and above-the-board. I wanted conflict to play a central role in the design to force a lot of interaction and tension, but I also wanted "above-the-board" opportunities for open negotiation, colluding, conspiring, etc. In addition, I wanted players to have to deduce and predict the likely moves of their opponent's as a source of interaction, something the action cards were well-suited to accomplish.

Keep individual turns moving quickly with the heavy thinking moments occurring at the same time for all players to cut down on downtime. The turn order would be collective – that is, all players go through each phase together – and consist of a resource collection phase, exploration phase, a series of action phases, and an upkeep type phase. I wanted the most significant thinking stages to occur simultaneously to reduce downtime, but also because I like the tension that results from having to anticipate your opponent's moves. Again, the action cards were part of this.

Make the primary focus on a shared board space, not player boards or other components. I also knew I wanted a modular game board that captures the full scale and extent of a galaxy but which would allow the game to scale effectively across player counts.

Congruency

Some might call this immersion or mechanism-theme connection. I like to call it congruency. Essentially, I like games in which there aren't huge internal inconsistencies at work, either in the mechanisms, in the theme, or in the interaction between theme and mechanisms. It's a buzzkill when I find myself thinking, "Yeah, that mechanism was cool, but it doesn't make any sense within the context of the theme." This isn't to say that games I like have to be strong thematic games – just that I want a consistent approach to the mechanisms, theme, and level of abstraction.

Design Response:
Use a consistent level of abstraction across all aspects of the game. Many empire games have elements that are incredibly abstracted (e.g., politics) while other elements contain significant detail (e.g., combat). I wanted to apply an even level of abstraction to the game in a way that was consistent with the incredibly abstract concept of galactic expansion.

One way of addressing this was to use unified resource systems of CAPS (short for Capacity) that the Industrial, Political, and Martial parts of your empire all use. The concept is that strength in Military (for example) could be used as political leverage, or that industry can influence and sway politics (as they do!), so the unified resource "Capacity" plays into this power-sharing concept.


Act 2: Early Prototyping, Playtesting, and Unveiling

One piece of often repeated game design advice is to not spend too much time "pretty-ifying" the early prototypes because things will change and you don't want to get locked into the artwork or graphic design. I didn't really follow this advice.

In late 2010, I had the chance to meet BGG user Alex Skinner (GreenMelon) after posting some of my design concepts for the game. Among other things, Alex is a self-proclaimed space artist. I inquired whether he was interested in providing some graphic design direction and artwork for the game, and he was quick to jump on board. Over the course of a few months, we worked back and forth working up a functional graphic design for the game complete with outstanding space art – and I'm happy to say that while the graphic design has gone through lots of revisions, the artwork Alex developed will be used for the final game and his influence in the graphic design can still be seen.

Literally the first "full" prototype of Hegemonic

Long story short, I had the first prototype assembled and ready to roll in early 2011 and it looked quite nice! The graphic look and polish of the game early on in the prototyping played a huge role in attracting interest for playtesting the game. How's that for breaking the rule? So after running through a number a solo tests, I subjected the first version of Hegemonic to my eager gaming buddies.

I would describe the initial playtesting experience as a success – but not without some pain.

Everyone liked the concept and basic structure of the game, but we all agreed that it needed refinement. Hegemonic is an intricate game – and each of the major elements of the game needed to be made more clear and easier to process. In addition, there were implementation concerns in which the intention for a particular mechanism wasn't executed in a way that met the intent. For example, we used to randomly draw tech cards from your opponent's hand for conflicts. That had to go!

By February 2011, I felt pretty confident with the game, and the prototype was nice enough that I felt the game could benefit from a BGG game page. Maybe I broke the rules here again (that still seems unclear), yet my takeaway from the initial playtesting is that I had a solid framework to build on.


Act 3: Internal Development, Blind Testing, and Torment

Someone else once said, "If you don't hate your game, you are not developing it hard enough."

Thus began the near fifteen month process of refining, streamlining, revising, balancing, streamlining, revising, raging, crying, and elating that is the development process. Fortunately, I wasn't alone. In addition to my own internal testing group, I was pleasantly surprised that a number of BGG users took up the call to build their own prototype copies from print-and-play files and contribute to external (blind) playtesting. Many of these individuals went above and beyond the call and provided insight all through the process – and still do!

Lest anyone tell you otherwise, game design – and specifically development – is a lot of work. Some of the mechanisms gave me a real headache trying to develop, and I'd like to share a few of these personal agonies:

Torment #1: The Action Cards
I was trying to achieve something complex with the action cards, to create a rock-paper-scissor system in which the industrial/political/martial systems could all interact with each other. I brainstormed a huge list of the "thematic" things I'd like the actions to embody like sabotage, assassination, corporate takeovers, military coups, etc. How to get these all onto a workable and balanced set of action cards was the real task.

My sketchbook is consumed with pages of alternative schemes for the action cards. Timing was a huge element in the gameplay, so the actions needed to consider sequence. The relative costs of different types of actions needed to be considered in light of how each base/unit projected power and influence. And to pile on more, the actions needed to provide the right blend of tough choices AND flexibility in execution to drive the gameplay.

As I worked through the options (and later with Minion's developers), I found the design moving towards using more flexible and clear actions. As thematically rich as some of the earlier schemes were, they were confusing and difficult to navigate. The revelation was that simpler, more flexible actions would allow for more emergent gameplay strategies, yet give the players just enough theme for the actions to feel grounded. So it headed in that direction and I'm happy with the result!


One of countless drafts/revisions to the action cards

Torment #2: Scoring
I believe some famous designer said something to effect of "The scoring IS your game."

I heard that message about halfway through Hegemonic's development, so as you can imagine this became headache #2. For whatever reason, I didn't have a clear concept early on of how scoring would work, how the winner would be determined, etc. Some of our earliest playtests didn't even have scoring; we just played for a while and then stopped. Obviously this wasn't going to work!

I went through literally dozens of different scoring approaches. I had scenarios with scoring all at the end of the game based on incomprehensible evaluations of the endgame board state. I had immediate scoring based on performing certain actions. I had scoring that required multiplying various things together. After trying out all kinds of options in an attempt, I admit, to be clever, I looked objectively at the problem and then kept it simple.

In the end, the scoring system is based on players' relative control over each board region, and scoring occurs at the end of each turn. It was simple and it worked best. It created exactly the right kind of incentives to spread across the galaxy to get a foothold in as many regions as possible, but also to fight it out where you can to gain more relative control. The pacing worked well with three action phases occurring before scoring at the end of the turn. Players need to plan for scoring each turn, but they also need to plan across the whole game to maintain positions of strength.


Working through different scoring options in one of countless solo tests

Torment #3: Board Layout + Pacing
The last torment that we had to work through related to the configuration of the board and set-up conditions in order create the right kind of pacing in the game. In particular, we needed to balance the endgame trigger and overall board size to encourage interaction and conflict while also having the game end at a satisfying point in the experience. This was really tricky.

We worked through and tested numerous scenarios of board size using 7-hex, 5-hex, 4-hex, 3-hex and 2-hex sized boards in different configurations. The more board we had, the more regions that would need to be scored and the less potential there was for conflict – but with too few boards that were too large the gameplay became less interesting. We also needed to factor in how many tiles would start "explored" at the beginning of the game and whether the game would end when the galaxy was full or when another trigger was met.

Through testing, we felt the game should wrap up in five or six turns as going longer than that, particularly for new players, became strenuous, so we decided to slightly reduce the size of the galaxy and use a system in which the total tiles available in a particular game scaled to the player count (specifically eight tiles per player). Math-wise, this worked out really well and struck the balance we were looking for.


Concept diagrams for one of many board arrangement scenarios

Torment #N: When to say when
This is more of a general note – but during the development process there are so many instances in which one might say, "We could do this, or we could do that." It is easy to pile more stuff on; it's harder to weed it out. We spent considerable time eliminating a lot of smaller, more fiddly rules and moving others to optional advanced rules. At some point, you need to assess whether the added baggage of a particular rule is really translating into deeper gameplay, or whether it's just adding more noise to the experienced.


Act 4: Pursuing Publication

I got a little ahead of myself there.

In the summer of 2012, after the bulk of internal development, I was at a point where I felt the design was working exceeding well – and it was time to think about publication.

The key question was whether to pitch it to a publisher or try to self-publish. Deep down, I wanted the game picked up by a publisher – yet the publishing endeavor was made more challenging by other notable 4X style games entering the scene in late 2011 and early 2012. Would Hegemonic stand out? How would it be perceived? Was it different enough? I kept a close eye on other games coming out (and their reception) and felt confident (and still do) that Hegemonic is more than sufficiently distinct to stand out.

I also knew that I needed someone to help raise awareness about the game. I needed someone with clout, with connections. I needed Jesse Dean (doubtofbuddha)! All jokes aside, I sent Jesse one of the fancy late-stage prototypes, and he graciously previewed the game on his blog.


Jesse Dean and group playtesting a later stage prototype

Even more surprisingly, Jesse helped me pitch the game to a number of publishers at conventions he planned to attend! The first few attempts did not get the game picked up, but I did receive excellent feedback from the publisher's perspective. Some of these suggestions amounted to "Come back to us when it is sufficiently changed into a different game", but others were much more insightful and understood what the game was trying to achieve. A certain Long View podcaster provided a wealth of insight and thought into streamlining the game and accentuating the strategic aspects even more.

Minion Games looked at Hegemonic in August 2012, and after a playtest of the prototype picked it up for publication! In hindsight, I could have saved myself some turmoil by going to Minion Games first as owner James Mathe had seen one of the early prototypes at the Protospiel convention in 2011 and was interested. However, it was beneficial having others publishers look at it, too, as they had provided good feedback that was incorporated into the final game.

Since then, we (Minion and myself) have been hard at work getting the game ready for production, including further refinements to the rules and graphic design, balance, and gameplay to make it the best it can be. In particular, making sure there are no ambiguities in the rules or components is crucial for having a successful game that makes a strong first impression.


Act 5: Looking Back and Looking Ahead

I am ecstatic about how Hegemonic has shaped up. In looking back over my list of design objectives, Hegemonic hit every one of them. The game provides a compelling narrative as players grow their empires in bold and daring ways, vie for control, and become intertwined. There is consistency in how the theme is abstracted onto the gameplay. The mechanisms set up a creative decision space that provides a high level of depth and opens up many layers of strategy. It is a challenging game in which players must juggle the balance of power and timing of actions, yet one in which the choices you make are not invalidated by fate. Last, it is an exciting game that keeps everyone engaged in the dynamics on the board as well as "above-the-board" person to person.

Look for Hegemonic in 2013!

Oliver Kiley

Hegemonic at BGG.CON 2012


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