Twist of the Orb

Post by: Grant Rodiek

It has been a while since I’ve written about Orb, mostly because it hasn’t moved much. I did an extensive amount of content design, but couldn’t quite shape a rule set around it. I found myself making far too many compromises and moving far too close to other games. It felt too derivative and I slammed on the brakes to just think for a while.

Naturally, this has been an easy delay to accept. Hocus and Landfall have occupied much of my time.

I have some ideas and theories swirling. I’m writing this blog to force myself to put them down on paper and gather some early impressions. Before I talk about the ideas, I need to reset everyone to properly explain what Orb is.

Orb is a 2 player game of infantry combat set in the future when elite special forces are dropped in orbit to assault positions on a variety of planets. I love special forces and the notion of orbital drop troopers. I think it’s an exciting tapestry. The idea is for the game to be deeply asymmetrical between two points:

  • Orbital player relies on a few incredible soldiers who are specialists. They rely on stealth, surprise, great toys, and discipline to get things done. This player’s perspective is that of the commander on the drop ship. NOT a soldier in the field. That is a very important distinction for my design.
  • Planetary player relies on a quantity of more regular soldiers and entrenched defensive positions. They enjoy intimate knowledge of the terrain and a volume of bullets to greet their guests. They also have reinforcements, which are an unexpected problem for the Orbital player. This player’s perspective is that of the base commander responding to a threat.

The first idea had some solid mechanics I want to preserve. These include:

  • When dispatching troopers from the dropship, the Orbital player chooses a role (ex: Sniper) and adds the Sniper cards to his action deck. The player can only use cards from his deck. I like the idea of prepping a team as you go. However, this will be something done at the start of the game while the other player is creating the map.
  • As the perspective of the Orbital player is that of a commander, he doesn’t have to track which character is the sniper, for example. Just that a sniper is in the field. This is a key abstraction of which I’m proud. You’re managing your teams!
  • The game will use a scenario generation mechanic. After Sol Rising, I don’t want to be responsible for hand crafted scenarios. They are so difficult! Instead, I want a randomizing mechanism that defines a location, reinforcements, objectives, and so forth.

This idea had some problems I want to solve.

  • All of the cool mechanisms were with the Orbital player. As my friend Chevee noted, one player gets to be cool, the other is a doof. Both need to feel cool.
  • I was having a very difficult time preserving a stealth mechanism with the setup I was pursuing. The more I lost the stealth, the more the game felt like every other tactical game ever.
  • I want a novel dice mechanic for combat resolution. What I had was basically putting lipstick on a pig. It angered the pig and wasn’t cool.

My solution for the stealth and making the planetary defense player more unique were solved together. I say solved, but really, it’s just an idea. I was inspired by three things:

  1. Tile laying in Carcassonne. I recently played this for the first time and love it.
  2. Map formation in Eclipse. The hex tiles fill in the spaces as players explore.
  3. I played a mock game with pen and paper, just saying the decisions of the orbital player aloud and drawing how the map changed.

Those things lead to this idea: The planetary player will be building the map as the game commences. His or her role will be that of tile laying. This lets them establish their base, build tough spots for the orbital team, create ambushes, and more. Like Carcassonne and Eclipse, there will be connections that matter. For example, line of site, such as a break in the jungle. You can deny cover in the approach to your base, while also exposing your guard towers to snipers.

If you put a machine gun nest way out here, it might be easily surrounded or circumvented. I also thought of a nifty mechanic to connect patrols. Think of it like Carcassonne’s road. Along that line, patrols can and will find you (the orbital troopers). The planetary player might make other concessions to connect those patrols, but having an active patrol line essentially provides a constant living fence.

The tiles should have a small set of symbols on them. Instead of saying “this is always a guard tower,” I would leverage something I used in Sol Rising, which I took from Robinson Crusoe, which is that “this symbol in this scenario can mean A, B, or C.” This gives you flexibility within limits.

Many games do things like this. You know, the conniving game master leaving a trail of sadness for the other player. Claustrophobia, Descent/Imperial Assault, and Dungeon Heroes come to mind. I think the content within this system for Orb can be unique and I believe more twists will emerge through development. They always do if you seek them!

The other neat twist with this is that there will be a few different ways tiles will be added:

  • Initial setup. A varied set of structures and areas will be placed based on the scenario generator. However, the scenario won’t define where the objects are placed, just what is placed.
  • Planetary Placement: During the game, the planetary player will place tiles as one of his or her options to build the board. But, they’ll have to choose this among other options, so they need to choose when something needs to be placed just so.
  • Random Placement: Sometimes, the orbital player will zig instead of zag. Things are outside one’s control in battle. I don’t want a chess-like game. There will be times when the Orbital player will pull a tile at random that the other player must then place in that spot.

I hope there is some tension between ideal placement, but also needing to manage troops and other items. I believe the planetary player will have a face down stack of tiles. He or she will pull tiles and place them behind a screen to evaluate, as well as troops to manage and other special tricks, like reinforcements (tanks!?) and surprises.

The orbital player will have 1-4 markers on the board which indicate possible teams. As the orbital player uses cards to attack and use special abilities, he or she will indicate the marker used. This essentially will note that someone is for sure at that position. Therefore, the orbital player is managing a hand of cards and their position on the board, which is ambiguous. Remember, stealth!

In addition to these mechanics, I’m taking great pains to simplify things like line of sight, movement, and range. I want combat resolution to be simple. I want complexity in the form of results and the terrain, units, weapons, and tactics shining through. I want the decisions to be interesting, not the framework underneath them. I think this is a huge opportunity for improvement and I want to grab it.

I haven’t spoken about the dice mechanic yet because I simply don’t have one. Which means it’s time to stop writing and craft one.

2 thoughts on “Twist of the Orb

  1. I like the idea of the defense/base player getting to build things on-the-fly. It feels like it could become a sort of real-time tower defense mixed with some ability to respond to the threat and order your base troops/machinery to change things up.

    I do have thoughts on dice … but nothing coherent to right here yet. If you want to chat about it, you know where to find me. ;-)

  2. Pingback: Today in Board Games Issue #252 - Star Wars: Imperial Assault Giveaway! - Today in Board Games

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