Sol Rising Mid-Mortem

Battleship

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I hit a very big milestone for Sol Rising last night: the campaign is content complete. That’s right! After about 6 months I’ve completed 12 scenarios that tell the story of the Terran invasion of the Jovian system. This was a really big undertaking, arguably the greatest thing (using great to mean large) I’ve designed.

Every scenario includes a composition of ships for both sides, their starting positions, interesting objectives (other than just destruction), new Events, new rules, and story moments to precede and modify every mission. Just typing that gives me flash backs. The campaign booklet is 28 pages and over 11,000 words.

I’ve learned a great deal doing this work, much of which can be applied to other designs and work. The game is not finished, obviously, as it needs to go through more testing and iteration, but I thought it would be fun to draft a “mid-mortem” to write about what I’ve learned so far.

You may read the rules for Sol Rising here. You may read the campaign here.

Remove Passive Effects: This is a lesson that took a few iterations to really drive home, but it’s such an important one. Most of the ships in the game have abilities you can activate. The majority of them were abilities that you’d activate and use immediately. Cause and effect. However, about 25% of them were passive defensive abilities that would leave a status on the board. For example, you could activate shields that would modify a ship’s defensive properties the next time it was attacked.

This caused some issues:

  • I needed to design a method to easily track this. This meant more tokens.
  • Tracking these effects increased complexity in a bad way. Players had to pay attention to more to make decisions and play.
  • I had to craft rules to deal with odd situations. What if the ship isn’t attacked? How long do the shields last?

On two occasions, my friend and design peer Cole Medeiros noted I needed to simplify them. He kept stressing cause and effect and how that simplifies things. After the first time I addressed some, but others remained. I thought it was better. After the second time, he offered the feedback with a twist.

“This ability prevents one damage when attacked next. Instead of forcing me to remember that, just remove a damage that’s already on the ship.”

Much. Simpler.

I applied this to all remaining abilities and removed them. Now, every ability in the game has an immediate effect. This has simplified the rules, simplified the abilities, removed components, and removed edge cases.

Passive abilities have absolutely ruined some games for me. I quit playing Seasons because I was sick of tracking what seemed like an endless stream of passive effects. I should have paid attention for my own game, but it took time to do so. Nonetheless, the lesson has sunk in (again).

Remove Conditional Abilities: In a game where you have activated abilities, it is crucial that in as many cases as possible you remove conditional requirements. By this, I mean: If X is the status, then do Y.

This is bad for a few reasons. One, it’s more complicated. The simplest form is to say: Do Y. By adding a layer, you’re making it more difficult for players to do things.

You’re also removing flexibility from the experience. Instead of letting players use simple abilities in new, unexpected ways, you force them to use the ability the same way every time. It makes the game more predictable and static.

Finally, and this was often the case for my game, I was creating conditions that were so unlikely to setup. They didn’t sync with the experience or the mechanics, which essentially rendered the abilities useless.

Your task when designing abilities is to focus on simple, flexible, highly usable abilities that excite the player. Give your players the tools to craft dynamic experiences. Don’t give them rigidly scripted game cards.

Design Mechanics and Content for the Game you Want: This sounds silly, but it is something you can overlook and fight against. In Sol Rising, I made the decision a few iterations ago to make the game a simpler, turn-based structure. This meant 1 player activates a squadron (move and attack). Then, the next player did so. And so forth.

However, I would frequently design odd mechanics or abilities that would fight with this structure. This continues the previous lesson, but I would craft abilities that would state: If 2 squadrons are in this specific position, you can do a thing. However, because players moved 1 squadron at a time, not 2 or more, it meant these systems weren’t playing nicely with each other.

Eventually, I found a way to keep the main mechanics very simple. Turn based, 1 at a time. However, I crafted a few simple, non-conditional abilities to let you move or attack with additional units.

The key lesson is to not fight against the framework you’ve created. Determine the experience you want, then craft a framework and the content to provide it. Keep your goals and mechanics in sync with one another.

When creating scenario based games, focusing on replayability at the outset is key. As a lesson from York, which has received feedback that it lacks replayability, and recognizing some of the faults with some scenario based games, I decided to really focus on replayability from the outset with Sol Rising.

Some games accomplish this better than others. With Memoir ’44, there isn’t much change between plays of the same scenario. The cards aren’t highly varied and the units remain the same.

One of my favorite scenario games, Mice and Mystics, adds in more varying elements. These include:

  • Players can choose different characters.
  • Players can choose different Abilities for characters.
  • The item deck is large, so what players “find” as they play changes.
  • The enemies that spawn in most rooms are randomized.
  • The timing of surges really changes things.
  • Optional side quests and routes to take.
  • Dice based combat system.

One more good example is Robinson Crusoe. It randomizes scenarios in a few ways:

  • You choose a random subset of Event cards every time you begin the scenario.
  • You choose a random subset of Inventions every time you begin the scenario.
  • The Event decks for each action are quite large and varied. Your successes and failures will change every game at different times.
  • The order in which you unveil tiles on the island will change things.
  • Players can choose different characters.
  • Dice based resolution system.

For Sol, I started with “what good looks like” and evolved it for my own game. Although I pre-define ships and starting positions, I hope advanced players will modify these things. Other variables include:

  • Dice based combat system.
  • Events that take effect at different times, or not at all, and affect players differently.
  • Completing bonus objectives.
  • Persistent campaign effects as a result of bonus objectives.
  • System failures to change how ships behave as the battle continues.

Finally, unlike Mice and Mystics and Robinson Crusoe, you’re fighting against a human opponent, not an AI. I’ve found this makes a huge difference on how missions play out.

The lesson, overall, is that if you prioritize something like variance and replayability at the beginning and factor it into your designs, you’ll see much better results. This isn’t something you can typically just layer in afterwards. The fact is that most players won’t play missions twice. I doubt most players even finish the scenarios shipped with campaigns. But, I want them to know they CAN play them multiple times and have a lot of fun.

Focus on the core first. This is definitely something for the “win” column so far. I knew from the beginning I wanted to make a scenario driven game of some sort. However, I didn’t even touch scenarios for roughly the first 6 months of development. Instead, I worked on how you command ships, how ships attack, how turn structure works, how abilities work, and more. This took a long time and in fact, I’ve continued to develop and change these things since I began scenarios. But, trying to build scenarios is very difficult. Doing so on top of a wobbly core foundation seems impossible.

The lesson is that before you go content crazy, or design scenarios, focus on the core. Make sure you know what a player’s turn entails and how your game works from start to finish.

Focus on one piece of content first. Another win, and a continuation of the previous point, is that I worked on Scenario 1 of Sol Rising far longer than any other. Before I made 12 scenarios, I needed to make one that worked really well. I had to revise the writing style for the narrative. I had to figure out what sort of Events were interesting and which ones weren’t. I needed to get a feel for objectives and communicating unique rules.

I’ve tested the first scenario far more than any other, but the lessons learned from it have informed and aided every other scenario. If you’re crafting a game with scenarios, or content sets, make one really really good before you make any more. Otherwise, you’ll be doing a lot of tedious iteration that could have been avoided.

The longer you work on a game, the more comfortable you’ll be with it.  I have a few games I’ve been working on for a year or longer. Farmageddon and its expansion, York, and Sol Rising all qualify. What I’ve found with Sol, like I’ve found with the others, is that by spending a long time on something, the more comfortable you’ll be with it. Many of my best revelations and ideas for these have come about as a result of truly understanding the game, its strengths, and its weaknesses.

Obviously, if you can get a game signed quickly and it all works out, awesome. Congrats. Enjoy this heaping pile of my jealousy. But, if you’re working on more complex games (as I have a habit of doing, curses), give your game time to grow. Give it time to mature and evolve as it needs to. There are so many avenues these days to rush out a game, but I think you’ll find determined patience will render its own rewards.

At least, it has for me.

I’m excited to take Sol Rising into the next stages. I’m also chasing down some publishing leads and hope it’ll be something folks can experience in their own homes before our sun collapses.

Questions? Comments? Put ‘em below!

Sol Rising Visual Development

Pilot

Post by: Grant Rodiek

For whatever reason, about a week ago I decided to take a break from writing and editing scenarios for Sol Rising (previously Mars Rising) and focus on its aesthetics. It’s good to vary your efforts as you’ll use different aspects of your brain and, if enough time has passed, may find ways to improve old designs.

I did two things:

  1. Hired John Ariosa to do some really quick sketches. I was tired of using my Googled ship art.
  2. Decided to change the previous card layout.

For quite some time, this was the layout for the ship cards in the game:

Battlecruiser_GeorgieBoy_Front

Bombers_LodiRangers_Front

This got the job done, but I had a few problems with it. It didn’t really take advantage of the space. The ability text was smashed into the center and the art wasn’t given room to breathe. I listed too much info in the top left corner. Notice the bombers have 0 lasers. If they don’t have guns, why bother telling you? Finally, the cards didn’t didn’t have any subtle reminders for other rules. Specifically, to place damage markers on the cards or to reveal System Failure tokens when shields go down.

Before I reveal the new layout, let me quickly explain how cards are used in the game for those not familiar (rules linked at the bottom). Ships in your fleet are represented by cards. These cards are never in your hand, but act as references. They are played face up in front of you to remind you of a ship’s stats and abilities. A single fighter card represents a squadron, or multiple ships. Capital ships are paired with up to 3 cards to form powerful squadrons. If ships are destroyed, you set the card aside. The position of your ships is represented on the board with small tokens.

Here are some of the new cards, featuring illustrations by John Ariosa.

Carrier with Shields

Carrier with Shields

Bombers_Wordens_Normal

Bomber squadron. There are 3 bombers, each with their own health. All contribute to an attack.

Destroyer with Shields Up

Destroyer with Shields

A Battlecruiser with Shields Up

A Battlecruiser with Shields

Destroyer with Shields Down

Destroyer with Shields Down

You see the small boxes on the cards. Here are where you place 8mm damage cubes to indicate…damage. The two different symbols in these boxes represent Shields, if your ship has them, or Hull, if Shields are gone.

Ability text reads more naturally horizontally and isn’t so bunched. I also only show pertinent information. If the ship doesn’t have Missiles, you don’t see that stat. On the bottom Destroyer, there is an additional square in the top right corner. This icon reminds you to draw and place a System Failure token.

Overall, I’m really excited. I love the art. If this is what John did in just a few quick hours with little iteration, can you imagine these ships with more time and love?

Next Steps: These cards can only go so far with my graphic skills. My skillset mostly focuses on layout (which you can feel free to dispute). I’m very very bad at colors, filters, and anything more than placing an icon. That’s why I stick to black and white.

Things I’d love to work with someone to improve are:

  • Select a superior typeface for better clarity and thematic expression.
  • Apply a superior color treatment to really draw the eye to the Icons and Stats.
  • Add a filter treatment to icons to give them some texture.
  • Improve the graphics housing the icons. Better boxes, or adding graphic outlines to the stats.

I’ll surely stumble across other tweaks through the course of testing, but those are the known issues at this time.

Balance, Language, Refinement: I haven’t touched the core rules for the game for quite some time. I’ve been focused entirely on the scenarios, which is a very different beast. As I began the work to port every card into the new style (52 cards/9 ship classes/over 85% with Unique abilities), I realized this was my best opportunity to take a balance pass and revise ship abilities where necessary.

Never ever miss such an opportunity! I revised almost every ability in some way. For starters, I stuck with a 12 Point font and with 1 exception, re-wrote every piece of text until it fit on 1 or 2 lines. By forcing such a strict limitation, I really improved the accessibility and quality of my text.

I was able to fundamentally re-examine the weapon and ship role balance in the game.

I was also able to completely remove a feature that I realized just wasn’t necessary. This simplified and cleaned up my feature set even further.

Shuttle

I took the opportunity to remove a few unnecessary ships (a third Assault Shuttle), add two Bombers, make sure the abilities were more unique (less re-use), and I added Veteran Fighters. All cards are double sided: Shields and no Shields. That is, except Fighters. They are unshielded and previously all of the backs were blank. However, I realized I could do some neat stuff with persistence in the campaign by adding a Veteran variant to every Fighter card. This means instead of 6 Interceptors and 6 Bombers, you actually have 12 of each. But, still only 6 cards.

Finally, I re-organized all of my graphics files in Photoshop. I always spend the time up front to properly setup my card files so they are easy to edit and maintain. However, like many things, they had grown messy. I took a new pass at organizing them and editing, printing, and adding ships is now simpler than ever.

The takeaway is that you should never skip an opportunity to take a new look at something you thought was finished. I revised almost every card and the game will be monstrously superior. If you have a big game and have moved past a feature, go back to it sometime. You’ll be surprised at what fresh eyes can bring!

Back to the Story Mines: With my fleet polished, it’s time to finish creating moments for it. I have 5 1/2 scenarios left to design, not to mention the original six to continue scrubbing. Each one requires a great deal of story editing and as I noted in this previous post, there are many variables for every scenario.

I hope to have this finished in the coming weeks. If you’re at all interested in testing this game’s campaign, leave a comment. I’ll provide you with a copy in exchange for your testing efforts. I’d love to have a few blind testers tear through the campaign.

Rules: You can read the rules here. Comments are allowed in the document if you so desire. Some of the Campaign scenarios are in disarray from editing, so I’m not linking to that for now.

A Campaign scene for the book.

A Campaign scene for the book.

A Ridiculous Farce of a War

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

A resolution I’ve set for myself is to write about my personal games less in great specificity, at least until I have something worthwhile to talk about. Though I love writing about my projects frequently, I’d rather the posts be more substantial and meaningful for readers. I think one of my current small projects has hit a nice moment. Let’s talk about Fool’s Brigade. 

Origins

This project came about as a convergence of three things. The first: While traveling in Southeast Asia I read two great books on the American Civil War. One, about the Iron Brigade of Wisconsin, and the second about Stonewall Jackson’s famous Shenandoah Valley Campaign.

The second: Dice Hate Me Games sponsored a 54 Card game design competition. 54 cards only, due in just a few weeks (so not much time to develop and go crazy). I love competitions, deadlines, and small creative boxes.

The third: After weeks of travel, my mind was shot, wobbly, and not really ready to jump back into Mars Rising. I wanted to make something new, silly, and simple to warm up.

I went to my dining room table with a pencil, a pile of index cards, some sand timers, and a handful of six-sided dice. Over the course of an hour I found myself pushing around cards horizontally arranged, much like you see blocks moving in a classic war game.

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The idea that began to emerge was this: What if a large group of friends were split into two teams and tried to control a Brigade (divided into Regiments) against each other? And, what if there was a General on each side trying to corral this madness? Yes, I really enjoy Dice Duel, which was firmly in the back of my mind while coming up with this.

I was thinking about how officers would guide their men in a battle around the 19th century. Much of it had to do with discipline, gathering around the flag, and very simple orders, like March, Wheel Right, and Fix Bayonets. Before long I found myself shouting these things to myself and marching around my kitchen table. Beth, in our bedroom, would shout out “What the hell are you doing?” To which I would reply “Nothing….MARCH!”

The Core

The gist of the mechanic is that every player controls a Regiment. They have a horizontal, face up card on the table that acts as their Unit and reference card. The card details their possible orders, like March, Fix Bayonets, Fire, etc. There are no turns. You pick an order, count aloud to the number indicated, then shout the order and execute it. Then, do it again.

There are some extra twists that I think make this all funny:

  • Instead of the classic “1 Mississippi” or “1 one thousand” methods, you use your last name. Which means someone with the last name Smith will be faster than someone with the last name Holmberg-Weidler (a co-worker).
  • When you move, you move the distance between your thumb and pointer fingers. That’s also your firing range. Yes, your hand size can be an advantage.
  • Bayonet charges are resolved with a best of three Rock/Paper/Scissors. I had to get creative with only 54 cards and I love this solution.
  • If Bayonets are fixed, you hold one of your arms up. Thematic and functional.
  • If a Unit suffers too many hits, they must flee, uncontrollably, until someone else rallies them. Teamwork is key!
  • There are advanced Units with modified timing and abilities. Skirmishers, Cavalry, Elite Guards, Artillery. Oh yeah.

There are some other layers to make this more than just shouting. For one, the General is responsible for supplying players with Combat cards, needed to fire (but not charge with bayonets), as well as Goals. Goals are played to slowly corral your team into some semblance of cohesion, but also a way to earn points. These are things like Charge this enemy Unit, or Hold this Hill.

All told, I intend the game to be a 5-10 minute experience. I see about 4 layers of progression to the experience.

  1. Players use basic Regiments and no terrain. Are confused but laughing.
  2. Players use basic Regiments, terrain, and get better. Are laughing with a devil’s grin.
  3. Players use advanced Units and terrain. Think to themselves, “oh yeah. It’s on.”
  4. Players are just as good as the real Iron Brigade. A disciplined fighting force of idiots.

Give it a whirl!

You can read the rules here (comments allowed in the document). A handful of folks have really put them to the test and, considering they are limited to 2 pages, I’m happy with them.  If you want to try it out the game, email me at grant at hyperbolegames dot com. It’s a 54 card Print out, black and white ink, super simple. I’d love to know what you think.

Conclusion

What are you making for the 54 card competition, if anything? How is it going? What do you think of Fool’s Brigade? Does it sound like something your group would enjoy at a Con or office party? Have a good one!

Mars Rising PNP

space-battle

Post by: Grant Rodiek

At ease, admirals. I wanted to quickly gauge interest in a limited Mars Rising PNP. I say limited because it will be, for the time being, just a few scenarios. This is because I only have 3 I’m ready to share and because I want to limit the effort it takes to create the PNP.

For every scenario I specify the ships and components needed, which means you don’t need to build the entire game to play it. To play scenario 1, for example, you would only need:

  • Print the board, which you simply tape out of a few 8.5×11 pages
  • 15 ship cards
  • 6 regular d6
  • 20 quarter sized tokens (if you have a circular or square punch this’ll take seconds)
  • About 15 tokens (cubes, Summoner Wars damage markers) for damage
  • 12 Squadron tokens (really quick to cut out)

Basically, the effort, for a PNP, is relatively minor.

My hope is to gauge interest in the design, confirm my local testing, test the quality of the rules, but also, gather any scenario and ship ideas you might have.

It will take me a few hours to put this all together, so if nobody is interested, I’d rather put that effort elsewhere. If you’re interested in printing and playing the first, second, and third scenarios (essentially the intro to the campaign), comment below, email me, or hit me up on Twitter.

Thanks!

Flipped Visual Preview (Part 2)

FullBoard

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’m attending UnPub in Sacramento this Saturday. I decided Monday night to upgrade my Flipped prototype from hand drawn index cards to something with a little graphical polish. This isn’t final or anything I could sell, but it’s a nice step forward for the prototype and I think it’ll be a better test candidate as a result. I really enjoyed putting together the first visual preview, so I thought I’d compile another to demonstrate the iterations.

Important Information

  • Name: Flipped
  • Player #s: 2-5
  • Time: 60 minutes or less
  • Primary Mechanic: Worker Placement
  • Hook: Dynamic demand model
  • Theme: City Builder/Urban Planning

The Explanation

ScoreTrack

There’s a score track lining the left and bottom sides of the board. The player with the most points at the end of the game wins. Points are earned by developing properties for clients. The game ends when the Property deck runs out.

Properties

The game’s core mechanic is worker placement. Your workers are currently cubes. You have a team of 5-6 (depending on number of players). Different actions require a different number of cubes. Cubes are returned at the end of the round.

Here are the Properties available for purchase from 6 different neighborhoods (currently just a color). The cost is shown on the card. This is refilled at the end of every round. To obtain Roosevelt County 2 (an address, essentially), I would use 2 of my cubes.

To put a little pressure and move the game forward, the right-most property at the end of the round goes into decay. The card is removed from the board and a decay token is placed on the space. I’ll explain decay later, but for now, know that you can pay a high rate to buy the property and remove the decay token.

Roosevelt

If I buy the above card, I’ll be able to develop on the 2 slot shown in the picture. Again, think of these cards as deeds for an address.

Clients

Clients can be obtained in two ways: I can directly obtain the ones shown, or pay to draw blindly. Satisfying clients is how you earn points. However, clients you don’t satisfy are a penalty at the end of the game.

Clients represent 3 entities: Housing (families, bigger projects), Business (both jobs and places for the citizenry to go), and Infrastructure (Schools, Fire Departments). In the top left you can see one of the 3 symbols for these entities, the demand satisfied by developing the property (more on this later), and points awarded.

Some clients also have end game bonuses (shown next to the lamp). These provide bonus points if the composition of the neighborhood matches their request. For example, a family with young children wants to live in a residential neighborhood, preferably one with a school. This is a point of interaction and  hopefully more long-term strategy.

Before you can sell the property, you must meet certain requirements. These are most often improvements. There are some varied ones as well that are experiments to see how far I can push the system. Really, I need to identify what all is possible and fun.

Improvements

There are four improvements: Landscaping, Painting, Electrical Work, and Remodeling (costs above). Some clients also require permits, which has a slightly different mechanic, in that as more players obtain Permits in a round, it costs more. I was thinking of the line at the DMV here.

The Park in the image above (or in the bottom right corner here) indicates 3 Landscaping icons, or 3 of those green disks. To save space, the symbol is under the disks, but I’ll improve that in the future.

To add improvements, I must move a contractor (white cylinder) to the neighborhood. While he’s there, anyone can simply pay the cost of the improvement to hire him. However, if he needs to be move, he costs an addition 1 cube. This is intended as a point of interaction and blocking.

ImproveContractor

Let’s say I obtained the Bookstore client shown above. It requires a Painting Improvement. Here, I moved the contractor to Roosevelt County and grabbed a painting disk.

Sell

You can see the two here put side by side. Now that I’m selling it (an action), I satisfy 1 Business demand (top left corner).

Demand

There are three demand tracks. At the start of the game, they are populated as shown above. The demand for these three types of properties will change every game (more on that in a second). Three things to see here:

  • If you satisfy demand above the up arrow, you gain bonus points. This abstracts high demand.
  • If you satisfy demand below the down arrow, you’ll lose points. This abstracts low demand.
  • If the Infrastructure demand is maxed and you build again, you take a decay token. This will penalize you at the end. This abstracts poor municipal services, power outages, pot holes in the streets, and more.

RevealDemandRemember we satisfied 1 demand for the Bookstore. Therefore, we remove 1 token from the appropriate demand track. We revealed a speech bubble, which I use to indicate a change in demand. These are points on some, but not all of the circles.

When demand changes, we flip the token over. Here it says that we increase Infrastructure by 2. The 2 inside the box indicates I’d gain or lose 2 points if I sold above or below demand, respectively.

FinishedNow, I place this token on the address in Roosevelt county. Remember those end game bonuses? If I need to be in a Business Zone to get the bonus, I need a plurality of red disks.

However, if there is too much decay in a neighborhood, NOBODY receives in game bonuses for that neighborhood. To refresh, decay is gained in two ways:

  • If a player builds when the demand for infrastructure is maxed out.
  • If a property decays off the property track. Unless developed, that property is decayed.

Inspection

One more thing. Some homes have this symbol on them. When they are available, you place an Inspection token face down. These properties are cheaper, but something is wrong with them. Upon purchase, you flip the Inspection token to reveal one of the four Improvements. This improvement MUST be added before the home can be sold.

Good players will pair these with Clients to take advantage of them.

Art and Visuals

I’m currently using a 1 inch circular punch to quickly create tokens using colored construction paper. That’s why you see so many circles. Ultimately, I intend the properties to be smaller squares with appropriate art on them to convey “home” or “business.”

I’d like the demand chart to represent a bar graph like you might see in a newspaper or economic advisory report. I think that can look really slick and thematic.

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Don’t look into any political commentary there. I believe the chart is from England. It just has the right visuals.

I think the game has potential to be thematic, at least as far as a game about property/city development can be thematic. I’m actually really excited by potential art styles. I especially love the idea of architectural sketches to show the potential of the city, as if to say “Hey player! You! Build this!”

Here are some of my favorite samples. You can see my entire Pintrest board here.

RefArt

Conclusion

Thanks for reading! I really appreciate any comments or thoughts you have. I’m excited to take this game to UnPub to see what’s wrong with it and how I can make it better. Aside from obvious balance quirks, I’m looking for ways to increase interaction and add depth and strategy.

I’d like to think that if I continue refining the core, I can begin focus on balance testing and tweaking to ultimately pitch to a publisher.

Any questions?

Battle Report: Mars Rising

GameSetup

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’ve been busting my butt for a few weeks to get Mars Rising (previously Blockade) re-designed, re-built, and ready to test again. I had a friend over today for a long 2 player game day, so after a few games of the delightful Mice and Mystics and Vampire Empire, we setup Mars Rising for a quick play.

The image at the top of this article is the game setup from my vantage point as the Martian player. I’m going to walk you through the battle to hopefully give you a taste for what took place.

The Setting

The sovereign star nations of Mars and United Terra are uneasy enemies. The setup is not unlike our Cold War here on Earth in the present day. Mars and Terra are the dominant forces in the Sol System, with a few fledgling star nations and groups in between. For the first campaign in Mars Rising, I’m focusing on a short-intense conflict where Terra catches Mars off guard with a surprise assault on their holdings in the Jovian Lunar Belts.

However, today’s battle takes place in the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars. The Martian Defense Fleet has a small outpost manned by a few fighter squadrons in a station just off the Ceres dwarf planet.

solar-system-lrg.en

This posting is a lazy waypoint for merchants. It’s slow and most sought by pilots on their way out, or those who don’t want to be busy. Nobody in the Martian forces were expecting to find a Terran Battle Fleet  here.

At the start of this mission, the Terrans have an overwhelming force:

  • 2 Interceptor Squadrons
  • Battlecruiser Squadron
  • Battleship squadron
  • Potential destroyer reinforcements (Event)

The Martians are overwhelmed. They have:

  • 4 Fighter squadrons (player’s choice of splitting between interceptors and bombers)
  • An immobile and largely defenseless space station
  • A lone Merchant transport

The Terrans win when they destroy 4 Martian units, one of which must be the station. In the unlikely event the Martians destroy 4 Units first, that will also end the mission. The Martians have a few secret goals: navigate the Merchant ship safely to a point on the map, at which point it can warp out to warn Martian forces at Io (this will benefit the next mission). And, hurt Terran ships — the Martians can fight desperately to force the Terrans to begin the next mission with a bit of a bloody nose as far as ships being weakened.

If you’re curious about approximate balance, Interceptors are best against other Interceptors and Bombers. Bombers are good against capital ships, terrible against fighters. Destroyers are generally balanced and nimble. Battlecruisers are heavy and meant to kill other capital ships. Battleships are death machines.

The Battle

FightersCards

My Fighter Squadrons

StartingFighters

My fighter squadrons on the board around the station.

Early I began moving the Merchant ship away from the enemy battleship. I also tried to distract him by sending my bombers in the middle of his formation.

BomberAttack!

You can see the lone Square with the red marker and the “A” on it (to note Alpha Squadron). I dropped his battleship’s shields early! (The battleship is the narrow rectangular strip with the A to the right of my bombers).

The asteroids (brown circles) offered limited protection, but his fighters chewed me up.

The wooden blue and red circles? These are command tokens. You place these on your units to denote that they’ve been chosen for this turn. The trick is, you need to alternate and cannot pick units with a token.

Merchant

The triangle with the red mark and an A on it is my Merchant ship. If you look just behind him in the foreground, you can see the battleships aren’t too far away. I chose here to hold off, but I should have kept moving him. As a result, that Battleship moved in range and devastated the merchant ship. He died — no warning would be sent to my fleet at Io.

StationDeath

You can see his Battlecruiser squadron, the blue triangle with the B, next to the station. The battleships are just to the right. My bombers were wreaking havoc, but I couldn’t stop him in time. The station fell, as we all knew it would. Notice the blue shield token — that denotes a defensive bonus. This is a learning from a previous prototype.

Ultimately, the squadrons at Ceres were devastated and the Terran fleet plowed through as we expected. I was a bit too hasty with some of my early moves and did not play for the long game. Lessons learned!

Development Notes

This was a good test and it told me a few things. Firstly, I’m on the right track. I liked the game and my friend liked the game. We talked about it quite a bit afterwards and he texted me when he got home asking for my email so that he could send me some ideas. That’s a good sign!

There are a few things to massage. One, Events should trigger on doubles, not triples. As it stood, they only happened once. I’d like them to happen about 4 or 5 times to really add variety.

Secondly, Battlecruisers in general have too many shields. Easily fixed.

The system failure tokens were really cool. When your shields go down, you draw one at random. It dings one of your four systems by 1. It can be really bad, just bad, or completely harmless, which I think is fun. It’s also thematic: “Captain, we lost battery four!”

I just needed to add 2 simple rules to balance out the current ship bonuses . You can never have more than 1 type of ability in a squadron, so, you cannot have 2 attack, or 2 defense. Furthermore, only 1 passive formation bonus per squadron. A third, mostly tuning philosophy, is to make the passive abilities less powerful. They are practically free, so don’t make them nutty good.

This was one of my first scenario tests and it was generally good to see my thoughts for how to handle them are on the right path. The game was short, explosive, and fun. I dig it.

One Wild Idea

My friend offered one really awesome idea that I’m toying with. The idea is, there are movement penalties on the outer rings. This would represent the size of space as you go farther from the center. An example is that the two inner rings would be 1 Movement, but the two outer rings would cost 2 Movement.

I’m curious how it would change the game.

Update: The wise Jerry Hawthorne just suggested I split the outer spaces into multiple spaces. That way, the rule doesn’t change — there are just more spaces. Smart guy!

He also had some fun scenario ideas, such as making the center a sun at times. Flying near it on the closest ring would cause shield damage (maybe!).

Conclusion

I’m very happy to be back into testing with a game. Blockade saw a bit of a hiatus while I waited to hear feedback and then rebuild it. Being able to test and iterate upon data and the experience is like a drug for me and it makes me really happy. I love developing an idea.

As a side note, I have about 15 clients left to tune for Flipped and it’ll be ready to play as well.

Learning from Hoth

Battle_of_Hoth

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I wanted to write briefly about scenario and story design for Mars Rising. Primarily, I wanted to share why the Battle of Hoth from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back is a driving inspiration for the experience.

Before we get started, it may be useful for you to read this military analysis of the Battle of Hoth posted on Wired. The article is a fun read, especially for military nerds, but it really opened my eyes to the general notion that is:

The Rebels couldn’t have won the Battle of Hoth, but they could have lost much, much worse.

Generally, scenario based games are reasonably balanced. When you play Memoir ’44, the scenarios are derived from historical engagements. Therefore, you’ll often see a 45/55, or even 40/60 balance in favor of one side. In my opinion, this is fair and reasonable. It’s fun. Furthermore, the rules state for players to swap sides and compare points and execution.

Battle_of_Endor

If I think back to the Battle of Hoth, the Battle of Yavin IV, or the Battle of Endor, none of them were balanced. In every case, the Rebel Alliance was up against a far superior force with seemingly insurmountable odds. Every Rebel pilot could be considered a member of the forlorn hope. Due to skill, determination, and a little luck (and/or Midi-chorlians) they came out ahead.  This is what made them incredible stories.

Therefore, my general thinking for the scenarios of Mars Rising is to NOT focus so much on balance, but instead, focus on epic, dramatic scenarios. Here’s the general gist for every mission:

  • Location: Where is it taking place?
  • Objective: Why are the players fighting here? This is a mix of narrative and mechanics.
  • Conclusion: Who do I expect to win within the “canon” of the story I envision?
  • Consequences: How is this mission affected by the previous mission?
  • Goals: What can players do within this setup that’s extraordinary?

Let’s discuss this last point. This is where the epic comes from, or so I hope. Imagine the following prelude scenario I’m tossing around.

There is a small outpost on Ceres, the dwarf planet/asteroid in the belt between Mars and Jupiter. Mars stations a squadron of fighters here to protect merchant ships and generally keep an eye on things. It is a sleepy, lazy post that some see as ideal posting (easy) or a career death sentence (too easy). Much like the Wermacht crushing through the Ardennes to invade France in 1940’s Case Yellow Operation, the United Terran Navy is making their push against Martian interests in the Jovian belts using this sleepy, poorly defended sector. Not expecting such an event, the Martians left their back door fairly open.

Imagine these two perspectives:

  • You’re a bored, Martian squadron leader, suddenly confronted with an invasion fleet that should not be here. Do you snap out of it? What can you do? This is the worst day of your life.
  • You’re a calm, well prepared Terran Admiral. Intelligence prepared you with precise details on the presence of the Martian outpost and its squadrons. You order a few Interceptor squadrons launched and dispatch a few anti-fighter destroyers to seal the deal. This is about as routine as a training operation.

ku-medium

To quote Dennis Hopper, “What do you do, hot shot?”

Let’s be reasonable. I don’t expect the Martian fighter squadron to win. The deck is (intentionally) stacked against them. The Terran surprise attack on Io will proceed, because that’s the story and that’s what I want you to experience. BUT. What if the Martians bravely disable the Terran flagship, giving a lone fighter time to jump to Io to warn them? What if a Martian freighter moving through has a sudden rush of patriotism and, with the escort of the desperate Martian fighters, reaches the jump point before it’s captured?

This will have a light ripple effect on the next mission. Imagine if that ripple builds and by the very end, there are 3 completely different missions that might take place.

I don’t know, precisely, how I intend to to mechanize this. Yet. My general thinking is for the missions to have a strictly defined end condition. This would be something like, when N ships are destroyed, the mission ends. However, I am thinking of introducing optional goals that, if accomplished, will have distinct modifiers in following missions. When playing Mission 3, it’ll ask if A, B, or C were accomplished. If so, vary the placement, or the number of ships, or even the goal you need to accomplish.

In the end, my hope is that players can play a campaign multiple times and see new things and reach a different and satisfying conclusion to their war. No, this isn’t Risk Legacy. It’s not that open. But I love the idea that a group of friends have their own story for the Jovian campaign.

Thoughts?

Mars Has Risen

Mars_plant

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’ve had an absolutely killer and productive week working on my games. When I have to conceive an idea from scratch, it’s really difficult for me. But, when I get to develop and iterate on an existing idea, I just hum with productivity.

I’m not ready to share too many details, but at a high level I wanted to jot down my thoughts on my process and where I’m taking Blockade.

Name Switcheroo

Firstly, Blockade is now Mars Rising. Is this a final name? Who knows, that’s for a publisher to decide. Blockade worked as a pun for my old, block driven design, but ultimately, is not a useful name and is ridiculously common. If you’re curious what I think entails a useful name…

A good game title:

  • Conveys the theme of the game
  • Provides a sense for what the player will be doing
  • Is Unique
  • Is easy to remember (and TYPE)

To briefly continue on this segue, there are exceptions to this. For the life of me I cannot remember how to type/spell Tzolk’in (had to look it up), yet it seems to be doing quite well. Plus, you can see dozens (if not hundreds) of similarly named games on the iOS App Store, which means lesser known titles get to piggy back (like parasites) on the current, similarly named leader.

But, back to the topic at hand. For now, I’m using Mars Rising. It definitely states sci fi, some form of conflict or ambition, and there will be massive space ships on the cover. There will probably also be a subtitle, because it’s all the rage. Most likely based on the campaign (of which I eventually hope there are millions).

Martian Introspection

Around the time of GenCon I was given the following feedback for the game:

  • Consider a more feasible component than blocks
  • Consider a method of allowing for ship and/or fleet customization
  • Reduce the fiddliness

I thought on this for some time and identified a card-based method. This tested fine, but as a direct port from blocks to cards, it was merely fine at best. It wasn’t going to win hearts and minds. This pushed me to really look inwards at the game’s problems and opportunities to really make it magical.

  • The color-based dice mechanic added too many components, worked, but was obtuse
  • Tallying dice based on exposed sides of the ships was fiddly and cumbersome
  • Weak spots had to go. Having to look across the table to someone’s setup was cumbersome.
  • The formation mechanic needed to be strengthened, simplified, or discarded.
  • I really needed to deliver on the promise of unique ships.

This honest look was the best thing that could happen for the game! If you must know, last week’s posts were derived from my efforts. Check them here and here. I really needed to evaluate how to make the game work properly and awesomely as a card-based game. I also needed the game to be smoother and more efficient to produce. Here are a few high level changes.

The Dice

The dice color mechanic is something I’m proud of, but ultimately, it was flawed. At the end of the day, you had yellow dice to shoot fighters and green dice to shoot ships. You had two steps to every roll, whereas dice are typically a one-step process. By two steps, I mean you had to roll to see if you had a hit, then combine hits to see if you damaged a target.

Recognizing that the dice were anti-fighter versus anti-ship, I gave ships two stats: lasers (anti-fighter) and missiles (anti-ship). Now, when attacking, you choose what you’re attacking and with what armament. You then tally the stats in the squadron and roll up to six plain six-sided dice.

  • Anti-Fighter dice hit Fighter craft on a 3+. They hit capital ships with a 6.
  • Anti-Ship dice hit Ships on a 3+. They hit fighters with a 6.

This gives the game the same balance and distribution of power I desired, without the complexity and color management. Big, slow, cumbersome missiles MIGHT hit fighters, but it isn’t likely. Weak fighters MIGHT damage capital ships, but it’s not likely. Six plain dice are also much cheaper than a pile of custom dice. A good change.

The Ships

Ships in the game used to be a series of sections that you’d either cover with other ships in formations or reveal to change your damage output (but also expose weak spots to incoming fire). It was neat and worked really well with blocks, but ultimately, I need to make a simpler game with that mechanic, not this one. I may do that at some point (and have ideas).

Ships have been completely overhauled.

Ships2

This is the Destroyer Javelin. In the top left you can see its Shields, Lasers (anti-fighter), Missiles (anti-ship), and Engines (# of maneuvers). You then see its special ability that can be activated. On the right side you see the unshielded side. You flip the card once its shields are down and it loses its ability.

This format gives me FAR more flexibility in modifying the differences in ships and replaces the Fleet Action card mechanic. Ships can now have activated abilities, passive formation abilities (arrange your ships as such to get a bonus), or just better stats.

This supports fleet building and greatly enhances the replayability. I have a lot of ships.

The Rest

The game has changed in other ways, but I think these details are enough to convey the new direction. The core of maneuvering remains the same. You will still activate a single squadron, rotate them, move them, and attack. That’s why I’m confident this is the right step. I’m not discarding things that I spent months testing and refining. I’m enhancing them.

Oh, and the board is now finally round so it resembles a radar screen. I also added a fourth loop. The old board (24 spaces) was too tight. Now (32 spaces), there’s room to experiment and execute more devious maneuvers.

Board

Fin

I spent the weekend updating the rules for the new mechanics and diagram needs and tweaking cards. I still need to create 11 more Battlecruisers and a pile of tokens and ship markers, but I’m close. I may have it ready for a prototype event I may attend Thursday. We’ll see.

My focus now is the campaign. I have 3 missions designed and I hope to have 15. First, I’m going to storyboard the 12 additional missions, which entails high level goals and plot points. Then, I’ll design the mechanics for each. Finally, I’ll write the story for each. Then, it’ll be a great deal of playtesting for balance and mechanics on the scenario.

If you’re interested in reading the revised rules, email me and I’ll happily share them. I’d love your input. Questions? Concerns? Thanks!

Flipped: The Blueprint Preview

Flipped_Header

Post by: Grant Rodiek

It’s a rainy Saturday here in San Francisco. I spent my morning updating the prototype for Flipped and I had an idea: why not create an image based preview that explains the game? Welcome to the Flipped Blueprint Preview!

Flipped is a euro-style game for 2-5 players. The game is meant to be played in 60 minutes or less and features worker placement, resource management, and a dash of area control. The player with the most points when the Property deck (30 cards) expires, wins.

The meat of the game revolves around assigning your crew to:

  • Buy Property
  • Improve Property
  • Woo Clients

Your crew is an abstraction of the money, time, and labor required to buy homes, fix them, add improvements, conduct real estate sales, and more.

Points are earned by flipping (i.e. selling) properties. You earn more points for adding improvements or catering the home to a client’s specifications. At the end, having flipped the most properties in a neighborhood awards a bonus.

The Legend

Flipped_Legend

Crew Members

Flipped_Crew

Flipped_AssigningCrew

Addresses

Flipped_PropertyBuy

Home Inspections

FlippedInspections

Special Property Cards

Flipped_PropertyRow

Flipped_Decay

Flipped_Municipal

Flipped_Municipal2

Neighborhood Value

PropertyValue

Flipped_PropertyValue

Home Improvements

Flipped_Improvements

Flipped_Contractor

 

Flipped_Contractor

Clients

Flipped_Clients1

Flipped_Clients2

Returning Crew

Flipped_RegainWorkers

What do you think? Was this useful, clear, interesting, and informative? What did you find confusing? This was a bit of a content experiment, so I’d love your input. If you’re curious for more, I wrote some quick and dirty rules. Comments allowed in the document.

Patching York

photo

New player boards, new battle board, simple, ink friendly cards.

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I haven’t worked on York much lately. I crunched hard a few months ago piecing it together and finalizing it to make a nice Print on Demand version. Then, I had a wild idea and contacted a publisher who would be a grand slam for the game. We’re talking Hail Mary pass. Dream publisher. I met the publisher at GenCon, showed York, and it went well.

Now, I’ve been given feedback (after 4 plays in just a few weeks!) that the game is a bit too narrow. It lacks strategic variety and replayability. This is feedback I’ve received in a variety of ways, but as it’s coming from THE publisher, it’s the most important feedback.

I emailed a brain trust of pals and asked them at a high level what they thought. I didn’t share my ideas, I just said “what do you think?” If you’re curious, I pinged and heard back from Chevee Dodd, Ed Marriott, Matt Worden, and Mark Wallace. I picked these chaps because of their diverse tastes, I thought they’d have time to respond, and they’ve played the most recent build of the game. If you look at the list above, these are guys who veer wildly with a preference towards hardcore euros, trashy games, simple mechanical games, and more.

I also bugged folks from my long-term test group here in SF, guys who have played 20+ games.

The key takeaway was this: the game is too tight. It’s so tightly wound that players can’t do different things. I, as the designer, put a death grip on the players’ decisions.

The solution, as I processed this, was obvious. I gave everyone a .22 caliber pistol. What they needed is one of those automatic shotgun thingers. By and large, I haven’t changed the game’s mechanics. I’ve basically just revised the tuning. That’s a good takeaway. Sometimes you have a good foundation — you just need to tweak the digits.

If you’re curious, I’m listing my “patch notes” below. Jeremy Commandeur invited me to a really coolprototype event that I’ll be attending tomorrow night in San Jose. I could have dabbled with this for weeks, but instead, I got to it and have a revised game in only 3 days. I love deadlines.

We’ll see how it goes and if it’s the right step.

Patch Notes

Tuning Tweaks: These are basically just number changes, but I think they’ll make a big difference.

  • Players start with 5 Units (up from 3) – Do interesting things more quickly.
  • Players hold up to 7 cards (up from 5) – Play more cards and do more.
  • Players have a pool of 20 Units (up from 15).
  • There is no longer a Reinforce or Draw Card phase. These used to be free, obvious, non-choices. Now, they are Actions you take (or don’t take). To compensate, the Action phase now gives all players 5 Actions (up from 3).
  • As a result of the above bullet, there are now 4 Phases (fewer): Determine Turn Order, Actions, Battles, Upkeep. Less accounting, more playing.
  • During Upkeep, you only get +3 cards. Which means you’ll need to take draw card actions during the game as an Action.
  • Draw card now gives you +2 cards OR +3 if you control a city. I’m experimenting with more meaningful map-related decisions. There could be more, but I’m starting here.
  • Player decks increased to 30 cards (up from 25).
  • Cards in player decks now range up to 4 and 5 (they used to be only 3). In general, there are more higher number cards in your decks.
  • As an experiment, the 5 card can only be played in combat (icon to remind you).
  • Strategic Victory cards are now worth 4 points (down from 5) to encourage more territory and battle conquest.
  • Battles now reward 2 points immediately (same) but no longer reduce a player’s Unit pool. I want there to be less fear of defeat. Basically, more carrot, less stick.

Mechanic Tweaks

To make movement more fluid and faster, the mechanic has been changed.

  • Old: Move any number of Units form 1 Territory to any 1 adjacent territory.
  • New: Pick a territory. Move any number of Units in Territory to any number of adjacent territories OR move any number of units from adjacent territories to it into the territory.

Basically, you can spread out and gather your forces more quickly.

Forts are removed for the moment. I received some feedback on them that wasn’t conclusive. For now, after taking a move action, players may place a camp token.You can reinforce onto your camp (if the territory is uncontested) or HQ. Therefore, camps work mostly like forts, but do not provide a defensive bonus and can be moved.

Battles and Tactics Tweaks: I think the balance will be off, at best, for these. But, I think the mechanical change is a really strong one. I think it’s the right path.

The game doesn’t use dice, but it’s in need of some form of spectacular variance. Basically, it needs an “oh crap!” moment. Previously, the possibilities were pre-determined. If I play this tactic, it’ll do a precise thing. If you attack me with some number of Units, there is no way I can win. Also, all players used to have unique faction powers.

Now, everyone has the same 6 tactics: 3 defensive, 3 offensive. All of them now have a simpler activation cost (instead of 3 precise cards, it may just say “use any of this type” or “you need one of these, then whatever else you want). Furthermore, all of them can be “powered up.” For example, if you want, you can throw down 4 Artillery cards to do a massive artillery barrage. You can spend a great deal of infantry to flee and retreat some of your Units. This makes battle outcomes less expected and gives players a better choice — what are you willing to spend to win this battle? What do you think your opponent will use?

As a side note, the scouts, infantry, artillery, and cavalry are all used more thematically and intuitively now. It’s less of the abstract: One Horse Symbol + One Cannon Symbol equals arbitrary cube movement. Cannons explode, cavalry charges, and infantry dig in.

Oh! You both now simultaneously pick and reveal your tactics in secret. Evil, I know. The end result will be that battles have more unexpected, big, explosive moments, and as there will be more Units and some retreating, they won’t always be an all or nothing affair.

It’s mostly a UI change, but I also completely revised the battle board. The mechanic and end result is identical, but it’s significantly easier to learn now. I’ve done away with the 3 waves. Both players now have a front line (soldiers who will fight and die) and the reserves. Same thing, easier to learn.

One more tactics change is that you can now spend cards to power your Move action. You can spend Cavalry cards to increase your movement. More ways to spend your cards and it’s much simpler than my special maneuvers of old. Very similar experience, much simpler, and more choice. There are a few other simplifications around this, but you get the gist.

Something New: Events

I’m testing this Thursday as a way to introduce more variance, some neat, narrative style events, and generally, just to give players an “ooo what next!” every round. The idea is that at the start of every round an event card is drawn from a new deck. Let’s say there are 30. This event will add something to the board to change the state of things.

My goal is this: These add an opportunity. They are not a “whoever is on this space loses all of their units.” My two go-to examples are:

  • Spies have located an old imperial armory. Get here to get a bonus 3 Artillery card. If you think to the current conflict in Syria or even the Texas Revolution, these moments really matter.
  • The peasants have risen up in the cities. Add a neutral color of Units to the city spaces. You’ll need to deal with them.

Events will hopefully give players neat tools to use, an alternate way to earn points, and just throw a wrench in everyone’s perfectly laid plans. Note that I need to figure out a clever way to figure out where the Events land. I don’t want a card to always affect the same space.

Factions?

As I noted above, for now, Factions don’t exist. For the longest time York was purely an asymmetric faction game. Then, to make it more accessible, I introduced a generic, shared faction for players to learn when beginning to play. What I found is that it was actually still really fun. It didn’t feel like baby mode.

The factions have greatly hindered accessibility, have added a not fun learning curve to the game, and, due to how I implemented them, added a bit more AP than I’d like. For now, I’m doing away with them. I have ideas on how to bring them back, notably just the 1 passive attribute of every faction, which was really one of the most important parts anyways. We’ll see.

Regions

An idea I like (from Chevee) but won’t implement yet is the notion of territorial regions. A single territory is worth 1 point, but if you get all 3 of a region together it’s a +3. Chevee stole this from Risk (his words) and noted that it fixes the “eh, I’ll just go around and take this territory instead” vibe. I like this, but feel I need to dial back all the changes. I’ll hold this one in my pocket.

In conclusion

What do you think? Thoughts? Concerns? Thanks for reading!