Away to the Last Planet
Folks often stress the importance of mechanics and note that "presentation isn't everything." Rightfully so, but when a prototype like Jay Treat's Lost Planet comes along, the presentation alone piqued my curiosity and more than once has gotten me to ask "what is that?" Jay kindly wrote this post to dive deeper into the game and I couldn't be more excited. If the picture above doesn't get you to ask for more details, you're a boring gamer!
Guest Column by: Jay Treat
In November, I wrote about a StarCraft deck-building game that I’d brought to Metatopia and was a spectacular failure. I mentioned that I would continue to try to make a StarCraft-inspired tabletop game but that I wasn’t sure it would end up in the form of a card game. Something that kept coming back to me as I considered possibilities was trying to somehow capture the dexterity element of the video game, that is the ability to click quickly between units and command a large army across the map while continuing to develop your resource and unit production.
I enjoy flicking games like Crokinole and Elk Fest, and am excited about recent nerdy advances in the genre like Ascending Empires and Catacombs. Similarly, there’s great potential demonstrated by Micro Mutants (formerly X-Bugs). Ultimately, I decided that Micro Mutants is already practically StarCraft with a bug theme in place of space and far too good to warrant recreating. Flicking might still be an option, but my brief exploration of the idea hinted that it probably isn’t the right fit. The common conflict between precise flicking and hard flicking, combined with the need to evaluate a turn by the final result and not what may or may not have happened during the split-second the discs were ricocheting around is a bit of a turn-off.
I still wanted something very tactile, something that really takes advantage of the physical nature of the game and lets players get really hands-on with their zerglings and zealots. What if you could place units on the table and move them about in some intuitive manner? How do you handle how far a unit can move without the awkward rulers of so many miniature wargames (or the patented Attacktix system)?
My solution was to create playing pieces with physical properties that defined as many of their characteristics as possible. Their length determines how quickly the unit moves and their ends are unique so that you can only build a zergling from a breeding pool… or another zergling. Since moving each piece every turn would be a pain, you can ‘advance’ a chain by adding a unit of the same type to the end of it, effectively replicating movement and replacement of the old unit.
I was aiming to keep things as simple as possible, so originally each unit just has a static number to represent its prowess in combat. When two or more enemy units overlap, they each deal their damage to each other. I think I’d been planning for damage to last between rounds at that time, which gets tricky when you advance a unit. Do you move the damage up the chain?
I did a Versus Self test and quickly learned that the game was deterministic. With nothing random, every game would play out exactly the same once players figured out the optimal setup. Different strategies would require different counter-strategies, but I’ve never been interested in recreating Chess.
I needed variance and added it in two places: The proportion of gas and minerals available at each resource site became a die roll; You can’t always rely on the same strategy since some require more minerals or more gas. I also added dice to combat.
Each unit attacks with so many dice (to show how effective an attacker it is) and requires higher or lower results to be damaged (to show how big/armored it is). I played this version against the skilled and patient Mr. Edwards of Board Game Reviews by Josh. It was much better and validated the direction I was going in. We identified a few hurdles in the game system and a whole lot of balance issues. For instance, air units were far too easy to build and invalidated any ground strategy that didn’t lean heavily on ranged units.
You can see Zerg and Protoss forces pictured above. I waited to work on the Terrans because I didn’t want to make any more pieces than I had to; these things take an unholy amount of work to make. That forces me to be more conservative with physical iteration on the game, something I’m usually quite liberal about. This test went well enough that I started the design (both game- and graphic-) for the Terrans.
But that night, I was kept up by concerns about the current dice system. While it’s possible to make tough units with weak attacks, vulnerable with weak, and tough with strong, an idiosyncracy of my solution (putting defense values on the dice images themselves) meant that I couldn’t make vulnerable units with strong attacks. There was also no distinction, other than numbers, between normal ground units and armored ones; something the video game makes a pretty big deal of, but I’d accepted as another abstraction from the original.
Except that it’s harder to make Rock-Paper-Scissors triangles of units when units are just big or small. So I kept thinking about simple ways to represent that until I realized that I could do it very easily with custom dice. Each unit is destroyed when hit with a number of a certain symbol: ground units would have an infantry symbol, armored units a tank symbol and air units an aircraft symbol. There would be four types of dice. Zerglings get green dice which are very good against ground units, potentially useful against armor and useless against air. Immortals would get red dice which are good against both ground and armor units. Photon Cannons would get blue dice which are good against air. And all the ranged units that can hit both ground and air units would get white dice which aren’t great against everything but are never useless.
Realizing your game needs custom dice isn’t ideal the week before a convention, but fortunately the game design community is full of awesome people like Grant and Jason who got my back. I’ll be stickering the morning of Unpub 3, but my game will also be at its (theoretical) best.
I’m excited to show Last Planet off and see if it stands up to more diverse opinion. It’s still very raw and will require months and months of iteration to balance, but so far it seems like I’m on the right path to make a legitimately tactile experience that may just do StarCraft’s theme justice.
What did you think about Lost Planet? Leave comments and ask questions below.