Making Blockade Awesome

I've been working on Blockade very diligently for the past month or so. Really, the only breaks I've taken on its development were due to finalizing the assets for Battle for York. I am very excited about Blockade, its progress, and the future of the game. I have big plans for it.

In an effort to not dilute the waters too much, I've tried to write about Blockade more sparingly than past games. If you follow me on Twitter, you probably have an inkling of what's happening. This post is going to go into great detail on the Component Iteration, Maneuver Iteration, Special Action iteration, and other fun stuff (like the rules and stories!)

Please give it a look, tell me what you think, and ask any questions! If you ever have a question about one of my games or anything, don't hesitate to hit me up on Twitter or email me.

Component Iteration: Blocks, boards, and dice

In April I wrote about my current inspirations, namely, more toy-like, tactile experiences. Blockade began as a card game, but evolved into a game based around cool, awesome blocks. The blocks are fun to look at, fun to hold, and they are immediately exciting. People want to interact with them. In that sense, the toy-like drive has been a good one.

I've evolved the blocks to make the experience awesome. All information is on the blocks, easy to read, with no fiddly rules hanging around. Here are some of the changes and current thoughts:

BlockadePlaying Pegs and capital ships. Lots of damage.
  • All info is now on the top of the blocks (lasers, facing, damage requirements and current damage). No need to check sides of the table.
  • Because all info is simply on the top, this means I can use the sides for aesthetic only stickers. Super cool!
  • Also because all info is on the top, this means I can use the other side of the block for an alternate ship setup. 9 blocks can be 18!
  • When you take damage, instead of moving counters around (like X-Wing), you simply insert a peg (like Battleship).
  • The original blocks I ordered were too big. Destroyers were 5 cm long x 3 cm wide. Battlecruisers were 7.5 cm long x 3 cm wide. Now, they are going to be 4 cm long x 2 cm wide and 6 cm long x 2 cm wide. It makes the game easier to play.
  • Fighters used to be big, war-game style blocks. Now, they are 10 mm cubes. This means they take up less space, are easier to move around, and have a sense of scale next to the capital ships. It really makes a difference. You feel like you can throw them about wantonly, which is the intent.
  • The final game will use a sticker on top that conveys both color and an icon. It has to be colorblind friendly. Currently, it's color only.
BlockadeParts ALL the pieces for Blockade last week.

Let's talk about the board. For the longest time, the board has been a simple 4x5 grid comprised of squares. You can see it in the image above. I had a few problems with this:

  • The grid was boring. 
  • The grid felt constraining. You couldn't leave it and there was a wall. In space? Odd.
  • It didn't add to the game. Why have a component then?

While thinking about these things, I had an idea: why not a circle? You could cruise forever on the outside edge of a circle. And, with a circle, you could exit one side and emerge through the other. There was the issue of the center, which was originally a set of pie-like triangles. This added some confusion, so I simplified this to a circle as well with one rule change. When building this, I realized I didn't have a protractor to make a nice smooth curve. So, I used a ruler to use all straight lines. I think it works out better this way.

BLJrMh-CQAAKU6x New game board and custom dice.

This is the new board with some blocks on it and dice for scale. Instead of squares, you now have four sided shapes (I looked up the name but already forgot it). In the center, you can hit all sides, but are also vulnerable from all sides. The goal is to create a 3D-like environment with a flat, 2D board. I'm VERY excited about this.

Finally, I've shifted from pipped d6 dice to custom dice. The dice now have 3 facings: Miss (previously pips 1-2), Hit (previously pips 3-5), and a Direct Hit (previously pip 6). Now, there is no memory. It's simpler and more binary: you hit or you didn't hit. Some cards reference Direct Hits, otherwise, they are just hits. Custom dice are also much more fun and exciting than regular dice. You can see the new dice in the corner of the picture immediately above.

Maneuver Iteration

My dice mechanic and formation mechanics have worked more or less from the beginning. I've found simple good ideas are much easier to make fun than complex good ideas! Other than continued tuning regarding guns and weak spots, the ship aspect of the game is swell.

However, maneuvers have taken a lot of iteration to get where they are now. I'm fairly happy with the current state of the game. Here's a brief walk through the various iterations I've designed and tested:

  1. Players sequentially activate and move ships, similar to Memoir '44 or Summoner Wars. A peer reviewing my rules said "boo, make it simultaneous!" So I did.
  2. Players would place commander cards face down from left to right. Then, place a finite number of maneuver cards (move, rotate, change formation) under these commander cards in the order they wanted them activated. This worked, but it really killed the pacing of the game.
  3. No more commanders. Players give every squadron a single maneuver. These were still limited and gated. This felt frustrating and restrictive. Also, ships didn't move enough.
  4. I made it such that ships moved every turn if given no other command. This reduced the commands to rotate or change formation or stop. This also felt a bit odd and restrictive.
  5. I gave the player move back, got rid of stop, but made it such that there were no limits on giving orders. I.e. instead of having only 2 rotates or 2 moves, you could now give every squadron the same order if desired. Better.
  6. Ships still didn't move enough, so I made their moves more potent. Move now allowed ships to move 1 or 2 spaces. Rotate could be played to rotate to ANY facing, not just 90 degrees. Much better. However, change formation wasn't used often enough.
  7. Finally, I made it such that you can change 1 ship in your formation every turn after doing either move or rotate. Now, you have a great deal of flexibility and fiddling, but it's fast and has very few components.

Now, losing combination actions from earlier, like move, then rotate, then move, hurts a little. But, I increased the number of maneuver oriented Fleet Action cards. This, plus the fact that ships now move 1-2 spaces has really filled that hole while also making the game much simpler.

Blockade Old fighters in use on old board.

The game now moves very quickly. Both players have 6 tokens: 3 move, 3 rotate. Players place these, face down, on every squadron. Then, players alternate revealing one and executing it at a time. Then, combat! It moves very quickly and works really well. Very little noise on the table or complicated mechanics.

Special Action Iteration

This aspect of the game has evolved so well so quickly. It's definitely an area with which I have a great deal of experience: action cards. In the first iteration of the game, players had a handful of commanders. Every commander had a passive ability. Note: Passive abilities in games need to be used VERY carefully and sparingly.

The problem was, if you have 3-5 commanders, it's almost impossible to track all of your abilities, those of your opponent, and everything else going on. I stripped the commanders of their abilities and instead, gave you Fleet Action cards. Like action cards in Conflict of Heroes, you get 1 per round to use to upset things and take special actions. I've designed them with a few things in mind:

  • No passive, conditional, or lingering effects. The cards immediately do ONE thing. 
  • Simple. I've already thrown out a lot of confusing cards. There's no room for that.
  • Useful. Every card needs to be useful, powerful, and interesting. No sandbaggers.

The Fleet Action cards worked fantastically from the start. I've tweaked a few of them and made it so that you start with more of them. This speeds up the game and gives players more exciting options. Otherwise, this has been a great feature that is also very expandable.

Side note: As a a result of there being no commanders, partially from this fleet action change, and partially from the maneuver changes, I've eliminated a great deal of cards and markers from the component list. Price reductions, hurrah!

Other Fun Things

While shortening the ships this weekend, I noticed I now had a pile of small nub pieces recently removed from the capital ships. I hate wasting things and immediately wondered "what can I do with these?" My first thoughts were drones, salvage, and mines. But, the awesome Twitter community responded with a lot of ideas. Now? These blocks are everything. They are going to be the "extras" in scenarios. They are going to be the diplomatic shuttles, cargo containers, merchant ships, salvage, meteors, and everything I need to make the story and scenarios ridiculously great. These are going to help me diversify the "blow each other up" concept.

Red "extras" are drying. Red "extras" are drying.

Speaking of stories, I wrote the first 3 missions for one of the game's campaigns. I hope to have 2-3 campaigns when the game is finished, though I fully expect to write more, hire others to write more, and work with the community to write more. This last one is a long-shot, but who knows. When people get enthusiastic, they do great things.

If you want to read the IN PROGRESS stories, check them out here. This should give you a feel for the game's universe and premise. I have so much work to do here it's not even close to funny. But, it's still my goal to create a great, simple, unique tactics game, in space, paired with a great story campaign.

I have a lot of fun ideas for the universe.

In addition to the little "extras" mentioned above, I plan on having star bases (think the pucks in Ascending Empires) for more epic missions. I'm also toying with the notion of oddly shaped ships. Why not triangles, or u-shapes? Perhaps I can save those for an alien mechanic?

Finally, I realized that a good way to not only share a PNP, but get people excited to make it, is using LEGOS. Why not? People who have a pile of the basic blocks could create functional ships for Blockade in minutes. Here's a quick schematic I created using LEGOS' free online design software. More to come!

Battlecruiser

Thanks

My testers, as always, have been awesome. However, I want to thank Jeremy Van Maanen for his excitement and interest in the project. He's listened to every idea I've sent him (and it's a lot) and provided feedback, helped me iterate, and sometimes said "sounds fun!" It seems like someone like this pops up for every game I make and I'm super thankful every time.

I just ordered a second set of blocks to send to Jeremy and friends in Madison, WI.

Comments

My current intent is a 1000-2000 copy traditional print run. I'd use pre-painted (base coat) and pre-drilled blocks, similar to the ones you see in many war games. The game would ship with several sticker sheets players would apply for the game visuals and aesthetics.

I haven't done any RFQs so I don't know the pricing scheme or whether it can be reasonably manufactured at all. This may be a game where it doesn't get published due to my component choices.

The game includes 36 blocks and, while I like making my OWN version (and a few blindtest copies), the idea of making more than a small handful, even for money, isn't appealing. Cutting, drilling, and painting 36 blocks per copy is just a bit onerous. The second it goes from tinkering in my garage to producing it I lose interest :)

I'm aware of tech shop and plan to visit there at some point. I have a few friends going there now!

Re: removing the board, yes, I definitely could have a wider open board. But, the game is intentionally constrained. Constructs like range and movement are intentionally stupid simple. The game is about choosing the right move and having the right formation, which works perfectly on the grid. Ultimately, I don't think the game would take advantage of a more open board, which has to be balanced against the fact it would add more overhead to playing.

Looks great... but why do you need the board at all?

It looks like your maneuver system could work directly on any flat surface or you could add an aid as AH did in Jutland.

I assume space stations and fortresses and crazy space monsters are incoming!

You could also use a scroll saw to give a nice silhouette for the ships.

The problem with the Jutland method is that players spend a lot of time measuring, comparing, and when eyeballing isn't sufficient, they have to go back and measure. With the board, that entire layer of tedium is removed.

In a game like X-Wing it works because maneuver IS the game. In my game, you aren't curving in a free form status, but you use the simple grid to know how far you can go and who you can shoot. I just don't want to slow down the game at all with measurement. Like Checkers, you should be able to math out all things related to movement and range with your eyeballs.

Space stations for sure (defensive, scientific, etc). Crazy space monsters are less likely, at least for now. I plan to really flesh out the story between the Terran and Martians. They have some history I can explore. But, I'd like to introduce aliens at some point.

I'd LOVE to do a bullet silhouette for the ships, but that'll make things more difficult in a real production run. Blocks are simple and easy to sticker, so I'll almost definitely just stick with those.

Depending on the scale of production you are looking at, you've got a couple of options for cutting pieces easily:

1. Stack cutting - this is done by a lot of scrollers - you put together a packet of wood pieces with double sided tape and cut a bunch at once. This is quick and a scroll saw is inexpensive. Cheap new or used scroll saws at $100+. Depending on your design, you may be able to complete a stack of 5 or 6 ships in a minute or two.

2. Template cutting with a router - set up a template for each ship shape and use a router with a bushing or a router bit with a bearing to cut the pattern quickly (there are limits on the shape based on the bearing or bushing used). A router table and decent router probably $200+. The nice thing with a router bit is that you can finish the piece while you cut it (nice beveled or rounded edges).

3. Laser cutting - Hey, you live in the Bay Area, you've got a Tech Shop nearby, so you could rent access to a laser cutter pretty cheap. Basically, a way to move from the scroll saw to larger production. Tech Shop is $100/month, I think. Buying one is around $8K, so why not rent?

4. CNC - basically, the scalable approach for a router design. Buying one is around $3K to start, also available from your neighborhood hackerspace for rent...

The hardest part of making the ships is probably going to be drilling all those darn holes in the top, not the shape of the piece. If you haven't yet, check out Rockler's self-centering bits and jigs for cribbage boards. A drill press is likely going to be too slow.

I understand your thinking on the board, I just wonder if some sort of physical jig could be used to finesse the board - a stick with a hinge or axle or something to shape, track, and constrain movement and firing easily and keep the game very tactile and allow a wider open game over time.

If I haven't played this by the end of the Summer, I'm de-friending you.

She'll be at GenCon! Does that count?