The Lost Fleet
After months of thinking, design, graphic design, and prototype building, I finally brought a re-imagined Sol Rising to the table. The Lost Fleet emerged victoriously, at least for now, and a huge wave of relief has washed over my ego and looming sense of fear that I wouldn’t have it ready to pitch at BGG Con.
By the way, in case you didn’t get the reference in the title and intro, I’m referring to The Lost Fleet series by Jack Campbell. I’ve read the first 6 books and recommend it!
I want to write about the revised Sol Rising today to answer the questions:
- What is the design now?
- Why did it change?
I’ll cover what the design was through all of its previous iterations. This is a great post to catch up on the game, somewhat like a "previously on Sol Rising."
Blockade: The very first iteration of the game featured long stickered blocks. Players would arrange the blocks in little formations, revealing or covering weak spots and gun emplacements on the ships. The gun emplacements would indicate the color of dice to roll, which were intended to represent different weapon types. Two green hits could turn into a yellow hit, and so forth. The idea was that a battleship could smash ships easily, but a pack of small ships could band together to take down the big ships. There were also cards to augment play and mix things up.
This version worked and was fun, but it lacked depth. The blocks were very costly, the dice mechanism wasn’t intuitive, and players spent a lot of time summing colored symbols to figure out how many dice they would roll. It was tedious.
I recognized that I was trying to make a more complex game than the blocks would allow, so I scrapped this to try again.
Sol Rising 1.0: The major change here was that I represented the ships with cards. I kept the formation mechanism, mostly, but the orientation of the cards would now be represented by triangular or rectangular tokens on the board. If the ships were in triangle formation, there’d be a triangle token. The game was played in rounds, called Command Sets, in which players would alternate ordering a single squadron. An order included movement and/or a one-sided attack.
With cards representing the ships, I could provide stats and special abilities. This ship has guns, this one missiles, and oh, they have a special ability. Special abilities were limited – only once per battle, and every player only had 5 total ability uses. Furthermore, ships had a shielded or unshielded state. If unshielded, ships lost their ability.
There were some issues with movement and the combat abilities, but the most important lesson was that the time to design the scenarios had come. I needed to create the story.
Sol Rising 2.0: This was by far the longest period of development. As you can imagine, it took a very long time to write the narrative for a story spanning 12 scenarios. Then, design all of the scenarios.
Every scenario included setup for the fleets (which ships, where they start), board layout (asteroids, space stations), some custom rules (ex: stealth rules), 1-3 unique objectives, and persistent effects based on those objectives. Most of this time was spent playing the very first scenario. I had to figure out the structure and rules before replicating it a dozen times.
A great deal of work was put into improving the wording, potency, and clarity of the card abilities. I tested the campaign a few times with friends and tweaked some of the rules and balance, and shifted the ability system to two times per command set. Abilities were fun to use, so incorporating them into the game constantly was just better for the game.
Sol Rising 2.5: I played v2.0 with a publisher at BGG Con and went home with some feedback. Primarily, setup was too complex and time consuming and the story needed to be better integrated into the game. I also had some lingering concerns about the formation mechanism, which had really fallen out of my favor.
I eliminated the spatial mechanism and shifted to a shield mechanism – ships with shields protect other shielded ships from ranged attack. This made close-combat ships more valuable and made maneuvering more important.
I did another pass on ship abilities. Then, to work towards meeting the publisher input, I baked some common board elements into the board directly, so instead of having to add asteroid tokens, they were just on the board already. This greatly expedited setup and reduced the number of components.
The publisher also wanted me to better integrate the story into the game. At the time all of the objectives had to be referenced in the campaign booklet. I did a lot of revision to bake the objectives directly onto the cards. The players could then hold onto them and reference them more easily.
Taking a note from the Legacy games and Robinson Crusoe, I wrote the narrative directly onto the story to drive home why the objective existed. I also noted how to set it up, and what the trigger was. When the player satisfied the objective, they got to flip over the card, read the other side, and discover what they unlocked.
Finally, the publisher asked me to better integrate the characters into the experience. Previously, they just existed in the narrative.
I was worried about adding another thing to worry about, but I was really happy with my solution. I took the commanders from the narrative and put their bios on the backs of the cards. Then, on the front of the cards I put their image with an ability and an event symbol. Every commander was assigned to a squadron. If the event symbol was drawn, the controlling player got to use the ability. This meant there was some unexpected flavor and decisions without having to play for them.
The response was fine, but not great. The game wasn't good enough and it wasn't signed. With my beloved design back in my hands, I needed to do some soul searching.
What is the design now?
I spent some time thinking about Sol Rising. I took a step back and really tried to honestly identify what I liked and what wasn't good enough. My notes more or less resembled the following:
- Movement is tedious. It sucks.
- There are too many ship abilities. It hinders accessibility without leading to more interesting play. I just made a ton of variety, but not meaningful variety.
- My original idea of having distinct ship classes is better. Give destroyers or interceptors a role, don't worry about making 50 different destroyers.
- The persistent story is cool.
- The game needs to play with 2-4, not just 2.
- The event system is cool.
- Setup needs to be way faster.
- The length of play is good.
- The quick pace is good.
- Combat should be more interesting.
- The missile and gun mechanism is sorta complex and doesn't really add much.
- The dynamic damage system is cool.
- The commanders are cool.
- The objective cards are cool.
- Is the circular map cool enough?
I had a pile of goals and a list of grievances. I decided to just start making stuff. I wrote about the process here, but the gist is that I created visual mocks of everything. I just started making the components to see what emerged. The result is a very different game that I think addresses my concerns and leads to something more dynamic, more unique, simpler, and more fun.
Let's take a quick visual tour through 3.0.
The boar is now built with double sided square tiles. The blue dots are NavPoints -- fleets, the red and blue disks, simply move between these points. This lets you very quickly create a huge variety of maps with minimal effort.
In my dreams, the disks would be miniatures. The small wooden numbered tokens represent objectives and points of interest. Spawn points, things to blow up. We'll get to these in a second when we talk about Orders.
You can see up to three formations arranged around the player's reference board. Formation 1 is represented by token 1 on the board, and so forth.
Every formation has a commander, whose ability is triggered during combat if the event symbol is drawn. Players can secretly assign squadrons of ships to each formation. Squadrons include interceptors, bombers, destroyers, interdictors, and more. You don't quite know quite what's in a squadron until you fight.
Do you see the face down cards on the commanders? These are orders, all played simultaneously in secret, then resolved in command order. Orders say generic things like:
- Move to or Guard Objective 1
- Attack enemy formation 2
- Warp exactly 4 spaces
The idea is that you lock in your plans simply before you see how everything plays out, then you resolve it with some leeway. It's simple and works really well. Especially in a team format. Teammates can pass cards back and forth to share and review orders.
All ships of the same class are identical. This means you have nine ships to learn, not 60. Furthermore, every ship class is very distinctive and has a very explicit role and purpose. Let me explain the ships really quickly.
Top Left Corner
- Health: the amount of damage a squadron can take before its destroyed
- Dice: the number of dice the ship adds to a fight. Big ships like a Battleship will make the fights way nastier. But, small ships like interdictors can also do it. They "pin" the enemy fleet down to lengthen the conflict.
Top Middle and Right Corner
- Squadron Type: Battleship, interceptor, etc.
- Squadron Class: Fighter, Frigate, and Capital
- Any passive elements. For example, interceptors cannot be hit by slower missiles...but they also cannot use them.
- Advantage: I'm SUPER proud of this! Advantage and passive elements are the two main ways I make every squadron type distinct. One of the die faces you can draft in combat is the Advantage die. We'll get into combat in a second. Every advantage condition is specified. For example, Interceptors have advantage against the slow, lumbering bombers. If that condition is met and you draft that die, you can use the ability. Advantage abilities are like critical hits, or flanking. To continue the interceptor advantage, you simply destroy the bombers. Boom. Gone.
- Ability: These simply specify the die to draft and the effect of doing so.
I'm very proud of the fact that everything is on the cards. You don't need to know what guns do or how dodge works. You simply assign the die (matching symbols) and do what the text says.
I think it's time to discuss combat.
Combat occurs when two opposing formations are in range. You roll a pile of matching custom dice, determined by the number of formations and the ships in them. Players reveal their cards.
Firstly, if two Events are rolled, you draw and resolve an event card. In the image above, the yellow side is for Events. The Events are fun and add some spice and activate Commander abilities. Then, you turn the Event dice to other facings. How? By re-rolling them until they aren't Events? No! The Event card simply tells you how to change up to 4 dice. It's a simple tweak, but one I'm happy with.
You can see all the Dice Symbols explained there on the reference card. Most of them trigger abilities, though you can also use guns, missiles, and dodge generically to cause damage or avoid it.
So, you've rolled the dice, resolved the event if it happens, and now it's time to fight. In an order dictated by your Commanders, players draft 1 die at a time and assign it to resolve its ability. This keeps combat brisk and dynamic, even with 4 players, or if 2 of the players watch while 2 others quickly choose 5 dice.
The fictional idea is that commanders need to react and make choices in battle. You can see your opportunities in the pool, but you don't know what your opponent will pick first. If you have multiple good choices, ah, tension!
That's basically it. The flow of the game, in summary, is:
- Form squadrons
- Give them orders
- Resolve those orders
- Roll dice
- Resolve Event
- Draft dice
I'm at the point now where I'm going to revise a few pieces of tuning, tighten the mechanisms, and port the first three scenarios of the campaign over to the new mechanisms. The first three scenarios form the introductory arc to the campaign, so it makes for a nice, finite package to pitch at BGG.
I'm really excited to have found the fleet again. I think this might be THE version, but that's up to a publisher. I don't think Hyperbole can publish this one properly. The custom dice and miniatures and story book really make it a hefty, terrifying project for me at this point. If you have any questions or comments, please list them below. If you want a demo at BGG Con, just ask!