Adventures in Space!

I'm designing three different games, all within a science fiction theme. Although I'm not actively pursuing this or worrying about it, it would be interesting to have 3 different stories and experiences within this one universe. But, we're getting distracted.

Actually, humor me a minute. Was it not super compelling to discover Aliens and Firefly are within the same universe? I know. Right?

I know in my last post I wrote about space not appealing to me, but I've latched onto moments that I find very compelling personally and that has helped. I think that's the key -- instead of obsessing over massive premises, I'm focusing on little stories and experiences that really appeal to me. Now, I'm trying to abstract them into mechanics and overall games. Some of these include...

  • In movies like Alien and Aliens, after every horrible moment the survivors regroup and ask "Well, what do we do now?" I find this a very compelling sequence for my story-driven co-op game. WHAT NOW?
  • In Halo with ODST units (Orbital Drop Shock Troopers), Starship Troopers with the mobile infantry, and even just the good 'ole 101st Airborne Division of World War II, I'm very drawn to the intensity and coolness of commandos dropping from the sky without warning to cause mayhem.
  • I love it in any movie when a starship just unleashes an unholy broadside against an opponent. The awful Wing Commander does this in its final scene. In the recent StarTrek it is awesome when the Enterprise jumps on top of the Romulan vessel with guns blazing. The ambush, the broadside -- I love it.

The focus of this post is to discuss some of the early developments for one of my three games, but before I do that I thought I'd outline the three games very briefly.

Cooperative Game the First --  The Epic One: I went on a long, rainy run with a good friend and we hashed out a good scenario for a medium weight cooperative game. We have a beginning, middle, and end game with win and loss conditions. We have some neat mechanics. This will be a game about escaping from an oppressive empire to build a new home in secret. But, the empire is coming and they will find  you. It's a matter of time and whether you'll be prepared or not to survive. This will be a game with long-term planning and strategy, probability management, and a nail-biting finish.

This will use a chit-pull mechanic and some terrain/exploration elements (Eclipse) is an inspiration here. It will feature an expanding/collaborative tech tree and combat at the finale (perhaps throughout).

An inspiration for this game is the classic Relic game Homeworld, which is one of the finest RTS PC games of all time.

Cooperative Game the Second -- The one driven by story (I first wrote about this one here). This is a game idea I cannot get out of my head. The original kernel for the idea was that great movies like Alien, Aliens, The Avengers, Firefly, and Star Trek are driven by the characters and their personalities. The coward, the smart ass, the genius, the hot head -- the stories are interesting because of who they are and how they deal with things more so than what's happening.

I've been trying to figure out ways of turning this into a mechanic and not a wannabe light RPG. I've gone to many places and I've been circling this for a long time. Some of my inspirations have been Apples to Apples and Dixit (yep), Dungeon Command (for the mechanic where they assign adjectives to characters and equipment, i.e. this is an Int ability you can assign to any guy with Int), DuranceMice and Mystics, The Resistance, and Friday.

The thing is, I don't want any fuzziness. There should be clear rules, what I can and can't do. But, I want people to be able to lean into the story if that makes sense. I want the rich social interaction of The Resistance. More on The Resistance, I think part of that game's brilliance is that it takes 15 minutes and is fun if you lose or win. I don't think Pandemic is nearly as fun if you lose. So, I'm going for that vibe. This is all fuzzy, and it is in my head. I'm working on it, I'm circling, and I'm closing in.

Competitive Game -- This game was born out of 1901. That was a quick idea I had that I set aside and morphed into this. Both games were built upon the notion of team versus team, with each team being comprised of two different roles: Navy and Army. That has translated quite interestingly to the new premise. Now, it's star fleet and ground units. More on that in a minute.

The fictional premise is that the big Confederation has lost a planet to a group of insurrectionists. The Confederation dispatches a fleet to put down this insurrection and retake the planet. You'll have superior fire power and conventional weaponry versus an entrenched enemy who isn't as well armed, but knows the terrain and will fight in a guerrilla fashion. My goal is for this to be a 30-45 minute game, 2-4 players.

Originally with 1901 I was really leery of creating another map and another board. It's such a difficult thing to design. I tried to abstract this and move away from the typical map. I wanted something that allowed for spatial relationships, but I didn't want a complex map. I thought about a grid of cards (thick card-stock ones like in Mr. Jack, yum!) laid out in a 3x3 or 4x4 setup. Cards will be incredibly distilled, simplified elements. This square has the communications station, which has a benefit. This one is a city. This one is a mountain. This one is a plain (i.e. nothing).

So, if the ground units are moving and fighting on this grid (let's say orthogonal movement), where are the fleets? Well, ground units can only affect their surroundings in a limited way. But a star fleet, in orbit, should be able to affect a broad range of things. Basically, whatever is beneath them, right? I thought it would be quite simple if the fleets move on the outskirts of the grid and then affect the cards along that side of the grid. Along these outskirts there may be environmental hazards/objects like a star base or perhaps an asteroid belt.

Here's a rough mockup. You can see the comm station, mountains, 2 cities, the artillery battery, airfield, some normal spaces, some blank spaces. You can see the confederation fleet on the bottom side looking at those bottom 4 squares. Meanwhile, the rebel fleet is hiding in the asteroid cluster.

These two forces, the fleets and the ground forces, are both fighting their own battles. However, it's a deeply synergistic relationship. Both affect each other and must work towards a common goal. A decent comparison may be the Battle of Endor. There is a ground battle and one in space. But, whereas in that one it's an order of operations issue, in my game I'm hoping for more fluidity.

What are some of these synergies? Well, here are a few examples I've brainstormed:

  • The fleet launches drop troops to the surface to be controlled by the ground commander.
  • The ground commander gains control of the artillery battery to harass the enemy fleet.
  • The ground commander lasers a target to guide the fleet's bombers.
  • The fleet transports the ground troops quickly from one square to another.
  • The ground forces jam the enemy fleet, which allows your fleet partner to get into position.

And so forth.

Drafting is a big inspiration for me for the game. I really love the mechanic and I'm trying to incorporate it in slightly different ways. Player actions will largely be driven by their cards. Each round, teams will have a quick intra-team draft. This does a few things for the experience:

  • Each teammate gets individual agency in what he chooses for the overall strategy.
  • Good teams will see what they each drafted and try to build synergies.
  • This solves the issue of table-talk -- instead of lots of whispering, which kills the flow, or no table talk, which is lame, you can draft, know what you both have, and work off each other's hands.

Cards will have some dual use to them. I REALLY want to keep this simple (I don't want people reading cards for hours like in Seasons), but I'd like players to think "should I take this or should I leave it for the fleet?" I imagine it'll be a brief 10 card draft, each player gets 3 or 4 cards, some number are discarded. The idea is that experienced players will really begin to learn the subtlety of the decks and how to use things. Perhaps the decks will be set in phases so there are early game cards and late game cards. I want to keep it as simple as possible so we'll see how it pans out.

Another way I wish to draft will be in that each round, players will draft the territories to which they play actions. If I draft the territory with the comm station, my teammate can then drop troops to it. You can't. I drafted it, it belongs to my team.

Combat and resolution will be straightforward like in Empire or Smallworld. You'll play abilities for distinct outputs, but your cards will modify them. Territory will also feed into this. For example, an action may become more potent if I have a specific territory. I'm hoping this is a matter of syncing up icons, i.e. "If you have this, use this output. Otherwise, this one."

I think this simplicity can be quite compelling. It worked well in Empire as it was straightforward and had just a little bit of variability based on your opponent's actions. One thing that came to mind, especially with drafting the territories to influence and affect, was "drafting with interruptions." I don't mean a counter-spell "ha ha" like in Magic, but you reacting to my decision to draft the territory. Perhaps you set an ambush? Perhaps you retreat? Perhaps you drop in troops to reinforce?

One final thought on this: Stratego. It's excellent. Stratego is a simple game of planning, memory, deduction, and bluffing. Reconnaissance will be important. Positioning the fleets to "scan" and learn more about the enemy can be vital. Really, I love the idea of a 4 way game of cat and mouse.

This is all just insight into where my mind's at, what I'm trying to create, and how I work. If anything jumped out at you, good or bad, or you have any thoughts, I'd love to hear them.


Your group can play Resistance in 15 minutes? We're lucky to finish in an hour!

All of these ideas are exciting. I can't help but notice that the theme/plot of the first and third games are basically identical. That's not a bad thing; As you said, maybe all these games are in the same universe and maybe they even revolve around the same event. Why not?

You've played Queen's Gambit, right? Your third game doesn't sound dangerously similar at all, but as another game with separate arenas of play that impact each other, you can at least use it as inspiration.

Speaking of which, this article inspired an A + B idea that I'm now super-eager to explore. More details when I'm confident it's not an immediate dead-end.

We played 2 games over lunch the other day. This was with people arriving late and me having to teach the game to 5 of them. So, yes, we play Resistance in about 15-20 minutes easily.

My intent is that the 1st and 3rd games are different. For the first (the co-op), the fiction is mostly like you escaping a super oppressive regime or alien race. You're colonizing and building a new homeworld and setting it up to defend against your inevitable discovery.

With the third game (competitive game), it's more the typical issue of a decently sized group of planets, somebody wants independence, the central government doesn't want that, and they fight. Basically a small snippet of the civil war you might read about in Star Wars, Halo (pre-Covenant insurrectionists), StarCraft, etc.

Maybe that's too similar? Who knows. The intent is that they'll be different. As I work more on the co-op one (it's the least developed of the 3 ideas) we'll see how it grows.

I haven't even heard of Queen's Gambit. :) I'll check it out.

I look forward to A + B!

Wow, some fantastic ideas here. If I were inside you're brain, I'd be suffering from creativity overload.

The first co-op sounds cool, if a little sketchy at this stage. I'd like to know more about it (particularly because I'm fond of RTS PC games, even if I don't have much time to play them).

The second co-op sounds very exciting, very rich in potential. I've only played The Resistance a couple of times (with T.C. Petty III, Chris Kirkman, and a couple I met at PrezCon), but I love that kind of social paranoia game. But I'm also very interested to see how you use the Apples to Apples mechanic in role enhancement. I can imagine how that might work, and the possibilities are intriguing.

The competitive "1901 in Space" sounds very promising. I can totally see how the space and ground theaters might interact and reinforce each other. The "tile board" concept reminds me vaguely of Forbidden Island, except that you're using it in an entirely different way. I like the idea of partnered card/tile drafting, too. As you described it, I imagined that you pass your hand to your opponent, who drafts a card before it gets to your partner - so the question becomes, does my opponent intercept the card I want my partner to take? Not sure that's what you had in mind, but there's a lot you can do with it in any case.

Your mention of the partner-based open drafting made me flash back to some of the best parts of partner-based trick-taking games ... where the card being lead on a trick is more of a signal to the partner of how this round should be played, or what you have in your hand, or what you expect to see in return.

In those games, direct table talk is discouraged, so the "look: I'm leading you a weak fail card ... should be easy for you to take this trick" type of obvious (to the experienced player) card play is needed. If you are encouraging open team talk and an open draft as well, it could very well allow each player to have their own style while contributing to the team effort.

I'll keep an eye on what you're doing in that area especially.