An Epic Crash of Fleets

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I can’t help myself. I’m on a massive space binge lately. I changed Dawn Sector from faux-Napoleonic to sci-fi to broaden its appeal and give myself more flexibility on the design (plus I like sci-fi), but it wasn’t my intent to return to this theme again.

But, that’s precisely where I find myself. I took a step back recently and observed that when I start a new game, it’s often a direct response to the one I just finished (be it published, killed, or just finished). Farmageddon was light, silly, sometimes imbalanced, and I wanted to make a deeper strategy game. Dawn Sector emerged. Part of a reaction to an earlier build of Dawn Sector (now fixed) was that the pacing was off, so I created Molly’s Last Hope, which is lightning fast and simple. 

Now, after creating a euro-ish game in Dawn Sector, I have a hankering to make something less strategic, a bit more epic, and maybe a smidge trashy. Last week, a friend/peer/tester of Dawn Sector seemed…disappointed when after a battle (that he won) he wasn’t able to “dominate” his opponent. In the rules and mechanics of the game, he actually did: he won the battle, eliminated all of his units, and claimed a prisoner worth points at the end of the game. But, he wanted a massive critical shot. He wanted to roll 3 6s and see his enemy explode in defeat. He wanted to experience the lamentation of his foe’s women.

Dawn Sector won’t do that for certain mindsets, but I think my new idea will.

My starting point was this: 2 players will each control a fleet and direct it to destroy their opponent’s fleet. The intent is that it’s fast, furious, and epic. One of my favorite things to do as a designer is take a big concept and distill it down to its core. I’m a big fan of abstraction and finding ways to give the players the general vibe for a bigger thing with a smaller component. For example, instead of having different types of units in Dawn Sector (i.e. cavalry, infantry), you merely have ways of using those units as if they were a unit type. I plan to do the same thing with this fleet game.

At a high level, currently, this game will do the following:

  • Have a rock/paper/scissors dice driven combat system where big ships fire differently than small ships and have different ways of taking damage.
  • Scenario driven.
  • Fast, with each battle taking a half hour or less.
  • Campaign driven. Players can return to a persistent campaign that will remember some previous choices. This isn’t Risk Legacy regarding permanence. But, there will be a story through which you can play.
  • There will be an ambush type mechanic (super simple).
  • There will be different type of ships built upon a very simple system. You won’t need to learn any different rules between ship types.
  • Players will share a set of Orders that give a set of ships priorities and bonuses to accomplish various tactical outcomes.
  • No map or measurements. Cards will specify the “nav points” at which ships can FIGHT.

First, let’s discuss my inspiration. I’ve been reading a lot of space opera the past few months, including:

  • Leviathan Wakes: A dash of horror, a dash of detective noir, and a plausible near future. Great ships, characters, and they used our solar system.
  • The Honor Harrington Series (I linked the first book): This is a huge space opera spanning over a dozen books. The battles are highly detailed with lots of cleverness by many of the antagonists and protagonists (a big inspiration for my ambush mechanic). Plus, their technology and tactics evolve over the course of the war (an inspiration for capital ships versus fighters and so forth).
  • I just bought Dread Empire’s Fall: haven’t read yet but I’m excited!
  • And I’m always thinking about Old Man’s War. So so good.

I’ve also been thinking about a few of my favorite games lately: Homeworld and Gratuitous Space Battles. Both of these fleet-based strategy games had a feature where you would order a squadron or set of units into a formation. For Homeworld it was a side feature that didn’t really matter (but I LOVED it) and for Gratuitous Space Battles it was more or less the game. For example, in Homeworld you could put a squadron of fighter bombers into sphere formation, where they position themselves around a target and pummel it. The plus side is that they aren’t moving, so they take it down quickly. The down side is that they aren’t moving, so they are highly susceptible to enemy fire.

This formed the basis for my first mechanic: formations. I wanted to avoid the “this ship shoots at this ship with this weapon” vibe. In fact, I didn’t really want you managing individual ships much at all, but, like an admiral, directing squadrons to execute maneuvers and do things.

Players will have an identical set of Orders, which will be cards, that will put a set of ships into a formation. This formation will give the ships a firing priority (i.e. target fighters first) and potentially a benefit (i.e. increased shields) or downside (i.e. can’t move).

Working from this point, I tried to figure out a combat system that would somewhat embrace the notion of a set of ships going at it. My first thought was: “what if all ships in range of each other just fire using a pool of dice?” That’s largely where I’m going! After players quickly issue orders, ships within range of the enemy will fire. They do this until they are destroyed, their enemies are destroyed, or they aren’t in range. Ships will be represented by cards which will indicate what dice and how many dice are rolled.

“What do you mean by what dice?” I’ll tell you! I wanted to avoid a few scenarios:

  1. Massive ships both fire a ton of dice and are super tanky. I didn’t want a player just flying a dreadnought into a mass of ships knowing that, based on probability, he’ll slowly but surely kill them all before they kill him.
  2. Tiny ships pulling off kill shots on Dreadnoughts. YES, the Deathstar was brought down by an X-Wing, but that was atrocious product design and typically, a fighter isn’t bringing down a capital ship. One of the most maddening things in Civilization III is watching a spearman kill a battleship. I want to avoid that.

I needed a rock/paper/scissors mechanic to make ships useful and balanced for what they are. Therefore, there are three types of dice: green d6, yellow d6, and red d6. Fighters will roll green dice, which are good against other fighters and lighter ships like destroyers. Battlecruisers, which are hefty but somewhat flexible, may fire one die of each color. They can go after Dreadnoughts with the red die and still hold back fighters with the green. A Dreadnought will only have red dice, which means it can pound other big ships, but will have a really difficult time swatting those gnat fighters.

What a ship fires will be clearly communicated with colored cubes on the card. Just tally a handful of cards and ROLL. Ships will have two sides: shielded and shields disabled. The requirement for disabling the shields will be indicated on the card (a set of hits based on colors), with a hit always being a 3+ regardless of color. Disabling the shields will require the entire shield be disabled at once in a single round.

Damaging the ship once the shield is down will be an easier requirement and you’ll simply mark the damage with a card every time the ships is damaged. Let’s say a Dreadnought has 3 hits, so with 3 cards it’s destroyed. Unlike shields, which are all or nothing, you can damage a ship one at a time every round (unless you blow it up in a single round).

In some cases (uncommon, I don’t want information overload), a damage card may convey a system failure. Engines down, laser batteries knocked out. Perhaps it is simply a critical shot worth 2 damage. There can also be amusing scenarios, where it causes the ship to drift. Perhaps it drifts into the enemy destroyer — not a zero sum gain. Or it drifts into your dreadnought — disaster! I hope this creates a little variety in how the battle resolves instead of just your standard countdown to battle.

This is more or less what Academy Games does with Conflict of Heroes. When squads take hits, they can be suppressed, pinned, and have other battlefield emotional effects conveyed. It’s really cool and really simple.

I think this dice system will let me do some cool things and simple variation. For example, a fighter bomber may share the same shields/damage as fighter, but it rolls yellow dice instead of green dice, which makes it more viable at taking down capital ships, but awful at taking down fighters.

What about persistence and the campaign? I think this will be a part of the game’s “special sauce” that really makes it great. It’ll also be something I tackle much later once the combat mechanics work. My first priority is to design and balance the orders, basic ship types, and individual battle mechanics. Working on the campaign before that would be premature.

But. There will be a campaign that tells the story of two powerful star nations at war with one another. At the start, one of a handful of beginning scenarios will be chosen. Then, like a choose your own adventure novel, the results of the battle indicate the next scenario OR present a choice between scenarios. The idea is you can play a few over lunch, bookmark your page in the rules, then return to it later.

To do this I’ll need to create a simple universe with planets and existing military installations. Nothing crazy and overall simpler than a Memoir ’44 scenario (my game has fewer moving parts). I’m also figuring out which decisions will carry over between scenarios. The key, in my opinion, is focus. For example, losing a fighter squadron doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t affect things. BUT, losing a dreadnought? That’s important.

I was discussing the mechanic with a friend, and he suggested each player has a deck of ships. Scenarios will tell you what ships you can include (if you have them) and give you optional additions. As you lose key ships like dreadnoughts, you simply remove them from your deck and set them aside. Remember, this isn’t Risk Legacy. They won’t be ripped up! This gives a simple form of accounting instead of having to track things on a notepad. But, like in the Honor Harrington novels, as the war develops, so should your technology. If you can remove ships, theoretically you can also add them, yes? Perhaps you raid an enemy planet and steal their research secrets. This unlocks the fighter bomber, which you now add to your deck. Nothing crazy, but it’s fun and cool.

Scenarios will vary in a few ways:

  • Ships involved
  • Optional Ships: Instead of the typical “add 20 points worth of ships,” which can be inaccessible, I want to instead say “You can add this set, this set, or this set.” So, give a choice, but define the choices.
  • System layout, i.e. asteroid belts, nebulae, and other things to vary it.

This post is growing a bit long, so I’ll cut it off here. I’m currently working on first pass rules and first pass content. My short term goal is to create a single scenario and begin proving the combat mechanic. Did anything interest you in this? Did anything sound awful? Chime in below!

Dawn Sector: Origin Story

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I write about my games often, so much, that I often think “oh that would make a good blog post” before I even finish updating my prototype. It’s a useful way for me to put my thoughts down. However, I write as if you’ve been following along from the beginning and, like Lost, the reality is it’s not fun to try to jump in at the middle. I thought it would be useful to describe what Dawn Sector is as well as discuss the decisions I’ve made to get it to this point.

Note: If you go to my blog section and search for “Dawn Sector” or “Empire” or “Field Marshals” or “General Staff” you’ll find all sorts of posts. 

Why did I make this game? I’ve always loved war games. I played a lot of Risk as a child. In college my roommate and I played Stratego constantly and our senior year Heroscape dominated our weekends. Some of my favorite games now (that I’m really into board games) are Memoir ’44ShogunSummoner Wars, Risk Legacy, and 1812: The Invasion of Canada.

I wanted to create something like these games, but I wanted it to be my own. I challenged myself to create a war-like game that would satisfy the following very high level requirements:

  • Plays with more than 2 OR MORE players. So many war games are 2 player only.
  • Plays in an hour or less. People don’t have time to recreate the entire Franco-Prussian War in real time. I like to distill and design for people with less time.
  • No dice. What! Madness. Dice are a staple of combat resolution and are featured prominently in all but 2 games above.And in Shogun, the battle tower acts as a randomizing element. I wanted to be different.

I picked a general time period, the mid to late 19th century, and set to work.

What is Dawn Sector now? Before I go down the path of what this game was and how it came to be, I thought I’d root you in the present, very far-along version of the game.

Dawn Sector is an area-control war game for 2-4 players set in an original science fiction universe. It plays in about an hour over the course of 6 rounds. During these rounds players will choose from a short list of simple actions (move, declare battle, etc.) and use their limited hand of 5 cards for 1 of 2 things: Reinforcements or played in sets to activate powerful abilities.

As you can see from the (no art yet) prototype card below, the cards are basically as simple as poker cards. You play the card for the number for Reinforcements (add 2 Units in the below example) or with a defined set of symbols (i.e. 2 Infantry and an Artillery) for Tactics.

The game is faction-based with 5 factions currently: 4 unique and 1 generic faction to help people learn the game. Oh, and there are wooden cubes. Did you get shivers? I did. The game is low-luck and is outcomes are overwhelmingly determined by player actions.

Defining the Mechanics: At the outset of the game I had my 3 goals listed at the beginning as well as the core idea for my reinforcements versus tactics idea. That was there from the beginning and, content aside, has remained largely unchanged.

The individual pieces that have been the most challenging for me as I designed this game are:

  • Map Design: Oh god why?
  • Scoring: How do you win the game?
  • The Battle System: How do you create variance and unexpected outcomes without dice?
  • Factions and Tactics: What does it mean to be a faction?
  • Pacing: How do I keep the game moving?

As you can see with the image at the top, I have gone through so many iterations with the map. This was a completely new challenge for me as a designer and I cannot tell you how many weekends I have spent staring at a pile of shapes.

There are several challenges that present themselves. How many spaces do you have? Keep in mind, this varies based on the number of players you have (I started with 6!) and needs to be big enough that you aren’t constantly fighting, but not so big that you are never fighting. If you squint and look at the numbers below, you can see I had player starting points everywhere (some poor guys in the middle) and cities (the stars) scattered haphazardly as well.

In the map below here I had fewer players (down to 4) but for some reason had a body of water in the center. I actually had 2-3 variants with different bodies of water. After a handful of tests a friend noted that if I wanted conflict, it didn’t make sense to fill the center with useless territories and put the valuable territories on the outside. People will just spread. Ah ha!

I refined this one a bit and took it to GenCon where I tested 12 times. It largely worked, but there needed to be a little more space (i.e. more territories) and it needed to be balanced. Because unfortunately, it favored a few starting positions.

Eventually, I came to this map below. You’ll notice both purple and red starting icons — I was still trying to have a single board work for 2, 3, and 4 players. I also had varied rules to compensate for this and ultimately, I decided to create a single double-sided board: 2/4 players on one side and 3 players on the other. This increased my components (and gave me another map to design), but ultimately meant the rules were identical for every player variation.

Here are what I believe to be the final boards (layout wise, not art). I haven’t changed them in months and they seem to work very well.

Now, let’s discuss scoring. In many war games, especially 2 player ones, the game is over when the opponent is eliminated or an objective is taken. This is fine with 2 players but doesn’t work at all with 4 players. I wanted to avoid the back and forth king of the hill feeling of traditional Risk and I refused to have player elimination. How then, could I keep up to 4 players entertained until the end of the game?

I had a few other goals. I like it when players feel like they can win up until the very end. I’ve seen friends check out when they feel like an earlier decision doomed them. I also wanted players to fight often, multiple times in fact. So many games build up for one single fight that determines the game. I wanted many fights and I didn’t want a single loss to hinder you forever.

For better or worse, some of these ideas emerged as I tested. The first test gave victory to the first player to capture an enemy headquarters. It ended in about 20 minutes when one player managed to carry out his throat shot first. Not very compelling with such a singular goal. I began thinking about other ways to score:

  • Holding territory
  • Holding special territory (what was originally a resource tile is now the city)
  • Bonus points for placing forts
  • Completing a randomly dealt secret objective
  • Winning battles

Some of these were fairly obvious (holding territory) and were streamlined over time to be very simple: normal territory is worth 1 point, cities are worth 3 points. Forts provide no additional bonuses. I then had to figure out how often players scored. If you wait until the end for a single scoring moment, players just build up and eye each other. “Camping” ensues. I think camping is boring. On the other hand, if you have scoring more frequently players never get a chance to pull off a multi-round scheme. Eventually, I settled on 2 scoring rounds: the mid point and the end. This gave players time to try things, build up, and make mistakes without a.) sitting idle the entire game and b.) feeling like they had only one chance.

The randomly dealt secret objectives were always neat and simple. The gave players a goal. However, it seemed that most people “solved” them too early and felt like they didn’t have anything else to do (perception is a pain!). Furthermore, it was incredibly difficult to balance them to be equal. I came up with the strategic victory solution. Every game, 4 of the 8 cards are randomly chosen. The player who satisfies the strategic victory at the end gets a point bonus. Over time 4 was whittled down to 3 per game and now 2 per game. It gives players a long-term strategy but also isn’t overwhelming.

Finally, I toyed with letting players earn points through battle victories. After all, I wanted a game where people were fighting. Typically, in a game like Shogun, you fight to move an enemy off the territory that scores. But, it’s very possible to never fight and merely stare at each other. I wanted battles! Therefore, I gave players an incentive: 3 points. But, how to track it? I had a good idea. If you win a battle, you permanently claim 1 of the Units your opponent lost in the battle. This is now a double edged incentive: you get points and your opponent permanently loses 1 of his Units. In Dawn Sector, your unit pool is finite (15 Units). This makes losing a battle painful but, to fit with my goals above, not decisive. If you lose 6 battles? You probably won’t win. But, if you’re smart about your choices this won’t happen. Over time I changed this to 2 points per Prisoner, the current name.

Games usually score relatively closely, with high scoring games placing the leader at around 30 points.

Now, let’s discuss the battle system. My thinking was that without dice, my battles would be a less varied affair. But, if every battle is the same is the same, this quickly grows tiring. However, I wanted player choices to dominate the outcome of events. If you positioned your units well, chose your cards correctly, and played the right tactic, you should win.

I began with a basic attrition system, inspired by 19th century combat: for every 3 units in the battle, every player loses 1 Unit. This lasted far longer than it should have! At one point a tester suggested I forego the math and find a new way to determine casualties. I settled on the following: Every player loses 1 Unit each in 3 waves. The player with the most units at the end wins. It removed the math problem and gives an almost identical final result.

“Okay,” you’re saying, “biggest number wins?” Not exactly. The tactics were powers that you could activate to change the state of things. Destroy X enemy units, move Y enemy Units out of the battle, increase your opponent’s rate of loss — things like this. Initially, only the attacker played a Tactic. This meant battles were always a foregone conclusion and merely an exercise in efficiency. Why would someone attack another player if he would lose?

I introduced the defensive tactic. These gave the defender a chance to switch things up. I decided that the defender would get the chance to play his tactic first, followed by the attacker playing an offensive tactic. This worked…somewhat. The problem was that the defensive tactics were both too weak AND too expensive to activate. A little tuning fixed things right up! I made the decision that all defensive tactics would cost a single card to activate and would be potential game changers.

However, the attacker was still able to respond with his offensive tactic and, as HE declared the battle, one could argue he knew what he was getting into. This system has led to a bit of bluffing and really supports the tight hand-management required to win. How many Units do you really need to add during reinforcement? Where do you think you might battle this round? And how many times? And against whom? All of this factors into the seemingly simple choice of which cards to play for reinforcements at the beginning of a round.

What about Factions and Tactics? For quite some time the game featured a single faction shared by every player. There was a smattering of 8 very diverse and non-coherent tactics. I personally liked the variety but noticed people would focus on just one or two they liked and sticked to them. I also noticed the game needed a little more variance. Without dice to change battles, and with all the tactics being shared, the game felt a little stale.

I decided to create factions. My first four factions were inspired by classic military archetypes:

  • Highly disciplined defensive warfare
  • Highly mobile, blitzkrieg style offensive warfare
  • The hit and run tactics of the guerrillas
  • The irregular and atypical tactics of a rebellion. Assassination and more.

I divided up the 8 current tactics along these lines, created new ones, and gave every faction a passive special ability that didn’t require cards to activate. This made every faction very distinct and different. You couldn’t stand toe to toe with the big boys when commanding the guerrillas, but the defensive army also couldn’t chase them very well.

Aside from some early game-breaking balance issues that were so bad they were easily fixed, I’ve never looked back from the faction-based gameplay. However, I recently added a generic faction for players to use when learning the game. A friend noted that the game was difficult to learn because you needed to both learn the game AND the factions. Now, it’s just the game to start. When you’re ready? Upgrade to the factions mode by flipping your player boards over.

The final high level mechanic I’d like to discuss is pacing. Pacing was my biggest problem and top concern for a long time. It’s a very difficult problem to solve. Is it your fault if people are taking too long to make decisions? Maybe. In my case, yes.

A few things led to the constant analysis paralysis in my game. The biggest is that players would get a single turn every round and during that turn, they would need to reinforce and take 2 sequential actions (including any battles). If you went first, 3 other players would then take their turns. This meant the first player would have to take 2 actions that didn’t screw him up for the next 6 actions. This was still difficult for the second and third players to do. Then, the fourth player had to choose how best to maximize his turn based on what the other 3 players did. That assumes he didn’t get battled 4 times and left with zero units.

It was just too much to consider.

A few things broke this up. The first step was breaking the battle phase and the action phase apart. In the action phase, players merely declared that a battle would take place, locking the chosen territory in time (until the following phase). This restricted the amount of things one needed to consider and also created an interesting concept of battles occurring in order (which opened up some subtle strategies).

Recently, I introduced what will probably be the most important change for the duration of the project. Instead of the one turn per round, 2 actions per turn system described above, players never take more than a single action on their turn. Now, players all reinforce sequentially then take one action sequentially. Players take 3 actions per round in total instead of just two previously. By having 18 total actions throughout the game, players aren’t so constricted and are able to take more ambitious gambles. There is also more reactionary gameplay, which is necessary sometimes. It has fundamentally improved the game so much that I’m astounded I didn’t do it over the summer.

There are some other miscellaneous tidbits. Turn order used to be determined by 20 chits numbered 1-20. It was this stupid deduction type game that was just cumbersome and not interesting. I’ve experimented with several ways of determining turn order and ultimately settled on one that is both simple and provides light variance. I’ve subtly tweaked decks to change total possible reinforcements, symbol distribution, and more.

I’ve also changed my player boards several times (pictured below).

If you have any questions or comments on Dawn Sector I’d love to hear them. If you made it this far you’re a true friend. Sorry I wrote at such length!

Here are some player boards! Check out the evolution.

Testing for Usability

Post by: Grant Rodiek

The image above is the cover of a popular web design book by Steve Krug called Don’t Make Me Think. It is one of the best books I’ve ever read and is incredibly applicable to almost any form of product design and development. You should read it. It’s a quick read. 

As a professional game developer, an overwhelming percentage of my job is focused towards usability. We spend a tiny amount of time coming up with a feature and designing it, quite a bit of time overseeing its execution and implementation, then months and months and years tweaking and tuning things to be as easy to use as possible.

Naturally, this is a big deal for me as a board game designer. I can’t help but process things through the lens of how people will use it, learn it, and think about it. This is often the role of the publisher in our space, but as the business space changes and designers become publishers as well, or designers are expected to take their games further for publishers who don’t have as many development resources, I see this as a very important skill.

When I think of usability, I mentally highlight a few things:

  • Make your game incredibly easy to learn.
  • Remove all distractions and complications that detract from the strategy and fun.
  • Create a layout that emphasizes the art and functional elements (text, iconography) and subdues the rest.
  • Reduce the amount of things players must memorize. Is there a way to put it in front of them and eliminate the need to store it mentally?
  • Present your game in a way that players can begin the path to mastery as soon as possible, as opposed to several games of merely learning.

When I discuss accessibility with my fellow designers, many often scoff at the notion of “dumbing down” a design or “compromising complexity” in order to appeal to a player they view as the lowest common denominator. This is a mistake and a very foolish one. The key is not to compromise your design for someone who isn’t interested. That is also foolish. The key is to make it so the people who should play your game actually love it and play it.You want to remove all confusion for everyone, especially the people whom you are targeting.

Usability is universal. For everyone.

Even if you intend to pitch your game to a publisher, the publisher will be “new players” who must play your game blindly. They must understand it and see the vision you hold for the title. If they can’t quite see the game’s potential due to bad presentation, or if they are overwhelmed by all of the things they need to fix in development, they just might pass.

Maybe? Maybe not. I’m not an expert on publisher relations. I just know if I was shown something that’s immediately great and beautifully presented, I’d be more eager to sign that and speak to that designer.

How does one test for usability? Before we answer this, there’s some preparation that must occur. Many designers opt for the quick and dirty prototype: index cards, scribbles, “pictures,” and lots and lots of tape. This is fine, but at some point when you move beyond mechanical tweaking you need to begin focusing on usability.

For this, you must create a game that is more presentable, cohesive, and presentable (Editor’s Note: I noticed I wrote it twice as a typo, but liked it so much I kept it.). You can remove all art and merely focus on black and white elements. This has become my preferred method.

I use a few tools to make this possible. Firstly, Photoshop. This is expensive, so it may not work for you. Google Drawing, which is a part of their online suite of free office software, is a great way to quickly mock and layout simple images. You can also use Inkscape.

Secondly, you’ll need some cohesive icons, unless your game is one of the few that doesn’t have icons. I use two sites: and The Noun Project. These sites give you a free and legal way to create a cohesive game experience.

Finally, pick a clear, functional typeface. Arial is just fine. Remember, remove all distractions.

By improving your game visually you finally remove the caveat of “oh this is placeholder” or “oh the publisher will fix this.” I’ve said that so many times and it’s a mistake. You will miss things and overlook real, fundamental problems under the excuse of it not being your issue. Make it your issue, fix it, and improve the game as a whole. You’ll be surprised at just how often your mechanics and balance improve indirectly as a result of a usability solution.

With your game in a more presentable state, you’re able to take a step back from the purely mechanical exercise of testing and process it through the usability lens. You want to find the right testers to do this.

Who are the right testers? You need a good mix of folks. I seek out people who normally wouldn’t be interested in my game. For Dawn Sector, I sought people who were slightly overwhelmed by my game due to their inexperience with board games of this heft. Again, the goal is not to win them over but identify the low-hanging fruit of confusion and frustration. Their suffering will ultimately make my true customers happier.

You’re looking for repeat points of confusion. You’ll typically see these with experienced gamers if the problem is bad enough, but it will make itself clear much more quickly with novice testers. You can more quickly identify pacing concerns. Gamers have a bit more durability and will hold off on pulling out the cell phones. Non-gamers will again exacerbate an issue.

Last week I tested Dawn Sector with my girlfriend, a complete non-gamer who typically plays Dixit, Apples to Apples, Cards Against Humanity, and the occasional “real game” I force her to play. I tested it with a guy who only plays Catan and has been overwhelmed by everything else I’ve shown him ever. I tested with a non-gamer friend who is pretty sharp and picks things up, but doesn’t play games often so things that aren’t intuitive will hold him back. Finally, I played with a professional designer friend who likes video games and has no love whatsoever for board games. In my opinion, he was perfect for this exercise as he’s an expert in usability with no restraint on feedback for things he didn’t like.

After testing with them I did not change a single mechanic or re-tune anything. I did, however, update every single piece of “user interface,” including the game board, player boards, cards, rules, and I even added a new board to aid them further.

You can read about some of those changes more specifically here and here.

At a high level this sounds good, but what are some practical ways of testing usability? There are a few things you can do.

  • Constantly optimize the text for your cards and abilities. Constantly scrub them to have as few words as possible and test repeatedly to find the right word that leads to the least amount of confusion and misinterpretation.
  • Experiment with presenting text-based content as a purely visual diagram. I’ve done this for Farmageddon (didn’t work) and now Dawn Sector (success!). For Dawn Sector, my diagrams don’t replace the text, but support it. Whether you put it onto your player boards or put it into the rules to help demonstrate a point, never forget the power of images. It’s the closest you’ll get to shipping with every copy of your game to explain things.
  • Examine the layout of the best selling games to determine why they work. Why do the following games sell so well? It may be partially due to how they present information: Ticket to Ride, 7 Wonders (lots of info on cards), Citadels, Summoner Wars, Eclipse (player boards), Ascending Empires (player board), Dominion.
  • Be sure to create icons with distinct shapes. If you have 8 icons that are all circles with very few distinguishing characteristics, it’ll be difficult to differentiate them. Experiment with ways to have distinct shapes more easily identified from across the table.
  • Use colors to enhance your presentation, but not as the basis for it. Remember that a significant portion of the player base can’t see color, or certain colors, and you can’t solely rely on that one tool. Use all the visual and usability tools at your disposal.

Making a game as easy to learn and play as possible should be your goal regardless of its ultimate complexity and strategic depth. Your role as a designer is about mechanics and tuning, but it’s also to be an ambassador to your experience. Make everything as seamless and simple as possible. Let people get to the FUN, not stumble through the ticket counter.

How do you focus on accessibility? What are some of your tactics? Share below!

Posted in Blog | Tagged , don't make me think, game testing, usability | 4 Replies

Miniature Madness

Post by: Grant Rodiek

As I noted a week or so ago, I’ve begun seriously considering self-publishing Dawn Sector under my Hyperbole Games label. I have a ways to go before I reach a decision and a great deal of research to conclude, but I’m optimistic I can both make this happen and create something outstanding. We’ll see.

However, as I write about self-publishing the game, I’ve been amused and slightly perplexed by the sheer number of people who recommend I add miniatures to the game. Their logic is often thus: Add miniatures to the game. They are awesome and they do really well on Kickstarter.

I agree with these points. Miniatures are awesome and fun. They also do incredibly well on Kickstarter, as evidenced by the Most Funded section on the site. The thing is, these reasons don’t trump my personal reasons for not using miniatures. For me, it isn’t a cut and dry approach and it isn’t an obvious choice. In fact, I think it’s the wrong choice.

In the same way I like to write openly about my design process, I’d like to now write briefly about why miniatures are the wrong component for Dawn Sector and Hyperbole Games. Join me as I put on my novice publisher’s hat.

Dramatic Increase to Project Complexity: One of the most important strategies for leaders in business is to avoid risk wherever possible in order to overcome the unexpected when it appears. There will be delays. The manufacturer will make a mistake. The USPS will increase shipping rates.

For me as a first time publisher, adding miniatures are an unacceptable risk at this stage. I must hire someone qualified to create a 3D model/sculpt. I’ve never managed that (whereas I have overseen illustrations and graphic design). I’d need to include a nice vacuum box insert to hold the miniatures.

Finally, in addition to reviewing all of the other components to ensure they are perfect, I now need to ensure the plastic looks great, is durable, can be painted, and I’m just not qualified for that.

I’d like to take the approach of Plaid Hat Games. Summoner Wars includes zero miniatures. Dungeon Run had some. Mice and Mystics quite a few. And now City of Remnants a ton of them. They scaled up with time as they grew more comfortable. I’ll follow suit.

Increase to Up Front Costs: In the past I’ve publicly noted my frustrations with some aspects of Kickstarter and even stated I’d rather not use it. That’s still true, but for a game the size of Dawn Sector I cannot cover it entirely out of pocket. I just can’t. Furthermore, at this stage, ignoring the marketing benefits of Kickstarter is just foolish.

However, I’ll still have quite a few up front costs. Before any campaign (if I conduct one), I will have fully paid for and completed:

  • All art
  • All graphic design and layout
  • Several prototypes for testing, blind testing, and reviews
  • Writing and editing assistance

This will amount to several thousands dollars. If I include miniatures, this cost increases in a few ways.

  • I need to hire someone to create the 3D sculpts.
  • Setup costs for each mold, according to James Mathe of Minion Games, are $3000-5000 apiece. 

My game currently has 4 factions. To do this properly, I think I would need 4 unique molds. That’s $12,000 – $20,000 just to setup the printing. To justify that expense, I’d need to sell a LOT more copies, which is unlikely. Remember, I’m a small guy. If I sell 1000-2000 copies I’ll be elated. Even THAT is unlikely.

I’m willing to spend money I have saved to cover the up front costs and round up any costs at the back end after a successful Kickstarter. I am unwilling to spend $20,000 just to setup the minis.

Increase to MSRP: I think price is one of the most important elements to your product’s success or failure. In absence of a powerful brand or reputation, price is potentially the most significant factor for me. I need people on Kickstarter, Amazon, or in the FLGS to take a risk and buy my game. The higher the price, the larger the barrier to entry for them.

I’m currently trying to have an MSRP of $40-50 for Dawn Sector. It’s a big game with a lot of components, but it doesn’t include custom dice or any of the standard cost increases, so I think this will be possible. If I create the game with miniatures, my game will suddenly cost $75-100. This means I need people to spend their money on my game instead of Eclipse or other huge, big component games. How likely is that? In my opinion, not very.

I think Dawn Sector will be an outstanding, meaty game at a price point of $50 or less. Above that? It may not stand toe-to-toe with other big box games. I want people to feel like they received both a great value and a great experience. This is very important to me.

Again, to reference Plaid Hat Games, the Summoner Wars Master Set is typically sold for $40-50 with 6 factions and a nice board. That’s a great game at a great value.

Increased Difficulty in Expanding the Game: My professional video game career has largely been spent on expansions and digital upgrades over time. I’m a big fan of this model both professionally and as a hobby board gamer. I have several Memoir ’44 expansions, quite a few Summoner Wars faction packs, and single expansions for a few of my favorite games. My fondness for this business model is based on a few thoughts:

  1. If I love a thing, I want more of a thing. I believe customers share this.
  2. If a game has a strong foundation, creating more of it is reasonable and fair.
  3. Expansions allow a business to have a steady revenue stream while incurring relatively low risk. This revenue stream will also come from the smallest, most dedicated fans.

As it stands right now, an expansion for Dawn Sector can be done with as few as 25 cards and a player board in a box. To gain efficiency from manufacturing and increase the value for players I would sell them in pairs: 2 factions, 50 cards, 2 player boards. I can do this because the factions are color agnostic and players use wooden cubes and markers when they play.

If I add miniatures, I’d need to create new molds and miniatures per faction. Whereas I can probably pay for new factions out of pocket, I’d need to Kickstart every expansion that uses miniatures. It would also cost a great deal more for players. If a good expansion costs $10-20, that’s almost a no question purchase. If it costs $40? That’s not so simple.

Looking long term, I want to expand Dawn Sector, continue the story, and enrich the game over time with high value, great quality expansions. Miniatures make that much more difficult.

Miniatures are Wrong for the experience: Everything above is a business argument. This is a design/product argument and in my opinion, probably the best reason to not use miniatures.

The scale of Dawn Sector is such that the 8mm cubes currently used fit perfectly even when every player has his full set of 15 on the board. To keep that scale intact, I would need to use the really tiny miniatures like the ones you see in Risk. In the game, players are constantly picking up their unit pieces to move them, fight with them, and things like this. With cubes, it’s painfully simple. Pick them up, drop them. However, with miniatures they’d be constantly falling over, you’d need to set them back up, and they’d be more difficult to count.

To be frank, cubes are the correct and best component for this game. Miniatures, while thematic thrilling, are wrong for the experience.

These Aren’t the Miniatures You’re looking For: As noted just previously, the miniatures I would use would need to be quite small. If you look at most of the miniatures games, the minis used tend to be a bit larger. They can have more detail, they are easier to paint, they have a bit of heft when held, and they just look more epic. Check out these miniatures from Rivet Wars:

Now, check out these miniatures from Risk Legacy:

If a component to the reasoning for using miniatures is that they’ll excite customers and increase their enjoyment of the game, I’d argue that these tiny miniatures wouldn’t quite scratch that itch. I could be wrong, as that’s just an anecdotal hunch.

That’s my argument against using miniatures for Dawn Sector. I’ve thought about it quite a bit and I feel very confident that this path is the most correct one for my game. Your game may differ and honestly, if you can make miniatures work, do so!

Thoughts? What do you think? Comment below.

Dawn Sector: Battle Board

Post by: Grant Rodiek

In my previous post from just a few hours ago, I wrote about how playing with my non-gamer friends gave me valuable insight on making my game more accessible for others. Not by changing the design, but by modifying the layout and presentation.

I mentioned that the old player boards (shown just above) had too much information, specifically shared information that could theoretically be removed from the player boards to make them simpler and placed elsewhere.

One of these pieces of information is the “Battle Order” shown in the middle of the old board. But, where would I put it? (New player boards just below this):

This will come off as obvious and potentially stupid, but the more things you ask your players to memorize in a game, the longer it will take them to learn the rules. Even if you show them everything, they’ll just gloss over things, misinterpret things, or focus on what they DO understand just so they don’t feel stupid.

Up until now, one of the things I forced players to remember was the resolution phase of the battle. Three waves are fought in which each combatant loses up to 3 soldiers, 1 per wave. This honestly isn’t THAT complicated, but, it IS something to remember. My friend told me that he had trouble remembering the three. It was just too much and his cup of things to learn was overflowing.

I then had a thought. I remembered the Axis and Allies battle board, which I haven’t seen in years. Players didn’t need to memorize what different units did. They just piled them on the appropriate side and rolled dice and checked the board.

I knew this was the key for me. One of the best things about designing games for the digital space is that you have calculations running in the background. Not for print games! So, with that in mind, and Axis and Allies as inspiration, I’m trying to set it up so players can just put their pieces down and let it move them along. Here it is (first pass):

I’ll walk you through what you’re seeing.

  • Sides for both the Attacker and Defender, color coded, and facing the player.
  • Instructions on the 4 steps on either side for both players.
  • Icons that match the abilities on a player’s board, so he can more easily map “oh, I can play this because this is me, the defender.”
  • The first 3 boxes indicate the first 3 cubes of either player’s armies. If there is one on both sides, both players lose these units (indicated by the X), then move right.
  • Big boxes for anything in addition to the 3 waves.
  • A reminder for the attacker that if the BLUE defender has a fort (in blue), he loses 2 additional Units for that first wave.

The rules will be updated to teach the player’s to use these boards. My sincere hope is that players use these boards for their first 3 or so plays of the game. Afterwards, they just do it all in their heads like I’ve been doing for the past 9 months.

Thoughts? This has been a productive Sunday so far. The cards, player boards (with tutorial faction), and now the battle board have all been designed, printed, cut, and sleeved. Next up? The game board itself. After that? Updating the rules to reflect the new graphics, theme, and to use the new components.

Thanks ahead of time for your feedback.

Dawn Sector: Player Boards

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I think I’m going to use Dawn Sector as the new name instead of Empire. If that rubs you the wrong way, please tell me!

The focus of 3 of my 4 tests this week were accessibility. I deliberately sought out 4 people who don’t really play board games and in some cases, just don’t like them. The purpose of this was NOT to find out how to make my game for them. Frankly, it isn’t and I don’t think I need to compromise the design of this gamer’s game for people who won’t buy it anyways.

However, by testing with absolute board game novices I was able to play the game through the lens of their confusion. I was able to see what made the game difficult to learn, where the strategy wasn’t clear, and how I can present the game better so that the people who WILL buy my game enjoy it more.

The tests were amazingly fruitful.

I’ve spent my weekend and will probably spend the majority of this week integrating all of the feedback. The time has come to discard my old Game Crafter prototype. The interface and layout is far out of date, a handful of things have been tweaked too far, and I need to integrate the new theme (sci fi). One of the biggest changes, which is the focus of this post, are the new player boards. You can see the new one at the top.

For reference, as I walk through the changes, here is the old one (for the same faction):

My best feedback came from a friend who, like me, has worked in the digital game industry as a designer for 8 years. He’s an expert on usability and presenting information to the player. He also finds games as big as Dawn Sector just too big for his tastes. Perfect.

Based on the old board above, he had this feedback:

Input 1: I mix the player’s unique abilities all over. However, there is a lot of info that everyone needs (round order, possible actions). Why not move that stuff to a central location and make it so my board only shows the unique stuff for me?

Solution: Round Order will now be put on the main game board. All Tactics and Staff Orders (and the special ability) are synced to the left side. The Battle Order information will now be contained on its own battle board (future post). I also put a minor call out on the special ability to say just that so nobody assumes it’s flavor text.

Input 2: There is a lot of text. I’d love a way to easily reference things.

Solution: Every tactic and staff order (now Spec Ops) will have a euro-game style diagram that explains at a high level what will happen. I think this is a good hybrid of pure Euro that has only symbols (that require print aids or memorization) and Ameritrash style which is just years of text. My hope is that you can now scan the image, get an idea for what will happen, then check the text for the fine print.

Input 3: The color coding is helpful, but it needs to be even more obvious.

Solution: Actions will now have a category symbol. You’ll notice that Offensive, Defensive, and Spec Ops tactics now have symbols for them. These will be integrated throughout the other player aids (especially the battle board). You also see sharper, more useful icons for the basic player actions. I want to help players connect the dots as easily as possible.

I now need to propagate these changes forward for the other 3 factions. Plus, probably the biggest change, the new fifth faction. But, this faction isn’t a unique, special one. No, they are going to be a generic Tutorial Faction. They will use a combination of abilities from the other four factions. Like Eclipse, every player board will have this generic faction on the opposite side. My friend noted that it was very difficult to both learn the game AND the faction gameplay. If people can use the tutorial faction for the first few games, they can then easily step into the advanced faction driven game.

What a great idea! I’m very excited about these changes.

Thoughts? Input? Back to Photoshop I go.


Post by: Grant Rodiek

Empire has had many names in its life. I have called it General Staff, Field Marshals, Empire of York, Empire Reborn, just Empire…I need a new name. I want to create one that’s hopefully final and I can use to build awareness and recognition.

As I’ve noted somewhat, the game is going to have a science fiction theme. The art style I’m hoping to accomplish is “low tech science fiction.” Some inspirations for the universe (not so much art style per se, but the fiction) are:

  • Halo (If you’ve read the books this’ll make even more sense)
  • Firefly
  • Dune (aspects of it. Not the magical ship teleportation)
  • Aliens
  • Starship Troopers
  • Honor Harrington novels

The overall story is thus: Humanity is spread far and wide throughout the galaxy/universe and all that. There are star nations, so it isn’t just a single Earth Empire that owns everything. In fact, I don’t plan on answering the question of whether these humans originated from Earth or if Earth is even within this fictional universe. I’ll leave that to explore with time. Who knows what we might do?

The story, for now, focuses on a single habitable, resource-rich, recently discovered planet. The board, which was a fictional European style continent in the old theme, will be a single landmass on this planet. Not the entire planet, just a part.

As habitable planets are rare and valuable and people always need to colonize and expand, folks are fighting over it through overt and nefariously subtle means. The game’s factions will represent powerful corporations, governments, pirates, settlers, and even aliens at some point. My hope is to progress the story as I introduce new factions, new maps, and new content.

If you’re familiar at all with the old factions, this next section will make some sense. Otherwise, stick with me!

The Yorkans, which were guerrilla style, Native American types, will now be the original colonists. They will have found this planet generations before quietly and without others knowing. At this point they are practically indigenous. Naturally, they want to protect what they see as their rightful home. I envision them somewhat like the Fremen of Dune.

The Brigade, which were an overt sledgehammer styled Cavalry Army, will now be a hard-hitting Mercenary Company. Really, though, they are just pirates under the guise of being “for hire.” They should look professional, equipped, but rough around the edges. Not really disciplined, a little ruthless, and more about their equipment than their training.

The Imperials will largely remain the same. They will be an expeditionary force for one of the larger star nations. Powerful, disciplined, and resolved to succeed. These are your Starship Troopers or the basic (non-Spartan) marines from Halo (whose style was borrowed from Aliens). They are elite colonial soldiers. Pound for pound, the best infantry in space.

The Militia will be a new wave of colonists. Not trained soldiers, but people who were promised a colony and feel it is just as much theirs as anyone else. They will be using a collection of gear bought on the black market, stolen from others, and improvised weapons. They’ll rely on propaganda, mis-communication, and assassination.

Faction 5 will be a high tech corporation, and I envision faction 6 will be some aliens (first contact!) interested. I plan to develop a reason for this world being so interesting. It’s a common sci-fi plot line (Spice Melange on Arrakis, Unobtanium on Pandora), so hopefully I can add some nuance to make it special.

This all probably sounds terribly generic. Well, it’s still early in development so don’t get too up tight. But, on the other hand, I find comfort in some of these things. I’m referencing science fiction I love, that OTHERS love, and there’s fun in that. Your familiarity with some of these plot lines and characters will help me. My goal isn’t to create an award winning universe with the best fiction. It’s to create a theme that enhances the game.

So, with all of that above, here are some of the names I have so far. I’d love your thoughts on what you like or don’t like and why. Also, other suggestions!

  • Starshot
  • Colony _______ (fill in the blank)
  • Dark Sector
  • Frontier Space
  • Lost Moon
  • Lost Sector
  • Dawn Sector
  • Edge of Known Space
  • Homeworld (I know I can’t use this, but it’s a brainstorm!)
  • Fringe Sector
  • Lost Space
  • Star Colony
  • Starfall
  • Star Insurgency
  • Star Nations (@mcnubbin)
  • Terra Former (@flashforwardco)
  • Sector Fall (@dshiatt)
  • The Rise of Sector 42 (@marketdaypesant)
  • Conflict Sector (@mwgames)
  • New Dawn Horizon (@mwgames)
  • Last Sector (@vanrydergames)
  • Footprint (@mwgames)
  • Lifeline Sector (@mwgames)

If you’re curious to see my art reference board, check here.

Share your thoughts!

Posted in Blog | Tagged , branding, empire, naming | 11 Replies

Empire 2.0

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Last week I received my first publisher rejection for Empire. The game wasn’t a thematic fit and I should have known better. But, if you’ve done anything in the board game design space you know that rejection is common and frequent.

After a few hours of intense sadness, I bucked up and realized that once again I could develop, test, and improve this game that I love. I made the choice to not work on it while submitted in order to avoid the publisher developing it in a different direction. After a few painful months off, she’s mine again.

I haven’t been sitting idle entirely and I was able to hit the ground running. For starters, I have 2 copies of the game circulating in the PPP game testing program. A week or so ago peers and friends Paul Imboden and Randy Field of Split Second Games tested the game and sent me their thoughts. Working with them, I implemented a pacing change that fundamentally corrects the thing I liked least about the game: slow turns. Now, instead of players taking their reinforcement with 2 actions all at once, players do one thing at a time sequentially. This greatly improves the pacing of the game, greatly reduces downtime to almost nothing, and preserves the core strategy and mechanics in a way I like.

Fresh from a graphic design-fest with Molly’s Last HopeI spent a Sunday revising the player boards for Empire. The focus was to implement the new turn order structure, simplify and remove excess “noise,” and improve readability. Larger fonts, simpler organization.

Another benefit of the 3 1/2 month break is that we were able to return to the game and its text with fresh eyes. Things we glossed over back in September now came off as unclear, imprecise, and in need of improvement. I also did this on Sunday and it’s reflected in the rules.

I’m also completely revising the theme and presentation of the game. Up until now, the game was based in a fictional 19th century world largely inspired by European warfare of that century. Unfortunately, the fact that it ISN’T historical, more faux historical, really doesn’t please anyone. History nerds want it to be historical. Non-history nerds don’t care about guys on horses.

In order to give myself a little more flexibility with the fiction, factions, and more, I’m shifting to a science fiction theme. This is a premise I personally enjoy and frankly, it’s great for thousands of gamers. Napoleonic (err, faux Napoleonic) is just too niche.

I’m hoping to pull off a “low tech sci fi” style. What I mean is less Star Trek, more Firefly, AliensStarship TroopersDune, and things like that. In this universe ships don’t warp, there’s no teleportation, folks use projectile weapons, and soldiers still get dirty. I’ve already written a high level synopsis of the universe and have found great new homes for the 4 existing factions.

You can scan through some of my early reference art finds here. The key will be simple colors, stylized shapes, and diverse characters from all genders and ethnicity. The picture at the top of this article is my favorite so far. If you’re curious, it’s Dead Space 3 concept art.

I’m very happy with the current state of the game’s mechanics and overall flow. Balance and accessibility are now my primary concerns. I don’t foresee any significant changes to the mechanics (though who can foresee things accurate?). Balance seems to be relatively solid so far with 2, 3, and 4 players. With the game in this state, I’ve begun designing a 5th faction and will ultimately design a 6th. I don’t think the game needs more than 4 as a base set (the learning curve for 4 can already be significant), but I want to have 6 balanced and unique factions for a few reasons:

  • As a proof of concept that the game can be expanded.
  • As a way to more fully realize the fictional universe and the powers within it.
  • As a way to pick my favorite 4 for the base set and fully test all factions.
  • As a potential stretch goal if a Kickstarter campaign is used.

The key is to be prepared and I’m working now to do so. The new faction’s powers will focus on Fortresses. The current staff orders, tactics, and abilities I envision are things like:

  • The ability to move their fortress to a new Territory.
  • The ability to nullify a fortress’s defensive bonus.
  • The ability to attack soldiers using the fortress.

I’m a little worried in that adding the fortress to the game is a player option, and every player only gets one. However, I’m confident I can balance them out. Fictionally I envision these guys as a high-tech conglomerate, folks with a mining angle, or something engineering related.

Essentially, there is a great deal of testing, design, and iteration occurring. Looking to the future, I still haven’t fully decided what I’ll ultimately do with Empire, aside from find it a better name. There are a few clear options available:

  • Submit to a traditional publisher. This path is fraught with disappointment and peril! Plus, it doesn’t make sense for me to email someone and just submit. I spent GenCon 2012 focusing on one publisher who has now passed. So, I could select a new publisher, meet them, and hopefully submit in August at GenCon 2013.
  • Submit to a smaller publisher. This path is fraught with peril as well, but I’ve built relationships with many of these folks and I feel I could at least get a swift rejection.
  • Do. It. My. Self. Guess what? Fraught with peril and disappointment. And unlike the other two, personal risk. I wrote last year that my employer gave me permission to form an LLC to publish games. I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur, even a teeny tiny one, and board games allow me to combine that with my desire to make things and work with great artists. I’ve been watching others, taking notes, and asking questions.

I’m actually investigating the third option. I’m trying to get quotes, get estimates from folks, and build a business plan. I’m trying to see if all the math works out. If it doesn’t and I can’t get my finances aligned, I’ll need to take options 1 or 2. We’ll see how it goes. If #3 does pan out, it won’t be any time soon. The game isn’t finished as I noted above, art takes time to create, and I would need to do a million small tasks beforehand.

The only guarantee I can make at this point is that I’ll have a great game at GenCon to test and share with others.

You can read the latest rules here. Note the theme still hasn’t been updated here. As always, I look forward to and appreciate any input you have (on any of this).