Project NorCal

San Francisco’s Crissy Field in the 1920s

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I want to write about my new game idea to share with you. I’m sure you, frequent blog reader, are laughing as you recount the times I write about new ideas that quickly die, then the follow up “creativity is hard” posts. Yes, yes, but it’s my process. My girlfriend doesn’t want to hear about my brainstorms, so I’m going to bug you instead.

First, an update.

I’ve had this idea stewing for a while, but had other priorities. I needed to finish York, which is now here but needs a few hours of graphic design before I can sell it (to do after I write this). I needed to get Blockade to a healthy place and send it out for blind testing. I feel it’s ready for GenCon, finally. By “ready for GenCon,” I mean the core is solid and I’m comfortable showing it to publishers and testing it with folks at the convention. This game won’t happen if I don’t find a publisher, so I’m hitting the brakes on development. If someone isn’t interested at this point, it may not happen and I need to not go insane smoothing over every screw. Finally, I needed to create a game for my class on game design. That’s ready now as well, and seeing as how I cannot talk about it here, I can work on something else.

  • Battle for York Video Preview
  • Blockade Video Preview
  • Class on Game Design, use code “D20SIDED” to get 50% off.

The Summary.

This post is long. Here’s the “tldr” of things. I’m creating a 2 player game based in post-apocalyptic 1930s northern California where the Spanish Flu wiped out most of civilization and a zombie-like species emerged. The game will not be a war-game, but seeks to create a dynamic world and conflict where two players are building and protecting their small pockets of humanity. The game won’t be grotesque, nor will it be Ameritrashy.

Now, the idea.

Two of my favorite video games of all time are Fallout 3 and EVE Online. Both of them are incredibly open experiences that put the player in the middle of a lonely, yet surprisingly populated wasteland. No, space isn’t the same as post-nuclear apocalypse Earth, but there are some systems that are empty, deadly, and just as barren.

I love the danger, the freedom, the number of decisions, but also, the sense that I can build something that’s mine within the experience. I also love how the world moves. In Fallout 3 there is a complex simulator filled with quests and creature behaviors. In EVE, the world is alive due to the player community.

I want to create a game with a world that feels alive. I want to create a game where you’re building things that affect the world. I want to create a game that feels dangerous and sometimes out of control. I want to create a game where the world is at its beginning.


Our world hasn’t really been dangerous and uncharted since Lewis and Clark.That’s a gross overstatement, but it’s been a long time. Furthermore, history is a difficult nut to crack (too many restrictions for me) and also, the technology of that time period is boring. One of the reasons Fallout, The Walking Dead, EVE, and other post apocalyptic media is fun is that you get the wildness of Lewis and Clark, but also really cool guns and monsters.

I think it’s safe to say zombies are both overdone but also really awesome. People love them and there are all sorts of psychological and fictional reasons they help make a great story for so many people. I don’t want zombies, but I do want something that is monstrous, dangerous, and is unreasonable. You can’t sign a treaty with zombies. They won’t stop.

I want something zombie-like that is unpredictable, ridiculously dangerous, and not fully understood. I want to create my own apocalypse, which is dangerous and arguably foolish as people like zombies because they like the familiar. This is true of a lot of product design. Still, a part of the fun of creativity is doing something new. Aside from new mechanics, I want new zombies.

The not-so roaring ’20s

History is always a fantastic place where I find inspiration. I didn’t want my game to be set in current times, so I began counting backwards until I found something I could use to both create the apocalypse and create an interesting game. Around 1918 I remembered something quite fun — the Spanish Flu pandemic. Just after World War I ended, a flu pandemic wrecked the world and killed approximately 3-5% of the world’s population. 10-20% who contracted the disease died, and current estimates put the body count from 50-100 million. This is on top of the almost 40 million who died fighting the war itself.

Europe is devastated by war and there is a disease spreading like wild fire around the globe. All this needs is a fictional kick!

The flu is, and always will be a problem. Part of the reason is that it evolves so rapidly that we can never quite pin it down. You also hear scientists issue dire warnings about over-use of vaccines and preventative drugs, lest the current flu grow even deadlier. In the world of my game, desperate scientists introduce a premature vaccine. It is given to thousands, many of whom die, but more remain and evolve. The Inoculated become something deadly, sinister, aggressive, and no longer human. Panic ensues as the disease and roving bands of the Inoculated sweep across Europe and the world.

These are my zombies and the world of 1920 is my technology base. It’s really important to note I don’t seek a Walking Dead aesthetic. This game won’t be gory or grotesque. It just doesn’t appeal to me. Like a true marketing genius, I’m making a zombie game that won’t appease zombie fans or non-zombie fans.

The Survivors

The Inoculated are the antagonists for this game, but not player entities. With them, I need heroes for my players to control, as well as a location. For the latter, I intend to use northern California, specifically the Bay Area, as the setting for the game. The region is beautiful and geographically diverse, which makes it fantastic for a game about exploring and reclaiming the wilds.

In this two player game, I have two protagonists that players will control.

As the Inoculated and disease sweep across Europe, President Coolidge instructs the navy to reconfigure the aircraft carrier Langley into an ark of sorts. The plan is to send a few hundred Americans out to sea on this enormous ship. For 10 years they will survive, planting crops on the deck, and avoiding contact with the mainland. Then, they are to return and reclaim California. I thought it might be fun to make Harry Truman, then an army Captain returning from France, the leader of this expedition. I’m sure he’ll receive a token promotion to solidify his command. Fun fact, he was also a farmer.

Imagine the scene — just as the fires of chaos are reaching San Francisco, the Langley, now the USS Noah, escapes through the fog banks into the Pacific. Then, 10 years later, it returns to an eerily quiet and now overgrown San Francisco.

I need a second group of protagonists. For that, I’m using General Pancho Villa. He’s another great figure from history who is perfect for this story. Controversial, romanticized, and well known.  While Truman is surviving the Pacific on the USS Noah, Villa and his Division del Norte ride north into the United States, now just as lawless as the rest of the world, and survive in the cold Rockies. The Rockies are a difficult place for the Inoculated to survive, but eventually, Villa brings his survivors west to California, where the wildlife and temperate climate make a permanent home seem possible.

Fun fact: Villa was assassinated in 1923. In my fiction, he lives on.

Northern California

Briefly on the topic of northern California. In the 1920s, the area would be populated, but not the dense metropolis it is now. You don’t have the Bay or Golden Gate bridges connecting the regions. Alcatraz is still a military prison holdover from the Civil War. You have Muir Woods, Yosemite, sparse wine country, mountains, and the coastline making this a beautiful region.

The time period also allows for balloons, air planes, early tanks, farming machines, semi-modern construction techniques, and more. There won’t be lasers, but there also won’t be poor dudes with muskets, either.


One of my biggest goals is to create a non-player entity, the Inoculated, that is interesting and NOT tedious. This is a challenge I’ve set for myself. Basically, I’m designing an AI for them. I have some ideas I think will work. The Inoculated cannot win the game, only you can. They will act to throw a wrench in your plans, but also, create opportunities.

I’ve deliberately set the game to be 2 player, because it means I have more freedoms with the map and the level of complexity. When you need to think about what 3 other players are doing, things get really difficult. When you only need to work against another human, I can pack in a little more without overwhelming folks. This is a lesson from Battle for York. The map I envision won’t be symmetrical, like York, but full of opportunities and problems. The Inoculated will also be moving about. There won’t be factions, like there were in York, but your place on the map might guide your initial choices much like a faction would.

One of the game’s primary mechanics will be building things like forts, dockyards, farms, and other elements of a growing civilization. Building forts was one of my favorite elements of York because it made the game very dynamic in such a simple way. I want to do more of that. I have a neat idea for how the buildings will be made that is an iteration upon York. I’m also playing around with rondels, tied to the buildings, to provide players with alternate choices. It’s a mechanic I’ve had in my head for a while that I think has a home here. Basically, build something, get a new rondel. If you have more things, you have more choices. Be careful, though, as these buildings can be destroyed by the Inoculated or stolen by your opponent.

This will not be a war game or battle game, but there will still be conflict of the military sort. It’ll be less about pitched battles, but more about states of conflict, such as patrols, trying to protect yourselves against known and unknown enemies, and the toll it takes on your other pursuits. This is not a game about cavalry charges, but one of patrolling the woods when the woods are full of terrible things.

I have some goofy component ideas. One involves string, as well as the rondels noted above. I’m trying not to make these silly and gimmicky. Remember above when I said there will be states of conflict? Imagine you placed a circle around the town where the Inoculated are known to be living. That’s how you track the status. Perhaps a convoy is moving from one point to another and you place a short, straight string to indicate the route. I realize that sounds fiddly and it might be, but I’m trying to think about how to have a dynamic world with these elements and how to track them easily. It’s something to play with and I’m going to let my mind goof off for a bit.

Cards, so far, will be an element of the game. They will power the choices you take, so to speak. I’ll need some sort of randomizer for conflict resolution. I’ll probably begin with a simple d6 mechanic.

Finally, I want to vary the precise state of the map at the beginning of each game. What if sometimes there IS a bridge? What if sometimes there’s a roving band of humans and one of the Inoculated? What if the woods were burned to the ground and now it’s empty fields? It’s something to play with that I think is fun.

At 2000 words this has gone on far too long. Hopefully something mentioned is interesting to you. If not, no worries. If this succeeds, I’ll be writing about it for a while. If it fails? It’ll disappear into the woods, just like the Inoculated.

10 thoughts on “Project NorCal

  1. Sounds like a really interesting premise. Alternate history is an underused genre (even if zombies aren’t) and certainly this time period doesn’t seem to appear in non-wargames very often. Balanced asymmetry makes for more interesting gameplay choices than symmetrical starts in my opinion. I look forward to updates as your design progresses :)

  2. This sounds like a brilliant, well-researched concept, and I look forward to seeing how it develops. I really like the focus on shaping the world and encountering different versions of the world. I’ve been playing Risk Legacy lately, so some of my thoughts go to ways that each play of this game could permanently change the landscape, but I think there are other ways to incorporate that feel into the game.

    The only two things that feel a little off to me are (a) that it’s only 2 players and (b) that you have to play as a specific person. I want to play as me if I’m going to reshape the world, or at least have a number of options of different people I can play.

    • Legacy has been a big inspiration for me for a while. While I don’t intend to design with its permanent mechanics, I do like how you build the world and tell a story. Great game.

      Your two comments are good ones. For the second one, I wanted to create plausible characters, but I could definitely create more. I don’t intend to go down the factions path of York. Would it be better if I didn’t assign Truman and Pancho Villa to it? For me I thought it was fun to assign prominent figures from history, but perhaps I can make them elements, but not YOU. Then you can be you under the umbrella.

      Or, simply say “hey, you and some folks are back survive and don’t die.”

      As for it being only two players, this isn’t something I’m 100% stuck on but it’s definitely the direction I’m leaning after York. Perhaps this is a good opportunity to make a proper team game, which gives me what I want (design around 2 parties) and what you want (play with more people). Yes?

      • Grant–Well, it might just be personal preference about the historical figures. I do like some element of choice, though–right now there are only two from which to choose.

        It’s really early in the development to say whether this should be a two-player game or a team game–what feels right to you? Again, it’s my personal bias showing through. I like games that scale from 2 up to at least 5 or 6. But that doesn’t mean every game needs to scale like that. :)

        • Sorry I’ve taken so long to respond. Quite rude of me!

          I’ve thought on this a bit over the week and Pancho Villa is out. Now, players will all be members of the expedition with Truman. Nobody is Truman. The players will most likely be nameless entities, like farmers in Viticulture, for example.

          As the design evolves it looks like it’s more likely a 2-4 game (my comfort zone), but adding a 5th would be fine by me. I’m not terribly interested in adding a 6th, but a 5th if possible is something that’s been bugging me for a while.

          The game is also more euro-y as I progress. I’m having fun with the design on this one. We’ll see how it goes!

  3. I’m sold.

    Okay, I’ll probably have to see some actual game mechanics before I actually throw money at you, but these themes and mechanical concepts are right down my alley.

    Regarding whether the players are playing roles of historical figures or “just some survivors” – I’m wondering about the scale of the game. As a player, do I control a single person who’s rebuilding the wasteland? Or do I control a whole abstract team of survivors? Or am I specific dude, who is in charge of a team?

    I think those answers will help determine who the players should be.

    • Yes, I’m smoothing out the mechanics now to get to a prototype state. And don’t throw money at me! Tell your local publisher to license it! Write early, write often.

      I see the players as prominent leaders within the team. And it seems Villa and Truman may be a bit more distracting than helpful for the fiction! You’ll be the guy directing the decisions for your team in this region of the world, plagued by monsters and others who want the same, limited resources.

      Thanks for reading.

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