Researching Theme

Post by: Grant Rodiek

A few days ago I asked the excellent Cardboard Edison for blog ideas. They quickly came up with two, one of which is the topic of this post. It was a great idea, but also especially exciting as it’s something they are apparently working on right now. I love a captive client!

How does one go about researching for a thematic game? More importantly, what is important in such an effort?

I have several steps, in priority order, that I’ll walk you through now! For this post, I’m going to use Sol Rising as my primary example. I believe it’s my most thematic design, is a mature design, so I feel my points have merit, and its creation closely mimicked the process I’ll propose.

Step 1: Pick a Good Theme

I’ve written about theme in the past here. But, for the sake of brevity and a fresh outlook, I think a good theme needs to pass a few tests.

  1. Is it a topic that excites players who are driven by theme? Selling beans is out.
  2. Is it a topic that most people can reasonably intuit based on common cultural norms and expectations? For example, for Sol Rising, the required viewing to enjoy the game is at least one Star Wars battle scene, a single game of Homeworld, the Dominion War (name?) in Deep Space Nine, or some Battlestar Galactica. It’s difficult to make a thematic game about Dolphin breeding in the Pacific. Most people probably don’t know enough about it.
  3. Is it a topic that excites YOU? A thematic game is greatly about passion for the subject matter. Nobody is going to feel like an admiral of the fleet if you wade in tepidly.
  4. Thematic games are often great because they are a solid platform for fun, delightful components. I want to be cautious here and warn folks that good theme does not mean a fun coat of paint. It drives me batty when people fawn over a game that is “so thematic” just because it has custom shaped meeples.

Step 2: Define the Player’s Perspective

Who are your players? What is their role? What is their point of view? In Sol Rising, players are admirals of fleets. They are in charge of multiple capital ship squadrons, fighter squadrons, and need to accomplish multiple objectives that will affect the fate of entire star systems and thousands of lives.

Alternatively, I could have made players planetary governors. Or ship captains. Or squadron commanders. Or fighter jocks. But, I didn’t. I made them fleet admirals.

Why is this important? Well, it defines very clearly what you need to research and what decisions you put before your player. A ship captain, for example, needs to worry about his engine room. Or his position in relation to a specific ship. See: Captain Kirk fighting Khan. A fleet admiral? He doesn’t care about your engines. He cares about your squadron and whether it’s completing its defined task.

A common, and fair, criticism of thematic games is that they are over complicated. It often feels that when you’re playing a very thematic game that the designer couldn’t stop him or herself from saying “it would be cool if.” It’s like an improv session that never ends, as the “yes, and” never subsides.

Use the player’s perspective to focus your efforts. Yes, your fleet admiral could care about crew morale. He could care about the engines on ship 2. He could care about researching lasers. He could care about the planetary atmosphere. OR, he can care about the things an admiral would care about.

Not only does this make your game simpler, more focused, and easier to research and design, but it’ll make it more thematic!

Step 3: Research Broadly

I think it’s possible to know too much about a topic and to dive too deeply into presenting it. Now, we can go back and forth on whether games can have more simulation properties, but for the sake of your perspective, I’m discussing 1-2 hour thematic experiences that are games first, simulations second.

I remember a designer at work, a professional musician, designed our music design for the game. And it was SO deep and complex. In a way, it missed the point of what people wanted, which was the high level experience of being a musician. Therefore, research broadly. As you identify opportunities for your design, dive more deeply into those elements.

Here are some of the things I researched for Sol Rising:

  • The Expanse Trilogy for narrative inspiration and designing a plausible solar system filled with political entities and intrigue.
  • Star Wars, specifically the Battle of Endor, for combined arms combat. By combined arms, I mean a mix of capital ships and fighters. Star Wars Armada takes this away a tinge from Sol Rising, but previously, you either (often) played a game about fighters, or a game about capital ships. Sol Rising is about both.
  • Homeworld, for mechanics about formations and commanding groups of units. One of the neat things about Sol Rising is that you don’t control 20 ships individually, but 3-5 squadrons of ships.
  • Summoner Wars for card ability design.
  • Memoir ’44 for incorporation of environmental elements.
  • Robinson Crusoe for Event system design.
  • Mice and Mystics for narrative game design.
  • Starcraft II for unique mission design. Every single player mission in Starcraft II presents a unique challenge to the player within the system framework.
  • History on Napoleonic Warfare, specifically for information on how cavalry affected the battlefield. I had the idea early on to treat my fighter squadrons as cavalry. I read both biographies of Napoleon, as well as historical fiction series.

As you can see, I sampled a broad assortment of other print games, digital games, fiction, and historical elements. The benefits of this include gaining a wide variety of ideas, not having a single heavy influence that might skew my game into a too derivative direction, and I largely keep things at a high level. This last one is important because I want to present a game where people who generally know what Admiral Ackbar does can make decent hunches about Sol Rising BEFORE knowing the ins and outs of the design.

Step 4: Abstract early, abstract often

This might seem counter to the premise of thematic design, but in fact, it isn’t. Some of the most crucial thematic decisions you can mark are about where to input abstraction and where to get more specific. Again, thematic designers often make the error of making every mechanic a super deeply, broad element of their design.

The problem this causes is that your players will be overwhelmed. They’ll spend so much time trying to make basic decisions that they’ll never feel like they are in the game. Thematic design is about players making intuitive decisions that appropriately mimic their thematic equivalent. In Terra Mystica, there is this complex mana pool mechanic. It’s very complicated, especially on an initial play. It’s not thematic, at all, because no wizard in fiction ever has had to use such an abacus of mana. Being a wizard is about casting a spell. To be fair, I don’t think Terra Mystica was trying to be thematic.

One example of abstraction in a design of mine are the defensive abilities in Sol Rising. In previous iterations, you might Overcharge Shields. You’d place a Shield token on your ship. The problem was that the opponent had to ask, and remember, what that token meant. There could be multiple defensive tokens in play. Both players had to remember when that shield would go away, as there were rules to account for that. At the recommendation of a tester, I made the defensive abilities one-shot abilities. Now, Overcharge Shields let you remove 2 damage. At first, this seems strange. Shields prevent damage, they don’t remove it! But, if the end result is the same, in that I have less damage? And it’s simpler to do? Well, it works.

In York, one of my most thematic tactics is Dig In. It simply causes more casualties for the attacker. You don’t have to place fortifications, or spend time digging. You abstract that decision.

For Orb, a design I’m prototyping now, the player’s perspective is that of a squad commander of elite infantry. You’re not controlling individual units, but the squad. Therefore, when you deploy a sniper and a demolitions expert, you don’t have a specific token that says “Sniper” with rules on it. No, instead, you draw cards related to those roles and you add 2 generic unit markers to the board. It’s one of the abstractions of which I’m most proud because it beautifully preserves and supports the player’s perspective and keeps them focused on the thematic decisions. I need a sniper. Instead of managing that sniper’s footsteps, I’m instead managing a sniper’s contributions to my arsenal.

Step 5: Stop and ask, how can we use this?

As you’re conducting your research, as soon as you come across a nifty idea or fact, put down the book, or the game, and ask: How can we use this?

Begin prototyping, mentally, with your suggestions. The idea for formations in Sol Rising came very early. I was reading and realized that most games focus on controlling one ship at a time. I thought, a ha! Multiple ships. I then got out some blocks and began messing around with manipulating them for the sake of combat effectiveness. Eventually, with that seed planted, I went back to my research.

Your design should begin to take shape and grow as you research. What’s less useful is 50 pages of notes and information with context or relationships to one another. What’s more useful is:

  1. We want the player to be this guy.
  2. Being this guy means you do this thing.
  3. Sometimes this thing can be affected by another thing.
  4. And so forth.

Essentially, you should start building your core elements and applying layers as you research. Begin to channel and focus your research to channel and focus your design. Once you identify that you want Element A in your design, it’ll help you evaluate all future ideas.

How can you use this? Answer that question as you go and being laying the foundation during research. This is much better than returning to months of notes only to find you’re more or less at step 1.

Was this useful? Do you feel you’re better equipped to research a thematic game? Share your thoughts and your personal ideas in the comments below.

Cucumber Pun Pack

Post by: Grant Rodiek

My desk, at work, is in the middle of a way over-crowded collection of producers, designers, a QA tester, and some engineers. At first we scoffed at how cozy it was, but now many of us have grown quite fond of the close quarters. We’ve developed this barracks mentality where the humor is constant and makes working fun. We jokingly refer to this little area as the “Prod Hole” (Prod as in Producer).

I don’t know how it came about, but a producer mentioned Farmageddon and I was telling him about the new FrankenCrops. Now, the topic of puns is like candy to weird people and another co-worker tossed out “Cucumbear.” Like, a cucumber that’s also a bear. This cracked me up and I suggested we make a Cucumber Pun Pack for Farmageddon.

It actually isn’t a bad idea.

We immediately started listing the good ones. We took it with us to a meeting and even our VP started chiming in. Then I tossed it on Twitter and my friends there started chiming in. I thought I’d share some of my favorites. It’s funny how many of us arrived at the same conclusion independently. Great minds think alike? Or perhaps idiots all think the same stupid joke is funny?

  • Cucumbear – Rawr!
  • Cucumbare – Imagine a naked, shamed Cucumber.
  • Cucumbarista – Get caffeinated!
  • Cucumberto – The Cucumber from south of the border?
  • Cucumberry  – Refreshing.
  • Cucumbarry Manilow
  • Cucumbarry White – Ladies….
  • Cucumbarry Bonds – With small berries.
  • Queuecumber – This one kills me. From Couple vs Cardboard.
  • Cucumbrrr – The Arctic Cucumber. From Danny Devine.
  • Cucumbawhumba – He gets knocked down, but he gets up again. From Danny Devine.
  • MooCumber – Why by the cow when the milk is pickled? From Mark Wallace.
  • Cucumberbund – For those fancy evenings. From Mark Wallace.
  • Cucumpatriots – Witty!
  • Cucumpair – Why settle for just one?
  • Cucumpear – Fruit puns.
  • Cucumburr – Like, a burr under your saddle. From Couple vs Cardboard.
  • Cucumbro – Totally.
  • Cucumburt Reynolds – MY FAVORITE.
  • Cucumbrella – Ella, eh, eh, eh, under my cucumbrella, ella, ella…
  • Cucumbersome – Why bother?
  • Cucumburrito – Actually, not a bad idea.
  • Cucumbird – Caw!
  • Cucumburger – Also not a bad idea.
  • Cucumbeware – Danger.
  • Coupcumber – SUPER clever. From Adam Buckingham.
  • Cucumburglar – He’ll steal your flavor! From TC Petty III.
  • Cucumbert and Cucumbernie – This is just genius. From AJ Porfirio.

Note: If I didn’t credit you, it’s because we already came up with it here, or I forgot.

Thanks for participating. It was fun and honestly, I’d love to make this expansion.

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!


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