On Deck! For Story Time

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I have three games deep in the furnace of development right now: Hocus Poker, Dawn Sector, and Sol Rising. Hocus is thankfully mostly finished — we’re balance testing now. Dawn Sector is with Portal Games, so they’re taking the lead on it. This has allowed me to focus my efforts on Sol Rising.

If you recall, I played Sol Rising with a publisher I’d very much like to work with at BGG. I was given a few pieces of feedback, which are the focus of my efforts:

  • Incorporate the story more.
  • Ease setup. Get players into the game more quickly. It’s not so much a matter of time, which is relatively quick (and far faster than, say, Memoir ’44), but more the avalanche of components and things to look at.

I’m at the tail end of implementing my changes, which were the result of a great deal of design work. I wasn’t just writing more narrative moments, though that happened as well. Before I discuss this work, in the hope it’s useful to you as a designer, I want to provide a brief recap to folks about what Sol Rising is.

Previously, on Sol Rising…

Sol Rising is a light to medium weight tactics game for two players. Well, there’s a team campaign in development and skirmishes (i.e. non-campaign) can be played with more than two, but it’s designed for two. Players take on the role of admirals in command of squadrons of capital ships, like battlecruisers, and fighter wings. The balance of force is similar to what you see in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.

The game has about the complexity of games like Summoner Wars, Heroscape, or Memoir ’44 (if you add an expansion or so). The core mechanics of movement and combat are quite simple, but there are a few nifty features.

  • Instead of controlling individual ships, you control squadrons of ships. An Ability activated by one ship affects the entire squadron. This gives you a bit of a “hydra” like effect for your forces.
  • The board is a circle, which allows for a nice fluid map that feels like space.
  • You need to use the right weapon for the job. Choose between guns or missiles depending on your target, and modify that further with abilities.
  • The game features a 12 mission campaign with future scenarios affected by your previous actions and accomplishments. It isn’t a Legacy game, but it takes some of those elements.
  • 12 Unique scenarios, featuring different objectives, events, unique rules, and more. There’s a lot of variety here.

That last bullet is important. One of the reasons the game has taken so long to develop is that on top of a core game, I’ve had to essentially create 12 unique ways to enjoy that game. It’s been very challenging, detail oriented work.

It has always been my intent to make Sol Rising a very thematic game. There are the obvious elements: a campaign paired with a fleshed out narrative and universe, lots of ships with names and stories, characters. But, I’ve also tried to do this with intuitive and exciting actions, interesting events that help you tell stories, and difficult missions. In many scenario based games, the missions are fairly balanced. Often a 50/50, or close to that. Not in Sol Rising.

I was very inspired by the Battle of Hoth, in which the Rebel forces couldn’t really win, but they could have lost far worse. Really, if anything, the Battle of Hoth was a botched Imperial victory. Starcraft (on the PC) did this very well and it’s something I sought to emulate. Some missions are desperate and unfair, but thanks to the campaign structure, you can do your best and see what results.

That should give you the general idea, and if it doesn’t, ask below.

Better Incorporating the Story

At BGG, my prototype primarily exhibited story via the campaign book. Before each mission, and sometimes at the end, you’d read a little story that would introduce the scene and set the stage for you to play it out. I was encouraged to introduce the characters into the game and infuse some mid-scenario story moments.

Let’s begin with characters. My story has always had a diverse cast of characters. However, they’ve never been IN the missions. My first concern with adding characters was figuring out where they’d come in. To give myself enough flexibility, I decided to assign them in three ways.

  • Fleet Commanders: Big powerful characters than can affect any ship in your Fleet.
  • Squadron Commanders: Assigned to a single Capital Ship squadron (1-3 ships). They can only affect that Squadron.
  • Wing Commander: Assigned to your 1-4 Fighter Wings. They can affect any of your Fighters.

So, for example, at the start of the mission you are told you have Commander Eric Schmidt. Choose one of your capital ship Squadrons and place his card next to it.

My next fear was adding another layer to consider. On their turn, a player chooses one squadron (capital or fighter) to activate. With that squadron, they can move, attack, and activate abilities. The abilities are what make that complex, as you can have a few in play at a time to consider. I was worried about forcing players to make choices with their Commanders as well.

The solution was borrowed from my Events. Events are triggered randomly as a result of Combat. When an Event is triggered, you draw 1 face down token from a pool of 10. The tokens share 1 of 4 generic symbols. Every mission, these symbols mean something different and have an affect that is appropriate for that mission. What Event comes out, and when, can really change the game. It adds some nice spice and variability to the battle.

I wanted Commanders to matter, but I didn’t want you to greatly alter your command decisions because of them. Therefore, I gave every Commander 1 of the 4 Event symbols. When that symbol is drawn, you immediately use the Commander’s ability. It’s an unexpected bonus.

You can see an example above. Whenever the Star Event is triggered, the Squadron to which Commander Schmidt is assigned immediately moves up to 3 spaces. It’s simple, quick, and will have an impact on the battle.

On the back of every card is a bio of the character. This gives you insight into who they are and how they think. Now, when you read the introductions to every mission, you’ll also be given insight into which characters will augment your fleet.

Next, I needed to introduce more story moments into the game. How would these trigger? Why? And when? I realized relatively quickly that I already had an outstanding vessel for these: Objectives. Every mission has 1-4 objectives, most of which are optional. These objectives are tied to entities in the world. For example, in the very first mission, the Martians have an objective to escort a Merchant ship to the jump point to warn the others.

When I began thinking about adding narrative moments to these objectives, I realized this would solve one of my other problems. Previously, players had to reference the campaign book to look up objectives or remember what to do. They also didn’t know WHY the objectives mattered until the following mission. It removed some of the punch of completing something. I killed two birds with one stone with the following solutions.

  • Every objective now has its own double sided card. You place these next to the board, or in front of the player to whom the objective is assigned. Easy reminder.
  • Every objective card has a little story on the front to set the stage and better incorporate why the objective matters.
  • Every objective card has setup instructions if need be. For example, now, you just look at the card to add the Merchant. It removes it from the booklet, which makes the booklet shorter.
  • Every objective tells you the trigger – when to flip it over.
  • The back side of every objective has another story piece, which drives home, in the fiction, why your actions matter. It provides feedback within the fiction.
  • Finally, the back side tells you why what you did mattered with clear language on the effect.

Above, you can see an example Objective card – the front side at least. Previously those bottom elements were parts of a very long list of items for setup. Now, those items are distributed, which already feels better. Part of what I’m battling here is perception, and this counters it.

So, we have characters incorporated into the Missions themselves, adding a new tactical choice/option and story moment. We also have the Objectives more seamlessly taught and paired with story moments for players to enjoy in the mission.

What else can we do to make the game feel simpler for setup?

Easing the Setup

One of the first things I sought to eliminate were environment tokens. Part of the game’s appeal is the variety of encounters. You have asteroids, debris, turrets, and more. Problem is, some of these can weigh down the setup time. I realized that I have several missions that feature asteroids, including the first one. My first solution was to make double sided board pieces: one blank, and one with asteroids pre-printed. On the first mission now, you simply use the asteroid side of the board. This goes for many other missions! This saves 5 or so tokens you need to place precisely.

Thinking about how much I liked the Objectives as cards and out of the book, I created a small little card to show all of the Events. That’s one less thing to look up in the campaign book and again, it shortens that already lengthy book.

One of the biggest problems was the number of squadron tokens. Due to my mechanics, every squadron had 2 tokens, one for each formation type. This meant in a typical scenario you were gathering and organizing around 20 different tokens. Yech! I came up with a solution that more or less preserves the intent of my formation mechanic, while greatly simplifying it. This means fewer rules and cuts the tokens in half.

Previously, you’d arrange your ships in formations, like a triangle (one in the front, two in the fear) or spear (three in a vertical line). The formation would dictate who could be attacked. If a ship is attacking a spear from the front, the rear two ships couldn’t be affected. It was an okay idea. It wasn’t quite pulling its weight, though. Now, there are no formations. However, if even one ship in a Squadron has shields, it must be targeted before Ships whose shields are down. That is, unless you attack the ships at point blank range with guns, or use bombers to get inside a squadron’s formation.

That’s all good, but my pile of tokens served two purposes. One, as mentioned above, to denote the current formation on the board. The second, was that the unused token would be placed by the formation to help you remember which squadron was which. So, if Squadron B was in Spear, the Spear token would be on the board, and the B triangle token would be next to squadron B.

The solution here didn’t take long to discover. I put the responsibility onto the player reference board. There are slots on the side of the board for you to place your ships. This cleans up the play space and eliminates a ton of tokens. Notice I also added a slot for any Fleet Commander cards.

I implemented one more solution, which is something I’ve been putting off for a very long time: splitting ships into Martian and Terran fleets. Previously, there was a large pool of ships shared by both sides. Missions would denote which ships to use for each side. Players would find them in the deck and pull them out.

This was problematic for a few reasons. One, it’s fictionally odd. Two, looking through a deck of 60+ cards is far worse than looking through a deck of 30 cards each. Thirdly, it misses an opportunity to make the fleets slightly unique. I’m not sure if they need to be Summoner Wars unique, but I think making both players draw from identical pools isn’t ideal.

As I began thinking about the fleet assignments, I realized I could arrange these cards to help me even more. The game is divided into 4 arcs:

  1. Missions 1-3, the introduction
  2. Missions 4-6, focusing on Martian characters
  3. Missions 7-9, focusing on Terran characters
  4. Missions 10-12, conclusion

I’m going to divide and sequester the ships according to their arc. When a player opens their box, they’ll see a small packet, baggy, or box that says “Missions 1-3.” They can ignore they rest. This means they’ll be looking at 30 or so ships total. Those will now be divided between the two Fleets. This means players have fewer cards to sort through and it’ll take less time to find them.

It also means that by Mission 3, players will be very familiar with their ships, comfortable, and ready to learn something new.

To accommodate this change, which requires a bit of administrative work to make sure everything is organized between my campaign book and the new fleets, I created my Sol Rising Shipopedia using Google Spreadsheets. This document lists every ship, its stats, its fleet, the missions in which it appears, and its ability. I also took this time to take yet another pass on tuning, changing, and improving the abilities. They’re getting tighter and more balanced every day.

The Summary

Let me condense all the changes for you here.

  • Commander cards can be assigned to your Units to provide bonus actions when certain Events are triggered.
  • Objectives are now represented on cards, which provide mid-mission story moments and dialog and feedback on what you accomplished.
  • There’s an Event card to help you reference Event effects without opening the campaign book.
  • The board now has an asteroid and plain side to ease setup.
  • Formations were replaced with a shield mechanic.
  • Squadron tokens were cut in half. Ships are now tracked by placing them adjacent to the redesigned reference board.
  • Ships are now assigned to either the Martian or Terran Fleets.
  • Reviewed every ability, throwing many away, designing new ones, polishing old ones, and ensuring consistency between all of them for style and text.
  • Ships will be packaged and presented based on arc.

Advice for Others

A few things really stand out to me as potentially useful for other designers who are looking to incorporate story better into their games, or simply revise a mature design to match any feedback.

Take advantage of your existing systems and features. With Commanders, I didn’t design a new mechanic players need to concern themselves with. You reference a symbol and take a bonus action when events occur. That’s simple and easy to learn. Some games won’t have much to lean on. A simple game like Hocus Poker doesn’t have much for us to leverage for new features. Thankfully, we don’t  need any. But, Sol Rising is a meaty game with many features and elements. I could have added something new, sure, but I took advantage of a feature that’s not only one of my favorites, but one of my testers’ favorites.

It should be obvious, as table top design is for a physical medium, but remember to consider components as a solution to your problems. Many of my issues were solved by introducing new cards, reference boards, or other items to help stretch out the information and communicate the story. Now, cost is often a very decisive factor, but thankfully for me it wasn’t. I’ll stress that even if cost IS a factor, you should allow yourself some open creative space to see what’s possible. Don’t shut that door before you’ve really thought through your options. Remember to consider components as a potential solution.

Always remember that once your game has reached the complexity level you desire, if you add something, you need to remove something. I added Commanders, so I removed formations. Formations previously were an action a player could take on their turn, that required players to understand double the components that now exist, and the rules for it. Now, it’s just a single rule (shields). I think my complexity is actually lower now, so it was a net reduction, which I think is good! Another way I simplified the game is that I made it such that several ships share abilities now. I also removed abilities that were too complicated. When iterating on a design, consider your desired complexity level and what it’ll take to remain there.

Games are an interactive medium. Something designers constantly forget when designing story for games is that the story should be about the players’ actions and choices. I hate when a video game removes control from the player and forces them to watch a character talk. Games aren’t books and they aren’t movies. They are interactive! That’s why I’m proud of how the objectives tell the story. Yes, the introduction isn’t interactive. It’s setting the stage. But after you destroy the space station and you get to read the dialog on the back, it’s the result of something you did. It’s based on your choices. If you don’t blow up that station? You won’t see that dialog. I think that’s powerful. This will especially pay off when you see how the persistent effects continue to evolve the game.

I hoe this was interesting and insightful for you. Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below. Thanks for reading!

A Smidge of Orb

Post by: Grant Rodiek

The majority of my development brain is focused on Hocus Poker right now. The revision is testing very strongly and we (me and Josh) think we’ll be able to bring a very pretty version to Board Game Geek Con in November. I spent the past week or so revising the graphics files for Sol Rising and it’s being printed now by Print Play Games. I hope to have a really nice version to show to potential publishers at BGG as well. Other than 2 scenarios, I consider that game largely pitch ready.

That leaves me some free time to work on the next game, which I’ve been doing for some time. My process for a while now has revolved around a long period of contemplation and thought, followed by early rules and design documentation, then prototyping. It’s slow, but it tends to lead to higher quality output sooner.

I want to talk about my new game at a high level. Few details, as those can be distracting. I’ve spent a month or two thinking about its mechanics and the overall experience. I’m deep into the rules and I’ve begun designing content for a first prototype. I’d like to think I’ll have a lightly tested version for BGG Con.

For now, I’m calling it Orb. Purely a placeholder name. Try to figure out what Orb stands for before the end of the post. Your prize is, of course, nothing.

I’ve noted before that my new games are often driven by things I’ve learned, things I’m sick of, and things I’m excited about from my immediate predecessor. After York, I wanted to make a game thematic game that involved dice and scenarios. In this case, moving on from Sol Rising, I’m still interested in science fiction, but I want to leave the confines of a starship and get back to the dirt. I’ve never made a game focused on infantry, so that’s appealing. I want to avoid scenario design and, though I’m not removing dice, I want to bring in richer card play that was absent from Sol.

I knew I wanted to focus on a smaller, more tactical experience. Sol Rising is about fleet command and York is about running a war at the operational level. I wanted to focus on the exploits of a small number of soldiers.

My starting point: Science fiction. Infantry. Tactics.

I started to think about the things in this sector that really excite me and the fictional inspiration was just overwhelming. I LOVE the ODSTs (Orbital Drop Shock Troopers) from the Halo universe (picture at the top). They are the best humanity has to offer, up to the Spartans, that is.

They launch from these small pod capsules and explode onto the ground, directly into the thick of battle. It looks awesome and I plan to have a drop pod mechanic in the game.

There are also the Jump Troops of Charlie Company from one of my favorite cartoons, Exo Squad. These guys would also get into confined pods strapped to exo-suits (like the one Matt Damon wore in Elysium) and would drop into hostile zones on asteriods.



I love drop ships. Futuristic versions of the Chinook or Black Hawk, heavily laden with elite troopers, exiting the belly of a carrier or troop transport in orbit. You see cool ones in Aliens, Halo, Starship Troopers, and other great fiction.


Sci Fi. Infantry. Tactics. Drop ships. 

I’m also deeply enamored of Special Forces, both in our current time and in the science fiction I read. There’s something very exciting about highly trained, highly disciplined soldiers who execute their jobs against great odds successfully. I realized this also gave me a great opportunity for a deeply asymmetrical game. A few elite soldiers, no wait, drop troopers, who would need to complete a difficult task against a larger, but less elite force.

Drop Troopers versus Regulars. Assault versus defense. Roles. Already in the design I’m accomplishing this with new tuning variables on how combat is resolved, actions unique to different parties (in general, the drop troopers tend to be more flexible), and objective differences. There’s also a heavy stealth angle for the drop troopers. They need to setup their assault, be patient, then hit with a massive hammer. Once the space poo hits the fan, they need to get out and get home.

This won’t just be two factions, but two different ways to play. This will be an asymmetrical game.

Sci Fi. Infantry. Tactics. Drop ships. Asymmetrical.

War games naturally lend themselves to scenarios. However, after 15 (and counting) Sol Rising scenarios, I’m tired of creating this content. It’s exhausting and requires a unique skill set and energy. Therefore, the need occurred to me to create a dynamic scenario system. By this, I mean I design the framework and content by which the scenarios are created when you play as a part of the experience.

Keep in mind, I will be testing a single framework and content set for the foreseeable future, much like I did with Sol Rising, to verify all of the other mechanics. But, phase 2 will dive more deeply into dynamic scenarios. My current high level thinking is that players will grab cards from a small set for things like terrain (planet type), position (forward operating base, random patrol, heavy base), objectives (rescue hostage, destroy artillery), and any variations (weather, rules of engagement restrictions).

The map and resources available to players will be derived from this setup.

Sci Fi. Infantry. Tactics. Drop ships. Asymmetrical. Dynamic scenarios. 

Those are the top items, but there are a few more things I’m working on. I recognize that asymmetrical games have a high degree of a learning curve and one way in which I’d live to curb that is by making the game VERY card driven. I’m planning on a tight, small set of core rules, with few exceptions, and putting almost all of the content onto the cards. Yes, this will make the cards more complex, but I’d rather the rules be IN their hands instead of in their head.

One example relates to the various roles of the special forces units. You don’t need to remember what a sniper can do versus and explosives expert. You’ll have a card to do so. Similarly, if the scenario generator tells you to place a machine gun nest, you don’t need to know what that entails. You just add the cards it tells you and they’ll contain the rules.

That’s all for now. I’ll potentially talk about more specifics as I vet them and feel comfortable doing so. For now, I wanted to talk about the theme, experience, and high level goals in the hopes that some of you are interested. Enjoy your day!

Sol Rising Mid-Mortem


Post by: Grant Rodiek

I hit a very big milestone for Sol Rising last night: the campaign is content complete. That’s right! After about 6 months I’ve completed 12 scenarios that tell the story of the Terran invasion of the Jovian system. This was a really big undertaking, arguably the greatest thing (using great to mean large) I’ve designed.

Every scenario includes a composition of ships for both sides, their starting positions, interesting objectives (other than just destruction), new Events, new rules, and story moments to precede and modify every mission. Just typing that gives me flash backs. The campaign booklet is 28 pages and over 11,000 words.

I’ve learned a great deal doing this work, much of which can be applied to other designs and work. The game is not finished, obviously, as it needs to go through more testing and iteration, but I thought it would be fun to draft a “mid-mortem” to write about what I’ve learned so far.

You may read the rules for Sol Rising here. You may read the campaign here.

Remove Passive Effects: This is a lesson that took a few iterations to really drive home, but it’s such an important one. Most of the ships in the game have abilities you can activate. The majority of them were abilities that you’d activate and use immediately. Cause and effect. However, about 25% of them were passive defensive abilities that would leave a status on the board. For example, you could activate shields that would modify a ship’s defensive properties the next time it was attacked.

This caused some issues:

  • I needed to design a method to easily track this. This meant more tokens.
  • Tracking these effects increased complexity in a bad way. Players had to pay attention to more to make decisions and play.
  • I had to craft rules to deal with odd situations. What if the ship isn’t attacked? How long do the shields last?

On two occasions, my friend and design peer Cole Medeiros noted I needed to simplify them. He kept stressing cause and effect and how that simplifies things. After the first time I addressed some, but others remained. I thought it was better. After the second time, he offered the feedback with a twist.

“This ability prevents one damage when attacked next. Instead of forcing me to remember that, just remove a damage that’s already on the ship.”

Much. Simpler.

I applied this to all remaining abilities and removed them. Now, every ability in the game has an immediate effect. This has simplified the rules, simplified the abilities, removed components, and removed edge cases.

Passive abilities have absolutely ruined some games for me. I quit playing Seasons because I was sick of tracking what seemed like an endless stream of passive effects. I should have paid attention for my own game, but it took time to do so. Nonetheless, the lesson has sunk in (again).

Remove Conditional Abilities: In a game where you have activated abilities, it is crucial that in as many cases as possible you remove conditional requirements. By this, I mean: If X is the status, then do Y.

This is bad for a few reasons. One, it’s more complicated. The simplest form is to say: Do Y. By adding a layer, you’re making it more difficult for players to do things.

You’re also removing flexibility from the experience. Instead of letting players use simple abilities in new, unexpected ways, you force them to use the ability the same way every time. It makes the game more predictable and static.

Finally, and this was often the case for my game, I was creating conditions that were so unlikely to setup. They didn’t sync with the experience or the mechanics, which essentially rendered the abilities useless.

Your task when designing abilities is to focus on simple, flexible, highly usable abilities that excite the player. Give your players the tools to craft dynamic experiences. Don’t give them rigidly scripted game cards.

Design Mechanics and Content for the Game you Want: This sounds silly, but it is something you can overlook and fight against. In Sol Rising, I made the decision a few iterations ago to make the game a simpler, turn-based structure. This meant 1 player activates a squadron (move and attack). Then, the next player did so. And so forth.

However, I would frequently design odd mechanics or abilities that would fight with this structure. This continues the previous lesson, but I would craft abilities that would state: If 2 squadrons are in this specific position, you can do a thing. However, because players moved 1 squadron at a time, not 2 or more, it meant these systems weren’t playing nicely with each other.

Eventually, I found a way to keep the main mechanics very simple. Turn based, 1 at a time. However, I crafted a few simple, non-conditional abilities to let you move or attack with additional units.

The key lesson is to not fight against the framework you’ve created. Determine the experience you want, then craft a framework and the content to provide it. Keep your goals and mechanics in sync with one another.

When creating scenario based games, focusing on replayability at the outset is key. As a lesson from York, which has received feedback that it lacks replayability, and recognizing some of the faults with some scenario based games, I decided to really focus on replayability from the outset with Sol Rising.

Some games accomplish this better than others. With Memoir ’44, there isn’t much change between plays of the same scenario. The cards aren’t highly varied and the units remain the same.

One of my favorite scenario games, Mice and Mystics, adds in more varying elements. These include:

  • Players can choose different characters.
  • Players can choose different Abilities for characters.
  • The item deck is large, so what players “find” as they play changes.
  • The enemies that spawn in most rooms are randomized.
  • The timing of surges really changes things.
  • Optional side quests and routes to take.
  • Dice based combat system.

One more good example is Robinson Crusoe. It randomizes scenarios in a few ways:

  • You choose a random subset of Event cards every time you begin the scenario.
  • You choose a random subset of Inventions every time you begin the scenario.
  • The Event decks for each action are quite large and varied. Your successes and failures will change every game at different times.
  • The order in which you unveil tiles on the island will change things.
  • Players can choose different characters.
  • Dice based resolution system.

For Sol, I started with “what good looks like” and evolved it for my own game. Although I pre-define ships and starting positions, I hope advanced players will modify these things. Other variables include:

  • Dice based combat system.
  • Events that take effect at different times, or not at all, and affect players differently.
  • Completing bonus objectives.
  • Persistent campaign effects as a result of bonus objectives.
  • System failures to change how ships behave as the battle continues.

Finally, unlike Mice and Mystics and Robinson Crusoe, you’re fighting against a human opponent, not an AI. I’ve found this makes a huge difference on how missions play out.

The lesson, overall, is that if you prioritize something like variance and replayability at the beginning and factor it into your designs, you’ll see much better results. This isn’t something you can typically just layer in afterwards. The fact is that most players won’t play missions twice. I doubt most players even finish the scenarios shipped with campaigns. But, I want them to know they CAN play them multiple times and have a lot of fun.

Focus on the core first. This is definitely something for the “win” column so far. I knew from the beginning I wanted to make a scenario driven game of some sort. However, I didn’t even touch scenarios for roughly the first 6 months of development. Instead, I worked on how you command ships, how ships attack, how turn structure works, how abilities work, and more. This took a long time and in fact, I’ve continued to develop and change these things since I began scenarios. But, trying to build scenarios is very difficult. Doing so on top of a wobbly core foundation seems impossible.

The lesson is that before you go content crazy, or design scenarios, focus on the core. Make sure you know what a player’s turn entails and how your game works from start to finish.

Focus on one piece of content first. Another win, and a continuation of the previous point, is that I worked on Scenario 1 of Sol Rising far longer than any other. Before I made 12 scenarios, I needed to make one that worked really well. I had to revise the writing style for the narrative. I had to figure out what sort of Events were interesting and which ones weren’t. I needed to get a feel for objectives and communicating unique rules.

I’ve tested the first scenario far more than any other, but the lessons learned from it have informed and aided every other scenario. If you’re crafting a game with scenarios, or content sets, make one really really good before you make any more. Otherwise, you’ll be doing a lot of tedious iteration that could have been avoided.

The longer you work on a game, the more comfortable you’ll be with it.  I have a few games I’ve been working on for a year or longer. Farmageddon and its expansion, York, and Sol Rising all qualify. What I’ve found with Sol, like I’ve found with the others, is that by spending a long time on something, the more comfortable you’ll be with it. Many of my best revelations and ideas for these have come about as a result of truly understanding the game, its strengths, and its weaknesses.

Obviously, if you can get a game signed quickly and it all works out, awesome. Congrats. Enjoy this heaping pile of my jealousy. But, if you’re working on more complex games (as I have a habit of doing, curses), give your game time to grow. Give it time to mature and evolve as it needs to. There are so many avenues these days to rush out a game, but I think you’ll find determined patience will render its own rewards.

At least, it has for me.

I’m excited to take Sol Rising into the next stages. I’m also chasing down some publishing leads and hope it’ll be something folks can experience in their own homes before our sun collapses.

Questions? Comments? Put ‘em below!

The Mission Editor

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I was able to knock a few things off my to-do list, and I had the day off from work, so I had zero excuses to not work on some Mars Rising scenarios. Mars Rising doesn’t have a single killer mechanic I can point to, but it is full of what I’d like to call “neat ways of doing things.” For example:

  • The circular board is a fresh way of handling a tactics map.
  • There’s a simple dice mechanic to demonstrate two weapons types.
  • Squadron Formations give you a lot of ships, but only one control point.
  • Formations will add a tactical layer for advanced players.

Another neat thing, and the topic of this post, is how I’m creating scenarios for the game. I thought it would be interesting to walk through my process and toolkit behind these scenarios to hopefully inspire some of your own ideas.

Mars Rising was created for small groups of friends to enjoy over the course of a handful of play sessions. For example, me and my friend Cole, or my friend Rob, get together on lazy Sundays to game for hours. Just the two of us. I wanted a tactical game tied together with a little narrative and some persistence.

When I set out to create a campaign-based game, I had a few examples:

Risk Legacy: This game remembers your campaign and choices on the board. It is a one-time only, dire consequences kind of experience with stickers, ripped cards, and new mechanics. I love this, but didn’t think the finality of it was appropriate for Mars.

Memoir ’44 Campaign Books Vol. 1 and 2: Another favorite of mine. Memoir does a great job of toeing the line between historically accurate, yet fun and accessible. Memoir ties scenarios together by rewarding early success with reinforcements and better field position. It’s appropriate for the setting, but it’s a bit too even keeled for what interests me.

RPGs, in general, are campaigns. If you take Pathfinder or Dungeons and Dragons, you essentially have a game of N length that has a story written, experienced, and woven by its DM and players. That is an extreme I’m not trying to tackle in a tactics game. I want this to be easy involvement for folks. Right tools for the job, as they say.

Mice and Mystics: This is a game I love and a great example of what I wanted. It is a pre-written narrative that is persistent and has some choices throughout. Though, the choices are often simply delayed. Before it’s all over, you must accomplish X, Y, and Z, so it’s really a matter of how and when you do it.

Here were the elements I wanted to include for the Mars campaign:

  • Replayable scenarios. Obviously they won’t be quite as fun the second time around, but they should be fun on subsequent plays.
  • A narrative that players can affect. It isn’t a sandbox — I made the decision to create a canonical path to the story. But, players can affect things slowly over time, like a pebble creating ripples in a lake.
  • Enough flexibility to make every scenario unique. In Starcraft, every mission is 1.) Build Base, 2.) Find enemy, 3.) Build army, 4.) Kill enemy. In Starcraft II, every mission was a unique puzzle/experience. I wanted to model Mars after the latter.
  • Sufficient tools to foster a community of creators. This is super idealistic, but it’s important to me. I was very inspired by the number of generic tokens used in Robinson Crusoe. Not only does the designer use them brilliantly to vary scenarios, but the community uses them to craft their own. I want to encourage and support this.

Now that you have some background, let’s walk through the elements that help me satisfy these goals in a typical Mars Rising scenario.

  1. Story: I begin every scenario (and sometimes interject during) with a cast of characters, dialog, and story progression.
  2. Recommended Ships: To speed things up (and direct the balance level I desire), I specify ships to be used. But, players could vary this!
  3. Starting Positions: I can (and do) put players both in ideal and terrible starting positions. It changes things quite a bit. I can start you in an isolated position, off the board (you warp in with flexibility), or in the thick of things. It has a big impact.
  4. Environmental Elements: The game includes space stations, asteroids, turrets, mines, and I have generic “story tokens” that can be anything. Plus, you can use ships to be derelict craft. Flexibility is the name of the game.
  5. Objectives: Every scenario has unique objectives. Take out a space station, protect civilian transports, hijack merchant convoy ships, and more. How well you do here will affect…
  6. Subsequent Scenario Modifiers: I didn’t want you to have to remember something from Mission 3 that changes Mission 8. But, there are things in every mission that will affect the mission immediately following. Which can change everything listed above and more.
  7. Events: I have 10 Event tokens that are comprised of 4 different generic icons. Events trigger based on a random, but fairly probable dice rolls. The 4 unique events for the scenario, and the order in which they occur, really change things.
  8. System Failures: When your ships lose their shields, you draw a token to see which system takes a hit. Your ship might lose a missile or laser battery, an engine, or even a hit on the hull. These can really affect your squadrons!
  9. Player choice. How players maneuver their units, use their ship abilities, and succeed or fail with the dice will vary every game.

As you can see, there are a lot of little pieces that build every mission and hopefully lead to a very dynamic, varied experience. I’ve played the first mission about 6 times now and it’s been a little different every time, so I feel it’s working. The few folks who have tried the PNP have enjoyed it as well.

Now, some tips for how you can incorporate these things in your own designs:

  • Establish your core mechanics before working on scenario design. I spent at least 6 months refining what a ship is, what its weapons are, how the ships move, how ships attack, and how ships form formations before I made a single scenario. Your core must be solid. If you find yourself refining core mechanics and scenarios, you’ll want to die.
  • Establish your goals clearly. As you can see in my list of games above, there are MANY ways you can go about it. If you don’t know what you want, you’ll be in an endless loop.
  • Understand how every piece factors into the experience. Don’t just add stuff. Have a meaningful purpose for everything. Scenario design is much like typical game design. Know why a mechanic exists, and know why a scenario modifier exists.
  • Experiment with tokens and icons. Cards get expensive really quickly, but tokens are affordable AND flexible.

If you’d like to check out some of the scenario work for Mars Rising, you can do so here. If you haven’t read the game rules, you might want to do that first so that you have context. Check out the rules here. Comments are allowed in both documents.

What do you think? Anything of interest to you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Posted in Blog | Tagged campaign, , Mars Rising, mission editor, persistence, scenario design, | 3 Replies

Battle Report: Mars Rising

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’ve been busting my butt for a few weeks to get Mars Rising (previously Blockade) re-designed, re-built, and ready to test again. I had a friend over today for a long 2 player game day, so after a few games of the delightful Mice and Mystics and Vampire Empire, we setup Mars Rising for a quick play.

The image at the top of this article is the game setup from my vantage point as the Martian player. I’m going to walk you through the battle to hopefully give you a taste for what took place.

The Setting

The sovereign star nations of Mars and United Terra are uneasy enemies. The setup is not unlike our Cold War here on Earth in the present day. Mars and Terra are the dominant forces in the Sol System, with a few fledgling star nations and groups in between. For the first campaign in Mars Rising, I’m focusing on a short-intense conflict where Terra catches Mars off guard with a surprise assault on their holdings in the Jovian Lunar Belts.

However, today’s battle takes place in the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars. The Martian Defense Fleet has a small outpost manned by a few fighter squadrons in a station just off the Ceres dwarf planet.

This posting is a lazy waypoint for merchants. It’s slow and most sought by pilots on their way out, or those who don’t want to be busy. Nobody in the Martian forces were expecting to find a Terran Battle Fleet  here.

At the start of this mission, the Terrans have an overwhelming force:

  • 2 Interceptor Squadrons
  • Battlecruiser Squadron
  • Battleship squadron
  • Potential destroyer reinforcements (Event)

The Martians are overwhelmed. They have:

  • 4 Fighter squadrons (player’s choice of splitting between interceptors and bombers)
  • An immobile and largely defenseless space station
  • A lone Merchant transport

The Terrans win when they destroy 4 Martian units, one of which must be the station. In the unlikely event the Martians destroy 4 Units first, that will also end the mission. The Martians have a few secret goals: navigate the Merchant ship safely to a point on the map, at which point it can warp out to warn Martian forces at Io (this will benefit the next mission). And, hurt Terran ships — the Martians can fight desperately to force the Terrans to begin the next mission with a bit of a bloody nose as far as ships being weakened.

If you’re curious about approximate balance, Interceptors are best against other Interceptors and Bombers. Bombers are good against capital ships, terrible against fighters. Destroyers are generally balanced and nimble. Battlecruisers are heavy and meant to kill other capital ships. Battleships are death machines.

The Battle

My Fighter Squadrons

My fighter squadrons on the board around the station.

Early I began moving the Merchant ship away from the enemy battleship. I also tried to distract him by sending my bombers in the middle of his formation.

You can see the lone Square with the red marker and the “A” on it (to note Alpha Squadron). I dropped his battleship’s shields early! (The battleship is the narrow rectangular strip with the A to the right of my bombers).

The asteroids (brown circles) offered limited protection, but his fighters chewed me up.

The wooden blue and red circles? These are command tokens. You place these on your units to denote that they’ve been chosen for this turn. The trick is, you need to alternate and cannot pick units with a token.

The triangle with the red mark and an A on it is my Merchant ship. If you look just behind him in the foreground, you can see the battleships aren’t too far away. I chose here to hold off, but I should have kept moving him. As a result, that Battleship moved in range and devastated the merchant ship. He died — no warning would be sent to my fleet at Io.

You can see his Battlecruiser squadron, the blue triangle with the B, next to the station. The battleships are just to the right. My bombers were wreaking havoc, but I couldn’t stop him in time. The station fell, as we all knew it would. Notice the blue shield token — that denotes a defensive bonus. This is a learning from a previous prototype.

Ultimately, the squadrons at Ceres were devastated and the Terran fleet plowed through as we expected. I was a bit too hasty with some of my early moves and did not play for the long game. Lessons learned!

Development Notes

This was a good test and it told me a few things. Firstly, I’m on the right track. I liked the game and my friend liked the game. We talked about it quite a bit afterwards and he texted me when he got home asking for my email so that he could send me some ideas. That’s a good sign!

There are a few things to massage. One, Events should trigger on doubles, not triples. As it stood, they only happened once. I’d like them to happen about 4 or 5 times to really add variety.

Secondly, Battlecruisers in general have too many shields. Easily fixed.

The system failure tokens were really cool. When your shields go down, you draw one at random. It dings one of your four systems by 1. It can be really bad, just bad, or completely harmless, which I think is fun. It’s also thematic: “Captain, we lost battery four!”

I just needed to add 2 simple rules to balance out the current ship bonuses . You can never have more than 1 type of ability in a squadron, so, you cannot have 2 attack, or 2 defense. Furthermore, only 1 passive formation bonus per squadron. A third, mostly tuning philosophy, is to make the passive abilities less powerful. They are practically free, so don’t make them nutty good.

This was one of my first scenario tests and it was generally good to see my thoughts for how to handle them are on the right path. The game was short, explosive, and fun. I dig it.

One Wild Idea

My friend offered one really awesome idea that I’m toying with. The idea is, there are movement penalties on the outer rings. This would represent the size of space as you go farther from the center. An example is that the two inner rings would be 1 Movement, but the two outer rings would cost 2 Movement.

I’m curious how it would change the game.

Update: The wise Jerry Hawthorne just suggested I split the outer spaces into multiple spaces. That way, the rule doesn’t change — there are just more spaces. Smart guy!

He also had some fun scenario ideas, such as making the center a sun at times. Flying near it on the closest ring would cause shield damage (maybe!).


I’m very happy to be back into testing with a game. Blockade saw a bit of a hiatus while I waited to hear feedback and then rebuild it. Being able to test and iterate upon data and the experience is like a drug for me and it makes me really happy. I love developing an idea.

As a side note, I have about 15 clients left to tune for Flipped and it’ll be ready to play as well.

Mars Has Risen

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’ve had an absolutely killer and productive week working on my games. When I have to conceive an idea from scratch, it’s really difficult for me. But, when I get to develop and iterate on an existing idea, I just hum with productivity.

I’m not ready to share too many details, but at a high level I wanted to jot down my thoughts on my process and where I’m taking Blockade.

Name Switcheroo

Firstly, Blockade is now Mars Rising. Is this a final name? Who knows, that’s for a publisher to decide. Blockade worked as a pun for my old, block driven design, but ultimately, is not a useful name and is ridiculously common. If you’re curious what I think entails a useful name…

A good game title:

  • Conveys the theme of the game
  • Provides a sense for what the player will be doing
  • Is Unique
  • Is easy to remember (and TYPE)

To briefly continue on this segue, there are exceptions to this. For the life of me I cannot remember how to type/spell Tzolk’in (had to look it up), yet it seems to be doing quite well. Plus, you can see dozens (if not hundreds) of similarly named games on the iOS App Store, which means lesser known titles get to piggy back (like parasites) on the current, similarly named leader.

But, back to the topic at hand. For now, I’m using Mars Rising. It definitely states sci fi, some form of conflict or ambition, and there will be massive space ships on the cover. There will probably also be a subtitle, because it’s all the rage. Most likely based on the campaign (of which I eventually hope there are millions).

Martian Introspection

Around the time of GenCon I was given the following feedback for the game:

  • Consider a more feasible component than blocks
  • Consider a method of allowing for ship and/or fleet customization
  • Reduce the fiddliness

I thought on this for some time and identified a card-based method. This tested fine, but as a direct port from blocks to cards, it was merely fine at best. It wasn’t going to win hearts and minds. This pushed me to really look inwards at the game’s problems and opportunities to really make it magical.

  • The color-based dice mechanic added too many components, worked, but was obtuse
  • Tallying dice based on exposed sides of the ships was fiddly and cumbersome
  • Weak spots had to go. Having to look across the table to someone’s setup was cumbersome.
  • The formation mechanic needed to be strengthened, simplified, or discarded.
  • I really needed to deliver on the promise of unique ships.

This honest look was the best thing that could happen for the game! If you must know, last week’s posts were derived from my efforts. Check them here and here. I really needed to evaluate how to make the game work properly and awesomely as a card-based game. I also needed the game to be smoother and more efficient to produce. Here are a few high level changes.

The Dice

The dice color mechanic is something I’m proud of, but ultimately, it was flawed. At the end of the day, you had yellow dice to shoot fighters and green dice to shoot ships. You had two steps to every roll, whereas dice are typically a one-step process. By two steps, I mean you had to roll to see if you had a hit, then combine hits to see if you damaged a target.

Recognizing that the dice were anti-fighter versus anti-ship, I gave ships two stats: lasers (anti-fighter) and missiles (anti-ship). Now, when attacking, you choose what you’re attacking and with what armament. You then tally the stats in the squadron and roll up to six plain six-sided dice.

  • Anti-Fighter dice hit Fighter craft on a 3+. They hit capital ships with a 6.
  • Anti-Ship dice hit Ships on a 3+. They hit fighters with a 6.

This gives the game the same balance and distribution of power I desired, without the complexity and color management. Big, slow, cumbersome missiles MIGHT hit fighters, but it isn’t likely. Weak fighters MIGHT damage capital ships, but it’s not likely. Six plain dice are also much cheaper than a pile of custom dice. A good change.

The Ships

Ships in the game used to be a series of sections that you’d either cover with other ships in formations or reveal to change your damage output (but also expose weak spots to incoming fire). It was neat and worked really well with blocks, but ultimately, I need to make a simpler game with that mechanic, not this one. I may do that at some point (and have ideas).

Ships have been completely overhauled.

This is the Destroyer Javelin. In the top left you can see its Shields, Lasers (anti-fighter), Missiles (anti-ship), and Engines (# of maneuvers). You then see its special ability that can be activated. On the right side you see the unshielded side. You flip the card once its shields are down and it loses its ability.

This format gives me FAR more flexibility in modifying the differences in ships and replaces the Fleet Action card mechanic. Ships can now have activated abilities, passive formation abilities (arrange your ships as such to get a bonus), or just better stats.

This supports fleet building and greatly enhances the replayability. I have a lot of ships.

The Rest

The game has changed in other ways, but I think these details are enough to convey the new direction. The core of maneuvering remains the same. You will still activate a single squadron, rotate them, move them, and attack. That’s why I’m confident this is the right step. I’m not discarding things that I spent months testing and refining. I’m enhancing them.

Oh, and the board is now finally round so it resembles a radar screen. I also added a fourth loop. The old board (24 spaces) was too tight. Now (32 spaces), there’s room to experiment and execute more devious maneuvers.


I spent the weekend updating the rules for the new mechanics and diagram needs and tweaking cards. I still need to create 11 more Battlecruisers and a pile of tokens and ship markers, but I’m close. I may have it ready for a prototype event I may attend Thursday. We’ll see.

My focus now is the campaign. I have 3 missions designed and I hope to have 15. First, I’m going to storyboard the 12 additional missions, which entails high level goals and plot points. Then, I’ll design the mechanics for each. Finally, I’ll write the story for each. Then, it’ll be a great deal of playtesting for balance and mechanics on the scenario.

If you’re interested in reading the revised rules, and I’ll happily share them. I’d love your input. Questions? Concerns? Thanks!

Book Review: The Martian General’s Daughter

Review by: Grant Rodiek

You can read my review policy here. 

I’ve been reading a great deal of fiction lately, much of it quite excellent. The books I read typically have a huge influence on my designs. This past weekend I finished The Martian General’s Daughter by Theodore Judson and it left me rather disappointed. So much so, that I thought I’d review it.

Based a few hundred years into the future of our world, most of the world is under the control of the Pan-Polarian Empire. The Imperial capital is Garden City, which seems to be modern day Mexico City.The fringes of the empire near China and India are constantly rebelling, which keeps the army busy. Meanwhile, Garden City is largely a corrupt high society of yes-men and political and economic profiteers.

There are three very important things about the world you must know:

  • The emperor dies very early and his sociopath son, the Concerned One, becomes the ruler of Pan-Polaria.
  • There is a metal plague that is never explained (and doesn’t need to be). This plague destroys metal and is essentially disintegrating modern technology, such as planes and computers. Yet it seems to leave guns, swords, and coins alone… Basically, it’s a device to drive the decay of the physical world (alongside the moral world).
  • The entire world, society, and characters parallel the decline of Ancient Rome.

The story is narrated by Justa Black, the bastard daughter of General Peter Black. He commands an army on the frontier. Justa’s narration bounces between two settings: General Black with his soldiers on the frontier and General Black recalled to Garden City by the emperor. The characters are very briefly on Mars, for no apparent reason other than (I think?) the title of the book. They could have replaced Mars with Wyoming and it wouldn’t have altered the story.

When the General is with his army, you basically learn that he is a tough, but fair soldier of the old guard. He is very black and white and very much the sergeant he used to be.

When the General is in Garden City, the author paints, then re-paints, then paints once again just how much of a sociopath the new Emperor is and how low society has fallen. The Emperor, who demands he be called the Concerned One, fills his days with acts of sexual deviance, by slaughtering exotic animals and gladiators in an arena, and by murdering anyone he deems a political rival.

General Black’s role is that he’s a simpleton obsessed with doing his duty, even for the wrong cause. The Emperor repeatedly summons him to help with a small task, which Black carries out successfully, then returns to the frontier.


The Martian General’s Daughter just failed to deliver in so many ways. None of the characters show any development, breadth, or shades of gray. The Concerned One (the Emperor) is a pure sociopath who is clearly insane and deviant. He has no redeeming qualities. Every time the emperor enters a scene it is to:

  • Slaughter creatures in a coliseum
  • Be sexually deviant
  • Talk like a narcissistic and insane person

On this last point, at one point the emperor becomes obsessed with the story of Huck Finn. The tie-in was so bizarre and disconnected that it really hindered the story.

Justa is barely a character, so I’m not sure why she’s needed as a narrator. She doesn’t modify or influence the story in any way, which to me really felt like a missed opportunity. Many of my favorite stories really leverage the personality of the storyteller, so using a human that is essentially a mouthpiece just falls flat. General Black is the old soldier doing his duty. The schemers are schemers and generally people are good or just there or just awful.

Furthermore, nothing really happens in the book. Well, let me re-phrase that. Nothing new happens in the book. The author is clearly fascinated by the decline of Ancient Rome, which I admit is a premise worthy of exploration. But, when the emperors all have Roman names, with the coliseum, and the orgies, and the rebelling entities on the frontier, and so forth, the author is just rehashing well-worn ground. I know what happened in Rome, which meant I knew what would happen in this book. Nothing new was revealed to me.

The metal plague is an interesting, though inconsistently applied device, that I would have liked to have seen more of. It’s a very creative, very science-fiction notion that was basically used to repeatedly say “hey, the world is falling apart!” I’d happily read a book about a colony on Mars, stricken with a plague that is destroying the equipment that keeps them alive. That would be an amazing story that would also match the title.

Frankly, I found the parallels to ancient Rome so heavy handed that I couldn’t really enjoy the historical influence. If you know me, you know how hard that was for me to write. At some point in the book I expected a character to say aloud, “you would have thought we’d have learned from ancient Rome, yet here we are, repeating the mistakes 2500 years later in an identical fashion.” Rome should have influenced the story, not be the story.

Finally, alternating chapters of the book bounce tween the “present” of the story and past events. I’m not exactly sure why the author does this, as there are no interesting twists applied to take advantage of the dual time-perspective and frankly, any surprises he could have wielded are precluded by the fact you know the General lives and succeeds.

Here’s an example: There’s a meeting between the General and our deranged emperor. The author seems to want you to worry about whether the emperor will murder the General, much like his two other victims mere pages before.  The problem is, as the meeting is in the past, I know the general will get by just fine. All tension is removed.

In Conclusion: If you’re not clear about my opinion of the book, let me rectify that here. Pass on The Martian General’s Daughter. The story isn’t exciting, the characters lack depth, and the historical influence is stifling.

This was my first book review. Thoughts? 

Posted in Reviews | Tagged alt-future, ancient rome, book, fiction, martian general's daughter, , rome, | 2 Replies

Scenarius Testus


Post by: Grant Rodiek

Blockade fared well at GenCon. My goal was to bring forth a nice core rule set to demonstrate maneuvering, combat, and my nifty little formation mechanic. I think this went well. But, I heard repeatedly that players want more variety. They wanted to see new objectives, variant means of setup, and so forth. Since then, I’ve also been asked to consider alternate ship and fleet building options.

Well, you’re in luck. Scenarios were planned from the beginning! In this post, I’d like to discuss scenario design at a high level in the hopes the thoughts are useful to other designers. I’ll be using examples from games like Memoir ’44, Robinson Crusoe, Mice and Mystics, and Blockade.

Quick links:

  • Rules for Blockade
  • Campaign book for Blockade (Story and 3 Scenarios)

Note: The rules don’t yet incorporate my card-based presentation idea mentioned here. However, some scenarios tell you to “draw the reference card.” I hope that isn’t too confusing.

Scenarios exist to provide structured and planned variety in a game. Scenarios can easily add spice to an intentionally simple core design that might otherwise lack replayability. Much of the complexity in York, a game without scenarios, is to allow for flexibility so that not every game is the same. Alternate goals, faction abilities, dynamic fort placement — all of these help make different plays unique. Were it scenario driven, the core could perhaps be simpler.

Scenarios can also provide a framework for telling a story, which is something you’ll see more and more of in games.

To satisfy these goals, here are some of the components of good scenario design:

Scenarios provide new goals. One of the best ways to vary a combat driven game is to shift the goal from “destroy everything” to something else. Starcraft II does this masterfully. Yes, in every mission you’re going to be building bases, commanding units, and engaging in combat. But, why you do that changes almost every time. Some of my favorite Memoir ’44 missions force me to capture an objective or protect something. Yes, I’m still fighting, but I’m doing so with a purpose other than annihilation.

In Mice and Mystics, sometimes I need to fight specific monsters, or take specific actions (like Search) in certain rooms. Am I still mostly fighting as I move through the level? Yes, but now I also have something else to do.


Every scenario in Robinson Crusoe gives the player a new goal, which is often an entirely new mechanic. These are cleverly given their own boards to visually reinforce what needs to be done. I have only played this once, but I think it’ll be a good teacher for me.

So far in Blockade, most of my missions end when a point total is reached by one of the teams. Points are primarily earned by destroying the opponent, but I’ve introduced alternate methods to distract you, like defenseless merchant ships you can destroy (and escort), or precious cargo containers that you can board and steal.

Good goals should present a new experience without forcing me to re-learn the mechanics. Things I’ve learned in one scenario should transfer to another, but how I use this knowledge can shift.

Scenarios twist the rules. Scenarios in many ways are like cards — they let you break the rules within reason. Memoir ’44 does this in a few brilliant ways:

  • Players defending in a surprise attack begin with fewer cards to represent the commander being surprised and having fewer options.
  • Soviet players must select their move one turn in advance to represent the commissars restricting the freedom of battlefield commanders and generally obstructing the victory.
  • Winter rules make some terrain types deadly, when in summer, no such rules exist.


These rules need to be introduced lightly and sparingly. At most, 1-2 per scenario. Remember, the player shouldn’t have to revisit your rule booklet every time a new scenario is played. Bend the rules, twist them. Don’t erase them and start from scratch.

In one Blockade mission, I allow the Martian ships to escape from a pre-defined jump point. To do so, they must hit a difficult roll. That’s it.

Good scenarios give me a new way to experience the core I love without hurting my head or confusing me.

Scenarios change a player’s tool set. Military games do this really well. In new scenarios you can define:

  • The number of units a player has available
  • The type of Units a player has available
  • The location and setup of these units on the board

Blockade uses all of these, because it just makes sense. Fantasy games like Mice and Mystics alter the enemies you fight or the members in your party.

You can also change the actions available to a player. Perhaps a lieutenant in this situation can order a squad to use smoke grenades, which isn’t always available. This way you limit and customize a player’s actions to add variety within reason, but don’t overwhelm them with 50 actions available always.

In Robinson Crusoe, different scenarios change the tools (literally, like rope) available to you. This means you don’t just use knife, traps, and chemistry every scenario. You have to branch out!

Good scenarios give the players a new toy to play with. Something exciting that sparks their imagination. Good scenarios force players to get out of their comfort zone and pursue a different tactic.

Scenarios change the scenery. Scenarios are a great opportunity to transport players to a new part of the world you’ve created. With just a few boards and hex tokens, I can fight on any battlefield in the world in Memoir ’44. Similarly, Robinson Crusoe adds volcanoes, or Mice and Mystics moves me from the guard room to the courtyard.

In Blockade, I’m dealing with space, so I can’t just add trees. However, I CAN introduce asteroid belts, debris fields, space stations, defensive lasers, planets, and anything else you’ve seen in Star Wars. This can easily be done with a handful of generic tokens and event cards shuffled into the deck to power them.

Using the items above, this scenery can introduce new rules. For example, asteroids add protection when you’re inside a belt, though if they crash into you, they can also hurt you. Watch out!


Continuing on this, the scenery can add new goals. I may have a scenario where one side needs to protect a space station. The other should destroy it.

Therefore, scenery isn’t just a set of new curtains, but a medium by which to enhance and vary the experience.

Good scenarios take players to new places and change the rules in a thematic and exciting way.

Scenarios change the difficulty or provide an advantage. This isn’t a primary one, but it’s something I like. Scenarios give you a chance to handicap a great player by putting him at a disadvantage, or giving players an opportunity to see who does the best in a bad situation.

Personally, I think it’s fun to see who can hold the Alamo the longest. Can you beat 13 days?

One of my favorite examples is the Battle of Hoth. The Imperials clearly had an advantage here. A superior fleet, the element of surprise, and superior ground forces. The Rebels were always going to lose. Really, the question was how badly? Based on the movie, I’d say they did quite well! With relatively few loses, the fleet and majority of their resources escaped with only minor casualties.

That’s the type of thing I’d like to see in Blockade. There are going to be times when the Martians, for example, should lose. But, how badly will they do so? Can the Martian Admiral change the course of history, or at least give himself a better footing in the next mission when the tables turn?

Good scenarios let you change the balance of things. Balance isn’t always required. Really, the only requirement is that the scenario is fun and reasonable. 50 against 1? Lame. There’s an obvious level of silliness, but getting it just right is the hard part.

What do you think a good scenario should do? What are some of your favorite scenario based games?

Blockade Crazy Idea


Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’ve just had a flurry of what I think are good ideas for Blockade. If you’ve played the game, please read this because I want your input. The first idea is simple, but it led to a bigger idea. The idea is to allow for synced, focused fire. Here’s the rule:

If your activated squadron attacks an enemy that is within range of a second squadron you control, you may roll dice for BOTH units up to the cap of dice.

The reason for this is to reward good maneuvering and thinking ahead. You only activate one unit at a time, so you’ll need to think a few turns ahead to corner a unit. It also rewards you for not getting stuck in between two enemy ships.

Secondly, it lets you fire more dice, which makes the game more explosive, decisive, and faster, but it caps out (3 critical dice, 4 greens, 5 yellows). It’ll be a clear advantage, but not ridiculous.

Finally, it puts even more pressure on the player to properly arrange his formation. If you open up, and I mean really open up, you better be ready to suffer hot, laser death from all sides.

If you’re with me at this point, you see my mind is abuzz with intergalactic, metallic warfare. Things should explode and quickly. Let’s continue.

I was browsing Shapeways after this, mostly because I love miniatures and starships and losing money. Irrational Designs is one of my favorite sculptors with such a great collection of models. I kept wondering how I could get ships like these into Blockade (mostly for a prototype, they are cost prohibitive for a published version), but kept running into a few issues:

  • The number of ships needed
  • The ships don’t convey any information
  • The shapes don’t work with my formation mechanic

I started pondering this. One of the issues with the current game is that the board gets crowded. Plus, moving around all three pieces in formation can sometimes be a tinge fiddly. I’m also balancing these thoughts with the fact that I’ve been pushed to add more customization to the ships/fleets, potentially more functionality, and I need to rework the components. Pegs and wooden blocks aren’t going to work necessarily.

I had a few thought cycles.

  • What if squadrons were instead one ship? Instead of moving ships around, you moved shields around to more or less change weapon output/defense. (I didn’t like this. Fictionally odd and confusing).
  • What if squadrons were represented by a single ship on the board, but individual ships were represented by cards? Oh…go on…

Here’s the idea.

  • Squadrons are represented by an individual token/model/block on the board. 
  • Players have 1-3 cards arranged in formation order in front of them for each squadron. This will be identical to how the ships work currently.
  • Instead of the block manipulation, you simply re-arrange your cards. No knocking over ships or making a mess.
  • To track damage, just put damage counters on top of the cards, like Summoner Wars. Simply flip the cards for destroyed ships over.
  • Instead of conveying all info through symbols, cards give you a little more flexibility to explain movement and weapons. You get more space to convey this info instead of tiny dots.
  • Cards also give you the ability to introduce more complex concepts to allow for advanced play and more intricate fleet arranging…this is something I’ve pondered, but never been able to do with just the blocks to convey everything.

So, to refresh, this is what this means: There is still the same spatial arrangement mechanic, but you represent your ship’s location and facing with a single piece and do the specific manipulation on the cards in front of you. Other players don’t really need to know what you can fire, but they DO need to know where your weakspots are. I’ll either need to make this clearly visible on the cards or perhaps there will be a token you place on the board to say “I’m weak here.”

Because I’m using cards, I can add more precise and clear information on the cards themselves (ex: Move: 3 or Damage: X, X, Y, Y) AND add advanced complexity for fleet building and advanced play.


Does this all make sense? Poke and ask questions if you’re unclear. I think this is “the next big step” I’ve needed for the game. It’s purely a presentation issue, but it opens up so many possibilities.

Blockade’s Evolution Post GenCon

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Every time I write about Blockade is really just a verbose excuse to Google Image Search a new image of a sci fi space battle.

I took Blockade to GenCon 2013 and tested it about 5 total times, thrice with random testers, once with friends, and once with a publisher who isn’t interested in it (bad fit), but liked it and I love hearing their input. I also pulled out the pieces several times just to give people a quick taste. In short, I had a lot of eyes (and hands!) on the game, which allowed me to take in a great deal of feedback.

The purpose of this post is to cover these changes and why. If you don’t know anything about Blockade, this post may not be terribly interesting. I recommend you check out the updated rules, then come back here!

The high level takeaway is that people like it, get it, and enjoy it. The pieces are satisfying and fun, the dice rolls are great, people get to make bold moves, people sit and think about their next move, and the activation mechanic works. A great deal of my iterative focus, therefore, is on tuning, balance, and polish. My favorite! No, really!

The Cards: The wording on the cards needs work. This is true of any game with cards or really, any game with text. Humans interpret language in so many different ways and with so many games using words in different ways, it can be trouble some.

The most troublesome card was Full Broadside, which said you can attack from two different sides. My intent was that you’d use two sides to attack two enemies, but many saw it as two sides on one enemy (for a monstrous attack).

In other cases I simplified the cards. Countermeasures now just says “roll 3 yellow dice.” Not “roll the yellows for the side being attacked.”

The final big change for cards is that there are now Defensive Cards, i.e. cards you play when it’s not your turn and you’re being attacked. Previously these were just attack cards, but this led to some confusion. Now,  you have Maneuver cards, Attack cards, and Defense cards.

The Center: The center space has been confusing for some time. It’s gone through quite a few revisions. Some input I received from multiple sources was simply REMOVE it. Block it off. You cannot enter the center space. I’m going to replace it with scenario based items, like a space station you need to assault, or a planet that needs to be bombarded, or even a wormhole that lets you do weird things on the map.

More Powerful Crits: One of the core decisions you must make in the game is how to arrange your ships, and whether to do so for offensive or defensive purposes. You’re primarily balancing the number of lasers you have exposed with the number of weakspots exposed, as opponents roll bonus Critical dice when attacking weakspots. The problem is, Crit Dice had a 50% hit rate compared to the 66% hit rate of all other dice. This dip in probability made them far less useful than I’d like. Now, it’s 66% all around.

While we’re on the topic of dice, Direct Hits now cause 2 damage AND are referenced by some cards. Previously, it was just the latter.

Kamikaze: A problem revealed through the PPP testing and again at GenCon is that devastated fighter squadrons with only 1-2 fighters remaining lack usefulness. They only fire 1 yellow die per fighter alive, and capital ships require at least a green, so 2 fighters aren’t going to do much. Now, you can kamikaze when you have 3 or fewer fighters. You roll an orange critical hit die for every fighter remaining and assign damage as normal. The trade off is, you lose all of the fighters, whether they hit or not.

Tweaking Activation: I’m really proud of the activation mechanic. It’s subtle and simple and works. Problem is, I didn’t design for what happens when you lose ships and therefore have more Units than tokens. The new rule is fairly simple: You remove tokens such that on your turn you always have at least two units from which to choose. Obviously, when you have 2 units you alternate and one unit, you just use it over and over. This tested well and was easy to explain, so I’m happy and look forward to solving new problems.

Loosen Up: I had a few unnecessary rules, such as limits on the number and type of cards you could play. The thing is, people want to play cards, and they are fun, so why the heck not? Now, play whatever you have. The other issue is that people feel they get cards they can’t use and it gums up their hand. I think this is more a perception issue and a part of the game in most cases, i.e. figure out how to use what you have. But, one or two cards might have little to know use under some conditions. That’s fair. Now, you can discard any cards you don’t want to clean up your hand and draw new ones.

More Events, More Environment: People really liked the exploding debris, which is great because I love it. People want more events! People also want “terrain,” which in space means things like asteroids, suns, and so forth. I always planned to add some of these elements with scenarios and now it seems a requirement. Cool!

One of the first ones I’m adding are asteroid fields. Throughout the game they’ll shift in space. If they collide with you, damage. But, if you move into a field, it provides bonus protection when being attacked. You’ll see more as the scenarios come online.

Customizable Ships: The reality is, this game probably won’t ship with wooden blocks with holes drilled into them. It just dramatically increases the price. If I had to guess, the ships will be thematically shaped punchboard ships. Totally cool by me. A publisher with whom I’m discussing the game had an idea for customizable weapons. For example, instead of pulling ships at random and being stuck with them, what if in some situations you could outfit your ships with anti-fighter lasers deliberately, or a balanced approach?

I took this a step further to include various nodes that let you launch fighters (Carrier Bay), reduce enemy attack potency (ECM), or even have ranged weapons (Green Missiles versus Green Lasers).

The balance I hope to strike is that for most scenarios, I specify what you need. This is for the sake of balance and accessibility. But, in sandbox mode, you can tweak your squadrons and try things out.

Sandbox Mode: This is an idea I’ve revived somewhat. I thought it would be neat if there was a simple way you could play a meta-game in addition to singular brawl mode or the pre-set campaign mode.

The idea is, you add a small board with the solar system’s planets called out. There are cards for every planet that detail things, like strategic resources: ship production plant, fleet base, warp station, etc. On this meta board,  you say “I’m moving the fleet at Mars to Io.” You then build your fleets, shuffle in some events based on the site, and you fight it out.

When it’s time to pack up, you gather and separate your side’s planet cards, fleet cards, etc. This helps you remember the status and means you don’t need to write it down on paper or any of that mess.

This would add some cards and such, but I think it’d be neat, probably as an add-on, for the experience.

The next steps…

I’m happy with the current rule set with its updates and will begin testing it more thoroughly. However, I’m going to start doing it using scenarios. I’ve designed 2 or 3, but they haven’t been evaluated under this rule set. Therefore, I’ll need to tweak them and design more (of course). My hope is to take what is proving to be a nice, core system and expand it with one-off rules, exciting event cards, and difficult situations to keep players riveted throughout the experience.

I want great replayability. It’s time to get cracking on scenarios! I should note I’ll be making a nice PNP for this soon. Stay tuned to this site or my Twitter feed to learn more.