10 January 2012

Developer-Diary: Star Exodus, Part 1

So, I'm developing my own board-game and in this series of posts I'll talk about how it's all going and how I'm actually doing things. This might help other people with similar aspirations or just be an interesting read for anyone interested in board-games.

I've been designing board-games since I was a kid. Of course, most of them were unplayable or at least pretty pointless from a gaming perspective – simply rolling dice until someone has won. Point is that I've always been fascinated by making my own game and at some point two or three years ago, friends got my attention towards the Gamecrafters. Finding for the first time a way to actually get components to look somewhat professional for a somewhat affordable price my head started racing at the opportunity and soon I had a project that has been going on and off until today. As I have yet to release anything on that website though, I do not know whether to recommend it or not. I'll tell the world when things have developed to that point.

Let's talk about the theme first, as the game is actually a re-make of a game I made when I was about ten years old. At that age, the theme was the game to me, mechanics just there to support it. So this game won't be a master-piece from a game-design point of view, just let me get this out of the way before anything else. It's an exercise in personal nostalgia mixed with modernizing as much as I can. It's a race-through-space-game.

As I do not have the original anymore, which was as I recall drawn on two pieces of white A4-paper, I can only go by my memories of it. The whole thing lying almost two decades in the past doesn't make this any easier but bear with me here: The game was a typical dice-rolling-affair of several players racing across a play-field I had drawn some obstacles on, like asteroids and black holes. There even was a battle-zone with a UFO moving in circles, possibly intercepting the players spaceships, causing them to lose turns. Losing turns was the worst that could happen to you. As it was all random by dice-rolls and there were no player-interactions the whole thing could basically play itself. You made no decisions in this game. The goal of it was Alpha Centauri, which my young mind had read in some science-magazine to be the closest star to ours. Interestingly I had based all the play-pieces (drawn on paper and then cut out) on actual space-ships or concepts of those from the time. There was a space-shuttle, a Saturn-V-rocket, a solar-sail, a Delta-Clipper and even the Mir space station. I recall having even written down crew-numbers on the ships for some reason. So this is the game as I remember it. A primitive to none-existent game-play, a semi-scientific, semi-surreal theme and rather bad components - if they can be called that. So what do I do with it in the 21st century?

First of all there is a slight change of theme. You don't race to Alpha Centauri with a 1980s space station. So I whipped up a theme more in the irk of space-opera, with the players leaving a doomed planet on a race to a new home. So each player plays a political faction from said doomed world equipping a space-ship in order to send colonists, probably deep-frozen in some cargo-hold to an unclaimed habitable planet called New Eden. Get there first, choose the best place for a new colony or something like that. Alright, theme/story done. So what about choice and player-interaction? What about the adventure-aspect that the incompetent younger me tried to catch by drawing asteroids, wormholes and UFOs on the board?

The first element of choice comes from equipping your space-ship. Not all ships are equal. Each ship has six slots for components, represented by cards that the players have lying in front of them. There are three three different types of component: Weapons, which can be used in combat, shields, which protect from said weapons, and items which have other functions aiding either in combat or outside of it. You have different components for your ship and how you use these and exchange these and the way you do combat with them is your choice as a player. That is the first introduction of choice. The second element of choice comes from branching paths of the track on the board. You have different paths to move. Which gives you choices regarding balancing risk versus speed.

Direct player interaction is limited to battling it out when you get to the same field or choosing not to. This may not be much at this time but I do intend to rectify a lot of short-comings this game has in an add-on to be released later. There is an indirect way of player-interaction since the player who is ahead of anyone else is likely to get to planet-fields first and as planets are hidden before the first player lands on them they have no idea what to expect while the players following them have it a bit easier.

So the one thing I was going for as a kid was the feeling of adventure, of exploring space and going where no man has gone before. If this is to be a faithful remake this is what I need to go for so it’s my main concern with this design. How do you create adventure? Flavor, lots of it but not too much as you want to leave some stuff for your players' imagination. There are several sorts of flavor present here. There is the artwork, which I will talk about in the next post of this series, there is the back story, which is a backdrop, and there are the flavor texts regarding both random encounter cards and planet encounters. Both of the latter give you a short snippet of story, of what is happening to your ship and/or crew on the trip and hint at a story worthy of a TV-show episode going on the way a TV-guide would tell it as a short little paragraph. Use your imagination to make it a full-fledged story. I think that writing “After eating with a local pirate-chief in honor of his daughters' birthday, your first officer has been married to said pirate-princess without his knowledge or consent. There is some complicated diplomacy involved before you can go on your way, which costs you one turn.” Is far more adventurous than writing a two in a red square or something along that line.

The game takes place in a somewhat trekkish universe but with fewer aliens and more diversity when it comes to space-borne combat. This world is much more fleshed-out than a board-game would require it to be but letting details shine through via flavor-text and artwork is something that hopefully stirs the imagination of more creative-players and make the whole game more involved. Also when I design the add-on, for which I already have some plans ready, I can hopefully give the whole thing a more rounded-off play-style and flesh out the world it takes place in even more.

Next time: Artwork when you can't draw for crap – how I am solving this rather large problem of mine. After that: Components – how do you get them and what are the options available for a self-publishing games-designer?

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