Designing in a Vacuum


Time for a little change of pace.  Over the past year I’ve spent a lot of timing doing something a little different; trying to design board games.  A few years ago I had a game design in progress which had a fun concept, but ultimately I was unable to execute successfully.  I took a break from designing for a while, but I’m a creative person and it wasn’t too long before ideas were cooking in my head and I just couldn’t shut them up.

I decided to write a little bit about my design process, what I’ve learned, and the story so far. I hope you enjoy.

Around a year ago I started working on a project with Grant Rodiek, who will probably deny everything, but there you have it.  It was to be a space game wherein players took on the role of starship captains trying to build up their riches.  The backdrop to this was a war between a Federation and a faction of Pirates.  Players never sided directly with either of these factions, but their actions could help advance either side, which would affect the layout of the board, the planets under control of each faction, and the buying/selling price of goods.  Over time it evolved into a sort of deck building game as a way to manage the long-term consequences of a player’s loyalties – they could get help from the pirates which could be a great boost, but would add unfortunate cards to their deck.  While working for the Navy was a long process, but the effort would eventually pay off with good cards.

Eventually Grant left the project to spend more time on his other designs.  I spent a lot of time tweaking, trying to find a good balance, trying to make the deck building work.  It got close several times, but it was just playing too slowly.  I still love the concept and perhaps some day I will return to it.

At some point Toy Vault announced the Firefly license they had acquired, and put out a call for games.  I love Firefly and I immediately saw that my game could be adapted from Federation vs. Pirates to Alliance vs. Smugglers.  This shift actually greatly helped the deck building; I added several more decks to represent one-time encounters and long-term consequences in deep space, on the outer rim, and with the Alliance.  Still, I could never quite get the pacing right; the deck building itself was too slow, it was too solitary.

I also realized something key that drastically changed the direction of the game; players were sticking with the Federation because it was a clear and safe way to earn points, even though it was far more fun to be a smuggler and steal things.  Players wanted to steal but the risk was too high.

I did a complete re-vamping of the game at that point.  I ditched the deck building and focused on fleshing out the heists.  It became a different game entirely, but one that worked better for Firefly; players had to build crew with various skills, and then run heists.  Heists involved a series of random challenges.  Crew attempting these challenges gained adrenaline to help mitigate failure – the more you tried, the more you were likely to succeed, although if you failed too much you failed the heist.  Then, when the heist ended, Adrenaline became Stress, which was a penalty instead of a boost, and to get rid of it you had to pay your crew.

I really liked how that system worked.  It took a bit of balancing but it was getting to the point where it was tense, failure was not a guarantee, but success wasn’t a guarantee.  Unfortunately, the overall game was still too slow, too solitaire (although, in a sense, that is Firefly… being alone, in space).  I did manage to play it with a rep from Toy Vault at Gencon, who saw the flaws and gave me some great feedback.  If I ever return to this design, it will look even more different; I will get rid of the main board and focus more on heists, to increase turn speed and to drive focus toward what’s important in the game.   It will be a game of cards and dice; of hiring crew to increase your dice pool and finding tools to improve your rolls.  I’ve taken a break from this design for now, but it definitely was a learning experience.

The key thing I learned was this: focus.  A game without focus becomes clumsy and slow.  I tried to do too many things when I should have dumped a lot of it.  Too many things made the game too complex for what it was; you could do plenty, but you couldn’t always do what you wanted, and that’s not cool.

There’s a difference between limiting scope and limiting choice.  In, say, Agricola, your scope is limited.  You can’t just take as much of a resource as you want or choose as many actions as you like.  But when you get to choose actions, you can usually do SOMETHING that you WANT to do.  You’re not limited to one choice because it’s the only thing you CAN do.  Choice shouldn’t be so overwhelming that you can’t decide, but you should always have at least a couple options and be allowed to choose what you want because you think it will be the best choice for your strategy, not because its the only possible thing that will help.

The latest design I’ve been working on, which I’ve been tweeting more publicly about, is an idea I’ve had for a while but put aside to work on the Firefly game (which I decided to have ready for Gen Con).  I took another small break from designing after the con, but this design entered my brain and I couldn’t make it go away (again) so here we are.

In this game, players will be starship captains.  I’ve seen a lot of games where players control squadrons or fleets, and usually act as pilots.  In Space Cadets players are individual crew members and everyone acts as a team, but I have not seen a board game in which you actually act more as captain than pilot or fleet commander.  FTL is a computer game that in a sense captures the essence of what I was going for – it’s about ordering crew around and choosing what parts of your ship to use at any given time.

I’ve been toying with this idea in my head for a long time, but I couldn’t figure out how to make this idea of captaining a ship function with goals.  What is the purpose?  The obvious choice was a battle between players, but let’s be honest; there are a lot of battle games out there.  I wanted something more goal-oriented.

I finally had an inspiration that really helped draw all things together.  Instead of fighting each other, there is a common enemy.  This enemy has attacked a planet that is a shared colony between all players, and the goal is to rescue as many civilian ships as you can.  This idea seemed very simple to implement; the goals are obvious, the scenario is clear; and it opened up so many possibilities.

Having a scenario to work with, it was now easier to assign purpose to each section of the ship.  The goal is focus, again; keeping things streamlined and usable, while allowing choice.  It flowed naturally that each ship system would be tied to exactly one action.  You could assign crew and power as you chose any of these systems, and a round would simply step through each action and any player who had crew and power assigned to the right system would perform that single action.

Right now, the difference between crew and power is twofold; for one, power is easily generated each round (By assigning crew to the Generator, obviously), meaning power can be more fluid throughout a turn.  Power can be discarded more easily than crew, because it can be generated more easily. Shields would simply be power cubes assigned to the shields, and discarded when absorbing damage.  Easy!  Secondly, crew are slower to change assignments. Power can be re-routed instantly – More power to shields! Put everything you’ve got in to one, continuous burst!  There doesn’t even need to be special rules for these things because you can just do them.  Crew, however, have to run to a new place in the ship.  A special “transfers” section of the ship is where crew go when you move them to a new assignment; at the start of your turn, any crew in Transfers can be moved anywhere on the ship.

This kind of thematic connection flowed throughout the game.  You have engines which increase movement.  Thrusters which improve maneuverability.  The power generator, obviously, generates power.  Communications allow you to maneuver civilian ships.  Secondary weapons can destroy enemy fighters, while main weapons attack the enemy Destroyers themselves.  Each system has a sensible connection between power and crew; more power to the engines obviously means more speed.  More power to weapons increases range; more crew can target more fighters at once.  More crew on communications can talk to and maneuver more civilians at once; more power can increase the range (the enemy is jamming the signal!)

I really lucked into a functional system here, one that almost inherently has focus, although it requires careful planning and study in other areas as well.  Right now, each player’s ship will be a personal board, and crew and power will be represented by cubes assigned to various slots on the ship. Organization is key here, and it will be necessary that any particular system will be easy to glance down and view quickly.  The goal is to avoid the need for excessive calculation, keep number increments simple and non-mathy, and keep each system tied to 1 and only 1 action.

I’m excited to see where this game goes.  It’s in the very early stages but it has come together better than any previous design.  There are many other ideas I’ve thought of in regard to the board, the enemy, and the civilian ships, but we’re not going to jump into everything at once.  Hopefully this gives you a good taste.  Hopefully it intrigues you.  I’ll keep tweeting about it as I continue developing ideas.  Let me know if you have any thoughts, questions, or ideas of your own!  Maybe I’ll even have some photos.


Futurewolfie loves epic games, space, and epic games set in space. You'll find him rolling fistfuls of dice, reveling in thematic goodness, and giving Farmerlenny a hard time for liking boring stuff.

Discussion2 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing, Wolfie. Ever since you mentioned that you pitched a game at GenCon I was really curious as to what it was. I’ve tried my hand as well at designing a space-themed game, but I didn’t get as far as you did to a point where you could pitch it. I’m glad that at least you can take away a solid learning experience from the whole process and can apply that to your revisions and other developments. Your new design idea sounds like an awesome concept. I’m very intrigued by the idea of being a ship captain and controlling the various systems. I look forward to hearing more about it as you get deeper in to it.

  2. Like Derek said, I love the concept. It sounds like a lot of fun. Though it would be amazing if Power was represented not by cubes, but by one or two (possibly transparent) wheels that rotated between the ship stations. I’m not sure how the wheels would work, but it would clarify the distinction between actions that require turn actions (crew movement) and those that can happen instantaneously. And then rerouting power would feel different than moving crew around.
    Would there be a center board with the civilians and aliens? Or more deck-based with new civilian locations turned over with each new scan? I could imagine decks could make ship iconography organization easier (The sensor action turns over a green card; the weapons action discards a red card, etc.).
    I’d love to hear more about it! I hope it’s going well!

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