Soul Survivors - a NaGaDeMon game

This is my blog to capture and share experiece of taking part in NaGaDeMon 2012 (National Game Design Month). I'm designing "Soul Survivors" - a short, dice-rolling card game pitting two players in a dystopian battle to preserve lost souls.

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Day 10 - Talkin' 'bout my iteration

Chris W
United Kingdom
Oxfordshire
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As NaGaDeMon continues to sit at the back of mind like a neglected radish, I have taken the dive and enjoyed my first playtest of Soul Survivors. It works! O hang on: no it doesn't. Yes it does. No it doesn't It works a bit.


Iteration

One of the big mistakes I made during NaGaDeMon last year was to go too far in trying to develop my game before the first playtest. It ended up with a ton of mechanics piled in, with little understanding of how they were going to interact with one another. As a result, at first playtest it pretty quickly ground to a halt and was a disheartening experience for all of the poor hapless folk involved.

So this year, I've been much more iterative in my approach. I don't want to jump into playtesting too soon, as that just ain't fair on friends who are giving time to help me, but I've also not taken my eye off playtesting as part of trialling the interaction of the mechanics. So I've spent time in designing some cards that can (fairly) easily be adjusted, and basing the abilities of each of the spaceships in the games on a spreadsheet that can easily be tweaked or overhauled.

I'm a firm believer that iteration is a good approach if you have the time and the luxury of generous friends who are happy to go on the journey with you.


To the table

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Soul Survivors made it's first outing a couple of days ago and I've kept the approach fiarly simple for the moment. This playtest was about seeing how the core mechanics played out...I can always augment and enhance the game with more mechanics, special abilities and stuff at a later stage.

Gaming chum Andrew was at hand to help out, and I think that in general the core game worked reasonably well. The ships were reasonably balanced in both battle and their ability to transport survivors. There is certainly some tweaking to do, but overall it felt on the right track.

In short, this was a really positive experience. One thing that I didn't anticipate in playtesting in this early stage of design was how great it was to have someone else able to contribute creatively. Andrew came up with some excellent ideas as to how the game could be improved, both thematically and mechanically. For example, he suggested that - in the spirit of the dystopian scenario - perhaps it would be good if players were able to push their luck by pushing the engines of the ships to breaking point to increase their speed. Simple to implement, won't bother the balance and a great for both theme and pacing.

Best of all...the game was enjoyable! Hurrah.


Iteration part 2

I have decided though not to make any changes to the game just yet. This isn't because I don't think that the ideas that we chatted through aren't valuable, but because I think it's worth having a further run through with another player to get a completely different perspective. You just don't know how it's going to play out another time, and how someone else might being their own creative contribution. I'll then be in a much better position to know where the priorities are for making adjustments, and binning anything that's not working.

It's day 10, and playtesting has started. I've focused in the last couple of posts on the NaGaDeMon experience, perhaps more on gameplay itself next post if folk are interested?
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Sat Nov 10, 2012 9:17 pm
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Day 6 - Balancing and design

Chris W
United Kingdom
Oxfordshire
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It's day 6 of NaGaDeMon and I've spent some considerable time over the past few days staring blankly at a spreadsheet with a face like a difficult flannel. Why? BALANCING. And design's been a pain too.

Balancing

One of the main mechanics of Soul Survivors is the ability to customise the spaceship cards you play from a pool of 'space debris'. That, to you and I, is usually know as 'dice'. Enter a balancing. And where there's balancing, there's a spreadsheet. And where's there's a spreadsheet, there's an overwhelming desire to retire to the airing cupboard for darkness and restorative purposes.

It's going to be really tricky to balance making the spaceships different and yet evenly pitched to battle. I'm firmly of the mind that I'm not going to be able to do this on paper, but rather need to give it a best shot and then see how playtesting exposes any inbalance. It's iterative.

To get on top of this, I've put together a spreadsheet that details each ship's abilities, and how these might be activated using different dice. My thinking is that I'll be able to make adjustments from major 'arrghhh it doesn't work at all' type nightmares, to minor 'let's make that bit a wee less powerful' tweaks.

I'm playtesting in a couple of days, so we'll soon see if this approach works or if it's back to the airing cupboard.


Design

It would have been sensible, given that I'm confident that the game is going to need some serious revising following my first playtest, not to have spent too much time on design. But I couldn't resist playing...so, contrary to my own advice, I have come up with a set of cards with some initial design thoughts.

Here's what I have learnt in this process:

1. Having a nice starry background might look nice, but it makes the cards dead cluttered. This will need simplifying.

2. Working on a space theme is all very well, but designing a spaceship is way beyond my rudimentary art skills. This will need simplifying.

3. There are two many elements to each card, with the qualities of the ships and different survivor (worker) attributes all vying for space. This will need simplifying.

4. Printers can be rather patronising. This has been simplified (I told them to reposition their posterially aligned primate).

I think a redesign of the cards is in order, but I've had fun reacquainting myself with the paint.net design package.

I'm hoping that an initial playtest will help me get a good feel for where I'm on track and where I'm really not, and hopefully I can work on making the mechanics and the design slicker from there.

In the meantime, I've got some reading to do and some dice to chuck about. Probability....hmmm....
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Tue Nov 6, 2012 4:02 pm
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Day 1 - here we go wahey! What I'm up to, where I'm getting it from...

Chris W
United Kingdom
Oxfordshire
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NaGaDeMon, Day 1. I'm fed up of this already. Haha....just joshing. As November stretches ominously before us like a greiving cod, time to share my game plan and what I'm shamelessly cribbing from.

Save Our Souls

My idea for Soul Survivors is something that has been knocking around unfettered in my head for a while, so articulating the theme and mechanics of the game is Challenge Number One. Here goes...

In Soul Survivors, two players are constructing spaceships to ferry the rival survivors of a post-apocalyptic space battle to safety on orbital space stations. The player to save most souls wins.

Play takes place on a board that can accomodate 7x7cards.

Each player constructs their spaceships by playing cards depicting different types of craft. Dice represent a pool of space debris that players can rummage to power, weaponise and protect their ships. They'll have to chose carefully from the resources available to decide their strategy for customising ships: for example, do they want a series of smaller battle ships with powerful weapons to protect their fleet, or a rumbling but heavily defended transporter?

Spaceships are then put into play, carrying tokens representing transported souls and crew. The objective is to transport souls to one of the orbital space station cards that move at random around the board. At the same time, they may attack or be attacked by the opposing player.

These are some of images of the early early prototype. You can see the cards with space for dice (engines, weapons, shields) and tokens (crew, survivors). My idea is that the spaces that can be allocated dice on different ships will have different numerical values required. Players have to choose what type of dice to assign to these: power, weapons, shields or transport space. At the moment, the prototypes are blank - I need to draw up a matrix of different options to work out the balance! That's the next job.

My intention is that each turn will be very simple, with a choice of two (or possibly three actions):
- draw a card
- play a card
- place a die
- move a ship
- attack a ship
- move a survivor


Stimulus Continuous

So where am I drawing inspiration from? And, no, I'm certainly not comparing my game to any of these belters.

Certainly, one of the games that has most impressed me this year has been Eclipse, and I've certainly drawn on this with the idea of being able to customise your space ships. Mine's a lighter approach, but I'm hoping to emulate some of that fun and decision making.

The use of cards lining up in combat draws on Summoner Wars and the mechanic is useful in keeping the game to just a few elements. Should Soul Survivors prove to have a life after NaGaDeMon, there's mileage to be able to add complexity and variation by adding different types of cards.

Using dice for establishing resources comes in part from Kingsburg which I always enjoy. Another tacit influence I guess is Alien Frontiers, particularly within this thematic context. I've not played it, but I'd like to. I'm hoping that I'm doing something slightly different with assigning the dice in that they continue to influence how the cards they are placed on can operate.
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Thu Nov 1, 2012 5:56 pm
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Some handy tools, some great reading...

Chris W
United Kingdom
Oxfordshire
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As November rapidly approaches, like a demented game design-hungry weasel armed with a sharp yet rusty spoon, I thought it might be useful to share some of the tools that I have found useful for creating and designing, and a few of the sources that I've found useful for learning.

Tools

As a sketchpad, I can't recommend Evernote highly enough. It's a terrifc tool for capturing design ideas, sketching out cards, boards etc, taking photos of prototypes, drafting rules etc etc.

I've got Evernote on my PC, on my iPad and mobile, so wherever I am I can either capture or review ideas. They all sych up, so if I've scribbled down ideas on the fly, they're collected to use or not at a later date. You can even email them to your Evernote account when you're supposed to be concentrating on evidence synthesis, or however it is you might spend your nine-to-five. The information that you gather can be tagged or put into folders for searching at a later date, and it's also possible to share folders if you are working collaboratively. An invaluable piece of kit.

For design, I use paint.net. It's a free, and decidedly powerful graphic design package that easy enough to pick up for the non-graphic designer. Invest a bit of time on the forums on the website, and you'll soon be layering, fuzzing and scrottling your bristle with the best of them.

For those that might look to smarten up a prototype after NaGaDeMon , Arts Cow do custom multi-purpose cards that are surprisingly good quality. The design tool works well with files exported from paint.net. Look out for special offers, such as free-shipping, which really keeps costs down. Based in Hong Kong, so expect some time for mailing....perhaps not great for NaGaDeMon's pressure-pot timeline I guess.

Finally, for wooden bits and the like, Speil Material: http://www.spielematerial.de/en/ has a big range of wooden goodies for those of us in The Europe (although I think they also do international shipping). Again, perhaps something to pimp your final design after NaGaDeMon has finished, although if you get a lick on...


Learning

In the run up to NaGaDeMon I am re-reading Raph Koster's A Theory of Fun for Game Design. It's a fascinating read that explores the psychology into what makes the human brain enjoy itself, and how this can be used in the design of games. It's a great reminder to harness your design ideas to one crucial idea: it has to be fun! If it ain't fun, you're not doing it right. Raph's real triumph is that the book walks the walk: it's entertaining and engaging throughout. Brilliant.

Another good source of game design thinking, and freely available online, is Ian Schreiber's Game Design Concepts. This is the content from a course that ran in 2009, but still on its own is a cracking resource for a whole load of design thinking and inspiration.

And finally of course, I'd be remiss not to talk about what an ace resource the BGG Board Game Design forum is. There's a ton of great advice on there already if you browse aboout, but it's also a responsive and generous forum if you need inspiration, to help get unstuck or to tap other people as critical friends.
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Mon Oct 29, 2012 2:38 pm
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End of October: getting ready for NagaDeMon

Chris W
United Kingdom
Oxfordshire
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So here we are again, another year, another month spent staying up late, surrounded by scalpels and dice, scribbling on bits of card.

NaGaDeMon, purveyor of rare herbs and prescribed chemicals, is back.


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Thu Oct 25, 2012 11:32 pm
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