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Designer Diary: Marvel Strike Teams, or A Marvel Zombie's Love Story

Andrew Parks
United States
Somerset
New Jersey
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Prologue

Marvel Strike Teams is not a game about zombies, but it was designed by a zombie, specifically a Marvel Zombie, which I've been since the age of 5. For those who don't know, "Marvel Zombie" is a derogatory term for people who love Marvel Comics so much that they don't read other comic books.

That's not entirely true in my case as I've read plenty of DC and Dark Horse Comics over the years, but my comic book heart has always resided primarily within the Marvel Universe and its rich collection of characters. And so as a game developer who had been designing licensed games for over twelve years, I was determined to make a game that summed up everything I loved about Marvel.

Here's the story of my love affair with a board game.

Entering the Marvel Universe

The normal process for a game designer to work on a licensed property is to be contacted by a publisher who has worked with the designer in the past and who now has the opportunity to publish a game based upon a particular license. Often, the publisher already knows the kind of game they want and has already laid out the design parameters, leaving the designer to fill in the blanks and make a complete game. This was the case when WizKids and I worked on the Justice League Strategy Game, for example. Other times, the publisher has the rights to reimplement an existing game based upon a new license. This was how things got started for us with Star Trek: Frontiers, which reimplemented Vlaada Chvatil's Mage Knight Board Game.

But it's less common for a designer to propose a brand new game based on an existing license from scratch. Yet with the rising popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and my own continuing love for Marvel characters, I was determined to propose a new Marvel game to WizKids, with whom I have worked on many games. It's a long process to go from concept to published game, but I was ultimately given the task of creating a "one vs. all" miniatures game that pitted one Mastermind player against 1-4 Hero players, with variable map layouts, a wide variety of characters, and story-based missions. In other words, it was a zombie's dream come true!

Quixotic Development Meeting

For the past fifteen years, I have worked with a team of incredible developers who have made all of my designs possible. Fortunately for me, the Quixotic Games designers are also big Marvel fans, so before getting started on my own, I hosted a meeting with about a dozen game developers who were interested in working with me on the project. Since I teach game design at Rutgers University, I also invited one of my former students, Banan El Sherif, who is an avid Marvel geek; she may even border on zombie status. I've found that bringing in the next generation of game developers always improves our games, and Banan would end up being a priceless member of the team going forward.

Stories and Character Relationships

At this meeting, we settled on broad design parameters that we determined would be integral to the overall design. Foremost on everyone's mind was the game's story. The word "story" was probably mentioned a hundred times during this first meeting. After all, the unique stories of the Marvel Universe are what sets it apart from other comic universes. Unlike other "one vs. all" games, we wanted the players themselves to contribute important details to the story. So instead of setting up each mission from a booklet, we wanted to have each mission procedurally generated from a set of scenario cards, with individual plot details being supplied by the players themselves.

It was also important that the stories focus not only on thwarting (or promoting) villainous schemes, but also on personal relationships among the characters. To simulate the Marvel Universe, it wasn't enough to just be trying to destroy a superweapon; you had to be trying to destroy a superweapon while carrying on a strained romantic relationship and/or working out internal conflicts with another teammate, sometimes with your fists!


"Romantic Attachments" scenario card


It was Banan who made the boldest statement during the meeting: "It has to be possible, in the middle of the game, to discover that Captain America is secretly a traitor." Now Banan loves Cap more than any other Marvel character, so this was quite the suggestion on her part. These sorts of things happened all the time in the comics — Skrulls, alternate reality versions, sacrificing one mission for the greater good, etc. — but I initially balked at the idea that a character controlled by a player could suddenly be revealed as a traitor. Yet the game designer in me said, "Can we make that work?" (Hint: The final version of the game includes a "Stop the Traitor" scenario card.)

How to Handle Luck

One of the parameters that we discussed was limiting the amount of luck that occurred during the game and to make the experience less about dice chucking and more about the players' tactical decisions. There would be plenty of variable elements during mission set-up, but once the mission started, we wanted players to be able to attack and defend tactically, to outmaneuver one another like in the comics rather than by rolling better dice.

But we knew that there had to be an element of randomness to the combat to avoid chess-like paralysis, so we settled on a "press your luck" element whereby a player could roll a die to achieve bonus action points (the main economy of the game), but if the player rolled poorly, they would instead cede the extra points to the opposing team. This meant that a player could avoid rolling dice entirely if they wanted, or roll for extra points each and every turn if they were adventurous enough.

A World That Breaks

One element that became central to the design was the concept that everything in the world could be used for cover, smashed to pieces, or even picked up and thrown at an enemy. Therefore, we developed a material strength system in which every door, wall, and object in the game would receive a label that would determine how durable it was, as well as rubble tokens that would simulate things getting destroyed or tossed around. We never wanted a mission to end without the place getting completely trashed!


Radioactive Man hurls a crate at Agent May


Missions Aren't Just About Fighting

Combat is central to the gameplay of Marvel Strike Teams, but based on our desire for rich stories to develop during the game, it was important that the mission elements also involved non-combat elements. Otherwise, some characters would have little value since they don't possess the same degree of raw power as others.

In the comics, some characters had special skills that were absolutely necessary to complete a mission, even if they weren't as physically powerful as the other characters. It was important to us that each heroic character be given equal usefulness in the missions. Some were certainly better at fighting, while others could better inspire and coordinate the team, or use their skills to make the mission succeed in other ways. We never wanted anyone to feel that their character was an inferior member of the team, so individual character utility became an essential part of the design.

Heroes and Villains

Marvel Strike Teams is set in the mainstream Marvel Universe from the comics, but we knew that many players, especially younger ones, would know the game's characters primarily through the movies and television series of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). We therefore determined to choose characters who were in both the comics and the MCU. Based on our desire to see missions focus on all sorts of activities, we wanted a mix of characters with superpowers and those who had other skills, such as the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. who often work with the Marvel superheroes on delicate missions.

Now I will confess that I happen to be a huge fan of the Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television series, but I was concerned that many of the characters from the popular show, such as Agent Phil Coulson and Agent Melinda May, might not exist in the comic universe. Fortunately for us, Marvel had inserted many of these characters into the mainstream Marvel Universe after their big screen (and small screen) premieres, so that allowed us to draw upon a whole wealth of varied skills and talents.

We initially proposed that sixteen characters be in the base game, but WizKids suggested that we split the initial release into two games (the base game and the Marvel Strike Teams: Avengers Initiative expansion that's releasing at the same time) so that it would be less expensive for players to try out the base game. With this in mind, we settled on four starting heroes, as well as a starting array of villains. Captain America and Iron Man are two of the most popular Marvel characters, so they easily made the cut. We also added two of the most popular Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: the super-powered Quake (Daisy Johnson / Skye) and Agent Melinda May. Since these four characters have never gotten the chance to work together in the MCU, we thought it would be exciting for fans to see them co-operating for the first time.

For villains, we wanted to start with powerful masterminds who would each have the equivalent game value of two normal characters. Loki and Ultron were easy choices due to their popularity, and they ended up being included in the Avengers Initiative expansion. Since we were going to use Hydra Soldiers in the base game as henchmen on the map, we wanted to tie the villains together thematically using Baron Strucker as the mastermind and the Winter Soldier as a main villain. We had room for one more villain in the base game, so we chose Radioactive Man, whose powers were a great complement to those of the other villains during our playtesting sessions. (He's actually the only character we created so far who is not yet in the MCU.)


Base game characters


Many of the other heroes we developed would be included in the Avengers Initiative expansion mentioned above, including Vision, Black Widow, the Falcon, and Agent Phil Coulson. We were choosing groups of characters who had a variety of talents and fighting styles, so that a "strike team" of heroes would be those who had abilities that worked well synergistically to complete each mission.

For expansion villains, in addition to Loki and Ultron as masterminds, we added the Absorbing Man as a villain to take full advantage of our material strength system, as well as the traitorous Agent Ward.


Expansion characters


The First Playtest: A Disaster Worthy of Doctor Doom

Sometimes your first playtest allows you to see a glimpse of your design vision in action — and other times, well, it doesn't. After several weeks of prototyping, I sat down with testers for our first dry run of the game, and we were all excited to try out the new system. Too bad the game didn't work at all. In fact, it couldn't even start!

The engine we had created centered on an action point economy that would be used for everything: moving, attacking, activating special powers, and interacting with the map. Each character would generate a certain number of action points each round, and any points they did not spend could be used for defense during the opponent's turn, or saved up for the next round. We didn't have a mission for the first playtest as we were just going to test the combat system, and guess what? Everyone decided almost immediately that the best strategy would be to just sit at the opposing entrances doing nothing but accumulating action points. Whoops!

Part of this would be solved when we added missions since they would have limited durations, but the limitless accumulation of action points was a flaw that would always be waiting to be exploited beneath the design surface if we didn't correct it right away, so rather than play the first game, we sat and talked...for three hours. Some suggested that we simply cap the points for each character at the amount they generated each turn, with no possibility for accumulation. This would have certainly fixed the immediate problem, but removed a lot of strategy once the heroes and villains met face-to-face to battle and accomplish tasks. After all, if I saved points for Captain America's defense, my opponents would simply attack someone else, and those saved up points would be lost. It was essential to the system that Cap be able to bank those points until the next turn if no one attacked him.

We finally settled on the concept of two different sets of map zones that would exist in the game: Starter Zones and Battle Zones. Characters would be capped at their starting amount of action points while in the Starter Zones, and capped at a much higher number (12) while in Battle Zones. After many tests, we realized that the Starter Zones could be relatively small, as long as they weren't far from each other. This allowed us to keep our tactical system in place without players hanging back for a few turns at the start of each mission, which would have been a design disaster worthy of the King of Latveria.

To Roll or Not to Roll: The Action Die

Once the game actually started working, our early playtests focused on the game's core action system. Storylines and other fun stuff would have to wait until the core mechanisms were firmly in place. I spent a lot of time during these early months watching (and re-watching) all of the MCU movies and shows to get a feel for how superhero combat should work.

One of the things that impressed me was how some characters could defend themselves so adeptly, even when facing a more powerful foe. Or how some characters would slowly build up to a moment when they would launch a sudden barrage of attacks, hoping to land at least one solid blow. To simulate this, we allowed players to move and attack as many times as they could afford each turn, with no maximum (except for henchmen, whose actions were more limited). This would allow characters to focus on defense for a turn and save up points to launch a big attack later.

Occasionally, the characters' best-laid plans plans would fail because they were short by one or two action points, so we dealt with this in two ways.

First, we added command dials that allowed each team to accumulate command points at the start of each round. These command points created a slowly growing pool that could be transformed into action points for one character on the team. This allowed the team to work together to build up to an epic moment in which a single character would be able to move just a bit further, or launch one more attack, or defend themselves when all seemed lost.


Command dials


Second, we had the action die provide an option for more points. In our early tests, we kept forgetting to use this, even if someone yelled, "Oh, what I wouldn't give for one more point!" It was Banan who would always remember first, and without saying a word, she would pick up the die and slap it meaningfully on the table in front of the complaining player — and there it would sit silently for a moment, a source of terrible temptation but also of heroic possibilities.

Getting the odds correct for the action die was not easy and took a great deal of testing. During early tests, there was a 50% chance of either something good or something bad happening if you chose to roll the die, and we soon realized that no one wanted to take that chance because the consequences for failure seemed too grave. We upped the odds to 2 in 3 of something good happening and 1 in 3 of something bad happening. At first, players thought the system would be broken and announced that they would simply roll the die every turn since, over time, the odds would be in their favor, but fortunately that strategy never seemed to succeed as hoped, and we weren't sure why.

We finally realized that the bad result — giving points to the opponent — had an extra sting since, unlike the rolling player, the opponent wasn't taking any risks to receive their free point. Also, to keep things easy to track, we had ruled that if you rolled a negative result on the die, the extra point would go directly to the opponent's command dial, which provided the opponent with versatility since they could use the point for any of their characters. In this way, there was a hidden opportunity cost to rolling the die since you were taking a risk and your opponent was not. Also, if you failed, you would give your opponent something greater than what you were attempting, even though the odds of achieving your goal were higher.

Another function of the action die was that you could achieve up to three bonus action points, but you had to declare how many points you were attempting to achieve before you rolled the die. You would declare a number from 1-3, then roll the die. If you declared "1" and rolled a black 1-3 (a positive result), you would receive only a single action point, no matter how high you rolled. If you declared "3" and rolled a black 3, then you would gain three action points; if you rolled a black 1 or 2 after such a declaration, neither you nor your opponent would gain anything. And of course, a red 1 (a negative result) denied you the extra points and awarded your opponent one command point instead.

The die's final odds are shown below:


Action die results


There was a time when one of the red numbers was a "2" and awarded two command points to the opponent. This ended up being so devastating that we realized it was simply too much of a penalty, so we returned both red numbers to "1".

After scores of playtests, the decision to roll or not to roll the action die remained a tough choice based upon the circumstances of the game state, so we were confident that we had struck the proper balance.

Mission Control

Once the core mechanisms were working smoothly, we started playing with the scenario card system. There are three stages to every mission, and each stage is represented by a different, randomly drawn scenario card. In addition, there are parameters on the scenario cards, such as placing objectives and designating the characters who share special relationships, that are chosen by the players themselves. This allows unique stories to develop during each mission.

One of my favorite scenario cards is the Stage 3 "Master Plan", which requires the mastermind to save up and spend twelve action points to explain his scheme to heroes who are nearby. The heroes must do everything in their power to avoid being subjected to his wearisome monologue!

One issue we encountered with the scenario card system over time is that certain combinations of missions created bizarre stories that didn't make much sense. For example, if too many relationship-based stories came out at once, there wasn't room for mission-based objectives. We experimented and came to the conclusion that certain types of missions had to be divided into categories that belonged to each individual stage. In this way, two scenario cards with similar goals wouldn't be drawn for the same mission.

Stage 1 scenarios ended up being long-term scenarios that had consequences for all three stages; Stage 2 scenarios were plot twists that added new intricacies to the story; and Stage 3 scenarios were climactic moments that provided opportunities for an exciting finish. The players themselves would suggest thematic reasons why the three scenarios belonged together. The players' involvement in crafting the story together was exactly the outcome that we had hoped for right from the first meeting.


Scenario cards


Map Generation

We experimented with allowing the players to take turns placing map tiles during set-up to determine exactly how the battleground for each mission would take shape. In theory, this sounded like a good idea, but in practice, it was very time-consuming and invariably created maps that were slanted too much to the advantage of one side or the other.

We simplified this system by printing six different maps on map cards that would serve as blueprints for creating the various maps out of the map tiles. One map card would be drawn at the start of each mission. The placement of individual elements on the maps, such as spawn points and objective tokens, would be chosen by the players according to particular criteria determined by the scenario cards.

Our initial playtests took place in a warehouse filled with crates, barrels, forklifts, and furniture that could be used for cover or destroyed by weapons, but after several playtests, we were hungry for more varied elements. We therefore decided to create a second map type (the enemy base) which would be printed on the reverse sides of the map tiles. Each map card would therefore feature either a warehouse map or an enemy base map, the latter of which allowed us to add ammunition dumps that exploded when attacked or thrown at enemies, as well as gun turrets that could be controlled by carefully positioned characters, and this added a whole new layer of tactical decision-making to the game.


Inside the Hydra Base


The Campaign: Leveling Up and Gaining Power

Part of our hope from the beginning of the design process was to make Marvel Strike Teams a campaign game, which would allow players to level up their characters between missions and watch them grow in power. To make this work, we needed to create eight unique action cards that were devoted to each individual character, then allow players to "build" their characters with these action cards by spending build points that were based upon their character level.

Since we had access to WizKids' HeroClix technology, we used the character bases to keep track of each character's level and build points. As characters would level up between missions, their bases would click forward to the next level so that players could keep track of how many build points they would have to build their character for the next mission.

During early testing of the campaign system, we required the characters to earn new action cards rather than allowing them to have access to the full suite of powers available to their character. As we playtested entire campaigns, we learned that it was much more fun to give players full access to each character's unique action cards right from the start of the campaign and to allow them to build their characters however they wanted based on the number of build points they had to spend and the parameters defined by the current mission. The same character could enter a new mission with a completely new combination of their own action cards, for example. This provided much more variety at the start of every mission and allowed each character to shine for the particular mission on which they were about to embark.

Two-Player Campaigns

It was an imperative part of the design that Marvel Strike Teams be a fun experience with the full range of players (2-5), and therefore two players needed to be able to play a full campaign and have the same amount of fun as five players. In order for this to work, we needed the game to flow naturally even if both players played multiple characters. Although new players can choose to play one hero per player, the system needed to work just as well with players controlling up to four characters each.

To make sure this would work through an entire campaign, I sat down for a long playtest weekend with Kyle Volker, a Quixotic developer who I've been friends with since the age of 10. In fact, he was the first person to ever call me a "Marvel Zombie". (As kids, he read from a much greater variety of publishers than I did!) In the 1980s, Kyle and I had also played tons of missions together from TSR's Marvel Super Heroes RPG, so we both had a sense of what we wanted to experience from a full Marvel campaign.

For six consecutive missions, leveling up existing characters and intermittently introducing new characters throughout the campaign, we played through every scenario card and map in the game. While we did so, we were particularly excited not only about the stories that developed during each mission, but the longer storylines and character relationships that evolved over the course of the entire campaign. This weekend represented some of the final playtest sessions of the development process, and we were very excited to share our stories with the other players after the full saga had been completed.




The Future: Solo Rules, Mutants and More!

We developed and fully playtested many characters who didn't make it into the base game or the expansion, including Nick Fury Jr., Mockingbird, and the Chitauri henchmen, and they are ready to go if we are asked to create future expansions.

We also have countless expansion ideas, including bringing the X-Men, Deadpool, and countless other characters into the mix, as well as standalone expansions with new scenario cards and settings with new sets of map tiles.

We're also developing solo rules that allow one player to face an AI-driven collection of enemies during a solo mission. This involves the use of a dynamic deck of cards that changes based upon which villains are in the game, as well as which scenario cards are in play.

We hope you get a chance to try Marvel Strike Teams when it releases in November 2018! If the game is well received, there is no limit to what we can create. We hope you join us for the cosmic journey ahead.

'Nuff Said!


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Designer Diary: Star Trek: Attack Wing, or How to Overcome Tribbles in Game Design

Andrew Parks
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New Jersey
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Getting Started

When I was first asked by WizKids Games to design Star Trek: Attack Wing, my mind began to race at Warp Factor 10. This was going to be a gigantic project that involved taking the rules of an existing game and recreating them for the Star Trek universe. A tall order, to be sure!

I had always been a fan of the Original Series as a kid, and I enjoyed the movies and newer series as well. I immediately recruited fellow designer Christopher Guild to help create the game. He and I have been developing games together for fun (and later for publication) since we first became friends 28 years ago. Our first step was to start re-watching the classic episodes and movies at a rapid pace as the game was to be based on all the different television series as well as the first ten movies. The folks at WizKids were just as excited about this game as we were, and they asked us to incorporate elements from every corner of the Trek Universe.

Chris had been a devotee of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, so he would focus on those shows. I began digging into the Original Series as well as Voyager, a show with which I wasn't very familiar, but which I quickly came to admire over the succeeding weeks.

So while our eyes grew bloodshot from watching Netflix 24 hours a day, we began discussing what we needed to do to make the FlightPath system work for Trek. One of our first observations was that the ships would have to feel different than starfighters. We decided that the capital ships in Attack Wing would need to have higher Primary Weapon Values (3-5) and lower Agility Values (1-2) than smaller ships. Also, we knew that simulating different levels of maneuverability was equally important. Therefore, a Klingon Bird-of-Prey would need to be more maneuverable than a Galaxy Class ship, although the Galaxy Class was capable of greater speeds.

Design Concepts from WizKids

WizKids helped us shape the design of the game from the very beginning. For example, the WizKids team developed the idea of making the Captains (i.e., "Pilots") of each ship interchangeable. Each unique Captain would therefore feature his or her Skill Number (as well as a unique special power) on his or her Captain Card. They then advanced the concept further by inserting Captain ID Tokens into each ship base in order to showcase an image of the captain and display his or her Captain Skill in the play area. This added a lot of cool flavor to the game.

The WizKids design concepts included an emphasis on ship customization. Each ship would therefore need a good share of Upgrade Icons; typically four or five Crew, Weapon, and/or Tech Upgrades would be included on each capital ship. The WizKids team also suggested that players be given the freedom to mix and match cards from different factions and even different eras as much as they liked. They envisioned a game in which crew members could be utilized freely on any ship to maximize the level of customization. We later decided to institute faction penalties so that players would have to pay a little extra for an eclectic crew, and this allowed us to reward those who decided to use the "correct" faction on their ships for storyline purposes.


Additional Concept Work

Chris and I began to concentrate on the Shield system, and we toyed with the idea of having shields allocated to particular sides of the ship and keeping track of which side of the ships would become damaged. This was soon dismissed, however, as we realized that for massive engagements, the system would grow tedious and ultimately be impractical.

That said, we did introduce the concept of lowering a ship's shields voluntarily in order to accomplish certain tasks. For example, when using a Cloak Action a player would have to lower all of his ship's shields by flipping all of his Shield Tokens over to their "disabled" sides. While disabled, the Shield Tokens could not be damaged but would be unable to protect the Hull. A ship would also have to lower its shields in order to accomplish certain Crew Actions such as those that simulated boarding actions. For example, if you could damage an opponent's shields sufficiently, you could then lower your own shields and board the enemy ship in order to take out some of its crew members. Engineers like Mr. Scott could disable a set number of his ship's Shields in order to increase the ship's firepower ("All power to weapons!") or reduce the ship's firepower in order to repair Shields. This gave the players a sense of being in control of their ships' vital systems in order to gain tactical advantages during battle.

Another early discussion involved firing arcs. Since the Starter Set included the Enterprise-D, we knew that we could not simply have 90˚ forward firing arcs on every ship. While many ships would have traditional 90˚ forward firing arcs, the Enterprise-D would need to have the ability to fire 360˚ while still remaining a balanced ship, so we gave the ship the option to fire in any direction at a more limited range and with one less attack die. There was also evidence of ships (like the Enterprise-D) firing torpedoes and other weapons out of rear firing arcs, and so we had to be mindful of this when balancing the capabilities of each ship as well. Finally, some ships (like the original Enterprise and some of the Cardassian ships) would feature 180˚ forward firing arcs, and this became an important aspect of these ships.

During our preliminary discussions, we also realized that since WizKids planned to include three different Factions in the Starter Set (Federation, Klingon, and Romulan), the game needed to work well with three players. We therefore planned to start playtesting two- and three-player games right from the very beginning.

First Playtests

And so with all of these initial parameters in mind, Chris and I rapidly prototyped the three ships in the starter set and started playing one-on-one battles right away. One of the first things we noticed was that the room for customization on each ship was very high due to all the Upgrade slots, and this meant that one player's version of a particular ship might be completely different than another's. This was exciting and made us realize that you could actually play the game a lot of different ways right out of the starter box.

As planned, we started playing three-player versions of the game and were surprised by how easily the game adapted to this environment. Essentially, all we really needed to do was balance the three starting areas, and soon after we were blasting away with no problem whatsoever. While the complexity level does start to ramp up with four or more (non-team) players, the three-player environment flowed quite naturally and presented us with surprisingly few difficulties during our playtests.

A Big Problem

Even though we were off to a smooth start, we did encounter some major troubles early on. Because of this, we decided to stick to the starter set for our first couple of weeks of playtesting. This allowed us to tinker with the system and immediately discover the effects of each change since we had become so familiar with these three ships. This also provided further evidence that you could play a lot with the starter set and still have a great time.

One of our first problems came with the use of our new Cloaking Rules, which allowed players to avoid Target Locks, roll lots of extra defense dice, and shift positions suddenly using the Sensor Echo Action. While these rules seemed to work fine at first, we soon began to feel that something wasn't quite right with the system. In fact, this problem seemed to be much deeper, something inherently wrong with the way we were using the system to create all of these nifty special abilities.

After trying to get a grasp on what was wrong with the game for a few sessions, we finally had a key playtest which revealed the nature of the problem. We played a game with some really skilled Captains and some really unskilled Captains, and started to notice that time and again the weaker Captains were using their abilities more effectively than the stronger Captains. And that's when it hit us! Some of our new special powers, including Cloaking, actually worked better with weaker Captains than with stronger Captains!

The reason for this is that in the FlightPath system, a weak Captain moves and takes his action first during the Activation Phase, and fires last during the Combat Phase. Therefore, a weak Captain could perform the Cloak Action and make himself immune to Target Locks early in the Activation Phase (before the other players had taken their turns), then stay Cloaked until he fires, which is after everyone else has already fired so he didn't care. Conversely, a stronger Captain was Cloaking last (after already getting hit with Target Locks and other special powers), then firing first, thereby losing his Cloak before everyone else fired at him!

We realized then that all of our neat new special powers had not taken these unique timing rules into sufficient account. We puzzled over this problem for a couple of days trying to find a solution. We had been pleased that we had come up with so many cool new Actions for all of our Upgrades, but now we were on the verge of scrapping them all due to this problem. This is one of those moments in game design where you really start to panic. You know you have a giant problem and the solution seems forever out of reach. Your biggest dread is that you will have to undo hours of design work (sort of like ripping out the threads of a tapestry that didn't turn out as intended) and start all over again.

Fortunately, after heavy discussion with all of our developers, the solution started to present itself slowly. We realized that in most cases, the reason this problem happened had to do with the timing of Cloaking and raising Shields. In Attack Wing, if you voluntarily disable your own Shields, you can raise them automatically during the End Phase. However, Cloaking for the first time requires you to take an Action. Since many special powers did not work on a ship that was either Cloaked or had Active Shields, this meant that a Cloaking ship that had lost all of its shields needed to Cloak early in the round to protect itself from all of those powers. Therefore a weaker Captain (who acted first in the Activation Phase) had a big edge.

To solve all these many problems, we came up with the following three solutions:

1) If all of your shields have been lost due to damage, you can no longer use the Cloak Action. This simulated the fact that your ship had taken enough damage to render the Cloaking system inoperable. Now if you still had working shields, it did not matter when you Cloaked. Either you still had your shields raised, or you dropped them to Cloak; in either case, you were immune to powers that simulated boarding and so on. But if you didn't have any shields left, you couldn't protect yourself by Cloaking, so your position in the turn order no longer mattered for these purposes.

2) When you first use the Cloak Action, you now place your Cloak Token on top of your ship base. This indicates that you just Cloaked and that you can still be Target Locked for the rest of that round. Now, the order in which you Cloak no longer matters because you can still be Target Locked. If you remain Cloaked until the next round, you move the Cloak Token off of your ship base and onto the table beside your ship, which indicates that you have been Cloaked for a full round and can no longer be Target Locked.

3) When you fire, you do not immediately lose your Cloak Token. Instead, you flip your Cloak Token over from the green side to the red side, which means you just appeared out of nowhere and still retain the bonus defense dice for the rest of the round. Now, it no longer matters when you fire during the Combat Phase. Firing now means that you will definitely lose your Cloak Token during the End Phase. If you didn't fire and still have your Cloak Token flipped over to the green side, you can choose to remain Cloaked if you like.

These changes resolved 90% of the issues. However, even as we continued developing, we would still occasionally encounter a new special ability that would give an edge to a weaker Captain due to timing issues. But we had become quite sensitive to the issue at this point and learned to recognize and address these problems quickly.


Feedback from Remote Testers

After we had ironed out these initial problems, we started to create some of the early expansion ships and also started to work with remote testers. This is the first game I have ever worked on where remote testers got involved so early in the process, but it ended up being a major boon for the project. Our remote testers were extreme Trek fans and were able to give us significant feedback from a very early stage.

As an example, the testers suggested quickly that discarding upgrades like Photon Torpedoes after using them one time didn't seem to make sense for a giant capital ship. After all, was a warship like the Klingon Negh'Var heading off to war with only a single torpedo? So we started to develop rules for "disabling Upgrades", which works differently than disabling Shields. Essentially, when an Upgrade instructs you to "disable" it, it means you put a Disabled Upgrade Token on the card. This means that the card's text is unusable until you spend an Action to remove that Disabled Upgrade Token. Conceptually, it represents something like "reloading the torpedoes" or allowing a crew member to recover after performing a particularly difficult task.

This also allowed us to balance really powerful abilities by forcing players to discard (rather then disable) those abilities. For example, after using Kirk's famous "Corbomite Maneuver" (an Elite Talent Upgrade which stops all ships from attacking you for one round), you have to discard that Upgrade. Most enemies are not going to fall for that trick twice!

Fun with Tribbles

Throughout the design process, we encountered some really interesting situations that called for more than just a simple Upgrade Card. For example, the Breen Energy Dissipator's full effect required some explanation, so we included a Reference Card in the Gor Portas expansion that explained how it worked.

We really had fun with the Gr'oth expansion, which includes the infamous Cyrano Jones and his Tribbles. As explained on the Tribble Token Reference Card, Cyrano Jones starts you off with a single Tribble, and you add another one each turn. Towards the beginning of the game, these furry critters actually help you out (as long as you're not Klingon!) as they increase the morale of your crew. However, they eventually get out of hand and start hurting the performance of your ship. Fortunately, if you've had some success in knocking out your opponent's shields, you might have the opportunity to beam some of the little guys aboard your opponent's engine room to wreak their own brand of havoc.

One of my favorite playtests featured Khan on the Reliant starting the game off with a Tribble strategy. I imagined him simmering with wrath and quoting lines from Moby Dick as he artfully petted a cooing Tribble. Later in the playtest, Khan acquired too many Tribbles and started beaming them aboard the damaged Enterprise. We could almost hear Kirk scream "KHAN!" in angst-filled rage as he stood buried up to his neck in fuzzy invaders.


A Focus on Missions

Star Trek as a franchise focuses on a lot more than space combat, and WizKids was eager for us to include missions as an integral part of the design. They knew that fans of the game would want the opportunity to play lots of interesting missions that had a real feel for the Trek universe. They therefore decided that every expansion would come with a custom mission. These missions still had to involve battles, of course, but they also had to ask players to accomplish other tasks as well, like beaming down to planets to acquire resources or reaching specific points in space to scan for information.

Because of the importance of missions, WizKids included many Mission and Objective Tokens in the starter set, as well as a giant Planet Token with its own special set of rules (and double-sided with a Class M planet on one side and a barren world on the other). Moreover, many of the expansion missions introduce new types of Mission Tokens which allows players to use them to create missions of their own.

We made sure that there was a variety of two- and three-player missions for players to explore. And for something completely different, we created a three-player co-op mission in the Valdore expansion called "Destroy the Scimitar". We also created a solo mission in the Voyager expansion called "Endgame", which pits the Voyager loaded with future technology against the might of the Borg.

One of our favorite missions comes in the Enterprise expansion and allows players to experience the Kobayashi Maru scenario from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. This mission is purposefully harder for the Federation side than the Klingons, but that is part of its charm. During the mission, the Federation must approach the wounded vessel and beam aboard survivors three times (lowering its shields each time), and then try to escape back into Federation space. It's an incredible challenge each and every time you play!

Another favorite mission of ours is "The Defector" from the Vo Expansion. In this mission, one player represents the Romulan Empire and the other represents Alidar Jarok, a Romulan admiral seeking to defect to the Federation. The interesting part of this mission is that, like the Next Generation episode it's modeled after, the Romulan Empire has given Jarok false information and actually wants Jarok to escape, but if the escape is too easy, Jarok will grow suspicious and realize he's been duped. Therefore, the Romulan Empire must pursue the Romulan Defector and try to make the pursuit look convincing without actually destroying the ship. We had to playtest this mission many times to make sure that both players had an equal chance to win, even if they both knew the mission really well!


Conclusion

As the months progressed, we created many expansions for Attack Wing, carrying us all the way through to March 2014 in the release schedule. This has allowed us to mix and match expansions ranging from the first Gen Con release all the way out to Wave 4, which allowed us to look for broken combinations throughout the release arc. This has also allowed us to test all 27 ships against one another in the Organized Play Program which pits players against each other in Mission-based scenarios. The OP program has already been created and tested through its first six months.

After seven straight months of development, we are very excited about the game's upcoming release at Gen Con. We're especially eager to see the types of fleets that creative players will assemble as they attempt to master the challenges of the final frontier!

Andrew Parks

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Mon Jul 29, 2013 5:49 am
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Designer Diary: Canterbury, or A Game of City-Building in Dark Age Britain

Andrew Parks
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Initial Concept

One of the first things that popped into my head after playing Caylus in 2005 was how much I loved the idea that everyone was building the same city. Of course, I also enjoyed the worker placement mechanism, the competition to build the castle, and the resource management aspects of the game, but it was the idea of watching the city's structural dynamic grow based upon player decisions that really got me thinking. Wouldn't it be fun to create a city-building game that focused specifically on this one aspect but felt different from other games of the genre?

Of course, a lot of city-building games were out there, so I immediately set about coming up with concepts that would make this game have a different feel than the others. One of the opening parameters of the design was to remove the concept of personal wealth from the game. Players would have to manage expenses, of course, but I didn't want a player to build up a hoard of gold from using his buildings. I wanted the game to be a competitive city-builder in which players would draw from a common treasury, and that treasury would grow as the city expanded. This would allow us to avoid a "rich get richer" scenario for an individual player, and all of the players' available resources would grow based upon their combined decisions as they developed the city.

But how could I do this and keep the game fair? After all, we couldn't allow one player to show up and drain the city treasury all by himself! And so I decided that on a turn, a player would either collect revenue from the treasury or spend his collected revenue on new buildings. The amount of revenue collected would be based on the city's overall progress so far. To accomplish this, we would need an independent City Marker on the victory track in addition to the Player Markers. Each time a player scored points, the city would also score points, so when a player collected revenue, he would check the position of the City Marker to determine how much gold to collect.

Okay, so I had the game's basic economics down, but I needed more than this to make the design feel different than other city-building games. In particular, I didn't want the game to be about commodities or trading. In other words, I didn't want buildings to produce goods that could then be traded, converted, or sold. Thinking about how else to distinguish each building led me to think about popular city-building video games that I enjoyed, including SimCity (1989) and Caesar III. In particular, Caesar III started players off with a little tent village in which residents had nothing but an old well and some vague dreams of a teeming metropolis. Over time, as the city would grow, players would need to provide food, soldiers, and other services in order to attract new citizens.

Inspired by this, I decided that these services would become the center of my city-building board game. Players would compete with one another to provide services to different parts of the city. Small buildings would provide their services to their immediate area, while medium and large buildings would provide services to larger sections of the city. For example, a well would provide water to its immediate area, but a fountain would provide water to several areas, and this in turn would allow those areas to focus on higher level services like food, religion, and so on. In fact, I realized that this hierarchy of services would become a fundamental part of the design. You would need water before you could worry about providing food, for example, and the high end stuff, like commerce and culture, could come only once you had all the basics.

Finding Canterbury

Canterbury was the first game I had ever worked on without having the precise theme selected before developing the mechanisms. I normally like to build the mechanisms around an established setting, so finding the right city for a game that already had an initial set of mechanisms was something new to me. I first thought of appropriate time periods. I didn't want a modern setting like SimCity because I liked the idea of the city starting off with almost nothing, like an ancient community slowly growing into a village and eventually into a city. I had already worked on a game set in classical antiquity (Parthenon: Rise of the Aegean) and wanted to try something new. I also didn't want to create a game set in the Late Middle Ages or Renaissance because those time periods were sufficiently represented by other games.

So I started thinking about the early Dark Ages, a setting which hasn't seen an abundance of games so far. As an English professor, I thought about Dark Age Britain and considered which major cities were developed during that time. As I started my research, I was astonished to discover how little I knew about Britain during the onset of the Dark Ages. I hadn't realized that for a hundred years after the fall of the Roman Empire, nearly every major city in Britain had been devastated by a continuous series of raids. Nothing could be rebuilt during this time due to all of the turmoil. It would actually be the Saxon kings who would later restore order by conquering Britain. But wait a minute, I asked myself, are these the same Saxon warlords who are depicted so villainously in the Arthurian tales I love so much? Yep, it's those same guys. As far as I could tell, these guys had actually saved Britain from eternal chaos.

As I started to pore over the topic more deeply, a city leaped out at me as being a possible candidate for the game: Canterbury. Here was an extremely famous city known for its religious significance in Britain, and also for Chaucer's famous poem – but what I hadn't realized was how significant the city had been in the late sixth century. King Ethelbert of Kent had actually converted to Christianity and had established Canterbury (formerly the Roman city of Durovernum Cantiacorum, which was itself built over a conquered Celtic settlement) as his new Saxon capital. In fact, Ethelbert ordered the creation of the famous cathedral during the city's reconstruction in 597, and this moment represented the birth of Christianity in Britain. As I researched further, I discovered that although the Roman buildings had been long gone, the orderly district layout was still set into the groundwork. The Saxon builders actually used the original district layout when rebuilding the city. Now I had a famous British city with a significant but not extremely well-known origin. I knew at once that this would be the perfect setting for the game.

The organized Roman districts would form our board. To keep things simple, I created a 5 x 5 district city with a total of 25 districts. Each district would hold up to six "building slots" (small structures would take up one building slot, medium structures two slots, and large structures four slots). Each district would also keep track of its provided services (water, food, religion, defense, commerce, and culture) with wooden cubes provided by the players.

First prototype game board

Game Structure

It was important to me that the players did not actually own the buildings. The players represented Saxon Lords working for the king as they ordered the construction of the city. Each player would seek to further his individual prosperity by providing the most services to each district, and by providing the most of each particular service to the city in general.

Therefore, after constructing a building in a district, a player would place one of his colored cubes to indicate that the service was now available in that district, and that in turn would allow new buildings to be constructed there. Medium buildings would provide their cubes to adjacent districts as well. At this point, I established a parameter that would remain unchanged from that moment onward: Once a cube was on the table, it could never be removed. Thus, even though the well I built might get demolished and replaced with a fancy fountain or even the town's water works, the people of that district would always remember that I was the one who first brought them water. This meant that the placement of medium buildings became much more strategic, as placing them early in the game would garner you more cubes since there would be more available spaces on the board.

And so, using the prosperity level of the buildings as the primary vehicle for scoring, and adding in district favor bonuses for area control, I had the basic design and was ready for the first playtest.

Playtesting

Figuring out the costs and rewards for everything has been one of the biggest design challenges for Canterbury, but during our first playtest, things basically worked as intended. We moved along from turn to turn with little downtime and actually played the game to completion.

As we looked up from the first test, happy that the thing had actually worked, we also realized that there wasn't enough meat to the game. For one thing, we needed to add more ways to score points. In particular, we realized that it took far more planning to put in a building that provided a higher end service like culture than a building that just offered food or water. Because of this, we added bonus points (more bang for your buck) if you were able to build these "high end" structures. But we added other types of bonuses, too, things like an Enrichment Bonus for demolishing an old building and replacing it with a better version (for example, upgrading a Watchtower to a Garrison). We also added a Breaking Ground Bonus that rewarded you for building in an empty district, and this bonus was dynamic based on the number of services there at the end of the turn. For example, if an empty district had lots of services being pumped into it from adjacent districts, then building the first structure there would garner a really nice bonus. This also increased the level of interaction as players vied with one another to receive those bonuses.

But the level of interaction was still an issue. Once a player seemed to lay claim to a district, most other players just left him alone and moved on. This was a big problem. We wanted people viciously contending with one another for these districts, not politely ceding control and going elsewhere.

As we played the game more and more, we realized that two types of games seemed to emerge. Either we had cutthroat players who risked everything on screwing over their neighbor, or we had risk-averse players who spread out to the edges and left each other alone. We realized that the risk involved with taking over another player's district was too high and a failed attempt to do so could hurt your chances of winning the game. And even if a player succeeded at taking over an opponent's distict, it had too strong an impact on the other player. We simply could not figure out a solution for some time, and focused on other aspects of the design.

The Citadel (art & graphic design by Chechu Nieto)

Breakthrough

We continued to develop Canterbury for many months and came up with all sorts of nifty new mechanisms, including a King's Bonus Chart to reward players who focused on a particular service throughout the entire city. During this time, we also submitted the game as part of a Game Design Competition held by the Games Club of Maryland, and we were strongly encouraged by the feedback we received there. We demoed Canterbury non-stop that weekend, and we were extremely grateful to discover that we had been voted the winner of the competition by those who had participated.

But we still had this interaction problem. For most new players, it wasn't much of an issue as the game had enough going on by this point to open all sorts of interesting strategic possibilities. But to those of us who played it regularly, we knew that the game's replayability was in jeopardy.

I like to give credit where it's due. One day we were playing the game with my good friend and fellow game designer, Geoff Engelstein, who had played the game once before and was coming back to help test all of the new mechanisms. The game played well, but afterwards I mentioned to him the interaction issue and he just looked up, without skipping a beat, and said, "Well, why don't you just add secondary scoring for district favor?"

The solution was so obvious that I still can't believe that it had never occurred to me. Of course, secondary scoring would allow players to interact with one another and have a good chance of getting something out of competing in more districts, even if it was just second place. Furthermore, if you're able to steal a district from someone, chances are they'll still have second place and it won't be as devastating to them. Never mind all the potential for jumping into established, high-scoring districts for just a quick piece of the action.

The addition of secondary scoring solved more than this problem as it added at least a half dozen new strategies that needed to be tested, but now the game had the level of interaction we had hoped for. Even extremely polite players were willing to jump into other districts they would have easily passed on before, and some of them even found themselves gaining control after accomplishing an unexpected move. The interaction level was finally where we wanted it!

The Central District (final version)

Endgame Woes

As time passed and other figures from the game industry took Canterbury out for a spin, we kept receiving the same feedback: The endgame came too suddenly and was too unpredictable. This was another of those problems that persisted for some time, and this time the solution was much more difficult to find. There was something inherently wrong with the game and the endgame issue was just a symptom of that problem.

The issue had to do with the fact that on their turn players could choose to either levy funds or build. If a player chose to levy funds twice in a row, then he collected only half the amount the second time. We noticed that experienced players stopped doing the second levy in a row, and when asked why, they said it seemed like they were getting only half a turn – which of course was correct!

This was compounded by the fact that when the endgame triggered, each player had only one more turn. Some players were caught unawares and had no money, so that player's last turn had to be spent levying funds that wouldn't get spent on anything! We could solve this by giving each player two more turns during the endgame, but this was just a "design band-aid" and involved forcing some players to take a turn collecting 1/2 income just so they could do something on the last turn. It was a big mess.

So we basically had two problems that were interrelated: 1) Some players had an inconsequential final turn, and this would even lead to them having a dramatic defeat simply because their rhythm (between collecting and building) was off by a single turn; and 2) The decision to collect or build was becoming obvious to experienced players, and what had been an interesting decision was now common and predictable.

Collaboration at Gen Con

We actually identified the extent of this problem when we were at Gen Con a few years ago. Many of the team members from Quixotic Games (our game design studio) were there, and we had an impromptu collaborative session to try to solve the problem. We sat in a circle and each team member presented ideas one after the other and each was summarily evaluated by the entire team. Now let me stop to emphasize how much the Quixotic development team loves Canterbury. Some regard it as the best game we have ever created, and they cared deeply about solving this issue, so all egos were erased during this discussion. We all just presented ideas, evaluated them, and (more often than not) dismissed them for one reason or another. The entire jam session took one solid hour, and it is easily one of the most incredible collaborative experiences in which I have ever participated.

Finally, one of the developers, Catherine Weresow, suggested that on the last turn of the game, you could take a "split turn". In other words, you could levy for half the funds, then build only one building (instead of the normal two). For some reason, this idea was shot down, too, but it came back around again during the discussion – and as we discussed it, we realized that this solved the problem of someone having a terrible last turn. If you had no money during the final round, you could simply do a "split turn", raise a good bit of money since the city was so prosperous at that point, then build one building of your choice.

As we were all breathing a sigh of relief that someone had come up with this solution, I had a sudden design epiphany. This "split turn" would solve much more than the endgame problem. What if you could do a "split turn" on any turn? In other words, you would now have three options on each of your turns:

-----Levy Funds (Collect the full amount based on how well the City was doing)

-----Full Build (Build one or two Structures, with this action being mandatory if you levied funds on the previous turn)

-----Tax & Build (Collect half funds and build one structure)

Now the game's rhythm would be varied once again! Some players would be collecting, some would be building, and some would be doing a little of both. Immediately, the number of strategies available in the game had increased. So now I could save up for a big move, or place two buildings at the same time to steal a district, or if I desperately needed to place a building before someone else, I could do an emergency "knock down the farmer's door and grab some loot for the king" and build something right away. There were so many new things you could do with this new system that it literally took us months to playtest the game once again to make sure everything remained balanced.

Final player board

Conclusion

As we continued to playtest Canterbury for several more years with people all over the place, we found that we had gotten to the point where we were running out of things to tweak. People kept trying new things and the system became resilient enough to keep the balance in place.

At this point, we knew the time had come for our team's favorite game, Canterbury, to be published. We had shown it to other publishers over the years and received extremely helpful feedback from each one of them. And after years of implementing that feedback and continuing to hone the game, we felt at last that Canterbury had become more than just another design; it had become an opportunity to take our design company, Quixotic Games, to the next level by publishing Canterbury ourselves.

Thus, we present the gaming community with a design that has been a part of our lives for many years, and we hope it will become a part of yours for a long time as well!

Andrew Parks

The city comes to life in a three-player game on the prototype
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Wed May 1, 2013 8:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Core Worlds: Galactic Orders

Andrew Parks
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Somerset
New Jersey
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Background

As I mentioned in my November 2011 designer diary for Core Worlds, Stronghold Games agreed to publish that game about a year before its release – but even as we were signing the contract for it, Stephen Buonocore of Stronghold asked me to start designing an expansion for it "just in case" things went well with the base set's release and Stronghold decided to move forward with an expansion. I immediately sat down to think about how an expansion for the game might work. Even though I risked spending a lot of time designing something that might never be released, I'm a game designer and I'm already used to working under those conditions!

I've always admired the methodology employed by Tom Lehmann when designing Race for the Galaxy. Tom designed the first two expansions for Race before releasing the base set of the game, which meant that the game was thoroughly playtested with upcoming expansions before ever going to press, so there would be no major changes required to get the expansion to sit well with the original game. The other neat thing this allowed was inserting tiny surprises into the base game that would not trigger until a particular expansion was released. Therefore, certain keywords or icons could appear that had no value until later in the game's life. This showed players that the expansion was not an incongruous add-on, but rather something carefully planned before the base game's release.

Developing the Expansion Theme

With this in mind I set about coming up with the theme for our own expansion. One of the things that has always surrounded the design of Core Worlds was the storyline. We wanted players to enjoy some of the things that made our galaxy unique and not like all the other space games out there. I thought about hidden elements in the Core Worlds galaxy whose full potential had not yet been realized. Looking through the prototype cards for the base game, I looked for some element that might hint at something greater than what appeared on the surface, and I quickly realized that the six Prestige Cards would supply this thematic element. Here we had six cards that were unlike anything else in the game, but which were mechanically very simple. What could I do to take these six simple cards and develop them further in the game's expansion?

And so the theme for Core Worlds: Galactic Orders was born. Amidst the massive civil war between the Galactic Realm and the Barbarian Empires would stand six powerful organizations who were unmoved by the struggle but who were ready to ally themselves with whomever came out on top. Each Order would offer aid in the form of special powers and victory points to its supporters, and these organizations would be ones with whom the players were already familiar: the six Prestige Cards from the base set.

Galactic Order Card: Merchant Alliance

Developing the Expansion Mechanisms

But how would it all work? Early on in the development process I decided that the organizations would have their own special oversized cards, and that the players would be able to place Faction Tokens on those cards in order to represent favor they had curried – but I wasn't sure how the players would gain the opportunity to place those tokens. Would there be a new type of action in the game that allowed players to gain favor in a variety of ways? Perhaps players could spend Energy or Action Points to place tokens, or perhaps sacrifice cards to do so? Whatever I came up with was too complicated. Core Worlds at its heart uses an intuitive ruleset and I didn't want to muck things up by adding new types of actions to the game. Besides, wouldn't some of the special powers involve giving Energy discounts or Action Points to the players? How would it make sense to spend Energy and Actions to gain more of the same?

That's when it hit me. These tokens had to come for free. Free stuff is good. Free stuff is fun! Whenever my development team plays a game that gives out free stuff, we call it "Christmas". Sometimes it's fun to have a game that gives free stuff and the strategy lies in how you use that free stuff. We first used that term with our game Parthenon: Rise of the Aegean in which at the start of the round you get flooded with resources based on the production of your Villages and Workshops. About halfway through the game are moments when everyone is grabbing gobs of cards and deciding what to do with them. When that happened during a particular session, my brother Chris exclaimed "It's just like Christmas!" and the term has stuck with us ever since.

Of course, I didn't want players grabbing gobs of anything in Core Worlds. It was a pretty tight resource game and I didn't want to dole out tons of stuff that would upset that balance. However, it occurred to me that I could give out something extra when players purchased something. This was an opportunity to add something cool to the base game that would not trigger until the expansion released: We would add a Galactic Order icon to every single Unit in the base game and have those icons do absolutely nothing! But during the expansion, when you deploy a card with one of these icons, you immediately get to place one of your Faction Tokens on the corresponding Galactic Order card for free, and free stuff equals Christmas!

I immediately phoned Stephen and asked him whether I could add these worthless (but pretty!) icons to all of the cards in the base set, and he was understandably wary. "But...you do realize we may not even do the expansion, right?" he asked. "Yes," I answered. "But if we do the expansion, we'll be ready!" And so with a bit of convincing Stephen agreed. Since we hadn't started graphic design for the base game yet, it meant that we could seamlessly add these icons during the pre-production process.

One issue I foresaw immediately was that if players gained special powers AND victory points from having the most tokens on a particular Galactic Order, there would be too much advantage for a player to focus on a particular Galactic Order Card exclusively. Also, it meant that if one player got ahead in a particular Order, no one would challenge him since they'd have no hope of overtaking him. Thus, I determined that I would give players a strategic choice. If they wanted to gain the special powers associated with a particular Galactic Order, they would have to spend their tokens from that Order. Spending their tokens would not only reduce their majority but also reduce the number of Empire Points they would receive at the end of the game for that Order. Furthermore, a player who had no hope of scoring Empire Points for a particular Order due to another player's dominance could still spend his tokens to achieve that Order's special power, and in many ways a galactic dilettante had much more freedom than a player who was focused on scoring the most points possible from a particular Order.

New Tactic / Unit Card: Phantom Ship

Playtesting the Expansion

Now it was time to design the new Units, Tactics, and Worlds. I didn't want to overload the game with too many new cards because that would mess with the balance that came out during the Galactic Phase, so I decided to add only six new Unit/Tactic/World cards to each Galactic Deck. When designing these, I paid special attention to the Unit types that already existed and made sure that everything would remain balanced with the potential endgame bonuses that come from the Core Worlds. By the time these cards were created, we were about three months from going to press with the base game. I knew I had to playtest the expansion a lot over that summer if we were going to be able to tweak the base game based upon findings we discovered with the expansion, so I assembled my core playtest team for that summer, which included two of the lead developers on the base game, Christopher Guild and my brother Christopher. For our fourth playtester, we recruited a new developer, Sara Sterphone, who had been a student in one of my game design classes and who was interested in becoming a video game designer after she graduated. Sara had never played the base game before, so she added a fresh perspective on the whole experience that proved to be invaluable.

And so we played Core Worlds and its new expansion that entire summer. We found that new strategies opened up immensely with the system that we had created, and players were able to devise entirely new plans and overcome obstacles in unprecedented ways. In fact, although we were having a blast, I began to realize that something was mathematically wrong. We were having too much fun. We were beating the snot out of the galaxy's most powerful planets, including the Core Worlds. It was no longer a question of whether or not you could conquer a Core World, but whether you could get two, three, or more! Christmas had imbalanced the galaxy!

We realized we had to add another element to give the enemy a fighting chance, and this led to the development of the new Event Cards. These cards would appear randomly and throw a wrinkle into the players' plans for the current round. Often these Events could be circumvented by using the Galactic Order Cards, and this created some interesting tactical decisions on the part of the players.

The next few playtests, unfortunately, revealed that the Event Cards could cause the pendulum to swing too far in the other direction. Some of the Event Cards hammered particular players more than others, and we were constantly in danger of making a particular Event too easy or too difficult based upon the game's circumstances. (Months later, we would discover a great solution to this thanks to the recommendation of one of our remote teams, led by Jeff Hannes. Jeff noticed that a few Events gave players a choice of how to be affected, and that these Events could still be formidable without being game-breaking for any particular player. Jeff suggested that most of the Events should incorporate this type of decision. It took us a while to figure out how to implement this, but over time Jeff's suggestion was sound and this made the Events an exciting part of the game without ruining anyone's fun.)

Meanwhile, during the summer of massive playtesting, artist Maciej Rebisz and graphic designer Chechu Nieto were working on the base game's artwork, getting it ready for press while I did the text layout. Since I was the one who would be uploading the finished cards to the printer, I got to continuously make small tweaks based upon balance issues we discovered with the expansion. This allowed us to correct a ton of minor issues that would have been too late to fix later, and so this summer of playtesting was proving to be extremely helpful. We knew that we would ultimately have to open up expansion playtesting to remote teams (like Jeff's) over the course of the coming year, but for now we stuck with our core group so that we could dig as deeply as possible into all the new strategies that the expansion offered. Remember: we weren't playtesting the expansion for its own publication (yet!). We were playtesting the expansion only to determine its long term impact on the base game that was about to go to press.

Event Card: Imperial Counter Assault

A Moment of Panic

After months of testing the expansion, the base game itself was nearly ready for submission to the printer in Germany. During this time, we realized we had to stop playtesting the expansion and playtest the base game with the new graphic design so that we could discover any potential interface issues. We spent a week doing this, tweaking small graphic issues so they would not impact gameplay after the base game was published.

Well, something happened right after we played the base game without the expansion for the first time. We stared at one another with looks of consternation. The playtest had gone smoothly, and other than a few graphic tweaks, everything was functional and balanced the way it should be – but we realized that, as much fun as we had playing the base game, it was nowhere near the experience of playing with the expansion. I mean, not even in the same league. Sara in particular commented on this as she had been playing the game with the expansion the whole time.

At first we panicked, not sure what to do. Would players still like the base game even though it didn't have all the fun juicy awesomeness of the expansion? And so Chris, Chris, and I thought back to all the time we had spent playtesting the base game in 2009 and 2010. We really enjoyed the game during those playtests, and so had all of our developers and remote testers. We assured ourselves that players who had never played with the expansion would enjoy the base game just as much as we had.

But one thing was for sure. Once you play with the expansion, you will never play without it again!

The Trinidad, by Jessada Sutthi

The Moment of Truth

Core Worlds had a strong release and was the most critically successful game we had designed. As positive reviews flooded the Internet, we muttered softly to ourselves, "Wait until they play with the expansion..." But of course, the publication of the expansion was not a forgone conclusion. Stronghold still had to determine that sales of the base game justified printing Core Worlds: Galactic Orders, so we waited for a few months on pins and needles, wondering whether or not fans of the game would be able to enjoy the full Core Worlds experience.

Finally, by the end of the first quarter of 2012, Stronghold made its determination and greenlighted the expansion, much to our excitement. Final playtesting with remote teams went into full throttle, and a new art team was assembled to assist Maciej in creating the new cards. (See my article "The Art of Maciej Rebisz" on BGG News for the full story on our lead artist.) Equally exciting was Stronghold's decision to add an insert to the expansion box so that all of the components from both sets would fit neatly, including bridges and dividers for the cards so that they would no longer have to be kept in individual bags. The full Core Worlds experience would now be contained in one cool box and ready to be opened for a night of galactic conquest unlike any other!

Andrew Parks

Box insert with sleeved cards
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Fri Nov 23, 2012 1:36 am
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The Art of Maciej Rebisz – A Designer's Appreciation

Andrew Parks
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Flashback to the spring of 2011 – Stronghold Games was looking for artists for my new science fiction deck-building game, Core Worlds. Discussions ensued about where to find these artists, and whether or not there would be enough time to create the 126 original images required to launch the game in time for a Spiel 2011 release that October. The task seemed truly daunting.

My brother Jim – game artist C. James Parks – frequented the world-famous Deviant Art website and had done us the favor of compiling a list of about fifty different artists whose styles matched the sort of edgy, dark, and dramatic mood that we were trying to achieve in the game. And so Stephen Buonocore of Stronghold set about emailing these artists to see whether there was any interest in allowing us to use some of their existing, non-licensed pieces for the set.


Civil War
Art: Maciej Rebisz

The good news was that we received a lot of nice responses, and several artists allowed us to use some incredible pieces for the game. The bad news is that this covered only about two dozen of our illustrations. We still needed over a hundred images to finish the set.

Then along comes Polish sci-fi artist, Maciej Rebisz.

"Yes, I will do it," he responds in an email.

To which Stephen replies, "You will let us use some of your pieces?"

"No, I will do the set. The whole set."


Empress Elona
Art: Maciej Rebisz

And thus were we introduced to the wonderful work of this incredible artist. Mac is a self-taught artist who's been drawing and designing since before he could walk. He's been featured many times in online artist networks, websites, and printed publications (deviantART, Shadowness, Expose 8, Advanced Photoshop, 2DArtist). He's painted covers for several science fiction novels and stories, including The Exiles of the New World by Conor P. Dempsey, Red Serpent: The Falsifier and Red Serpent: The Prophet's Secrets by Delson Armstrong, Chasing Vegas by Tad Vezner, and other works awaiting release.

Maciej (or "Mac") set about creating initial samples for the Core Worlds base game – Superior Engineering, Troop Transport, and Recovery Mission – which blew us away. Mac then started painting one image at a time, designing amazing starships, vehicles, and planets until he had filled our galactic space with more than one hundred original pieces of art. Supplemented by several pieces from other artists, the Core Worlds universe now had its own look and feel, an inspired look which helped distinguish it from other games in the genre. One of the things that struck us the most about Mac's work was his use of color, how he could evoke a sense of mood and tell a story with each subtle brushstroke.


Raven (Core World)
Art: Maciej Rebisz

As so, as work commenced on the Core Worlds expansion in 2012, Mac returned to us again wholeheartedly – you can see some of his pieces for the Galactic Orders expansion throughout this article – agreeing to create half the images for the set. For the other half, we assembled a new team from the ranks of Deviant Art, all of whom took the time to study Mac's art from the base game so that they could continue the same tone and overall feel for the expansion.

We are thrilled to have found Mac, and we hope he will continue to work on the Core Worlds universe throughout the years to come!

Andrew Parks


The Argo
Art: Maciej Rebisz

Maciej Rebisz is currently studying architectural design and is also working on an artbook project and a series of exhibitions. You can visit his websites at maciejrebisz.com and at Deviant Art, where we found him!
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Wed Jul 11, 2012 6:30 pm
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Designer Diary: Core Worlds

Andrew Parks
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Inspiration

The story of Core Worlds begins at DexCon, a popular game convention in New Jersey during the summer of 2009. My friend Geoff Engelstein (co-designer of The Ares Project) had picked up a copy of Arctic Scavengers, the first deck-building game to follow up on the massive success of Dominion. We played Scavengers with a prominent publisher and some other friends and had a good time – but afterwards an impromptu discussion arose about the nature of the new deck-building genre. Here was the second incarnation of this intriguing game mechanism, and although it offered some interesting twists, there also seemed to be a lot of room for innovation.

After getting home that evening, I thought about this for some time, focusing on the sorts of things I would love to see in this type of game. At that point, I focused on two elements that would eventually become the core of the game design: 1) inspired by Vlaada Chvátil's Through the Ages, we would replace the face-up piles of draftable cards with an ever-changing mix of cards that would become progressively more difficult to draft and increasingly more valuable to own; and 2) instead of relying solely on the cards you draw each turn, we would create a tableau in front of each player where cards could be stored until ready for use, thereby allowing for more long-term planning.

I thought of gearing the theme toward the tastes of the publisher who had played the game with us and originally considered a World War II theme. Players would invade different regions and score them for their team, while also upgrading units and attacking the other players. Instead of players having to draw resource cards into their hands, they would place conquered regions in front of themselves, thereby creating a constant stream of resources while also keeping the players' victory points on display throughout the game.

Well, the difficulties of creating a team deck-building game began to weigh down on me, and I also realized I didn't know quite as much about World War II as I would have liked for tackling such a difficult project. So I thought of other themes that appealed to me that I had not yet used in a game. Growing up, I was a big science fiction buff, particularly enjoying works about massive space empires and all of their complexities. I was an ardent fan of Frank Herbert's Dune books, as well as Asimov's Foundation series. In particular, Foundation presented a galaxy in which the empire, ruled from a central core world called Trantor, was on the verge of collapse. A scientist named Hari Seldon had set up a Foundation on the edge of the galaxy that would slowly grow to power and eventually challenge the crumbling empire, albeit indirectly. The Foundation was surrounded by other rebellious planets seeking to expand their power as well.

The more I thought about those outlying, rebellious planets, the more I found they inspired me, even more than the methodical Foundation that was the focus of the story. What if the players could be barbarian kingdoms living on the edge of a similar galaxy, but this galaxy would be ruled by many core worlds (six to be exact)? And instead of biding their time for centuries like the Foundation, the players would immediately work their way in from the outer edge of the galaxy all the way to the galactic core, building up new forces and conquering planets along the way. Funded by these lesser planets and bolstered by powerful new fleets and ground troops, the players would ultimately invade the center of the galaxy during a final, epic confrontation.

Image from lead artist Maciej Rebisz

Creating the Prototype

Those who have playtested my games in the past know that I like to make detailed prototypes. In particular, I like to use images as a source of inspiration, both to immerse players in the game world and to spark new ideas for cards. Fortunately, the Internet is filled with such inspiration in the sci-fi arena: Star Wars, Halo, Warhammer 40K and on and on. I found myself in one of those rare moments where you get on a roll and can do nothing else. For three straight days, I did nothing besides eat, sleep, and create prototype cards for Core Worlds. The structure of the game was not yet fully formulated, but I'm a believer in letting some of the game design itself. As I would make cards, I would make rules for those cards. Those rules would then influence previous cards, and I would go back and forth.

In the first version of the game, drafting Unit cards was easy and cheap: You spent as much Energy as the current Sector number. And as I created planets, the amount of strength needed to conquer a World became a relatively simple mathematical formula: (Energy Generation X 2) + Empire Points + 1 if there was card text. Thus, a planet that generated 2 Energy, provided 1 Empire Point, and had special card text would require a strength of 6, divided up between Fleet Strength and Ground Strength. Coming up with Deploy Costs for deploying Units into the tableau had to be much more intuitive based on the value of their special text (and therefore I made lots of mistakes). At the end of those three days, I had a playable prototype – but would the system work or fall apart completely during the first playtest?

Prototype card

First Playtest

Traditionally, the first playtest of one of my games ends in complete failure. Sometimes we can't even finish the first turn; other times the developers give me that look that says, "This is not working"; and at still other times they will literally say "This is not working" and throw their cards into the center of the table.

Sometimes, enough of the math has been worked out that you can actually finish the game despite its many flaws. Such was the case with Core Worlds. We actually got all the way to the end. Of course, my math was way off as we could barely even conquer any of the Core Worlds. (The formula for conquering Core Worlds was purposefully different, but it was completely wrong.) Those sorts of problems are to be expected. But there were two fundamental flaws that I had not anticipated that required immediate attention:

1) Some Units provided inherent victory points, and everyone drafted them immediately; and

2) The player who had the most Energy would just keep playing cards, conquering worlds, and generally bullying the galaxy while the rest of us watched helplessly.

Fortunately, I am blessed with an incredible team of developers. The Quixotic Games crew does not quit. Even when I'm ready to say "Let's just stop for now," they will continue to talk and discuss and argue until a solution is found. Such was the case here. The first problem was relatively easy to fix. We realized that Units that provided inherent victory points had to cost more to draft than other Units from the same Sector. At that time, no matter how powerful a card was, its draft cost was equal to its Sector number; more powerful cards might be more expensive to deploy to your tableau, but drafting costs were constant. This had to change, so we developed this formula: Draft Cost = Sector Number + Victory Points. Problem solved.

But the second problem was a bear. We did not want players to win simply because they conquered the biggest Energy planets at the start of the game. Yet about halfway through the game, people with big Energy were doing twice as many things as everyone else. Thus, pursuing any strategy other than acquiring massive gobs of Energy was a losing battle. We played around with the Energy Surge cards as a means of playing catch-up for those who did not conquer an early planet, but we quickly discovered that these cards would have too strong an effect if they were too powerful, almost negating the effort put forth by those going for big Energy. We didn't want to negate the importance of Energy; we just didn't want those people doing more things than everyone else. And that's where it hit us: Action Points. By making sure everyone always performed the same maximum number of Actions each turn, we stopped big Energy players from dominating the entire game. Yes, they could draft and deploy more expensive cards, but they could not keep playing on and on while everyone else just watched.

One of our design principles then became: "Thou shalt not create cards that grant more Actions." We would start everyone off with a certain number of Action Points each round, and as the game progressed, we would give players an increasing number of Actions, but although some would have more Energy than others, the number of Actions would be a constant for all players.

This ended up being an important breakthrough as a player who wanted big Energy could go too far, accumulating too much Energy instead of needed Empire Points, and by the time he started focusing on Empire Points, it might be too late. This change also meant that a player who built an efficient deck, using synergistic card text to deploy cards more cheaply, could focus on Empire Points more quickly. In the end, the player who makes best use of his Energy will have a strong advantage over the other players. Sometimes the player with the most Energy wins the game; sometimes the player with the least Energy wins. Making wise choices about how to use one's Energy became the key to success, which is exactly how we wanted it.

Prototype player board

Additional Playtests

The team was fond of the game, so it got a lot of attention over the next several weeks. We knew we had two other issues that separated us from other deck-building games in a potentially negative way: length and complexity. The epic scope of the game required a longer play experience, with players building themselves up from humble origins and slowly developing their space empires. And the types of strategies that can build up in a tableau are necessarily more complex than those in a game that is primarily hand-driven.

We originally had six Sectors, and we reduced this to five early on. This cut a lot of time without sacrificing the feeling of progression. But even so, the game took 1-2 hours depending on the number of players, and that was unlike other deck-building games at the time. Fortunately for us, over the course of the next two years, the desire for more complex deck-building games arose, so our fears were somewhat allayed. After we started working on Core Worlds, games like Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer came forward and used a central drafting pool. Our game's central zone works differently, but it was interesting to see that the desire for a changing pool of cards was there among gamers. Similarly, Thunderstone showed that players didn't mind a slightly longer game if it followed a bit of a story, so we were heartened by that as well.

But we still had one major problem that other deck-building games did not share. Because Core Worlds takes place over ten Rounds, players are typically not shuffling and drawing new cards as frequently as in other games. Because of this, many of the cards drafted by the players were not being seen. People were getting increasingly tired of seeing the six Galactic Grunts and six Snub Fighters that littered their starting decks, so we realized that we had to ramp up the drafting process and get many of those Grunts and Snubs out of the deck.

The first thing we did was remove one Grunt and one Snub, reducing the size of the starting deck and allowing players to get through their decks more quickly. We also came up with the Colonization Rule which allowed you to permanently remove Grunts and Snubs from your deck without needing to spend a whole turn or possess a special power to do so. Essentially, whenever you conquer a world, you can ditch one of these cards on the planet to "colonize" it – and since we wanted to encourage players to conquer worlds, this was an extra incentive for them to do so.

But it was still not enough. People were still drawing Grunts and Snubs and having trouble putting together a coherent strategy that would fire off throughout the game. That's when we finally came up with the pre-game draft rules. Now experienced players can upgrade their starting decks during set-up. First of all, when using the pre-game draft rules, the players immediately eliminate another Grunt and Snub (leaving only four of each), and replace them with two "Sector 0" cards of their choice. Everyone's starting deck therefore begins with a bit of customization, and that level of customization might even lend itself to a full-blown strategy by the end of the game. I can't say enough how much this changed the game. Now people were seeing serious deck synergies by the third and fourth turns of the game, with everyone's deck looking almost entirely different by the end of the game. It was a huge turning point for the design, and we felt at last it was ready for presentation.

Finished card design

The Presentation

Any game designer will tell you that nothing makes you sweat more than showing a prototype to a publisher. There are so many strange things that can go wrong, and often things that you never even thought of can suddenly happen during the publisher demo, and the publisher just stares at you and says, "Why the heck did you do that?" This is not really coincidence, of course, as often you have been playing the game with a small group of people and new players will get in there during the demo and try crazy things. However, with Core Worlds, we had playtested it a lot, bringing in lots of new players and watching all kinds of interesting things happen, so we were reasonably confident that nothing insane would occur.

The good news is that the game played like a dream. In fact, it was probably one of the most perfect sessions of the prototype to date. However, although the publisher enjoyed the game very much, he wanted us to change something fundamental – add player versus player combat. At first this seemed possible. After all, hadn't I originally considered this back when the design was going to be a WWII game? How hard could it be to add a different type of action to the game that allowed players to conquer each others' worlds, or perhaps just attack each other's forces?

Well, sadly, it was very hard. We tried three different rulesets to allow this, but unfortunately the game fell apart each time. The biggest problem is that the game's "fun value" evaporated. Nobody wanted to do anything for fear that it would make them vulnerable to attack. The game's indirect interaction already has a "competition for resources" feel to it. You feel a lot of pressure to go out and get the things you want before anyone else snatches them up. And typically there are at least two things out there that you really want, so a difficult decision must be made. However, by adding the possibility of player combat, nobody would make the first move. And anyone who dared to conquer a world would get jumped by everyone else. Also, players who were doing poorly were beat on continuously. The problem was simply that the game system we had created did not support this mechanism. We would have had to completely recreate the system from the ground up.

A Strong(hold) Opportunity

As chance would have it, I was discussing the situation at the 2009 World Boardgaming Championships with Stephen Buonocore, a fellow gamer who at the time was in the planning stages of creating his own game company, Stronghold Games. He and his friends had helped us playtest Core Worlds, and they really enjoyed it with its current model of indirect interaction, so during a pivotal discussion in the lounge behind the buffet table at the 2009 WBC (over a beer of course, as Stephen loves his beer), Stephen mentioned that if he did indeed go forward with creating his game company, I could present the game to him and Stronghold Games for consideration.

And the rest is history. Stephen Buonocore, with his business partner Kevin Nesbitt, did start Stronghold Games a few months later, and after several more months of heavy playtest and revision, we presented the game to them for consideration. After reviewing the game with outside testers for several months, Stronghold agreed to publish the game, offering important feedback such as the creation of the Player Boards to keep track of Energy and Action Points – we had been using giant piles of Energy Tokens before then! – as well as simplifying the table layout by using Sector Cards. Over the course of the next year we worked together on important changes and adjustments to the cards and to the game components, and after securing some extremely talented artists and a wonderful graphic designer (Chechu Nieto), the game went to press at the end of August 2011. The first copies were sold during Spiel 2011 in October, with the full release expected in December 2011.

Andrew Parks

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Thu Nov 3, 2011 6:30 am
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