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Designer Diary: Fly Me to the Moon and Let Me Play Among the Stars

Vangelis Bagiartakis
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It's funny how some things end up coming to life – especially when you look at how they started and how they ended. One such case is the creation of Among the Stars, due out in late 2012 from Artipia Games. As you can see below, it starts somewhat...unexpectedly!

Humble Beginnings

About 18 months ago, some time before Christmas 2010, a friend of mine – who knew of my love for board games as well as of my first game, Souvlaki Wars – approached me with a proposal. He worked in a Christian organization that was responsible for some Sunday schools and summer camps all over Greece. At the end of every year they give a souvenir to the children and that year they were thinking of giving a small board game for the older ones (junior and senior high school). So they asked me whether I could design one for them. I immediately jumped at the offer! Even though the job was pro-bono and the game would not be sold in any store, it was a great opportunity for me as a starting designer.

I began working on it at once. I had complete freedom on what to design, trying only to keep the publication cost relatively low. One of the themes that hit me quite early was that of a childrens' summer camp. Since most of the kids getting the game would go (or had gone in the past) to summer camps, a game with such a theme would be something they would enjoy. After coming up with several game ideas around summer camps, I settled on having the players try to build one.

I had this image in my mind of a 5x5 grid in front of each player, with square cards representing locations. A player would start with just the card in the middle, then play every new card adjacent to one already played. The cards would have limits on where in the grid they could be placed; some could be played only around the main square, others only in the outer squares, some only in the corners, etc. The cards would also have an ability on them, stating where to place them in order to get extra points, as well as their cost in resources.

I made a rough prototype and tried what I had in mind. Right from the start it became evident that the grid restriction on where to build each card needed to go away. You see, while I was "playing" I noticed that I kept forgetting to look at that symbol. I would look only at the cost of each card, at the cards in front of me, and at the abilities on them – never at the small grid icon with the restriction. What was the highlight of my initial idea kept being forgotten, so I decided to remove that restriction entirely and have the abilities on the cards affect the way the camp would be built. (A piece of advice to fellow designers: Don't try to force your players to do something they keep on forgetting on their own!) A friend also suggested dropping the idea of the 5x5 concept. Why not let the players go as far as they want when building the locations? Indeed, the design worked much better this way, and the game was starting to take shape.

Another decision I had taken right from the start was to categorize the locations based on function and assign a color to them: the red ones would be administration, the yellow ones sport fields, the houses and the locations that provided accommodation would be blue, and so on. This allowed me to have abilities that played with the cards' colors.

For the abilities, I wanted to take advantage of the theme I had, so I kept on thinking of restrictions or rewards based on actual summer camps. For example, one of the locations was a fountain, a delicate construction with faucets from which the children drink water. When is this location at its most useful? When the children are playing sports as that's when they become real thirsty. So the ability was born: If you build it next to a yellow card (a sports field), you get an extra victory point! Other examples were that you could place the kitchen only next to the dining hall, a cabin would give a bonus if placed next to another cabin, and so on. More or less all of the abilities were made with that logic in mind and it ended up working pretty well!

The biggest problem that remained was figuring out how the cards were going to be obtained. I tried a lot of things – drawing one new card each turn, having them appear in front of everyone and then be selected, spending actions to take/play them, and various other ideas – but none seemed to be working very well. In the back of my mind I had the card draft mechanism, but I kept on avoiding it. The reason was simple: 7 Wonders. If I were to use a similar mechanism to the one in that game, the comparison would be inevitable (not to mention the accusation of copying it, despite the rest of the game being completely different). However, drafting had some big advantages: It was simple and easy to learn, it was quick, and it was fun! These are all characteristics that a game aimed at younger gamers should have, so in the end I decided to give it a try and it worked perfectly. It was exactly what the game needed!

When the game was finally ready and given to the children, the comments I received were all very positive – and not only from them, but also from (boardgaming) friends to whom I showed it. I came to realize I had something good on my hands and that a commercial game could be made out of this, so I started looking for ways to do that. Luckily, one of my friends who played the game and liked it was Konstantinos Kokkinis, the owner of Artipia Games. He was about to publish his own game, Drum Roll, at that time and he expressed interest in releasing my game in 2012. As you can probably realize, I couldn't have been happier, so I started working on it at once!

From the Camp to the Stars!

First, I had to come up with a new theme. I am a sci-fi enthusiast and my favorite television show of all time is Babylon 5, so naturally one of the first ideas I had was to apply the game mechanisms in a space station building game. However, one thing I definitely didn't want to do was paste a new theme over an existing game. Whenever I design a game, I always put the theme first, using it to guide the mechanisms so that meant that a big part of the game would have to be designed from scratch. The core mechanism of drafting and placement of locations would still be there but everything else would be new.

I started with the locations. I needed to come up with distinct locations that you can find in a sci-fi space station, categorize them, and come up with abilities for them. Drawing inspiration from Babylon 5, Star Trek and other sci-fi series, I ended up with a list of locations and six main categories: Administrative, Business or Trade, Military, Diplomatic, Recreational, and Scientific. However, the last category proved to be a problem because I couldn't think of many generic locations that could easily be put there (without ending up as too "specific" or too "contemporary"), so I stuck with five categories instead of six. For the exact abilities once again I started from scratch, trying to come up with new ones that made sense for each location I had. What's more, at some point I realized that every category needed to be different somehow, to have its own "identity". Diplomatic would be all about player interaction, Business would revolve around credits, etc.

Another thing I wanted to do was to add a second resource for the players. The summer camp game had only one, and for that game that decision was okay. For this one, though, I wanted something more. I wanted the players to have more options on their turns and introducing an additional resource would allow them to do so. Not only that, but it would open up design space by allowing me to create new and more interesting abilities. Since this was a game set in a space station, using energy as the second resource was my first choice. Trying to apply a thematic approach, I came up with an interesting idea that made good use of the game's "grid" element: Energy would be produced by Reactors (that had to be built) and could be spent only in nearby cards. This way, a new action was introduced (build a Power Reactor), it made sense game-wise (I had to carefully choose where to build it), and it also made perfect sense thematically.

Still, I wanted more. I wanted the game to have high replay value and to be different every time you played it, so I added more new things:

Racial Abilities: I love games with variable powers, so it was only natural that I tried to put them in my games as well. In this one it also fit the theme perfectly: Each player would represent a different alien race trying to build its own station and having a unique ability. A lot of thought was put into those abilities to make sure that a) they were interesting and meaningful and b) they were balanced. In the end, with a lot of help from my playtesters, I believe we nailed it, having eight completely different races in the main game (and a few more as promos) that make the players change the way they play, try different strategies, and look for ways to exploit their strengths or nullify their weaknesses.

Objectives: This was another idea I had that added more tension in the game – objective cards with specific tasks and VP rewards that would be drawn randomly at the beginning of every game, but allow only one player to complete them. Their effect on the game was great! Players loved them because they gave the players purpose – something to shoot for – and at the same time they increased interaction. The players would all have to be aware of what the others were doing in order to get the bonus.

Conflict Cards: While I was designing the game, I kept trying to find a way to put interaction in the game in the form of direct confrontation. I am a firm believer that drafting on its own comes with a lot of interaction; if you want to do well, you simply can't afford to ignore what the others are doing. However, I knew that not many people see it this way and there would be complains about "lack of interaction" when the game got out. I tried several ideas, but almost all of them would generate more problems than they would solve, the main one being that very rarely (if ever) would a player do something to hinder an opponent instead of helping himself. At some point though, I thought of the Conflict cards. These would be a small set of cards that could be added in the location deck to provide the players with the option to "attack" (in a way) each other. The good thing with this solution was that it allowed every group to play the game the way they wanted. If you liked direct conflicts, you added the cards; if not, you left them out. As simple as that!

The first playtest sessions went well, and the feedback I received was positive. The game was easy to learn, fun, and quick – but with a lot of depth and meaningful choices, and it could also be played in different ways! Of course, countless playtesting sessions would follow, endless discussions on matters big and small, and also a few changes here and there to ensure the best experience for the players.

After many months of hard work, we ended up with a great game that I am sure a lot of you are going to enjoy playing! (Reviews from people who played it already indicate that.) We are proud of the work we did and are pretty sure you are going to love it as well!

The Game's Artwork

It wouldn't be fair to write this article without mentioning Odysseas Stamoglou, our game's illustrator. Right from the start, he managed to grasp the game's theme and create amazing pieces of artwork. He helped us a lot, both during the initial concept phase and with his suggestions and ideas on the world we created. His illustrations are top notch and help bring the game's theme to life!


Publication

Among the Stars is scheduled for release at Spiel 2012, with wider distribution afterward. If the description above sounds like a game you'd enjoy, you'll find Artipia Games at booth 4-407 – and if you hurry, you'll secure your place...Among the Stars!

Vangelis Bagiartakis

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