Ever since I started playing board games – and that's quite a long time ago – I dreamed of making "the perfect game". For a long time I didn't even know what that meant; I just had this image in my mind that some day I would put together all the concepts I've seen, I will put to work the full extent of my imagination and I will just come up with a game that the whole world will hail as the board game.
But let's get down to Earth. That was simply a product of my imagination. It's now more than ten years later and I am looking back at this dream that has been making me push my limits in the world of board games, and I see that it has been more than that. It has been the energy I used to go forward, it helped me always strive to be a better game designer. But I won't keep you hoping any longer and tell you a secret: I did not design the perfect game. No surprise here, but while I was chasing this dream, the latest stopover was Exodus: Proxima Centauri, a strategy game that I consider my best achievement so far.
The Early Days
I started working on Exodus: Proxima Centauri in early 2011 with just a few core ideas in my mind. I wanted to design a full empire-building game with a sci-fi theme and a hint of realism. And I wanted to be able to say to myself in the end, proudly, "I love this game!"
Among my friends I am known as the kind of guy who is often impatient and is rushing to get results. While designing a board game this is rarely a quality, so I made myself follow a set of principles that I would always abide to. I won't count all of them, but two of the most important ones were "never leave loose ends in the design" and "do not patch, always go back and work on the foundation".
There are so many sci-fi-themed board games out there that many of you may wonder, "Why bother with a new one?" and I was trying first to find for myself an answer to this question. For starters, most games feature races of aliens that, just by being aliens, can have any kind of superpower the designer wants. I wanted a hint of realism and I decided that Exodus will feature humans only. But it's hard to start imagining a whole universe from scratch. My inspiration came from Stanisław Lem's The Magellanic Cloud, a novel in which humans leave our solar system to find new worlds to inhabit and end up in the Alpha Centauri system. I had to sleep over this idea for a while, but a month later I realized what was going to be the plot of the game.
For a full month I was working solely on the story – researching, writing and erasing, spending sleepless nights imagining how humanity's trip to deep space could look like and what would be the drive for such an adventure. I decided not to share my project with my team before I could make up my own mind regarding what I wanted this game to become. In October 2011 I had the story all figured out. In short, this is what happens...
In the year 2299, a devastating nuclear war takes place on Earth, rendering the planets uninhabitable. After 83 days, the factions involved reach a ceasefire and decide to leave together to find shelter in the Centauri system, the closest stars to Earth.
More than halfway there but with their resources depleting fast, the humans are rescued by a superior civilization and taken to their home world, assumed by everyone to be Proxima Centauri. The frozen conflict of the humans flourishes once again so the Centaurians split them according to their faction on six different planets.
After their settlement, the humans live quietly under Centaurian supervision for many years, until their saviors face problems of their own and decide to leave, sharing all their knowledge with the humans, even if this meant starting a new war. One Elder is left to ensure that a fragile balance of power is kept until the transition would be over.
Exodus: Proxima Centauri takes place during the transition of power from the Centaurians to the humans. Six human factions are trying to regain their glory on the ashes of the Centaurian civilization, knowing that in the end one of them will prevail and will have the chance to build an empire. Initially, I was supposed to stop there since the whole purpose was to create the background story for one game. But, carried away by imagination, I continued beyond that, without defining a further goal.
At this stage, I also decided on a set of design paradigms that I have sworn to follow in my attempt to create a game that would stand out:
• The least amount of downtime possible, implemented through simultaneous decisions.
- Striving to avoid moments of analysis-paralysis and severe game punishment for bad decisions to keep players interested in the game until the end.
• "Catch-up with the leader" strategies available for the least experienced players.
• Fast learning curve: turn 1 see, turn 2 understand, turn 3 correct, turns 4+ strategize.
Being an engineer I needed a clear structure for the game. I knew where I was heading – towards an empire-building game – and having played works of art like Twilight Imperium (Third Edition) or Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game I had already learned a thinking pattern for grand strategy games.
Hex: planet, resources & direction markersAt first, i defined the main concepts that needed to be present in the game. Exodus: Proxima Centauri was supposed to have features like tech development, resource management, politics and diplomacy, variable turn order (I could not imagine a board game concept other than turn-based) and war. I also decided on a modular map to improve the replay value and the necessity of having space ships in the game – a personal preference supported by me being a big fan of sci-fi movies and books.
I must confess that I got something out of this long before the first test of the game. In my quest to give the game that hint of realism, I studied physics – from thermonuclear devices to the Standard Model of Particle Physics – and a bunch of tech papers on the latest developments in spaceship propulsion, shielding devices and weapons. Wikipedia was one of my closest allies. I also managed to use later on what I had learned when I was adding flavor to the game.
The first thing I put together was the hex map and the resources that could be harvested and I will take full credit or blame for the chosen names. The main resource was Crystallized Platinum which served as currency throughout the game, the other two being Axinium and Phasium, rare minerals meant for more sophisticated developments. The resource gathering is usually the boring part of each game, so I tried to work out a system that would bring a few challenges. I found a solution by having a depletion mechanism in the game combined with a progressive tax (the more you collect, the more you give back) that the players would pay on every resource they would collect.
With the resource system in place, I wrote down the core of the game. Exodus: Proxima Centauri is "powered" by Actions. Every player could play two (out of a total of six) actions per turn. They would chose their action cards and reveal them simultaneously, to avoid creating artificial advantages and to minimize downtime. The same actions can be found today in the final game, with the exception of banking added later on):
• Research to learn a new technology
• Build ships
• Buy upgrades, that is, ship parts previously researched
• Mine to replenish depleted resources
• Trade by exchanging resources with the bank
• Bank as an alternate way to generate income
From these six possible actions, learning technologies was the most challenging part. During my days of online research I wrote down about 60 technologies that I found interesting and would also make sense in a a game like Exodus: Proxima Centauri.
Even though I had some kind of ranking already put together, I left the quest of organizing the tech tree for later, focusing more on the big picture.
I worked at the same time on the political system, having the players bid every turn for a generic decision and the turn order. The background was that the leaders of the six human factions gathers once per cycle in the High Council under the supervision of the Elder to debate and decide on the common matters of the transition and to put together ground rules that they would all follow. The political decisions were laws that would remain in play until the end of the game, affecting every other aspect of the game.
The last stage of the game was the exploration. Each player would start with a Home Planet, some population and a few space ships, then explore the space around and colonize new planets while fighting his opponents. From the very beginning I wanted to make space conquest a separate phase of the turn to avoid making player choose between economical and technical development and empire expansion. The main concepts I focused on were:
• The population would move using space ships and thus be vulnerable to attacks from the enemies while travelling.
• The movement decision would be made simultaneously by all players.
• All the ships would carry the damage to the subsequent battles until repaired.
After talking to a friend who is a passionate gamer, he was quite puzzled, not having seen this system in the "classical" games. He wanted me to justify my reason behind this. I asked him, "Can you imagine Admiral Adama finding Galactica suddenly repaired at the beginning of an episode after taking serious damage from the cylons during the previous one? Or knowing where the cylons would be because they have to move first?" He laughed and finally agreed, leaving up to me the challenge to implement the concepts.
After reviewing all the concepts I already had on paper, I found the need of a clean-up phase where the population would grow and the players could actually repair their ships.
The First Prototype – Project 7 (Alpha Centauri)
Before carving the first prototype of Exodus in cardboard, I still needed to solve two issues: assembling the technologies into a tech tree and implementing the simultaneous movement. This is the point where the second designer came in.
I encountered a few systems of tech development that are quite common in board games. Maybe the most common one is the tech tree in which each technology has prerequisites and you must research one or all of them to make the technology on the top available. Another system is the one in which every technology is available for a cost, without any constraints, the only difference being the price. I also found some intermediate systems, but I didn't feel that any of them would be suitable for our game. It was Agnieszka, my friend and co-designer, who came up with the idea of progressive discounts.
In the initial sketch, the technologies were divided by type into Civilian, Transport and Military and the discovery of each technology of one kind would bring subsequent discounts for all other of the same kind. We simulated it on paper and it was reliable cost-wise, but it would force the players to specialize and play in a quite scripted way. It was obvious that we needed more. Later the same evening, Agnieszka suggested using a matrix type of discounts. Imagine all the technologies placed on a grid and learning a technology would give discounts for all the other ones on the same line and on the same column. I instantly loved the idea of double synergies and I went on dividing them according to two absolutely separate criteria. This lead to the creation of the first player board, which resembles a lot what you can find in the final game.
For a player, each technology of one color he learns brings a discount for all the others and the same things happens for technologies of the same type (e.g. Military), all discounts being cumulative.
The last great challenge was to implement simultaneous movement for the spaceships. Having a modular map made of hexes helped me see a possible breakthrough. I numbered the sides from 1 to 6, each number representing a direction and I made many tokens with each of the numbers. Placing these tokens near the ships of every player followed by revealing and executing them ensures simultaneous movement decisions. The only drawback was that some ships were able to move several hexes and the conflicts sometimes needed solving before reaching the ships' destinations. The solution came from the background story. The space is large enough so that ships moving at relativistic velocities would not detect each other while flying in the same sector of space. Instead they'd see each other only when orbiting around the same planet. With this "small" addition (two or more ships would "see" each other only if they ended their movement in the same hex), we had a working solution for the simultaneous movement mechanism. I also found an additional advantage, a "freebie" from using hexes. When executing several movement tokens in a row the order did not really matter, going 1-2-6 would be the same as going 2-6-1 (if all the hexes had their direction markers aligned).
The countless simulations and solitary tests could tell me only so much about the game. We needed to see the reaction of other people and to test the ergonomics of the game, so the time had come to put together a complete prototype. We used the pizza boxes which we carefully saved over time and we spent a full day printing, cutting and gluing the pieces together.
The first games we played were with three or five people and we got quite mixed feedback. Everyone seemed to like the overall pace of the game and they also enjoyed the flavor, but there were a few problems that needed attention right away:
• There were too many types of spaceships (six) and they were not diverse enough.
• Not having any neutral forces on the map that players could engage made the first few turns very peaceful, some said too peaceful.
• There were too many technologies.
Testing, Testing, Testing
The early design faults were remedied after the first few tests and it was time for Exodus: Proxima Centauri to face a tougher audience: gamers with experience and high expectation from a game aiming to be called an "empire-building game". Their reaction was also positive, I would even say better than I could have expected since most of the complaints were going towards the graphics of the game rather then the gameplay itself. (For the record, at that time the game had "art" made in PowerPoint.) Even the people who did not want to criticize were still providing valuable ideas, being excited to be part of the making. I don't want to get too melancholic, so I'll get back to the point.
The intensive testing shifted the focus from finding design flaws to improving the ergonomics of the game. There were too many wooden pieces on the planets (resources and population), too many spaceships on the hexes, too many political decisions and so on. Also, the ten turns made the game way too long.
All these problems were quite easy to solve – it was happening over night, from one game to another – but the tougher playtesters are not the experienced gamers who find their way around shady rules, but the newbies who will complain about anything that is even remotely complicated to understand. I can say that the first game with Catan players was the trial of fire for Exodus: Proxima Centauri.
As soon as the game started, I was accused of being a communist. The players found the tax system – one that I was very proud of – too complex and punishing. I thought that they would destroy the game, complaining about anything and everything, but in fact, except for the ship blueprints, the feelings were overwhelmingly positive. I already knew about the "blueprints problem", putting parts on top of the ship design was just not good enough. One person sneezing could end an interesting game.
These encouraging results made us decide that the game was ready to be shown at gaming events. We had already scheduled LAGNA in Italy and the UK Games Expo in ... UK, so we had just a few months left to solve all the problems, to have a well-written rule book, and to make it look shiny with at least a few graphic details that would catch the eye.
A three-player late night game
Late prototype blueprintsThese months before the first convention were very intense. A typical week would include two playtests with different groups, analysis and consolidation of the feedback, and implementing changes. We also started working on the final graphics and with the progress of the graphic design came along a great deal of printing, gluing and cutting. It took the team one month to resolve all the issues listed above. Agnieszka came up with the idea of inserting the upgrades in the ships' blueprints, we decreased the number of turns to seven, and we wrote optional rules for short, long and combat-intensive games.
By the end of the testing period, the political decision diversified and were effectively interacting with the other parts of the game, eliminating the feeling that they were just a "side dish" that people could easily ignore without further consequences. On the contrary, some of our testers found this to be the most tense part of the game.
From the technology pool, we chose 28 which were the most relevant and preserved the rest for a possible expansion. Together with the number of turns we also reduced the amount of resources on each planet to a maximum of five, a number which made the initial setup not so scary. There were a lot of other small things that we worked on and in the end, in late May 2012 we had a working prototype ready to be shown in public.
I did mention earlier that the story of the Exodus universe went further than the Proxima Centauri game. By this moment, I had already developed a plan and initial sketches of a trilogy of games, provided that Exodus: Proxima Centauri would be a success – but this is a story for another time.
The Final Steps
Finalizing the rules meant asking the help of a Canadian friend. No one in our team is a native English speaker and we needed a critical eye with amazing language skills. It took five revisions to finally have a rule book that we could be proud of.
I think that one of the most difficult aspects of life for an engineer is to explain to an artist what he needs and to find understanding. There I was, just before the UK Games Expo with a game ready to go and I was hoping for some nice-looking art for the prototype I was going to show the world. I have to tell you: It was a long way from the prototype to what you can see today. We – the designers from NSKN – worked for more than 45 days with the artists to make Exodus look like a sci-fi game and keep the graphics as functional and as expressive as possible. It was tough, but it was worth the effort, we were happy with the outcome...
The biggest event this game has "seen" so far was in England. We had three full sessions of gaming and far more demos, and people were excited.
Choosing a company for manufacturing the game was another adventure. Our previous game, Warriors & Traders, was made in Germany and people expected us to provide the same quality. So we had to dig really deep to find not one, but two companies which together managed to put together a board game with a shear amount of components, wood, and plastic miniatures on top of the default cardboard. Just to outline what kind of quantities we're talking about, there are more than 300 wooden tokens in the Exodus game box, on top of the nine crowded punch-boards and 48 plastic space ships. So, our search took us to Poland, Germany, China (via Skype) and Romania. We tried for a long time to find an integrated service, but it proved to be impossible – so we settled for a complex operation, with one company proving the plastic pieces and the second one doing the printing, wood, and assembly of the games.
So here we are now, with this I-hope-not-too-long diary written in the late hours as we prepare for Spiel 2012 in Essen, Germany...