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Designer Diary: To Andromeda and Beyond! Approaching Destination...

Jan Zalewski
Poland
Warsaw
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Near final cover
In the life of every boardgamer comes a time when you start asking yourself, "Maybe I should design a game?" For me it was in early 2013. I gave it a deep thought, and I still wasn't sure whether I should do it. After all, there are sooooo many games on the market and the people behind them are professionals with years of experience.

All those doubts resulted in one simple conclusion: If I were to design a game, it had to be something special. As a result, I started thinking about what I was missing in other games. Two things popped out: very interactive games in which the focus isn't on negative interaction and small scaled space sci-fi games. All of the other space games are about conquering galaxies and fighting to save the universe, but I wanted a game about a single, small ship, so I started designing two games.

Two Games, Two Beginnings

When I started thinking about game design, I read a lot about it — and I really mean a lot! During that time I've learned that there are couple of ways in which you can start your design process:

• From the mechanisms (I imagine most famous German eurogames here)
• From the theme (e.g., BSG, Warhammer)
• From the components (e.g., Tzolk'in, Loopin' Louie)
• From the player experience (e.g., Robinson Crusoe)

But when somebody asks me how I started designing Andromeda, my answer is "with all of them at the same time".

As already mentioned, in late 2013 I was designing two games at the same time. I thought maybe at least one of them could become something interesting.

For the first one, I'd even written the rules, but the rules and mechanisms weren't as important to me as the player experience. There is a lot of things in games that I like, but I really love two: "meat" and "elegance". Think about "meat" as the amount of cool and interesting dilemmas offered to you, while "elegance" is how easy it is to teach and comprehend a design.

So I wanted as much meat and as much elegance as I could get. I wanted players to feel like they are solving a mystery each game, with the next play going to be different and just as exciting. Pretty ambitious, I know.

The second game was set in space. A couple of peacefully coexisting factions are disturbed by the arrival of a mysterious ship. Each race desperately wants to examine this thing as everyone thinks it's important. Whoever is the fastest to unveil the riddle will win.

As you probably have already guessed two games quickly merged into one. The first swallowed up the second, or maybe it was the other way around? Today I can't even tell.

Components, Mechanisms, and Cosmic Player Experience

As for the components, I knew that my game must include dice. I'm a big fan of risk management and the variability (even randomness) that dice can provide. Most of my favorite games have dice, so naturally I wanted them in my game. I think that you must love the game you are designing. It's impossible to create a great product without a passion for it, and in this field you need it more than anywhere else. After all, you are going to spend a couple hundred hours playing your game with other players.

As far as the mechanisms are concerned, I longed for something good and less-known that I could tweak for my needs. Once again, ambitious, I know. Nevertheless, I found what I was looking for by combining the "I split you choose" mechanism with dice! After a few tests I knew that it was a great choice. It allowed me to provide players with the experiences I wanted: a lot of cool interactions that allowed you to start deciphering the opponent's plans while at the same time hiding your own strategy.

Theme came from my non-board game hobby: watching American TV shows. At the time my friend recommended Stargate Universe, a show about humans exploring an ancient alien ship. I was having a blast watching it, so I decided to make something like that but in reverse. In my game, the aliens were going to explore an ancient human ship.

I made the game, and it was ready for the first set of tests...

First Few Tests and Breath of Monsoon

The first couple of games that I played with my friends went pretty well, but I honestly didn't know what to expect. I improved the game and started tests with my dad. My game was constantly improved, but then I encountered a problem I hadn't thought of before. Aside from my family and friends, it was really hard to get someone to play my prototype. Naturally people don't like to play games without cool graphics, especially games that may or may not work. I knew I had to test my design with strangers to *really* test it and it was becoming a serious issue.

Luckily I'd heard about a group for designers and testers, based in my city, called Monsoon. I have to say the first test there was really stressful. I feared they might trash my game completely, but on the contrary the feedback was very positive. It motivated me to work even harder. I think it was the first time I thought I might publish this game someday.



Testing in progress


With even more help from our Warsaw group I was developing and testing my game every week for a couple of months. Finally, the game was as ready as it could be at that time. In Andromeda players were exploring a space ship. Each one of them controlled an alien race with a unique power. Every room on the ship was different, and in each game, players had different set of special actions available to them. Even so, my variation of "I split, you choose" was the most unique part. I was pretty happy with what I'd done and started looking for a publisher.

Designing Contest

Once again I got help from the Monsoon Group. Łukasz Pogoda (designer of Basilica and Savannah) persuaded me that I should send them to a contest held by Polish publisher Galakta. I made a prettier prototype, wrote a full rulebook (you can't imagine how hard it is!), tested the rulebook over a dozen of times (the best idea I've had), and sent it all in the mail.

Then I waited.

Waiting is hard, guys. Two-and-a-half months was a long time. I honestly didn't expect to do well and thought the other designers would have something better — but when the results came and I discovered that I had won, I was thrilled! After a quick phone call, I got on a train to Cracow to discuss further cooperation.

Improvements, Improvements, Improvements

What surprised me the most is how professionally they tested my game. My future publisher was well aware of the strong and weak sides of the project. As a result, a couple of their ideas for improvements became a vital part of the game. I had a lot of work to do to make sure my game "would jump from good to great" (my publisher's words). We had a deal, and we worked hard to complete the game for Spiel 2014, but unfortunately even working on it 110% we couldn't do it. We decided to go there with an almost finished prototype to gather more information and get some buzz.

Spiel 2014 and Waiting

I think Spiel is a true boardgamer's dream. It was my first time, and I was going with my own design! How cool is that. I didn't know what to expect at all. The fair starts on Thursday, and I arrived at 6 a.m. after an all-night car journey. I slept for maybe an hour, so I had my natural zombie cosplay on when it all began.



Happy designer showing off the prototype at Spiel 2014


But I quickly forgot about exhaustion and just went with it. It was amazing. Seeing other people playing your game and having fun – that is the ultimate designer's experience in my opinion. Even now, when I remember faces, smiles, and all the kind words, I immediately begin to smile. From Germany I returned with very positive feelings, despite the fact I lost my voice for over a week.

The publisher decided that we needed to improve the production: new graphics, better components. I couldn't be happier with the decision, but it also meant that the game was going to be further delayed. Writing this diary now in September 2015, I must say that waiting is the hardest part of designing a game. You have no influence over it; you just need to learn to be patient. But it's worth it. It really is. I know it will be magical when I'm back at the fair this year where I'll see my beautifully produced game and all those people having fun playing it. I can't wait! See you all there!



Dice (above) and miniatures (below) from the final version

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