The Cruelty of Solo Game Designers
Aerion started with a simple (and rather mean) idea: Create a solo/two-player co-operative dice game in which you had to acquire resources by rolling different results (double pair, full house, street, etc…), but without getting any free re-rolls to improve the results of your dice. Instead, you'd have to pay for those re-rolls by discarding the very resources you were trying to acquire!
In Aerion, you are an air-shipwright tasked to build a new fleet of ships to traverse the skies of the Oniverse. The object of the game is to build six airships before your resources run out. You need three different resources (cards) for each ship: a blueprint to work off of, materials to build it, and a crew to fly it.
You have to manage your resources carefully as you construct each ship: There are two different crew types (each crew can man three types of ship), three different material types (each material allows you to build two types of ship) and six different blueprints (each ship has a specific blueprint).
You also have one more powerful asset that won't directly help you build ships, but does have multiple powerful effects: books. Book cards can be used to re-roll dice, recover discarded resources, or stockpile resources for later.
With the right roll, you can acquire one of the six available cards in the display. If you need a different roll to acquire the card you want, you can discard cards from the display to re-roll. You can keep trying until you either acquire a card or burn through all the cards currently in the display trying! The display isn't refreshed with new cards until the end of your turn, so you need to work with what's in front of you. Discarding cards from the display doesn't just limit your options; it brings you closer to defeat. If all the cards run out before you complete your task, you lose the game!
The airships take shape in your workshops, where you place the resources you've acquired. You can gather the materials and blueprints in any order you want, but your crews won't sit around waiting for the ship to be skyworthy, which means that you need to recruit them last once your ship is built (unless you have a game room, but more about that later). Note that you have only two workshops, so you won't be able to haphazardly accumulate resources that don't fit together.
For an example, let's say that last turn you acquired the cocoon material card and put it into one of your two workshops. Now you roll the dice, and this is what you get: 2/2/5/5/3/6. What should you do? Your dice result has two pairs which lets you acquire the incubus crew, but you don't need it yet as you would have to get a fitting combination of blueprint and material in one of your workshops first — and so far you have only one material card (the previously acquired cocoon).
If you could roll another 5 or 2, you could get the blueprint that goes with the cocoon you already have. Or if you could just roll a 4, you would have the series of sequential numbers necessary to acquire a different blueprint to put in your second workshop space. Or you could even try to get four of a kind to take the always useful book card.
Now, which dice should you re-roll? And, more importantly, which card from the display should you discard to do so?
Divide to Clarify
From the start of the design process, it was clear that I did not want to have all the resource cards in one single deck since this could lead to cards being drawn in unwinnable or unfun combinations, so I separated the cards into several pre-determined mini-decks, based on the combination of dice needed to acquire these cards.
As expected, this led to a much smoother and regular distribution of the cards into the display.
A happy side effect of this decision was that Aerion became something more than just a dice game. The decks are quite small, their composition is known (the symbols on the back serve as reminders), and the discarded cards visible, so the discard-to-re-roll decisions are made not only by determining which card on the display you want, but also which are the most expendable, which cards you could hope will appear next, and the general compatibility of the cards in the display (and, possibly, in the workshops). Aerion is a dice game, certainly, but also a game of...
Should we call this "deck management"?
Expanding: It's About Time!
When designing Oniverse games, building the expansions is always a fun and stimulating challenge: How far can I push the game's core mechanism and add (or, in certain cases, remove) elements without the whole thing falling apart? Aerion includes six expansions to present new challenges for players to conquer.
One of the first elements I wanted to explore was time. The game may put you in some excruciating situations, but it never really puts you under time pressure. If the dice don't seem to go your way, you can often adapt by getting another card than the one you were aiming for, then trying again later. None of this with The Hourglasses expansion! Now you must also acquire the six hourglass cards that remain on the display for only one turn!
The Hourglass expansion elicited its mirror concept: What about cards that you would like to keep in the display as long as possible? This led to The Stone Clouds expansion: Clouds (in the form of tokens) block the skies, and you have to get rid of them! To help you, you have the faithful hammer birds, but these bird cards cannot be acquired, only discarded, either to improve your rolls (so, basically, more free re-rolls here) or to destroy the stone clouds.
And here's the twist: The more hammer birds you use, the more stone clouds you can destroy — exponentially! But how long are you able to play around those bird cards without discarding them for a tempting re-roll?
Expanding: Highs, Lows, and the Villain!
Aerion's base game presents the player with this fundamental dilemma: Which card should I try to acquire, and which cards can I afford to discard for re-rolls to make that happen? The Stone Clouds expansion introduced an incentive for keeping cards in the display until you had multiple copies available, but I wanted to try a different twist on this dynamic as well: What about a card that you could discard for a more powerful re-roll, but with a cost?
The workers featured in The Piers expansion can work overtime to give you three re-rolls instead of one when you discard them, but you must give them their payday later in the game with a roll totaling 26 or more. The workers come with their own additional challenge: Building the piers necessary to properly launch the airships you've built.
The Piers expansion (and, to some extent, The Stone Clouds expansion) make high rolls valuable. But one quality I've always admired in dice games is finding ways to make low rolls useful in their own way. In Aerion, your low rolls can be used for one of the most difficult tasks of all: Hunting our newest villain, The Hellkite!
This vicious predator of the skies lurks in far-flung outposts, preventing you from acquiring the card type shown on the outpost where he currently sits. Fleeing from your hunt to lairs packed with the plunder of past raids, the Hellkite must then be confronted in the heart of his domain where you can reclaim stolen resources and liberate captured crews.
Expanding: Digging Deeper and a Bit of Cheating
When designing expansions, I always aim to ensure that they are fun to play in any combination — including all of them at once! Playing with the workers, hammer birds, and hourglasses together almost doubles the card count in each deck, so a bit of judicious deck manipulation was in order. Plus, there was another facet of the design I still wanted to explore: cards that could never be discarded from the display (in contrast to all other cards of the game, which can always serve as re-roll fodder).
Your friends, the hammer birds, have now laid Eggs all around. You have to retrieve them, being careful not to break a single one! Egg cards can never be discarded (on pain of losing the game!), but once acquired, you can use them to look at top cards of a deck, allowing you to chose a better card to put on the display. You can even do that after a dice roll to try to adapt the display to your roll!
(Thematic — and moral — footnote: Obviously, you are not holding the poor eggs for ransom! You give them back to their parents right away and, later on, the grateful hammer birds will help you see what is coming next. It is only the in-game mechanism that translates into you keeping the cards and using them when needed!)
Once I established a core concept and a series of variations on the central theme, it was time to throw all of that out the window and let players cheat!
The obligation to put acquired cards into the workshops? Gone! (Well, almost.) Now you have a seventh ship to build: The Flagship, which serves as its own workshop and blueprint. All you have to do is gather one copy of each material and of each crew. This additional ship clearly makes the game harder, so players get two cards that let them bend the rules a bit: the factory cards.
Each factory card gives you new capabilities that let you break some of the core rules of the game. No free re-rolls? The geniuses down in the Research Lab can shake that up! You must continue to discard cards until you can acquire something? The Security Department can put a stop to that! The crew has to be added last? Not if you can keep them entertained in the Game Room!
Other factory cards can make your books more effective or modify your re-rolls to let you turn a die to its opposite side. (This one's a special treat for players who prefer a little less randomness in the game.)
Final Destination, or the First Step of a Journey?
With six expansions (each with an optional difficulty setting), one could think that I explored all aspects of this "deck management" system. I actually had just got started. The next idea: What about getting rid of the dice altogether?
But this led to another chapter in the Oniverse and may (hopefully) be the subject of another diary someday.
For now, the skies are waiting! Grab your dice and build some airships!