I've been working on a board game since the spring of 2010, called "Mass Victory." It started as a collaboration between myself and my daughter - based upon a discussion we had about how mass affected acceleration in space. She was so excited about it that she stayed up late and built a gameboard model of the solar system, along with a few pink cardboard ships. She was just 9 years old at the time.
The game has gone through a ton of iterations, and I'm comfortable sharing the first few months of my design process - because almost all of it has subsequently been thrown out.
There were two things which happened to make me start putting serious work into a board game. First, I entered into a new work-for-contract agreement with Pipeworks which did NOT specifically forbid me from doing other types of design work. This was pretty unusual - for most of my adult life my creative ideas have not belonged to me. The second thing was that David Sirlin (he's my nemesis) announced the imminent publication of a board game HE had designed.
So armed with a potent mix of enthusiasm and one-upmanship, I came up with the following goals:
1 - Provide players with a small handful of options for their turn.
2 - Allow the game to "develop" into different states, with different sorts of endgames.
3 - Provide the same experience with 2,3,4,5 players - probably through the use of "Dummy" players to full absent roles.
4 - Use as few pieces (cards, counters) as possible, and as generic as possible. This probably means putting a lot of interesting, complex information on the board.
#4 was mostly the result of a conversation I had with my proposed game manufacturer & distributor. He said that molded plastic pieces were very expensive - and that any non-paper pieces would really drive up the cost (and weight). I was also worried about piracy - if your game is simple to replicate, there is very little incentive to pay money for it. Designing a very complex board, with paper accessories, seemed like a good direction to go in.
Players would play Spaceships in my game, I decided, and very versatile ships at that. Each player would select one of several spaceship "characters" which had different properties, and asymmetrical advantages which would influence play. Some ships were fast and small, some slow and heavy - some could survive passing through a black hole! Some got weaker as they moved towards victory, but most got stronger. But all ships had the same basic set of attributes: Mining, Thrusters, Cargo, Actions, Lasers.
MINING is simply the number of six-sided dice you roll when your ship mines for minerals. This generally starts at one, and goes up.
THRUSTERS is the number of extra spaces you may move up to while flying through space. Because of gravitational effects, you don't always want to fly as far as possible, so thrusters give you some much-needed versatility.
CARGO is the maximum number of minerals you may hold on your ship.
ACTIONS is the maximum number of cards you may keep in your hand.
LASERS is the number of dice you roll when firing your lasers. Firing a laser costs 1 mineral, so you might not always want to fire your maximum number. This value also increases your maximum range for combat.
Building the Board
My first inspiration was Solar Quest, which I quite enjoyed playing when I was 10 or so. My favorite feature about the game was the fact that the path around the board was non-linear. You had to "escape" each large planet's gravity in order to proceed - so in some cases you would be stuck orbiting Jupiter for 10 or 15 turns before you got a good enough roll to move forward. However, it had always bothered me that if you didn't roll well enough you would simply halt for the turn - that seemed wrong in the vacuum of space, in which you continue moving at your current speed unless something interferes.
So I decided to improve upon this idea - building a board in which you would be trapped by the gravity of various moons & planets - but in which you could never stop moving. Here was an early piece
The idea was that ships would move around the board anti-clockwise. When they approached the blue planet they had a choice - either smoothly move into orbit by transferring to the dark blue line, or try to ignore the planet's gravity and just rocket past. If you tried to rocket past and failed - you would crash into the planet or moon. You would move into orbit around either of the moons in the same way.
In order to leave orbit, you had to move past any "hollow" spaces between you and the main track. See those two blue circles with black dots on the left side of the planet orbit? That means this particular planet has a gravity well extending two spaces.
The blank spots inside the orbits had another purpose as well - they represented the main path should that moon or planet be removed from play. I had decided that stellar manipulation would play some part in my game!
I eventually ended up with four planetary systems, each with a unique arrangement of moons, orbits, and gravitational forces.
Stellar Manipulation -or- Playing with Mass
My daughter was fascinated by the concept of a black hole - that enough mass would crush itself. So we decided that the concept of Mass would be a key object of manipulation. I liked the idea that mass could be converted to energy - and vice-versa. So players could just grab raw mass from any orbiting body, and convert it into energy. But wouldn't that eventually deplete the mass in the system? I decided that all mass converted into energy in this way would eventually find its way back out. The system would be closed, with mass moving around intentionally and unintentionally. And if too much came together in one spot - black hole!
So I labeled every stellar body with a mass value, and we started playtesting this game of mass manipulation. One huge problem stuck out immediately - constantly counting the mass on everything was a major pain. I had a few rules which had seemed simple enough:
1 - If any body has 100 mass or more, that system collapses into a black hole.
2 - If any moon has 50% or more of the mass contained by its planet - the moon and planet collide (move all mass from the moon onto the planet.)
3 - Any mass broken off from a planet settles on a random moon.
My idea was that mining ships running roughshod through a system might break off a chunk of a planet - which would then land on a moon - which would then be pulled into the planet - which might possibly collapse into a black hole.
But calculating the relative mass of everything was just too much record-keeping, and it dragged the game down to a snail's pace. After my initial flurry of effort, this fundamental flaw set me back quite a bit.
On the Rebound
I didn't actively try to refine my design for several weeks - though I let my mind spin on the problems from time to time. Another element I had been unhappy with was my card design - I had three decks of cards - generic cards, movement cards, and mining cards. Because of my focus on mass, and its effect on acceleration, I had developed a player spectrum with extreme speed (low mass) on one end and virtual immobility (high mass) on the other. Players would start neutral, but would eventually settle on one play style or the other. I had captured these different sort of playstyles in different decks of action cards, allowing players to draw from different decks depending on their actions.
But this meant 100 different cards - and I know firsthand how different types of cards tend to mix together when stored in a box. I was determined to get down to just 1 or 2 types of cards. Since each planetary system was in a different color, I thought that maybe a different kind of mass could be mined from each planet. (Yes, this went against my original idea that mass was all interchangeable) Then I hit upon the idea that, if you needed specific kinds of mass to power the different card effects, I could easily put several effects on each card, since you could only use the ones for which you had the proper color of mass. So instead of 4 decks of cards, I was able to design a single (slightly oversized) deck, which had 4 abilities on each card - one free, one blue, one green, one red. This had the happy side-effect of allowing players to "hoard" cards they couldn't use, just to make sure their opponents wouldn't draw them.
So good then - my card proliferation problem was solved. But now I've really dug myself into a hole, because I've only made my myriad of mass counters problem worse, by introducing multiple types of mass.
But at some point I realized that giving each planet and moon a base mass was, honestly, unnecessary. I don't care how much mass a planet started with - only how much it's gained or lost. So I could start with the board entirely clear of mass counters, and simply introduce them as chunks got blown off the planets, or moons were hurled around as long-range bombs. This made the counter-counting problem almost trivial. In fact, I was even able to adjust the sort of minerals you could mine out of each body depending upon whether or not there were errant chunks of other planets mixed in.
For example, one of my blue moons has the following mining chart:
1 - nothing, 2 - red*, 3 - green*, 4 - blue, 5 - blue, 6 - blue.
That is, for each mining robot you roll a d6. If you get a 4,5,6 you gain one blue mineral. If you roll a 1 you get nothing. If you roll a 2 or 3 you get nothing if there is no extra mass present, OR you get a red or green mineral (respectively) and remove one extra mass. So moons are rather poor mining prospects initially, but they become rather interesting as they gain extra mass.
Removing the generic mass counters also allowed me to put a unique mining chart on each stellar body. This fed nicely into goal #4!
My initial list of ship actions nicely answered how I would achieve my #1 goal. Generic mass counters and multi-purpose cards achieved my #4 goal. Evolving ship abilities over time gave me a great solution for #2. But #3 was a real stickler.
For months now I've been trying to hash out how I could use dummy ships to simulate lost players. This is a critical consideration, because this sort of game just dies if there isn't enough player interaction - and the board is way too big for 2 ships to interact at any sort of reasonable frequency. 4 or 5 ships works great - but how could I guarantee than number of ships in a 2 or 3 player game?
The start of a solution came out of Cosmic Encounter - one of my all-time favorite games. Cosmic Encounter, you see, gives each player a unique alien power, with which they can break certain rules of the game. It's the ultimate asymmetrical game! But I've almost never played with a unique power per player - instead I've pretty much ALWAYS played with 2 or even 3 powers per player! More powers = more crazy games.
When I play Descent with my two kids, one of us is the overlord, and the other two play 2 heroes apiece. When we play Scotland Yard, one person is Mr. X, and the other players fill out the 5 detectives. So why couldn't players play multiple ships?
The next few ideas hit me all at once, after I had started down this road. Each player would actually play a team of ships. In a 4-player game there could be two team pairs, or one pair of players and two players each playing a pair (for 6 ships) or each player could play two ships (for a total of 8!). Let players decide how many ships to play, and how many ships are on a team. So long as I always have at least 4 ships orbiting the sun, my mechanics work.
And even better - making the game a TEAM game solves the runaway leader problem. You see, because of the nature of positive reinforcement, the leader tends to grow their lead over time. It's almost impossible for the underdog in a 5-player game to jump ahead of the leader. But in a team game you don't have to do that - you just need to make sure you're not the lowest member on the totem pole. One team loses (the team which includes the least developed ship) and everyone else wins. It's musical chairs on a stellar scale.
This means that the more advanced member of your team actually has no incentive to advance further and further. Rather, they should be focused on helping their team-mate catch up. This means that there will always be both collaborative and competitive elements at work. It also means teams could "team-up" to mutual advantage. It allows the design of strictly altruistic cards - since you can always play them on your buddy. And finally, it gave me my new name for the game - "Mass Victory" (Mass is the resource you need to win, and you need to win as part of a group - double entendre, get it?)
I've been purposefully obscure about some of my gameplay design (I don't want to get scooped!), and I'm sorry if I've been accidentally oblique about things I needn't hide. I'm very excited about this game, and I hope to introduce it to everyone before the end of 2011.