Design Diary Jul 5, 2013

Today is Design Diary Friday (OK – my initial plan was to release the GDC podcast on Fridays, but I’m still working out a few technical difficulties, so the podcast has been postponed to Sunday). The Design Diary will feature a work-in-progress game – either one of my own designs, or that of a guest blogger – and will give an overview of that game in its current state and some information on specific design challenges. Depending on the stage of development it may include print and play files for download. Future Design Diaries will provide updates on that game as it progresses through the design process.

First Colony

First Colony developed out of my first attempt at a deck-building game. It started as a traditional deck-builder (Dominion like) but has morphed substantially over the past few development cycles to incorporate a gameboard and a non-traditional method of deck-building.

The Homeworld has always been fractured as many factions vie for supremacy – but in an amazing showing of solidarity it has finally launched a cooperative effort to establish it’s first colony in another star system. Cut off from the Homeworld except via telekinetic transmissions and periodic supply vessels the fragile colony struggles to survive, exposed to threats from without and within. Players of First Colony represent influential members of this new colony attempting to gain influence among its many factions and wrest political control away from their opponents, while at the same time working with the other faction leaders to protect the colony from the many threats that face it.

Players begin with a “deck” of six standard cards. Unlike most deck building games these cards are separated into several face-up “Ready Piles”, one pile for each cost (all the cards of the same cost go in the same pile). Players start with three cost 0 cards, two cost 1 cards, and one cost 2 card. The cards on the top of each pile are the cards currently available to that player. As cards are played they are moved to face down discard piles (one just below each ready pile). Players alternate in turns, taking one action per turn. Once all players have played through all their cards a refresh phase occurs and the game is reset by flipping each discard pile face up to re-form the corresponding ready pile – thus eliminating the annoying shuffling that consumes half the playtime in deckbuilders.

Players may purchase additional cards for their deck from a recruitment area on the gameboard that is replenished each round. Costs to purchase cards are paid by discarding cards from the top of your ready piles. So for example, to buy a cost 2 card you would need to discard the top card of two different ready piles. Since a player only begins with 3 ready piles, a cost 3 card is the maximum a player may buy on their first round. However, by buying a cost 3 card the player places it in a new cost 3 discard pile and on the following round he now has 4 ready piles allowing him to purchase a cost 4 card. Ramping up into higher cost cards gives you more powerful plays, but also reduces your ability to control the board for the round as many of your cards have been discarded to pay costs.

Aside from each player’s starting cards the remaining cards in the game are contained in two decks: The Reserve and the Scenario deck. The reserve is a large base set of cards that is included in every game, while the Scenario deck is a small specific set of cards that together present a specific threat for the colony to overcome (hostile aliens, terrorist bombing, uncovering an ancient artifact, etc.). Players can pick which scenario deck to use for each game and this deck sets the theme of that game and defines the condition for ending the game. At the beginning of each round cards on the board are replenished from both the Reserve and Scenario decks.

Players decks are composed of Unit cards. Units represent specific individuals, groups, creatures, and vehicles within the colony. Unit cards have one (or more) of five different skills: Military, Science, Diplomacy, Trade, and Psionics. Unit cards may be deployed (discarded) to perform specific skill-dependant actions. For example, the “Agriculture” action may only be performed by discarding a Science unit.

Many of the actions a player can perform allow them to exert influence over a common pool wooden cube “colonists”. These colonists represent the general population and labor force of the colony. Each colonist is assigned to a specific location on the board indicating its role. They can produce food, recreate to lower unrest, defend locations, produce exports, issue propaganda, or engage in organized crime. Players can discard a Science or Trade unit to retask a colonist from one role to another.

Throughout the game players have a variety of actions they may undertake:
* Vie to gain control of special Location cards that provide powerful bonuses.
* Attempt to gain specific titles awarded each round that grant special powers (Governor, Mob Boss, General).
* Work together to complete Challenge cards representing specific goals and threats that must be overcome for the colony to survive and thrive.
* Accumulate victory points by exporting luxury goods to the Homeworld
* Control their reputation with the Homeworld by manipulating the psionic telegraph transmissions between the two worlds.
All the above actions are performed by deploying units with the appropriate matching skills.

Design Decisions

It seems like there is a lot going on, and there is. Many parts of the game (such as the list of actions available) are still in flux, and I will likely need to pare it down a bit to make it more lean. I think I’m still trying to do too much, although it is my intent for this to be a heavier weight “gamer’s game”.

The goal is to give players meaningful decisions. On a player’s turn he must decide which of his ready units to deploy, and what action to perform with the deployed unit based on its skill. He must weigh the value of the action against the option of discarding one or more Units to recruit a new unit to his “deck”. The game is heavy on player interaction. Players must decide which of the many objectives each turn to fight for and which to abandon to their opponents. There is also a hint of a cooperative element as players must temporarily pool their resources to overcome difficult Challenge cards.

Friends in my playgroup agreed to be guinea pigs for me and the game has gone through several playtest sessions. The first two were rather unsuccessful – the game was so broken we had to end it after only a few rounds. However, the more recent playtests have worked better and with each iteration there are fewer glaring problems to fix. I can see now since this game ranks higher on the complexity chart that tuning it correctly is a more difficult process than it would be for a simpler design.

Several portions of the design are working rather well. The ready pile mechanic eliminates the deck-builder shuffling problem and provides an innovative way to ramp up power levels throughout the game. While somewhat difficult to envision from written text it is fairly intuitive and my playtesters thus far have picked it up quickly. The game also seems to do a good job of presenting the player with a handful of options each turn – enough to promote strategy while not so many as to cause analysis paralysis or apathy.

There’s still a lot of work to do, but the basics are fleshed out at this point. I plan to provide an update on this game in a few weeks, hopefully with some print and play files for you to experiment with! Have questions or comments? Please leave them below, I’d love your feedback.

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