Today’s interview is with Stefan Barton-Ross designer of Wild Abyss, a gorgeous card based 4x sci-fi game he is working on bringing to publication.
GDC: Give us an overview of your game and how it’s played.
Stefan: Wild Abyss is a card-based space strategy game set in a collapsing universe. Nomadic factions are racing to gather the resources to send their motherships through a rift to a different universe and ensure the future of mankind is in their hands. The game strikes the balance between elegant, fast paced strategy like 7 Wonders or Roll Through the Ages and sprawling, narrative rich space operas like Eclipse and Twilight Imperium.
Each player starts with a faction that incentivizes certain styles of play- militaristic, exploratory, reckless, technological etc. From there the player needs to choose between various decks of cards to shape their strategy. Resources grant persistent economic and technological advantages, Events provide one-off effects that are mostly tuned around making life difficult for other players and Ships provide players with a fleet to explore, blockade, battle and colonize the final type of card, Systems.
Systems mostly provide dice and the ability to re-roll them. Each turn a player rolls the dice granted by systems they control, with the results allowing them to explore new systems or draw cards from the various decks. Each turn a new random set of systems is dealt out for players to explore and fight over. Players send ships from their fleet face down to systems and fight if more than one player sends ships to a given system. Whoever remains at the end of turn can control the system and add it to their holdings.
Over the game players accrue upgrades for their motherships which can be gained, lost and spent from various interactions. Stockpiling upgrades unlocks new factional abilities along the way. When a player reaches 100 upgrades they can attempt to send their mothership through the Abyss and win the game.
Wild Abyss is played simultaneously- all players take their turns at once, even during combat. That means there’s very little sitting around waiting and games with five or even more players can still be played in a couple of hours.
GDC: What innovative mechanic or creative idea distinguishes your game from others?
Stefan: Largely it is the careful combination of mechanics, rather than any given one. There are a couple of interesting ones however.
Players draw cards each turn based on their resource infrastructure. Each card has a cost which can be paid by discarding a number of other cards drawn from the same deck at the same time. All cards are valuable, so choosing which to use to pay for which gives a set of unique and interesting options each turn with an intricate balance of risk and reward on how focused on drawing a certain type of card one should be.
Players always choose to take the risks. It’s not like snakes and ladders where every turn you can’t help but risk sliding on down, or where you must draw from a deck each turn that occasionally throws up a baddie. A player can very carefully manage the risks they’re taking, so the game never punishes you without you ‘sticking your hand behind the couch’ as it were.
The second interesting aspect is the way I’m trying to handle spaceship combat. Rather than plastic tokens dicing off, I’m using card based ships. Ships have subsystems which do certain things- a cannon might put 3 damage counters on an enemy ship, where a beam weapon might put 1 damage counter on 4 enemy ships in a line. A shield may allow you to remove 2 damage counters from the ship, or move them to other friendly ships. The cool thing about this system is everyone can go at once- you put counters on enemy ships while they put them on yours, then you both take them off at once- so you can have 5 people in a single fight all shooting at each other simultaneously, ganging up, switching allegiance, trying to make a fighting retreat and so on. It’s a really cinematic combat model and I have high hopes that it will strike a chord with the space strategy crowd.
GDC: Tell us about the spark or inspiration for this game.
Stefan: I got started on the concept talking with a friend about card-resource mechanics after having played Eclipse for the first time. While I love (love love love) space strategy as a genre, I found Eclipse incredibly unwieldy with the huge amount of setup time, tokens, chits and rules hidden away in a rulebook. My investigations suggested most other space strategy boardgames are cut from the same cloth. I felt I could do a better job. Perhaps overambitious, but if you don’t aim high, you don’t achieve much.
Wild Abyss was designed from the ground up to do away with a lot of the clutter that the big, sprawling strategy games have without sacrificing the depth of customization and narrative that those games create. In fact, thanks to the card model I think the game reliably creates more colorful scenarios and cinematic moments than any of the big 4x titles around now.
GDC: Let’s talk about the design process. Tell us a bit about the iterations the game has gone through and the refinements you’ve made along the way.
Stefan: My prototyping process is a bit strange compared to most I’ve seen. I figure out the core mechanics I’m going to be working with but pay very little attention to balance early on. For Wild Abyss, the mechanical core of the game is very simple, but there are about 200 unique cards which put meat on those bones. To give you an idea of how much care I take with designing those for the first prototype, the lot took me about 4 hours to write up. I just think of a load of different interesting things you can do within the mechanics and throw in a few instances of each to see what happens.
I make these placeholders look fancy and put them into the field- what I call a blank prototype. It looks good, feels good but there’s nothing subtle there. I gauge the fundamentals from this and then redesign everything from the ground up from there once I’ve seen people play it in the flesh. That’s where I am now- the first iteration of the game with a (somewhat more) carefully designed card set is on its way to me now for testing.
GDC: What has been your biggest challenge in designing this game?
Stefan: Having spaceship combat be more than just plastic tokens and dice rolls. I mean, space battles are perhaps the most cinematic of all- great warships hammering each other with ridiculous firepower, swarms of fighters zipping around with impossible dexterity and so on.
Conveying that in a way that fitted in with the smooth speed of the rest of the game has proved a challenge, partly due to the difficulty of switching from strategy to tactical combat in a game designed for multiplayer scaling and simultaneous play. My first iteration proved woeful in that regard- in isolation it’s fantastic, but the space it took up and the time- some larger battles were taking 20 minutes or more because of players analyzing every possible contingency- were prohibitive. I’ve had to rebuild that from the ground up. I still think combat is perhaps more complex than it could be for an ideal fast and furious game, but I think the people who enjoy 4X type games will relish the tactical depth and cinematic decision making they have access to here.
GDC: Let’s shift gears and talk about you. How did you get into game design?
Stefan: I was the kid who wanted to redesign pass the parcel at pre-teen birthday parties because it wasn’t fair, or made up incredibly convoluted and imbalanced games and was sad none of my friends wanted to play them. Strangely enough, not much has changed since then.
GDC: What is your greatest moment as a game designer?
Stefan: Difficult to say really, I haven’t really achieved a great deal yet. Game design brings many moments of insight, joy and frustration to your doorstep on a regular basis, but these blend together into a delicious and long lasting sweet-and-sour experience, rather than everyday blandness spiked with moments of fiery spice. You might say the greatest moment as a game designer is waking up each day and realizing you’re still doing it.
GDC: Tell us a little bit about your life outside of game design and gaming: family? work? other interests?
Stefan: I like to cook, write, draw, paint, read, chat. A lot of typical nerdy hobbies. I take gaming a step further though in that for me ‘games design’ isn’t a hobby or even a desired career track. It’s a life philosophy in that I recognize the power of games as tools not just for entertainment, but political and social manipulation, both positive and negative.
So when I’m not making up boardgames, I’m thinking and reading about how the craft skills I possess can be used to help educate children in developing nations in a way that allows them to control their own cultures, encourage self respect and self determination, solve logistical problems and generally be good for humanity on a grander scale. Games are really quite incredibly powerful things when you dig down far enough into what they represent.
GDC: Do you have any works-in-progress or game ideas you would like to share?
Stefan: I’ve been reading some SM Stirling and Harry Turtledove recently, which got me and a friend thinking about another idea for a more traditional grand strategy board game. Send a few modern towns in non first world nations back to the beginning of the industrial revolution to give their respective areas a leg-up against the European and American industrial superpowers. Marshal the few ‘future’ resources and the wealth of future knowledge that was brought back with you – or play a period character who takes entrepreneurial advantage of this scenario to seize power in the west, ready to play out the great game with the futuristic interlopers- to create an entirely new historical scenario and then play out grand strategy with a twist.
GDC: What games have you been playing lately? What have you liked, what have you disliked, and why?
Stefan: I played K2 and Escape! recently, both of which I liked a great deal. Escape! in particular was a lovely combination of simple mechanics with a couple of innovative touches that really sang in the playing. I also played Avalon/The Resistance a few times and personally don’t see what the fuss is about. Professionally I’m very interested in them, since they seem to strike a popular nerve, but I think they’re perhaps so elegant and clean that, given I spend my days trying to decypher the ins and outs of impossibly complex machines like Magic: the Gathering or League of Legends, I just couldn’t find anything to get a grip on.
I value elegance highly in game design, a concept which to me means achieving depth and intuitive complexity through outwardly simple mechanics. I don’t think The Resistance achieves that in terms of design. A deep and complex game can happen, of course, but it’s largely based on the actual people playing the game, not on the capabilities of the game itself. The quality of the experience thus depends on the quality of people you play the game with. This is true of everything of course, but here it is far more pronounced. I don’t know whether to love or hate that, really.
GDC: Share your favorite game you haven’t designed and why?
Stefan: That’s a tough one. For boardgames I have to go with 7 Wonders, because it really cracked the strategy nut and got people sitting down and having fun with the genre who normally would not. Plus it’s just such a beautiful re-purposing of the cube-draft system. For card games, I think FFG’s new take on Netrunner is stellar, both in terms of the living card game format and the game itself. On the tabletop, Warhammer is perhaps the game I have played the most of for the longest, and it was the one that taught me the complexities and procedures of games design. Finally, for videogames, Bastion is just a wonderful journey in both mechanic and aesthetic design, backed by a soundtrack that can’t be beat.
GDC: One word of advice to your fellow game designers?
Stefan: Pumpernickel. Ok, in seriousness: Look further. Dig deeper. People have been studying and thinking about games and play in serious ways for centuries. Games have been created (albeit not designed in the modern sense) for millennia. The world is saturated with secret texts on game design, which our modern discussions are often simply re-hashing, because ‘game design’ isn’t written on their cover. Find them. Use them.
GDC: Anyone you’d like to give a shout out to? (playtesters, design mentors, your friendly local game store, etc.)
Stefan: Mike Skolnik, a buddy of mine who’s just about to submit his PHD on games as ethical intervention, casts Fighting Games and does let’s plays of interesting indie stuff. Jack Kelly , a friend who interned at Google, sails tallships, blogs about classical literature and triggered this whole Wild Abyss thing in the first place. In deference to the previous question, Brian Sutton-Smith, a living legend who has written more about games and play than I have read. Finally, Jess Goodwin, Games Workshop’s lead miniature designer and my deepest inspiration for pragmatic-aesthetic design.
GDC: Tell us how (and where) we can find you (social networks, BGG username, website, cons you plan to attend).
Stefan: I’m pretty reclusive on the whole, comes from working day and night banging out game ideas. I do however run a blog that talks about game design. Elsewhere- on BGG, teamliquid and twitter, my normal hangouts, I’m known as thereisnosaurus. Being an Aussie I don’t get to go to many cons, but if you happen to be in town and would enjoy making my acquaintance, I’m sure I’d enjoy making yours.