Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A vision of "Gold on Mars"

Hohmann Transfer Orbit  
For some time now, I've been giving a lot of "thought exercise" to my "Gold on Mars" concept for a space-mining game.  One thing that I'd really got stuck on was how to model interplanetary spaceflight.  I'm something of a physics geek but only an amateur astronomer, so I felt as though I had to reinvent the equations for Hohmann transfers from scratch.  (That's kind of dumb, actually, as the equations are relatively common knowledge and generally available online.  But, you know, I'm a mathematician, and I like deriving my own stuff.)

I had something of a breakthrough last night, and with the aid of MSExcel and some internet research on planetary distances, I was able to establish relative amounts of fuel necessary to travel from earth to each of the planets as far as Jupiter.  (For reasons of game scale, I've elected not to include Saturn or the other extremely distant planets in the game.  After all, I need to leave room for an expansion.)

Mars image courtesy of NASA
National Space Science
Data Center (NSSDC) 
The nice thing about having this kind of mental breakthrough and then getting it down in writing is that it opens a logjam of ideas.  So many possibilities start coming to mind - how to scale rockets for different applications, how to handle the business of contracting to build rockets, how to handle the return flight, etc.  So I'm at an exciting if still early stage in design, but the best part is that I'm starting to construct the skeleton about which the prototype will be formed.

I mentioned earlier that Dr. Lewis Pulsipher (designer of Britannia and Dragon Rage) led a seminar on game design at WBC last week, and he said a couple of things that stuck with me.

  • First, a game design idea by itself is worthless.  What is worthwhile is a prototype that can be played, and until a designer has one, he's got no more than anybody else with an idea for a game.
  • Second, whenever a designer does get ideas, he writes them down and makes them real.  He doesn't risk forgetting them, but captures them and puts them in his toolbox for future consideration as he assembles the prototype.
I could easily do these things and follow many other suggestions he had with a straightforward family game like Trains Planes and Automobiles, but "Gold on Mars" is going to be different.  I feel that it will be much deeper and richer, and so its design and development will demand that much more work and attention.

One last consideration:  If I try to incorporate all of the ideas I have for "GoM," it will be a big, complex, cumbersome game.  A recurring theme in Dr. Pulsipher's talk (and a quote that he cites on every page on his website) is
"A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."  Antoine de Saint-Exup'ery
Indeed, he very recently posted an essay specifically on a comparison between simple and complex game designs.  I have a feeling that a significant portion of late design work for "GoM" will consist of pruning, trimming, and cutting back all the baroque detail that I will be inclined to add in the early design phase.  My hope, my vision, is that what will remain will be a 24-karat ingot of a space game.


  1. I definitely like that idea building stage of any project.

    The idea that a game is worthless without a prototype is actually something I've needed to hear. I always get the ideas for board games, but never dive off into putting together the prototype to try it out. Will fix that with the latest idea.

    I also love the Antoine de Saint-Exup'ery quote. My latest idea has already gone through a number of 'in my head' revisions that were a matter of gutting chaff that didn't add to the core game idea.

  2. It took me a while to make that leap myself. The first time I did it was with a multi-player game based on the wars of the successors of Alexander the Great. It was a terrific project, a lot of fun to put together, and I learned so much from every single playtest session. I never sold it, and put it on the shelf when GMT came out with a re-release of Avalon Hill's Successors. But it was a great first effort, and helped me get the ball rolling for the game that later became Trains Planes and Automobiles.

    I just started following your blog. If you decide to start assembling a prototype on a game idea, I look forward to reading about it.