Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Showing posts with label Gold on Mars. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gold on Mars. Show all posts

Monday, June 11, 2012

Sometimes it takes a whole new theme

I had not been able to make my interplanetary mining game "Gold on Mars" work in a way that made sense to me.  I was frustrated with trying to model space flight in a workable yet representative way.  Things just weren't making sense on the drawing board.  And the things that did make sense ended up looking too much like High Frontier.  I shared the difficulties I was having with my game-playing historical-mystery-writing wife, and she said, "instead of setting it in the future, have you considered setting it in the past?"

Coins of the Modern East India Company of England
Image courtesy of emeritus.ancients.info
It wasn't long before I had turned the theme around completely.  My working title is "East India Company."  Instead of CEOs of aerospace mining companies, players in this new design represent 18th century investment and trade companies. Players seek exotic commodities in far-flung places of the New World and the Far East, rather than rare earths among the inner planets and the moons of the gas giants.  Ships travel by trade winds rather than rocket fuel.  The result is a much more elegant design, eminently more playable, one that retains the commodity market elements that I really wanted to keep without a lot of unnecessary complications that I had adopted in the course of trying to make space flight investment work.

I've sketched out a basic map and typed up an initial set of cards, each of which describes a marketable product from a colony somewhere around the world.  Players will seek to monopolize colonies, build ships, and find ideal trade routes to maximize profits.  One element that I have just begun to consider is the ability to corner a market and how that might improve profitability.  Trade with the most active colonies will be threatened by pirates as well.

I've pretty much got the entire concept in my head and the most crucial, numerical elements on paper.  The next step is, naturally, a playable prototype, followed by playtesting.  I'm hopeful that I've got a good concept that I can develop into a game that crosses commodities trading with pickup-and-deliver in a fun, approachable way.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Gold on Mars: It's been done

The game that burst
my bubble
I was doing some market research today for my "Gold on Mars" game concept, and I've made that heart-sinking discovery that somebody has already done what I had in mind, better than I could have done it myself.  High Frontier (designer and artist Phil Eklund, publisher Sierra Madre) seems to have all the elements I wanted to manifest in "Gold on Mars," but (based on reviews) better than the prototype I've been crafting.

So, bottom line, I'll have to get a copy of HF.  It looks like fun.

*Heavy sigh*  Meanwhile, back to the drawing board.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Design inspiration

Working trademark for
"Gold on Mars"
Missing Unpub2 on Saturday inspired me to set aside a "designer day" of my own.  Since I had today off from work, I decided to sit down with "Gold on Mars" and nail down all the loose ends in my design.  My goal was to have a playable prototype by the end of the day.  I didn't quite get there, but I did get a good draft of rules for the commodities market written up and settled on the actual commodities and price structure that I think will work.  Everything will change with playtesting, of course, but I like my first cut to represent enough thought and planning that when it goes to table for the first time, it plays at least roughly well.

Space travel is still my major sticking point, and I wish I'd spent more time on it.  I think I finally settled on some rules for how much fuel is required to get to each planet, and how much fuel must be carried (or produced in situ) for the return trip.  I just don't want to get hung up on making players do too much math, or end up with such widely disparate transit costs among planets that a degenerate strategy develops to ignore distant mining sites in favor of those closer to Earth.

Another concern I have is the risk of a jackpot mining operation resulting in a runaway leader.  Mining is necessarily speculative, and has to have a major upside potential to justify the expense and risk of space travel, but if one player hits it big and others have mines that run dry, then the game simply ends up being an exercise in dice and card luck.  So once I do have a prototype, the first few playtests will have to expose the luck factors and point me in the direction of redesigning and reworking game elements to make it a contest of thoughtful risk management, more than just luck or puzzle-solving.

I do love a challenge.


Beer, wine, and Citadels
We did a fair amount of family gaming over the long weekend.  Saturday night saw us break in my dad's copy of Trains Planes and Automobiles.  We had a fun five-player session that saw the lead change hands several times before I finally won - almost entirely with railroad cities and without a single airport.  Sunday night we played a seven-player Sour Apples to Apples (publisher Mattel, strangely missing from mattel.com).   A Christmas gift from our oldest son, SAtA, like the original AtA, is a fun game for a big group.  (Lesson learned:  There's a big difference between the adjectives "immoral" and "immortal.")  And this evening, Kathy and I played another two-player session of Citadels in which she proved once more that she is living rent-free inside my head - and sometimes she even pulls the levers, tugs the strings, and pushes the buttons in there.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Theme matters? Maybe for getting me to open the box

Last year, when Worthington Games first showed me the box art for Trains Planes and Automobiles, I wrote a post on the importance of a game's cover to getting me to open it and try it out.  Lately I've started thinking the same thing about the theme of the game.  Recent discussions with publishers, vendors, and others at game conventions have made me aware that there is a heightened industry interest in certain themes that seem to sell to American audiences - or at least that the publishers hope will capture interest.

Zombie games seem to be in vogue.  A search on boardgamegeek.com yields over a dozen independent titles related to zombies.  Some time ago, our good friend Grant G. gave our kids a copy of Zombies! (designer Todd Breitenstein, artist Dave Aikens, publisher Twilight Creations).  My reactions to this game have been mixed.  For me, the zombie theme does nothing at all; if anything, I find it a little off-putting.  But I understand that people are into the zombie thing.  Now, the gameplay is rather fun.  Players make their way through a gradually-revealed city trying to find the airport and escape or combat the somewhat-randomly emerging zombie horde.  The tension is quite reminiscent of the classic zombie movies, in which our lowly protagonist only has so many shotgun shells, and you never know when he or she will discover another zombie - or six - around the next corner.  But I have a hard time with the action card art, which is just a little too grotesque for our family's taste.  So we haven't played it nearly as much as the fun gameplay would suggest we might.

There's a whole vampire thing going in the film and book media, as some readers may have noticed, and that can translate to publisher interest in finding a vampire game that catches interest.  Again, a boardgamegeek.com search yields dozens of titles.  It's hard to tell if any of them is any good; I can't remember anybody saying, "you've got to play this great vampire game..."  On the other hand, if box art is any indication, BloodLust (designer Mike Wylie, publisher Worthington) has got an eye-catching cover.

Space games have been around a long time.  I think their numbers have waxed and waned with general public interest in science fiction movies.  I've posted here a couple of times about my concept-in-progress called "Gold on Mars," as just one example.  It seems a number of new games have come out based on a space theme lately, and I wonder whether it's part of a new trend or just a transitory fad.

If there is publisher interest in seeking designs based on certain themes - zombies, space, vampires - does that mean that people buy games based (at least in part) on theme?  Or is it true that a good game is a good game, and the theme is immaterial to gameplay?

(c) Dice Hate Me Games
Used by permission

Let's consider some unlikely themes - and by that I mean, games I'd never give a second thought based on the game topic.  I mentioned recently that at WBC I playtested a game called Viva Java (designer T.C. Petty, developer Dice Hate Me).  I had read about this game on Dice Hate Me's blog, and really had almost no interest in looking at a game about developing coffee blends.  But my friend Keith F. and I gave it a shot, and we were both surprised at how fun and innovative the game turned out to be.  So in this case, an unlikely theme might have masked a potentially really good game.  Dice Hate Me also recently launched a Kickstarter campaign for Monkey238's design, Carnival.  Again, managing a set of amusement rides never struck me as a particularly engaging theme for a game, and yet the more I read about the nature of the game, the more I want to give it a try.

Sometimes a theme really gets in the way of my acceptance, even if I read a strong review on the gameplay.  The Opinionated Gamers recently posted Jonathan Franklin's first impression review of Perfect Stride (designers and artists Kay Darby and Jeff Timothy with T.K. Labus, publisher Fun League), which he describes as "meatier than Mille Bornes or Gamewright's Horse Show [but] lighter than Dominion or 7 Wonders ... an excellent family game."  As I read his description of the solid gameplay, I kept thinking that it would be a game I would enjoy playing - except for the fact that the game art and theme are obviously tailored to appeal to girls who love horses.  That's fine, and if I had a daughter, I'm sure I'd pick it up, but for some reason, in this case, I just can't get past the target audience.  It would be like playing Mystery Date, which could have the best gameplay mechanics in the world, except that I'll never know because I'll never play it.

(c) Z-man Games
Used by permission
In another Opinionated Gamer review on an unlikely theme, Tom Rosen revisits an October 2008 look at Fairy Tale (designer and artist Satoshi Nakamura with Yoko Nachigami, publisher Z-man) in an exploration of games that seem to start simple but gain depth with subsequent plays.  To read Tom's description, the rules are very simple and the game very easy to learn, but as the players gain an appreciation for the card interactions, Fairy Tale becomes more interesting and complex.  For my part, I can easily accept a fairy-tale theme for a game with that kind of emerging depth.

Bruno Faidutti designed one of my favorite recent discoveries, Citadels.  He recently posted an interesting discussion of thematic consistency and the degree to which a poorly constructed theme can get in the way of the acceptance and enjoyability of an otherwise well-designed game.  Dinosaurs are an obviously appealing theme to some audiences, but Faidutti complains that they are terribly misapplied in Carl Chudyk's Uchronia, set in ancient Rome.  Dinosaurs in Rome?  Yes, Faidutti's point exactly.

(My friend Grant G. recently called my attention to a new series of miniatures involving World War II German troops mounted on dinosaurs.  Okay, whatever.)

So like box art, game theme serves as both an invitation and a filter to the potential buyer or player.  Some people will buy a title based on the theme with no other knowledge of the game.  On the other hand, there are some themes that I simply won't touch, no matter how good the game, for reasons that I can't entirely explain.  But in the general case, once I'm playing a game, the theme can become secondary to the gameplay depending on the nature of the game.

In a subsequent post, I'll explore the question of gaming vs. simulation and the role of theme in each.

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.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

There's gold in them thar moons

I'm working in earnest on an idea I've had for a while and mentioned here once or twice.  The game will be set at a time in the future when mining expeditions to other planets and moons in the solar system become cost effective.  Precious materials like gold, uranium, and tritium are scattered all over the solar system, and earth-bound industrialists will pay top dollar for them on the commodities market.  Players are CEOs of newly-capitalized mining companies seeking wealth - that is to say, "shareholder value" - by prospecting and mining rare raw materials as close as the moon and as far as Mercury or even Titan. 

This game is going to be a step up from my previous designs in terms of complexity and, I hope, nuance of game play.  The real balance I want to strike is to make sure that there is no single run-away strategy.  I want players to be motivated to take risks, but I don't want the game to devolve into a matter of dice and card luck. 

One thing I might be in danger of doing at this stage is trying to do to much.  I want to include a corporate strategy element, in which players decide how much to borrow to fund rocket missions and how much to pay in dividends to keep stockholders happy.  I also want to include a commodities market element, so that players deal with rising and falling prices of the raw materials they sell and the aerospace products and services they need.  I'm even entertaining the idea of have a futures market, so that players can sell inventory for future delivery.  I also want to have a space mission element, in which players are faced with the problems of getting equipment and crews to distant planets and moons and then retrieving the raw materials back to earth. 

I think this is going to take some real time to work out, and a lot of playtesting to be sure I have the right balance.  I really want this one to work.  I really want it to be fun.