Ignoring your (Cosmic) dreams

Cosmic Encounter might just be the best modern board game ever created.

The fact that each player has one seemingly game-breaking power, along with the sheer number of aliens makes the combinations explode. Each combination of aliens changes the rules in a way that you, or perhaps anyone else, has ever seen before. It doesn’t tend to get too out of control due to players being able to self-balance by not allying with a player in the lead, or even by allying in defense against that player. And yet there are no hurt feelings because each turn your target is chosen randomly. It’s a masterpiece. I don’t think I’ll ever stop playing.

My only problem with Cosmic is its footprint. I often find myself wanting to play games with my less-nerdy friends, often in a dinner party setting. Cosmic is a big game: a big box, lots of components and a decent amount of setup. There are tons of cards, flares and the rules are a bit unwieldy. I find that convincing people to play a game where they play as an alien is sometimes difficult as well.

But I don’t want to play Balderdash and I’ve played Love Letter to death. There must be a way to take the essence of Cosmic and streamline it into something simpler and more approachable. That’s been a nagging thought in my mind for the past few years. But as an inexperienced board game designer (it’s been all video games for me), every time I tried to design a prototype, I’ve made little progress.

Then this summer, tired of being blocked on this game idea, I decided to unblock myself: I gave myself a goal of creating ANY game in one evening. I gave myself 3 hours to describe a game in a Google Doc that I could play with my friends the next day.

The first thing that came to mind was vampires. I wrote three pages of rules where players attacked humans that were positioned between them, trying to take them as servants to gain influence points. Energy flowed me as I typed furiously in my dark apartment in Bologna, with a huge smile on my face. It was crap I knew, but it was my first board game and I was exactly what I needed to unblock myself. I played the game with my friends the next day with some index cards and some pieces from a spare copy of Coup.

First playable of "Moonlight"

It certainly had some problems – especially with the real-time four-directional action card that each player revealed simultaneously – but I was incredibly excited. I took the next couple days off from Subnautica and rapidly iterated on the game, improving it a lot.

A couple months later, after a couple dozen prototypes and about 50 games, I had iterated away from almost all the original rules except vampires (whom each have a unique game-breaking rule btw). I then had a revelation: I had unwittingly turned my just-make-anything game into my hypothetical less-nerdy Cosmic Enounter dream concept. The game that I couldn’t make any progress on I suddenly had made tons of progress on, without even realizing it.

Today I continue working with even more energy towards a finalized set of core rules. In December I sent the rules to the legendary Bruno Faidutti (Citadels, Masquerade, Mission: Red Planet, many more), in the hope that he might be able to give me some feedback. He seemed to like it, and has joined me energetically, taking his own stab at the rules and cards and playtesting as much or more than I. We’re now co-designing it together and I couldn’t be happier.

Maybe if you’re having difficulty moving towards your dreams, the answer is simply to do something smaller that speaks to you instead.

Playtesting board games electronically (Tabletop Simulator, Tabletopia)

Someone asked recently on reddit.com/r/tabletopgamedesign about using Tabletop Simulator to playtest their board game prototypes. Coming from the world of video games, where we patch twice a day, this is something I was very excited about trying in board games. I’m certainly no luddite.

Tabletop Simulator and its newer more sleek offspring Tabletopia don’t simulate game rules: they simply are a vehicle for displaying boards, cards and pieces in a multiplayer environment. Players are expected to know the rules and enforce them, just the way they would around if they were sitting around a table. This is what I’ve learned so far using Tabletop Simulator (I haven’t tried importing into Tabletopia yet).

It’s relatively straightforward to import your artwork, although the formatting is different enough from printing that it will require you to have a separate layout file in InDesign. In the long-term maybe this isn’t a huge deal, over dozens or hundreds of iterations, but in the short-term it certainly is hours of extra work to create and maintain and definitely gets in the way of the spirit of prototyping and testing quickly.

TTS blog print layout

I was hoping there would be some organic discovery through Tabletop Simulator and the Steam Workshop, but I haven’t seen much of that yet. I think this is largely due to the fact that you can’t just download and play a TTS game: you need to find and read the rules first. This is a huge difference from the world of video game mods and modded content. There isn’t an easy way to display rules or videos inside Tabletop Simulator, although you certainly can make movies on the store page. I’ve done that, but with rules changing so quickly, it means I have to make a video every time I change the rules.

Also, actually playing a board game in Tabletop Simulator is quite different than sitting around an actual table with friends. Not everyone has a mic set up, and for those that do they won’t know how to use it, or it won’t work properly for them. Anyone that’s every teleconferenced knows this: somehow, no matter what software you use, there will be SOMEONE with a microphone that doesn’t work, isn’t loud enough or isn’t clear enough. And when you’re playtesting a game with 3-5 people, having one person that can’t talk means everyone waits until they get their mic working.

Finally, because it’s a simulator, there are physics. Players are tempted to throw pieces around, flip the table, etc. Not only that, but just the mechanics of something as simple as a “bank” filled with counters can end up a jittering unsolvable physics problem. Even just the mechanics and skill needed to flip cards properly, move counters, stack cards, etc. gets in the way. All of this is so fiddly that it’s hard to keep your head in game-space.

To me that’s the most important point: board games are fundamentally analog, social, non-technological and designed around human interaction. To playtest a game’s human factors electronically defeats the point to me. You can certainly test the game economy, difficulty of rules and many more practical elements, but I don’t see it as a good way to leverage the internet to build an audience, or make a game that crackles with human energy.

There are many hundreds or thousands of board games coming out every year. It’s almost impossible to make one that stands out in the market, that gives players an incredible experience, that makes them want to play again and again. So I can’t help but think it’s better off focusing completely on the human elements, the way that 99% of your players (thousands if you’re lucky) will see it.

I still believe in the potential of electronic board games, but perhaps they are better suited to more finished games instead of prototyping.

Open development for board games

Harnessing the world in your game development

I started Unknown Worlds Entertainment many years ago, so we could make Natural Selection 2. The original Natural Selection was very community focused, with much of our talent and elbow grease coming directly from unpaid talent. As we’ve grown, we’ve wanted to retain our roots and connection with our community, while still being able to operate as a 25+ person company. Doing that has been quite challenging.

We want to be able to make design and production changes quickly, and we’ve found that just trying to keep our own team up to date with our own changes was difficult, never mind our community. But we’ve been selling our games way before they were done since 2009 and so it’s absolutely imperative that we keep our community up to date with everything from new art, design changes, dates of releases, etc.

One of the ways we’ve done this is through open development. That is, making everything about our games’ development public. That includes bug tracking and playtest reports, live customer feedback, release dates, in-process design docs, problems we’re struggling with, everything. Often this means sharing code, conversations, and now even our daily builds are released to the public. But how does this related to board game development?

I’m not sure if it will work as well, but I have a feeling that sharing board game development problems, changes, rules, etc. will work just as well as in video games. As I’m learning about developing my Cosmic Encounter flavored Vampire game from the start, I know I sure would’ve loved to see the process in detail from someone that has done it before. While I can’t offer that exactly, I can offer the following resources, which could be helpful for other budding designers or for potential fans that might be interested in game when it’s ready.

I’m using this public Trello board to show what I’m working on, how I’m learning, what I’m researching and the problems I’m facing. There is even one or two people commenting in there already and providing moral support:

Open development plans for Moonlight
Open development plans for Moonlight

You can see everything from what books I’m reading, to the design problems I’m facing, to the movies I’m watching for inspiration. I hope to grow the seeds of a community about this game from here, as well as possibly get some development help from a whole group of people I haven’t met yet!

Please post in the comments links to any blogs, Trello boards, etc. of your own that might inspire all of us to be more open.