Decisions, decisions, decisions…
When you play a board game, you’ll always have decisions to make during your turn. Most games start with an even playing field where each player begins with the same board state, similar set of resources, and the same basic actions that they are able to take. As the game progresses, the board state can grow increasingly complicated.
But to get to the end of the game, one must start at the beginning, and that beginning starts with the basic actions. The universal set of actions that everyone can perform has a big impact on how the game is played as well as setting the pace of the game.
In Rocket to Mars, there are four basic actions: Mine, Generate, Build, and Research. Why these four? In an earlier post, I talked about wanting a two resource system. As a result, players needed a way to obtain both types of resources using Mine and Generate. The next action, Build, is used to play cards — a critical part of the gameplay. The final action is Research, used to draw cards. Research is arguably the least important action and also one of the more difficult ones to get right.
Once I established the basic set of actions I wanted, I needed to come up with rules of about how to activate each set of actions. In many board games, you can simply pick what action you want to perform, but since Rocket to Mars is a dice-based worker placement, it only made sense that the activation would require dice.
But what kind of dice requirements would there be for each action type? This is where things get complicated and presenting players with the appropriate decision becomes critical.
Choices! But not too many
One of my core design philosophies that I have made an effort to follow is to offer choices but not too many. You’ll see this theme come up again and again throughout my design process. You need choice because that’s what makes a game a game. Presenting too many choices, though, can make a game more complicated and can cause analysis paralysis.
Each one of the basic actions do completely different things (except Mine/Generate are fairly similar), so I knew I wanted the dice requirements to reflect the differences as well. I’ll go over each basic action and talk about what the initial design was and the shortcomings of those designs.
Those of you who are familiar with the board game Alien Frontiers have probably realized now that this game takes a lot of ideas and elements from Alien Frontiers. Just like in Alien Frontiers, Rocket to Mars uses a two resource system and in order to make each resource have a distinct flavor and feel, one type is significantly more difficult to obtain than the other.
The Mine action produces Steel (formerly known as Gems). In order to Mine, you have to place a dice of value 4, 5, or 6 into one of the three dice slots. In return, you receive 1 Steel resource. Since there are three slots, you can do this action up to three times.
The Generate action produces Energy. In order to Generate, you have to place dice of value 1, 2, or 3 into one of the three dice slots. The difference with Generate compared to Mine is that you can actually produce more than 1 Energy for each dice you place. You actually receive the same amount of Energy resource as the value of the dice you placed. For example, if you placed a 2 value dice in a Generate dice slot, you would receive 2 Energy.
This is where a really interesting difference occurs between Alien Frontiers and Rocket to Mars. In Alien Frontiers, you can always place dice in the Solar Converter to gain Fuel, and if you have a high enough value dice, you can use the Lunar Mine to gain ore. As a result, the player has a choice between placing dice on the Solar Converter and Lunar Mine. In Rocket to Mars, notice that your dice can either Mine or Generate but not both since the dice values required to perform the actions are mutually exclusive.
This fact became glaringly obvious after a couple games of play testing. A typical turn would be to place your dice onto cards you wanted to activate and then any remaining dice would be used to Mine or Generate. But since those left over dice could only be used for one or the other, there was no choice, and you would simply play those dice on whatever Mine/Generate action was available. The lack of choice here is bad design.
Interestingly, despite the issue, Mine/Generate has remained the exact same since the beginning of the game. The design flaw became less of an issue later on due to other changes — and in fact opened up the design space. As Build and Research evolved, it began to present interesting alternatives to simply doing Mine/Generate to gain resources.
In the next post I’ll cover Build and Research, and how those two actions presented challenging design problems.