The very first Zenith:Unknown prototype

The visual board game prototyping tool quest


As a designer and writer (and generally a creative) my typical workflow makes use of a complex combination of 2D and 3D software, word processors, spreadsheets, charting, presentation, mind mapping and collaboration tools* even during the earliest stages of my endeavors. Sometimes my madness requires the addition of audio and video production software. By no means I take anything lightly.

There are few things about Zenith:Unknown and me in particular one needs to know in order to fully understand the sheer need of someone searching the world for something like “visual board game prototyping tool”:

  • For various reasons already stated in my previous post, board games and board game culture respectively were not integral part of my conscious adult life;
  • Internet is an infinite sandbox and might be the perfect testing ground, especially if one has some 7 years of history in a sci-fi MMO, where they can find few people much more inclined to give something related a try, rather than knocking on random board game communities’ doors;
  • (Partially) because of the above two, I have no friends who tend to get together for board/card gaming sessions, neither am I willing to take part in regular live testing events during the early development stages;
  • As a creative and as NLP people would say — a “visual”, it is a sheer necessity for me to outline ideas visually as a compliment to the walls of text I write to describe even tiniest details in a concept;
  • I hate math in my guts, I am very bad at it and under no circumstances I will do calculations on my own, even if it’s just summing up a dice roll;
  • I feel intimidated just by the sole idea of having to simulate complex relations and/or logic with pen and paper;
  • Physical testing is inseparable part of the process, but you need nearly finished product for it to make sense and it is my belief that until that happens, computer simulated scenarios provide infinitely more power and feedback.

Having outlined the above, it didn’t take long before I realized prototyping the game requires more than a couple dozen sheets of paper, coins and a dice-rolling app.

With this profound conclusion in mind, I started researching board games prototyping frameworks. Couple of days later I reached the end of this very useful list.

Halfway through the list things started to look grim. The greater part of frameworks and game engines were pen and paper or card games oriented. And I was looking for something completely different. In the end, after reading numerous description pages, watching dozens of videos and looking at tons of screenshots, I was getting slightly discouraged by the size of my shortlist:

VASSAL was the first thing I saw. Just reading its description I knew it’s the right one, which the demo confirmed. Getting started with it was an issue though. I read FAQ’s, tutorials and so on, but was still left in the dark. The system is incredibly powerful, but complicated and counter-intuitive to a great degree.
Anywhere Board Games is a simple HTML based board game creation tool that lets you quickly visualize things like chess, checkers or scrabble, but does not allow the implementation of more complex logic.
RPG Manager is another quite powerful alternative and frankly I liked it a lot, especially the ease of use. And it would be my choice if it wasn’t for its deal breaking setback — it is only suited to games with hexagonal maps. Zenith:Unknown uses square grid.

See, the problem is first impression really matters to me. I want things to be simple and clear. Not nerdy. Not geeky. Not done in a way only a specific niche group of users can understand. That is my general problem with closed communities.

They fail to realize no one needs to see the world through their eyes. It is them who need to see the world through others’ eyes if they want to communicate an idea or methodology or actually whatever

As an UI/UX professional I want to see some thought put towards the poor bastard who is going to use a product or service. I expect this. Fuck, I demand it! Everything should be intuitive in its bones. And it was the total lack of this that lead to the less than one minute lifespan of most applications I downloaded and tried.

However, at this point I was also completely aware that a compromise had to be made in order things to happen at all

So after I tried them all, I decided to go with VASSAL, as it was the only application that provided all needed functionality, with the setback of having a steep learning curve.

Sometimes you just need to adapt and overcome, I guess

* I use Producteev for collaboration/planning and FreeMind for mind mapping/concept development (used XMind before, but it is 3 times heavier and free version is stripped out of any means of export — not cool)


Zenith:Unknown
a proper sci-fi board game