Initial gameplay draft (on the left) and how it looks after thorough rework an year later (on the right)

Zenith:Unknown development diary 1: Looking for game in all the wrong places

There are few setbacks when you set to develop a board game with no board game experience. There are more setbacks if you happen to be a designer, writer and computer gamer. Most apparent of these is:

You don’t think as a board gamer since you lack experience, mindset and general culture.

It took me hell of a lot of time to figure out I was moving in the wrong direction. And the sad truth here is I was moving in the wrong direction right from the start.

A week ago, year and a half into the concept, me and my wife held the first ever game test. There was not much to test there really. Besides setting up the board, there was nothing else we could test. To my credit, board setup is a breeze and required just one tiny adjustment to be made. In the rest however there was no game whatsoever.

As I anticipated in my previous post, design documents grew drastically in size and number in the last weeks, but honestly that did no good to the gameplay itself. If you look at the right part of the cover photo, you will notice a dense map. Since the scale does not allow for proper perception of the actual size and complexity, here is a zoom on couple of nodes:

By all means this is a prototype of complex turn-based strategy game. With just one catch. It’s a prototype for complex turn-based computer strategy game. My background was once again at play. Through all concept development stages I was missing the fact the game needs to be based around simple, clear logic that is relatively easy to understand and this logic needed to be completely different from what I was prototyping. Having deeper look at it later,

I realized this game was not going to be playable. At all.

One does not need to be a board gamer to see this. It’s like a common sense or something. You just don’t focus on useless tiny details before the final stages. You don’t let your OCD for realism, look and feel take over before much more important work is done. This is no book or concept art where you do over stuff again and again until complete satisfaction. This is a draft of a game concept and it’s a completely different story. Only problem is my brain does not work this way.

After I realized that, there was nothing else to do, but start almost from scratch. So I just grabbed the board setup, scrapped everything else and started adding up simple content over it with the idea of testing the playability on the fly and add more content when and if needed.

During this I figured out the very concept of the game had quite a glitch, too. Ok, maybe it’s time to tell you a bit more about the game itself.

Players start in their spaceships cast out in deep space. Once they figure their position on the map, they throw the dice to see how many of ship’s dozen sectors will be operational in the beginning. After that they throw the dice to determine the number of crew members that will be initially at their disposal. Then they place said crew members in the operational sectors any way they like. Number of crew members in each sector determines its functional state. There are 4 states: critical, partial, optimal, reinforced. They affect each sector’s performance and generally determine what the player can do with their ship. Then it’s a race against the clock to repair ships and restore enough crew to make them fully operational so they can jump back to Earth. Players can help each other in various ways during the game — transfer crew, resources etc. or they can attack others and collect their loot and crew.

The catch here is every sector is tied to the others in a very delicate balance. Balancing factor are crew members. It’s equally bad if you have too few or too many within a single sector.

Initial gameplay envisioned all sectors to be equally dependent and structured. However after some thinking, I figured a more plausible hierarchical model in which effects will be projected up and down to dependencies rather than being equally distributed. It looks like this:

Still there was another obstacle. Crew members as a sole factor determining the status of each sector. A more appropriate approach was needed. So after looking at the new map I noticed something obvious. There are two ship sectors with apparent critical importance — the core and the AI. I mean, the ship needs energy and processing power to operate, right? Without them it’s just a floating piece of scrap. And basing sector status on core and AI output is much more plausible and logical than counting crew members in it.

The output of a powerplant is typically measured in watts. Computer productivity is typically measured in flops. I figured out megawatts are a valid core output measure. By having a look at current computer productivity figures, I decided to go with exaflops. At this point I figured out it’s also a good time to reimagine AI as Mainframe as a more accurate representation. Both Core and Mainframe will produce and consume certain amounts in each of their four states which will allow the player to choose which sectors to switch in which state based on total production/usage figures. So now it all comes down to mathematical trial and error. And as I have said earlier, I hate math in my guts. Yet, I have to figure out an easy and usable mathematical matrix so this can eventually work out. Oh, the fun :-/

a proper sci-fi board game