It all began in the fall of 2017, near Tallinn old town. We gathered with seven friends on one nondescript evening. But unlike the usual beers and pretzels in a local hip pub, we gathered in Martin’s office. The agenda for the evening was to pitch project ideas to each other.
A lot of us are working in the IT sector, so there were quite a lot of clever IT solutions being pitched. From simple mobile games to large platforms with market building potential. It was Kaido, who proposed a simple non-IT project: “let’s create a portable card game together”. It was brilliant because it felt easy to pull off, everybody could participate. We had all been playing board games for as long as we had known each other, so we had found a project that was built around our common interest.
After two weeks, we gathered again and Joosep brought a rough prototype. The idea was that players draw cards from the deck and then use the other side of the cards to build a base on Mars, a spaceship or something. Cards represent modules and must be connected with other modules through special docks. Cards need to be with side ratio 2 to 1, so the longer side could have 2 docks. Everybody was thrilled to try. We started with a simple 2 player setup. After a few tries it was clear the game sucked… It wasn’t fun, and provided no interesting choices. Just draw a card and connect it to your <whatever you were building>.
In upcoming weeks, one of the friends left the group. He said he didn’t feel like spending time creating a board game. There were 6 of us left: Hanno, Indrek, Joosep, Kaido, Martin, Silver.
November nights in Tallinn were dark, cold and rainy…
In the fall of 2017, we had come up with the bare bones concept for a game, but it wasn’t very fun and lacked interesting mechanics. So we started throwing in more abilities, more strategies, more costs, more possibilities of what could happen in the game. It got a bit more fun, but the complexity was too high, even for us — the founders. It was hard to keep track of what the rules were and how different abilities worked together. We learned that less is more.
One of the ideas was to use a covert operations strategy. It was an alternate strategy, where the player didn’t have to build a base at all. In a game of base building, that wasn’t fun. So we scrapped it.
From the start it seemed like a good idea to have an ability for destroying other players’ modules. It took us half a year to understand that being on the receiving end of a missile attack is not fun. And that ultimately games should be fun, for everybody.
We started with a 120 card deck and kept at this count for 2 years. It was on one holiday to Egypt, where we tried to play with a ⅔ size deck, that we discovered the lower card count didn’t affect the gameplay at all! It was much easier to shuffle the cards, and the game became even more portable.
After 3 years, we had created a fun game — validated by people outside of our group. And we started with testing the rules. We gave the game with rules to the testers and just observed how they learned and how they played. It’s hard to describe how painful and embarrassing it is to watch people struggling to understand what you had written. It’s definitely a lesson in humility. In the end, through extensive testing and rule iteration, we arrived at a version that was finally understandable.
Looking back, we can say that designing a game is about finding the needles from the haystack of bad ideas.
Design goals and influences
From the start we set design restrictions on the final game. In part for keeping the scope limited, in part to create a game we’d like ourselves.
We are big fans of Magic: The Gathering. It’s portability has been one of the factors that we enjoy. It’s very convenient to grab a couple of decks with you. Either going to a holiday, hiking or to the beach. We wanted the same convenience for our game.
Some interesting board games have a long setup time. This time feels wasted time. Also, long setup means long cleanup. It’s a chore. We don’t like chores, so we wanted to quick setup/cleanup time for our game. A strong influence in this regard was Port Royal — shuffle the deck and start.
Half an hour gameplay
The longer the game, the more depth one could pack into it. The shorter the game, the more times you could play it. Half an hour seemed a good compromise. You could squeeze it into lunch break or while waiting in an airport.
Complexity vs depth ratio
The most complicated design feature to measure is the complexity vs depth ratio. We knew that it’s good to keep complexity down and depth up. This led us to many many iterations which started with adding new ideas, new possibilities. And ended with removing as much as possible, without breaking the gameplay.
So where next? To the stars… err, Kickstarter!