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Never Give In dev diary #2

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OK so second dev diary. See #1 for concept; this one is about my first playtest.

key:
AD - Admiral player
OP - Operations officer player
WC - Wing commander player

I wasn't sure where to start with testing, but I've noticed that I tend to spin ideas round and round in my head and get attached to them, only to find they don't work when it comes to applying them - so I figured jump straight in and see what works; that way the unworkable ideas won't have time to take root. This blog will go through the system I used to work up a first playable version: v0.1

The map
For the map I just made a 10x10 grid. In previous ideas for this type of game I've had a big star field, but for this I like the idea of a small tight space with not much room for manoeuvre. I went for squares instead of hexes because I hate hexes for some reason. Space is 3D but I'm happy to go with 2D for this game. I would like each move to feel important, positioning of ships and fighter squadrons to matter tactically.

Each scenario would have several of these small maps ('rooms'), and ships can move between them by using a short range FTL jump.

The Operations Officer Grid
This is a key element of the game: each turn the OP player gets a different number and type of workers, and she deploys these workers to her grid to determine which moves the AD player will be able to take this turn. She can also deploy them to give AD or WC bonuses in combats they're having.

Here's the (in my head) clever part - the AD player draws 3 order cards and the beginning of the turn which will tell her how many moves and attacks she can make; she chooses 2 of them, but each order card also determines how many and what type of worker OP gets this turn. So AD has to think about where she wants to move / attack, but also which workers to give to OP and so that could present some interesting tactical choices (it didn't)

There are 5 different types of worker in this version: Engineers, Officers, Science, Analysts, and Ratings. They are deployed on the grid pictured below to do various things. Order 1 & 2 put some upgraded orders into AD's deck; spooling allows ships to jump between 'rooms'; fighters is how much resource they are putting into refuelling and repairing fighters; Target Solution, Analyze Fighter and Hacking all assist in combats this turn; finally there are some more powerful weapons they can build up to using like a big beam.

Ships
I didn't put much thought into player ship types for this version, choosing to focus more on the OP grid. Future versions might see different ship types with strengths & weaknesses

Weapon types
Normal weapons and special weapons. Normal weapons are either Beams or Kinetic Batteries. I usually don't like dice but I've chosen to use dice in this game, with all players contributing towards a roll when it comes. I chose Kinetics to use a D20 and Beams to use a D12, and a hit would only be on the highest value (20 or 12). i.e. shots miss most of the time, and having the other players help you is a big deal. Beams have 2 square range and Kinetics are unlimited.

Ships roll 2, 3 or 4 dice per shot, and this could increase if OP puts resource into it. A global rule is that all enemy ships have flak, which always removes your highest dice. A fighter squadron moved onto an enemy ship can't attack it, but it negates the flak. So a high / low scenario is:

Low - AD doesn't have support from other players; OP is busy putting resources into moving ships or getting fighters ready; she rolls two D20 and hits on a 20; since the first die will be cancelled by enemy flak, she is almost certain to miss (0.25% to hit)

High - WC has moved a fighter squadron on to the enemy, negating the flak; OP has put resource into Kinetic attacks this turn, giving an extra die and +2 to hit. AD now just needs to roll 18+ on either of the dice to hit (closer to 40% chance to hit)

Fighters
Fighters represented by a squadron moving together. In this game they have multiple roles including: taking out enemy fighters; harrying enemy ships to reduce flak (but not able to damage them); shooting down torpedoes; defending ally ships from attack; blocking enemy ship movement. A key element would be that they have to return to refuel and repair, so they have 2 'use points' (flip counter over when used once, remove when used again); OP has to decide how much resource to put into keeping the fighters coming vs. other priorities. Didn't make it for this one but I imagine a Repair Track: OP can pay workers to move fighters towards the 'launch' end; when they are removed from the board they go onto the track, close to 'launch' if they completed mission successfully, farther away if they were damaged or destroyed.

Dog fights and knife fights
A key way of managing the number of active units a player would be controlling is that fighter squadrons and big ships become 'locked' for a few turns sometimes, when they come into contact with the enemy ('dog fights' for fighters; 'knife fights' for big ships - a close range exchange where two ships fire everything they have at each other); the player can't control the unit but the fight plays out over, say, 3 turns. The players can contribute resources towards the fight if they think it's going badly.

Dog fight system is dice-based. The player rolls 4D6 for herself and 5D4 for the enemy. I hadn't fully fleshed this system out for this version, but I imagine player having to beat the enemy score by a certain amount (e.g. 5 points); if she doesn't beat them she can choose to knock out some of the enemy dice to make it easier next turn; AD could also support by moving a ship adjacent to the fight to give support.

Knife fight system is counter-based. Knife fights last 3 turns and each turn you draw a counter from the bag. Different coloured counters represent different types of damage, or occasionally a 'block'. The idea is that both ships will likely be destroyed from such an exchange, but you have a few turns to help. This allowed me to bring in the damage types idea I mentioned in Dev Diary #1, scaled down a bit. At the end of the knife fight you count up the damage from a destroyed ship, and that determines whether it explodes, breaks apart etc., and that affects things around it.

Enemies
Just made some generic enemies for this version; controlled by a simple card-based AI that I stole from Gloomhaven. I'd work this up into something more complex for a future version. Wary of trying to cram too many concepts into this early test version. There's a backstory to this game I'm not going into here, but thematically the enemies are a low-tech horde type - worse ships than the player but more of them.

Turn order
Final mechanic I'm testing out for this one is a variable turn order thing. There are 5 phases to the turn, and AD gets to decide which order they come in - each of them is assigned two initiative values from 1 to 100 at the beginning of the turn and AD chooses one for each. Phases are 1) enemy move, 2) enemy attack, 3) player execute order card, 4) fighter move, 5) dogfight.

The idea is that it creates an interesting choice for AD; does she want the dogfight to resolve before fighter move this turn, so fighters win dogfight and then immediately get to act? can she swing it so that enemy ships fire when they are out of range, then player ships can move in and shoot? etc.

I dealt two cards for each phase from the game 'The Mind'

Scenario
Finally, I said this game would be scenario-based; I haven't come up with a detailed scenario with setpiece events yet - I think that is a job for a later version. As a proxy for this one, the scenario is that the players control 3 or 4 ships and have to fight through one 'room' worth of enemies and jump to the next 'room'; final room has a space station that it under attack, so it's a race against time.

The Verdict
All very well thought out eh? Lots of ideas, mechanics; things seem to slot into each other. Well no, this version was an almost complete failure, and I just couldn't see at all how anyone would ever want to go near it. The biggest problems were:
- There was no tactical complexity in the ship movement; they just started relatively far apart, and moved towards each other firing. There weren't any interesting choices about where to move your ships.
- The OP grid just did not work at all - there was nothing driving OP to place workers in any particular space; she just had to place them in whatever was available after AD's cards were picked. I couldn't see either how AD would choose anything but whichever cards gave her the most shots - nothing about choosing between moves or OP workers.
- I couldn't see why you would ever use Kinetic shots unless you just didn't draw any Beam shots - the weapon types weren't interesting and had no character

But actually this approach worked really well. Instead of spending months preparing the perfect game from my head and then it not working, this approach allowed me to get stuck in quickly and really easily identify what needed to change and be worked on. I found I was much more easily able to abandon concepts that didn't work, rather than being emotionally tied to them. I 'exorcised' the evil spirits through the process of playtesting.

I came away from this playtest with two actions:

1) the OP grid was the biggest thing that didn't work, so I needed to completely overhaul this for 0.2
2) I decided to take a detailed approach to components, and keep a changelog where I would have an entry for each of the elements of the game system and whether they worked or not in that version; this gave me a good exercise to do after testing, where I would methodically go through and decide whether each component worked or needed to change; this meant I could identify future actions quite easily.

That's probably enough for now eh. Next dev diary will focus on what happened in playtest for 0.2

(and by then I may have worked out how to insert images inline)

Comments

Combat Dice, etc.

Regarding Dogfights: How did dice combat go? Were you okay with the way your method played out?

If you feel like there's too much adding across so many dice, maybe look for successes instead? Like, every "4" is a success, and the fighter with the most successes causes damage/wins the duel?

Regarding the OP: It seems like they're in complete "react/respond" mode, and there are no interesting choices they make. If the type of workers are chosen for them, it seems like it makes it difficult for them to engage as much as the other two roles. It's almost like they're a "switchboard operator," the way you describe it here. But this isn't a dexterity game, so it lacks engagement, and likely lacks more fun.

Is there any way you can make their decision-making more interesting for the OP? Even putting them in charge of something like a tech tree? Maybe the OP's decisions affect what the AD can select?

Regarding 2D: why not make it a 2D sci-fi game? Could the Admiral be commanding a squad of terrestrial infantry mechs or something? Are you completely attached to space battles for this?

This is an exciting idea!

This is an exciting idea! What a good way to design by playtesting as early as possible too!

One of my favorite design axioms is that every decision should be between at least 2 directly opposing motivations. Only give players the meaningful ones too. So maybe certain distances from the enemy severely limit the types of weapons that are useful? Such as: Missiles only work 4 spaces away, lasers 3 spaces away, and bullets 2 spaces?

With it being a co-op game with scenarios, a big thing about playing with each other is coordinating an effective strategy and executing it even though things may not go as planned. Perhaps communication is somehow limited, or other information between players is limited to get in the way of this coordination.

maybe some of the resources are shared, such as everyone has the same workers, (and honestly not enough workers) so it becomes,

"Do you have an engineer and an officer I could have, my equipment just broke",

"I got an engineer, but the officer is breaking up an analyst fight"

Make sure there is enough interaction between players so that there is a point to having all 3 instead of it being a large single player game.

re: Combat Dice, etc.

my first comment! very encouraging to know it's not just me reading this :)

Dogfights - yes, I don't think they worked this time - players usually won them but it was boring. I like the idea of successes, and maybe OP has the ability to open up new options for WC to 'spend' dice of certain values to do things (e.g. 1s can now be used to lower enemy dice or re-roll own). I've been playing One Deck Dungeon a lot lately, and I like the 'skills' mechanic in that game.

I think you're absolutely right about OP, and I've been musing on this problem - I think it is the core problem of the game at the moment and if I can get it right the rest should flow more easily. The tech tree is a great idea, which I have worked into the 0.2 version of the game (this will be the next write up).

On 2D, this is another key issue I've been giving a lot of thought to (while walking around the block in the evenings after being stuck in the house all day) - of course things won't work about the test versions I make, so I've accepted that I can't be too tied to any single idea ("kill your darlings") but then the other side of that is that the game can get too far from the original idea and exist in a constantly formless state. So I have tried to nail down 3 or 4 key things which have to be carved in stone (co-op, 3 player with these specific roles, and space fleet game). Apart from that I'm open to anything!

Thanks for these ideas - I've found this blog is a good exercise for me to form and crystallise concepts, and talking these through here is very useful. Tune in next week if you're still interested!

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blog | by Dr. Radut