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Never Give In dev diary #3

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OK so blog #3, in which I go through the more developed version of the game - v0.2.1 - and a variant which used the same rules but had a different scenario - v0.2.2

The development story of v0.2.1 and v0.2.2 follows a classic narrative possibly similar to The Empire Strikes Back: setting the scene and initial adventure, a series of setbacks in which our heroes reach an emotional lowpoint, and then finishing with a glimmer of hope for the future.

So to recap the game concept, it's a 3 player co-op space fleet combat game in which each player takes on a specific role.

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

Last time (v0.1) I decided that the main thing to work on was the 'grid' of powers for OP player.

The OP grid
I think this version made some big strides towards realising this. The new grid was much more developed (see picture); it was split into a cycle of three rows, with a fourth area for bonus powers:

Row 1 is weapons; there are now three weapon types (kinetics, beams, and short-range batteries) with OP having to decide how much resource AD will need in each
Row 2 is propulsion; there are two move types: Move 2 forward or Move 1 in any direction; there's also a 'short range FTL' option whereby ships can be moved to reinforce a different combat zone
Row 3 is hangar bay; here OP would choose between 1) getting more or better fighter squadrons into combat, 2) firing a salvo of torpedoes which are placed onto the board and move towards the enemy, 3) firing an instant hit missile weapon which is similar to Row 1 weapons but only fired every 3 turns

The idea was that the rows are on a 3-turn cycle so that OP is only placing workers on one row per turn; so she might have to make an interesting choice about how AD will want to move ships over the next 3 turns - will AD want speed or manoeuvrability? or when choosing in Row 3 will WC need fighter reinforcements, or is this the time to forgo that to gain an extra missile attack?

There were two other areas that OP could place workers on. The first is defences - I see these as flak turrets or interceptor guns that take a lot of resource to use but are the only way to prevent damage. These would take two workers to activate, and can be then spent by OP to impose a disadvantage on an enemy attack (I used the dice system used in D&D here - roll 2 and pick the lowest - I like this in dice games as it lets you see the effectiveness of your action "ooo he would have hit if I hadn't done that!")

The second area is a series of bonuses which OP would have to decide whether to try to employ. These would be things like giving AD +1s to attack rolls, giving WC re-rolls in dog fights, hacking the enemy's defences, or firing a tactical weapon which blocks off movement.

At the suggestion of let-off studios I also included a 'tech tree' type system whereby each time OP could level up one area allowing more workers to be placed there in future turns to make it more powerful.

Finally, I overhauled the worker types so that they were more varied; different spaces can either A) only be activated by a worker of a specific type, or B) can be activated by any type but provide a bonus if OP uses a specific type
1) White - Ratings - OP gets four each turn and they are used for basic actions like firing weapons
2) Orange - Engineers - used for specific actions like defensive turrets
3) Green - Analysts - mainly used for bonus actions
4) Red - Officers - can be used to automate spaces so that workers don't need to be placed there in future turns
5) Blue - Power - need to put Engineers in to the Reactor bonus and get a short term boost of Power counters which can go anywhere
6) Yellow - Data - needed for some bonuses but OP doesn't automatically get these counters; instead she gets one each time AD rolls a 1 when firing

I liked this workers system because I felt it gave good variation in types: No.1 is basic type; 2, 3 and 4 are 'higher' ones needed for different things; 5 and 6 are got in different ways, with 6 in particular giving some further interaction between players and providing some consolation to AD for missed shots.

Enemy health and weapon types
Another expanded system for this one was damage and weapon types. v0.1 just had 3 health for each enemy ship, with a roll of 20 on a D20 hitting and doing 1 damage. I changed this so that enemy ships now needed to be hit with specific weapon types, possibly even in a specific order. So enemy ship might have 3 health points - 1 and 2 need to be hit with Beams and 3 needs to be hit with Kinetics. This would mean that AD and OP need to think about which weapon types they're employing and require some forward planning and co-ordination with WC to make sure the shots land.

Each weapon type had a flavour to it also:
Kinetics use D20s but if in a single shot AD rolls two numbers the same it inflicts and extra hit (successive shots hitting the same hull location)
Beams use D12s and if they can get a 'streak' of numbers (5,6,7,8) it increases damage by 1 for each from 3rd number onwards
Batteries use D8s but roll more dice meaning it's more likely for 1s to come up giving OP targeting data that can be fed back into worker system

Firing solution tiles
Another way I came up with to try and make positioning more important was that OP could pay workers to give AD 'firing solution' tiles; each one would have a little diagram on it showing the positions that two ships could be in to combine their fire. This would mean they would (e.g.) be rolling 6 D20 rather than 3 but still applying enemy defences only once, and increasing the chance of the dice powers activating (e.g. rolling two D20 the same number)

Fighter superiority
Fighter dogfight victories could now contribute to an overall 'superiority' score; if WC managed to get high enough on this track she could spend points from it to help the other players

So did it work?
No, it still didn't work. Although I liked a lot of the ideas I had for this one, I was still butting up against the giant wall of it not being enjoyable. The ideas still didn't generate interesting choices for players in practice, though they seemed like they would in my head.

In v.0.2.1 I only used one 'room' (10 square by 10 square grid) with 3 to 5 ships per side, and I really felt like there wasn't enough going on - I think I want it to be a bigger battle. For 0.2.2 I used three grids instead of one, with three times the number of ships. This was slightly better and each engagement felt like it had a bit more character to it (but still not enough)

To summarise, the main problems were:
- Not enough interesting choice
- Not enough for each role to do
- No real 'feel' for what each role is doing
- Some player interaction but not to the intensity I wanted
- Turns took too long and felt too mechanical and administrative (although this could have been made worse by one player playing all three roles)
- Enemy behaviour too random to form a coherent game plan for players

Good things
- I liked a lot of the mechanics that I came up with for this one, and I could see most of them being in the final version in some form
- One thing I stumbled on that was very helpful for playtesting was creating a "set up list" which went through how to set up the game for the testing session. I didn't realise until I did this, but that was a fairly big barrier to me making the time to playtest the game: it would often take me 40 minutes or so and quite a lot of mental effort to remember how many and which type of counter went into each bag etc. Having a handy list made this less daunting and made me want to playtest and not put it off. I think I will do this in every playtest in future

Next version
This playtest leaves me with a big choice:
1. Continue to try and iterate this one
2. Go back a step and re-think what the game should look like

On consideration, I think I can't see the game working in its current format. The point of this iteration approach was to be able to identify when changes should be made and to not be afraid to throw ideas out if they aren't working. So I've decided my next step will be to try a different approach: v0.3 will try the fleet engagement from a more bird's-eye view approach, with certain elements being abstracted and maybe removing positioning of ships altogether (although hopefully not). I'll need to go back to my 'keystone' of ideas that make up the core of the game, and rethink everything else.

This actually feels fairly liberating - not to be tied to ideas that aren't working, but instead be able to explore new and interesting ones. I'll finish this blog with the story of a mundane incident which happened to me but made me think about how creativity works.

A few years ago I was coming home in the afternoon, and I accidentally dropped my front door keys while taking them out of my pocket. To my horror, they fell into a small drain near the door. The drain was blocked, but the keys were sitting about a foot down and I couldn't reach past the grill. My wife was on holiday and there was no-one in the house, so I had to find some way of getting the keys out of the drain or I would be sleeping on a park bench that night.

I went across the road where there are a few shops, to try and find something to help me. The first thing I thought of was getting a drinking straw from the pub, but when I tried to hook the keys it wasn't long enough, so I went back and got some more straws, and put one into the other to make a longer one. Of course, this disintegrated shortly after I put it into the drain. So I got some more straws, and some tape, and stuck them together. This actually nearly worked - I hooked the keys and lifted them slightly but the end was too flimsy and I couldn't lift them.

"I'm so close" I thought - I just need something like this but with a more rigid hook. Then inspiration struck..... a coat hanger! I got this from the dry cleaner across the road, hooked the damn thing first time, and went triumphantly into my house.

Leaving aside the fact that most people probably would have thought of the coat hanger straight away, I felt like this experience has a good message about invention: the straw device didn't work, and was never going to work. But, without the straw device I wouldn't have thought of the coat hanger; so although it wasn't the answer, it was a vital part of getting to the answer. I suspect that there will be a few more steps between v0.3 and the coat hanger, but hopefully the principle will apply.

Comments

Hi Billy! I really like these

Hi Billy! I really like these posts, it's nice to see the thought process other designers go through.

I've also been making a space ship combat game so I feel I went through some similar experiences with my game, my first playtest was also an amazing eye opener exposing the distance from the game in my head to the reality of it.

From what you've told us I think that the AD and WC roles are very clear and simple, but the OP role is quite different so it seems to be disconnected. I think that the most interesting think of the OP role is that there should be a tension between the needs of the AD and WC player and the challenge of the OP is to choose how to best support both of them. Right now it seems that the OP is more tied to the AD player than the WC.
You could strenghten this role by also having each player access different levels of information. An AD should decide to take a defensive posture because he or she sees an attack coming but the OP should have to choose if it's better to power up flaks, dodge or any other type of defensive action because of having knowledge of the enemy weapon types.

You didn't talk much about the WC in this post so I'm left wondering how much interaction was there between the WC and AD. Does the overall battle strategy comes from both of them or is there a player that's leading the other?
I find it useful to map stuff as I think about it. You could list the types of actions each role has and how those actions are related to other players, where do they interact.

I really like your anecdote at the end, it clearly explains the purpose of a prototype. It's not a tool to just test the game but a tool for the designer to think and learn about the game. Design is simultaneously thinking, doing and learning.

tikey wrote:Hi Billy! I

tikey wrote:
Hi Billy! I really like these posts, it's nice to see the thought process other designers go through.

I've also been making a space ship combat game so I feel I went through some similar experiences with my game, my first playtest was also an amazing eye opener exposing the distance from the game in my head to the reality of it.

From what you've told us I think that the AD and WC roles are very clear and simple, but the OP role is quite different so it seems to be disconnected. I think that the most interesting think of the OP role is that there should be a tension between the needs of the AD and WC player and the challenge of the OP is to choose how to best support both of them. Right now it seems that the OP is more tied to the AD player than the WC.
You could strenghten this role by also having each player access different levels of information. An AD should decide to take a defensive posture because he or she sees an attack coming but the OP should have to choose if it's better to power up flaks, dodge or any other type of defensive action because of having knowledge of the enemy weapon types.

You didn't talk much about the WC in this post so I'm left wondering how much interaction was there between the WC and AD. Does the overall battle strategy comes from both of them or is there a player that's leading the other?
I find it useful to map stuff as I think about it. You could list the types of actions each role has and how those actions are related to other players, where do they interact.

I really like your anecdote at the end, it clearly explains the purpose of a prototype. It's not a tool to just test the game but a tool for the designer to think and learn about the game. Design is simultaneously thinking, doing and learning.

thanks tikey - I've found it more helpful than I'd expected to force myself to set thoughts out like that - very different from just doing it in your head.

you're right, I haven't focused much on WC in the last couple of prototypes, and I think that is a big missing piece - often when I was testing I would have worked out the rules in detail for the other two and then when moving the fighters realising I hadn't really thought about exactly how it would work. I'm trying to work out at the moment whether OP is the mediator between AD and WC, or whether they are all 'equally unique'. I think I'd like it to be the latter, so playing each role has a different 'feel'.

I had a look at an old post of yours which had a good diagram - I think that's a really helpful way of setting it out - like a kind of 'internal economy' of the game. I think I will give this a try with mine! Have you done much work on this game recently?

That said, progress has been slow in the last few weeks - now that I've decided to scrap a lot of what I have and rethink, I need to allow some time for the ideas to percolate through. Quite frustrating pace, but I think that's how it has to be.

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blog | by Dr. Radut