Still reeling from the novelty of the Games Design classroom and the University of Arts in General, we were almost immediately assigned our first project. The parameters were relatively simple, but considering my lack of experience in the field of boardgame design, I knew it would still be a challenge. Below is a summary of the first week of my trial-and-error filled journey.
Guidelines for the Game
We were to create a game that players could understand in around 2 minutes, and play within less than 10. It should fit in a small box, and be for 2-4 players (although we were allowed to specify that number). Included in the submission should be the box, clear rules, and the game components.
The game itself would be evaluated based on the clarity of the rules, its novelty, how well it engages its players, how far it stuck to the aforementioned guidelines, and its aesthetics and design.
We had three weeks, which might sound like a long time, but started seeming a lot shorter when I realised I had no idea how to start.
During a long nighttime bus journey after we received the guidelines for the project, I let my mind wander, just to see whether it would surprise me with a fully fledged boardgame idea complete with rules, components, and a pretty box. Unfortunately, it didn’t. Instead, it kept coming back to a necklace I had bought over the Summer – a gold chain with a little circular pendant on it which contained the virgo constellation. I knew that this necklace was in fact part of a whole series of such pendants which contained each zodiac sign in simplified form, and I was intrigued by the circular design, and its elegant simplicity. I wondered whether there was a way to have every sign somehow overlap in one circle, and make that into a game.
At the time, I was also wearing my favourite jacket; a black corduroy coat covered in stars and moons embroidered with gold and silver thread. I was imagining a game which combined the mystical, sleek aesthetic design of my jacket with a strategically challenging puzzle – perhaps a game in which two witches battle against each other to conquer the celestial plane in order to strengthen their spells. I pictured a black board with golden stars and cards with black cats and moons on them, each with different effects, and created a Pinterest board to set the mood for the game’s visual design. But I couldn’t come up with anything more specific – not for a while.
Using an image with simplified zodiac constellations as a guide, I began mapping out each point of every zodiac sign on a circular map in a way that every sign was somehow connected to another. This ended up looking very confusing, and it became clear that unless I wanted my game to look like a colour vision test, I would have to reduce the amount of points in my circle.
As it turns out, there are six zodiac constellations visible from the Northern hemisphere, and six from the Southern hemisphere, and so I was able to split the board in two in a way that was not completely arbitrary. And with that, the first set of rules evolved.
Here, two players had one token in each round, and could place this token wherever they wanted with the aim of completing constellations with their tokens. There were immediate issues with this: with each constellation intersecting with others, players often got trapped in a deadlock in which one player would remove a token (which in the context of the game I called “stars”) and the other would simply put it back.
Disheartened, I asked Dr David King for advice. He suggested to raise the cost of placing stars on an occupied position – for example by making a player spend two stars rather than one to replace an occupied intersection. This meant that players would have to have at least two stars at their disposal at the beginning of their turn, so they had the option of removing occupied points on the board if they wished. This temporarily solved the problem of the deadlock, because once an intersection was occupied by the first player, the second was encouraged to try to complete a different constellation instead. However, due to the increased number of stars available per turn, the game quickly reached the point where every intersection was occupied, and the players were once again engaged in a deadlock.
Action Point Allowance Systems
This is where I started thinking about how to incorporate the phases of the moon into the game. Perhaps if the amount of stars available to each player was not equal in every turn, but instead fluctuated depending on different moon phases, it would prevent players from fighting over the same intersection every turn as they would not always have the necessary recourses to do so. I researched what this type of mechanic is called, and in which games it has already been successfully employed. I found that what I was thinking of was an “Action Point Allowance System“, or “AP” for short, which is used for example in the famous “Pandemic” by Matt Leacock. Here, however, players get a constant allowance of four actions per turn: Movement, Air Travel, Special Action, and Special Ability. I was looking for a game in which the amount of action points was not equal amongst the players, to see whether it was possible to balance such a system fairly without causing a feedback loop.
I finally came across “Hansa Teutonica” by Andreas Steding, which I have written a more extensive study about in a separate blog post entailing all of the case studies I thought would be relevant to this project. In short, this game starts players off with two actions points per turn, but they can “upgrade” this skill until they reach five per turn, thus allowing for discrepancy between the different players’ capacity for action. In “Hansa”, this system works because actions are not the only useful upgradable skill in the game, and it is in fact possible to win the game with only three AP’s against someone with five, according to JonGetsGames’s review. My game needed to be short though, so I had to keep it simple.
I decided to try a system with eight rounds – one for each phase of the moon – in which the first player starts with three action points, and the second with only one. In the second round, this would stay the same, then in the third and fourth both players would have two APs per turn for two rounds. In the fifth and sixth round, the second player would have three per turn and the first player only one. In the final two rounds, both players would have two actions per turn. I thought this would be fair, since it gave both players an opportunity to have three turns while their opponent only has one. However, when the game reached the point where every constellation was occupied, having three APs essentially equated to having two, because the only possible action left was replacing a star (which cost two APs). This placed the player who had started on the weaker side of the moon phases at a huge disadvantage – their opponent was able to occupy the board quickly and cheaply, whilst they were left scrambling to replace one star at a time at great personal cost later in the game when having three APs no longer meant anything.
Safe and Volatile Investments
One potential solution to this problem was simply to make more stars available to players. I theorised that this would solve the issue of APs becoming worthless, as there would always be empty points to place stars even in the late game. I also thought it had the potential to prevent a deadlock from occurring, as adding more stars would encourage players to simply opt for a different strategy if one constellation was already blocked by their opponent.
I was advised by Jai Bunnag, a game designer, to consider adding smaller constellations consisting of just two or three points to offer players safe investments as an alternative to the large, expensive, and volatile investments that larger constellations represented. At the time, fighting for larger constellations provided no real pay-off for players (and in fact was a source of immense frustration) as they were difficult to conquer and the opponent only needed to replace a single star in a large constellation for it to no longer count as “complete”, and therefore not contribute towards either player’s score. Connecting each point of large zodiac signs with smaller, (and thus safer) constellations allowed players to retain at least some value from the loss of a large constellation, and thus dampen the blow.
In theory, this iteration of the game should have not only solved the problem of deadlocks and inadequate AP distribution by providing players with more positions on the board on which to place stars, but should also have added depth to the game by allowing players to pursue different strategies: either opt for large, riskier constellations that then yield more “points” at the end of the eighth turn, or steer more towards smaller, but safer constellations. However, upon playtesting the game, it quickly became evident that the addition of more stars did not solve the issue of first player advantage within the context of the AP system the game was currently operating in. Despite the addition of constellations to the board, the first player’s ability to decide which strategy to pick without much interference from their opponent almost invariably forced the second player into a purely reactive mode of playing. The game was thus largely determined by the first player, and not very fun at all for the second, who was left perpetually lagging slightly behind.
Furthermore, it was always very obvious which constellation was being attempted by which player; firstly because of the limited amount of APs relative to the size of big constellations, which made them difficult to complete in less than three turns, and secondly because of the board design, which despite its “messiness” (criss-crossing lines and colours) was so simple that it was almost impossible for players to disguise their moves and fool their opponents by setting traps. This rendered the game devoid of the strategic intrigue that I had envisioned for it, not in the least because the addition of more constellations made it unnecessary for players to truly interact – and mess with – each other. These were the two main issues I set out to tackle in the second week of the project.