Friday, September 14

Vacuum: The Inconstant Phase

Codename: Vacuum is the game that is infecting my brain at the moment. It's always at the back of my conscience, thinking of ideas for tweaks, improvements and major changes.

The game is in the early stages where I'm thinking much more about it than I'm playing it so it's not unusual for me to make three or four sets of changes between plays - in some cases they are all changes on the computer before I print it out for testing, in others, no sooner have I printed a copy than I've had another idea and started making another slightly different prototype on the computer before I've even had a chance to play the copy I've just printed and cut out!

What am I hoping to achieve with all these changes?

  • Fun! The game should be a fun experience to play. There should be interesting decisions at every turn, the chance to surprise or stiff you opponents and a enough randomness and luck that it doesn't feel dry and samey.
  • Fast! I want to game to have a similar play time to Race for the Galaxy, i.e. experienced players can play it in around half an hour.
  • Consistent: I want the game to be easy to learn and easy to play because things make sense, the various bits of the game are consistent with each other - the rules aren't a mess of special cases and exceptions.
  • Well themed: The theme is consistent with itself and the game works with respect to its theme.
  • Streamlined: The game is as simple as it can be while maintaining an interesting challenge and great experience.

Obviously, you don't start with something that perfectly meets those criteria, you starts with something that captures an idea in your head, and then through multiple tests, feedback and iterative changes you move that initial version towards a final game that meets those criteria.

When making changes you need to hold that initial idea of how you want the game to work in your head and then tweak the current version incorporating the playtest experiences and feedback using those criteria as yardsticks: if I make this change will it make it faster? Or slower? Does it improve the consistency? Would this change make it more fun? Sometimes you'll have an idea that improves it against one of the criteria but makes it worse against another. Is it acceptable to streamline the game if it reduces consistency slightly? It depends, but you've got to make that call on all the ideas you have.

So what is the overall idea that is driving Codename: Vacuum development? I wanted to make a game that plays in around 30 mins with experienced players. I wanted a deck-building game with a tableau element (like Race for the Galaxy) but with direct interaction between players. I wanted a steampunk game that evolves through the passage of time into a proper sci-fi game. I wanted multiple paths to victory.

Sounds like a tall order? I've set the game in a fairly standard steampunk setting (imagine the works of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs) but unlike the majority of steampunk games there's a passage of time from around 1900 through an alternative modern day to a hundred years in our future). It's set in our solar system, but a solar system with men in the moon, Martians, Jovians and lots of other extra-terrestrials. The game is a deck-building game, but you can play a few cards to your tableau where you can make use of them every turn, driving the shape of your strategy. You can explore the solar system, trade with other players and neutral locations, use your military to attack and claim the neutral locations or those claimed by an opponent and you can research technologies to improve your strengths in various areas. Come the finale, you get to pick from ten scoring cards to determine on which criteria all the players will be scored. As with most deck-building games, there are several sets of cards and you play with a subset of them, so each game will be slightly different depending upon the randomly selected subset chosen for this game.

Hopefully that description piques the interest of a few people and everyone's not sick to the back teeth with deck-building games. In the meantime, I need to keep testing it out and making the tweaks until it's in a position where I can send copies to blind playtesters for the all-important feedback about whether it's worth pursuing.

I also need a name...

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