This old blog post gets at what I was looking for in a space game, and explicitly why current space games like Xia and Firefly the Game fall short. I was looking for a mix of those 2 games along with Merchants & Marauders, the best pirate board game I’ve played so far. But, as I really thought about the space theme from games like Eclipse, Eminent Domain, Race for the Galaxy, plus digital games Faster than Light and The Infinite Black, I realize that there’s even more I want to see in a space game and that the scope of such a game would be quite epic in nature. So, I don’t know if this is going anywhere beyond a blog post but ideas have been popping for me lately so I’m trying to write them down.
What I like best about space games is exploring the unknown, and apparently, I’m not alone:
Ships at Sea
We don’t really know what it would be like to travel space. But, we think we know based on TV, movies and novels. So to me, a space board game has to be true to the space genre and that genre has nearly always copied the sea genre: Ships floating in the vastness of space, dotted by occasional life, and complete with its navy terms such as “captain of the ship” and his “crew”. I want a space faring game with that feeling. As good as Xia is, my buddy Tim (of the old 1670 league) calls Xia “the claustrophobic space game”. Another thing I want in a space game is exploration and mystery. In Xia, Firefly and Merchants & Marauders, everything is already charted out, Xia at least has randomness in what goes where, but that’s not the same as discovery. Also, Xia lacks a captain, and lacks a crew, and I find its geometric upgrade system overly burdensome.
I collect game ideas. They are all kernels of ideas, and like popcorn, every now and then one of them “pops” with ideas. If I get enough ideas, I’ll try working out a game to see if I have something. Usually I don’t. But, if I do, then I try to go further with it and every now and then, something just comes together. It’s that way with my Epic Duels decks: I collect ideas and sometimes they come together. If nothing really comes together then I’m not going to bother executing it. I always think of Jedi Hunter Vader as a deck that just sort of came together. I didn’t work very hard on it at all. The game that eventually became Cage Match! was just supposed to be a little casual gaming thing between a few friends, but that one came together. One day I was just thinking through Watering Hole and it came together. Once I put together a prototype and played it, it played almost exactly like I thought it would during that one mental session. I’ll still have to figure out what to do with that game because it’s a great game and 80% finished, but I want Geektopia Games to focus on games with 3D print component possibilities and that game simply does not have any.
Now, if I came up with a space pirate or space exploration game, might it have 3D print possibilities? Hell yeah. My brain is addled with those possibilities. I tried out a ship-building and combat system a while back but didn’t like the way it turned out. Those elements still need to be worked out, but right now I’m popping with enough ideas that I’m getting them down and seeing if something comes together. There’s still so much to figure out that I don’t think it’s going to happen in the next year and we’ll pursue publishing something else, but if I do end up figuring this out anytime soon then cool, we have a company now that can pursue such endeavors.
Space is big, really big
I’m not thinking about ship-building or combat right now. I’m focused on space exploration. While I don’t think I’m on the verge of solving everything with this game, I’m sure I want a game with what I’m calling a “vast-space-y feeling”.
This is sort of what I envisioned for the vastness of space in this game (doesn’t do it justice of course). That light blue hex in the middle is supposed to be our solar system. The 18 purple hexes around it are called “Settled Space,” with 3 bright hexes representing bases by the 3 big Earth governments or possibly corporations. This part of the map is “fixed” — it will be the same every game. Everything else will be random from game to game, and you’re not expected to uncover all of it every game.
The blue area around the purple is called Known Space but it is not settled and still something of a mystery. Beyond that is Unknown Space, beyond that still is Deep space and the red outer portion is the Fringe. Since you’d never actually use all the Deep Space or Fringe tiles in one game, I’m thinking of allowing you to explore as far into Deep Space into one direction as you want, with certain tiles amongst those indicating that fringe is beyond them, if that makes sense — meaning you’re not restricted to a hex-shaped space and that deep space can go more than 2 tiles deep. One you reach fringe, though, that’s an end point. I don’t know myself exactly what I’ll create for that, but I want it to be mostly as weird as possible, more like Alice in Wonderland and Salvador Dali than anything seen in Star Trek, full of black holes and magnetars and other weird celestial objects, though honestly none of that stuff is anywhere near us so we might have to “warp” the distance out in Deep Space and the Fringe.
In the base game, it’s not so different than Merchants & Marauders. You’re trying to run some missions and/or cargo between human-controlled planets or maybe steal some for yourself. There’s pirate lore, hidden maps and buried treasure. Lots of fun stuff, but as you travel deeper into Known Space, you get hints of many mysteries lying beyond.
As you explore Unknown Space, you find yourself enmeshed in a struggle between warring aliens – not so different from your life in Settled & Known space, just with higher stakes. You still have the option of faithfully delivering cargo, aiding in missions, or acting like a pirate but there are hints of larger things out there. See in the first part of the game, there are 3 warring Earth governments, or possibly 3 warring Earth corporations, and you can take sides and all that. I think what might be cool as you enter Unknown Space is that you find 2 warring aliens, and then you can bring a United Earth into it so you’re back to the 3 warring groups dynamic from the earlier part of the game.
No one who has ever entered Deep Space has ever come back to tell the tale. Will you be the first? As you go into the hidden regions of Deep Space and the Fringe, the pirate part of the game fades as you encounter remnants of a long departed ancient race, the mysteries of space and time, the weird aliens pursuing them. Comparatively, the struggles of Earth and even the warring alien factions seems trivial. If you can venture to the Fringe and survive it, you can bring back ancient and powerful alien technologies that can swing the balance in the struggles of Known Space. They cannot only end the struggles of the Earth governments but are powerful enough to take over the Earth itself.
It’s just hexes, but this is an example of working a game out
Ideas are a dime a dozen. If you want to be a game designer, then it’s no secret what you have to: Design games. Design parts of games, at least. I’ve already found that I never know which idea may take hold.
Laying out the hexes is helpful because first thing I realize is that this is just too much to tackle in one game – a total of 312 tiles! Just including Settled and Known space is a total of 91 hexes. Even though the 19 known space hexes are a single block that never changes from game to game, that’s 72 hexes to include in the game, and that’s plenty for one game where you have ships, crew members, equipment, rules and etc. There’s enough, ahem, space, to fly around, pick up and deliver, seek or avoid danger, etc. Firefly the Game has only 84 practical spaces (there are more than a dozen additional spaces around the edge but they literally never get used) so this is already more vast than that, and that game board feels pretty vast-space-y, in my opinion. The Merchants & Marauders map, which never changes, has only 16 spaces, yet it still accomplishes the “sailing the open seas” feel. Xia has only 21 spaces itself, though it is different with spaces within spaces but it doesn’t really matter because Xia lacks that vast-space-y feeling.
So 91 hexes is a lot, and should be enough for a vast-space-y feeling. About 1/3rd of these 91 hexes will be empty or near-empty space (e.g. maybe some dead planets where you might find buried treasure, but nothing you could settle). That should be enough content for a complete game, but for this game, it would only be the beginning!
Then, an expansion, or possible set of expansions, would include another 240 tiles! That’s a pretty huge game in and of itself, but at the same time, they’re just pieces of chipboard. I think if we really want to achieve the space exploration feel, we can’t go any less than this. Now, you’d probably rarely explore more than 1/4 or 1/3 of those in a single game, which means, you could play many times and still not discover everything. Bingo. Like a Rob Daviau game, you don’t read them ahead of time. Let the mysteries unfold. It may take you several plays and dozens of hours, but that’s what we’re aiming for. Of course, an expansion would have to include new cards and abilities such, so it will be a hefty expansion. I might even have to break it into 2 expansions.
That’s as far as I’ve gotten. Will keep you posted.