Designer Diary 1

So this game has been knocking around in my head for about 3 years now. I have finally had a couple of breakthroughs, I think, that will allow a playable game to emerge. Maybe. I am still stuck on a couple of important aspects, but I thought this would be a good time to reflect back on how this all came about, and also to write things down in the hopes that I can work through the last few blocks to getting a playable prototype. 

The idea for this game came from my interest in Astrobiology, which is the study of how life might come about and develop in places other than Earth. This is not my professional field of study, but hopefully I have read enough about it to have a basic handle on what it is.

So I’ve been chronically fascinated by a couple of ideas in Astrobiology. Firstly, the question of how life might arise and spread in the universe. There is SO much out there on this topic that I won’t even try to summarize it, other than to say that nobody really know how likely abiogenesis (the emergence of life) is to occur. We know for sure that it happened at least once (since here we are), but does it occur rarely or commonly out there?

The second question that interests me is how life might function out there. We only have one example of a planet with life on it, but even on this one speck of rock, there are uncountable ways that life has found to get by.

And so, about 3 years ago, I began to wonder how I might create a game that captures the awesomeness of a story of life in the universe. It’s a tall order! But then again, this is a hobby, there’s no pressure, so what the heck.

At the time that I started this project, my favorite games were Barrage, Brass Birmingham, Pipeline, Feast for Odin, things like that. Heavier, economic Euros I guess you’d say. When I came up with this idea, I think the thing I really wanted to capture was the fun of route-building and a shared infrastructure, combined with the topic of evolution essentially.

I’ve heard of the ideas of “top-down” design and “bottom-up” design. Top down design is when you start with a theme or topic or event and try to simulate it as well as you can with a system of mechanisms, and then find a game there. This is explicitly how Phil Eklund designs. High Frontier was definitely an influence on me while I was thinking about my game. To some extent, my first rule sets and prototypes were like this: I tried to simulate the story of life in the universe and then find a game in it. It didn’t work. My first prototype was played on a whiteboard with my buddy James. It was essentially a network of planets. You had to use mutation to make a life form, and engineering cards to make rockets. Then you would move your rocket around, dropping your life form off on planets. The planets had different properties, and these properties would combine with the traits/mutations you picked to determine the success of the life form on that planet. Then if it wears successful, you could scoop up some of that species and move it to another planet and try again. Then you could terraform a planet to try to make its conditions better suited to your species.

It is a cool idea. And maybe someday we will make that game, but it was WAY to complicated, and we never got it to actually work. It was also too slow – moving the rockets around took a long time – actually, I think we largely lifted that mechanic from High Frontier, which is, in my opinion, a game that also suffers from being too long. It’s super fun, but hard to get to the table because you can’t play it for less than 4 hours.

Recently I heard Peer Sylvester talking about “bottom up” design whereby you just create the simplest version of the game you want to make, make it playable, and then add complexity from there until you have a functional AND fun game. This makes a lot of sense to me, especially as a novice game designer. You have all these grand ideas about this space game you want to build, but I now realize that I just can’t hold it all in my head. Instead, I will create the most basic rule set I can that contains the bones of the game I want to build, and then put meat on it once it actually IS a game at all.

In any case, that’s sort of where I left things 3 years ago. A couple of non-functional unplayable prototypes of a game about Life in Space.

About a month ago, I was watching a Kurzegstatd (I am sure that is nowhere NEAR the correct spelling) video about the Fermi Paradox. Suddenly a light clicked on in my head. I had been struggling with the fact that I didn’t really have a unifying story or theme about which to build this Life in Space game. This video provided the answer: The Dark Forest theory. Suddenly the creative juices were flowing, and a game started to reveal itself in my mind…

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