Monthly Archives: April 2013

Best laid plans

Today was a day in which I INTENDED to finish a playable prototype of Escape Velocity, painstakingly converting my extended spreadsheet of facts onto wee tiny index cards.

Today was, IN FACT, a day in which I discovered a huge, fatal flaw in my spreadsheet, which, had I converted it into cards, wouldn’t quite have rendered the whole thing unplayable, but would have had a negative impact on the maximum amount of fun attached to playing, and made it a lot more boring.

(I had failed to take into account the notion that rocket components might want to have multiple different sorts of attachment points; that one should have both electric AND fuel line attachements. Otherwise, whatever someone first attaches to their command module becomes the only thing that it makes sense to attach, meaning that competition over components dwindles if players just pursue different power sources. Stupid mistake!)

Today was a day about fixing that, then.

On the other hand, today was also a day for learning how to use MS Word’s “Mail Merge” feature to turn a spreadsheet into cards! Turns out, it’s really easy, and really quick, and if I had enough index cards on hand, I could have made a playable prototype after all. But, uh, my printer tends to eat pages and misprint like crazy, and I didn’t have enough index cards in the first place (I had been planning to cut them in half to double the supply).

Ups and downs, I guess is what I’m saying. Ups… and downs. Like building a rocket, quite poorly.


Escape Velocity: Breaking down the Launch

Breaking down the Launch.

(Part two of a series about designing Escape Velocity. Read part one here!)

Short reminder of the rules of Escape Velocity: You build a rocket out of cards, each of which is a component, that you lay out in front of you. You use this layout to determine some starting facts about the launch, then shuffle those components and play them one at a time.

I’ve been doing a little designing, and I have an idea what the components will look like:


Uh. In theory they well look better than this. That’s a Lateral Turbine Thruster, and the little lightning bolt in a circle is a point where it attaches to the body of your rocket. It’s a work in progress, but I do like that it’s currently got a lot of things to consider: Altitude, G-force, Danger, Safety threshold, Drag, Special abilities, Connection points AND its physical place on the rocket all play a part, and that’s keen, man. Keen.

But while that’s something I’m working on, I’d like to talk a bit more about the mechanics of the game.

The heart of Escape Velocity, I hope, will be the Launch phase. Ever so much of the game exists in vague and nebulous thoughts in my head, but the Launch? That I know what I want it to look like. This:


I… I want it to look like a sword, I guess? Okay, I’m cool with that. It’s a sort of a sword, made out of cards which have been laid down on a smooth bit of table; in the event that I do not finish this in time for the Minigame deadline, or I’m not accepted, it might be best to restructure that into a small board, but for right now I’m restricted to using cards, and cards will work just fine.

Let’s break down the bits with the handy Color Coded Chart.


In green, the meat of the thing, is the velocity/altitude track. I put the slash because I’m not sure which is the better term, although I’m leaning toward the latter. Either way, this is the road from Earth to space. As you’re building your ships, you will add the ten, nine, eight, etc. cards to this line every turn, to serve as a visual reminder of the limited time remaining to assemble your rockets. The bottommost card in green is meant to be a little rocket, and when you draw that from the deck it signifies that now is the time to blast off!

In blue, beneath the blast off card, are cards for weight. The weight of your ship will be determined by how many cards you used constructing it… every five cards on your ship adds one “Weight” card, for instance. These are always added below the altitude track because they are a part of it, representing the added difficulty big ships face even getting off the launchpad. The pawn representing your rocket is placed at the bottom of this line, as in the picture. Bigger ships have a longer climb ahead of them, and a huge enough ship faces a significant challenge just getting to the blast off card; it’s possible to build a ship which can’t even make it off the launchpad. Smaller ships might not have any weight cards at all, for an easy takeoff, but they won’t have a lot of components during the actual launch.

Drag, in purple, is also determined by the construction of your rocket, although in this case it’s a matter of symmetry. The drag card is two-sided–on one side an arrow which will point either left or right (depending on which side your rocket is overloaded), and on the other a neutral circle (if you built a symmetrical rocket, with the same number of cards on either side of the central control module card).

Some components will naturally drag you to the left or the right when played, illustrated by that little arrow in the corner, which you indicate by shifting the Drag card a space to the left (putting it under G-Force) or the right (under Danger). You can go a space beyond in either direction as well. After that, any further drag will make the rocket spin out of control, so you have to compensate with specialty components or components with drag in the opposite direction. Oh, why the double-sided marker? Because some components DON’T have drag of their own… unless your ship is asymmetrical. If your arrow points to the left, then anything that says it has no drag actually has drag to the left.

Danger, in yellow-gold, is the representation of all the tiny things which might just go wrong. The construction of your ship might increase it–components are attached using different types of connection, represented by symbols in the point of attachment. In the above card, it’s an electrical connection, rather than a fuel line, mechanical, or nuclear connection. You have to match point to point, but they don’t need to be of the same type… electrical can connect to mechanical, but that indicates a jury-rigged rush-job, and increases your chance of danger, pushing the card up one spot even before your launch. Additionally, some components are so badly-built or experimental that using them knocks up the danger as well. This matters because each card has a “Safety” value, somewhere between 5 and 10, If you play a component whose safety value is less than the current Danger value, your rocket explodes. And of course, you have to play all of your components.

Finally, in red on the left, is G-force, which is easier to explain. Anything that increases altitude also increases G-force to some degree, and very little (if anything) lowers it. When it increases, move the card up the appropriate amount. If it hits 10, your astronauts are crushed beneath the weight of their own hair. Don’t, uh, let that happen.

Launch phase, then, is a quick process, in which you shuffle your components into a little deck which you’ll play out one card at a time and note the results on the board. So, if you played the Lateral Turbine Thruster as your first card, your launching setup would look like this:


+3 to your Altitude/velocity, +3 to the G-force, drag to the left, and danger up by one. Because the Safety Threshold is well above the current danger, we don’t explode, and because we’re under altitude 7, the special effect doesn’t hit (not all are altitude-based, many factor in the prior card or alter the next one, some are inherent bonuses/detriments, and some are optional effects, like the parachute which lets you abort a mission at any point). Repeat until you’re out of cards OR your ship is crushed, blown up, or thrown off course. Leave the pawn where it is–standing up if you survive, on its side if you don’t. Highest standing pawn wins, unless everybody is blown up, at which point the highest pawn wins. Compare budgets in case of ties. Some components may have alternate victory conditions, that’s still being determined. Lots is still being determined. But the launch… that’ll look like this.

Escape Velocity!

GMotW: Antichamber and…

I’ve been playing Antichamber.

Oh yes.

I have not finished Antichamber, not just yet. I’ve hit more than a few walls, to be sure, and broken through some of them, sometimes literally, but I’m not finished, but I still want to talk about a mechanic that is appealing to me at the moment.

It’s also a bit of a spoiler, and because Antichamber is one of those games which is best experienced, I’m inclined to put a spoiler warning here. I have issues with spoilerphobia, enough that I should write an essay about it one of these days, but in the short term, I’ll suggest that if you haven’t played Antichamber for more than an hour and a half, you might want to not read on.

Alright. Not having a specific rulebook, I’m going to cite the game itself for this one:

“Go by your own clock, and not someone else’s.”

… which is to say, that you start the game with a huge ticking clock: an hour and a half countdown, with a vague exit in sight and no real clue how to get there, in an environment which really, really penalizes you (albeit not harshly) for rushing and not paying attention to your surroundings. It’s POSSIBLE to finish the game with a ten-minute speedrun, but an average human will get, I don’t know, a quarter of the way there, maybe, by the time the clock runs out. At which point…

Nothing happens. It hits zero, and the above message appears. You’re not actually being timed. That’s the mechanic.

And it is, in its way, a corker. Obviously, its power comes from acknowledging that you COULD be timed, that, in a way, it makes SENSE to be timed. This is a game, it has rules, and there’s no reason one of them couldn’t be to do with speed. You are taunted by this potential from the very first second of the game, haunted by it every time you’re forced to return to the antechamber. It’s not presented as an optional challenge, it’s just there. A time limit. It takes advantage of one of the metarules, the notions burned so far into our collective subconcious that we don’t need to be told they are true, because it is assumed that they are: when time runs out, the game is over. It works for basketball. It works in Minesweeper. It works in chess, if you play that sort of chess.

But Antichamber isn’t about that. The conceit of the game is that you are in a world where the rules as you understand them don’t really apply; physical space doesn’t necessarily constrain you. You can go through a door, turn around, and find that the door you came through isn’t there at all, but instead a stairwell which takes you down for miles before leaving you back in the very room you just left. The interaction of things in physical space, that’s a metarule as well. Nobody flips through a rulebook saying “Waitaminute, if I’m facing north, and then walk through a door and turn to the right, am I going to be facing East, or am I going to be two floors down facing South and upside-down?” No, we just assume things fit together according to physics as we know them, even though they don’t HAVE to. Even in a game like Portal, where the physics get twisted, they get twisted in a consistent sort of way.

When the timer hits zero and nothing happens, that’s the game telling you, “Hey, man, this isn’t like those other games. Did I not mention?”

It’s an invitation to slow down, a reminder that it pays to explore, an apology for misleading you and a subtle admonishment for your making assumptions, all wrapped up in one. But really, it’s a joke, one ever-so-slightly at your expense. “You believed that I was really timing you? Don’t be so silly.”

Some folks get mad at things like that, but me? I laughed.

Escape Velocity

I’ve been quiet for a while, in part because I’ve had a distraction on my mind which I’d like to chat about for a while.

This. Level 99 Games is looking for small card-based games to go in their next Minigames Library. And me, I’ve never designed a small, card-based game, but thought it might be a kick to give it a try. Oh, sure, it might not be accepted… the deadline is the end of June for something that does not yet exist, which means that even if I can get it together the level of playtesting and refinement I will have put in will be… less than ideal, to be sure. But, I am a dude who firmly believes that attempting to do stuff is fun, even… nay, especially if it’s the sort of thing which I have no expertise or familiarity with.

And who knows, if I can get a rough draft in the next two weeks, that gives me all of May and some of June to play and polish, and that… that’s possible. Certainly, a deadline over my head is the sort of thing that helps me ACTUALLY do stuff instead of fluttering about, thinking about working while mostly just interfacing with the Internet.

So, for the past couple weeks I’ve been toying with ideas, laying out the very, very broad strokes of what sounds like it might be fun. And I’m prepared to share it, in a little bit of Game Design Blogging. Let’s do this.

The Game:

Escape Velocity.

The Back-of-the-Box Story:

It’s a momentous occasion: the National Space Program is finally going to launch its first rockets to the stars. The launchpad is built, the astronauts are trained, the media is invited; they’ve assembled everything necessary for a successful launch… except for the rockets, which, due to a scheduling mishap have been penciled in for construction tomorrow at noon. That’s not gonna look good when it comes time to justify the budget.

It’s T-minus ten minutes and the newspapers are here, so you better put something together, anything, and hope that it’s spaceworthy. Let’s not beat around the bush here, some folks are gonna lose their jobs over this one, but if you can put together something that works, it might not be you.

The Conceit:

Escape Velocity is a game for… some number of people (two to five would be a nice aiming point, although I think it’s possible to do solo games as well with a little tweaking), in which the players portray scientists, desperately trying to assemble a rocket ship. Assembling one is easy… assembling one which won’t explode, fall over, idle on the launchpad or crush its occupants into a paste? That’s hard.

Ideally, it’s a game where actual victory (making it to space) is rare enough to be celebrated, failures are fun enough to make folks laugh, and actually playing is reasonably fast. It is, by and large, a “light” game, whatever that means to you, but if you keep things like Fluxx in mind you’re probably off to a good start.

The Gameplay:

…is in development, of course. The specific mechanics? Still being worked on. The broad strokes, however, are like this.

There are two phases: the build and the launch.

During the build, players draw cards from the central deck, most of which have rocket components on them, some of which are special events, and some of which are markers to alert you how little time is remaining (the latter may be combined, depending on playtesting). There should be a measure of trading, selling, and stealing components, and some mild capacity to sabotage other ships, but mostly they’ll be assembling ships in front of them. linking one card at a time to one another as they build it. Components have markings to dictate where they attach to one another, so your rocket is visible on the table, very physical in front of you.

Some components are very good, many are very bad, but most are a big trade-off; there are a number of factors that each one affects: velocity, g-force, drag, risk of catastrophe and budget are all there on every card, PLUS some have special effects, some of which require OTHER cards to be played, or not to be played. The plan is for there to be too much to really factor in during the given time, especially when you also have to make them fit together physically without installing jet engines upside-down or whatever.

Near, but not at, the bottom of the deck is “Blast off!” which signifies the IMMEDIATE end of the building phase when it is revealed. That’s when we check the ships for legality, and see if there’s any one which can’t blast off at all, due to, say, lack of engines of any sort.

While building is an active process, blasting off is more about seeing what happens. You lay out a tracker for the various things which can go right or wrong (mostly wrong), shuffle all the cards in your ship, and start dealing them out and noting the effects until you run out of cards. You want to play cards that increase your velocity, but not by increasing your G-Force so high that your astronauts die (so you can’t just pile engine upon engine), or your risk of catastrophe so high that your ship explodes (so no relying entirely on strange and untested technologies) or send your drag so far off to one side that you fall over (so watch out for wings and other atmospheric lifters). Everyone blasts off in succession, sharing one another’s joy and pain and delight and whatever, leaving their little pawns on the velocity tracker to show how far they got (standing if they survived, and on their side if not so much). The winner is whomever makes it to the top of the velocity tracker, which is, of course, Escape Velocity. Or, whatever surviving ship makes it the closest (in the event of a tie, all components have a dollar value, so it’s to whomever gets there spending the least money).

If the game is well-designed, by my standards, most launches will end up with the ship exploding, falling, crushing its occupants or at most only making it partway to the top of the velocity tracker. That’s great. This isn’t a game of success, it’s a game of almosts, what-ifs, and if-onlys. Mitigated by being rapid, low-key, and silly (in conceit and, hopefully, design.)

The Plan:

Finalize some rules, make some cards, see what happens. I’ll try and keep you posted here, perhaps with some illustrations of the Blast Off procedure to clarify it a bit. But for right now, just know that this is where my head has been.