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.

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