Monday, October 8, 2012

Exodus - making the first prototype and more challenges

To see the beginning of this story, please take a look here.

Even though I had some kind of ranking already put together, I left the quest of organizing the tech tree for later, focusing more on the big picture.

Early Political cards

I worked at the same time on the political system, having the players bid every turn for a generic decision and the turn order. The background was that the leaders of the six human factions gathers once per cycle in the High Council under the supervision of the Elder to debate and decide on the common matters of the transition and to put together ground rules that they would all follow. The political decisions were laws that would remain in play until the end of the game, affecting every other aspect of the game.

The last stage of the game was the exploration. Each player would start with a Home Planet, some population and a few space ships, then explore the space around and colonize new planets while fighting his opponents. From the very beginning I wanted to make space conquest a separate phase of the turn to avoid making player choose between economical and technical development and empire expansion. The main concepts I focused on were:

• The population would move using space ships and thus be vulnerable to attacks from the enemies while travelling.
• The movement decision would be made simultaneously by all players.
• All the ships would carry the damage to the subsequent battles until repaired.

After talking to a friend who is a passionate gamer, he was quite puzzled, not having seen this system in the "classical" games. He wanted me to justify my reason behind this. I asked him, "Can you imagine Admiral Adama finding Galactica suddenly repaired at the beginning of an episode after taking serious damage from the cylons during the previous one? Or knowing where the cylons would be because they have to move first?" He laughed and finally agreed, leaving up to me the challenge to implement the concepts.

After reviewing all the concepts I already had on paper, I found the need of a clean-up phase where the population would grow and the players could actually repair their ships.

The First Prototype – Project 7 (Alpha Centauri)

First tech tree

Before carving the first prototype of Exodus: Proxima Centauri in cardboard, I still needed to solve two issues: assembling the technologies into a tech tree and implementing the simultaneous movement. This is the point where the second designer came in. 

I encountered a few systems of tech development that are quite common in board games. Maybe the most common one is the tech tree in which each technology has prerequisites and you must research one or all of them to make the technology on the top available. Another system is the one in which every technology is available for a cost, without any constraints, the only difference being the price. I also found some intermediate systems, but I didn't feel that any of them would be suitable for our game. It was Agnieszka, my friend and co-designer, who came up with the idea of progressive discounts.

In the initial sketch, the technologies were divided by type into Civilian, Transport and Military and the discovery of each technology of one kind would bring subsequent discounts for all other of the same kind. We simulated it on paper and it was reliable cost-wise, but it would force the players to specialize and play in a quite scripted way. It was obvious that we needed more. Later the same evening, Agnieszka suggested using a matrix type of discounts. Imagine all the technologies placed on a grid and learning a technology would give discounts for all the other ones on the same line and on the same column. I instantly loved the idea of double synergies and I went on dividing them according to two absolutely separate criteria. This lead to the creation of the first player board, which resembles a lot what you can find in the final game.

For a player, each technology of one color he learns brings a discount for all the others and the same things happens for technologies of the same type (e.g. Military), all discounts being cumulative.

The last great challenge was to implement simultaneous movement for the spaceships. Having a modular map made of hexes helped me see a possible breakthrough. I numbered the sides from 1 to 6, each number representing a direction and I made many tokens with each of the numbers. Placing these tokens near the ships of every player followed by revealing and executing them ensures simultaneous movement decisions. The only drawback was that some ships were able to move several hexes and the conflicts sometimes needed solving before reaching the ships' destinations. The solution came from the background story. The space is large enough so that ships moving at relativistic velocities would not detect each other while flying in the same sector of space. Instead they'd see each other only when orbiting around the same planet. With this "small" addition (two or more ships would "see" each other only if they ended their movement in the same hex), we had a working solution for the simultaneous movement mechanism. I also found an additional advantage, a "freebie" from using hexes. When executing several movement tokens in a row the order did not really matter, going 1-2-6 would be the same as going 2-6-1 (if all the hexes had their direction markers aligned).

The countless simulations and solitary tests could tell me only so much about the game. We needed to see the reaction of other people and to test the ergonomics of the game, so the time had come to put together a complete prototype. We used the pizza boxes which we carefully saved over time and we spent a full day printing, cutting and gluing the pieces together.


The first games we played were with three or five people and we got quite mixed feedback. Everyone seemed to like the overall pace of the game and they also enjoyed the flavor, but there were a few problems that needed attention right away:
• There were too many types of spaceships (six) and they were not diverse enough.
• Not having any neutral forces on the map that players could engage made the first few turns very peaceful, some said too peaceful.
• There were too many technologies.

Of course, the story of Exodus does not finished simply like this. There's one more part, coming soon...

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