Saturday, October 6, 2012

From Alpha Centauri to Exodus

Ever since I started playing board games – and that's quite a long time ago – I dreamed of making "the perfect game". For a long time I didn't even know what that meant; I just had this image in my mind that some day I would put together all the concepts I've seen, I will put to work the full extent of my imagination and I will just come up with a game that the whole world will hail as the board game. 

But let's get down to Earth. That was simply a product of my imagination. It's now more than ten years later and I am looking back at this dream that has been making me push my limits in the world of board games, and I see that it has been more than that. It has been the energy I used to go forward, it helped me always strive to be a better game designer. But I won't keep you hoping any longer and tell you a secret: I did not design the perfect game. No surprise here, but while I was chasing this dream, the latest stopover was Exodus: Proxima Centauri, a strategy game that I consider my best achievement so far.

The Early Days

I started working on Exodus: Proxima Centauri in early 2011 with just a few core ideas in my mind. I wanted to design a full empire-building game with a sci-fi theme and a hint of realism. And I wanted to be able to say to myself in the end, proudly, "I love this game!"

Among my friends I am known as the kind of guy who is often impatient and is rushing to get results. While designing a board game this is rarely a quality, so I made myself follow a set of principles that I would always abide to. I won't count all of them, but two of the most important ones were "never leave loose ends in the design" and "do not patch, always go back and work on the foundation".

There are so many sci-fi-themed board games out there that many of you may wonder, "Why bother with a new one?" and I was trying first to find for myself an answer to this question. For starters, most games feature races of aliens that, just by being aliens, can have any kind of superpower the designer wants. I wanted a hint of realism and I decided that 
Exodus will feature humans only. But it's hard to start imagining a whole universe from scratch. My inspiration came from StanisÅ‚aw Lem's The Magellanic Cloud, a novel in which humans leave our solar system to find new worlds to inhabit and end up in the Alpha Centauri system. I had to sleep over this idea for a while, but a month later I realized what was going to be the plot of the game.

For a full month I was working solely on the story – researching, writing and erasing, spending sleepless nights imagining how humanity's trip to deep space could look like and what would be the drive for such an adventure. I decided not to share my project with my team before I could make up my own mind regarding what I wanted this game to become. In October 2011 I had the story all figured out. In short, this is what happens...

In the year 2299, a devastating nuclear war takes place on Earth, rendering the planets uninhabitable. After 83 days, the factions involved reach a ceasefire and decide to leave together to find shelter in the Centauri system, the closest stars to Earth. 

More than halfway there but with their resources depleting fast, the humans are rescued by a superior civilization and taken to their home world, assumed by everyone to be Proxima Centauri. The frozen conflict of the humans flourishes once again so the Centaurians split them according to their faction on six different planets.

After their settlement, the humans live quietly under Centaurian supervision for many years, until their saviors face problems of their own and decide to leave, sharing all their knowledge with the humans, even if this meant starting a new war. One Elder is left to ensure that a fragile balance of power is kept until the transition would be over.

Exodus: Proxima Centauri takes place during the transition of power from the Centaurians to the humans. Six human factions are trying to regain their glory on the ashes of the Centaurian civilization, knowing that in the end one of them will prevail and will have the chance to build an empire. Initially, I was supposed to stop there since the whole purpose was to create the background story for one game. But, carried away by imagination, I continued beyond that, without defining a further goal.

At this stage, I also decided on a set of design paradigms that I have sworn to follow in my attempt to create a game that would stand out:

• The least amount of downtime possible, implemented through simultaneous decisions.
- Striving to avoid moments of analysis-paralysis and severe game punishment for bad decisions to keep players interested in the game until the end.
• "Catch-up with the leader" strategies available for the least experienced players.
• Fast learning curve: turn 1 see, turn 2 understand, turn 3 correct, turns 4+ strategize.

Initial Design

Being an engineer I needed a clear structure for the game. I knew where I was heading – towards an empire-building game – and having played works of art like Twilight Imperium (third edition) or Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game I had already learned a thinking pattern for grand strategy games. 

Hex: planet, resources & direction markers
At first, i defined the main concepts that needed to be present in the game. Exodus: Proxima Centauri was supposed to have features like tech development, resource management, politics and diplomacy, variable turn order (I could not imagine a board game concept other than turn-based) and war. I also decided on a modular map to improve the replay value and the necessity of having space ships in the game – a personal preference supported by me being a big fan of sci-fi movies and books.

I must confess that I got something out of this long before the first test of the game. In my quest to give the game that hint of realism, I studied physics – from thermonuclear devices to the Standard Model of Particle Physics – and a bunch of tech papers on the latest developments in spaceship propulsion, shielding devices and weapons. Wikipedia was one of my closest allies. I also managed to use later on what I had learned when I was adding flavor to the game. 

The first thing I put together was the hex map and the resources that could be harvested and I will take full credit or blame for the chosen names. The main resource was Crystallized Platinum which served as currency throughout the game, the other two being Axinium and Phasium, rare minerals meant for more sophisticated developments. The resource gathering is usually the boring part of each game, so I tried to work out a system that would bring a few challenges. I found a solution by having a depletion mechanism in the game combined with a progressive tax (the more you collect, the more you give back) that the players would pay on every resource they would collect.

The initial Action cards
With the resource system in place, I wrote down the core of the game. Exodus: Proxima Centauri is "powered" by Actions. Every player could play two (out of a total of six) actions per turn. They would chose their action cards and reveal them simultaneously, to avoid creating artificial advantages and to minimize downtime. The same actions can be found today in the final game, with the exception of banking added later on):

• Research to learn a new technology
• Build ships 
• Buy upgrades, that is, ship parts previously researched
• Mine to replenish depleted resources 
• Trade by exchanging resources with the bank
• Bank as an alternate way to generate income

From these six possible actions, learning technologies was the most challenging part. During my days of online research I wrote down about 60 technologies that I found interesting and would also make sense in a a game like 

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. But I am going to tell you all about that in my next post.

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