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Designer Diary - Making a Good Game Great!

This was originally posted by Scott Almes, designer of Cosmic Colonies, on Board Game Geek (October 4th, 2019)
As we were getting ready to launch Cosmic Colonies on Kickstarter, I was asked to write a designer diary about Cosmic Colonies. I agreed to this immediately, because I always love to dig back through a design and analyze how it came to be. I’m a big believer in taking some time to reflect to learn and grow. And, it’s fun to share stories. Every game has a story behind it. Sometimes it’s a huge inspiration point, and sometimes an anthology of micro-stories that result in a game.

However, as I went to write this designer diary I was stumped with what story to tell. A lot of little things lined up for Cosmic Colonies to become the game it is today, and I was finding it hard to link a thread between them to create a diary that was uniquely interesting. As I was trying to think of something ‘cool’ to share, I was remembering more of the design struggles and discarded prototypes than successful playtests. I was thinking of late nights at the computer building files for the next version hours before a convention. I was thinking of spending months trying to think of the best theme.

Then, I realized the story was right in front of me. I was trying to think of some super cool, sexy moment that created this game - and frankly, there isn’t one. What there is, however, is a story about how a game gets made, and the hard work that takes to make a good game great! And that, I think, is a story worth telling.

Like a journey into deep space, the design path for Cosmic Colony was a long one! But all journeys start somewhere, and this one started with a single thought: I love drafting games and want to make my own mark in that genre.

Ever since playing Sushi Go and Seven Wonders, I have loved what drafting can bring to the game table. From a mechanics point of view, it solves one of the biggest issues designers are always chasing, and that is player downtime. In my opinion, one of the worst things that can happen in a game is having a bunch of empty between turns where you are uninvolved. Players get disconnected from the game. They take out their phones. The game’s momentum is lost.

With drafting, most of the real thinky decisions are done at the same time. It’s great! You see similar situations with simultaneous selection and action planning games as well. You get more gameplay for your time, and that’s something everyone can be excited about.

Wanted to come up with my own twist on the mechanic, I came up with a drafting system that we’d later call ‘orbital drafting’. Essentially, the game has a hand of about twenty cards numbered 1 through the total, which each card doing a unique and awesome action. You deal each player a hand. Then, everybody gets to choose two cards from their hand, and they get resolved going from lowest to high. It gives a nice twist that most of the decisions are made at the same time, but there are some surprising interactions that happen as the cards play out. Then, the magic happens: you pass the cards you used to your neighbor and those cards get added to their hand! Now, you know a bit about who has what cards, what order than can go in, and a bit of head-gaming can behind. So, the twist on normal drafting is the cards you play rotate, and not the ones that stay in your hand.

I loved this concept and immediately started to build a game around it. The great news was the orbital draft was instantly engaging and fun for everyone. The bad news: the rest of the game wasn’t.

And, this is where the rubber hits the road for game design. The orbital draft was the only good thing designed for this game for about… three years? The rest was just… okay.

The biggest problem was that I couldn’t figure out the best way to augment the mechanic with a truly fun mechanic. In most of the iterations, the role cards you drafted helped collect resources and did things to spend them. Eventually, I developed a nice little resource collector around it that you would use to spend on some engine-building cards. It involved a market mechanic that allowed the supply of resources and their prices to rise and fall during the game. I thought this would highlight the timing of the role cards (it didn’t). But, after three years of twisting, testing and iterating I finally had something that can take a long time to achieve: a good enough game.

At this point, it was called The Docks, which included a variable market and a bit of worker placement. Oh, poor little prototype, you won’t be around for much longer!

The reason I called it good enough is that it was good enough to get signed with Floodgate Games at this point. We’d wanted to work together for a while, and when I sent him the prototype he really liked the orbital drafting mechanic. The rest was okay, but it was good enough to decide to do the game together and start developing it to be the best it could be. We both knew that there was a great game somewhere there, and he (luckily) trusted me to continue working on it to get there.

That was three years ago, as I write this. I recall talking with Ben Harkins at GrandCON just after we signed it in 2016. We were talking about thematic changes and development direction at 2 am in the lobby that the convention was in. I even have a tweet from noted Fleet-designer Ben Pinchback to prove it:

Like I said: this is the story of what it takes to make a game great. That might include being up until the middle of the night talking development, even though you have to get up to run some ‘Play to Win’ games in 5 hours. I needed a lot of caffeine the next day.

With some great direction from Ben Harkins at Floodgate, I was on a mission to make this game the best it could be. We knew the draft mechanic was the bit of magic in the game, so the goal was to make the rest of the game just as compelling. We needed to make something that would compliment and enhance that mechanic.

A Sample machine you could build in Widget - the next version of the game.

The next iteration was called Widget. You drafted role cards to create and build a fantastical machine and used resources to power it. It was a literal engine building. The problem? It just wasn’t fun enough. It was always cooler to explain than it was in play. So, this one was recycled. Bye Widget!

A Dragon Factory Player Board. Like dragons, this prototype only exists now through legends told between generations.

Next, in hopes of coming up with the best mechanic, we looked at a theme-first design. That led to Dragon Factory! We started with these long, winding dragons you could build, like the Widget tiles, and then later developed a set player board that allowed players to build their own dragons! How fun, right?

It was fun, mostly. But, there are 1,000’s of games released a year. Mostly fun isn’t good enough. ‘Kinda neat’ means the game is going nowhere. You need something great. So, the next step was simple: try again.

Okay, okay. It’s not a simple next step. There were plenty of points where I doubted whether the game was worth pursuing. There were two things that kept it going. One: whenever I got the drafting part to the table, players kept talking about it - it was really resonating with playtesters. And Two: Ben Harkins also believed in the game and knew we could get it to be great. So, fueled by the smiles of playtesters and encouragement from the publisher, a new iteration was born: City Sim.

If you’ve looked at the Cosmic Colonies page, this should look familiar.

City Sim was a temporary name for a version inspired by Sim City. (What a clever prototype name, eh?) It featured a polyomino mechanic where you were trying to build your city. Through clever placement, you could maximize your points by covering the perfect spots. It followed up the orbital draft in a nice, simple way: you used the roles to collect resources and buy buildings to place into your city.

And, in hindsight, I was able to see what was troubling the game for so long. I’ve talked enough about the orbital draft and why I liked it. It was simple and led to complex decisions. But it does require a second half of the game. You need to select roles and actions to DO SOMETHING. And the problem was always what that SOMETHING was. After I stumbled upon the polyomino puzzle, I could see what the other versions didn’t work. The other versions had a second half that was more complex than the first. They all required more rules overhead and started to overshadow the drafting. What was brilliant about the polyomino puzzle is that it’s so simple - you collect resources to buy and place a tile - but the placement is tricky. Like the drafting, it’s super easy to learn but hard to execute.

From City Sim, we knew we got it! The game was absolutely singing during play! So we did some retheming. It briefly turned into World Builders. Which was - depending on the day - a game about terraforming a planet or being big, mighty gods and building a new world. Then, it soon became… (Drumroll please!) Cosmic Colonies!

At this point, we knew we had a great game. It was worth the effort and iterations to get the game where it was today. Playtesters were loving it. And soon we were getting ready to get it out to reviewers to support the Kickstarter. That’s always a moment of truth and - I’m happy to say - it has paid off. The reviews have been great so far!

I told you the drafting was cool!

It was nice to have Rahdo’s confirmation that the polyomino puzzle compliments the rest of the game so well!

I wish I could tell the me from 6 years ago about this review. It’s worth it, younger Scott! The game is going to be awesome! Keep going!

So, that’s the end of the story of how Cosmic Colonies came to be. It’s a story of the hustle, the time, the effort it takes to make a great game. Even with the ups and downs on the road, the journey was a fun one and worth it in the end. I’m super proud of how Cosmic Colonies turned out, and I hope you take a moment to check it out for yourself.