[Devlog] Unstable Universe (Part 1)
Welcome to another boardgame devlog!
This time, I will explain the process behind my thoroughly innovative game Unstable Universe.
(I prefer the word "innovative" over "experimental and perhaps a bit weird", as that doesn't leave a good first impression.)
As usual, I have written two devlogs:
The regular devlog (this one), which talks about the game design process, decisions being made, problems I faced, results from playtesting, etc.
- The technical devlog, which talks about how I programmed the website interface for the game. (For this game, the interface generates a random playing board AND a secret board, and is able to convert those to PDF format. Another step up from my last boardgame website!)
Hopefully you learn a thing or two about boardgame development and you find this devlog interesting! (This is certainly one of my most interesting games to date.)
Remark: this first part of the devlog is (by far) the longest, because I wanted to keep the whole process of designing the first version ( = base game, first draft) in a single article. It helps with understanding the whole thought process and everything involved. The ones after that are broken up more frequently as I create expansions, fix issues and work towards the final version.
What's the game all about?
Slightly less than a year ago, I came up with the concept of the One Paper Game. I saw that the boardgame hobby was really expensive and had a high barrier of entry, and I wanted to fix that. So, as the title indicates, each OPG only requires you to have (or print) a single sheet of paper.
It didn't take long for me to realize the full implications of this concept.
If every game requires a new sheet of paper ... there's no reason to leave the old sheet intact!
Why don't we allow players to cut into the paper? Or fold it? Or change parts of it in some way or another? This gives limitless extra possibilities for gameplay. Possibilities that regular boardgames can't have, as you're not supposed to destroy the game board.
And thus, the idea for a cutting-edge game was born! (Yes, that is my best pun in the whole devlog.)
I envisioned a game where the most important action was cutting into the paper. I didn't know how exactly, I just knew that you could put scissors to papyrus as a valid (and essential) move. And if that caused a piece of paper to come loose (it wasn't attached to the main board anymore), it would "drift away" and be lost.
The Original Idea
And so, the title Unstable Universe was born and I set out to create the first cutting boardgame. This was my rough outline of an idea at the start:
The game board is a bunch of nodes ("locations") connected by edges ("routes")
All players must start somewhere at a corner of the paper.
Each turn, you can only move: find a node you are currently on, and go to another node that's connected with it.
The first player to have 5 unique resources and enter the middle node of the board, wins the game! (Where "having a resource" means you have a dude standing on a node of that type.)
The plot twist: players can cut into the paper, and if a piece comes loose, you lose all your dudes (and resources) on it!
The obvious story element that followed was:
Our home planet is doomed. All living humans have set out to find a new home for us, and somehow arrived on the same ice planet at the same time.
As you explore and conquer this planet, it will slowly break apart around you!
The only way to win, is by striking a balance: use the resources, but not so aggressively that the planet is destroyed in the process!
Remark: Yeah, there are some subtle messages about climate change and "taking care of nature" in there as well. I've always grabbed every opportunity to remind people to be kind to nature, even before I learned about climate change, but I will try to not let myself get carried away with the theme.
I wanted nodes and edges, instead of a fixed grid, because it fit the "unstable" theme and allowed way more variation in movement and cutting.
I wanted people to reach the center node, as stuff is generally most stable at the center, but also because it gave all players an equal but simple goal.
The reason you need 5 unique resources, is because that inspires the actual gameplay. You can't just race to the center, you need to plan a strategic route, and take into account that you might lose people due to the cutting mechanic.
The game itself is extremely simple: you can only do one action (move), there is only one node type, and only one simple goal.
I did this on purpose.
If I'm going to create a game with such a wild mechanic as cutting into the paper, it's not so useful to bury that mechanic underneath a bunch of other rules and intricate game systems. It needs to be front and center. People need to actually consider playing this game. And for that, the rules need to be dead simple.
How to Cut?
This was the big question: how do you allow people freedom when cutting into the paper, without making it easy to destroy the whole board?
I actually invented the idea for this game months ago, but I got stuck on this question every time I tried to work on the game.
Of course, I finally managed to find a solution, which is why you're reading this devlog and the game is finished.
But there were some other interesting options, so let's look at those
The game board has "fault lines" on it, that divide the board into rectangular sections. When you cut, you must stop whenever you encounter a fault line!
The game board is divided into sections of any shape and size. These are ordered. When cutting, you may first only cut in section 1. Once the planet becomes more unstable, section 2 crumbles as well. This continues until the planet is falling apart and you are finally able to cut anywhere.
You may cut any way you want, but as soon as you've cut two things (either nodes or edges), you must stop.
- When cutting, you must follow the edges. The nodes you encounter along the way, determine how many edges you may cut.
In all the solutions, you could only start a cut from the edge of the paper, but that seemed obvious. If I allow players to start cutting from the center, they first need to punch a hole in the paper, and that quickly becomes a giant mess :p
Also, in all solutions you had to stop when encountering another cut that was already made.
Solution 1 was great for theme and simplicity, but didn't really solve anything. If you may only cut within a predefined rectangle, that limits players to the point that the cutting mechanic is quite useless. You can solve this by making the rectangles bigger, but in that case, people can still slice the whole board within a few turns!
Solution 2 had this idea of "escalating problems". At first, cutting is slow and confined, but as the game progresses, you can cut more and more regions.
I really liked this. However, it makes the game unfair: if you happen to start close to the first section, people can just remove you from the board immediately. Additionally, it makes the game a bit too predictable for my tastes: you know exactly in which order sections are going to fall.
So this concept might return at a later stadium, but not for cutting.
Solution 3 seemed like the winner for some time, until I actually got to try it out in full. It is too easy to make annoying or "game-breaking" cuts with this system. You can always find a spot where, if you cut at just the right angle or place, you can avoid hitting things for a long time.
Additionally, if you don't have the best cutting skills, you might miss your mark and accidentally cut more (or the wrong thing).
Unfortunately, all those solutions just didn't cut it. (Ha!)
The Winning Idea
Solution 4 eventually became the winner. Why?
First reason: it was the clearest and simplest. Now the rule was simply: "follow the lines on the board!"
(This is some general wisdom I've learned when making all the previous games. If you can let the game or computer take care of something, DO IT. It means players need to learn way fewer rules and can just focus on the fun of the game.)
I had already worked on generating random boards, and saw that they created varied patterns and shapes. Because you can start cutting anywhere from the edge, and the board is so varied, I thought the players would have enough freedom.
Second reason: when I used this mechanic, I actually achieved my main goal: put the cutting mechanic front and center.
Why? Until now, I saw cutting as a single action. Some nodes on the board would show a scissors icon, and if you landed on it, you could perform a cut!
But that meant ... you were only cutting like 5% of the time. And it usually didn't even make a difference, due to all the restrictions!
With my actual solution, I can do the following:
Each node is both a resource and an action.
The resource is simply needed to achieve the main goal (and send players all over the board, instead of in a straight line to the finish).
But the action can be a specific way of cutting. For example:
Wood: you may cut three steps ( = 3 nodes), but must take the first connection to the left each time*
Stone: if you encounter this node, you must stop immediately after cutting it!*
- Food: if you encounter this node, you may cut one step further!*
This way, everything becomes about cutting parts off the paper, but it also adds strategy to that: What is the best route? Where should I cut to get the most benefit? Should I move there, or is it too risky given that there's a lot of Food resources lying around?
I was happy with this solution, but one problem still wasn't solved.
Currently, there is absolutely no reason to cut close to yourself. Each player will just cut on the other side of the board to annoy other players.
And the starting player will have the obvious advantage. Worst case scenario, they are able to remove another player from the board completely before they even make a move!
I needed to provide some (potential) benefit to being removed from the board. When a piece comes loose, it shouldn't always be a bad or unlucky thing.
That's when I remembered we were on an ice planet as explorers, we can actually explore and make discoveries!
My randomly generated boards created these nice shapes between them. I can write an algorithm to detect those shapes, find their center, and place something there. (As long as the area is large enough to fit an icon there.)
This was an early version of the idea - the red circles inside areas indicate where expeditions would take place:
When that piece comes loose, everyone who has a researcher on that piece of paper becomes involved. For example:
Research Race (positive): the player with the most researchers may immediately take 3 turns.
- Trap (negative): for each researcher lost to this trap, a player must destroy another node they own
There's one issue here: if you cut on the nodes (remember, solution 4), then it can be hard to see which players are part of the piece of paper (that came loose).
Why? Because all the nodes at the edges will be cut! You can only see part of it, and that part might not show if there was a player there.
Here's an image from the rulebook that shows a fish-node that is half-cut:
I'm still not sure what to do about that. If I add an extra action -- you can move to the center of a shape -- this mechanic loses some value and the game becomes more complicated. So this is still an open question/problem, for now.
But here's the real cherry on top: I can make those discoveries secret.
If you have a double-sided printer, the discoveries can be placed at the backside. You don't know what's there, until the piece actually comes loose and you flip it over!
I'm super excited to try this out, but I realize not many people can actually do this, so it won't be an important feature until the end of development.
(Many people don't have a double-sided printer or aren't willing to spend the ink on something like that. So, it will probably end up as an option on the website.)
As I was writing the rules and generating random boards, I realized something.
If you start in the corner of the map, you have a longer route towards the center, than people starting halfway an edge of the paper. (Usually like 4 or 5 more nodes.)
How do I solve this? I cannot change the shape of paper to be round! Or diamond-shaped!
I realized that the starting node was very important. How do we make the most of them?
I couldn't make them actionless. That would break the general rule (nodes are always a resource and an action) and it would suddenly make 20 nodes do nothing, which is boring.
- I couldn't give them regular cutting actions, as that gives the first players a great advantage.
After some thinking, I came up with the idea of personal missions.
Don't worry, this is a One Paper Game, so there is no huge deck of cards with missions going to be included. This game is also completely analog, without a digital component, so no list of missions from the website!
Instead, I devised a rule that I thought was quite clever. (It remains to be seen whether that's true.)
All nodes at the edge of the paper only have so-called "mission actions"
The node that you decide to start the game on, decides your mission.
What are those "mission actions"?
The node shows a special resource. Only one or two exist on the board, all the way on the other side. You can only win if you grab another of that special resource.
The node shows a bomb. You can only win if all other bomb nodes have been removed from the board.
The node shows a number. You can only win if you control (at least) that number of nodes.
- (I'll hopefully come up with some more before the game is done.)
In this image the starting nodes and their placement are shown. (Spoiler alert: later on I decided to give all players the same mission on their First Game - another option you can enable or disable on the website. That's what this image shows as well.)
This means that any starting node will usually have both good and bad attributes. Deciding where to start is a big deal and can completely change your strategy the rest of the game.
Lack of Precision
I've talked about the lack of precision in games before. For example, in real-time games, people might do something almost at the exact same time, and it can be hard to decide who was actually first and how to continue.
Unsurprisingly, a game about cutting and drawing has some similar issues.
Question 1: is a connection still active when someone has cut through it? Yes, connections always stay active. (The only exception? If a special action allows you to cut some other way or permanently disable connections.)
Question 2: is a node still active when someone has cut through it? Nodes have two "visibility points" on them. If all points are still visible, the node is active. Otherwise, it's disabled and cannot be used anymore.
What's the idea behind this? Well, if both points are still on the paper, then the node should be mostly intact. If not, it's highly likely the node has been destroyed and shouldn't be part of gameplay anymore.
Check the tiny black dots around each node in the image below:
Question 3: what if a node is destroyed or a person removed? Do we need to draw with pencil and use an eraser?
No, from previous One Paper Games, I've learned the only possible course of action here: just cross them out and make that permanent.
Crossing out a whole node, means the node is effectively removed from the board. Nobody can enter it, or use it. It's not connected with anything.
- Crossing out your researcher on a node, means nobody can enter the node. If someone moves to that node, they just skip it and immediately continue onward.
One plus one means a game!
That was the whole process behind creating the first version of the game. To recap, here's the idea:
All starting nodes (at the edge of the paper) give you an extra mission.
All other nodes have a resource and an action. The action is usually a specific way of cutting, but can be anything.
On your turn, you can only move to a connected node.
If you have 5 unique resources (and accomplished your personal mission), you may enter the center node and win!
- If cutting causes a piece to come loose, the action(s) within that piece are executed on all researchers standing there.
That's basically the whole game. Simple, but innovative, and I think it will work.
Of course, the real complexity and content is hidden within that list of possible resource/action combinations (which will probably end up quite large). But you don't really need to learn those before you start the game; you can just peek at that page in the rulebook whenever necessary.
This devlog continues at part 2: [Devlog] Unstable Universe (Part 2)