Starry Skylines (Part 1)


Welcome back to another devlog for one of my One Paper Games!

What are One Paper Games? It's a type of game I invented, for which you literally only need one blank piece of paper (and a pen), and you can already play! I invented these for many reasons (simplicity, ease of use, free to play, possibility of innovative mechanics), and so far these games have been a great success, so check them out!

This time, I'm talking about the development process behind Starry Skylines!

Where did the idea come from?

I like the boardgame "Welcome To ..." (Also known as "Welcome To ... Your New Dream Home!")

Welcome To ... (Boardgame)

It's extremely simple to explain, players take turns simultaneously, it supports "1-100 players", yet it's very engaging and doesn't feel like a "dumbed-down" game or anything.

In that game, each player gets their own sheet of paper with a bunch of streets and houses. Every round, three cards are revealed, showing a number and a special effect. All players must choose one of these three options and draw it on their own sheet.

For example, you might have the number "2" and a special effect that allows you to build a pool for a house (which are obviously worth way more points than houses without a pool).

But here's the tricky part: you must form valid streets. So, numbers must go up (from left to right), and you may not have duplicates. Only certain houses allow a pool, for example, so the decision suddenly becomes very difficult: should I write a "2" here because it fits nicely between my 1 and 3? Or should I write it in a worse location, but which would allow me to build that nice pool?

They often say that games should be all about forcing players to take interesting decisions. This game is the simplest example of that, distilled to its essence.

Each round is one decision between three options, all equally interesting.

So, obviously, my brain thought: "what if I copy that game ... but bigger and different?!"

Well ... allow me to introduce my latest One Paper Game: Starry Skylines!

What did I want to improve?

When taking inspiration from another game, I usually think: "Which parts do I like and want to keep, and which parts do I hate and want to change?"

I'll try to explain my original idea using these thoughts.

Like: ownership and customization. Because each player has their own paper, it gives a great sense of ownership, which is way more important in games than people think. (Why do you think people spend ages designing their character in video games? Even if it doesn't matter for the gameplay at all?)

It's your neighborhood, with your buildings and pools.

So I wanted to keep that in the game. Everything you place, you must draw yourself (allowing some creative expression), and then claim. There are no restrictions on customization, and you cannot lose something of yours. (Well, there are a handful of events or buildings that allow this, but that's only a tiny speck in the full list of possibilities.)

Dislike: lack of interaction. Instead of players working completely independent of each other, I wanted them to interact. I exclusively make multiplayer games for a reason: that juicy interaction between players!

So instead of each player receiving their own small piece of paper, everyone is simply playing on the same single sheet of paper.

Like: interesting choices. The core mechanic of the game is just so strong, I don't want to meddle with it in any way. In my game as well, you are presented three options each round, both a number and an effect.

Dislike: limited number of choices. That being said, there are only five different things to look for. I wanted there to be way more possibilities, more buildings and effects that could be part of the game. So I made the following choice:

Instead of building a neighborhood, we are building a complete city.

Instead of using a deck of cards, I'll let my website randomly chose options. It's quite easy to provide the computer with tens or even hundreds of options, and then ask it to randomly select a few. It's even easier to make it follow certain requirements: if I want some type of building to occur way more often, I just increase its probability.

Lastly, I allowed the number of effects to vary between 0 and 2. This allowed for even more strategic variance: perhaps an option has both a negative and positive effect. Will you choose the penalty to get the reward? Or will you play it safe and just choose a number without any effect?

Like: theme. For a "neighborhood-building" game, Welcome To has quite a strong and appealing theme. It's not just building houses, it's building houses in the 1950's, and the visuals and mechanics match that. I think this plays a more important role than one might first assume, so I spent a great deal of time coming up with a theme (before I even made anything else for my game).

Eventually, I chose space travel (or space colonization if you will). Why?

My first thought was to build medieval towns and castles, but that theme is waaaaay overdone.

My second thought was to go even further back, building caves and campfire for prehistoric tribes, but that limited my options too severely. (Might still be very interesting, but not for this particular One Paper Game.)

My third thought was to go contemporary and just make something like SimCity, but then I was like: "but ... SimCity already exists, why copy it?" Additionally, just using a "modern setting" doesn't really feel like choosing a theme, it feels more like a lack of theme.

So finally, I arrived at space. It gave me a nice name for the game (Starry Skylines) and would allow me to create stupid "science-fiction" buildings and events. Spoiler alert: it gave me many other unforeseen advantages as well, which was nice!

(Yes, name is important. All other names I came up with were either too silly or too serious, and I always strive to strike a balance. For example, an early name idea was Cityward ... which sounds more like an extremely serious 3-hour base building boardgame. Another idea was Shady Skylines ... but that's just illogical, what's shady about these skylines?!)

The First Idea

Knowing what I liked and disliked, I set down to write the first idea, which was:

You all arrived on a new planet simultaneously. Oh no, now you must share it!

Each round the computer will give you three options: a number and 0-2 effects. You must choose one and execute it immediately.

Numbers must always form valid streets: a sequence of numbers (horizontal or vertical) may not contain duplicates and must be ordered (either ascending or descending).

Effects usually mean drawing a new building in an empty square (and claiming it).

If two (or more) players want to use the same square, they must challenge each other. The person who has the longest street wins, otherwise the person with the most government buildings wins, otherwise use rock-paper-scissors.

The game ends when the board is full or someone hasn't been able to do anything for three turns.

The player with the most points wins! You get points for all buildings (following their rules) and certain achievements (such as having the longest street out of all players)

I liked this a lot, because it was really simple, clean and straightforward. There are basically only a handful of rules to explain -- all other complexity is hidden within the computer.

In fact, I created a short and simple GIF that explains 90% of the game, which I also use on the homepage/website for this game:

Starry Skylines explained (as a GIF)

That's also the reason why I find this combination of a board game and a website component to be extremely useful. Whenever an effect shows up, players can just click it to get an explanation about what it does. This way, I don't need to explain anything before the game starts, even if we have 30 unique buildings in the game! It's all in the computer.

Which in turn convinces people to try the game: I can literally get the game going after only 1-2 minutes of setup and explanation. If I had to explain all the different buildings and how you score points, that would be 15 minutes at least. Many people would not even try to sit through that explanation.

Of course, as the saying goes, with simplicity comes oversimplifying.

The First Big Problem

Because all players act simultaneously, and they all act on the same board, an obvious problem with turn order occurred. The concept of "challenging" seemed nice but didn't really cover the issue.

For example: I challenge you for the right to place a new street ( = a number) at some square. I win, so I place the number. But ... that means I now have the longest street, because I placed one number extra, so I also win subsequent challenges!

It's almost impossible to break out of that loop. At the time, I didn't have a clear solution, so my first few playtests still used these original rules. (I'll talk about the solution later, after the second series of playtests.)

Another consequence of this was unavoidable symmetry. Why wouldn't players just copy each other's moves? What prevents the game from having a tie in almost all challenges?

This one was easier to solve: unique player powers! At the start of the game, all players must already decide a number for their starting square, and choose a player power from a table in the rulebook.

Such powers make the setup asymmetric and drive players towards different goals. For example, a player might get one point more for each house. This player will surely build stuff that allows them to create loads of houses, instead of choosing an option that would, for example, lead to more entertainment buildings.

This also prevents ties during challenges. One player power, for example, allows you to build 2 streets for free before the game starts. Obviously, that player will have the longest street, at least during the first few rounds.

The First Playtest

I playtested the game several times, mostly on low player counts. These were the issues I found:

Issue 1: On low player counts, people often chose the same option out of the three, because it was simply the best.

  • How to solve? Disallow this. With 2-3 players, each player must choose a unique option. Of course, this needed some extra "challenging" rule in case multiple players wanted the same option.

Issue 2: Buildings were too ... boring? Most of the buildings were very straightforward, like "a garden adds +1 point to all adjacent houses", which is nice and simple, but also makes the choice less interesting. You can optimize this way too easily.

  • How to solve? More interesting buildings, of course! Over the weekend, I played Tiny Towns with some friends of mine, which gave me a first clue about how to do this. In that game, an Inn was only worth 4 points if there was no other Inn in the same row or column. Well, I copied that, and it was easy to add variations. For example, the Cinema is worth 4 points divided by the total number of cinemas in the same row and column. This is still a simple rule, but it adds way more strategy.

Issue 3: it was too easy to get stuck when building streets. Currently, you were required to build a new street adjacent to an existing street you owned. Not surprisingly, many games ended early because someone was stuck and just couldn't do anything.

In hindsight, this was a stupid rule. The whole point of placing these numbers, is that you must plan ahead to make sure you get a nice sequence of numbers in the end, which fit precisely on top of one another. If you must always place a number adjacent to an existing one, the probability of creating nice streets is very low.

Issue 4: The board filled too quickly. With two players, an average round will already fill 4 squares (two options, each with 1 number and 1 effects). Higher player counts only make this worse.

  • How to solve? Multiple steps, each of them softening the problem only slightly.

  • Step 1: use multiple papers. This goes against the "One Paper Game" concept, of course, but I needed to do that anyway (which I'll explain later). At most four players can start on the same sheet of paper. Have more players than that? Grab an extra blank sheet of paper!

  • Step 2: make less buildings that span multiple squares. (I had a Skyscraper in there that required three cells. Filled up the board way too quickly.)

  • Step 3: allow re-using squares. Some events can destroy property, some buildings must be placed on top of water, stuff like that.

  • Step 4: make it more likely that you can not do an action. For example, add more strict requirements to buildings, so you can't just place them anywhere

Continuing on issue 4:

Explanation of resource grid (taken from rulebook)

After implementing all this, it still wasn't enough, so I came up with another big idea:

Instead of just using the space inside cells, we can also use the edges of cells!

The first idea was quite obvious: use the edges as an electricity grid. Some buildings need to be connected to electricity, so there needs to be a path to an energy plant (or something)

Soon I realized I could add more varied uses. I could also add water or oxygen pipelines to this grid. (And maybe I'll later add even more possibilities.)

However, this was quite a complex mechanic. I didn't want to introduce this immediately, as it would raise that barrier towards entry, and I intend to keep that as low as possible.

So I thought: "I'll just add some concept of difficulty levels later, and introduce the resource grid later"

This train of thought eventually became the planet campaign.

Continue reading this devlog at part 2!