Unstable Universe (Part 6)

devlog

This devlog is part 6 in a series of articles about the development of Unstable Universe. Check part 1 here: [Devlog] Unstable Universe

Expansion 4: Sharp Scissors

The very first day I worked on the random board generation algorithm, I got two ideas:

  • Special Edges: create dotted edge, or zigzags, or wavy curves. Each different type of edge has some special action. (For example, dotted edges may only be traveled once, and are then destroyed.)

  • Landmarks: make some nodes much bigger than others. They have multiple actions, or can be owned by many players, or do something very unique.

I remember this, because I left comments about it at the top of the code with the date attached :p

Here's how these ideas look on the final board (I'll explain the thought process and functionality below):

Sharp Scissors board

Tiny Nodes

I wanted to implement these ideas in this final expansion ... but reality was my enemy again.

There just wasn't enough space to create different types of edges. Either they'd be so small that you couldn't recognize them. (Who can tell a dotted line from a striped one when they are 2 pixels wide?) Or they would take up too much space and risk overlapping other nodes or special elements.

Instead, after looking at my random boards for a good while, I saw that the most space was to be had halfway each edge. Thus I invented the Tiny Node.

These are a simple shape (circle, square, triangle, ...) placed exactly on the halfway point between two nodes. They are usually optional -- you can just skip them and move straight from a regular node to the next one. But if you do stop on them, you get certain benefits.

(The reason I made these a simple shape, is because those are still recognizable when part of it is cut off. When you see a half-circle, you still know the original Tiny Node was a circle.)

Landmarks v2.0

I didn't have space to create ultra large nodes or complex landscapes. (It also didn't fit the look and mechanics of the game.) I really wanted to have "capitals" and "rivers" on the board, but it just didn't work out.

(And because I don't have the space, I could only create a few landmarks per board. But that would make the game unbalanced => some players can use them, others will never even see them.)

So, I decided to re-use my complex area-recognition algorithm (from the expansion #3) for this as well! I pick a few random areas and place a huge landmark in the center. (Just an icon of some mountains, or a tree to represent a forest, or some copy of Stonehenge, whatever.)

Nodes around such a landmark are influenced by special rules. I'll keep these really simple, because there are already more than enough rules in this game. (And otherwise they'd be too powerful.)

Because it's just a single recognizable icon (everyone knows what a mountain looks like), this is much easier to spot and remember. At the same time, it's something completely new, because no other mechanic influences all nodes around it.

Natural Resources

Finally, FINALLY, we arrive at the final idea I have for this game (and which was good enough to be implemented).

The previous expansions introduced the ability to cut through empty space (instead of following the connections) and that complex area-recognition algorithm.

Let's use those one last time for some fancy stuff!

Any area that has not been claimed by anything else yet (an expedition, a landmark, ...) will receive a random number of natural resources. These are placed randomly within the area and will be quite small in size.

When I say Natural Resources, you should think about Diamonds, Coal, Minerals, Gold, etc.

The rule is simply: when you cut through them, you get them. (In a sense, you dig into the ground and retrieve this resource.)

"Getting them" means you get a special action or may add them to a tally. (One of the missions is about having the most resources. Obviously, it only shows up when this expansion is enabled.)

Why was this added to the game? First of all, to make cutting even more important. Secondly, to reinforce the theme of "Unstable Universe". This game basically tells a story of balance: you can drill into the earth and mine resources to get advantages ... but if you do that too much (too many cuts, too many destroyed stuff) it will wreck the whole board and cause everyone to lose.

It's a clear message (and the first time I really put a message into a game of mine) that fits the theme and game mechanics well. So I try to continue it through all mechanics in the game.

Pfew, that's that for the main ideas!

It's a lot. It really is. I constantly have to remind myself to take it slow, keep things small, one step at a time. Yet I still manage to create these giant games (when all expansions are enabled).

It took me weeks just to implement all the code necessary for these expansions and write them succinctly in the rule book. I must admit that I doubted myself a lot during that time -- a weird game about cutting, who is waiting on that? Why do I keep trying to invent new genres and making each game as big and bold as it can be? WHY CAN'T I KEEP IT SMALL?!

But each time, after one or two days of working on other projects, I got my motivation back as I remembered that the game is actually already quite good. And it's my responsibility to open the eyes of all people in the world to the beauty of ... cutting games!

Now I'll need to actually test them rigorously and improve until the game is as best as it can be!

Remark: I think I've said this before, but when I say playtest I mean an organized testing session with others, usually friends and family. It's not a good idea to just ... think about your game for months in isolation and only try it when it's completely done.

As I work on the game, I regularly check how my rules work in practice, and play mini-turns or mini-games against myself.

It surely doesn't catch all mistakes and nuances -- you need other players with their own fresh set of eyes and brains for that -- but it allows me to easily spot mistakes like "with 4 or more players, you're never going to have enough space" or "this rule is too complicated -- I forgot it last turn, and I created the darn game!"

Never mind, still more work to do

As I was putting the finishing touches on the expansions, I soon realized that they were all trying to do too much. I needed to throw away some ideas to simplify them ... but after considering all the possibilities, I just didn't want to throw away most of it. All nodes and mechanics I invented, were fun and had a good reason to be here.

(They served a purpose in making the game balanced or allowing/encouraging new strategies.)

So you guessed it: there's now a fifth expansion! I brought back the "Nodes of Knowledge" expansion as the second one, although mostly by title. The content -- aka, the actual nodes in the expansion -- are heavily modified.

I try to keep all these expansions independent, so you can just enable the ones you like (and disable the ones you don't). As such, I now need to find a good balance between all action types (nodes that allow you to cut, nodes that allow you to change turn order, etc.) within this expansion.

This devlog is getting looong, so I'll just skip to the finished product and the playtesting session.

(There are many tweaks, improvements, and updates that happen during development of such a game. Almost every day, I write down 3 or 4 observations like "hmm, the center node should really have more connections on average, because it's so important" or "the numbers on the nodes should really depend on how many nodes are on the board of that type"

And when I wake up the next day, I realize those observations are completely valid and I should probably just implement them immediately. Creative projects are basically infinite to-do lists.)

Playtesting Session #2

So, finally, I managed to test the game.

It went well! Rules were quite simple to explain. It was an all-new group, yet we managed to start playing very quickly and finished games in 30-45 minutes.

There were still some minor issues though:

  • As I suspected, the Water node was too powerful. (It allowed you to teleport, essentially giving you two turns in a row.)

    • Solution: now you may teleport, but you must remove your old icon if you do so.
  • Some icons weren't entirely clear at first glance. (The Fruit Plant was a Moon according to some, because its icon is a banana. And Wood was a bunch of matches, because the icon has two wood logs on top of each other.)

    • Solution: this isn't that big of a deal. A quick glance at the rulebook solved all misconceptions, and most players did understand the icons at first glance.
  • People, somehow, think the game is much more difficult than it is. For example, when the rules say "perform a cut", that's it. Just perform a cut following the standard rules. But players were like "wait, the cut needs to start at our current node, right?" or "wait, the cut needs to go through nodes of the same type, right?"

    • Solution: I discussed this with the players, and they agreed with me that this wasn't really something I could fix. It's just their way of thinking. Nevertheless, I tried to put a small reminder in the rules where possible, and included images at all places where people were uncertain.

The rest of the game actually went great. Even the more skeptical players became enthusiastic by the end, trying to find the best ways to cut the paper and the best move the make. (This shows there is at least a strong core element to the game that is fun and engaging!)

As of right now, we didn't find more issues, but we obviously need to test the game more. (Several expansions and player counts have not been tested at all yet. In fact, that's what I'll talk about next ...)

This devlog continues at part 7: [Devlog] Unstable Universe (Part 7)