30 November 2012

Solitaire Space Battle Homebrew in the Works

Lots of props make for a smoother/faster game

I can't stop making up rules.  It's a sickness.  But I think this time I have it figured out...

Last year I put a ton of effort into a game called War In Space and posted it here on the Downloads page of this blog.  The problem with that set of rules was that I didn't really playtest it thoroughly enough, and it turned out to be too clunky and not very fun.

Soon afterward I made a new set of rules, Greater Space Battles, which has given me a lot of fun games.  I stayed up until 2 or 3AM  a few nights finishing a game and I haven't done that since high school.  Greater Space Battles finally let me recapture some of that magic of my gaming youth when I had a good group of gaming buddies and everything was fresh.  As great a time as I've had with the second rule-set, something has always been nagging at me to revisit War In Space.

War In Space suffered from a lot of problems, but I've always been happy with the core energy allocation rule mechanic of throwing three dice, with the type dependent on the ship size.  Looking closer at my first set of rules, I realized that the biggest problem was the screwed up turn sequence.  So I ditched that and made a new little game, combining aspects from my first and second rule-sets.  I playtested a few turns today and it worked great.

The key to a non-clunky and fun play experience was a lot of pre-production work.  Each ship has a detailed base with information on it, as well as a separate washer that has more ship information mounted on both sides.  This eliminates the need for any paper, and these washer-tokens can be drawn randomly from a dish to determine initiative, essential for a solitaire game.  They're also plastic coated so that changes during the game can be marked in permanent marker (won't rub off with hand-moisture), and cleaned after the game with isopropyl alcohol.

The big improvement over my other systems is how I track energy points.  Now, instead of pennies or tokens, I use little cubes which prove a lot faster as I generally just need to flip one side instead of go grab more tokens off the stack.  As the picture above shows, these are really little cubes, only 3/16" per side.  Actually, that was a good lesson-learned from the playtest: the tiny cubes proved unobtrusive but fiddly; it took a little bit of time manipulating them because they were so hard to grab.  I made new ones tonight that are bigger but still tiny compared to normal d6s, which overwhelm and crowd out the ship miniatures.

So the key is props.  The little cubes for energy tracking, the Box O' Death dice rolling tool, the information tokens in their initiative dish, and an alcohol pen all make for a smooth game.  Today I finished two turns of a 2 v 2 ship battle in under 20 minutes: in my experience pretty fast for a solitaire game where I have to continually move around the table.

Unlike last time, I'm going to playtest at least two or three games before I write up and post the rules.  This blog goes into a year-long deep hyperspace sleep in December, so I hope I have it done by then.  

25 November 2012

Dead CCG: Galactic Empires

Cards from my collection

I've found my newest fascination to distract me from other gaming pursuits in the Galactic Empires collectable card game (CCG).  First published in 1994 by now defunct Companion Games, the game definitely qualifies as a dead CCG.

Back in the 90s when I played INWO and Mythos regularly, I came across some promo cards for Galactic Empires (GE) and laughed at the artwork, immediately rejecting GE as a Magic: the Gathering clone.  Fast forward a few decades (ouch) and I ran into the game again, this time as a heap of cards for cheap.  I'm into converting dead CCGs into solitaire versions, space themed games in general, and getting things for cheap.  GE fit all three of those so I did a little research and then bought the heap.

The Galactic Empires Card Museum is a great website that convinced me to check this gem of a CCG out.  The museum features pictures of nearly every card, and if you look at the first few editions, you'll see why I avoided GE initially.  Look at "Science Officer" in the Alpha and Beta releases for example; it looks like a 10 year old's crayon drawing.  If you look at the Universe edition released in 1995 however, you'll see that the art improved dramatically as many popular CCG artists began to produce illustrations for the game.  That's the edition I bought and am very pleased with the appearance.

I was concerned if one could construct a playable game deck from boosters alone.  I just received all my booster boxes and after beginning to catalog them I feel more confident a deck can be built from boosters alone.  I've only opened five boosters from my first box, but with some quick sorting and filtering on an excel spreadsheet I'm already seeing some great trends.  Follow the link in the previous sentence to download the spreadsheet to manage your collection.

First, I'm impressed with the variation in the boosters. Other CCGs I've collected have been guilty of poor distribution, with sometimes two or three of the same common right next to each other in the same booster. Not so with GE (at least in these first five boosters). So far all 14 cards per booster have been different than each other, and among the 70 cards so far cataloged I see only five cards which are duplicates. The second thing I like is that each booster contains, at least so far, a minimum of one terrain and one ship. In a few cases, two of each. From the spreadsheet I have 8 terrain and 8 ships from five boosters. That's an average of greater than one and a half ship and one and a half terrain cards per booster. So with a full booster box I should expect over 50 ships and 50 terrain, the two main card types needed to really get things done.

I've yet to play the game, but a quick read through the rules show GE is indeed a Magic: the Gathering clone where players use places ("terrain") to generate the resources which then power cards (ships here, creatures in Magic) capable of attacking an opponent directly.  Yes, it's a clone, but actually the idea of stocking resources to power the main offensive/defensive cards fits the theme of a space conquest game better than it does the theme of dueling mages ala Magic.

Still, I think this game would've been better with a traveling/exploration rule mechanic versus just straight fighting.  I'm going to try to come up with a solitaire variant which uses actual spatial positions of the cards as a factor, where the player has to move his ships around the playing area exploring, trying to find more systems to power more fleet cards to defend against enemy ship cards roving randomly.

12 November 2012

Scratchbuilding and Playtesting: A Productive Weekend

I used the nice long holiday weekend to continue a number of projects, namely basing my recently painted scratchbuilds, casting a new group of scratchbuild ships, and finishing some tokens in order to playtest a set of solitaire rules so these two groups of ships can battle it out.  I'm surprised but I managed to meet most of my goals, and more importantly I picked out a few problems with my new rule-set that I can tweak before I invest too much time.

The pictures below show my three new scratchbuilds.  For some reason I got a lot of bubbles just below the surface on two of these.  Weird because I used exactly the same technique I've been using and normally I marvel at the complete lack of air bubble problems.  I did cast these outside in the cool autumn air and then put them immediately on the dashboard of my truck, in the sun, where it was relatively hot.  Perhaps the temperature gradient caused the bubbles?

I also baked 90 polymer clay tokens this weekend, for use with the new solitaire space battle rules I mentioned.  The cross-hairs denote energy points allocated for attack, the arrow energy for movement, and the castellated line represents defensive energy.  I made the tokens uniform in diameter and thickness by pushing the clay flush into the 0.5 inch diameter opening in a steel washer.  In order to get more mileage out of the number of tokens created, I painted 10 of each different symbol in three different colors.  The colors red, blue, and green represent one, two, and three energy points respectively.
Made with Sculpey polymer clay

Overall the playtest of the rules proved slow, but I chalk a lot of that up to me still figuring out the best way to set up the gaming area.  Speaking of gaming area, we're still in transition until mid December and all my game mats reside in storage, while I find myself without a hobby room; that explains the foamboard playing surface and styrofoam hemisphere planet still in shrinkwrap.
The Battle of the Bedroom Nebula

The picture above shows the tokens in use during the playtest.  Aesthetically I am very pleased with the tokens.  The picture below shows a closeup of them distributed around one of the warships during the playtest.  I found a couple of issues with their use however.  First, even with 90 tokens and only six ships in play, I actually started running out of particular types of tokens.  Second and more important, I found one of the major obstacles slowing down the game was having to constantly walk over to the pile of spare tokens and "make change" as the ship's energy values and hence the denomination of their respective tokens changed.
Tokens: aesthetically pleasing but fiddly
I've seen other spaceship games use dice set next to the miniatures in order to track hits, ammo, hull points, whatever.  I've never liked this approach as I find it ugly, but after today's playtest I realize the wisdom of this technique.  I can get a bucket of d6 from an education supplier, with each die being one of three colors.  This works out perfectly, as my game features three different types of energy for every ship.  I can use a weird die like a non-platonic ("normal") d10, or d20 or d24 to represent beam weapon charging.

Other than the slowness of moving tokens around, the playtest passed the crucial fun test.  The rules utilize the same basic energy allocation game mechanic as my War In Space game, but with a much more streamlined turn sequence.  Also, I designed War In Space as a two player game and then tried to bend it into a solitaire set; I built these new rules from the ground up as a solo game.

One final way method of streamlining the rules involves using a clear plastic storage container to roll all the dice necessary at once.  I understand some Battletech players developed this technique (known as the Box o' Death) a long time ago, but I got the idea from Desert Scribe on his blog.  Since I'm using multiple types of polyhedral dice to represent various levels of energy production capability, the Box o' Death proves essential to avoid constantly looking for the right dice.       

04 November 2012

Scratchbuild Spaceship Task Force

Here are some shots of the four ships I've been working on, complete and ready to be matte sprayed and mounted on flight stands.

Initially I tried to paint details and insignia on the ships, but just didn't like the looks.  Then I found a couple of old decal sheets from some models I bought over 10 years ago but never finished (or started). 

These ships are small enough that I'm able to chop up individual decals (like a tail number for example) to make multiple stripes and arcs and such.  I should therefore be able to use these decal sheets for quite a while, which is good because I've already got a few new ships in the works.  I plan on making four new ships before the next weekend so I can test out some new solitaire rules.