Maybe it’s because my car just died and I have to get a new one. Maybe it’s the excitement of it being the end of the year… Time to tear this game to pieces and build it anew!
Chief Playtester and general all-round good guy Glenn sent me some fantastic notes recently which highlighted some of the things that have been frustrating me and clearly frustrating the playtesters on the Facebook group too.
Not only were the notes really challenging, they also called back to something that John (our other key developer) had pushed for earlier on in the design and made me realise it was time to go back to the drawing board on some of the core areas of A Billion Suns.
In games design, particularly at this stage, nothing should be sacred and so, true to this mantra, I’m going to carve out a completely new combat system because this one isn’t working. I’m also going to rethink the movement system to simplify that even further.
Fistfuls of Dice
The problems that Glenn identified are mostly rooted in the fact that you’re rolling handfuls of different shaped dice. I really love the silhouette system in A Billion Suns and I don’t want to lose that as it is a very unique and flavourful solution to dealing with the enormous range of scales in a spaceship game – from tiny ships with piddly lasers to massive battleships with enormous planet destroying guns.
The different kinds of dice combine with different damage values to require you to do a lot of different sums when you’re making a single attack. From the different probabilities to hit, to the different intersecting damage sums you have to do in order to figure out how much damage you are doing, its a bit of a chore, and the more beers you drink, the less fun it gets.
John had said several times before that rolling just a couple of dice felt better than rolling tons of funny sided dice. Also people might have a couple of D12 but they aren’t going to have ten or twelve of them just lying about.
Another part of the solution might be to have weapon ranges not overlap. By having weapons systems within a single ship class not never overlap in range bands you never have a situation where you are rolling a mixture of dice type, only more or less of the same dice type. This hopefully will reduce the cognitive overhead in both calculating the probabilities and also summing the damage. This will have a knock-on effect of accentuating the “doughnut” system which I felt was so interesting about the weapons but actually I haven’t pushed hard enough yet.
Expanding the Arsenal
I had so far used very generic weapon types in order to get the game off the ground but this refresh this refresh of the combat system seems like a good moment to expand the weapon list and give them more discreet and colourful names.
I’ll need to be a little bit careful though as this expansion of the weapon options in order to have ships with non-overlapping reference systems will could possibly lead to more looking up of statistics and might indeed result in needing to make ship cards which I was trying to avoid. Another problem Glenn identified was that the game currently requires you to look up things in tables a bit more than I would like.
So Long, Priority Activation
On top of these changes in the combat system, I want to try a simplification of the activation system. I’m going to drop “priority activation” altogether and see whether the game it’s really any worse without it. I’m also going to remove rules that restrict pivoting to push the movement system a little bit to get closer to my idea of simply pushing models around on the table rather than measuring every turn.
It’s quite possible that once it hits the table these new systems might fail. Perhaps each ship class will feel less unique or the ships will feel less powerful or the dice will feel more swingy and unpredictable. Hopefully this should be just a case of tweaking numbers and we should get back to something that is both exciting and cinematic.
Further in the spirit of cutting things or changing things that aren’t working to serve the fun I noticed that disorder tokens are cluttering my table in contravention to one of the design principles! Disorder tokens entered the design when I was trying to find a way to replicate the crew’s psychology and deterioration on their ability to carry out orders.
Once on the table that deterioration being modelled as a change in your ability to spend command dice to affect your ships performance ended up feeling very unsatisfying and led to weak players getting weaker and leaders running away faster. I talk a bit more about this in my blog post about repairing damage. With the root impulse for disorder essentially gone from the game, I’m struggling to really remember why I need all these tokens. Right now they are simply a damage system which doesn’t work intuitively like most of the playtesters expect it to. If it’s just a damaged system why not think of a better (or simpler) damage recording system that makes more intuitive sense to players?
Build! Destroy! Build!
I’m hoping that the next version of A Billion Suns, (I might even call it version 2), is going to be surprising and slicker than the previous versions and will indicate that I am still prepared to make relatively radical changes to the game in order to make sure that it’s the best and most fun spaceship game I can make.
I also want to play testers to know that even when they feel like they might be simply hitting their head against a wall and perhaps they don’t understand how to the combat system work for example, just communicating that frustration in the Facebook group and on the forums is massively valuable and the most negative feedback is honestly always the most valuable to me.