Designer’s Diary: Hyperspace Smuggler

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I. Merchants & Marauders

After listening to some podcasts with designers where they mentioned setting down every step of their design process, I realized I’d been remiss in recording almost anything about the evolution of Hyperspace Smuggler.

The seed for this game was planted when I played Merchants and Marauders at a friend’s house in Chicago. I’ve sailed on tall ships, so I love anything pirate- or seafaring-themed. We sat down and jumped into the immersive, incredible world of this game.

After it was over, I found myself thinking “I wonder if there’s a way to do that without so many rules.” M&M’s “player guide” is a two-sided 8.5×11” sheet of paper. Early on, I wanted the game to have a sense of joy, tension, and wonder that come from exploring, so rather than use a board, I took a cue from another game, Betrayal at House on the Hill, and decided that this new pirate game would have the players laying tiles as they explored the seas.

The pirate game went through a few iterations and playtests, but it always suffered from the same problem: Exploring was too much fun. Player ships went off in two or three or four different directions, ending up at the end of long chains of tiles, each plying their own solitary waves. “You need a way to jump across the board,” said a friend of mine who was playing one of those early versions, “like Hyperspace in Star Wars.”

Loath as I was to abandon my favorite theme, that one sentence was the answer I needed.

II. Re-Theme

My tiles were spay-painted ocean-blue and my player figures were wooden ships, but I started testing the game as a space game. The new mechanic was this: Use a Hyperspace card. Roll a 6-sided die. Whichever face the die lands on, go to a symbol with a matching face (1s and 6s had no corresponding symbols on the tiles, and signaled a Hyperdrive failure). Those die-face icons survive even into my current prototype copies of the game, though in the final I’ll be replacing them with four shape icons (triangle, square, pentagon, hexagon). The ability to deconstruct the game’s topology was, at first, just an elegant solution to a problem, but soon, after lots of playtests and feedback, I realized that this feature was something unique.

Not entirely unique, of course (is anything in the boar gaming space entirely unique any more?); plenty of games utilize alternate topologies to allow for players to create surprising connections or movements — think of the caverns in Small World, or the secret stairs and passageways in Betrayal at House on the Hill. However, I have yet to come upon a game that roots itself in a map, and then creates a core movement mechanic designed to subvert that map.

It was at this point that I realized that I maybe had something worth honing down and trying to publish.

III. Mitigate the Chaos

In keeping with my design directive, I wanted to maintain a sense vastness, exploration, and suspense, especially in the laying of the tiles. Unfortunately, when you can discover anything in the vastness of space, the odds inevitably lead to one playing discovering lots of great things and another discovering lots of terrible things. This wasn’t the only random feature in the game (remember that six-sided die?), and the intersection of a bunch of randomized systems led to a game that was definitely suspenseful, often fun, but very hard to control with any measure of strategy.

I had to tune some of the randomness out. First I made the Hyperspace die optional (you could circumvent it by playing 2 cards instead of 1). Then I allowed players to look at the top two tiles and play one, leaving the other in place for their opponents.

IV. Stability

I wrote about this idea earlier, but it bears repeating: Games need some form of stability. In games with a board, the board provides that anchor. The board will never change, or if it does, it will be a big deal (i.e Pandemic:Legacy, which is kind of an edge case anyway). Or, consider a deck of cards: The semantics of the deck are stable. A heart is always a heart, and related to hearts in one way and to clubs, spades, and diamonds in another way.

When I set out, I had no idea how important it would be to create stability on the table. Betrayal at House on the Hill, my benchmark for tile-laying games (it’s not perfect, but I have never had a bad time playing it), manages this by making the character-ability system stable (you always want to increase, not decrease your abilities, and they only move up or down), and by linking the things that happen on the randomly-generated tile-space directly to the event, object, and omen cards (all of which are very text-heavy, and thus reinforce the game’s other point of stability) and to its theme.

Hyperspace Smuggler’s stability comes from theme (though not nearly as much as in Betrayal), but most importantly, from its card system. Players can draw Hyperspace, Engine, and Laser cards. These cards let them take actions with their ships. Regardless of the tile layout, if you have a hand full of Engines and Hyperdrive but no Lasers, you know for a fact that you are going to be able to zip through space very effectively, and you will be able to withstand attacks not at all. This basic hand-management aspect anchors the game, and makes it easy for players, even those new to gaming, to grasp (playing from a hand of cards is a familiar paradigm to most anyone).

V. Shifting Design Directive

As I tested this game further and further, I realized that it was losing its big-world sense of wonder. I didn’t feel, as I did when I sat down to play Merchants & Marauders, that I could do anything in this broad galaxy. I felt possibilities, I felt tension and wonder, but that feeling of “I can do whatever I want!” was gone. I think that’s okay. The finished (or almost-finished) game is much tighter and leaner than earlier drafts. The portion of my self-assigned design directive regarding simple rules, however, was a huge success. The current rules document is 3 pages, and half of one page is  just re-stating rules that are printed on easy reference cards. This shift led to a re-focusing of the audience: I had always wanted to make a game that was accessible to new players of board games, but now the new player (and the experienced player hoping to rope in new players) became my focus. In short, what began as a medium-weight exploration game became a gateway game.

VII. Wrap Up

Recognizing that the game’s target audience had shifted was difficult to realize, but once I realized it, it made a lot of decisions easy. The most recent part of my design process has been trimming the game: cutting out mechanics that I like, but that would make it harder for new players to grasp. I’ll miss these ideas, but I’m excited to be publishing the game via Kickstarter, because I can bring them back as stretch goals if I get that far. So, in short,

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