Saturday, April 14, 2018

Designer's Notes for Barbarian Suns v2

The Avausim. The memetic representation of the Milky Way galaxy.
Preface :: These are my designer's notes for Barbarian Suns version 2. I think that BSv4 will have a better chance of getting published but it may take a while. Therefore I present my designer's notes here as a way to prelude the thinking behind the game design. Please note that both versions of the game (v2 and v4) play on a grid; v2 is on a square-grid and v4 is on a hex-grid.

Additionally, any mentions of SH2156 is in regards to my Superhero '44 Campaign.


There's a blog post describing what that means.


Designer Notes

A. Conception

It was a cold night in that cellar at Dan Pellerino’s house. Just myself, Dan and Damon Williams. None of us had any money to spend, and we were a bit hungry. In order to bide the time, we decided to create something a piece of graph paper. We didn’t have dice, so we modified our pencils into “Egyptian dice” by adding pips to each of the six sides. That was back in 1987. We didn’t have a name for it at the time, but we knew that the idea didn’t yet exist any where else in the gaming industry.

The basic game concept was actually formulated during my military years in 1983-86 in order to
support a strategic view of the SH2156 RPG game universe. As a science-fiction super-hero
role-playing game, SH2156 tried to meld the worlds of military gaming (a la Marc Miller’s
Traveller) and fantasy gaming (a la Hero Games’ Champions) into something more tangible.
This is understandable since it grew from the game I created in 1977 as a child to something
much larger when I revisited it after the USMC.

The adult that revisited the game needed to make it a bit “more”. So the background had to expand, and had to focus on events external to just interstellar warfare and comic-book heroes. Part of the background was to show that the events within the RPG were a small but critical part of a larger intragalactic war.

So, that night in the basement was something that we all hoped would be fun to play as well as
something we could continue to develop over time. What started from simple rules on scratch
paper and make-shift “pencil dice” has now grown into a comprehensive gaming experience.

B. Design Choices

All of us involved with refining the concept of an intragalactic conflict simulation game were
unsatisfied with the take of existing games like Stellar Conquest or Cosmic Encounters. Each
seemed to be on the opposite extremes of accounting practice or over-simplification. What we
wanted was something that could capture the sense of an RPG with all of its attention to detail,
but with enough martial constraint as to make it seem like a serious wargame.

We didn’t want a parlor game but we also didn’t want to have to learn a lot rules. We did want
something that was light, but could be played with seriousness between experienced players –
like a chess game but with spaceships and dice.
  • First. The first design choice was the board. It could have been a hexagonal board, or even a grid like it is now – but with more cells. What we decided was to have a small board such that any military movement would have a great impact, without having to resort to a large number of markers. In this way, any military movement became critical because the number of potential bottlenecks increased dramatically.
  • Second. The second design choice was the concept of movement. We realized that if we were to use a square grid, units would need to account for diagonal movement. Normally this is done by forcing a 1.5 movement point cost across diagonals. However, we decided that it would be too much math and also problematic in order to track which units had fractional movement points remaining.

    So a solution was to devise Movement Technologies” and to limit diagonal movement to an advanced form of intragalactic drive. Since the SH2156 RPG already had the concept of “Tunnel Drives” which would allow units to create worm-holes for unprecedented movement ability, we opted to allow diagonal movement under that guise.
  • Third. The third design choice was the concept of accounting. We didn’t want to have to track all of the improvements that we associated to each player in a large matrix or note pad. Other games of the time allowed for such, but we felt that it would be too much information.

    When our system sectors received improvements, we decided to instead show that information on the mapboard itself. At Dan’s, it was just a special symbol drawn on the mapboard, but soon there were too many symbols to draw. This necessitated the creation of System Improvement Markers. It’s one of the unique things about Barbarian Suns that makes it fun to play; look at the mapboard and you can instantly assess your worth. When it came to creating the military units, we encountered the very same problem all military conflict simulation games have to address; too many markers.

    Some existing wargames had thousands of markers to account for specific variations or order-of-battle appearance. We had to drop the concept of an Order-of-Battle tree; too limiting. We also didn’t want to have three variants of the galactic equivalent of the Panzer III. We did want to have units that could be improved; but how to do so without adding more markers into the game?
  • Fourth. Our fourth design choice addressed this by allowing nearly all technological changes to be accounted for via “technology” cards[4]. Each card would represent a specific rules alteration that could account for the addition of either new units onto the mapboard, or the modification of an existing rule or unit. In this way, if we wanted to improve a Dreadnaught[1] unit into an Ultradreadnaught[1] unit, it was only a matter of possessing the card indicating such.
  • Fifth. The fifth design choice we made was the System Ownership cards. Again, we didn’t want to have to do a lot of paper work; we wanted a game in which the pieces and the statuses could be displayed via some other mechanism. The System Ownership cards allowed us to identify and account for what we owned much like the “Title” cards in Monopoly. An added benefit was like the Technology cards; any system-specific rules could be written upon the face of the System cards.
  • Last. The last design choice came about after play testing. We had to create the Turn Order cards in order to offset the advantage a player had by going first each time. Initially we randomized this with a die roll, but we found ourselves re-rolling several times in order to beat ties that would occur.

    Additionally, once the dice were cast we were expected to memorize our order of play or else write them down. Since we wanted to avoid accounting work, we brought in the cards. A very large amount of play-testing went into the game to help refine its balance and the abilities of each unit and technology.

    For a game of this scale, it is really impossible to balance every aspect, but we tried to focus on three primary aspects; economic warfare, martial warfare and technological warfare. What I’ve discovered after several hundred hours of play-testing is that its best to capture a “feel” than to use numbers.

So, each Frigate[1] matters. 

One Minor System can support the creation of a Frigate. One Frigate can conquer a Minor System or control a Sector of the game board. The economy should be able to be grown via territorial conquest, as well as infrastructure development (“Boost”) and also via technology (“Economy II”, “Merchantry”). In this way, the player that sits by himself will also be able to compete with the player that aggressively conquers territory. This bodes well for that third player in a 3-player game.

For the aggressive player, we decided to allow numerous fleet units to be built and of a variety of form. Many of the variations would not be available unless technology for them was first had, but the pay off would be to provide capabilities that would make a great impact. An example of this is the Dreadnaught[1] unit. As a basic fleet unit, it would be available at any Shipyard[2] or Capital[2]. By itself, it is quite formidable. But when upgraded to a “Deathmoon”[1], it acquires just that “extra bit more” which makes it a unit worth employing in the place of dreadnaught. The best thing about it is that once “Deathmoon”[1] technology is achieved, ALL dreadnaughts become “Deathmoons”…

As for the System sectors, I wanted them to be able to be built into huge resources over time –
and so we created stages of advancement; Province, Minor, Major, Mega and Nexus. In this way, the player that can dig-in would be able to upgrade their few systems into something a bit more formidable.

As for the Technology trees, I wanted this to be completely different from existing games[4]. I
wanted technology to make an impact in the game. I didn’t want long technology trees because I didn’t view revolutionary technology to behave in that manner. Each step of technology research had to generate a definite edge in game play. In that way, a non-aggressive player could force the game to be one of “technological warfare” if the other players weren’t aggressive enough.

In order to help add more flavor to the game, I created four different kinds of Nexii to suit the
playing-style of each player. This theme we carried to even the Basic Fleet units and to the
Color cards. The premise works well in play – align the playing style with the proper Nexii, fleet
types and Color cards and the player will acquire a distinct advantage over those that don’t do
the same.

C. Artwork Choices

The first real complete set of playing pieces created for Barbarian Suns was done in 2-day
frenzy by myself while working the weekend as a physical security guard in late 1987. There
really wasn’t any artwork and nearly all of the original pieces were cannibalized from existing
games like SPI’s Starsoldier and Outreach. The game board was drawn within a 30-minute
flurry that next day with lack of sleep; using Prismacolors, acrylic line-tape for the grid and axis
labels; acrylic paint and a toothbrush in order to draw a simulated shape of the galaxy. This
was all done while my date was sitting in the car in front of Ray Wisneski’s apartment when I
gave the excuse to go and “use the bathroom”.

Since then, the game has gone through at least five redesigns of the artwork and pieces.
Raymond, Robert Curtis, Richard Frausto each of created one compete set of the game by
painstakingly gluing the laser printouts of my vector art to poster-board and carving them out
with a matt-knife. I think Richard created three sets and Robert two. Regardless; I lost them or
“accidentally” cannibalized them each time.

In this last iteration, the actual art itself is heavily influenced by a “meta-concept” I conceived to
tie in the SH2156 and the Barbarian Suns game. I call that the “Ovodium Cosmogos”. Using
the basic concepts of “memetics”, I fused fractals, art nouveau and baroque into a design basis
for all of the artwork. The result of which looks like the popular, “edgy” gothic tattoo work
employed by today’s youth. It wasn’t intentional, but there it is.

The single item where this comes together well is the mapboard which shows the four
metamemes by their colors (red, blue, green, yellow) overlaid upon a fractal mandragora
pattern of the galaxy, overlaid upon a digitally quarter-mirrored galaxy (actually M51), overlaid
upon some symbols representing the inner circuitry of the galaxy.

D. Pseudo History

The story of the “Ovodium Cosmogos” is the background for the game of “Barbarian Suns”. It’s
a lot more comprehensive than what is shown here, but the simple outline shown below pretty
much captures it. 

The fundamental reasoning for all of this is as follows:
  1. IF Man is special
  2. IF there exists other intelligent life in the universe
  3. IF super-science exists
  4. IF there exists a Great Force which control the behavior of the universe
  5. THEN what would happen when Man begins to conquer the universe?
My take on this is that the Great Force would either want to enhance Man’s ability to conquer
the universe, or hinder Man. Unfortunately for Man, a vote had already been cast, and action
has already been taken to shut the Milky Way galaxy off from the rest of the universe so that
Man can’t spread any further. What remains within the galaxy are sub-sets of that Great Force,
each striving to collect absolute control so that they can then focus on re-connecting the Milky
Way galaxy back to the rest of the universe.

In game terms, each player assumes a sub-set of the Great Force (here, “Dios Primin”) known
as the “Colors” and are identified by a color (red, blue, green, yellow). The Standard Victory
Condition for each game scenario is then assumed to be the goal of achieving absolute control
of the galaxy. The victor in this case would then be able to – as a choice - reconnect the Milky
Way galaxy (here, “Spermanova Lucifix” or “The Solidness”) to the rest of the universe (here,
“The Eventine”) according to a common ideology (“metameme”).

The only thing preventing them would then be the multi-forking time hysteresis loop known as the “Codon Barrier” put in place by the Dios Primin which prevents all information from escaping back into a single time stream (hence “even tine” – a single tine of a fork utensil). In story terms, this is handled by the having the Lesser Magellenic Cloud (here, “The Visitor”)[3] interrupt the Codon Barrier and thereby provide an escape route for information (“codons”) from our galaxy to the next and beyond.

Barbarians Suns then is a game about the personification of the natural forces and events
surrounding this galaxy and the beings within.

Footnotes:
[1] These are all military vessels ranging from the smallest and fastest to the largest and slowest in this order; Frigate, Destroyer, Cruiser, Dreadnaught, Deathmoon.
[2] These are build centers which allow construction of military vessels.
[3] I now think that a better choice would be the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy.
[4] This was before the arrival of a game which did something similar named Twilight Imperium.