A Major Turning Point

Welcome to the fourth entry of my designer diary series! Today’s entry covers a major moment in Cysmic development history that set us on the path to the finished game we have today. Now, where were we? Right, heading into the year 2020!

If you remember from my last entry, the game works in its current form and many people have shared positive feedback about it. However, I think there are some clear flaws in its design that need to be addressed. Some people think that the game is ready for prime time, but I’m finally applying all the knowledge I’ve gained and my experiences with so many other good designs that I can’t stop myself from improving. Let’s see what happens next.

Two Cysmic prototypes being played at the same time.At this stage, the game is still procedural. It works and it’s easy to explain since all of the players do the same thing in each phase, one after the other. However, its biggest strength is also its biggest weakness.

Being procedural makes the game feel very low on player agency. There is still a lot of control in the players’ hands, but it feels like you are playing the same process over and over. This is a feeling that most gamers get from something like a Euro game that introduces a procedural round, phase, or age. Players end up performing that same process an arbitrary number of times. This is an oversimplification of most games of course, but I wanted something more dynamic for the disaster movie feel of Cysmic.

Since many games (many award-winning and beloved games!) follow this same set of steps, why shouldn’t I be proud to have walked in their footsteps and present a solid working style just like those? It’s a personal preference really. I feel like the best games are those where you are constantly doing something different. I don’t want to play the same “game” three to five times and then count my points. I want to give my players more of a cinematic feeling…creating a new story each time they play from their own choices. Since the theme is my biggest push for design momentum, it deserves more player agency to give the illusion of a story that each player was creating. This is where I set forth to break my own game and rebuild it from the ground up.

Always testing new iterations for CysmicEnter what I like to call “CYSMIC 2.0.” This is where I start studying games that broke the mold. Games such as Nemesis, Eclipse, Twilight Imperium, Kemet, and others were drenched in theme and every turn was new and different. The current board state dictates what a player could, couldn’t, should, and shouldn’t do. The mechanics allow players to decide their own future within the confines of the rules and the story setting. This is what I want.

So, I set forth to redesign a Cysmic turn from the ground up. Most of the basic concepts could be action-based instead of procedural. The biggest hurdle was combat. How to figure this out will cause me a lot of grief for months. Almost every other action could be turned into a single action taken at any moment by a player, but the combat is important to me. Resolving combat in the moment like in almost every other game seems like the right approach. However, this doesn’t give the ability to ever react. It’s always just an instant situation that is resolved at that moment. Also, when moving units, this means you can never fight with your soldiers and your Powermech at the same time in a single combat since each one activates on independent turns.

This is where I decide to make a hybrid of the combat system from the original procedural gameplay and interject that into the action-based gameplay. All other units are now performing their actions during their activation. But combat is more of a living thing. I want to see reinforcements come into play. I want to see players react and have consequences the attacker can’t foresee. All of this needed TIME for the players on both sides. So, that’s exactly what I do. I give them time to deal with this situation.

The method will take some thought and, of course, some trial and error, but when I stumble on the right approach, I know it immediately. When combat starts, the units there are locked in combat. They wouldn’t be doing anything else but fighting for their lives. This means if they aren’t a combat unit, they won’t be performing their main tasks while in combat. In my mind’s eye, those units are now firing at each other, taking cover, and carrying out a full firefight within that hex. Even better, this method of locking units into combat means that it could happen all over the map. I just need to mark it. Then, there is the situation of resolving the combat. In the original procedural version, all of the combats by all players were resolved at once. This ended up being a slog because if you didn’t have any fights happening, you were forced to watch everyone else at the table roll dice for a while. Now, with this new method, a player can resolve just THEIR fights. This is how I finally solidify the action selection system.

The Cysmic queue system for recruiting new units. Scrapped!I look back at everything a player needs to do and come up with an action system to allow them to do it and also when they wanted to. It finally breaks the procedural gameplay. Now players can make their own choices versus a process that forced them to do it because of an arbitrary timeline.

So, what does a player need to do? They need to activate each of their unit types. There are 6 units so I immediately have 6 actions. But there were parts of the original procedure that didn’t involve units being activated. The players need to be able to recruit and deploy new units on the board. They need to combine units into vehicles. They need to resolve battles. They also need to trade and negotiate. At first, I think I can put all of those on a single card or two, but it turns out to be just too much.

This is when I try to keep the 6 action cards but also try a few different directions to solve major parts of the game without an action card. Here’s a look at how I create and develop a full queue system for vehicles and troops. It’s a bit more involved than Star Wars Rebellion’s queue system but it feels like it should be. There is so much at stake with these decisions. I’m super proud of it but it requires so much forethought on the part of the player that it seems very frustrating. I even get frustrated at the outcome of it. The board state changes so much that it takes players 3 or 4 turns to react with new units, which just isn’t fun. Is it more realistic that there is a lagged timeframe to actually react? Sure! Is it fun? Not really. Just frustrating.

This is where I decide to simplify once again. Why create whole new systems for each tactical action when I can just play another card like I would when activating units?

The actions need to breathe. So that’s exactly what happens. I end up with six unit cards and 4 tactic cards. I have a total of 10 cards now. This is sheer serendipity, born out of necessity, not by any genius design decision. Happy accidents like this always seem to make for the best game design moments.

Testing the new card driven system for Cysmic.So how does a player perform these 10 actions? I so want to steal the system of Assault of the Giants, a highly underrated game that doesn’t get the credibility it deserves. It has an ingenious card system that is a mini-engine building system all to itself. Each card you play becomes more powerful based on the more cards you had previously played and not picked back up. It’s a very cool idea. It feels like this could work for Cysmic based on moving more units or activating more tasks depending on when you play the card. So I try to create something similar. It just doesn’t feel right though. No matter what I do with that system, it always feels like it’s just off. Sadly, I end up abandoning that approach and go with a different method.

Mac Gertz is one of my favorite designers and even though he generally uses Rondels to perform actions, I always had a soft spot for Concordia, which is a card-driven action system. I study that method intensely. Another game that had been a huge influence on me for the greater part of a decade at this point was Kemet. The battle system was regarded as one of the best battle resolution methods in gaming. I share this same belief. In the original version of Kemet, players start the game with 6 battle cards. When resolving a battle, a player discards one of these 6 cards and chooses to play another. After playing the chosen card, it too is also discarded. Now the player has 4 cards left. They do this for two more battles until they run out of cards. At this point, they regain all of their cards back to their combat hand. It’s elegant and creates tense choices. But instead of using that system for a battle resolution, what if it could be used as the actual main mechanic for a turn?

In Cysmic, a player has 10 cards. That’s a lot of options to choose from each turn. What if they have to also discard a card on the same turn as playing the card they want? This creates a very tense situation of trying to plan ahead on what cards you want access to and which ones you are willing to go without. And thus, the turn structure for Cysmic comes to be. Tense choices, reduced analysis paralysis from too many choices, and a clean turn structure that offers players full agency over what they need to accomplish. I have finally broken free from the procedural gameplay and actually feel in control of the gameplay more than ever.

The prototype for Cysmic in early 2020.Riding high on this whole new design paradigm, I decide to try to solve more of the nuances and artificialities within the design that feel amateurish or break the theme. One looms large over the entire board that really contradicted the destructive nature of the planet. The launchpad in the middle of the board and the static bases where players started off always feel… wrong. These could never be destroyed by the planet. It feels so artificial and “gamey”, akin to something as dated as a floating health pack or an invisible wall in a video game. I know there had to be a better way.

So when brainstorming one day, a close friend of mine point-blank asks me why the player’s home base is static. If the colony ship structure has tracks and moves at the end of the game, why can’t it move all the time? And if it is as big as I had described it, why do you even need a base? The colony ship can be your base.

Command and Conquer Mobile BaseThis brings back memories of the original Command and Conquer video game series allowing you to drive around a massive base and then set up shop anywhere. It seems like such a simple solution. I initially resist the idea due to the number of ripples this can have across the entire design… and it does. But the more I play with the idea, the more I feel no longer handcuffed to this part of the design. In fact, instead of adding complexity, it actually streamlines the game! There are a number of rules regarding the base…FAR too many if I am being honest. The biggest unit in the game now being your base of operations opens up so many opportunities to reduce nuances, streamline rulesets, and create whole new gameplay scenarios. This one change is almost as big as the action-based system replacing the procedural gameplay. The implications are huge.

The Cysmic miniatures are finally taking shape in 2020.One thing that keeps bothering me is a player’s possibility of a weak turn or little to no action on a turn. On one hand, it keeps the game moving fast. On the other hand, some players seem to be checked out as if they were just sitting and waiting on their turn since there is little in the way of planning. To solve this, I turn to Euro games for inspiration, which lets me provide a ton of extra ways to get things done throughout the game by implementing mini-actions. Let’s list these on the board and then tie into the action system some method of triggering these bonus mini actions. At this point, I put a list of actions in a column where you will play your two cards in different colors going down the column. Then, I create a method of pairing up certain colors at the bottom of the action cards that would limit what bonus actions a player can take. Once again, this has massive ripple effects across the whole design. And once again, it’s the adrenaline shot in the arm to finalize how everything is coming together. Now it feels like you were really managing an entire empire and not just units on a board.

But there are even more massive changes to be had. Who is it we are trying to save from the planet? Why does everyone in the game live on one of these ships? It just seems like a lack of world-building. That’s because it is. Where is everyone?

Just like a movie, I need to populate this world with characters. This forms the catalyst for what was called Population Zones at the time. I add settlements on the map where people live. These are the colonists of this new world. Suddenly, the planet seems much more alive. Even better, they need saving! But what can they offer in return? People and supplies!

Playtesting Cysmic wherever I could.This gives way to a whole new design of the recruiting system. Instead of the arbitrary economic cost of paying for new recruits, you need to convince these people to provide manpower to you to help build the ship. In exchange, you will offer them safe passage off this crumbling rock. The theme is now coming together more than ever. I need to work on this a bit and it will evolve even more in future iterations, but the addition of settlers on this planet that need you to help them is just the thing I need to drive the theme forward and integrate even more gameplay into Cysmic.

Through these few design iterations in the course of 6 months or so, the game has become completely unrecognizable from what it was before. I finally create a version much closer to the game that was in my mind… hence my Cysmic 2.0 moniker. There is a whole new world of possibilities laid out before me. I have never been more excited. I think over the next 6 months after these design revolutions, I end up creating more iterations and game builds than in the previous 3 years prior. It is truly a whole new frontier.

Welcome back to the present day! Follow along for the next entry to see how these new design choices gave way to what we know as Cysmic’s current design. It’s been a long road so far at this point but one that I am so happy to have kept traveling.

After all, it led me to this!

Final Prototype for Cysmic sent out for review.

See you in the next entry!

Jason Blake
Star Reach Games


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