Space: the final frontier. These are the design diaries of the board game Nova Shift. Its open-ended mission: to explore strange new mechanisms. To seek out new players and new conceptualisations. To boldly game where no game has gamed before!
Except that's not true.
At the time of writing, Boardgamegeek currently lists 1,444 games with a theme of "Space Exploration" and 9,651 with a theme of "Science Fiction". Although space is big, some might call that a crowded market. When you take the numbers on face value it seems like we really don’t need any more Games About Space.
Well, for one thing, space is cool. Ever since some crazy Frenchmen took to the air in 1783 in what was essentially an upturned paper bag, humans have looked to the skies with wonder. Since then the idea of star-hopping has become a staple of science fiction, imagined from every possible angle. Sweeping operas, thrilling adventures and terrifying horrors seep into our collective consciousness, becoming the inspiration for real-world industries, sought-after careers and technological marvels. Did I mention the bag was on fire?
I count myself among the spacenerds. I lose myself in Star Wars, Aliens, Galaxy Quest and Firefly. I imagine a not-too-distant future where, in my lifetime, ordinary people like myself might catch a glimpse of Earth from orbit with our own eyes. Perhaps we’ll establish a colony on the moon, or we’ll set foot on Mars. Isn’t that exciting?
Secondly, something having been “done before” or even “done to death” can have its upsides. I’ve found the tired themes and genre tropes of these shows can be wielded like a crowbar against the imagination, prising open narratives with subtle, scant suggestion (it’s the sole reason I chose a soft fantasy theme for my first game, Forest of Fate).
The more familiar a theme is to the players, the less effort it takes to engage the collective to start generating their own story - not only from hints provided by the game but also by one another. As a designer the amount of content I have to produce is cut, while for the players the experience is enhanced. I’m sure you remember funny or frustrating moments from games where an emergent story played out between your fellow players. Can you say the same for any flavor text you’ve ever read from a card?
Lastly, when it comes to the design process I’m slowly learning that I’m a "theme-first" kind of designer. It was true for Forest of Fate and it’s true for Nova Shift as well. At some point I just had to get on with things!
Before settling on the idea of an episodic space adventure I spent many months agonising over mechanisms, components, gameplay loops and other ideas - practically none of which survive in the game you’ll eventually see. In space I found my thread, my tether. With that in hand it feels easier to start bringing all those floating pieces together. I can assess what’s working (and what isn’t) with confidence, knowing that I’m never at risk of drifting too far from home.
Of course I still have my doubts, particularly when it comes to marketing in the fickle world of Kickstarter. I know that in Nova Shift I have something that feels special and different - but how do I communicate that in a thumbnail that says anything other than Game About Space?
Compared to the enormity of space itself these are relatively small problems. If a publisher were to approach me tomorrow with an offer I couldn’t refuse, but let slip they were going to turn Nova Shift into a game about wasps, I’d show them the airlock faster than they could say "no, please God not the vacuum!"
Next time on the Nova Shift design diary we’ll be taking a look at names. Game names. How to avoid same names and insane names. Hey, has someone been tinkering with the oxygen in here?
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