Monday, 15 June 2015

High Frontier Interstellar design notes - part 2 (Motivation)

(Start with part one).

There are several reasons for developing a 3rd edition of High Frontier Interstellar. The first one is simply mechanical - a number of additional cards need to be incorporated into the game from the core 3rd edition High Frontier. The impact of these additional cards is mostly positive, in that they make existing cards more useful, but there are some 3rd edition cards which are extremely useful in the base game which are terrible for Interstellar (Project Valkyrie being the most notable example), and several robonauts are added which are lightweight and do not need supports, which makes 3rd edition Interstellar easier in many ways.

The second reason is much more out of this world. Huge advances have been made in the field of exo-planet research since the 2nd edition was released. We know now that it is extremely unlikely that a gas giant orbits Alpha Centauri, whereas this was incredibly likely in the 2nd edition. There's also some nearby systems of interest which appear to have planets around them which were not included in the 2nd edition map and Pawel Garycki provided a number of suggestions which Phil adopted. And finally, Ruslan Belikov, an exo-planet astrophysicist specializing in nearby star systems was able to assist with creating a more realistic model of exo-planet searches which unfortunately had to remain an optional rule due to the record keeping required - a 1d6 roll for each exoplanet search needs to be retained until the system is explored. Ruslan would also have liked the planetary types terminology used to be updated to match what researchers in the field use, however Phil Eklund decided against this.

The third reason is the 2nd edition of Interstellar is a game with a number of quirks and flaws which I don't believe were identified during the original play testing. I ran into one fairly early on when I began playing the game: it is possible to have passengers that are effectively immortal because they cannot be killed by ship event rolls. These are not the only hazard which you can encounter during your journey, but they are the hardest to manage, and having immortal passengers is a significant advantage. While I decided to keep immortals (with Phil's blessing), the rules as a whole needed significant work to clarify exceptions and unusual cases. One example was how to handle robots which accumulated stress from mutinies, which previously had no consequence. In the 3rd edition, you want to avoid stressed robots where ever possible because of the extremely dangerous 'Pod Bay Doors' event roll.

Having an immortal crew highlighted another problem: there are a large number of patent decks which are almost never used in the game. High Frontier has various patent types such as generators, reactors, robonauts and so on, most of which are included in Interstellar. However the only circumstances in which you're forced to draw from these decks is if you lose a radiator to a ship event roll. If your starship engine doesn't require a radiator (and a number of designs do not), you'll never need to research anything except robots and robonauts, which can be consumed to produce factory cubes, which can then be used to improve the configuration of your starship (using a Nano-reconfigure Hull operation). My variant rules added a complex set of risk rolls which would only occur if the starship had no alert engineer: it wasn't until I came to revise this for the 3rd edition that I realized I could replace them with a much simpler and elegant single risk roll that acted almost exactly like a glitch from the High Frontier game.

Another issue I ran into was handling what I termed 'conservation of mass'. I've written more about this in the final rules, but essentially the issue was the rules as written meant that any time a card was decommissioned, the starship lost irreplaceable mass, except that the mass could be replaced by patching your radiators. And because the written rule wasn't replicated onto the poster map, the way it tended to be played was the reverse - you could freely 3D print cards from your hand, and so every time you completed a research operation you added mass to the starship for free. To address this, I ended up deciding that cards in your hand count include the mass stock needed to 3D print the cards and using a graveyard to track mass needed to support colonists produced by parenthood or bioengineering (except on beehive star ships). Factory cubes then become an input needed for research, effectively acting as a fungible mass commodity on the star ship which I could use in several circumstances.

But the key motivation I had in designing my variant, which has survived albeit with numerous changes in the 3rd edition High Frontier rules, was a redesign of the process of acquiring breakthroughs - game changing technologies unique to Interstellar. The best approach to acquiring breakthroughs in the 2nd edition of High Frontier is to make your crew scientists and hope they survive their old starting age of 5 turns (60 years) to research what you need. This is extremely dependent on luck, with little choice on your part, but is pretty mandatory, because the breakthrough roll needed 2d6 < Age, where most of your passengers never survive past age 4-5.

Paradoxically, the second best approach to acquiring breakthroughs was to make all your other science capable colonists Domestics instead of scientists. Domestics are good at having children while they're young and surviving Alzheimer's using their self-promote ability. Since they are unaffected by cancer, the other age based killer, and can remove their own stress, the domestic career is arguably the best way to preserve a passenger to an age old enough to make it worth switching to scientist. And if you do have an old enough a scientist, they were capable of making every breakthrough in 2 turns.

So I rewrote the breakthrough research rules with two key elements in mind: 1) it must be worth attempting breakthroughs while a young scientist, and 2) breakthroughs should require more work but be more consistently achievable. The final design has you choosing one of two breakthrough paths: one which has a lower rate of success but accumulates more data disks every time you attempt it (where a data disk has an equal improvement to aging your scientist one turn), and one with a higher rate of success but which accumulates less data disks. Almost by happenstance, I ended up tying breakthroughs to the ship politics for this latter approach. Phil had coloured two of the four original breakthroughs the same colour as two of the five possible ship politics. Since I wanted more breakthroughs to make it less likely you'd accumulate all of them each game, I ended up designing two more breakthroughs and recolouring one of the originals. Now, you can research the breakthrough that matches your ship's politics with the greater chance of success (2D6 < Age + Data Disks, instead of 3D6), although if your scientist is young, you're probably better off taking the less likely approach because it doubles the disks you accumulate.

A key effect of these changes is that passengers have much more to do in the 3rd edition than the second edition. Previously, you'd just need to have engineers 3D print themselves and robonauts to act as Spacewalkers to keep the ship's Bernals promoted as they moved through the local interstellar cloud (LIC). If you didn't need radiators, and had enough fuel to accelerate and decelerate during the trip, that would be the only requirement, provided you had sufficient points of passengers in the vats and a habitable world as a destination.

Now, you can build an on ship economy by having your engineers produce factory cubes using robonauts and having scientists consume these cubes to research more robonauts or complete breakthroughs. You also need alert engineers to also 3D print replacement parts for cards lost to glitches. Business passengers can facilitate these functions in a lot of ways, particularly saving you from having to send promoted passengers back to school, as well as replacing lost scientists or engineers in emergencies. Biotechs and domestics can act as almost secondary classes because of a significant design change I made: the number of operations a passenger performs is equal to the number of careers they have - both being limited to two per passenger (with promoted passengers capable of having two disks of the same career). I did this because I kept losing track of which passengers had perform which operations, and so tracking operations using career disks becomes a natural way of playing the game, with an accompanying two fold improvement in the speed the game can be played at. Previously I would have to write up a game as I played in order to have any chance of playing correctly: you can see one example of such a transcript here.

In part three, I muse on the interplay of design and patterns.

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