Saturday 10 June 2023

Marvel Snap

Per my wont, I have become obsessed with another game: the 3 lane card battler Marvel Snap. I've been largely uninterested in large deck card games since 1995 because the deck building possibility space is too big - I always ran as slim and simple a Magic deck as possible using cards that were just clearly better than others like "true" dual lands and lightning bolt. Even Imbroglio's deck building is too complex for me, but the difference between 16 locations and the 12 cards in the Marvel Snap deck is apparently enough for me to dive deep into the collection and play mechanics.

I've mostly been posting bite-sized takes on Twitter which includes some microblogging about the game. A good recent example is my thoughts on Move decks at which seems to have largely predicted the outcome of the latest card addition Ghost-Spider. If you're not familiar with the game, I summarize it at and I highly recommend you read through that before proceeding further if you haven't played the game recently or at all.

I want to emphasize here that the game design is fundamentally solid and the designers are operating at a level of ongoing excellence that I've not seen in a live service game (Caveat: I wasn't around for the early days of Slay the Spire). A lot of Marvel Snap players are probably coughing into their tea at this statement - Second Dinner, the developers, apparently designed the game in 2 days and then took 4 years coming up with the card acquisition model, and that part of the overall experience is very rough at the moment. Undoubtedly there's a lot of internal pressures between monetization, community pressure to do the right thing, and (hopefully) pivoting to an improved card collection mechanic that they've been promising. The big error they've made is they're trying to hold back some clearly good but not great cards in order to do something with them, after creating the expectation that those cards were going to drop down to a more accessible tier in the acquisition mechanic.

That stuff doesn't especially interest me. As I've said elsewhere, you should play with the cards you have, not the cards you want, and besides I have some hot takes that the held back cards aren't that interesting (except for Zabu. And MODOK, for reasons I outline below).

What does interest me is the deck building space on the margins of the game, such as this deck which depends on you drawing 3 cards and playing them on turns 4, 5 and 6, and works extremely hard to make that happen. Part of how it works is the surprise of playing Spectrum as opposed to much more frequently played cards on a Wong -> Mystique combo, and the opponents realization that the low powered cards you played are because they have the Ongoing keyword rather than their abilities. I outlined in more detail the principles at play at

That this deck is possible, is because of the redesign of the card Crystal, which used to work like the location Attilan but only if you played it in the center location. Because of tempo, there was almost never any benefit to playing the old Crystral, whereas the redesigned Crystal is now useful in decks looking for specific card combinations, like the one above. The devs have provided some insight into their process for Crystal specifically on Discord, an entirely transient and non-linkable medium, but luckily there are screen shots at - in essence, the cost of redesigning a card from scratch is high enough that they're better off making a new card in almost all instances.

Which leads me to a couple of conclusions. One of which, naturally, is that I'm going to backseat design some new cards. The other of which is we haven't seen the full picture - the cards that currently look underpowered are either that way because there's new cards coming that will indirectly buff them (one new card referenced is likely Legion), because it's too hard to buff them cleanly by just adjusting their power or cost, or because they're actually better than expected.

A common complaint is Second Dinner is much happier to nerf cards than buff them. This is inevitably true, as any live service game is prone to power creep - I think the meta at the start of the current season at time of writing (Spider-Versus) was just fractionally too good to allow for much fun experimenting with decks and while the latest over the air (OTA) patch has gone some way to address this, bounce decks are likely still too strong. What interests me though is the cards that feel too weak at the moment but haven't been buffed - examples might include Strong Guy and Black Cat - because they point to data that isn't publicly available which suggests they're performing better than expected in decks which aren't in the current meta.

This is especially true if there isn't an upcoming card which will potentially buff them. The next season's cards have been announced - some of my initial thoughts on Phoenix Force, the July season card are at which starts (hilariously in retrospect) ignoring the most obvious synergies in favour of a bunch of weird edge cases which may not even work at all. But, for instance, Strong Guy and Black Cat don't synergize with any upcoming cards  - except Black Cat with Night Nurse, and that's only going to be useful if you have The Collector out. I'm not entirely ruling this out, because +1 or -1 power is often significant enough a buff or nerf to make a difference, but I don't think its enough in this instance.

So that is a strong hint that there's a deck using those discard cards that wins a lot of games. I've seen something similar with Shanna - there's some viable Shanna decks out there that won't really hit the meta until Shanna drops to tier 3 this month which effectively means it's in the main card acquisition pool. Shanna works because you can get to around 20 points in each lane if locations permit, and that's the typical threshold for winning 2 lanes. If the locations permit is the big caveat which is why this deck isn't played that often (and why Legion is likely to be a big buff for it).

So let's talk MODOK. MODOK discards all your cards, and should theoretically synergize with Strong Guy who gets +6 power, but in reality MODOK is only used in Hela discard decks, which normally play Apocalypse and Apocalypse cannot be discarded (he gets buffed instead). Some Hela decks instead run without Apocalypse, but they are frustratingly unreliable because they keep discarding Hela, unless MODOK is hidden behind Invisible woman turn 5 along with Hela on turn 6. For a so-called invisibility power, this is incredibly telegraphed and takes a lot of set up and luck.

But I ran into a deck about a month ago that absolutely wrecked me using a combination of cards I haven't seen before: it ran MODOK without Hela or Apocalypse, and instead relied on Collector and Morbius. This is also a natural synergy, but it normally uses a lot more discard cards, whereas this deck relied on card acquisition cards like Sentinal to have a 7 card hand on the final turn and dropping Agent 13 and Morbius. That's a +16 power with two cards, and an empty hand, which makes me think that Strong Guy would work well in the mix (for another +6 in another lane). So my theory is that there's a deck, that is just wrecking house, but no one is picking up on it whereas some game designer at Second Dinner is just smiling and waiting for people to figure it out.

The problem is I don't have MODOK to test it. Which goes back to the card acquisition dilemma I mentioned earlier.

Sixty Years in Space: Devlog 3


A lot of my concerns about the length and complexity of 60 Years in Space could simply be addressed by looking at the 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook and seeing how many rules players would be willing to put up with just for character generation. But there's two clear differences: there is an incentive to learn about what your character can do, which is cleverly partitioned by class so that - for instance - a barbarian never has to read about mage spells; and that a lot of the invented or borrowed Dungeons & Dragons lexicon has entered general language usage over the 49 years it has been played.

Science fiction has a similar challenge, except each science fiction world invents its own terms and adopts its own definitions for more general terms such as robot. In a fictional world, the author has control over the pacing and scope of the new language, using this to teach the reader at a pace they are comfortable with. By procedurally generating the world I could do something similar: have a massive list of all possible science fiction futures, but only have a limited number come up with each possible play through. I could even let the players win the game or have the world or the universe end - whereas most science fiction TTRPGs consist of a string of subgenre sand boxes which let players play in their favourite without spilling over into another.

This still doesn't solve the language problem. If I wrote the supplements using invisible ink and used a magic marker pen to reveal it as you play, I might be able to avoid you worrying about the names of every possible type of human-robot-animal-alien hybrid mix. But I have to be consistent in defining what a theriomorph, for instance, is so that when you see that word in the rules you know it means a human who has changed themselves to have an animal-inspired form. It helps, of course, if you are a classical scholar or speak Greek, but in the end I ended up using a lot of words that fall outside normal vocabulary. And as a result, much of the five books consists of the definitions of things.

I also coined some new words while doing this - apologies in advance if one of these is your band name or user handle. This is not an exhaustive list, but the most interesting.

  • amorcracy - rule by a group of people who sleep with each other
  • beginling - the first member of a species (from endling)
  • bisentient - intelligent being consisting of one body and two minds
  • fandemic - a behavioural modifying pathogen which makes infected both moderately addicted to a pleasurable activity and driven to  infect people around them to get them addicted to the same activity
  • posterhuman - human who has completely replaced their body with a robotic body, but retains a humanoid form for aesthetic reasons
  • skototropolis - a city that hangs underneath an aerostat
  • simgularity - a singularity that has occurred in a simulated environment and is therefore not transferable to the real world
  • storgearchy - rule by people who have children

  • Theseuvian - either a robot who has replaced themselves with human parts or a human who has replaced themselves with robot parts

  • tunafication - increasing proportion of fast twitch muscle fibers in meat
  • xenonaut - someone who explores digital environments looking for naturally evolved life

Friday 3 March 2023

Sixty Years In Space: Devlog 2

When I started writing Sixty Years in Space, there weren't as far as I was aware any TTRPG adaptations of board games. Dungeons and Dragons itself was an adaptation of a miniatures game, and that tradition had kept going, and a collectible card game had a an adaptation, but the overwhelming flow of adaptations was in the other direction. Board games, especially in the modern renaissance of board games, were prolifically adapting everything they could, either directly or inspired by. And video games in turn have begun borrowing ideas from board games and rapidly iterating on them, taking advantage of the fact that while a board game rarely gets more than 10 plays at the table, a board game-inspired video game might be able to get 10 plays an hour.

Board games have a number of cool ideas that could easily be adapted into TTRPGs. As someone pointed out on Twitter, board games have much, much cooler character sheets. Indie board game fans are are more comfortable with the idea of paying for things than indie TTRPG fans. I would argue that boardgames do a lot more work with a lot simpler maps and rules (although you are free to disagree). And board games sometimes do something else, which I'm going to term diegetic play.

Something strange occurred as I was writing Sixty Years In: I began to notice that reading the rules was part of playing the game.

For a start, that's a great excuse for allowing me to get away with making more rules. If reading the rules is part of playing the game, then more rules equals more game play. But I already had a great excuse: as long as nothing I wrote was as complicated as rocket movement in the High Frontier board game, I could get away with as writing as much as I wanted (and let's not start with the sins that the phrase living rules enables). So something else was up.

Monopoly is a much bullied game in the board game community in a way that ignores its popularity. Most of the Monopoly rules are terrible. But when you go to the bank in monopoly, you get handed money which is counted out by the banker, just like people of a certain age used to do in real life. And that's what I mean by diegetic play: the thing you do in the game mimics as closely as practical the thing you do in reality.

Reading the rules in Sixty Years In with a group of friends and figuring them out is as close to the experience of sitting in NASA mission control, with the spacecraft design and operating manuals out, trying to figure out a technical solution to an unexpected situation as I can make it. And that's not the only place I was able to introduce diegetic play. Creating a map can become diegetic play, if I make the process of creating the map follow the same order of operations as surveying a planet or star would follow in the real world. Running an exfiltration, while you watch from afar as red and blue teams move throughout a map, can become diegetic play. Calculating fuel allowances is diegetic play -- but building rockets in the board game is diegetic play but not in the TTRPG, so I've not been able to do this everywhere.

You might argue that even venerable Dungeons & Dragons has diegetic play every time you have a conversation with an NPC. But there's an inherent tension in every role-played conversation in every TTRPG: it is reliant on player-performance instead of character-performance. And moving figurines around the map is diegetic only in the miniatures forebears of D&D, mimicking the battle map a general might move their troops around during a combat operation. Except. Except if you recast yourself as a co-director of a fantasy movie, moving figurines around a map is just what you'd do with the stunt and special FX teams while you were planning out an action scene. And that's where D&D gets the closest to indie TTRPGs: the combat map is a collaboration between players and DM in much the same way that collaborative play is designed for and encouraged in many of these games.

Wednesday 1 March 2023

Sixty Years In Space: Devlog 1

Sixty Years In Space is available now at

Sixty Years In first came into being as a Google doc, then a collection of Google docs, early 2015. I had been working in my spare time (I didn't need much sleep) on the High Frontier 3rd editon - I am the uncredited developer of the edition of High Frontier Interstellar that was packed in as a stretch goal for that release and provided cheerleading, goading and playtesting on the 3rd edition proper.

Very quickly I recognized that this was a unique opportunity to develop a game unlike any other that I had played: by making it a table top roleplaying game I could give it unlimited scope (up to a billion years it turns out), by steering into the idea of the player characters being responsible for colonizing the solar system I could give them the ability to shape what the future looked like - the trade-off that the bump mechanic provides between personal gain and making sure the future is safe for everyone else was added very early on - and by making it act much like the board game I could get rid of the need for a GM which meant I could play it as well.

My background in roguelike game development meant I was comfortable with procedural generation mechanics, and thus the rough shape of the game formed. Player characters (crew) would be sent on randomly generated missions, encounter randomly generated spacecraft and visit randomly generated locations on fixed planets on the High Frontier map initially, but randomly generated elsewhere in the universe. And it would happen at High Frontier scales, which meant years would pass quickly - perhaps a decade in a play session. I had tried this previously in a much smaller game (Wisp) that was unfortunately lost due to a laptop hard drive failure, and much of A Lot of Zeroes is a spiritual successor to that game.

The next 8 years have been filled with figuring out what that exactly looks like and how much I had to create to fulfill those requirements. And how to make it fun.

Making the game GM-less immediately created a whole lot of challenges. The biggest one is the amount of bookkeeping required. Without a GM, I couldn't rely on any authorative game state being preserved implicitly in the game master's memory. So everything has to either appear on the map or be written down. I struggled for a long time trying to work through the implications of that and ended up abandoning almost all attempts at turning that process into systems. There was at one point a whole set of mechanics for creating characters who had secrets hidden from each other, that could be revealed during the game. Players didn't just have crew positions, but also have separate roles which determined what parts of the game they book kept. These ideas may return: there is absolutely a good game to be made where each player is a crew member on a space ship who is controls part of the game (navigation, comms, etc). This is not that game although it wants to be.

The second set of challenges arose from the fact space is an incredibly hostile and unforgiving and worst of all, unintuitive place. To reflect this, I needed to both create systems that reflected this, but also understand myself what that meant. I did mathematics in university, but not physics ever and was at times during development literally doing rocket science. There's an incredibly messy Google spreadsheet with maybe a hundred tabs of doodling and calculations where I hopefully haven't made too many gross mistakes. A few very helpful space people helped me out: I absolutely need to shout them out, but, much like maintaining a bibliography, I didn't have the discipline to note who they all were. You'll just have to trust me when I say all of this game is based on research.

My love of science fiction drove a lot of this: but I've tried to avoid direct homage too much. I removed an entire supplements worth of random faction mission tables from All Errors are my Own when it became obvious the amount of work and page space required to have one table per faction (I'd already done half) and the fact I was worried I might be sued for lifting plots from every science fiction work I'd ever read. What also drove my was my absolute annoyance at some beloved sci-fi game properties. The entire Weapons chapter is fueled by my annoyance at the generic-ass-we-gotta-have-a-heavy-pistol Eclipse Phase weapons table. No Mans Sky has a great sound track but is also extremely instructive on where planetary procedural generation works (pretty colours and crossing hazardous terrain on foot) and what doesn't (almost everything else they tried).

To create as much as I did requires some cheating, so apologies for this in advance. I absolutely created hundreds of faction doctrines by Googling "theories of X" and then creating a doctrine for each theory - and then never taking the time to hide the evidence. There are so many random tables because random tables have blank entries, and blank entries force you to come up with ideas, and then even if those ideas are bad, you can come back later and fill them in with a better idea. Hopefully I did that everywhere. Some of those random tables have levels of precision required to precisely match stellar frequency or demographics, and some of those tables I've basically pretended that 2D6 has the same probability distribution as 1d12. And speaking of demographics, two of the most egregious outcomes of the whole development is the lose of diacratic marks from the demographics table in the core rules, and deciding to use consciouness as the measure of how advanced a civilization is on the development path. Or maybe its using Alzheimer's and cancer as game mechanics (they're from the source material!). Or maybe its alphabeticizing some tables and not others. Or the use of capitalization.

But the biggest cheat was that I had to make the process of creating the game fun. That absolutely breaks Sid Meier's fifth rule of game design "5. Make sure the player is having fun, not the designer/computer." This game wouldn't exist if I hadn't had fun making it. And will you have fun playing it?

One morning at about 5 am after having spent a largely sleepless night planning a turn for a play by forum game of High Frontier 2nd edition, I made a move where my rocket got to the Saturn heliocentric zone. I can still feel it to this day: my stomach dropping away from me like I was on a roller coaster as I'd finally, after months of playing a cut throat and unforgiving game, I'd moved a plastic counter on a cardboard map farther than I had ever moved it before.

That's a strange kind of fun. But I want you to experience something like it. And that's why I've made this game