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Designer Diary: Imperial Miners

by Tim Armstrong

Hi, everyone! My name is Tim Armstrong, and I’m the designer of Imperial Miners. It’s been a joy to watch this design go from a scrawled piece of paper to a real, physical game, and I’m writing to share a little bit about this game’s journey and the thought that went behind various design choices.

My Inspiration: Engine-Building Goodness

A key piece of advice that I got when starting game design was to always make the type of games that you love to play, and in my case, I love engine-builder games. As a player, I get an endorphin rush when I take game actions to get more powerful. At the beginning of the game, I feel anticipation around what I can build, and by the end of the game, if all goes well, I’ll feel the payoff of doing something very powerful with my engine.

Imperial Miners was first jotted down in 2019. At the time, I was obsessed with allowing players to chain actions together as a means of organic engine building. A few of my games, including Arcana Rising and Bazaars of Ubar, have built upon the idea of chaining powerful combos of cards, each game addressing the design space from a different angle.

The first version of the game that became Imperial Miners was a civ-themed game in which players built a pyramid of cards. Each time a card was placed, players would draw a path back down the pyramid and re-trigger any cards in that path.

While the game’s theme has changed from generic civ-building to underwater exploration to mining exploration, the core mechanical hook has remained the same. The game revolves around cascading card abilities. Each turn you add another card to your tableau, digging deeper into the earth, and once you play and activate the new card, you “surface”, creating a path upward and re-activating cards along that path.

From that initial idea in 2019, the game has been in a pretty constant state of iteration. (My files show thirty distinct versions playtested over the past four years.) While I can’t cover every change (nor would you want to read all that), I’d like to talk about a couple of key breakthroughs the game underwent that helped make a good design become a great game.

Early versions of Imperial Miners had the working title “Beneath the Tides”

Breakthrough #1: Less Focus on Surviving, More on Thriving

Early in Imperial Miners’ game development, we identified that the peak moment for a player is when they get to do something that feels broken. It’s the moment when a new player says, “Wait, do I get to do all of this?” and the answer is yes. We called a player who got one (or hopefully many) of those moments as “thriving”.

While early development had thriving moments, not every player would get the right cards to line up. In addition, resource constraints would make it hard for some players to even play the cards they wanted. For these players, the game was less about thriving and more about surviving.

After identifying these disparate experiences, the main development focus was making sure every player would get at least 1-2 thriving moments during their game.

One piece of the puzzle was removing key barriers that would make the game feel like a survival exercise. Early versions of the game had a mix of resource types to pay for cards. When we scrutinized this element, we realized that while different resources added a layer to the puzzle, it was not worth the cost of frustrating a player when their card strategy didn’t line up with their resource production. We switched to a unified money resource and immediately saw a boost in positive playtest feedback.

The second way we lessened the stress around resources was by making resource costs more predictable for key cards. Sometimes players will try to dig for the next card they want to play. Costs were quite varied, and we observed that players would draw a card they liked only to discover they didn’t generate enough resources to play it the next turn. While higher-level card costs still vary, we made low level, foundational cards consistent in their costing. This allowed players to plan their moves better, even if they are still digging for the right card.

We didn’t just focus on removing barriers; we also leaned into the broken moments by upping the power of high-level cards. Admittedly I was resistant to making power level changes, but ultimately was won over by my developers and the playtest results. Imperial Miners is now purposely a game about finding something that seems too powerful, and creating a tableau to extract as much value as possible from that interaction. The phrase “If everything is broken, nothing is broken” came up many times during development.

While a high-power philosophy doesn’t work for every game, I found it worked really well for Imperial Miners, and a key reason it works is that Imperial Miners is often a thirty-minute game. A downside of high-powered cards and abusable interactions is that it can create a runaway leader situation. Having a runaway feels terrible when another hour of game remains to be played. In Imperial Miners, by the time engines are fully revved, there’s often ten minutes left, and the game is quick enough that you can easily shuffle up and play again.

The other key change we made was to empower players with the ability to aggressively card filter. While players end up playing ten cards over the course of a game, they often get the chance to filter through 25 or more cards to find the right strategy. If the hand you’re dealt isn’t lining up, then just keep digging until you have something truly powerful.

Over the pandemic, most development was done through Tabletop Simulator

Breakthrough #2: No Interaction Can Be Better than Random Interaction

Let’s talk player interaction because during development of Imperial Miners I had to make the choice to cut most interaction in the game.

When player interaction is done right, it can create tension, replayability, and a depth of strategy. For this good player interaction to exist, typically players need to be able to quickly and easily digest an opponent’s game state and their intentions. This is one reason why two-player games easily support player interaction; it’s much easier to keep up with one opponent’s game state vs multiple opponents.

Imperial Miners’ core mechanism is an intricate personal tableau that can be reactivated in different and novel ways. While this puzzle is fun for the player, it also obscures each player’s decision space. It’s just too much work for a player to keep up with their opponent’s tableau, so I shouldn’t expect players to frequently keep tabs on opponents’ actions.

Once players aren’t tracking what opponents are doing, it becomes difficult to implement meaningful player interaction. Drafting from a shared pool is a common way for Eurogames to claim that their game has player interaction, but again, the key is being able to easily understand an opponent’s game state. If an opponent doesn’t know or care about my intentions, then the experience of sharing a drafting pool with them doesn’t differ much from a solitaire drafting pool in which cards randomly get replaced.

After going back and forth on this issue during development, I made a key breakthrough when I committed to doubling-down on the game’s strengths instead of compromising to shore up a perceived weakness. Leaning into a less interactive experience helped me focus on emphasizing the parts of the game that were great. Once some of the light interaction was cut, I was able to make gameplay simultaneous instead of turn based. This halved the game’s playtime and dramatically reduced downtime. By having a strong idea of the game’s strengths and weaknesses, I was able to focus on building a game that packs a rewarding and thinky engine-builder experience into a quick and low-downtime package.

At one point, an exploration board rewarded players on a first come, first serve basis to drive meaningful player interaction; this mechanism was later simplified into the current progress boards

Wrap Up and Thank Yous

Game design is a lot of work, but a few inflection points in the process make all the uphill clawing worth it:

• The day my new game idea “works”.

• The day the game is signed.

• The day I put my hands on a fully realized production copy of the game.

• Any day I hear about someone playing and enjoying the game I made. (If you ever have a game you really enjoy, tell the designer.)

The day I received my copies of Imperial Miners was particularly special. This is the last game I designed prior to the pandemic. Since 2019, this game’s path has not been linear (just like my own path), but not only did this game make it through uncertain times, it came out better and more polished than I could have imagined.

I am thankful for the folks at Portal Games who turned a good design into a great product. In particular, Chevee Dodd for seeing the game’s potential, Ignacy Trzewiczek for taking a chance on my game, Jan Maurycy for helping polish the rough edges, and Hanna Kuik for her completely adorable illustrations. (Seriously, check out the card art!) I also need to thank Mark Wooten for his help during early development, and my group of friends who tolerate my designs even when they aren’t that great.

I truly hope you get a chance to try Imperial Miners — and if you do, I hope you get to do something powerful!

Tim Armstrong

One of the many beautiful illustrations in the game


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