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Designer Diary: Raising Robots

by Brett Sobol

Hey everyone,

Seth Van Orden and Brett Sobol here, the designers and publishers behind Stockpile, The Reckoners, and our latest creation, Raising Robots (available now). Today, we want to take you on a detailed journey behind the scenes of our design process for Raising Robots. Join us as we delve into its origins, unique mechanisms, and the challenges we encountered along the way.

Living Apart, Designing Together

Despite not living near each other, we both greatly enjoy designing games together. Every year, we make it a point to meet in person for a few gaming sessions. Typically, we’ll do this at Gen Con after the convention hall closes with a stack of Gino’s pizzas. We make it a point to play as many new games together as possible, discussing what we liked and disliked about each one. These rare opportunities have been the breeding ground for nearly all of our game design ideas, and Raising Robots is no exception.

The Genesis at Gen Con 2021

At Gen Con 2021, fate led us to acquire a copy of Khora from the exhibitor hall. Neither of us had played it before, but we eagerly dived in. Khora employs a mechanism in which players roll two dice each round and assign an action to each die. We were enthralled by the tactical choices presented by the random inputs and the challenge of making the best of the numbers we rolled. However, there was a downside: Higher numbers hold a significant advantage over lower ones. Those who rolled well were inherently better off, with no need to expend additional resources to compensate for low rolls.

This sparked a thought-provoking discussion on improving this mechanism. We concluded that by replacing dice with a deck of cards, we could retain the randomness we loved while mitigating the impact of extreme luck. Each player would draw through their card deck, ensuring a similar distribution of high numbers over the course of the game. Adjusting the values with resources would still be possible, but the frustration of feeling cheated by bad rolls would be eliminated.

Following our Khora adventure, we played Lorenzo Il Magnifico and loved it. In particular, we admired the rows of cards that could be triggered by a single die. Each card could activate if the number on the die met or exceeded its activation cost. However, these rows were run only a few times during the game, typically at high power, making the exact value needed to trigger a card less significant than desired. Building a large engine of cards that required low dice values seemed less profitable than we had hoped.

And thus, the core fundamental mechanisms of Raising Robots were born. From our experiences with Khora, we adopted the concept of receiving two numbers from a deck of cards each round, with each card being assigned an action or phase. Drawing inspiration from Lorenzo, we incorporated the idea that the chosen number for a phase would activate everything in that phase with a certain number requirement or lower.

This fusion of ideas formed the bedrock of Raising Robots, creating a dynamic gameplay experience that balanced tactical decision-making, random elements, and strategic planning.

Simultaneous Play: Enhancing Player Interaction

One of our design goals for Raising Robots was to incorporate simultaneous play mechanisms that would allow for higher player counts within shorter time frames. We were captivated by the idea of games in which everyone takes their turns simultaneously, but we were also mindful of the potential lack of player interaction that can arise in such games. We sought to address this challenge by drawing inspiration from titles like Race for the Galaxy and Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition, where players’ chosen phases trigger actions or benefits for others, creating a sense of engagement and interdependence.

In Raising Robots, we were determined to create a game in which players not only influenced their own progress but also had a significant impact on others. To achieve this, we devised a unique mechanism using Energy Cubes found on each player’s Energy Cards. When a player performs a high-powered action, they must place Energy Cube(s) on the Central Board, allowing other players to “Follow” their action and reap its rewards.

This added depth and tension to the gameplay as players had to carefully manage their Energy Cubes and make strategic choices for how to use them, considering both their own objectives and the potential advantages they could provide to their opponents. Furthermore, this mechanism ensured that all players remained actively involved and invested in the actions and choices of their fellow participants. By enabling players to follow and benefit from high-powered actions, it created a sense of interdependence and interaction throughout the game.

However, we quickly found that adjustments needed to be made to maintain consistent interaction and engagement across different player counts, so we introduced a simple change to the game set-up. This change specifically affected the Energy Cards found in each player’s deck. By modifying the distribution of Energy Cards, we ensured that a similar number of Energy Cubes would be placed on the Central Board over the course of the game, regardless of whether the game was played with three players or six.

By incorporating this element of consistent interaction into Raising Robots, we aimed to create a dynamic and expert-level gameplay experience that could be enjoyed by up to six players in less than ninety minutes. The simultaneous play mechanisms, coupled with enhanced player interaction, added layers of depth and strategy to the game, making each session unique and compelling.

Picking the Theme and Artist

In our design process, mechanisms typically take precedence, but selecting a theme early on serves as a wellspring of inspiration for future iterations. As we explored different ideas and tested the game with placeholder resources, the concept of powering something at different levels resonated deeply with us.

Robots emerged as a natural fit for the theme, but we wanted to steer clear of the predictable and cliché approaches often associated with them. That’s when we stumbled upon the awe-inspiring artwork by Matt Dixon for Transmissions. His style captivated our imaginations and sparked a new direction for our game. We envisioned our robots as creations of young inventors, each infused with their own imaginative spark and creative flair.

Finding an artist capable of bringing our vision to life proved to be a challenging endeavor. After an extensive search, Brett discovered Howard McWilliam, whose previous work hadn’t delved into the realm of board games. Despite initial reservations, we decided to collaborate with Howard, and it turned out to be a serendipitous choice. His artwork for Raising Robots surpassed our expectations, delivering breathtaking visuals with intricately crafted details in each robot. The allure of his art sometimes captivates players to the extent that they momentarily lose track of the rules during their initial playthrough, enraptured by the charm of Howard’s illustrations.

To provide a clear direction and inspiration for Howard, we crafted a detailed prompt that conveyed the thematic background and framework for the game’s concept. We envisioned the perspective of a precocious inventor, a child between the ages of 10 and 20, determined to create their first robot. With limited resources, the young inventor ventures into their family’s garage or shed, brimming with antiques, oddities, mementos, and various pieces of junk waiting to be repurposed. We emphasized that the only limit to their creation is their boundless imagination.

To help Howard develop each character, we posed a few questions: What would the robot do? Would it be cool, be functional, or have multiple functions? Would it be a loyal friend? Additionally, we asked Howard to consider the materials available in the garage and the problems they might have to solve creatively. We encouraged Howard to envision the robot running its first program, and we described how its response and emotions might be depicted.

Our North Star Vision guided Howard’s interpretation and style, and through his incredible talent and meticulous attention to detail, our game, Raising Robots, came to life. We love how it turned out and believe that the creativity and charm from Howard’s illustrations complements the mechanisms and captures the hearts of players young and old.

Graphic Design: Connecting Art to Audience

To bridge the world of adorable illustrations with the expert-level mechanisms in our game, we recognized the need for exceptional graphic design. We sought out the expertise of Viktoriya Fajardo, an enterprising graphic designer who proved to be an invaluable asset to our team. Initially, our expectations were focused on managing the hundreds of cards and icons within the game. However, as we delved deeper into the development process, we realized that creating a cohesive and expert-level product required a more extensive overhaul of our prototype than we had initially anticipated.

Viktoriya’s contributions went beyond our expectations. She not only took charge of managing the visual aspects of the game, but also played a pivotal role in ensuring that the creative elements aligned harmoniously with the game’s mechanisms. This involved even revamping the cover art for the game, ensuring that it accurately conveyed the essence of Raising Robots without giving off “kids game” vibes.

Throughout our work, Viktoriya proved to be a wonderful collaborator, demonstrating her passion and dedication to delivering a top-quality product. She provided thoughtful suggestions, leveraging her expertise to enhance the overall visual experience. Furthermore, she confidently advocated for what she believed was right, offering her insights and perspectives to ensure that every aspect of the game design and graphics were aligned.

Viktoriya’s commitment extended to owning the final product end-to-end, ensuring that every detail was meticulously attended to and that the final result exceeded our expectations. Her attention to detail, creativity, and dedication were instrumental in creating a holistic expert-level product that seamlessly integrated adorable illustrations with sophisticated mechanisms.

Robot Balancing with Mathematical Precision

As we delved deeper into the development of Raising Robots, we faced the complex task of balancing the unique abilities of each robot. Component Studio, an online tool we mentioned in a previous guest blog post, played a vital role in streamlining this process. It saved us tons of time and proved incredibly helpful in keeping all the robot powers in check.

However, balancing the robot cards was no simple feat. Each robot had an assembly cost, consisting of resources and energy requirements. Additionally, each robot was assigned a specific number of victory points and possessed two powers, each with its own benefit and energy requirement. What we discovered was that the relationship between the energy requirement and the benefit was not linear. As game designers, this is the first time that we legitimately needed to employ the quadratic formula.

Furthermore, powers could have associated costs or provide multiple benefits. We found that powers offering multiple benefits were more impactful than simply the sum of the individual benefits. Needless to say, there was a substantial amount of math and formulas involved in keeping everything balanced and coherent.

In reflecting upon this mathematical endeavor, we cannot help but pay tribute to the many exceptional math teachers who fueled our love for mathematics. If Raising Robots is deemed a success, it is undoubtedly due, in part, to the invaluable lessons they imparted.

Player Powers and Famous Inventors

In Raising Robots, we wanted to offer players a chance to step into the shoes of famous inventors from various disciplines, paying homage to their groundbreaking contributions. To achieve this, we introduced the concept of player powers, with each player having unique, game-changing abilities that reflect an area of expertise. For example, players might play as Nikola Tesla with electrical prowess, channel the innovative mind of Marie Curie with scientific discoveries, or tap into the imaginative genius of Yo-Yo Ma with artistic ingenuity. Each inventor’s power provides a special advantage that can be leveraged strategically to excel in different aspects of the game.

But the inventors’ abilities are not static; they can be upgraded and enhanced throughout the course of the game. As players progress and develop their robots, they can also invest resources and effort into upgrading their inventor’s powers. This progression system allows players to unlock additional abilities, strengthen existing ones, or even acquire new game-changing effects. The upgrades serve as a testament to the inventors’ ongoing dedication to innovation, mirroring their real-life pursuit of advancing their respective fields.

By incorporating these player powers and famous inventors into the game, we aim to immerse players in the world of invention and discovery, celebrating the achievements of remarkable individuals who have shaped our world. These unique powers add an exciting layer of asymmetry to the gameplay, enabling each player to forge their own path and employ distinct strategies based on their chosen inventor.

Other Influences

The game design process is not always a linear one. Along the way, we found inspiration from a variety of sources, and we would be remiss not to mention them.

Drawing inspiration from games like Terra Mystica and Scythe, we introduced an upgrade phase that provided players with meaningful choices to enhance their robots and the player board from which the upgrade token was removed. The upgrades were themed around various programming concepts such as efficiency, speed, and communications, which we were able to link to the ability and energy concepts already present in the game. This addition not only deepened the thematic elements of the game but also allowed players to customize and strategically optimize their robots based on their goals.

Additionally, we received valuable input from fellow designer Kane Klenko, whose suggestion to incorporate the concept of power cubes benefiting the player who placed them transformed the game’s intuitiveness and brought a new level of tactical decision-making to the forefront. This innovative twist became a cornerstone of Raising Robots, enhancing both the thematic and mechanical cohesion of the gameplay experience.

Our love for engine-building games like Wingspan and Earth also influenced the development of Raising Robots. These beloved titles inspired us to create a game in which players could gradually construct and fine-tune their robot tableaus. By integrating these influences and ideas into our design process, we were able to craft a game with expert-level mechanisms and engaging gameplay. Raising Robots stands as a unique blend of inspiration from various sources, resulting in a game that offers depth, strategy, and a touch of whimsical creativity.

Final Thoughts

Raising Robots has been an exciting journey for us as designers. From the initial spark of inspiration at Gen Con to the refinement of mechanisms, theme, and art, every step of the process has been a labor of love.

We hope that players will find joy and satisfaction in building their own robot engines, making tough decisions, and engaging in strategic interactions with their opponents. We can’t wait to share Raising Robots with the gaming community and see how players embrace the challenge that we’ve created. Thank you for joining us on this behind-the-scenes journey, and we look forward to seeing copies of Raising Robots on tables in the near future thanks to a December 2023 release.

We want to express our heartfelt thanks to our friends and family, our playtesters, our Kickstarter backers, and everyone else who played a part in making Raising Robots a reality. We feel truly blessed by the support we’ve received throughout this journey. Feel free to ask us anything about the design process, mechanisms, or the creative decisions behind Raising Robots. We’re here to share our insights and engage in a meaningful discussion with all of you.

Thank you,

Seth Van Orden and Brett Sobol

Brett (l) and Seth at Gen Con 2021

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