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Designer Diary: The Search for Lost Species

by Ben Rosset

Hello fellow geeks,

We really enjoyed designing The Search for Planet X, and in February 2021, about eight months after its release, we decided we wanted to make another “Search For” game. We met with publisher Renegade Game Studios, and they agreed that if we could design a compelling sequel, they would happily publish it, so we started planning for a follow-up game, which is what became The Search for Lost Species.

The first thing to do was to decide on a topic for the game. We had two requirements that we gave ourselves:

1) Stay within the realm of science — no fiction, fantasy, or science fiction.

2) Set the game in the present day based on another active, real-world search.

We joked that The Search for The Next “Search For” Game was almost a game in itself. Here is a partial list of the ideas we were considering. After a couple weeks of consideration, we decided on The Search for Lost Species.

With a theme decided, we still needed to prove to Renegade that we could make a good game out of it.

We started design in April 2021, and the first thing we considered was the design of the game board. Since the real-world search for lost species is happening here on Earth, it made sense that this game would have a map on which the players are moving. The first map we made and tested had nine areas in three different terrains with four towns — which is not all that different from the sixteen areas in three terrains with two towns that the final game has. Here’s a picture of the first map for the first playtest of The Search for Lost Species:

A couple things to point out about this map: First, it featured point-to-point movement, which we later changed to a more fluid hex-based map and movement system, which allows players a higher degree of refinement of their searches. The larger map we ended up with (sixteen areas instead of nine) also allows the map itself to function similarly to how the sun board (with the Earth rotating around the sun) works in Planet X.

There is one big difference, though, between this and the sun board in The Search for Planet X. In Planet X, half the sectors are off limits to you in any given action because they are on the other side of the sun. There’s nothing you can do; you just have to wait for the Earth to move. In The Search for Lost Species, parts of the map are off limits to you on any given turn because they are too far away; you can’t reach them in just this one turn — but you get to control which parts of the map are off limits to you. If you head north to search the northern end of the island, well, you know that certain parts of the island (in the far south) will be off limits on your next turn. You always have to take into consideration not just where you’re going to search this turn, but where you want to end your turn to position yourself for the next one.

The final map for The Search for Lost Species

The next consideration was the actions that players would take. A big debate we had at the beginning of the design was just how similar the main deduction system should be to The Search for Planet X. We wanted to give players something new, but we didn’t want to stray too far from a basic deduction system that we already knew worked well.

We tried an action called “Listen” in which you look in a specific area, and the app tells you every unique animal type found in that area and in adjacent areas. The action worked, but it did not afford enough player interaction. Since you weren’t listening for a specific animal type, the other players could not deduce any information from the action you announced. We weren’t happy with this lack of player interaction, so we dropped this action. What we ended up doing was giving players two different types of search actions, each with its own pros and cons, as opposed to the single survey action that is available in The Search for Planet X.

The next challenge was how to handle what in The Search for Planet X were called the research and the target actions. (The new game has, respectively, “Town” and “Camera Trap” actions.) It’s important for players not to do the town action too often because it slows the game down if one player has too much new information to consider at once between other players’ turns. The theme and feeling of the game is very organic, and we wanted the rules around how and when players can take these actions to feel organic as well.

We spent about a month testing different ways of building this into the game, then finally the solution hit us: use the time track! We already have a time track controlling player actions, so let’s just use that. In The Search for Lost Species, players can do the town and camera trap actions whenever they want, but they have to spend their only town and camera trap tokens to do so, placing the appropriate token on the main game board. As the game progresses, certain defined points on the time track trigger, returning these tokens to players and allowing them to take the actions again. This is a slightly different system than Planet X, but we feel this new system better fits the gameplay and theme for this game.

At this point on the time track, all players get their town tokens back

The final major challenge of the design was to give the players a major new dynamic that The Search for Planet X didn’t have: player powers and objectives in the form of local townspeople who provide assistance to you in your search.

When a player takes the town action, they also get to take one of four face-up town cards available on the board. Each card is either a unique power the player will have for the rest of the game, a special one-time action, or an endgame scoring bonus based on what the player achieved in that area of the game. Here are two examples:

Pathfinder makes your survey-by-foot actions cost less time

Rainforest Protectors grants a bonus point for every confirmed theory of yours in the rainforest

With that, all the major pieces of the design were in place. We then tested, tested, and tested some more over the course of about two months, and by late summer 2021 the game was starting to quite closely resemble the final design we have today. Here is the layout of the board we had in summer 2021:

During those initial playtests, of course, we didn’t have a working app to use, so one of us (either Matthew or Ben) would need to serve as the app and run a playtest manually. We did this by creating paper-based solutions to the game, complete with unique town topics and conference clues, and passing the answers to player actions on private pieces of paper. Here is one of the hand-created map solutions that we used during these manual playtests:

We felt that the game was good and ready to pitch to Renegade. Matthew did his magic and created the first version of the app to run the game, just like he had done for The Search for Planet X, and we loaded the game onto Tabletop Simulator and played with the team at Renegade. Obviously, they enjoyed the game and green-lighted the project, or we wouldn’t be writing this design diary!

The next step was development. Renegade brought in two amazing developers to help us on the project: Gil Hova and Wei-Hwa Huang. Gil helped refine the gameplay, and Wei-Hwa ran some advanced statistical analysis on the various strategies in the game to make sure there wasn’t a dominant strategy — and when I say “advanced”, I mean it. The dude wrote his own code to have the game play against itself thousands of times to see which actions the AI would take early in the game. It felt like something out of the movie WarGames when Joshua plays itself in tic-tac-toe over and over.

Wei-Hwa even figured out how many different possible map configurations there are for each different lost species. Here’s a snippet from an email he sent us: Maps S and P are shorthand for the two maps include in the game, and the acronyms are shorthand for the different lost species. For instance, you can see that the Wondowoi Tree Kangaroo, on map S, has over 36,000 possible different random map arrangements).

After a round of blind playtesting on TTS by Renegade’s playtest community in the fall and winter of 2021-2022, we made final tweaks and changes to the rules and turned it over to Renegade for art, graphic design, and app development.

Art and graphic design proceeded quite nicely. We always knew the app for this game would be a little trickier than it was for The Search for Planet X. Because this game has a map on which players move as opposed to the continuous circular arrangement of sectors in Planet X, we felt like the app needed to have a much more visual interface to help players select the exact areas they would be searching on their turn.

Renegade decided to partner with Bézier Games to make the app, and we were thrilled. Bézier has done a great job bringing our vision of the app to life. We worked closely with them and with Renegade to do successive iterations of testing the game and the app together, further refining both to make each support the other as best as possible.

We’d like to thank everyone who made this game possible, starting with the Foxtrot Games team who did such an amazing job on The Search for Planet X, all of our playtesters for The Search for Lost Species, Gil and Wei-Hwa, the talented artists who brought this game to life, and the entire Renegade Games team, particularly graphic designer Anita Osborn and producer Dan Bojanowski. We couldn’t have done it without them.

Finally, we want to thank the fans of The Search for Planet X for playing it and sharing it with others, as well as all of you for checking out The Search for Lost Species.

Keep searching,

Ben Rosset and Matthew O’Malley


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