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Designer Diary: The Warp

by Thomas Snauwaert

In this designer diary, I will try to share my journey of developing The Warp. I will talk about the base mechanisms, how they evolved, and what motives drove my decisions along the way.

Before we proceed, a little head’s up is in order here. Considering The Warp was my first design — and a one-man job at that — some steps and decisions in this process might not have been conventional, but that just makes the journey more interesting, right? Bear with me as we commence with a surprising and rather obscure start…

Winter Is Coming?

My first ideas for this 4x sci-fi board game originated from…A Game of Thrones! My friends and I love A Game of Thrones: The Board Game but we always enjoyed it more with a fully occupied map. Thus, in 2017, I decided to build a modular board that could be altered depending on the number of players.

To build this modular board, I used wooden hexagon tiles. These were handcrafted by my brother and coated with magnetic paint. Now, with all these cool hexagons at my disposal, it wasn’t long before an idea came to mind to build an area-control game with stackable tiles. These stacks would represent different heights and offer strategic benefits to higher areas.

In January 2018, I started running tests on a combat system, and this is the first picture of what would become The Warp. The base principle of this system was simple:

• Each attacking and defending troop on an area grants a combat die.

• Both the attacker and the defender may play a blind combat card with several options and effects.

• The total value of your combat dice rolls is multiplied by the height of the area (minimum height 1, maximum 4).

The first trial of the combat system in January 2018

When these first tests were successful, I began thinking about the thematic setting in which these battles would take place. I decided this combat system would be integrated in a 4X board game that took place on a planet at the edge of the multiverse. On this prosperous planet, a mysterious cataclysm took place that destroyed multiple colonies. Players would each take control of a remaining colony, governed by two alien factions, and race to the Warp Gate at the middle of the board. Along the way they would have to defeat exiled aliens who roamed the planet, and finally defeat the Warp Guardian, the culprits behind this disaster. The first player to reach and defeat this Warp Guardian wins.

The Basics

With the set goal of developing a 4X, I needed more than just a combat system. I started working on the economic basics: a resource- and card management system, a build- and upgrade action that could boost your resource income, and more.

I, however, soon realized my board game experience would not suffice here. I turned to a multitude of board game design sources. I discovered the fantastic insights of Jamey Stegmaier and decided to follow his “12 Tenets of Board Game design“. Based upon this, I set myself the following four base principles:

• Loads of variation and replay value.

• Fast turns with high interactivity.

• Meaningful decisions and dilemmas.

• Conflict and threat, not hostility.

The Tip of the Iceberg

There are many fantastic (4x) games with asymmetric factions. In most of these games, you choose one faction that grants you access to certain unique abilities and benefits. To win with your chosen faction, you often must uphold a certain playstyle, using the given advantages to the fullest.

With The Warp, I wanted to offer players more flexibility and choice, so I decided players would draft two alien factions, each of whom have both an active ability and a special reward ability that can be triggered during the game. This system poses certain challenges, but offers players a lot more options and choices during the game. My goal was to incorporate many factions, and ultimately I included sixteen in the base game.

This was a good start, but I wanted more. I gradually developed the idea that each alien faction could be featured in play in three different roles to offer a near limitless number of possible combinations:

• As a Player Alien: One of the player-controlled factions, granting several abilities to the players.

• As an Exiled Alien: Aliens banished from the colonies and defending certain areas on the board. These exiled would offer new incentives and challenges in the game. Each game features two random exiled aliens.

• As a Warp Guardian: As a final boss at the center of the board. Each warp guardian has different combat stats and a number of variable combat bonuses.

The Sol’ca mercenaries in their three roles; earlier prototype versions used placeholder artwork

Beware of the Snail

I wanted to tackle another threshold to play 4x games: analysis paralysis, long turns, and an enormous game length. The design goal here was creating fast and simple turns with high interactivity. Every decision needed to matter in the short and long run. I started working out the basics of a player turn:

• Income phase:

o Choose between gaining resources (gold and energy) or troops.

o Discard cards (optional) to gain resources, then draw new cards.

• Action phase (with the player choosing a single action)

o Develop: Play a card to build or upgrade. Others can follow, and the active player receives 1 extra resource for each following player. This allows players to advance on several tracks on their player board to increase their income, gain additional trades, and unlock powerful bonuses.

o Terrashift: Change the height of two areas. Other players can follow, and the active player draws a card for each following player.

o Attack an adjacent area. One other player can play a card to support exiled aliens in the defending area, and this player can be bribed by the attacking player.

• End phase

o Move troops

o Reveal exiled troops

As you can see, I offered players only three basic actions: play a card to build/upgrade, alter area heights, or attack an area — a simple and fast system that nevertheless offers many choices due to different buildings, area targets, card options, and interaction.

Equally important, each action allows other players to follow or interact, thus almost totally eliminating downtime during the turn of other players. The player who undertakes the action even receives a benefit for each player that follows the action.

The base rules were written in a first rulebook prototype

A small overview of a full player’s turn, which can be found on the inside of each player’s screen

I also experimented quite a bit with board formations and the height of all the areas. Low areas are easy to conquer, but hard to defend or attack from. As players advance towards the center of the board, tension and conflict will gradually increase. Direct player conflict remains optional and is no requirement to win the game.

I also ensured player bashing is impossible due to:

• The area tiles, with the different area heights.

• The terrashift mechanism to alter these heights.

• Neutral zones controlled by exiled aliens.

• The Colony zone that cannot be conquered by other players.

These mechanisms were playtested with friends on multiple occasions, each time making notes and tweaking mechanisms and cards afterwards. I made it a habit to work 2-3 hours on the game each night. During this process, I introduced new combat cards, a bribing system, new building types (assault ships, laser cannons, and sentry towers), more alien factions, and player screens.

On a Mission

During this period, I was almost satisfied with the game mechanisms, but I felt something was missing. The Warp was still (too) heavily oriented on combat. While talking to the talented people of Final Frontier Games, they suggested trying a change. They proposed a mission-oriented system to allow more paths (and playstyles) to victory. This proved to be exceptional advice, and I immediately got to work creating 66 diverse missions. I decided to categorize them in four main types:

• Progress missions: perform builds and upgrades, thematically focusing on rebuilding society and technological advancement.

• Prosperity missions: own a certain number of cards, resources, troops, etc. Here the focus remains on the wealth of your colony.

• Conquest missions: everything involving combat such as bribing, conquering, achieving a certain strength, etc. This is the equivalent of a more aggressive or expansionist playstyle.

• Pioneering missions: accessible to all players and never replenished once achieved.

The mission cards could feature as open missions that are available to all players and private missions achievable only by one player. This mission system offers a lot of benefits:

• It allowed more paths to victory and gave players a mix-and-match approach to play this game. Players start the game by drafting two aliens and would then choose three private missions out of six received missions (two each of progress, prosperity, and conquest).

• Thematically it was a great fit. During colony revolutions, your two aliens came to power and would try to gather prestige to stay in power. They would carry out their own way of government to try to legitimize their rule.

• It adds another layer of tension for the open missions. Players will face dilemmas when new missions appear and must decide to stick to their original plan or adapt all the time.

• It adds another layer of variability. Each game would start with different private and open missions.

• It allows the use of an endgame. If a player gathers nine or more mission points, the endgame triggers, consisting of three final rounds. From this point on players know they have to optimize these rounds to gather as many points as possible. Players will take risks to catch up, deviate from their plan or risk taking on the Warp Guardian in an epic battle. The Warp Guardians became even more diverse as each now grants a different set of mission points upon conquering during each turn or at the end of the game.

A Leap of Faith

By this point, I had amassed a list with ideas for about twenty asymmetrical alien factions, each of which could feature as a player alien, as an exiled alien, or as a warp guardian. I firmly believed these would form the bread and butter for this game, so I took a leap of faith and took the unconventional decision to invest in artwork for the aliens.

Important to note here, I cannot recommend doing this as a designer who wants to pitch to a publisher. Publishers tend to work with in-house artists and might change the theme of the game. I, however, decided I was going all-in for this game and wanted to be involved in the whole creative process.

I wrote lore for sixteen alien factions, gathered over 1,500 alien images for inspiration, and composed sixty pages of concept notes with lore, key features, ideas, and base concepts for each alien. I made a list of interesting sci-fi artists, and I had the luck of finding the talented artist Albert Urmanov. Based upon the concept notes, Albert made several sketches (pictured below) for each alien faction, and after multiple rounds of feedback we reached the final result. This process ensured that the alien abilities, lore, and artwork all corresponded to each other and created unique alien factions.

A Small World

After the integration of the mission system and the new alien artwork, I heavily expanded my playtests. I started to visit many local board game clubs for playtests. I playtested The Warp in the prototype zones of local board game events such as Zomerspel, Brussels Game Festival, Spel Antwerpen, Spellenspektakel, Spelfabriek, and many more. I playtested with novice and expert players alike to make sure the game was clear and accessible to everyone. I cannot stress how important this diverse playtesting was for the development of this game:

• I received valuable feedback from expert and novice players to keep on polishing the game mechanisms. Sometimes less is more.

• I befriended many great players, which gave me access to stable playtest groups. This allowed me to test changes and balance tweaks with the same people who became experts on my game.

• It built a community with people who heavily promoted my game. This would play a pivotal role in the later kickstarting process.

Boosted by positive feedback, I started preparing to contact international publishers. In the meanwhile, during a local event, I met Tom and Mathias from Jumping Turtle Games, two guys running a small board game publisher from Belgium. After a couple of talks, it seemed we would be a great match. They offered me the opportunity to learn a lot about the whole process, and I was involved in all decisions. In order to finance the production, we would work towards a (small but successful) Kickstarter campaign near the end of 2020.

The Eye of the Beholder

Before we continue the journey, I want to show you how the game visually evolved. This was a gradual proces, and much of my time was spent improving the layout and iconography of the game. I reused and modified several smaller elements of the artwork to improve the visuals of cards, and I developed the concepts for the 3D miniature building models and troops. Once the concepts were complete, I worked with a 3D artist to create all 3D models, which were then finally printed by several awesome friends.

August 2018: New artwork on tiles, tokens, and boards printed with The Game Crafter

May 2019: New card layouts, area tiles, exiled tokens, player screens, and reward cards

January 2020: The prototypes with 3D printed buildings and troops, improved and final iconography on all components

With Great Variability Comes Great…

While still working on more content, I kept gathering data and feedback, streamlining the game, and working on balancing cards, missions, and alien factions. I strongly believe there is no greater tragedy than a game with strong mechanisms but poor balance.

To achieve this, I often used simple spreadsheets, calculating card or combination probabilities, the average income an ability could generate in a game, etc. To make sure each playstyle would have a level playing field, I needed to be sure each mission deck was balanced. The test results were good, but I decided to go deeper. Better safe than sorry.

All mission cards were given a difficulty rating, based upon three factors:

• The number of situations/opportunities available to achieve the mission.

• The required preparation time and resources.

• How easily the mission can be combined with other missions.

I then calculated a ratio between the total difficulty rating and the number of mission points. I made some small adjustments until all mission decks had a similar ratio, ensuring the balance of playstyles.

The Solo Mode

After working on the competitive mode, I soon integrated a team mode as well (2v2 and 2v2v2). Given that I was aiming for limitless replay value, I was not satisfied. The community asked for a solo mode, and I agreed. I’m not that big of a solo player, but this seemed to me like a nice challenge, a different take with a lot of different problems to solve — and there was already one big issue.

As a first-time game designer, I made a classic mistake: I did not bother thinking about the quantity of components. As any designer learns along the way, this matters a lot to publishers as this can significantly increase the production cost. This meant I had to create a solo mode with as few components as possible. I decided to work out base rules on how the rival automa functions and gather this on a single board.

Then I worked out automa cards that would determine what income the rival receives, what actions it undertakes, and so on. These simple cards were an elegant solution for the component question.

The other big challenge was interaction. The main strength of the multiplayer experience is the interaction: following actions, getting followed, and receiving benefits — a system of meaningful choices and no downtime. I decided to incorporate this system into the solo mode in which you can follow the action of the rival. You would even know which action the rival would be able to follow on your own turn.

The last challenge was, of course, variability. Each rival was to use a different combination of automa cards and a different starting set-up and would score mission points in unique ways. Each solo rival scenario is a different puzzle that requires analysis, good decision making, and a little luck. In this way, I developed eleven rival scenarios.

The Xe’lo traders rival, front (abilities) and back (set-up)

Tis’ but a Start

The journey for The Warp is not yet complete. After developing the base game and the solo mode, I designed another eight aliens and with the support of the Kickstarter backers, we released them as Kickstarter exclusives and a separate alien pack. I am, however, still working on more alien factions, and I have now begun developing a future expansion — but more on that in the future (on the BGG page).

Thank you for your interest in the design process of The Warp!

Thomas Snauwaert

Some of the aliens in the separate alien pack, with artwork by Frederick Van de Bunt

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