I pride myself on a transparent design process. But there were a couple reasons why I wanted to keep things relatively quiet. First, Arcs is a response that builds on some of the design lessons I learned while working on Oath as well as a continuation of that investigation into “chronicle-style” campaign games. For much of the time I worked on Arcs, I had no idea how Oath would be received. If Oath floundered, I didn’t want to waste everyone’s time talking about a game that might have a similar fate.
The second reason had nothing to do with the game and everything to do with the studio. Leder Games has come a long way over the past five years. Our staff has nearly tripled in that time and we are now large enough that we have several projects underway at any given time. I didn’t want to distract from the attention that might have gone to either Root: Marauder or the Fort expansion.
If I’m being totally honest, there was third reason as well. The development of Oath was a very public affair. I wrote tens of thousands of words about its design and development, and, as much as that amounted to, it was a fraction of broader design conversation that swirled around the game. I spent whole days discussing the finer points of the game on our playtesting discords. This process was immensely rewarding but also completely exhausting. As I set out to design my next project, I knew just one thing: I wanted to get back to basics. Many of my first games had been built with a very small team. I missed just rapidly iterating with as single set of playtesters. I also missed letting myself think about design slowly and wanted to give myself the space I needed to stew on a design.
In many critical ways, this effort proved to be a fools errand. One never really works alone, and Arcs benefited immensely from the whole team here at Leder Games. Still, my attempt to focus on this project and scale down my process clearly set the foundation for a very different sort of game than something like Oath. This, I think, will become self-evident as I share more about the design.
Over the next several weeks, I’ll be publishing a series of designer diaries here on BGG. I’ll do my best to talk through every element of the design and explain some of the machinery that makes this game tick. There will also be many, many book recommendations.
Why post these diaries on BGG? Well, because I like it here. As I’ve written before, BGG was the critical community that enabled me to pursue game design. In some respects, I owe my career to many of the people here who encouraged me or just spent some time arguing with me about some variant or rules question. Sadly, I’ve found that I don’t spend quite so much time here as I used to. Posting all of these design diaries gives me an excuse to spend a little extra time here each week.
So, enough schmaltz. What the heck is Arcs?
In Arcs, players start as small space-faring societies that make up a decrepit empire. Over the course of a campaign, they will be faced with daunting challenges and have to make some difficult choices. Will you be able to unify the outer systems before an impending invasion? Should you offer sanctuary to the refugees or leave them to their fate? The consequences of your choices will determine the scope of the games that follow. A confederacy of outer systems could come topple the empire. The refugees you ignored may have offered their secrets to another player. A crazed commercial tycoon might exhaust the galaxy of resources, plunging the universe into a new dark age. Players might even see themselves forced to abandon their homes, lonely as a vagabond (and with as few pieces!).
If Root offered players a snapshot in time of different asymmetric positions. Arcs tells the story of of how those asymmetric positions emerge—and how they might even change further. The game offers dozens of “roles” which emerge organically as players play the game. And, like Oath, nothing in the game is ever thrown away. Players can always start a new campaign and experienced players will find a lot of value in exploring the games many narrative possibilities and revisiting those possibilities in new contexts.
I’ve also tried hard to make this game very approachable. While I love working on complex titles, after the completion of Oath and John Company, I was ready to try to build a simpler design where the vast majority of the complexity was under the hood. The core rules of Arcs are just a little more complicated than the core system of Root, and the game is no more difficult than learning a single moderately difficult faction, such as the Eyrie. In fact, we’re even hoping to offer a 4 page “qucikstart rules” that will let folks start playing without the need of a guided tutorial.
Despite that simplicity, there is a lot of game here to explore. Generally I have to keep the core systems of my game very simple in order to account for complexity elsewhere. For instance, in Pamir the combat system is hardly a system at all. This was necessary in the context of the game’s complex victory system and the amount of information players had to juggle between the board state, card market, and the courts of other players. In contrast, Arcs core action engine is much more expressive and interactive. It is very much a game about operational finesse and tempo management.
This makes for a compelling game in its own right—and it’s one reason why the game will feature a robust single-session mode, which I’ll talk about in detail later. However, the game’s the systems are also custom built to hand the kinds of narrative beats that I have in mind for the full campaign game.
This marks an important departure from the way campaign/legacy games are usually designed. Often, designers start with a working single-game format (cf. Pandemic) and then string those games together (cf. Pandemic: Legacy) to tell a bigger story. This of course can work wonders (cf. Pandemic: Legacy’s reception!). However, I think its possible to build a much stronger foundation for campaign play if you design the core system with that campaign play in mind.
You might say, “Well, that sound’s like Oath?” Yes and no. Oath has very important restrictions on its design space. One of the most critical restrictions is that the game cannot make itself unplayable. That means any notion of beginning, middle, and end have meaning only in the games meta-narrative. That is, the players need to decide when one kingdom falls and another rises. Arcs has no such restrictions. Whereas Oath is generally smooth in its presentation of time, Arcs is jagged. Whereas Oath is about the relentless flow of history, Arcs is about origins and endings. Accordingly, Arcs has a slightly pulpier character, and deploys more conventional narrative structures than its older brother does.
This is one reason why the game has a more restrictive player count. Indeed, players will need to start and finish a campaign together. But, that restriction enables a narrative specificity that far outstrips anything Oath was capable of. If one game ends with your small generation ship fleeing to the outer systems, the next game picks up with its hunters still in hot pursuit.