Most of my games have very long incubation periods. Traces of both John Company and Oath can be found in decades-old notes. Arcs is not like that.
Shortly after finishing Oath, in the fall of 2020, I found myself still wanting to work on a chronicle-style campaign game. While I was happy with how Oath turned out, there were simply lots of interesting questions it couldn’t address. I had also learned a lot about working in that design space. Oath was fundamentally a very experimental game, and it taught me volumes about how game states can and cannot adapt to their players.
Originally, I was slated to design the next set of Root factions. I had been enthusiastic about this project. Though working in Root can be difficult, I thought it would be a nice break from working on Oath. However, as I started preparing my notes and thinking about which factions I wanted to design, I found myself still under the pull of Oath. However, I didn’t want to design an Oath expansion. The game was still too fresh, and I didn’t have a good sense of what more Oath content would even look like. Instead, I wanted to design something entirely new that approached some of Oath’s key narrative and mechanical questions but from a very different perspective.
At that time, Patrick had been working on a traditional 4x game called Void Lich. The design was a riff on a Stellaris-style space conquest game with some player asymmetry in the model of something like Twilight Imperium. Players would dominate planets, customize fleets, infiltrate each other’s governments and develop little space empires. He had wanted it to have a scripted, branching campaign format that reminded me a little of the Memoir ‘44 campaign books.
The biggest difference between Patrick’s design and a traditional branching campaign was that certain elements of a player’s position would be retained from one game to the next. He also included an empire progression where small societies could scale up to large empires or be scattered into raiding societies operating primarily with their fleets as they looked for a new homeworld to resettle.
After a few months though the design had started stalling out. This is a very normal part of any design process. Traditional 4x games are really tough to design, and it wasn’t clear if there was a direction forward. It’s difficult to quickly describe the reasons this happened, and I’d leave that to Patrick to write about at length if he revisits the project in the future. But, my sense was that there was a fundamental mismatch in the scope of the game (big, with lots of systems) with the design to make a fast-playing space game.
One day I took Patrick aside and we chatted about the game. I offered him a proposal. For the next month or so, I’d let him take the lead on the upcoming Root expansion if he’d let me work on Void Lich. Nothing would be set in stone, and there were a number of different outcomes. I knew that he might end up designing the full Root expansion. It was also possible that we’d split work on the new Root faction or turn it into a wider studio project. This is what ended up happening to Root: Marauder. I did the hireling design and the system updates for advanced setup and Patrick took the new factions, with Josh and Nick contributing to additional faction and hireling design respectively.
For Void Lich, there were likewise a number of possible outcomes. For instance, it could end up as a co-design, with each of us contributing critical ideas. However, I know that I can be a pretty aggressive creative partner, and so I knew that it was also possible that I would want to design the game more-or-less from scratch. It might be the case that Patrick would want to reserve the space setting for his design, in which case I would take my design and retheme it. It was also possible that Patrick might like the design well enough that he could imagine adapting elements of his setting and narrative to one of the game’s expansions—essentially building Void Lich as a module within the game I was making.
And of course it was possible for all of this to fail. We could both find ourselves frustrated with the change and end up just going back to the original plan. Thankfully, the schedule afforded us a bit of extra time, so this would be no great loss.
Patrick consented and I got to work.
My first instinct was to start a new design from scratch. There were a few reasons for this. One, I wanted to make sure that I wouldn’t impinge on Patrick's design space in case he wanted to save his design for later. The second reason was that I didn’t want to make a traditional 4x game, and it didn’t feel right to cannibalize a perfectly good foundation for a 4x game in order to make something that was quite different. The last (and most important) reason was that, following my work on Oath, I thought I had a novel way of tackling the problem of making a fast-playing game that could still tell big stories.
I think the basic problem of how games often fail to tell big stories often has to do with their influences. All games are trying to capture some particular feeling, and often, in the world of grand strategy games, that feeling is rooted in the experience playing video games. It’s not hard to see the shadow of Sid Meier’s civilization in (nearly) every board game that tries to tackle the subject. Or, absent that, the shadows of any number of other major strategy game that have captured our attention. While I think all designers should do due diligence and pay attention to other games that might be relevant to their project, it can become tempting to accept a particular design convention as a fundamental truth. And games should only be one element of a designer’s media diet. There’s simply no substitute for a strong, interdisciplinary reading list and plenty of time spent just observing events both big and small.
Of course, I played games too. But I tried to find games that captured the sorts of stories that I didn’t see reflected in the traditional 4x games. So, rather than playing Master of Orion, I spent a lot of time with Heaven’s Vault. I spend some considerable time with Faster than Light as well and spend some time playing the recent Battletech reboot. I also reread Gene Wolf’s Book of the Long Sun, a few Ursula K. Le Guin novels, and the Hyperion Cantos as well as a bunch of other stuff.
As I moved through these games and books, I was struck by the structural dissonance between my favorite works of science fiction and the science fiction board games I enjoyed. Nothing like The Dispossessed could ever happen within Twilight Imperium. The haunting worldbuilding strategies that Wolfe deploys in his books are as alien to board games as the goofy characters in Cosmic Encounter.
I think there were two fundamental reasons for this failure. First, the science fiction games I love usually can’t get away with a more intimate narrative focus because they also have an interest in cultivating fairly “smooth” spaces for interaction. Here’s what I mean. If I can build an army to attack you, you also need to be able to build an army to defend yourself. Asymmetric design is of course one way of solving this problem. But, it is a costly method both in terms of the rules it demands that players master and in terms of the limits it places on a players strategic options and responses. If all you give players is an army, everything starts to look like a battle. (I think this is one of the failings of Oath’s design.)
A game that focused on the intimate stories I loved would seem also to be fundamentally non-interactive. Why would a player trying to save a planet’s ecosystem care about a diplomat trying to negotiate a complex treaty? If I wanted the game’s narrative space to be wide enough to tackle these kinds of stories, it seems like I’d be better off not making a game at all. I needed a design that could provide the necessary connective tissue but that didn’t feel arbitrary.
The second problem had to do with flow and change. My favorite science stories often had big turning points—moments where one type of story changed into another type of story. Games are really bad at these kinds of pivots because of something called the game loop.
The game loop is a term used in video game programming but it works well on a more metaphorical level in the tabletop space. I use the term to mean a game’s core action loop and the sequence of play. Generally, you want to design loops that are simple and quickly fade to the background. This allows players to get into a flow state where they understand the design systems and start thinking about the game’s story and their strategies within it rather than not messing up any particular rule.
Once a game gets flowing properly, you usually don’t want to introduce a bunch of new rules and objectives to the mix. When this happens, a player’s immersion into the world of the game can shatter in an instant as they are forced to stop thinking about what they are doing and instead scramble for rule books. Though I love the Arkham Horror Card Game, I think the design does this somewhat frequently, especially the first time you play a complex scenario. Even simpler games such as Betrayal at House on the Hill have this problem.
The problem can also manifest in less dramatic ways. For instance, in a game of Magic a new and complicated card will often stall new players. And, even though we tried to keep the cards in Oath fairly simple, one of the biggest flow-breaks in the game comes in the search action when players stumble into cards they’ve never seen.
For this reason, games tend to not want to shake up things too dramatically. This keeps the game loop strong and running smoothly. However, this comes at a steep but often hidden cost. A game that treats maintaining a player’s flow state as its top priority must avoid riskier—and more interesting—narrative structures. This seemed like a problem worth thinking about seriously.
So those were my twin challenges. I needed a core design that could provide interaction without sacrificing the individual needs of a player’s story and I needed some way to tell stories that could turn on a dime. Next week, we'll start with the first challenge, and I'll write about how Arc’s core action system works and how it brings players together, no matter the distance between them.
- Cole Wehrle