In writing about this subject, I’m going to be using the word “temporality” a lot. First, I’m sorry for that. It’s a bad word with far to many syllables for its own good. When I use this word, I’m specifically referring to how something (say a board game) both uses time and is used by time. This is a particularly useful word because it captures the fact social spaces (like games) can organize and regulate time. In this way, the word’s oddness is useful too. It reminds us of the artifice inherent to all measures of time and the degree to which structure informs perception.
Okay, enough with the disclaimers. Let's get in the weeds.
Arcs’s First Temporality
But this action system created an absolutely massive problem for the game’s general balance and, by extension, its storytelling strategy. Often, when I talk about design, I urge designers to avoid creating “guardrails” for their players to stop them from taking horrible actions that will take them out of contention. If a player plays badly, they should score badly. However, a well-placed guardrail can do a lot of good, too.
For instance, in Oath, a critical victory could lead a player to take every objective they had set their heart on. Still, the defender’s force will likely only suffer a marginal reduction. That’s a place where you see my hand holding the two players apart. I’m breaking up a fight, telling the attacker “Look, you’ve gotten enough from him. Let him limp home.” That’s a pretty common modern design practice, but it’s not common in wargaming. If I cut your supply lines in the right way in Paths of Glory, your entire position might disintegrate in a turn or two. The designer doesn’t rush in and make sure that the game goes to a predetermined length, even if we're only an hour or so into what could be a four or five hour contest.
This is an especially important problem for a game like Arcs. In most of my designs, actions are very scarce. This means that players usually don’t have the action potential to score a coup de’grâce or to recover from receiving one. These moves do happen, but they are usually the result of a lot of planning and the activation of key special abilities at critical moments. But, as I wrote about last week, Arcs floods a player with actions. A hand of cards in Arcs presents the players with anywhere from 5 to 15 actions. If a player plays badly, they are going to be on the receiving end of a massive amount of inertia.
I knew I wanted this dynamism. It seemed very well-suited to the kinds of stories I wanted the game to tell, and the kinds of strategic decisions that I wanted players to confront. But, to do this I would need to change the way the game kept time.
This may sound a little counter-intuitive: what on earth does time have to do with the balance of player actions? Well, last week I talked a lot about "tempo control." The idea is that a player in Arcs can determine the tempo of the game by playing their hand well. Then, they can cash out of this upwind position by taking lots of actions at once. Tempo is, in a sense, a resource that can get spent. This creates a very lumpy sort of temporality where players can essentially slow down the clock to take big turns, or speed it up to jump through fast turns. And, critically, players are seldom fully in charge of these tempo changes which are informed by the game's cardplay.
Now contrast this to Root. Root has a very even temporality. Imagine that the game is composed of single action beats, with each factions turn being a “measure” of time. These measures tend to be about the same length (though some have occasional eighth notes or half notes). This means one battle is as big as another. Buildings are built. Pieces move. Pieces get removed. The game keeps steady time. Oath gives players a little more temporal control. To keep with the music metaphor, you might say that its time signature allows for a wider variety of possible arrangements within each measure. Players can spend all of their supply on a single long action or bounce around doing small actions. But time waits for no pawn in Oath. When you're out of supply, it's over.
Oath also uses a kind of narrative and temporal telescoping. While Root has a very “even” temporality, Oath’s can expand and contract as needed. So, if you travel from one corner of the world to another, it will zip by. But, if you’re conducting a complex, multi-pronged campaign, the game can slow down and capture the needed detail, without forcing you to roll for a dozen battles like Root. This had important narrative consequences for the game that allowed its games to feel very grand, as if a years of activity or more were transpiring between each game. (NB: Of course, there are costs to this narrative strategy in Oath. Some players will prefer zippy single action impulses that are more common in modern design to Oath's longer turns.)
Because of the variability of Arcs’s action system, I knew that I needed to adjust the game’s pace. On the one hand, the basic beats needed to be even shorter so they could capture a higher resolution of expression. On the other hand, I needed to find a way to slow down the game so that players could meaningfully respond to one another.
Thankfully, this demand has a pretty simple solution. To achieve this effect, I just needed to make the actions half as effective compared to a game like Root. I used a few different tools to achieve this. First, I made the map bigger, so that that each move action got you less far than a move action in Root. Root's map has 12 clearings. In contrast, the map for Arc's smaller, non-campaign mode has 19 systems (12 of which have planets). And the campaign map is about a third larger than that. Now, if one player sent a fleet towards you, you could see it coming a couple rounds in advance.
I also made it so every unit in the game could sustain a point of damage before it was removed. In the picture above you can see a battered yellow fleet and a damaged building on the surface of the planet. The fleets are shown to be damaged by tipping them on their side. Critically, unlike other games with sustain damage, units will continue to be damaged until a player takes the repair action. Thankfully damaged units behave like their undamaged counterpoints with the only exception being that they cannot take an additional point of damage. That means a player with a weak fleet and continue to press their advantage. However, if fate turns against them they won’t get a second chance to respond.
Even in the early drafts of the game, I loved what both of these changes did to the game’s feel. Though the game shared some mechanical elements with other things I’ve designed, the large map and tough units made the game feel a lot more like a naval wargame. They also created the circumstances for the kinds of operational thinking I hoped would be at the center of good play. When you send a fleet out on a mission, you will find yourself wondering if had provided enough power to achieve your goal. If they have an unexpected defeat, do you wait a turn to repair them? Send reinforcements? Maybe it will make sense to withdraw and save their firepower for another day. As far as I was concerned, if the game system encouraged for well-reasoned strategic retreats (without a lot of special effect chrome) I would have achieved something that had eluded pretty much every other space game.
I was immensely satisfied with how all of this came together, but I quickly found myself at an impasse. Arcs felt like slow-motion, ultra-strategic Root. While the game was producing tense, operational gameplay, it was simply not moving fast enough to tell the kinds of larger campaign stories I had in mind. I was going to need another option.
Arcs’ Second Temporality
The vast majority of thematic designs attempt to do all of their storytelling within the limits of the its gameplay. This is generally a good and obvious thing. If I’m sitting down to play a game that promises to tell particular kinds of stories, then the game should be able to tell those stories directly and using its primary mechanisms. However, as I wrote about earlier, this means that any changes to the game system must be gradual.
Take Twilight Imperium for example. Over the course of the game, players will slowly change the rules of the game through the researching of technologies and the passage of laws. Individually, these elements cannot be too disruptive because it would create a huge flow break as players scramble to learn new rules. Still, this provides plenty of storytelling (and strategic) options for its players. This is likewise true for the faction design in Root or the procedural turns of John Company. All of those games have a huge dynamic range, but they tell there stories in increments.
This is very different from a game like Brass or The Downfall of Pompeii. In those designs, there are huge turning points in the design which cause massive pivots. I’ve always loved this element of Brass. The canal phase offers lovely prologue to the railroad era that gives players a real sense of the scope of the game’s subject. And, it feels so organic compared to a sanitized setup position.
Early in the design of Arcs, I knew I wanted to adapt some of these ideas as well as many of the lessons I learned from Oath. The basic idea was simple. I imagined Arcs as a 5-7 hour game that would be sliced into 3 episodes of around 2 hours each. By slicing the game in this way, I could accomplish two goals. First, it allowed the game to be approachable. You didn’t need to sit down and play the whole thing. Instead, you could break up the campaign over a few sessions. And, because the campaign was fairly short, you didn’t have to worry too much about having a group abandon it midway.
Second, by breaking up the game, I could explore design concepts that would normally be avoided because they would disrupt the flow of the game. I imagined as each game as an episode, with a nebulous period in between each game. Here I was inspired by the narrative structure of the Star Wars movies in particular, which make a wonderful use of their episodic breaks to advance certain elements of the story without having to play expository catch up in the next episode.
The other inspiration for this system was the campaign structure of the Runequest RPG. Runequest is an old tabletop RPG which I mostly learned about through the King of Dragon Pass computer game. Even by today’s standards, it is a deeply innovative and forward-thinking design. One of my favorite things about it is how the game treats campaigns and time. A core tenet of Runequest is that, unlike Dungeon’s and Dragons, the player characters are not outcasts, off to adventure with their buds. Instead, players have a huge range of family, religious, and clan obligations and they can’t just spend all of their time questing. So, many campaigns take place during special windows of the year devoted to travel and exploration. Then, after a few sessions, the characters will return home to farm, take care of their families, or whatever else they might need to do. In practice, this means full campaigns extend far longer than other RPGs, often taking many years and even generations.
In a sense, these Runequest Campaigns have a kind of dual temporality. There is the temporality of the regular session, compete with dungeons and intrigues. We’ll call this “adventure time.” Then, there is the temporality of the end-of-arc or start-of-arc sessions where players get caught up on all that has happened since the last time they were together. In this temporality, they can undertake big projects like building a house or starting a family. Let’s call this “world time.”
The vast majority of adventure games only deal with “adventure time.” This is why I think I find that most open world games feel cramped and unimaginative. No matter how many vistas there are to explore in Breath of the Wild or Skyrim, the world is fundamentally a playground for a largely uninhibited adventuring player. In some of those games you can even do things like buying a house or making improvements, but there are very few liabilities or real decisions in those systems. It's worth emphasizing that this has very little to do with technological prowess of their engines or how finely realized their gameplay systems are. A really immersive theme park is still a theme park.
In contrast, “world time” is filled with opportunity costs. Time you spend nurturing your children is time you are not spending plowing your farm. Decisions you make might have subtle or severe consequences that take years to manifest. One of my favorite games that does good open world design with smart temporality is a very old PC RPG called The Magic Candle. It does this with an incredibly simple design conceited. You start that game with a fixed amount of time to complete the game and it tells you how many days remain right there in the top right corner of the screen.
If you want to get your armor repaired, it may mean waiting at an out-of-the-way berg until it can be fixed. Because time is a critical resource in the game, every decision is filled with interesting opportunity costs and the game's generally pretty basic world-building nonetheless comes to life.
Arcs is not an open world game. And it’s never going to compete with the storytelling power of a game like Runequest, and that’s fine. But I did know that I wanted the game to tell big stories and I wanted those stories to present players with very tough trade offs. Players were not going to be able to do everything in one campaign or ten. Because of the operational detail and tension of the action system, I knew that the game’s core loop wasn’t fast enough to tell the stories I wanted to be able to tell. But, it didn’t have to. Instead, I imagined each game of Arcs as being about the resolution of basically a single storytelling beat for every player. Then, depending on what happened, players could pivot to a slightly different footing for the next episode during a special phase called the “Intermission.”
This phase was broken out of the game's core loop. Doing this game me the distance to approach the game state from a different vantage point and help establish a different temporal logic. So, for instance, in a session of Arcs you are going to spend a lot of time and energy earning a resource called power, which is a sort of victory point. Then, during the Intermission, you get to spend that power. I loved this twist because it finally let me reckon with that longstanding question of thematic game design: what the heck does a victory point even represent? Well, in Arcs, your power gets spent on the maintenance of your present map position, bonus actions, and upgrades. Players are free to tie up loose ends and prepare for the next game.
Players also use the intermission to check the status of their fate card—a kind of primary objective card. These cards are always resolved and can branch in one or more paths depending on the outcome of the game. These fate cards unlock new card packets which will alter composition of the game’s deck, offer players new upgrades, change the rules of the game, and, of course, provide new fate cards. These new elements of the game can have very dramatic effects to the game’s core loop because they are introduced to the game outside of the game loop. In fact, we even encourage players sitting down for a double or triple header to take a break, grab a meal, or go on a walk before starting the next act of the game.
Despite the size of this pause, I didn’t want there to be too much narrative distance between one episode and another. In Oath, for instance, a player’s resources, relics, and advisers are purged from one game to another. This is fine for a story that operates on a generational scale but I wanted the stories of Arcs to be a lot more focused. A full campaign should represent perhaps a few years at most, not 30.
To help this along I made sure that the end-state of the first two episodes would also be a viable start position for the episodes that followed. Suddenly the game’s slowness was an asset. In a normal space game, players tend to research a half dozen or more technologies each game. But, in Arcs gaining a new ability was a huge achievement that might take a third of the game to realize. This would be horrible in most games, but if you knew that you were going to carry that advantage into the next game, it may be well worth your time. In addition, because your player position ported directly over to the next episode, every detail mattered. If you found yourself with a few stray actions at the end of a game, you could secure a valuable cache of resources. Or, perhaps you could move your fleets into a better position. A siege begun in one game could be resolved in the next. This helped get players thinking beyond the scope of one game.
Next week, we'll turn to how the game changes over the course of the campaign. We'll start by looking at the generally symmetrical player positions and their capacity for change as new technologies are researched and new objectives are reached. Then, we'll look at a couple larger rules modules that can be activated so you get a sense of how strange these campaigns can get.