One of the earliest goals of the design of Arcs was to have a fully emergent asymmetry that went beyond what the positional differences in Oath could do. I wanted players to start in roughly similar positions. However, by the end of the campaign, I hoped that those positions would be as different as any two factions in Root or two roles in Vast. I saw this as a way of approaching an essential problem in asymmetric design.
By definitions, asymmetric designs feature very different player positions. This is their greatest selling point and their greatest weakness. They provide the game with a lot of replayability and allow the design to explore very interesting player relationships. But, this asymmetry comes at a cost that is paid in pages of rules and occasional splitting headaches.
One way to fix this problem is to give the factions a solid, shared foundation of rules. This is how Root tried approach some of the issues that bedeviled Vast. However, there are many things Vast or a game like it can do that Root simply cannot. With Arcs, I thought that if players started in symmetrical positions, I could slowly introduce players to the game’s asymmetry. Each game a few new elements would be added (or taken away) from a player’s toolbox, which would eventually result in some very different positions.
To make this type of emergent asymmetry work, I needed two things. First, I needed a very responsive and interactive action system that allowed players to make adjustments to the balance through the gameplay. This was crucial because I knew I couldn't stage manage every possible player position and growth pattern. There were simply too many paths that players could take. If the game system itself could provide a balancing mechanism, the broader game state could get a lot weirder and more interesting. It would be up to the players to decide how much attention they should give to each others advantages.
Now this might seem like a cop-out, but it’s worth underlining how few tools players often have when it comes to adjusting the incentives and lines of interaction in most designs. This limitation often makes moments of player-driven balancing feel artificial and forced. For instance, if players have an action that lowers a players score by 1 point, any game state that forces players to gang up on a leader by just dinging them with this action is going to feel arbitrary. However, with a more robust action framework and proper narrative framing, those imbalances instead just become the stormy waters the players have to navigate to win the game. Thankfully the conventions of trick-taking which I talked about earlier did just that.
The second thing I needed was a basic vocabulary and grammar that I could use to describe all of the possible positions that the players could grow occupy. Here I decided to use a simple strategy. While most civilization/space games will give players to a big range of piece-types (destroyers, cruisers, etc), I wanted to keep things simple. I used Root as a baseline and imagined that all players would basically have several pieces types. Players would start the game with access to three of those pieces: ships (for fighting), extractors (for getting resources), and factories (for making more ships).
Throughout the game, players might unlock their additional pieces. In addition to ships, players also had a few “specialist” units. These units move and may be able to fight like ships, but, while a player had 14 ships in their supply, they only had three specialists. They also have two additional building types (dome and tower). Unlike the starting building, these are circle pieces, which determines the kinds of map slots where they can be built.
I wanted to keep a player’s options pretty clear, and so I imagined the player boards would basically have six slots, one for each piece type. If you researched a new card of that type, you would simply replace the old one. I loved how this sharpened some of the game’s opportunity costs and allowed the players to easily distinguish themselves from one another. It also allowed me to make more powerful card effects because I didn’t have to worry about them combing within the same unit.
I also wanted to fold the game’s larger tech system into this framework. So, I added a special type of tech card called a “flexible” tech which basically could occupy any slot. Techs that were linked to pieces had their piece icon in the top right whereas flexible techs have a small star. Players could even cover up their core units—which meant that they would lose the ability to produce new units of that type. But, for the right technology, this could be a trade worth making.
My general sense was that players would only gain a couple new technologies per game. My rule of thumb is that players might game 0 to 2 during a game and another 0 to 1 during the intermission phase. A tech heavy player might get as many as 4 or 5, but they would probably not achieve any other victory conditions. This might sound disastrous, but touches on a pillar of the game’s design philosophy: player get to decide what is most important and those decisions matter. If they want to spend the first two episodes hiding away building an impossibly strong combination of cards and try to shoot the moon during their final game, the design would let them take the role of an evil mastermind.
Of course, to manage this, I had to make it somewhat difficult to research these technologies. To that end, I worked out a basic market system. Each turn there were generally 3 market cards available to be purchased. Players could spend influence actions to essentially bid on these cards. Then, during the “End of Hand” phase, each card would go to the player who bid the most. If there were any ties, the card would remain on the auction block for another hand.
This was just the first step. Next a player had to research the technology. This represented the costly and difficult process of implementation. While a technologies market cost was determined by whatever it was purchased for, here the costs were static. The cost could be found in the top left of the card. The ones with pips required resources (a different resource for each pip). The ones with an “!” symbol had a special cost that was detailed on the card. Mostly, these costs scaled. So, if you wanted to research something like these powerful strikers:
...you would need to pay a cost that scaled with the size of your fleet.
These costs helped keep the amount of new rules being introduced each game to a minimum. This was useful because the technologies were researched in the middle of a game and we didn’t want to break the flow of the game. Generally, these cards were only closely read when they were first introduced to the market each round between hands. That provided a somewhat natural pause where they could be reviewed without throwing off the game’s rhythm. However, not all of the cards were introduced this way.
At the end of each game, players will check their progress on their current fate card. If they were successful (or sometimes, if they weren’t successful!), the card will instruct them to get a packet of cards. The sorts of changes these packets introduced could be seismic! They might include powerful new upgrades or prompts that would let players abandon their player positions and continue the game operating in a special, single-ship mode.
There's a lot of variation. Each packet has a “cover sheet” card, which identifies the packet and gives you instructions on how to resolve it. This was a very important and embarrassingly late addition to the campaign design. For a long time, each and every card had to tell you what to do with it, which meant that valuable space was lost on each card, and I had to be limited in how they were used. With the cover card, I could give precise instructions that could dramatically alter the existing card pools and game systems without worrying about running out of space on the card.
The cards in each packet could be added to the game in many different ways. Sometimes, these cards are added to the market deck. So, if you spend one game breaking planets and ruining the Reach, the next game the market might be flooded with refugees. Sometimes, the cards were special technologies that were instantly researched. This allowed us to give the fate cards some meaningful in-game stakes. We did this for two reasons. First, I wanted to give players some direct incentive to pursue these plot points and to help deepen their differing capacities as the game went on. Just as importantly, I wanted these reward technologies to serve as reminders of their previous struggles and help them form a coherent identity. This latter point was especially important because of how the game deals with narrative choice.
Each packet in the game (nearly) always contains a fate card which will link to the other fate cards in its larger plot arc. And the final instruction on each packet cover sheet is always to consider this fate card along with a randomly drawn seed of a new plotline of the appropriate length. By this I just mean that the random seed you pull is one will come from a different pool that depends on the game length. Players can’t progress along multiple plotlines. They must pick.
One choice will always make sense. This is the choice that was just unlocked in your packet. Did you fail as the Ambitious Librarian in the first episode? Well, maybe now you can chose to be the Bitter Archivist in game two. In contrast, the second choice doesn’t make sense. It’s the wild card, the chance encounter at a space dock. Perhaps you should try your hand at at being an Orbital Pirate. Or perhaps your studies have pushed you to become a Blight Harvester.
Critically, all of the technology you have gained so far remains perfectly intact. So, a formal imperial steward with a crack team of administrators might bring that expertise to bear managing a vast spy network. Time spent constructing a trade empire might prove useful as you pivot your enterprises towards organized crime. On the other hand, your previous efforts might not be useful at all! But, this didn't matter. A mismatch of skills, past efforts, and future ambitions often sets the stage for remarkable (challenging) episode.
That final point is particularly important, and it’s a place where I think Arcs differs in approach from the vast majority of narrative board games. While other forms of storytelling are often filled with adversity, in board games the adversity is often carefully stage managed. This makes sense, since designers don't have the same tools as novelists. But it means that those stories can sometimes feel a little flat. The challenges they run into are often the consequences of poor play or gradually dulled by the steady march of their own progress along a power curve. Don't worry about the trolls that just clobbered you—after you gain a few more levels you’ll be just fine! Arcs isn’t like that. Players will often be faced with impossible odds and very difficult situations. The game lives in the moments where you figure how to navigate these problems, MacGyvering a novel solution out a handful of bad circumstances and a ball of twine. When you fail (and you will), the game won’t catch you. Instead, it will let you keep falling, right into another odd opportunity.
In this particular sense, the game reminds me a little of Oath. This is no accident. Though they are very different games, Arcs is cut from the same cloth. This is true at the level of the game's ethos as well as in the design of some of its specific systems. We'll be talking about one of those systems next week when we look at Arcs' battle system.