The campaign board for Arcs the board game

Arcs, Designer/Developer Diary -

Arcs | Designer Diary 7 – The Product Split

Next week, we’ll be launching the Kickstarter for Arcs. I’ve got a few more designer diaries I’d like to write, but I probably won’t be publishing them before or during the Kickstarter. There are only so many hours in the day! But, before the launch, I wanted to write about a critical decision we’ve made regarding Arcs.

Initially, we had planned on building Arcs like Oath. The idea was that it would probably be a big box game, with tons of cards and a pretty hefty price point—likely around $130 dollars or more. The game was designed initially as primarily a campaign game, and I didn’t want to present it without that mode. However, over the past several months we have decided to split the game into essentially two product lines. The core game will likely cost a little more than Root and will support the single-session game. Then, a large expansion will contain all of the content needed to support the game’s campaign mode (24 campaign seeds, split across three lengths as well as a larger board and some additional pieces). Both will be available through the game’s Kickstarter and they will be released on the same timeline.

Game boards for Arcs the board game; smaller board on the left for the single-game version, a larger board on the right for the campaign version

For the vast majority of folks reading this, the fact that Arcs will sometimes be played as primarily a single-session game will be largely incidental. I suspect you’ll want to get the game with its campaign mode. When it arrives, you’ll stack everything together in essentially one box. After getting your bearings over a few one-offs, you’ll probably mostly play the campaign game. If you were the only folks we were making this game for, we’d probably bundle everything together. But, one of the harder lessons of game design that I’ve had to learn over the past five years is that it’s important to think broadly about your audience and about the future.

Often I tell people that we aren’t interested in making games for everyone. Rather, we try to make games that might be someone’s favorite game. That means we tend to be more interested in our own sensibilities and those of our existing fans. But, this ethos exists in balance with a desire to be welcoming to new players and to try to design games that can survive and thrive in the broader tabletop marketplace.

This isn’t merely a commercial interest. Of course, we’d be delighted if the game did well. In fact, I’d be especially glad to see it do well because I would love to support this game over many years. Arcs is a huge project, potentially even larger than Oath. I could see it taking a long time to fully build out the game space with additional campaigns, and I hope we are given the chance to see that larger project through. But, more than sales, the shift in the product design for Arcs has to do with urgency and the kinds of interventions I want Arcs to make. To understand what I mean, we have to talk about price and boardgames.

One of the biggest decisions you can make about a product is its price. In tabletop gaming, price is primarily a function of a game’s production and shipping costs. This is worth mentioning because it means that essentially the creative labor that goes into a game is never (or almost never) reflected in the price. As you might imagine, we find this pretty irritating, but we recognize that we need to compete in the marketplace to survive as a company. The sort of aesthetic flights of fancy that Drew and I get away with at Wehrlegig work mostly because we have a small Company with basically no overhead. The project of Leder Games is very different. Everyone at Leder Games has good benefits, a competitive salary, and a great deal of control over their work. We want to see if its possible to run a game company in a way that doesn’t burn people out and offers a comfortable lifestyle. We pay our interns, too. That means we need to design our games to compete. We simply can’t spend years researching games or design hugely expensive products that have no retail afterlife.

The basic business model looks like this. We use our crowdfunding campaigns to get a sense of the how interested folks are in our games. In return, we offer those folks the best deal we possibly can. We can do this mainly because we make a higher rate of return on copies we sell directly rather than those sold to stores or to distributors.

The rate of return on direct sales is so good that it can be tempting to build your whole business model around crowdfunding campaigns. However, there is a danger here as well. A crowdfunding audience is very different from the wider game playing audience. In the long term, it’s possible that that core audience can warp your design sensibilities. Instead of designing things that feel right and true to you, you build things that you think will make the fans happy and then move on.

Two people playing Root the board game, laughing

Photo by Tim Chuon

The broader tabletop marketplace is a wonderful check on this behavior. The games that get played tend to sell better. In fact, one of the first signs we got of Root’s success was that folks just kept playing it. Month after month, the logged plays of Root on BGG continued to climb. Folks simply weren’t burning out. Of course, there are pitfalls in designing to a broader audience too. It’s easy to default to design best practices and try to build games that are mechanically inoffensive, often prioritizing the experience of a first play over the harsher lessons a game can teach.

As with most things, balance is important. When I working on Oath, I knew the basic gambit of the game as product was that players may not mind a difficult game as long as it was replayable and was fairly quick to setup. To help new players get over the initial hurdles, we included a fulsome tutorial and built a pretty friendly playbook that helped them wade into deeper waters slowly. Those were huge investments in terms of the game’s creative budget, but they were well worth the price.

I had initially imagined that Arcs would make similar demands. Though the game was dramatically simpler than Oath on a mechanical level, there were more tactical and strategic considerations. If Oath was very often a game about “why should I do this?” Arcs was about “how should I do this?” In terms of content, Arcs the game was every bit as demanding as Oath. There was simply tons of stuff in the box and much of it could radically transform the core experience. This is a heavy lift for any group, but, I thought that the simplicity of the game’s systems would essentially cancel out the more challenging parts of the design.

However, as we broadened our testing, we found that this wasn’t the case. Even with abridged campaigns, players still found the game overwhelming. Though the rules were much easier to internalize than Oath, the strategic considerations tended to boggle new players. In order to combat this, I decided add a new mode to the game, basically a kind of “arcade mode” where players could explore the game in a low-stakes environment and get their bearings before exploring the broader campaigns.

After a little development, I found myself really enjoying this single-session mode. It was easy to setup and easy to play. Though the game remained large, it was dramatically more approachable and easier to teach. In particular, I liked the fact that the game didn’t feel rushed. Sometimes, when cutting down a game, designers attempt to speed things up. The result is a design that feels like a movie set on fast-forward. With Arcs, the single-session felt like the “tournament scenario” of a wargame. It didn’t have the scope of the campaign, but it still felt like the broader game. And, it was so much simpler to teach!

Two furry aliens, concept art from Arcs the board game

This was accomplished mostly because the rules that I had cut out were some of the knottiest rules in the design. For instance, the full campaign game uses a modular alignment system. Players begin as regents—a role that is similar to the citizens in Oath. They share control of certain ships and will often work together in the early hands of the first game before their fellowship splinters. Later in the campaign, new alignments can be unlocked or taken away that can enable all sorts of odd relationships.

The alignment system was always one of the hardest things to explain to new players. If you have any doubt, I’d encourage you to see how many questions people have posted about the citizenship rules over on the Oath forums. With a faster game, there simply wasn’t time for players to get anything meaningful out of this system. So, considering it’s complexity and its effect on the overall narrative shape of the game, it was an easy cut.

I also got rid of the fate cards. This was a harder cut to make. The fate cards are a critical part of the game’s campaign. They go a long way in anchoring a player within the game’s world and giving them some kind of direction. But, that direction comes at a cost. The fate cards are designed to work in a multi-act structure where strategic pivots often occur only a couple times per game at most. If I kept them in, it was clear I would have to revise them to have a dramatically accelerated pace, which worked against the games other narrative beats.

To get around this, I revised the game’s victory system and created a pretty straightforward system where players would have one secret objective and then a rolling cascade of minor objectives that worked in a fashion similar to games like Twilight Imperium. From the start, this considered pretty interesting tactical challenges, but playtesters found that it had sapped the word of a lot of its character. Everything felt too tactical. To combat this, we introduced two special types of objective card. One would be revealed at the start of the game and it would be scored at the end and would be worth twice or even three times as many points as the other objectives. The second would be a personal objective that would be kept secret until scored. Both went a long way in orienting the players within the game’s world and reintroduced some of the helpful ballast that the fate cards provided.

At this point, it was worth taking a few steps back and thinking about the larger project. I try to find urgency in every game I work on. In fact, I think it’s probably the central element of my design practice. I don’t design games because I think it’s fun or interesting (though it often is). Ultimately, I work on games that feel urgent. That is, I want a project to feel like it needs to exist and that we are the only team that is able to make it. If a game doesn’t feel urgent, or if I feel I’m not the right person to work on game, then I will almost certainly abandon it.

Arcs always had a very clear sense of urgency to me. As I worked on Oath, I realized that the vast majority of campaign board games simply weren’t designed as campaign games. Instead, they were compelling designs that were yoked to a campaign system (cf. Pandemic Legacy). I thought that if a design was built to do campaign gaming from the ground up, it could tell stories that other games couldn’t. That’s the pitch at the very heart of Arcs.

Concept art by Kyle Ferrin, a space ship for Arcs the board game

But, after watching those tests and creating the “arcade” mode of Arcs, I realized that this game was also making a second intervention. Over the past several years, games have been getting bigger. We are in the middle of a huge process of deluxificiation and its harder and harder to find good designs in the middle and upper middle price range. $100 is the new $60. This is particularly felt among space games, where designs like Eclipse (MSRP 170?) and Twilight Imperium (MSRP 150?) have set the gold standard.

Just so I’m clear, there is nothing wrong with this! Essentially, I think this is part of a trend where game companies are primarily orienting themselves around their core audience and not around the broader marketplace. Instead of designing games that are built around surviving in a marketplace and competing for table-space at a local gaming club, games are increasingly being designed in such a way as to extract the maximum amount of money from their core audience. Whole companies have built their business model around this approach.

To a degree, this is something I participate in as well. Drew and I’s projects at Wehrlegig would simply not be possible if we didn’t have that core audience. I know as well as anyone how expensive it is to get every single Root product. But, I think there are critical differences. Root, for all of its size and scope, is a project with a single, simple entry point and we have a policy of slowly releasing expansions for our games. And, as expensive as my historical games are, Drew and I price them very aggressively because we’d rather just make enough to fund the next project and move on. I like giving folks a really good deal as a thank you for making our little dreams possible. (As an example, regular pricing would put the MSRP of John Company probably above $150, we sold it to KS backers for $80).

In this context, I saw a second urgency in the design of Arcs. If we divided out the game in to two boxes, one with just the arcade mode and another with the full campaign, the first one would cost a little more than Root. The campaign material would probably be a large $50 or $60 dollar expansion. In a world where the sub-$80 space game was getting rarer and rarer, Arcs could offer players a way of dipping their toes in the water without falling in the deep end. If someone walked up to me at a convention, I could much more comfortably sell them on the smaller version of the game. Heck, if they wanted to, they could play the game that night without too much trouble. Then, if they wanted to explore the campaign mode, we could still offer it to them later, though they probably wouldn’t want to start it in the hallway of a convention hotel.

I was, at this point, pretty happy with this new strategy, but I now found myself facing another challenge. At this point, we had only a couple months before the launch of the Kickstarter. I had fully planned on having all of the campaign material available for all of our previewers and for backers from day 1. However, I had now spent a critical month building out single-session game, and there wasn’t a lot of time left. To put it bluntly, I was pretty badly overworked and exhausted. Under normal circumstances, I would have asked for us to delay the Kickstarter a few months so that I could get everything back up to speed, but that wasn’t going to be an option. There were simply too many things already too far in progress, and I knew we needed to keep to our initial schedule if at all possible.

Two figures in space suits, Concept art by Kyle Ferrin for Arcs the board game

To that end, I decided to make something of a strategic withdrawal. Most of the folks who back a Kickstarter campaign don’t bother to play it. This is pretty understandable—heck, I rarely play games I pre-order. I’d rather just wait for the finished game. For the others, the vast majority just play the game once or twice to see if they generally like what it is. This suggested a pretty clear design priority for our team. With the dwindling time we had left, I would direct the majority of our creative resources to getting the single-session working of the game in a pretty polished state.

Foolishly, I had been a little selfish over the course of Arcs development and design period. Though I had been working on the game for nearly a year, I had kept my personnel demands low, basically just pulling folks into games for the occasional test or design discussions. At the time, the studio was busy and I wanted to give other projects priority. This was also a personal preference. After Oath, which was very much a team project, I wanted to work alone for awhile. Now that the clock was ticking, I stopped indulging myself. So, I enlisted the help of Nick Brachmann and Joshua Yearsley who could help me with development and design.

The plan was simple. We’d work hard to make the best looking and playing single session game we could. Those would be sent out in kits to previewers and digital versions of those kits would be available to backers on day-1. Then, while this was going on, I’d detach myself from the project and go back to work on the campaign mode, which at this point had been neglected for months while we worked on other things. The main job would be to bring the campaign game back into alignment with some of the quality of life and balance improvements we had made while working on the single-session game. With a little luck and more than a few late nights, it seemed possible that we’d have a fully realized “demo” campaign that we could show to people on studio-streams and maybe even offer as a mid-campaign release.

This strategy was not without casualties. Months ago, I had told previewers that they would have the campaign in their boxes. I knew any update that changed this plan was going to feel a little like a bait-and-switch. I reached out where possible and offered to show anyone who wanted to see the campaign mode a fullsome demo. I’ll also be spending the next week or so putting together campaign kits. This feels a little foolish because by the time they are shipped, received, and played, the campaign will likely be over, but I don’t like letting folks down and I want them to see the broader ambitions of the design clearly. Of course, I also was going to have to explain this product split to you all. I had been talking about this game publicly for quite a long time and it was mostly talked about in the context of the campaign mode. You all deserved an explanation. Look no further.

At this point, there is a ton of work that remains to be done on both modes of Arcs. The single-session game is charming and strong, but it will still be awhile longer before we have it properly tuned and hitting all of the right narrative and gameplay beats. The campaign is probably the most ambitious piece of design work I've ever attempted. But, if it's ambitious it's also absurd with much more in common with Cosmic Encounter than Twilight Imperium. I truly cannot wait for you all to see how these plotlines can warp the core gameplay.

Much work remains to be done, but I know everyone here at Leder Games is eager for the coming challenges. There's simply no other team I would rather work with on a project of this magnitude, and no other audience I’d rather build it for than you all.

See you next week.

- Cole

A ship swoops through a star-filled sky, dodging planets. Text reads: Arcs coming to kickstarter May 24


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