Wednesday, September 30, 2020

We Are Not Alone

As this splendid isolation drags on, I’ve dipped a toe into board game design. Well, it’s really sort of a board game/RPG hybrid called “We Are Not Alone,” inspired in large part by Diplomacy and the megagame Watch the Skies (check out a pretty sweet play video here). I guess I’ve been thinking about how a pandemic is essentially no different from an alien invasion. There’s this vague sense I get from pop culture that somehow humans would come together in the face of such an invasion (Independence Day, Watchmen, etc), but...of course we wouldn’t. Look around. 

So in this game, each player controls a nation or group of nations, and the GM (Mothership) controls an alien threat. But it’s not a cooperative game. For now, I’ve been giving each player unique, competing goals to accomplish in addition to defeating the aliens. However, I’m thinking about simplifying that to “whoever controls the most territory when the aliens are defeated wins.” Not sure yet. I like the idea of having asymmetrical goals better, in the Braunstein tradition, but the idea of balancing them so they’re all equally accomplishable makes my eyes glaze over.

In fact, balancing in general is a little overwhelming. I never bother in RPGs, because in my mind that’s missing the point. But in a competitive board game, it’s pretty necessary.

I’m pretty proud of the resource management system. Another result of my increased online diet is that I've become more convinced by Modern Monetary Theory, at least the broad strokes. It's the idea that sovereign fiat-currency governments are constrained by physical resources, labor, and politics, but not by money. This is certainly true during wartime, when even historically nations would often suspend the gold standard to "pay" for the war. So I didn't want players spending money and potentially running out during the game, which just wouldn't be possible in our modern system.

Instead of money, players have three constraints on what they're able to accomplish in a given turn: Oil and Mining territories, which represent physical resources; the number of territories controlled, which represents labor pool; and Political Capital. Political Capital is the number of actions a player can take in a turn and is an average of stats which represent the health of different aspects of the player's nation or coalition. It's an abstract and perhaps naive nod to the notion that governments are at least a little bit beholden to their people (or party) in order to have the leeway to pursue their foreign policy.

Here is a Google Drive folder with the rules and game assets so far. My friends and I have been playtesting on Astral Tabletop. I set the board as the “Map” and the playing pieces as “Characters”. You have to make all the players GMs so they don’t see fog of war and can move all the pieces around. So, I’d be grateful for any feedback you have, especially on the balancing front. And if you actually attempt to play the damn thing, please share your experience!