I tool around with boardgame design, and while I love the creation process, I try to create games that I wish were in the market. For the last three years, I've been working with Dan Raspler to create the game that we always wanted to see. The game that we'd wasted lots of time and money "digging through the crates" (if you will) trying to find that grail game. As the design rapidly approaches its final form, while I'd certainly like to see this baby in production, I'm really pleased to finally own a colorful adventure game set in a post-apocalyptic world. A game that taps into all of the things that I love in a games; as Dan puts it "part eurogame, part ameritrash, part wargame." We created it so that we could play it.
About three years ago I was hanging out with Dan and I was talking out my dream to create a civil war game where two wargamers could play the Union and the CSA and two or three other eurogamers could build train lines and sell goods to either side. If you put chicory in the coffee or sold bunk ammunition then the troops would suffer penalties, likewise the wargamers could shell train lines or buy merely buy goods from other players. The point is that I fantasized about a game where Economic guys could play their game and wargamers could use them as targets and either could win.
As it often does, our conversation drifted to our love for Arkham Horror and Tales of the Arabian Nights. We'd been playing both of those games together for years (Dan turned me on to the Chaosium version of Arkham Horror as well as the the West End Games' TotAK). As we were looking through his shelves, I started talking about how I'd missed every game of Roadkill that my various friends had played in the last 5 years and after a near unanimous decision it was going to be retired from our circle: "Now I'll never get to play it." While Dan reassured me that there was no loss, we thought about how there are no good post-apocalyptic adventure games.
Most of these games just have you drive in a straight line (Thunder Road) or drive around in a circle (Dark Future). Battlecars is simple, there is landscape, outfit your car, drive around in it until everyone else is dead. Of course, there is a ton of record keeping, that all goes to hell when the first player gets the advantage every time. Car Wars was more expansive, but you spent most of the game creating your car, then about 10 seconds into it you'd blow a tire and roll and then it would be "game over". Car Wars reminds me of how my friends would want to start RPG campaigns, they'd write a scenario, I'd meet up with them to roll up characters, we'd all confer on what direction we'd like our characters to go in. Big Plans! Then we'd get one session in and never revisit again. So much front end, so little return.
What is missing from all of the games is the story and the world. While I love the action of Road Warrior, I also love the discoveries in the world around Max. I love the mythos. A man, his car, and a dog or man, his helicopter, and a snake.
One of my favorite post-apocalyptic movies is The Blood of Heroes. It's a crazy sports movie set in a post-apocalyptic world. No driving or shooting, hell they have to walk wherever they go. But, it is the story of the world that makes it so great. Where else do you get lines like:
"Two Juggers can't fuck after the game. It doesn't work. Unless you like to rub wounds against wounds."
"Lord Vile, I've broken Juggers in half, smashed their bones, left the ground behind me wet with brains. There's nothing I wouldn't do to win. But I never hurt anyone for any reason other than sticking a dog's skull on a stake."
None of the post-apocalyptic games that I know describe the setting through play. They just rely on tropes and set you off on a rampage.
So Dan and I started talking about what "someone" should make: A post-apocalyptic driver seat adventure game. A game where you drive around and shoot people, reveling in weapons porn, but also a game where you meet people on your journey, and see the world that is growing from the ashes. In addition, we wanted the story to be relevant to how you drive around and shoot people. In TotAN, it doesn't matter if you honor or beat the princess, the end result is random and has little to do with the logic of your choices. We wanted a way for you to control the way your character developed and for your strengths and weaknesses to change the outcomes of your encounters in logical ways. And I wanted a way for one player to be Lord Humongous and another player to be Dr. Zaius, one winning by brute force, the other by brains. So in our madness, knowing full well that no one else in their right mind would do it, we started creating this monster.
First, we came up with the world. The Cuban missile crisis went mushroom shaped. The game is set in the present (2010). Our big idea is that there wouldn't be any money, everything would have to be barter -- odd jobs and side missions earn credit for each settlement that you did work for. We were thinking about who would survive and start cities. We came up with 12 asymmetrical modular factions that could each fit into the system. In order to actually design the game, we chose four:
The Mutants - They see the Apocalypse as a work in progress.
The US Military - Captain America types that are looking to maintain order and stitch society back together.
The Scientists - Progress for progress sake. They make most of the tech of the world.
The Overmen - Beatific hedonistic Romanesque ubermen that have evolved from what once was. They are the first to tell you that you are a lesser creature. They have a "Think Tank" and want worthy humans to contribute their essentials to it.
Each of these four factions has a town on the map. You need to tool around in your vehicle to get to the towns, you will encounter wilderness adventures (crazy stuff in the wilds, monsters, or weather). When you get closer to a town you encounter their specific adventures to their outskirts or in town the kinds of adventures change. Through these cards you meet some of the other factions (Talking Apes, Hyperbrain, Cult of the Cog, etc). Often times you will encounter a scenario, and you can decide how you want to handle the situation using your different skills then you see if you succeed or not. These choices and/or successes lead to different results from each piece of nanofiction.
As you achieve various things throughout your story you can manipulate how your character turns out by adjusting his or her stats when they level up: make him tough and drive well; have her full of guile, but cruel; make him ugly and mutated with crazy robot parts but with brains. Each thing you do has its advantages (and sometimes disadvantages). And the result of what you do, yields a local conclusion, so if you go into a situation shooting, you'll probably get injured if you fail, if you try to swindle someone and blow it, they get pissed and steal stuff, etc.
The other main concern that I had was downtime. Titan is great when you play head to head, but when two other players are sitting around twiddling their thumbs as two guys are playing a mini war game, downtime rears its ugly mug. We wanted the combat system to be fun and furious, but also quick. So when you shoot someone, you see where they are on a simple weapon matrix, it is a simple check and your fingers crossed and you end up with explosive results. There are no hit points in the game. Rather you just blow stuff off your car. Do you lose the armor that is making you harder to hit, or do you lose your weapon to hit back? Do you let your passenger get hit, or your precious cargo?
Whatever you lose is a tough call, you physically have to fit stuff in your vehicle, so the guy that wants to make a ton of credit by delivering stuff, may just have to make themselves an easier target and lose their weapons and armor.
There is a lot of Hamblen in this. There is some Merchant of Venus in the market system, and there is some Gunslinger in the combat system. He is one of the greatest game designers, and I tip my hat to him
Over the last three years it has undergone massive changes. In the beginning we threw everything in figuring that we'd cut what was absolutely necessary. What we ended up with was a pretty good, 14 hour SPI game. That was unacceptable. So we made the board smaller pulled some control rods out and created a decent classic Avalon Hill game. Too bad it is the 21 century. After several iterations, we have a game that experienced gamers can play in 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hours and still get the full experience.
I'm really happy with the results. I mean, there is so much satisfaction in lining you up with my Napalm Launcher and letting her rip.