Renegade Designer Diary

 

Renegade is the fulfilment of a dream. There were two other significant steps along the way. The first was Box of Delights, my YouTube board game channel, and the second was Mentis, my first published game. Renegade is the one where I get a fully-fledged designer board game with my name on the box.

You will hack into a network of five servers, each of which is operated by one of four Super-Massive-Computers (SMCs). Each of these four SMCs bring their own style of defences and increasing complexity to defeat. Once you are hacked into an SMC’s servers, you will control an avatar that can move across the its partitions and fight to take control of the network by using informational, destructive, deceptive and cognitive attacks.

As followers of Box of Delights, I invited you to watch the game develop, with some designer diaries. I have collected them here for you again. I hope you enjoy this retrospective....

PART 1 – The Beginning

Renegade began life in early 2011. Yes, I know, nearly quite a few years ago. But oh, it has come a long way since then !

In 2011 it wasn’t a game about hacking in a cyberpunk future. No it was about hacking with sword and horse in dark ages England. Why the big leap ? We’ll come to that shortly…

One of the biggest lessons to learn, or perhaps hurdle to overcome, is throwing away lots of hard work. But I can tell you there is a lot of hard work in the bin. Well, I fished some of it out and put it away in a drawer, because there is still an Anglo-Saxons game in me wrestling to get out!

The evolution was actually simpler than you might imagine. I’ll tell you about the development of the game mechanics in a moment, but the short answer to the theme change is “because the publisher asked for it.” That’s right. When it comes to developing your game, expect your beautiful and cherished design to get pulled apart and put back together to make it more appealing to the market.

There is a market for medieval, but there is a bigger gap in the market for cyberpunk-hacker. And it worked. There were many challenges with the re-theme, primarily because the game started life with theme-first / mechanics second. That’s how I like to approach it. I know what I want my game to be about and then the mechanisms that drive home the theme come along.

So, for example, my starting remit was “Briton, through the dark ages from 410-1066 AD”. And now we develop the design.

England, at the time, was divided into a heptarchy – seven kingdoms. There was no England. England was born from these seven kingdoms and the struggles of their kings to expand their influence and unite the heptarchy into a single dominion.

During the re-theme those seven kingdoms became five, and a kingdom instead become a

computer Server. Each kingdom was divided into 3 to 6 regions. These regions became the 6 partitions we see now on the 5 servers in Renegade. Those numbers became important to me. They gave me a baseline to work to, and a way to scale the game, not just for the sake of game-play, but also for the sake of economics. What you’ll find is that when I designed the Anglo-Saxon game, the number 7 came out as a common denominator: 7 kingdoms, 28 regions, 49 britons, 7 game phases. The game ended up being called “Seofan”, Anglo-Saxon for “seven”. You can still find it on BGG, and a vassal module was created for it if you want to play. In Renegade the common denominator is five: 5 servers, 25 sparks, 15 command cards, 5 installations of 5 different types, 1-4 players (!) – shoot ! Well, there’s room for a 5th player expansion…

But the Anglo-Saxon game had problems. Number one, it was long. Six hours to play ?! It was an egotistic project that would never see production.

 

So, in came the knife, and I started to slash and dice and take away everything that drove the game to take a long time without giving a lot to the game experience. The worse part was a deck of 60 “event” cards, which I had invested hours/days/weeks in research so that the game told the story of 600 years of English history. I’m taking away the back-bone of the game!

 

The game, I always knew, had to be playable solitaire or co-operatively, with no traitor element, no semi-co-op. This is the area I want to play in, so it makes sense to design something you’re going to want to play yourself, right ? I wanted to incorporate mechanisms I enjoy from other games: push-your-luck, hand-management, deck-building, area-control, action-point systems. But I wanted to combine them in a new way. In 2011 it really did feel like a new way ! My game wasn’t going to be all euro, or all thematic. It wasn’t going to fit into an existing genre. It wasn’t going to be just another average game.

 

I wanted it to be new. I wanted it to be unlike anything else. I wanted it to be something I’d want to keep in my collection. I hope that’s where we have ended up. It feels like the game I wanted it to be, so I’m still feeling positive. Better than that, I still want to get it on the table and played! I hope you will too.

So, for example, how do I approach the deck-building mechanic and make it feel different ? Well, let’s make sure that when we get new cards they don’t go to a discard pile, let’s make them available straight away in your hand. Nice. Tick to the one thing I wanted from a deck-builder. (I know other games have since done this, but hey, I was putting this together 4 years ago). Next, I don’t want all that shuffling. Let’s not start with a small deck and make it bigger, then have to work to cut away the chaff from it. Let’s stick with a fixed deck of 20 cards (soon to become 15 as the streamlining knife got to work!) that you can swap cards in and out of, so it’s always 20 cards. A fixed deck meant I knew, as the designer, how many rounds it would take to get through the day, and I could better control game length and flow. Okay, now we’re getting somewhere !

Now we have a deck, what does that deck do for you ? It gives you the power to influence the board ! I found a winning combination. Yes, I know, other games have done this since…. Trains was one of the first, then I saw Asgard’s Chosen, and I’m sure there have been more. It’s funny how designers tend to come up with the same ideas at the same time. Another thing to get used to as a designer: whatever you think of , there’s a good chance someone else is thinking it too! But, as we stand, fingers crossed, Renegade has still put a combination of mechanisms together in such a way that we have not seen before.

So to the board. It started life as a map of England, with the seven kingdoms. We saw event cards driving events that placed our enemies and had them causing uprisings ; Britons and invading Vikings who we were fighting to gain [area] control of the towns in those kingdoms.

The Britons are now “sparks”, the computer’s countermeasures. They still feel like little armies, but oh, they are so much more threatening as Renegade Countermeasures than they were as farming, trading, preaching Britons. Now they are driven by AI, they clump together, they spread out, they swarm, they flood, they attack and explode.

And now we hit the re-theme challenges. Many of the mechanisms from the Anglo-Saxons game were driven by the theme. They just didn’t make sense anymore. The enemy units had to behave in this way, because “vikings invaded from the sea” or “oppression leads to uprisings”. And so the mechanisms we see in Renegade today are but a faint shadow of what they were in the Anglo-Saxon game. Viruses have to

infect, deceptive attacks have to alter behaviours, cognitive attacks have to seek to influence & control, information has to allow you to access systems more easily. These thematic changes drove the mechanism changes that give us the list of actions and contaminants we can use today (or possibly late 2015!) as renegade hackers.

But this was only the start. We were crafting ideas and mechanisms, but we need the game to have structure, winning conditions, losing conditions; we had to take away, alter, streamline, adapt to make it feel like we, as players, are actually hackers, solving a problem and fighting an intelligent enemy.

Next time I’ll talk more about how the re-theme made the game, and how I approached some of the problems board game designing throws at you….

PART 2 – The Theme

Last time I talked about the re-theme and how this meant some changes had to be made. I had to throw myself into this new [to me] world of hackers and cyberpunk. It wasn’t a complete mystery to me. I’m a computer programmer by trade, so I know the jargon, I know how to write code, I can hold my own in a conversation. But the key is getting that feel into the game. Players need to feel like they are hackers. This needs to come through strongly. And this is where it’s not just a case of telling a good story, but it means the mechanisms of the game need to fit with the mechanics of that world. This is what sets “thematic” games apart from pure “strategy” games (like abstracts and “euros”).

But the flip-side is that thematic games also allow you to mess with the rules much more. They allow you to make exceptions, corner cases and strange interactions just because they ‘feel right’.  This is also the fun in developing thematic designs. You are trying to model behaviours through mechanics and in doing so you are creating this unique construct, like a new toy, a new life-form. To some extent it is like being a ‘programmer’.

 

My research was wide and varied. I tended towards the more “noir” side of cyberpunk. This research showed me to literary works like William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Philip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and the graphic novel Transmetropolitan.

It also meant I got to watch some  old movies like Blade Runner, Tron and The Matrix as well as see a young Angelina Jolie in the 1985 film Hackers.

I was getting to grips with the story, and making changes to the game. I wanted to keep the core ideas the same. We had a deck-builder that gave you access to actions which allowed you to modify the game state.

But the detail on what the individual actions did, what mechanisms were used to ‘buy’ new cards, even the game’s winning and losing conditions, all began to evolve. And as I worked with VPG developer Tylar Allinder, heeding his advice on things like game-length, learning curve for new players, how much complexity was too much or just enough, Renegade suddenly became a game I felt proud of. It felt slicker, more playable,  like a game that other people would want to play.

The rules are still on the more complex-side, certainly for a VPG game. So, at the advice of Tylar and the VPG development team, I was tasked with finding an easy way into the game for newcomers. So began work on the “simulator”. I’ll leave you with some pictures and the narrative that introduces a “walkthrough” for new players…

 

“Listen up Prospects. You’re looking at the RS20, a simulator designed by Renegade Black Agents. These guys are ex-corp, so they know what it takes to bring down the SMCs. They’ve created three countermeasures to challenge your skills. Each is harder than the last, from copper, through silver to gold. This is no picnic for no posers. If you fail at ANY stage then you must restart the simulation.

“I’ve put all the dirtboys and wireheads every dark corner of this city can throw at us through this sim. We’ve been scraping the barrel looking for a new wave of recruits. It’s like zero-hour in a puppet-parlor up here and folks are losing hope. But someone seems to think you guys are something special. 

 

“But let me warn you… only the best will make it through gold and be able to call themselves ‘Renegade’. Attempt to streak through the SMCs without the proper tools and the proper training and you’ll be nothing but a chalk outline. And you’d better pay attention to the restrictions each countermeasure imposes on you. We don’t want you guys makin’ like Ronin and trying to cheat the system. Not unless it gets our say-so. Using techniques prohibited by the sim’s countermeasures will result in immediate, IMMEDIATE, disqualification. So listen closely to your instructors and do as they say.

“Last piece of advice: when you reach gold, you should visit the Bar in Renegade City to trade for better tools at every opportunity. Pro‘ps aren’t normally allowed in the Bar, but we have a special ‘arrangement’, call it a ‘bribe’, that you be allowed entry once you’ve made it through the first two simulations. Use this opportunity, because this dispensation costs the Renegade fixers heavy each time we run the training programme. Go careful in there. Every dirty rotten perp and street leech is gonna pick you out the crowd if you go in there looking like some wide-eyed monkey. Use your skills, use your training, and try to fit in. Good luck Prospects. See you on the other side!”, [Rupert Stanz, Ace Renegade First Class]

PART 3 – Reaching the Final Design

Last time I talked about the re-theme and the development of a story. This was just the beginning of the new game. Immersing myself in the worlds of William Gibson and Warren Ellis set the scene, but it also helped me create the game.

 

I told you how the core mechanics were the heart of the game – a deck of cards that empowered you to act out changes on a modular board, with pieces that evolved and each had special powers. Now everything had to fit the new theme, and that meant throwing away 90% of the guts of the game and re-writing everything. The core mechanics were the framework, they were the “idea”, but they were not the game.

The worst outcome would be a game that felt like the theme was “pasted-on”. So, the design aspects that fleshed out the framework hadto be thrown away. Okay, they are in a drawer waiting to find a new framework to work around, but fundamentally they just weren’t going to be useful any more. Things had to radically change.

And this is where new framework ideas also came along, some of these directly influenced by the Development team Victory Point Games put in place. For example, a player’s units became double-sided and commands could “flip” them (i.e. they could be reprogrammed to perform a different function); player profiles were given a special command that only they could run and which influenced they way they were played, giving each of them a unique flavour; the SMC countermeasures were given their own AI to make them more dynamic instead of static forces locked in what were towns.

The theme itself gives a game life and allows card effects to “make sense”. For example, we could introduce a Trojan Horse (a well known computer concept), but how does a Trojan Horse behave? Let’s create an effect that replicates this behaviour, a behaviour that only makes sense because it’s a Trojan Horse. So now the theme drives the development of the design, and is no longer “pasted on”.

One of the most fun parts was giving all the Advanced Command Cards special abilities that made sense only in the context of a Renegade hacker. Initially only a few had special abilities. But finally all cards were developed and evolved to become the “Execute” effects of the advanced cards. They became a focus of my design because this was one area of the game where players got the most enjoyment – the specials “broke the rules” and empowered players.

As the countermeasure cards became more difficult and the SMCs became more aggressive, I had to increase the capabilities of the players, otherwise the game became too difficult. And this is where the game finally started to shine as an immersive experience. Players became more engaged with their developing deck, their character’s development, with the variability of the setup, the order of cards dealt, the variety of card combinations, and the different behaviours of the enemy opponents, that created a unique gaming experience each time they played.

But, of course, this variability creates lots of problems for the designer! It means ensuring all combinations of effects work together, and work in all situations. I remember one effect that allowed players to recover cards from their discard piles, but this soon ended up on the cutting-room floor as it created infinite loops that would crash the game completely. Likewise, there were certain setups that made one player profile stronger than another, so adjustments had to be made to balance out those corner cases. It was a long long road of playing and playing until I was sick of the game and couldn’t face it any more…… How could anyone love this game if I am getting sick of the sight of it ??!

Then something crazy happened. Those minutiae, the refinement of player profiles, the balancing of the difficulty, the need to cut back from a deck of 50 different advanced cards to a list of just the best 20, the streamlining of all exception cases in the ruleset, suddenly they hit a critical point. All the chaos suddenly resonated together to create a beautiful symmetry, a harmony of logic, that made me sit back and smile and say, “It’s ready”. And not only is it ready, I am no longer sick of it. Suddenly I wanted to play the game again and again and wonder how it all came about. Suddenly Renegade became a game I felt proud of and can’t wait to share.

Sure, it’s more of a heavy-weight. Sure, it has lots of familiar concepts with new levels of complexity. But have we seen all these things working together in such harmony before? For sure this game will not be for everyone. But have I created a game that I want to play? This is the question I set out to answer and which is where we have ended up. I’m proud to hand this over to Victory Point Games who, more than ever, I know will deliver a game with the right rules, the right components, comprehensively tested and made for the kind of gamer I am and the kind of gamer that will love this game. I can’t wait to show it to you….

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