A little a while ago I started to get into "real" board games. Like many people my first game was Settlers of Catan, which I actually have some design beefs with. Nothing major, just not exactly my type of game. Formula D is a pretty fun sort of slot-racer board game that is surprisingly strategic for how simple it is. Then, I found out about Pandemic, which is just bleeding with amazing game design decisions and elegance, which I will definitely write about sometime in the near future.
On a trip to the local overpriced board games shop I spotted Cosmic Encounter, which received glowing reviews on BGG and overlapped my group's general sci-fi interest pretty closely. I picked up the awesomely large box and brought it over to our next game night, and after a few hours of rule-reading and playing we finally worked out what was going on, and fell in love with this game.
First, a quick overview of the game, so everyone can see where I'm coming from on this. This is not meant to illustrate how interesting and compelling the game is, just to communicate a basic understanding of the rules, which is somewhat necessary for the rest of this article to make ANY sense whatsoever.
Cosmic Encounter is a competitive/co-operative multiplayer board game, not entirely unlike Risk (or Lux, for iPhone users). However, almost immediately major differences start to become obvious. In Cosmic Encounter, each player has 5 planets that comprise their territory. The goal is to get at least 5 of the opponents' planets to win (rather than ALL of the planets). These planets are almost more like resources than a map or terrain though, as their positions or locations are moot. There are no geographical tactics.
On top of that, much of what one might call "control" has been excised from the game's turns. This is where the game gets very interesting. Players don't get to choose which planet to attack, they draw a Destiny Card instead. And they don't get to choose which of the 50 alien races they are going to be, they draw 2 cards at random and then pick the one that they prefer. This flies very much in the face of what we anticipate from modern video game design. In Command & Conquer the player picks the one army that they want to play, in TF2 players pick the one class out of twelve that they feel like playing, etc.
And piled on top of that are the innumerable hidden, unpredictable variables that can affect any given encounter. So not only does the Destiny Card tell the player who to engage, but when they do engage them the chances of planned, strategic success for just that encounter are pretty low. This is due first to the fact that each of the 50 alien races plays completely differently, including being allowed to cheat, trading cards with the attacking player, winning if they have fewer ships, tripling their ships in any engagement, removing destroyed ships from the game permanently, and so on. It is further complicated by the fact that at any given time, each player has an average of maybe 8 cards in their hand, many of which have such unpredictable effects as "you cancel everything" or "everyone gets all of their ships back now".
In summary, from the very second you slide the lid off the box you have no idea what is going to happen at any given moment of the entire game.
Aside from the obvious replay benefits, that sounds pretty dismal, doesn't it? Like Mario Party or some other casual game (usually with the word "Mario" in front) where they have leveled the playing field against skillful, strategic players by introducing piles of random elements to the playing field. It's a fine line, but that's not really what's happening here... Sticking to Nintendo franchises, Cosmic Encounter is more like Super Smash Bros. (and its Melee sequel). The random elements are introduced to force you to improvise, to encourage and reward constant fluidity over a static, memorized, rehearsed strategy.
"Do not be tense, just be ready, not thinking but not
dreaming, not being set but being flexible. It is being "wholly" and quietly
alive, aware and alert, ready for whatever may come."
Ok, so that's a sign of good game design, that's fine. But what the Bruce, Cosmic Encounter, and Super Smash Bros. are all explaining to us is that the illusion of control can lead to false expectations of strategic success. The best laid plans of mice and men, etc. We as game developers are all in a position where our fates rest in the hands of publishers, distributors, customers, service providers, and marketing teams. Control is not something that any developer has in abundance. If one cannot control whether or not their project will sell well, or whether or not they will keep their job, what can one do? How does one embody flexibility and fluidity with deadlines and milestones?
Assume that any project one engages in has a significant likelihood of being a complete financial failure. Therefore, only work on projects that have lasting benefits outside of monetary success.
Any given project I take on from week to week (or, increasingly, month to month) must include more than one of the following:
Knowledge Bonus: Working on this project exposes you to new art styles, new APIs, new languages, or other new segments of development.
Experience Bonus: Working on this project adds a bullet point to your resume.
Skill Bonus: Working on this project not only exposes you to some new chunk of knowledge but also yields a new development skill (e.g. database design, basic 3D modeling, etc).
Network Bonus: Whether you're working for a new client, with a new artist, or with a coder or producer from a different department, you're meeting new people and making new friends. This is good both personally and professionally!
Horizon Bonus: This project otherwise expands your development and design horizons in some significant way (your first racing game, exposure to a new film genre, etc).
If you are able to acquire these bonuses, even if you lose the battle you have not lost the war, and you will be better equipped to survive the next skirmish.
Finally, as if this wasn't long-winded and rambly enough, there is a corollary/modifier to that axiom about financial failure, which is:
Your likelihood of losing an engagement is inversely proportional to the number of alternate strategies that you have devised.
If you go to a duel and your gun jams, it can't hurt to have a backup! Broaden and diversify your skill base, so that when the client list tightens up, or senior management starts trimming the fat, you are indispensable. My first boss used to call this "being a Swiss Army knife." To be fair, being a Swiss Army knife won't guarantee you the big paychecks all the time, but it will guarantee normal paychecks all the time, which is a good start.