Journey Home Dev Update #2: Back to the Drawing Board. Literally.

I promised I would write a blog update once a month on Journey Home (previously). I lied. LIED. I’m a total liar.

Something went terribly wrong, creatively, so I don’t have much to show for my last few months. I took a little time recently to unpack what happened before trying to figure out how to fix it.

What went wrong:

  • I spent too much time in the planning stage, and not enough time in the implementation stage. Normally my side projects have a one-page design doc to work off of and I go right into development. This time I have pages and pages of brainstorms and action items, an excel doc with so many unique tabs, and even a trello schedule I tried setting up. Instead of making the game clearer in my head, it became this massive, unwieldy thing I couldn’t keep track of.
  • I still didn’t know if the game was going to be fun, and whether whole systems I was designing were going to be thrown out. I was afraid to spend the time it would take to prototype these systems (since it required coding knowledge I still don’t have) so I took even more time in planning to try to figure out which of those systems to keep or toss.
  • I attempted to prototype a whole game, rather than make a manageable ‘vertical slice’. All my systems were too integrated that I couldn’t identify the core to create. I couldn’t figure out how to strip it down to something manageable.
  • The game is still not playable. Even now I do not have a working prototype. To be fair, I have a Ren’Py project and a decent amount of coding with something you can click through, but it’s not representative of the gameplay at all.

The longer I went without making a playable version of the game, the bigger the task weighed on me and the less interest I had in the project. This is like a standard list of advice for newbie game designers on what not to do. It kind of goes to show you that even when you have plenty of experience making games you can still fall into the standard traps. My design was completely derailed.

I’m writing about this now because I figured out a way to get back on track.

A few weeks ago I played Eldritch for the first time. It’s a cooperative board game with a lot of pieces, cards and complex systems where players travel the world, discover clues, collect allies and items, and try to prevent the awakening of an Elder One. It took a good five hours before we lost.

I realized something during that game: Journey Home would work really well in that medium since it shares a lot of similar mechanics. Eldritch isn’t the first board game like this that I’ve played, but for some reason I didn’t connect the dots until now. Maybe because I took a long enough break from Journey Home that I could look at it with fresh eyes. Maybe I needed a game as good as Eldritch (it’s really good!) that is always wonderfully complex (lots of if-then statements in cards) to get the ideas rolling in my head.

So I am changing direction a bit and going to adapt my work as a board game – for now. This will help me identify systems more clearly and how they interact with one another and prototype them rapidly in a playable medium. My documentation has shrunk back down to one page again and I can skip the coding that tripped me up in favor of some paper rules a human can follow. I’ve never built a board game before (with one awful exception that shall go unnamed), so in some ways this is new enough territory that I am not falling back on bad habits.

Here’s a bit of progress I’ve made on the board game version. I am keeping it simple right now by making my cards out of the backs of old business cards, and will migrate to better supplies once I run out.

devupdateJourney Home, version 0.1

Some of the pieces I’ve made:

  • Player tokens to represent movement through the jungles
  • Tiles players pull as they explore, representing Jungle, River, or Cave environments
  • Explore Deck, high risk/reward for discovering new environments
  • Forage Deck, low risk/reward for exploring within a previously discovered environment
  • Event Deck, which is probably best called “Catastrophes”. These are new events each round that stack up against the players. They can try to resolve them to get rid of the negative effect, or ignore them, but the longer you play the more catastrophes stack up.
  • Conditions Deck, issues that can effect allies such as poisoned or cannibal
  • Item Deck, low-medium quality items that give bonuses, such as a gun to combat
  • Artifact Deck, high quality items that require skill checks to ‘unlock’ with high risk/reward
  • Character Sheets, with rough ideas on what skills or stats I want in the game (Strength, Survival, Speed, Influence, Lore, Faith, and Health)

Balancing is non-existent. I’m just curious right now about the cadence of play, and am inventing the skill checks and pass/fail scenarios in my head as I step through it. My next goal is to start penciling in those stats onto the cards. Just doing this barebones board game has helped identify a lot of problems – What does it mean to “move” through a space? How long does a catastrophe last? How does the player win or lose? Is it compelling to play in the long run, or does it just get harder and harder until you fail?

I’ve never really done paper prototyping before since I don’t think it’s very useful in the kind of games I normally make – either interactive fiction with minimal systems, or large AAA games that can’t really be distilled into a board game. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Journey Home is my attempt at a system-centric game and it translates so well to the board game medium.

With that said, I’m going to link to one of my favorite GDC talks, Soren Johnson’s “A Study in Transparency: How Board Games Matter“.