Voidfall Design Spotlight #11

The Last Development Update of 2021

2022. April 07.

Hi everyone, David here. It's been a while since I typed up the development directions in the middle of Essen spiel. As you can imagine, we have not been laying around since, but working hard at streamlining, bringing the competitive and the cooperative ruleset closer together, and making headways on the balance of the crazy amounts of asymmetric and map-specific content Voidfall is going to have.

To give you perspective, the rules the TTS module has we call v2.9.5… the people who played at Essen saw v2.10, and the Dev update was about v2.11. The version we handed over to Ian for complete UI integration this morning was numbered v2.13.2. So as you can imagine: I've got a lot to bring you up to speed on.

Voidfall has been full of multiple motivations, forcing you to choose between equally exciting benefits, but in the end, it will always come down to Influence - which are basically victory points. Thus, whenever one option seemed lackluster, we peppered it with some motivational Influence bonus. Each agenda needed to feel good to keep working on, so each step on them needed to give an appropriate amount of influence too… so all in all, the ways to score influence kept increasing in the game, and even more annoyingly the amount players could score kept increasing.

A few weeks ago we hit a point where our expert testers could come 3rd with a score of 600+ influence. At that point, we felt this had gone too far, and decided to at least halve the amount of points in the game. Easier said than done - we had agendas scoring for population, we had overproduction giving 1 influence for every second wasted resource, etc. Things were not easy to halve, but we buckled down and did the deed, redesigning a few scoring conditions along the way - we found scoring for sectors with something like a shipyard in them is often more exciting than scoring for just multitudes of shipyards. Going one step up on an agenda became a bigger deed, and scoring a 20 influence turn felt better than before when anything between a 2 to 100 influence turn was possible.

And while we were at it, we streamlined a few things a bit more:

🌠 Everything map-related now requires pure sectors (i.e. sectors with no Corruption in them) when scoring influence on agendas or events

🌠 Focus actions very rarely have "OR"s, and civ track rewards absolutely never do - this helped the UI and the "too tiny icons" issues too.

All images are prototype components, and not representative of final graphics

🌠 To effectively halve and simplify overproduction, the rule is now "Gain 1 Influence if you overproduced at least 2 resources, or 3 Influence if you overproduced at least 8". No summing up and halving required anymore.

🌠 We simplified Upkeep a lot: Agendas have 2 rather than 3, and sectors (reduced to 3 installation spaces) have an upkeep icon near their last installation and last guild space. If you fill those spaces, that's one more upkeep. Boom, no more upkeep scattered everywhere (Technologies, Capital fleets, Installations, Credit Guilds). Techs we have balanced by making the previously Upkeep-free ones now have better immediate effects, and Capital Fleets like Dreadnoughts now have a per-fleet power deploy cost shown on their corresponding tech. The Upkeep cost of shipyards and credit guilds have essentially and visually been folded into the "full sector" concept. This also allowed us to remove the pesky "max 2 shipyards" rule, which was annoyingly not represented visually anywhere. So now your upkeep is 10-14, instead of the previous 20-30, and you have to count them from much fewer places - thus allowing us to remove the upkeep track from the UI, which was rarely used in practice anyway. We obviously doubled the price of satisfying the upkeep to keep the food economy intact.

All images are prototype components, and not representative of final graphics

🌠 The demos in Essen showed that the single most misunderstood rule was the "you may use 1 credit per action to pay a supply cost". We really wanted to change it to "you can use credits as supplies at any point except Upkeep", and having removed the upkeep from Credits guild (but keeping its beneficial scoring on the starting agendas) we were looking for an elegant weakening to credits that would allow us to make the wildcard use less restricted. The solution was to roughly halve the production wheel of credits (essentially a credit guild in a 5 population sector produces 2 credits instead of 4), with the production maximized at 8, instead of 15. We had to introduce a few more ways to trigger credit production, but all in all, it worked out great, and no extra rules required - besides the fact that credits don't substitute for science, but we're reinforcing this with swapping them on the production dial tile (and writing iconography on it).

All images are prototype components, and not representative of final graphics

In my previous design update, I mentioned the concept of the Threat track, a tool to track how “pissed” the Voidborn was with each player, influencing their combat decisions. It worked, but it just didn't feel exciting enough, feeling like just another track to manage. We tried with random Threat tokens for a while (essentially you get a delayed punishment like more upkeep or time costs, or a Voidborn combat "bonus" against you), but we couldn't get the point where the intended effect was big enough for situations that needed it, and small enough for other people early in their game curves to not get splattered in the face by them. So we made a change: the corruption on the sector you conquer stays there (until you remove it), and we decided to rework the rewards for invading, instead of leaving them high and punishing you for them.

We really needed this anyway, as halving the liberation bonus (pure sectors X invaded population if corrupted) was not trivial, and the "unless" causes (with the addition of triumph bonus I explained last time) we're starting to get big enough to fill their own player aid.
So we went back to the drawing board on how to give influence for conquest, motivate bigger sectors better, and motivate PvP against the stronger opponents -- all in one system.

After a couple of false starts and intense three-way back and forth between lead designer Nigel, lead developer Viktor, and myself in the middle, we figured a solution we're finally all happy with:

🌠 At setup, Voidborn sectors get a face-up Glory token. As a rule of a thumb, it is showing 1 Influence less than the population of the sector.

🌠 When you invade a sector, you take all tokens (Bounty, Reclaim, Glory) from them. You resolve the former two and keep the Glory on your player board.

All images are prototype components, and not representative of final graphics

🌠 Then you score Influence equal to ALL your Glory tokens - including the one(s) you just took, and you do this even if you invaded a sector without a Glory token (like a Fallen House).

🌠 The only exception to the rule is if you invade another player's sector: in that case, you score all THEIR Glory tokens instead of your own -- motivating you to attack the player "most successful" in gaining Glory until then.

🌠 If you lose a sector for any reason, you discard a Glory token of your choice. This stops people from rapidly abandoning less worthy sectors, and also reduces the target painted on the forehead of a player who was attacked by another since each subsequent attack will score less.

We've also tested a number of "catch-up" mechanisms helping you get your lost sector back (starting from the Resistance token I've mentioned last time), but none of them affected the game enough to justify the added rule complexity and the devolving nature of back-and-forth.

As a great side effect of this change, the Sector conquest itself actually became a lot more streamlined, since you are reminded by tokens on the sector of literally every step you need to take during the resolution.

The above two changes (no threat, halved influence values) left us with two big problems:

🌠 The Voidborn became almost completely a non-issue especially thematically, just sitting there as a neutral strength to overcome.

🌠 Sector defences became pointless in competitive, especially on big, peaceful maps - they took space away from shipyards, they were worth almost no influence (since they were one of the smallest before, half of them was basically nothing), and PvP only mattered late game and mostly on the medium-to-small maps.

The big breakthrough was theme-inspired - why don't the Voidborn do a skirmish every now and then in the competitive game, in the same vein as in the coop? The obvious big question was whom to attack (Influence leader? Corruption leader? Corruption trailer?), because unlike in coop, we don't have crisis cards to use to "pick a target".

Our favored solution was to attack everybody, once, at the beginning of each evaluation phase (before paying upkeep and scoring agendas). In co-op, the Void board's state determines how many Voidborn fleet power attacks you, so we needed a way to determine that too -- and our solution integrated neatly with the above changes (that tightened corruption on the sectors): each corruption on your player board adds one Voidborn fleet to the skirmishing force.

Then of course we backported this to coop, reduced the strength on the Void board, and made the rule to be strength track + corruption on your board there.

This means that everyone who has any corruption on their player board and/or are low on combat techs are vulnerable to even one or two fleet power skirmishes. So naturally, playtesters started gravitating towards the previously underused sector defenses. Ultimately it's all about scoring Influence, but it was a huge triumph to motivate something this central with a thematically sound self-interest, and not by saying "we'll give you 5 influence if you do it".

On the subject of corruption on your player board… last time I showed 4 corruption spaces on agendas, and 2 on technologies. First of all, we removed the corruption slot from the starting agenda, because not scoring that one is usually a huge setback. Then, at first we changed the "one corruption per two tech slots'' thing to one corruption for each technology, except your starting one, and unified the rules between techs and agendas:

🌠 Corrupt cards don't work (no scoring, no trade route slot, no ability) - but you never lose them.

🌠 You cannot replace a corrupt card (with another agenda or an improved tech, respectively).

🌠 You cannot place a card in a corrupt empty space.

This system still had a few shortcomings. First, there were now 7 corruption slots on your board, and about 4 of them were "no harm" early game, while the other 3 you'd never corrupt since you get a worse skirmish AND a disabled card for it.

We tried to improve it by rejigging the rule, and saying that only the "empty" slots generate skirmish strength - but it created a progressively weakening Voidborn, and a bit of a nightmare UI.

Finally, we realized "what happens if I disable tech X" was a gold mine of arbitrary FAQ rulings, since some of them aren't simple passive abilities (check Ark Ships, Purification, or any of the improved Fleet types to see what I mean). At this point, we decided to let go of the Corrupted Techs concept.

We reached back all the way to the original idea of the Afflictions - but we remembered why only one of them worked well before: two *stopped you* from doing something, while the 3rd cost you efficiency. So we knew whatever penalty we give must be an efficiency loss, and not a "you cannot do this".

I'm happy to report that half a dozen plays this past week confirm our current plan:

🌠 3 corruption slots on the non-starting agendas, working exactly as outlined above.

🌠 3 corruption slots paired with the 3 civilization tracks. While a track is corrupted, you don't gain a reward for advancing it (but you can still advance it), and its Tiers (new name for Eras) don't score for agendas/objectives.

🌠 Each corruption on these 6 spaces count as 1 fleet power to all skirmishes.

That's it, no exceptions, no complicated "am I allowed to do this" moments, and all of these rules are 100% shared between the coop and the competitive modes.

At this point, we got a bit high on succeeding, and asked ourselves what else could we simplify that wouldn't make the game less interesting ("dumber"). The newest member of our Dev team, Mihály Vincze (whom some of you might know from being my co-designer on Days of Ire: Budapest 1956) wrote a list of all "smarts" in the game, and we ranked them by relevance. Then we looked at the ones near the bottom of the list, and checked their rules overhead.

Time cost has been a sore spot for a long time. It stayed with us from a much earlier version, where being first in turn order was much more important. It didn't matter in co-op, creating the only major rule difference between the two systems. And it was tied to the event selection, a system that was TOO impactful for experts, but appeared like a bafflingly fake choice for newbies. We didn't want to switch to random events, so at first we tried to bring time cost into coop, and while it technically worked, it came with a raised complexity (if you exceeded a certain time threshold, the Voidborn reinforced its rifts more).
Then, as we completed the upteenth pass of making every focus card as interesting and as feel-good as possible, we realized the effectiveness gap between the highest and the lowest time cost Focus card simply didn't justify a near-guaranteed giving up on the event picking.

Plus, our fanciest Focus card, Temptation kept giving us headaches. As many of you correctly pointed out in my previous article, recalling focus cards got rid of our only reliable way of counting how many turns have players taken/whose turn it was. One reader on BGG suggested swapping focus cards (putting the swapped card face down, so the time cost doesn't count), and we enthusiastically set out to test this - unfortunately in practice the face-down card was visually confusing, and choosing WHICH card to give up to get another card back was a completely arbitrary decision, until you realized two turns later that you screwed up big time and you now for example can't build anything this cycle.

Lastly, because the cycles are now almost always 4-5 rounds (6 only happens in cycle 3, rarely), simply there was not enough time to efficiently play a focus, recall/swap it back, and then play it again. So most people were simply using recall/swap to get their Politics or Innovation back (the ones with highest time cost) to meet the time requirement in coop, or jump ahead in turn order in competitive.

This made the whole system feel exceedingly self-serving, so we took a deep breath and decided to get rid of it entirely. To do that, we had to fix a few more issues:

🌠 If time costs are going completely, what determines the turn order? This was easy to fix: in ascending Influence order, each player picks a turn order position at the beginning of the 2nd and 3rd cycle.

🌠 Okay, but who picks the event? We decided to be okay with a random event on cycle 1 (since it's near impossible for an informed choice at that point, plus making event choice be the first thing a new player does is very unfriendly), and then allowed the players (via Temptation's new Voidsight action) to manipulate the event deck, to ensure that an event favoring them is on top when a new one is to be revealed.

🌠 But without the promise of "a cool action" players were not eager to use the Voidsight, and they simply used the other two actions of Temptation. Plus, we lost the copy/recall ability completely, making it even theoretically impossible to get 2 Technologies in the first cycle, or deploy twice in any cycle, or produce your supplies twice, etc. We remembered why we scrapped the "copy any action" effect a few versions ago (as I explained in the previous article), and decided the right way is to say "copy any action from this limited set". Since losing time costs meant losing priority cards, we briefly experimented this action to be "pick a priority card AND manipulate events" but it felt very out of place, and randomly unfair in availability.

🌠 We ended up coming up with the concept of "Favorite Focuses". Each house has (usually) 2 Focus icons printed on its House mat - and for the starting four houses one of these two is always Progress (to ease access to technologies), and the first action of Temptation is now "pick any one of those 6 actions, paying its cost AND manipulate events". This gives the ability to duplicate a few crucial bits without facing a "pick any of these 12-28 things", no additional systems, and an additional small lever to give houses their own identity.

All images are prototype components, and not representative of final graphics

We also reworked the crisis deck composition, focusing on composing by difficulty instead of by "type", allowing us to aim the challenge levels more precisely, gave small compensation for willingly suffering Catastrophes, and extra motivation for closing the rifts.
And we dove into the asymmetric houses, Zenor, Shiveus, Thegwyn, and Yarvek are looking pretty fine now, and we're actively working on Nervo and Marqualos. So maybe in a month or so I'll show you more about those houses… meanwhile, Ian is back behind his drawing board, incorporating the mountains of usability feedback we've collected during internal testing, and we're working hard to prepare the game first for closed testing running under Mihaly's watchful gaze, and once the new UI works and all houses are confirmed "not broken" for an eventual open TTS beta -- well before the end of the pledge manager, as promised.

That's all for now, take care, and don't let the Voidborn corrupt you!