Voidfall Design Spotlight #12

Wide across the galaxy - Developing the Houses of Voidfall Part I

2022. April 07.

Hello there, David here again! Another month has whizzed past us, and the team at Mindclash HQ has not let a single second of it go to waste.
The best news on the development changes front is that there is (almost) no news! The changes I outlined in December all held, and in early January we stamped the core rules as “final”, for both competitive and cooperative play. We let go of the final vestige of the old “time-based” turn order system: we removed the starting values from origin cards, letting the starting turn order be decided randomly, and providing a minor compensation, in the form of a different value starting Glory token. We continued to move around a few actions between the Focus cards, tweaking costs and returns, until we arrived at our current set of 9 Focus cards.

Remember, all images shown are prototypes. Ian O’Toole is working on a thorough update of the user interface, but none of these images reflect that yet.

This left us with two major tasks before we can ride off into the galactic sunset: the scenarios and the asymmetric balance. Let’s just say the former is going to take the better part of the next few months, but with the latter, we’re already in a very happy place, so it’s my pleasure to show you more about five of the ten asymmetric houses that will be in every copy of Voidfall.
We’ve tested the system of Preferred Focuses I mentioned last time, where each House has (usually) two Focus icons printed on their House cards - and it's these Focuses they can choose to resolve one action from via the top action of Temptation. We liked this system quite a bit, and even redesigned a few technologies around it, to allow the players to be excited to lean into the strengths of their House even more.

Since the Focus cards’ identities have been strengthened you feel your options being different based on whether you have the option to cheaply establish guilds or installations an additional time like House Cortozaar, or deploy Fleet Power to your countless Shipyards like House Dunlork, or even attack for more Glory like House Valnis.
And this is not all. Besides the current layers of asymmetry (starting agendas Origin cards, paired with a different starting Technology, Civilization tracks, custom Focus cards, a player power for all Houses after the first four, and now the different Preferred Focuses), we found one more lever to pull. The avid reader amongst you probably remembers from December, that we reworked our standard sector tiles: down to 3 installation spots from the previous 4. Along that line, we also changed our Home Sectors:

🌠 We removed all installation spaces, and instead pre-printed a single shipyard on it. This helped reinforce the thematic idea of building shipyards and defenses on your front lines in a strategically sensible way.
🌠 We reduced the number of guild spaces on the home sector to two, with the upkeep triggering on the second. Since the starting four houses all start with 3 guilds, we updated their origin cards, to place two of them into their outpost sector instead of their home sector. This created a perfect setup: players could build up to two more guilds before expanding, but each of these guilds added a new upkeep.

Having made this step, the question rose: so what about houses that don’t need a Shipyard? Or what about houses that need more than two guild spaces? Lucky for us, the backside of the home sector tiles have been a bit of an unused asset - we were just going to print a standard sector there, to be used as spares in 1-3p games (since in 4p all home sector tiles are used). We couldn’t put special sectors there, as those sectors would not be available depending on the player count… Putting two and two together, Nigel and I did what we usually do: asked why not? Thus the idea of custom home sectors was born. And with that, let’s segue into our first house introduction: House ThegwynNote: in the prototype the home sectors - including the custom ones - have a player color. This is getting reworked, so don’t worry, you won’t be forced to play a particular color if you want to experience one of these houses…

Trying to find balance between technology and nature, House Thegwyn is known for their genetic modifications and enhancements. All their machines and ships are based on organic materials and don’t require screens or buttons: members of House Thegwyn are able to attune their nervous system to the central matrix that connects and controls all their assets through planetary information hubs.

House Thegwyn is all about the Farmers’ Guilds. Genetically engineered organisms, fighting their battles: parts of their ships are grown, not assembled. This is represented by their house ability: they count Farmers’ Guilds as Shipyards during Reinforcement Focus (A). So naturally, they don’t need a Shipyard in their home sector, instead they prefer to use the natural resources of their biosphere, as represented by the pre-printed Farmer’s guild on their home sector (B). Developing and harnessing their environment is their life bread, as further reinforced by their Preferred Focuses being Development and Production (C). But their production is not any ordinary production: due to their organic computers and neural computing, they can produce Science at the same time as the three supplies, and they prefer more deliberation instead of hastily whizzing across the sectors. Shown by the fact that they are missing a Regroup from the same Focus card - instead they choose to forgo the Corruption remove effect and advance on their powerful Statecraft track instead (D). Their two Origins specialize either using their organic networks to create a powerful Neural Matrix, to rival the banking networks of houses Belitan and Marqualos, or using their biochemistry expertise to deploy Terraforming gasses to enrich their sectors.
You are probably familiar with the starting agendas of the four starting houses, so you can follow our thinking along here: neither agenda is rewarded for increasing population (since the credit-heavy strategy doesn’t need it, and the terraforming strategy does it too well).
The Neural Matrix origin is all about creating a steady economy: every guild scores, and each stockpile where you have 5 or more kept scores more. To keep Thegwyn from being too inward-turned, the Statecraft track advance is also rewarded (E), since its benefits tend to push the player towards conquest. But note that by using the first option of Production to advance, and by focusing on the Statecraft track instead of Society, the Thegwyn player gives up most avenues of Corruption management, trading one problem for another. Since the technology doesn’t help much in the beginning, the origin card gives a random Growth agenda out of the gate, further reinforcing the “endless riches” playstyle of this origin.
The Terraforming origin is aimed to be more expansive, thus rewarding for sectors - but at a noticeably lower rate than the starting four - this is compensated for the high scoring for Farmers’ Guilds, not limited to once per sector, and the promise of an excellent high-population economy and a push towards some militaristic benefits by a starting advance on the Statecraft track (F). This origin’s play is mostly characterized by highly developed, super valuable sectors, customized to perfectly fit one or two agendas, and defended by a large swarm of barely armed Corvette fleets - or if possible pivoting into using another Fleet Type, if available.
Overall, Thegwyn’s civilization tracks abide by the usual split: Population and Corruption management on Society, Technology and Fleet Power management on Statecraft (with a strong attack option near the top), and Trade token and Guild management on the Economics track. Things to note: the shorter Statecraft track also helps the food economy (logically, to match Thegwyn’s ability), there are two early Trade Tokens on the Economy track, and there is an agenda scoring on Tier 3 of the same. Two shorter tracks, and a third track with exceptional rewards, combined with the additional easy increase on their Production Focus means Thegwyn is one of the few houses where nearly maxing out all three tracks is not only a possibility, but it is viable as well…

Leading a life in the harsh conditions on one of the most unforgiving planets in the Domineum, members of House Astoran inevitably became secluded and suspicious towards any outsider who dared enter their domain. Their technology is focused primarily on defense and self-preservation, but their state-of-the-art missile systems have been modified to launch long-range strikes against the Voidborn.

House Astoran does not joke around when it comes to their big guns and their missiles. Clans of warriors hailing from a hostile ice-planet, they slumber in their underground bases protected by their fearsome missile systems, ready to rise when the time is right. Their player power is something we haven’t shown before: it’s mostly a drawback! Keeping their underground bases heated is not easy, so their house card has two pre-printed upkeep symbols (A)! In return for their poor start, they’re rewarded later: at the end of each cycle (in the Evaluation Phase, before scoring) they receive two additional Fleet Power to their reserve, ready to be unleashed next cycle (or scored right away, if you managed to pick up the right card for it).
We could not miss having their ice-planet present in the game, so naturally, House Astoran gets a custom starting sector as well. Quite similar to the regular sector, except because Astoran loves its big missiles so much, you are allowed to construct up to two more installations at home (B). And naturally, for someone who likes to build so much and focus on warfare, Development and Conquest are their two Preferred Focuses (C) - and what a Conquest card that is! Uniquely amongst all invading effects in the game, Astoran’s Conquest allows them to immediately build an installation before or after Invading (D)!
Building after invasion is obviously amazing: your new sector is ready for deployment, or it is already defended - but if you look at the two possible starting technologies for Astoran, you realize how crazy it could be to build an installation beforehand instead! With Sentries, everytime you build a Sector Defense, you may deploy a Fleet Power into a Sentry Fleet - while they are not super useful at attacking, but they can be left behind to hold the sector you’re attacking from (and defend it quite well), or brought along with your Corvettes as an excellent (and cheap!) meat-shield. With Deep-space Missiles, having a Shipyard adjacent allows you to deal a damage as the attacker, in the Approach step, potentially obliterating the enemy fleet even before the battle begins! Plus, your matching starting Agenda would prefer you having a Shipyard in every sector anyway (G). The price of this mighty combo is the other two actions on Conquest: gone is the cheap Agenda gaining option, and the reliable way to gain more Fleet Power: instead you find an economic lifeline of hardship and scraping past - but hey, don’t knock it, you might need the extra food to satisfy that pesky upkeep.
Astoran’s proud warrior traditions dictate that one can only sit to reap, once they have stood to fight first. This is represented mechanically by their custom Prosperity Focus: if you want to advance on the Economics track, you must recall a fleet power first, but if you’re willing to give up one of your installations (outside of your home sector, of course), you get a unique chance to build your economy and purge the Voidborn’s corruption instead (E).
Their civilization tracks reflect this dichotomy as well: an exceptional high score and a lot of population await on the Society track (especially useful to boost the score for your Sentries starting Agenda (F)), but you get no help climbing up on it. Early game the Economics track can solve your tight issues, while late game it transforms into a power house, but again, it is not an easy climb. Maybe the only track you’ll feel at home with is the Statecraft track, but if you want to advance on it with your Politics Focus, will you still have time to also use your Conquest for its special installation-invasion double-whammy? And even if you manage to do both, where are you getting your technologies from? With no Technology on the lower half of the track, and Progress not being a Preferred Focus, this is the dilemma Astoran faces: strong defense, strong offense, plenty of combat opportunities early game, with an ever expanding military, but a drought of Technologies and a constant drain of resources.

The intellectual elite of the old Domineum, House Nervo completely eliminated the need for physical work through robotics and automatization. As their home planet had been slowly turning into an industrial dystopia of automated Guilds, its production was funneled into the construction of gargantuan habitat ships, where members of House Nervo could continue to live in opulence away from the Voidborn’s reach.

House Nervo was a very tricky one to balance. They have the two most peaceful technologies possible to start with: Ark Ships merely allows them to build more Guilds at their (regular) home sector, while Robotics allows them to build more. Combined with the fact that they don’t have Progress as their Preferred Focus (B), and there is no technology gain on the bottom half of any of their civilization tracks, it would sound like they’re not very well adapted to an early game military push… The proud lords of House Nervo are well aware of this, and they developed something unique: a remote-controlled cloud of comet and asteroid fragments, they can rain on a planet they deem below them to be fought in open conflict. They don’t even call this a conquest anymore, merely Uplifting - as shown on their custom Focus card (C) that acts as a replacement for Conquest. The change in name (and icon) is not a theme only thing however: it means Technologies and Agendas specifically mentioning Conquest do not trigger on playing this Focus card. Its first action is devastating: you can purchase any number of Absorption during an invasion, at the cost of 3 materials each.
And House Nervo will have materials plenty: their custom Production Focus will allow you to cheaply produce Materials while advancing on your Economics track (D), and advance on one of the others using the other actions, possibly producing the rest of the resources. Why would you ever consider not producing the others? First of all, because Nervo’s special ability (A) allowing you to spend materials as food or energy during your actions (but not during Upkeep, similar to credits), and second because if you pick the third action of Production instead of the second, you can advance on your shortest Civilization track - Society, with plenty of Corruption management and Population increase - and a hefty influence bonus at the top.
Both of their starting agendas are about building: the Ark Ships one (E) is about optimally managing your resources (similar to Thegwyn, just a bit more high stakes-high reward) boosted by an extra Growth Agenda for the same reasons as Thegwyn’s Neural Matrix one. Meanwhile, the Robotics one gives you a push on the Economics track (F) - effectively creating civilization tracks as short as the starting four houses’ peaceful starting agendas, and then requires you to fill all Guild spaces in your sectors, while also pushing you advance on your civilization tracks.
This together creates a similar yet uniquely different experience to the other “peaceful” house (Thegwyn, obviously): Thegwyn mobilizes easily and has amazing sectors easily, Nervo has to work a bit harder, but has bigger flexibility on the how, plus unlike Thegwyn, they have one big stick for military on their Uplift card, allowing them to live without Combat techs for longer, while still considering a high civilization track strategy.

House Marqualos was formed on the foundations of a crime syndicate that monopolized interstellar trade in the fringe sectors. They project unity and grace to outsiders, but having socialized in a culture of backstabbery and deceit, they won’t hesitate to play dirty to get their way. Their trade armadas are accompanied by swarms of nimble and lethal strike drones, ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice against the Voidborn.

House Marqualos lives up to its seedy reputation. They are not afraid of brushing with a little corruption if it gets their hands on a bit more money: their starting sector has a pre-printed Bankers’ Guild besides the usual Shipyard, but its most unique aspect is the fact that unlike all other home sectors, it is possible to place a Corruption here (B).

While its starting agendas are identical to the four starting houses’, Marqualos’ special power starts them with a second agenda already in play (A) - if you go for the usual “population and guilds” start of Interstellar Transports, your second agenda will require you to have balanced resources in your stockpile and keep some of your Trade Tokens, while if you try the “sectors and installations” start of Autonomous Drones, you will be collecting Bounty tokens and making sure to have a large Fleet Power presence on the board.
As worthy of a former crime syndicate, Marqualos doesn’t believe in Innovation. They much prefer to buy instead of to make: this is represented by their custom Focus called Scheme (D). Like Uplift above, this does not trigger Technologies or Agendas referring to Innovation, despite replacing it. The most unique part of this card is its second action: a massive boost to its economy in the form of two productions and a Trade Token, but its cost is to discard an agenda from play. So, do you use this action in the first cycle, to get an economic boost, but getting rid of your second agenda? Or do you prioritize getting an extra agenda, to know which is the weaker, to get rid of? Or do you play Scheme early - to get a third early chance at purchasing a technology (besides Progress and the first step of the Statecraft track) - and then return to it later via Temptation, since it is one of their Preferred Focuses (C). As the game progresses, this choice does not get any easier to make: are you going to play the best Agenda you found first (to maximize your scorings), or are you going to focus on getting perfectly combo-ing Agenda actions, assuming you are going to discard some of the Agendas you play?
The Autonomous Drones origins has an extra point of interest: like Ark Ships and Neutral Matrix above, it has limited use in early game, but unlike them, it’s a strong (if rarer used) combat technology. To give them a fair start, the corresponding origin card gives an extra step on the Economics track, resulting in a second starting Trade token! Will you use that to have a lot of actions early, or will you use it to minimize your upkeep and create a long burn war machine?

Once a genius scientist, now a twisted mind stored in a computer; House Zenor is in fact one single consciousness constantly replicating its former self, with each clone conditioned and programmed to fulfill a particular purpose. Zenor foresaw the Voidborn’s arrival, and staged a massive offensive space fleet in preparation, ready for a preemptive strike.

One of the two most aggressive houses (besides House Yarvek), Zenor is built around exploitation of science and the civilization tracks. Whenever they have excess science, for every second excess science (A) they gain 1 credit or 1 influence (beyond the normal 1 or 3 influence players gain for excess). This means that as long as their science setup is strong - and there is no reason not to make it so, especially considering the top of the Statecraft and Economics tracks, they have no resource to worry about besides some upkeep. The only downside in return is that they cannot gain influence for excess credits, but that is not a common consideration anyway.
As it fits an eccentric scientist’s house, they gain Technology cards extremely easy: Progress is one of their preferred Technologies (B), there is a technology only one step further on their Statecraft track than the standard houses, and to top it off, their custom Conquest Focus card (C) allows them to gain a new Technology rapidly (possibly on turn 1, along with an immediate Invasion from the first action), while also producing science, getting ever closer to that magical excess production point. While the cost of gaining an Agenda on Conquest has gone up for them, it comes bundled with a Trade Token, allowing them to very quickly set up multiple additional actions early.
When they do use their Politics for a second chance to attack, they have a unique option of gaining a Fleet Power while attacking (D) - specially useful if you’re planning on a strategy swarming the map with Destroyers. If however you’re playing with Cloning, you’ll appreciate the second action of Politics: we removed the Trade Token from here (to avoid making it too easy to get a lot of it), but placed an additional population increase here, allowing you to trigger Cloning early, and often, even without having to rely on technologies like Terraforming or Robotics. Readers with great memory might remember Spotlight #8 where we already showcased Zenor and their Politics card: notice how the changes made since make the Destroyer strategy harder to start (loss of easy Fleet power gain), while the Cloning strategy more reliable (via the Population increase). As always, with every nut and bolt of this game, our work is only over when we find perfection.

Remember: while in defense, a Destroyer is just as good as a Corvette, but without the benefit of any combat techs (such as Torpedoes, Shields, etc). But if you attack with Destroyers, you deal an additional damage in the first Salvo for each Fleet Power of Destroyer you bring to the invasion, essentially being as good as multiple copies of the Torpedoes technology put together. If you improve it, it gets even better, adding a single absorption (like basic Shields) and a single approach step damage (like basic Deep-space missiles, see above) to the deadly mix.
So, if you play with the Destroyers starting agenda (F), go gung-ho with attacking, collecting sectors. To stop it from being too easy, instead of rewarding you for installations (like the starting four houses), Zenor requires you to get Technologies and improve them besides grabbing sectors - but I don’t think you’ll complain about that detour. If you go with your Cloning origin, between its ability and your house special you will have all the credits you could probably need, and have plenty to spare on getting Fleet Power - which you will need, since your Corvettes are packing a lot less punch than your Destroyers would. Like the other, this starting agenda (E) also rewards you for Technologies (even better, in fact), so grabbing a few combat techs like Orbital Docks or Shields should get you going quickly… Still, Zenor is not necessarily all about the conquest, as this starting agenda requires you to establish Guilds - but unlike the starting four’s matching agenda, does not provide additional bonus for Bankers’ (or any other type of) Guilds… you get your scoring from your economic prowess mostly through the frequent excess bonuses instead.
The challenge in creating a house with a strong warship or a strong and flexible economy, while also providing motivation for near infinite amounts of science, was to figure out what they should lack, without sticking them in a hole to climb out of. We did the “one way out” style of balancing with Marqualos (they have below average starting productions, and/or a rare-to-use starting technology), but with Zenor potentially having four (maybe even five) Technologies in play by the end of the first cycle, no hole would have been hard to climb out of. So, beside not providing them with any tools to make climbing civilization tracks easier (in fact, we made the Statecraft advance on Politics a bit more expensive), we also limited the high-end scoring potential of their starting agendas: getting 15 influence from having 5 pure sectors with shipyards and sector defenses for a starting house is not impossible, but getting 5 improved techs for Zenor is still a tall order. I guess, you’ll just have to make up for it in Glory tokens…

With that, we finished the tour of five of the ten asymmetric houses. Hope you see how wide the selection can go, and you got another glimpse into the way we think about creating these juicy dilemmas for you during gameplay. Like any empire builder game, asymmetric player powers is the bread and butter of Voidfall, but instead of designing for “the hell of it”, you can see we weighed all possible options, experiences, and choices, and provided unique, yet balanced puzzles for you to solve - whether competitively against your friends, or cooperatively (or solo by yourself) against the Voidborn. Check back next month, when we show off the other five houses that are yet to be explored in depth!