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In 2016, Osprey Games gave me my "game designer" big break and published Horizon Wars, a hard(ish) science fiction combined arms battle game, pitched for 6mm play (but playable anywhere from 2mm up to 15mm) and miniatures/setting agnostic.
The game hardly set the world on fire, but it has certainly built up a loyal and passionate following over the last three years and when I released Over the Horizon - a self-published supplement, currently available in PDF only from Wargame Vault, but with a full print-on-demand glossy hardback version to be available very shortly - I was enormously cheered by the impressive sales I achieved off the blocks (especially considering that most of the contents had been available individually either as a micro-transaction or basically free previously).
I decided it was time to get serious with Horizon Wars's true sequel - something I had planned from the start: a 28mm skirmish game (but playable anywhere from 15mm to 54mm) along the same design principles but with the granular detail you would expect from a skirmish.
Anyway, Zero Dark is now about 95% done, in terms of writing the thing. I've splashed out on Adobe InDesign and done a course to learn how to use it. But to help me get it over the line, I need some input.
Unfortunately, I've tried to get feedback on this sort of thing before by sharing open betas and soliciting opinions with little success. I've even tried paying people to give me proper feedback. Again - no joy. So I've taken the plunge and started a Patreon page.
The psychology behind this is twofold:
First, people who commit money to someething (even just a little money) are far more likely to give it their considered time and let the creator know if they want something different. Money gives participants both an incentive and a voice.
Second, I get to offset some of my costs in getting this far and even build up a little funding towards getting some good quality art done to illustrate this book.
Anyway, the book is slated for release in early 2020 (I'm aiming for "by the end of April" as an absolute latest but, as I'll be in Japan for most of April, "by the end of March" is the more likely target). If you'd like to follow along do join the Facebook group for details. And if you'd like to contribute or get early access to the beta material (which will be public access in December), you might even consider becoming a patron.
Either way, I'll post updates here as things go along.
Backing on Patreon is modest but growing slowly, which is nice. It means I have time to discuss things with the patrons and get their take on stuff which is really interesting.
I'm having a bit of a wrestle with Wargame Vault. They have excellent resources and advice for their publishers but if you stray even moderately from the expected rails it can get a bit weird. I'm using a standard but unusual page format (9.25" x 7.5") to make sure that my books sit well on the shelf next to Horizon Wars (Osprey used a very slightly different but even weirder format called Crown Royal). As a result, the WGV AI thinks my bleed margins are off, but as far as I can tell, they're just fine.
Anyway, you're not interested in the technicalities of publishing (unless you are, in which case, yay).
Some design points about Zero Dark that you need to know:
1. d12s. This is non-negotiable.
2. An opposing force controlled by a normal, 54-card control deck. This is on the table in both solo mode (where it's the main enemy) and PvP mode (where it's a serious complication for both sides).
3. Fully customizable heroes. Basically, any mini up to the size of a Space Marine terminator can find a place in your team.
4. Hard sci-fi core setting. I hope to have supplements for more pulpy settings, like the grim dark future, a galaxy far, far away, or superheroes in due course. But right now, it's all about keeping things within the realm of the possible.
Why d12s? This comes down to a fundamental mechanic that has been lifted more-or-less wholesale from Horizon Wars. In HW, the roll to hit involves measuring the range and rolling a number d12s to try to equal or exceed the range. The more groups of dice you have that do this, the more successes (hits) you achieve.
In Zero Dark, I've taken this mechanic and applied it more widely so, for example, if you want to extract data from the objective computer terminal you might be rolling a number of d12s against the difficulty of the terminal. If you want to medic an ally, you'll roll d12s against the severity of the wound. If you want to sneak up to an enemy target, you'll roll d12s against how easily you are going to be spotted.
The foundation of this mechanic is shooting and, as we tend to measure our tables in inches, with tables typically being between 3' and 6' in dimensions, it makes sense to work on a scale of 1 to 12. Having established the foundation, it then follows that it is easier to apply the exact same mechanic across all tests for player familiarity.
I wasn't going to do this post, yet, but the weather outside is dreadful and I'm warm and cosy at home, so I figure if I do this now I can put off having to adult for a bit longer...
The Control Deck The Control Deck runs the artificial intelligence behind the Red Force. It's a normal deck of 54 playing cards. After every character activation, you flip the Control Deck. The result dictates the behaviour of the Red Force.
The value of the card tells you which bogey will act. The suit tells you what they will do. If you flip a Joker, you get a complication - this can be anything from more bogeys to a booby trap.
Bogeys come in three basic flavours: Grunts, Elites and Bosses. Grunts are plentiful and die easily, but they can gain support tokens that make them tougher or deadlier. Elites are harder to put down and more dangerous. But most dangerous of all is the Boss. Complications can introduce special bogeys, like the Sniper or the dreaded Defence Mech.
You can manipulate the Control Deck in a few ways. The most basic is to move cautiously. A cautious move, if successful, negates the primary action on a Control Deck flip. Another way is to take a Spook: a special kind of hero. A Spook gives you a hand of cards from the deck that you can play at any time to replace the actual flip.
However, the Control Deck also performs a second important role: it is the mission timer. Once you run out of cards the mission is over. If you've not finished, you lose. There are lots of things you can do in the game that give you advantages, but which "run down the clock" - that is, they remove cards from the deck, so you have less time to complete your mission.
If you like the sound of this game, don't forget you can get early access to the beta rules by backing meet on Patreon. Link is in the OP!
Putting Together a Team We all love a good heist movie, don't we? My favourite bit is the early chapter - usually done as a montage or series of short, choppy scenes with a unifying musical track - when the Boss puts his team together. Whether it's Ocean's Eleven, Hogan's Heroes or Justice League, you get this sense of a diverse group of characters, each with their own particular strengths and weaknesses, who come together to create something greater than the sum of its parts.
When I wrote the rules for building your "X Teams" (whether the X stands for Exploration, Extermination or something else is for you to decide) in Zero Dark, I really wanted to capture some of that flavour as well as borrowing from the popular Horizon Wars mechanics for building custom mechs - but with even more creative freedom!
The baseline is that each hero - the main type of character, the other being allies, who are a bit different - gets 15 stat points to spend on four stats that will look a bit familiar to Horizon Wars players: M, F, A and D. But they mean something a little different in Zero Dark: Mobility, Fight, Acuity and Discipline. The first two are physical stats. The latter two are essentially mental stats.
Then you can add as many upgrades to each hero as you like!
What? That makes no sense!
Mad, right? Well, the thing is, if you're playing solo or co-op, then you add up all the upgrades you've taken on your characters and then you run down the clock by that many cards. So, sure, by all means take a ludicrous bunch of upgrades for a superhuman hero, but you'll have less time to complete your mission.
Now, things are slightly balanced in the heroes' favour, because upgrades are better than the clock. This allows you to balance how hard you want any given mission to be by giving your heroes more upgrades and abilities. It'll run down the clock, but your advantages will mostly off-set that disadvantage. Mostly.
In a PvP missions, you must agree with your opponent how many upgrades you get to take on each hero. So there are no limits, but your opponent has the same advantages you do. The default position is 4/16/4, or 4 heroes with a maximum of 16 upgrades, a maximum of four of which are allocated to each hero.
Makes a bit more sense, now?
Hmmm... OK, so what are the upgrades?
There are loads of upgrades, but they split down into five main types: specialisms (of which you can have a maximum of one of each in your team), traits, gadgets, weapons and allies. One of the traits - "synthetic" - also gives you access to things like artificial intelligences, robots and drones.
They sound really interesting! Tell me more.
I will. Next week, we'll talk about allies. If you want to know more about the others, you'll just have to become a patron.