She cannae take anymore, Captain!

In a game of massive spaceships duking it out, an obvious element to include is some from of damage mechanic, with the ships suffering problems as they get smashed up, and some kind of repair mechanic, where the brave and overworked engineers can patch her back together in the heat of the battle. These elements would be thematic and cinematic, and provide an ebb and flow to the performance of each ship that would surely create more interesting tactical choices.

To spoil the conclusion: they don’t, and I won’t be including them. Here’s why.


I had the pleasure of playing Gav Thorpe’s “Big Stompy Robots” at BonesCon this year. It’s an awesomely promising game of dueling mechs, and is the game that will fire the aging BattleTech when it gets released. This blog post might seem like I’m picking on him. I’m not. All game design is a process, and I’ll show my own workings as well here.

In Big Stompy Robots, when I played it, damage is represented by “damage dice” that get placed on your robot, and which you must roll alongside your other dice when you activate a sub-system. I won’t go into the details of the rules, but basically if you try to move with damaged legs, you are likely to move less far, and if you try to shoot with a damaged weapon, you are likely to do less damage.

Because damage reduces your effectiveness, as you get damaged you have fewer good options as a player. The game therefore gets less, rather than more, excited as it progresses. Options are reduced. Decisions become more obvious. I would prefer damage to make things more desperate, risky and explody, rather than more static and weak.

To propose an alternative design (purely for the sake of illustrating my point): if the damage dice were blank on 5 sides and had a single critical result, I would still be as effective at attacking with my damaged weapon system, but by choosing to use it I would risk putting critical damage onto the system. In this way, I can still walk with damaged legs, or shoot with damaged weapons, it just becomes more risky. I still have all my options, right up to the point when I exploding in a mushroom cloud of misfiring ICBMs, or snap my own leg off making a last desparate charge with my power fist.

Chaos & Confusion

The experience of retrospecting on someone else’s design allowed me to turn a more critical eye to my own.

Currently in A Billion Suns, attacks either destroy the target or place a number of “disorder” tokens on the ship. Disorder tokens represent damage, confusion, systems going down, the crew panicing, moral failing, and whatever other other havoc, devastation and deterioration in this massive floating war machines.

Another sub-system of A Billion Suns is the ability to spend command dice from your Admiral’s Helm to activate a command (which gives the ship some kind of bonus). The command dice has to be a suffuciently high number in order to activate the command.

In an earlier version of the game, the value of command dice required to activate a given order on a given ship was modified by the number of disorder tokens on that ship. The more damaged a ship, the less it would be able to follow orders or have its weapon systems perform at their peak levels. Made total sense. Elegant, thematic… tedious.

One of the design principles of the game is to ensure that cinematic moments are naturally emergent from the rules. You know what isn’t cinematic: a battle in which the ships slowly get worse and worse until barely anyone can shoot straight anymore. It does the opposite of what you want, which is for the pace and tension of the game to increase as shots are exchanged. The rule where damaged ship couldn’t be issued commands as easily meant that damage ships had fewer options, were less exciting to control, and were much less effective.

Simply removing this rule (I bloody love when that’s the fix) removes the whole problem and reverses the dynamics. Now ships can continue to perform at peak condition, right up to the point when they explode. Now ships are manned by heroic crews that get more gritty as the pain rains down on them. Disorder now makes it much more likely that the next shot is the killing blow, but ships still deliver their full firepower and tactical flexibility right up to that moment. It’s tense, and no one got their decisions taken away from them. I now just need to add the “heroic self-destruct” rule and we’ll be at “Full Hollywood”.

“Captain, it’ll take 9 hrs to fix…” “You’ve got 20 minutes.”

Returning to Gav’s game – again, really not picking on him, it’s just a fascinating experience to analyse someone else’s work-in-progress to help clarify my own thinking – there is a repair mechanic in it.

The game has a particular sequence that means you can repair multiple times in a row without choosing to do anything else. That means that once you have damage, I feel like you are kind of a dolt for not standing still and repairing until you are undamaged, so the decision is sort of made for you.

This combines with another issue which is that none of the damage dice are persistent, so you can repair until you are shiny new again. This means the game is theoretically of infinite length. If there was some mechanic by which damage got “stuck” on you, at least the game would be *guaranteed* to reach a conclusion. Retrospecting on this has led me to the the tentative conclusion that the ability to repair is always going to extend the average game length for a design.

Initially, one of the commands that you could issue to your ships in A Billion Suns was to repair your ship, clearing its disorder tokens. This was added at a time when ships still had individual dashboard cards (more on that in a future blog post maybe) with damage boxes. Once the ship cards and the damage boxes went, so too had the mechanic for removing disorder tokens. Otherwise, ships could be battered and then sneak off behind a planet to repair back to full strength.

I want A Billion Suns to keep to a reasonable length. I’m want to learn from my experiences on Gaslands, where I miserably failed to keep to my initial target game length of under an hour, (although it doesn’t seem to have hurt the game’s popularity too badly). A Billion Suns is going to be large scale and low resolution, but with enough tactical and strategic puzzles to provide a rich and satisfying game. My expectation is that the “average” game length (what ever that comes to mean) will be about 2 hours. That’s okay, this is going to be a less beer-and-pretzels affair than Gaslands. It doesn’t need to play in 60mins.

I’m never going to hit even this 2 hour playtime if ships can repair themselves by any significant amount. Damage therefore needs to be meaningful and near-exclusively one-way. I’m not ruling out some special rule or power-up that permits it, but it will not be a core mechanic of the game.

If you are interested in finding out how well this train of thought translates on to the table, consider signing up to be a playtester.