17 June 2009

To The Stars

The first preview for Ad Astra

We recently had a chance to catch up with designer Bruno Faidutti about his latest project, Ad Astra.

What was the inspiration for Ad Astra, and how did you incorporate it?My real inspiration for this game was my desire to work again with Serge Laget, and probably Serge’s desire to work with me.

This meant we had to find a game idea which could suit both of us, which is not that easy. Serge, as the author of Mare Nostrum, Senji, Shadows over Camelot, likes big games, games which need lots of stuff and lots of time. He still plays monsters like 1830, Merchant of Venus or Kings and Things… As the author of Citadels, Knightmare Chess, Letters of Marque (to be published soon by FFG, just before or just after Ad Astra ;-)), I am more into lighter and smaller stuff.

We had found some common ground before, for Castle, Mystery of the Abbey and Kheops, so we knew we will find it again – we just needed an idea that could appeal to both of us. One day, I had it : A space opera game (that was for Serge, it’s an ambitious setting he hadn’t dealt with so far) using a Settlers of Catan – like Resource system (both Serge and I really like Catan) and some simultaneous and/or secret actions programming (that was for me, I didn’t want a perfect information strategic game).

I called Serge on the phone, he thought it could work, and a few days later he was in Avignon and we started to work on the game. We had both thought on the game systems in the meantime, and since our ideas were very similar, we were able to write down basic rules and make a first rough prototype within a few hours. It’s probably the first and only time I ever had a working prototype of such an ambitious boardgame after only a few hours of work. The same night, we played this first prototype and, which was even more surprising, all the basic systems worked perfectly and were immediately validated. This means the production, building and resource management system and, more important for us, the action programming system, which is probably the most original part of Ad Astra. The only part that didn’t work and had to be completely redesigned later was the scoring system.


If you had to compare Ad Astra to another game, which would you choose?The obvious answer would be, of course, Klaus Teuber’s Settlers of Catan. Like Settlers of Catan, Ad Astra is a game where you start with few resources and production units, and must build more units (roads, settlements and cities in Catan, Spaceships, bases and factories in Ad Astra) to develop your empire and produce more resources that will allow you further development, and so on. Both games also have a luck element - the production dice in Catan, the exploration in Ad Astra. Both games have strong but indirect interaction, the blocking and the race for the best spots in Catan, the action that all players can use in Ad Astra. What gives Ad Astra a different feel is the action system, in which a player can try to make use of the cards he thinks his opponents have played. While Settlers of Catan is mostly tactical, Ad Astra is both tactical and psychological – think Catan meets Citadels, maybe.

Another possible comparison would be with a lesser-known game, Mars, recently published in France by Tilsit. Like Ad Astra, Mars is a science fiction development game strongly inspired by Settlers of Catan. Mars’ author, François Delbosc, obviously wanted, like us, to make a more interactive development game, but did it in a very different way. There’s no common board, and each player develops his own small Martian colony on his small board, like in Puerto Rico. The game is nevertheless very dynamic and interactive, with violent event cards and opportunities for direct attacks. Playing Mars was very exciting and interesting for me as a game designer, since it shows how the same design ideas can end with really different games – and I really hope Ad Astra is as good as Mars. Which strategy is your favorite?I am a lazy game designer, and I usually try to avoid the part of game design that needs the most work, the most games, the most fine tuning – balancing the different possible strategies. My favorite way is to design self-balancing system, like in Citadels – I don’t care if a character is more powerful than others, he just gets killed more often – or in Mission: Red Planet – I don’t care if a character is more powerful than others, since one can usually not use any character more than twice. The trick could not work in Ad Astra, in which there were obviously different paths to victory, different strategies, that needed to be finely balanced. One can rely on spaceships, one can try to have only one spaceship and build lots of bases, one can specialize in energy or try to get all kinds of resources, one can even choose marginal strategies and focus on terraforming or alien planets.

While the basic systems of the game worked almost immediately, we had to play the game a lot to balance these various strategies. In ours first versions, Terraforming was either too powerful or completely useless. When we added the alien artifact planets, we had to balance them as well with the other game elements.

As a player, I like to specialize in one or two resources. This can allow for a very effective use of the resource scoring cards, and you can often trade this resource at a high price. I also like to play alien artifact planets, because of their sometimes chaotic effect. I know Serge likes to play the terraforming strategy.

Which aspect did you enjoy designing most?The most interesting part for me is the action programming system, but it worked almost from the beginning and I didn’t have time to enjoy it. The only issue we had to discuss was whether the programming cards were to have all the same back, which added a strong memory element to the game, or backs in the players’ color. Believe it or not, it’s Serge who wanted the same backs for all cards, and I think I was right in preferring different ones.The other really interesting part was the use of scoring cards. In the first versions of the game, scoring cards were taken back in hand, like all other action cards. The result was that most players had simple, one-element strategy and played the same scoring card every turn. To make sure it would be difficult to rely on a single game element for victory, we decided that a player will get their scoring cards back only when the three cards have been played. This means most players now rely on two or three different elements. The discussion on which pairing to do on the scoring cards was also interesting, and we even had a version in which the different players had different pairings, but some were obviously stronger than others.

What is it like working with each other?I really like to work with Serge. He has good ideas and good whisky. He tends to be more systematic than I am, which is good. When facing a minor design problem, my answer is usually to give up and try to find a completely different system, when he always tries to find some means, some tuning to make the original idea work. Sometimes he’s right, sometimes I am, but when working together, we can find the best way.

The only drawback is when dealing with foreign publishers. His English is even worse than mine, which means I have to do all the work on the rules.

A lot of science fiction games have a number of inside jokes, any you can let us in on?Of course, you’re thinking of the Omnibus Rebus Responsum card, which is a Douglas Adams joke. I’m not a science fiction fan, though I like some science fiction authors, like Iain M. Banks.

But I don’t think Douglas Adams is a science fiction writer, no more than Terry Pratchett is a fantasy writer or Jasper Fforde a whodunit writer – they are humorous sociologists or philosophers who toy with the clichés of science fiction, fantasy or whodunit.

Of course, Ad Astra has the “42” card, but if you want game rules that really feel like they were written by Douglas Adams, you should look for Vlaada Chvatil’s games Galaxy Trucker and Space Alert. These are games whose rules can make you laugh aloud.

What game do you currently play the most?I play a lot of different games, and rarely play the same game more than twice or thrice. Right now, the few games I tend to play a lot are Small World, The Magic Labyrinth, Wits and Wagers and Faces. In the past twenty years, the board game I’ve played most is certainly Cosmic Encounter.

Ad•Astra takes three to five players into a possible future where five disparate human subraces must take the next step and explore the wider galaxy, searching for new planets to call home. In the search for a New Earth, players will discover uninhabited resource-rich planets and mine them for the building blocks of a new galactic empire, space ships, colonies, and factories.

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