Limitation Inspires Creativity: Designing Laser Bots

Game design

Laser Bots is a two-player strategy card game. Players each control a robot via an action management system: actions become more powerful depending on the amount of cards played before the effect occurs, so the order of card play is the key to victory.

Origins

Laser Bots started out life as a computer game that I created back in the 90s on my trusty old Amiga 1200. I was a student at university, and my friends and I needed some cheap (i.e. free) entertainment, so I locked myself in my room for a week and created what was then called Laser Droids (I only recently discovered that George Lucas owns the rights to the word “droid”, hence the name change).

The gameplay was simple: up to four players moved a robot around the screen (a 2D top-down view) and tried to shoot and destroy each other. There was also a ‘power droid’ that meandered around the screen dropping weapon and armour upgrades. The sound was minimal, the graphics were terrible, but boy was it fun.

What made it fun? Well, when four players mashed the fire button, the computer couldn’t cope with all those ‘bullets’ on the screen so I needed a way to limit the amount of laser fire. The solution: limit ammo to 10 shots per robot via an energy resource, and have a recharge zone in the middle where you could regain energy, but you were vulnerable whilst doing so (you had to hold down the fire button and watch your energy slowly recharge). Suddenly there was an element of strategy and tactics in this fast moving shooting game: you had to make every shot count and pick the best moment to recharge your energy.

Evolution

Fast forward about 10 years; I decided to create a simple boardgame version for a reunion with my old university friends. The game was fairly crude, but it had a hex board, standees, and lots of cards to replace the power droid. The energy and recharge zone remained as this was the essence of the game. We had fun with this first version but it was far from a great game. However, there was something there that I felt was worth pursuing, so over the next five years or so I worked on it sporadically, improving the gameplay and mechanics where needed.

Over that period, the movement mechanic and unique robot abilities were merged into program cards – these had a special ability unique to the robot, and a movement path. Program cards were chosen at the start of the round and revealed simultaneously, cutting down on play time and adding an element where you had to anticipate your opponents’ moves. There were also command cards, available to all robots, which added instant effects that could chain together.

As the game evolved it was looking like it was getting close to being a decent game, so I commissioned Gong Studios to do some artwork. I like to be immersed in my projects and having some great art really helps my creativity. I also find play testers are more engaged when it looks pretty. So, I had a new prototype printed at The Game Crafter with a new tri-fold board with improved graphics, illustrated player boards, and new standees of the robots.

However, whilst the game had improved a lot over its development and it had some nice mechanics, somehow it just didn’t all hang together in a good way. At times the game felt slow and clunky, and I wasn’t really enjoying playing it much. So I decided to shelve Laser Bots and focus my efforts elsewhere.

Less is More

Shortly after I shelved Laser Bots, I founded a small company designing and selling 3D printed gaming accessories. This swallowed up most of my time so I had an extended hiatus from game design. Eventually, the urge to make games got the better of me and I started working on a few projects in my spare time. I joined some Facebook groups and started getting more involved with the game design community, and eventually stumbled on to The Game Crafter’s Mint Tin Contest.

Now this seemed like a great way to get back into designing games – entries had to be small (to fit in a mint tin), short (under 20 minutes), and not too complex. Entries couldn’t use copyrighted artwork, and my funds were limited. So, I started by searching my archives for art assets I could use and decided I would go from there. Amongst other ideas, I wondered if I could redesign Laser Bots to the constraints of the contest. Perhaps some limitations were exactly what I needed; the original computer game was born out of limitations of technology, so maybe restrictions on game components and complexity were the key to finally making Laser Bots work.

The first thing I did was limit the game to four robots (there were six in the previous big-box version). I selected them carefully so each one had its own unique abilities and play-style: Astro is defensive and works well at long range, Henry is better at offense and manipulates cards in play, Sparky has mastery over energy, and Turbo is all about speed & movement.

The game size and length were the next thing I tackled, and it wasn’t long before making it a two-player only game seemed like the right way to go. This meant that with four robots to choose from, there would be a decent variety of robot match-ups.

Then I had to decide on the core mechanism. I’d wanted to design a game using what I call ‘action management’ for some time. It’s a not a well known mechanism – I’ve only seen it in Assault of the Giants and really liked the concept. The basic idea is that you build up a row of cards, one card per turn. When you add a card, the more cards that are already to the left, the more powerful the newly played card becomes. So the timing of when you play each card is a key factor to victory. You then have some means to return all your cards to your hand so you can start the process again.

I took the old program cards and adapted them to this new mechanism. The movement paths were no longer needed, just abilities unique to each robot. However, for action management to work you need a hand of about eight cards to choose from so you can build up the cards and still have a choice of what to play and when. With four robots to choose from, that’s a total of 32 cards, leaving no room for other cards in the tin once you factor in the other essential components.

At this point I also considered the game’s replayability which would be limited with only four fixed decks. This is why I added the advanced program cards: 12 unique cards with two dealt to each player at the start of the game – this really mixes things up, and opens up lots of card combos. I also wanted each droid to have some basic actions to increase and decrease range so I created the sets of basic program cards for this (two identical cards for each player). So with two basic program cards and two advanced, I now only needed four unique cards per robot – perfect!

For the robots’ own program cards, I balanced them by giving each a defensive card, a movement card, a normal attack, and a double damage attack. Each of these cards has their own unique twist depending on the robot’s personality and play-style. I also made some actions ‘delayed’, so they could be used later in the game, such as defensive abilities and attack rerolls.

As part of the action management mechanism, I created the Recharge action which players can perform instead of playing a card. This is a nice nod to the original recharge zone idea – when recharging, you can return any of your cards to your hand, and you gain an energy for each card returned. Again, nice and simple and it elegantly fused the energy resource with the action system. With this action I added the option for players to leave cards in their program row to give them a head-start building up their cards, and also to leave cards in play that had unused actions.

Then I moved onto the game board – I tried making a board from several cards, but they shifted around too much. I then thought to myself, what function does the board serve? Once you remove all features from the board (recharge zones, terrain), it essentially just determines how far the robots are from each other. Now the game was only two players, this function can easily be utilised by a range tracker, and so the range card was born – perfect for a mint tin game. I love it when I come up with an elegant solution like this.

I tried several variations of the range card. Initially the target number went down to 2+ but I found that it devalued defence cards – forcing a reroll when the attacker only needs 2 or more was pretty lousy odds. But with best chance at 3+ it gives a reasonable chance for a reroll to miss. Whilst making these changes I also adapted all of the ‘Shield’ cards so that if the attacker’s reroll still hit your robot, you gained some other benefit – this way it never felt like you had wasted your shield, removing any potential negative play experience resulting from bad luck.

With a lot of play testing, I made various other tweaks and changes until I arrived at the game as it stands today. It was a lot of hard work, and it was a huge learning experience in skills beyond game design – I’ll probably cover this in a later blog entry.

I’m very pleased with how the game turned out, and it’s a game that both I and my testers really enjoyed playing. Laser Bots exceeded my expectations, and I owe a lot of what makes it work to the limitations imposed on the design: from the original computer game to this mint tin version. In the evolution of this game I really have come full circle.

Further Info

For more details on Laser Bots (including a playthrough and tutorial video), and to purchase the game, please visit the shop page: https://www.thegamecrafter.com/games/laser-bots

If you like the look of Laser Bots, please consider voting for it in the Mint Tin Contest: https://www.thegamecrafter.com/contests/mint-tin-challenge

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s