A Blast from the Past: Designing Megablast Part 1

Game design

The basic idea for this game literally popped into my head a few hours before hearing about the upcoming 2020 Solo Print and Play contest on www.boardgamegeek.com. That, coupled with the theme from Xenon II buzzing in my head, was all the motivation I needed to get cracking with the design.

My goal was to design a solid, strategic solo game that had the spirit of the old shoot ‘em up games like Battle Squadron, Project X, R-Type, SWIV, and Xenon II (yeah, I used to be an Amiga geek). It was important that it ‘feel’ like those old games, as much as a boardgame can do so. So I started by thinking about the key features of what did (and didn’t) make an old school shoot ‘em up:

  1. Fast action.
  2. Waves of enemies flying across/down the screen.
  3. Ship control – this was the real skill of the game, maneuvering your ship to avoid enemies and bullets, whilst getting some of your shots on target.
  4. Loads of cool weapons and power ups.
  5. Levels and bosses.
  6. Accuracy – due to autofire being a staple of the old joysticks, a continuous stream of bullets, lasers, and missiles meant that we didn’t have to worry about making our shots count. As noted above, it was all about the maneuvering and big weapons. 

So, how to incorporate these features into a board game?

Early concept testing of main mechanics and shoot ’em up features.

1. Fast Action

The main way to get a feeling of fast action is to make the game real time. Since I don’t like real time games, this was not an option (it’s difficult to make a game you don’t like). 

So instead, I had to make sure that the gameplay itself was quick paced – simple, quick actions, coupled with an intuitive gameflow.

2. Waves of Enemies

My first thought in regard to this was one of theme. You will notice that the video game examples I mentioned at the start are nearly all sci-fi games (or have sci-fi elements). So fighting aliens was something I wanted right from the start.

In shoot ‘em ups the enemies fly towards the player’s ship from the side or top of the screen. In a boardgame format, vertical movement seemed more natural to me, so this decision happened very early on in the design process along with the theme. 

To facilitate the sort of enemy and player movement I wanted, a grid system seemed the logical choice. Each wave of aliens would be represented by a card – that card will have a number of aliens on it, so as you destroy each one their firepower diminishes. I’ll go into more detail on this below as it integrates with the next point (ship control). 

3. Ship Control

Having some sort of ship component that the player controlled was a must have. As alluded to above, this integrates with the alien movement. Allowing full player ship movement as in most shoot ‘em ups seemed impractical – it might require a larger play area and more components.

I decided to limit the movement for the player ship to left/right only, and the aliens would move down the grid towards the player – in this respect the movement became more like Galaga style games. After a bit of testing, 3 rows by 4 columns seemed to be the sweet spot – 4 columns was needed to allow for good ship movement, and 3 rows (typically with 1 alien per row) was a good amount to control at any one time.

4. Weapons & Pow Ups

This was an easy one. Gaining weapons and other abilities via collecting power ups and from a shop seemed like a perfect fit for a deck building mechanic. This also opened up some design space to create a selection of weapons, movement, and other abilities that can combo together in different ways.

I liked the idea of having some Pow Ups that moved down the grid that the player could collect. To emulate gaining a new weapon in a video game, when you collect a Pow Up you draw 3 cards from the shop deck. You then choose one and add it to the TOP of your deck (it is more thematic this way, and a bit different to most deck builders). 

I also wanted some sort of shop (a bit like in Xenon II) to avoid too much randomness (and frustration if you’re unable to collect the pow ups). Destroying a wave of aliens (killing all aliens on a wave card) awards you coins. You can spend these coins to buy specific cards from the shop.

Update: The design has evolved since first writing this blog. Pow Ups are now collectable tokens which can be spent to draw or play an extra card. The coins and shop have also been removed, instead you now simply gain a card when you defeat a card (wave of aliens), or 2 cards for defeating a boss. This put more emphasis on destroying the aliens and increased the deck building aspect of the game.

5. Levels & bosses

Most of the old shoot ‘em up games were broken down into levels. At the end of each level you had to fight a boss to continue. Breaking the game into several levels was easy to do and added a nice progression to the game (to balance out with the player’s evolving deck). To maximise card efficiency and variety, I decided to have all the aliens and bosses scale to the current level.

A level structure also fits nicely with the shop idea. At the start of each level, you visit the shop to gear up for threats you’re about to face.

6. Accuracy

As this was not something that needed to be part of the game. I wanted to eliminate the randomness of shooting. So when you use a weapon card, it simply deals damage – no random chance of it hitting (with a few exceptions of some alien defensive abilities, however these can be mitigated).

Second prototype – more graphics than I’d usually add at this stage, but I felt it important to get a better feel for the theming of the game.

Final Thoughts

I hope this has given you a little insight into Megablast and my design process. I’ll delve into more into the specifics in a later blog, as well as share how the game is developing.

I’d love to hear your thoughts so far and what shoot ‘em ups you remember from the old school days of video games.

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