This is part 3 of my designer diary for Megablast. Following on from my previous discussion of the grid system, this time I’ll be talking about the aliens, combat, and A.I.
The main focus for Megablast was to emulate the vertical shoot ‘em up video games I played during the 80s and 90s. My goal with the combat and A.I. was to make it fun with minimal upkeep, but also to emulate the video games and open up the decision space for the player.
Deployment & Movement
Part of designing the grid mechanism was the A.I. for alien movement. As I was emulating old video games, the A.I. didn’t have to be particularly clever (more artificial than intelligent you could say). I just needed something that would determine how they deploy and move down the grid. I also wanted something with minimal book keeping but made the grid action interesting, providing meaningful choices for the player in how they deal with the aliens.
My solution was very simple – each enemy card has one or two arrows in one of the top corners (facing left or right).
This indicates how many spaces they deploy from that edge (always in the top row), and also the sideways direction they will move each turn as they move down the rows. Sideways movement for the aliens was important, otherwise the grid would be too static, allowing the player to just stay in one position and shoot (and as established in part 1, movement is a big part of these types of games).
Attack & Defense
It was important to have lots of different aliens and bosses, not just visually but to provide variety and replayability. I wanted small waves of tough aliens as well as swarms of weaker aliens, each with its own combination of attack and defense abilities.
The enemies also had to be scalable. So the level they are encountered during the game determines how tough and powerful they are.
For the attack and defense abilities of the aliens, I took my inspiration from one of my favourite solo games, Zephyr: Winds of Change – this game largely went under the radar, but I found it very fun to play and it had some neat ideas. In Megablast, each enemy card has a number of aliens which increases as the player progresses through the game’s levels – the player rolls a die for each alien on the card, and for each result consults a table to determine the damage dealt.
This solution was a nice, thematic way to integrate the artwork with the mechanisms, whilst making the enemy attacks scalable, simple, and fun. It also meant that when the player attacks, they can kill individual aliens by covering them with an explosion token, reducing that card’s dice pool.
Many of the aliens also deal special types of damage that apply additional effects. For example, Ion damage reduces movement, and Pierce damage cannot be prevented. And some aliens don’t even deal damage, but have other effects such as healing other aliens or forcing the player to discard cards.
Defensive abilities work the same as attacks. These effects primarily prevent damage dealt by the player – this emulates that in a video game, the enemies are always moving, so some shots made by the player might miss. However, some defense abilities deal damage and other effects to add an element of risk when engaging those enemies.
The boss fights were tricky to get right. I wanted to avoid adding lots of additional rules for bosses, but also wanted to make the boss fights feel different and epic. Since the bosses would remain in play until defeated, they were going to need some sort of upward movement. Taking my cue from the video games, I kept it simple by making them “bounce” when they hit the edge of the grid (much like how they bounce around the screen in video games). This was easily achieved with an arrow token that the player turns to show the bosses direction of movement.
For attack and defense, the first issue was the dice pool. Rolling a single die isn’t much fun and is very linear. Early testing showed that making the scalable bosses (similar to the alie wave cards) wasn’t working. So I made the bosses level specific, but added multiple bosses for each level to provide variety and avoid predictability. This also meant I could tailor their abilities to ramp up the difficulty of each level’s boss fight.
Finally, I wanted to make each boss feel different to the others, so I gave each one either a unique attack or unique defense ability. Including the expansion, there are now 3 bosses per level, so each game will provide a different combination of bosses to overcome.
Staying true to the theme but also providing some deep strategic gameplay has certainly been one of the most challenging aspects of this design. I’m very happy with the result, particularly how I integrated the alien graphics with the mechanisms, whilst also adding scalability to the cards.
Next time I will conclude this designer diary series with the core mechanism of Megablast, the deck building.