From Screen to Table: Designing Megablast Part 2

Game design

This is part 2 of my designer diary for Megablast (a solo, deck building, shoot ‘em up game). I want to dive into more of the specifics of the game and my design process. In this post, I’m going to talk about how I went about adapting the screen-based elements of a video game into a table-top board game, and how this in turn sparked the idea for Megablast’s event system.

To recap from part 1. From the outset, I wanted Megablast to emulate the vertical shoot ‘em up video games I played during the 80s and 90s (where the aliens fly down the screen towards the player’s ship). I wanted a heavy sci-fi theme as most of my favourite games of that era pitted the player against swarms of weird and wonderful aliens.

The Grid

In going from screen to table, I first focussed on the main elements of the game – the aliens and the player ship. How were these going to be represented in the game? And what mechanisms would I use for them to move and attack?

As this game was going to be print and play, I decided that cards could easily represent these elements, along with any relevant information (health, attacks, etc.). With that decision made, I decided that a grid system would be simple and effective. 

With a little experimentation, I determined that a 4 x 4 grid was a good size. Any bigger and it gets unwieldy and unmanageable, any smaller and it would not allow for meaningful movement and positioning. At this size, the player has to plan their movement to position themselves for attack and defense, making for some interesting and tough decisions (which is what I like in a game). 

To avoid complicating things too much I separated the enemy area from the player area. So, the player ship was limited to the bottom row (sideways movement only), and the enemies would be restricted to the top 3 rows (so in video game terms, more of a Galaga style system).

Initially I tried using a board to represent the grid, but I wanted to keep the component/page count as low as possible. So instead of using a board, I tried using cards to mark the outer edge of the grid. It worked really well and I found that you only really needed cards along two edges (top and side). Because the player row was separate to the enemy rows, I also decided that a card was not needed to mark that row. The result is that with just seven cards, we can now map out the play area – nice! Not only does this reduce the page count, it also makes the game easier to store. That’s a win win in my book. 

Events

However, I don’t like waste. I saw those seven cards just sitting there and thought they could probably serve some additional purpose in addition to marking out the grid. 

I had already wanted a Pow Up system (just like in a lot of video games) where the player could collect a Pow Up to gain some benefit. I wanted some randomness as to when and where they appeared, but I also wanted a consistent amount of them in each of the game’s three levels. Having them triggered by the enemy cards wouldn’t work as they could all clump together in a single level.

Having the column cards double as event cards seemed like an elegant solution. I could also add in some other effects too that make it more challenging for the player. Initially I had each card trigger the first time a card was deployed in that column but due to the randomness of the enemy decks, it could mean that some events won’t trigger in a given level. So instead, I added an event step at the end of each enemy turn so one event card is flipped face-up each turn, from left to right.

Because each event card is in its own column it also meant that I had a random column selector built in – perfect for the Pow Ups as it randomised which column they would appear in. I decided that two Pow Ups was a good number to have each level, so I just needed two other events. 

Plenty of shoot ‘em ups have asteroids and other obstacles that the player has to avoid or shoot. This was a must have, so every time the obstacle event is revealed, a card is drawn from an obstacle deck and deployed in the grid. Obstacles don’t shoot, but they can block shots to the enemy cards and damage the player if the two collide. On the plus side, they do award bonus points when destroyed.

Finally, I wanted to add something to benefit the aliens (it’s only fair they get something too). To begin with, I had it so an extra enemy was deployed, but this messed with the cadence of the game and the boss would appear too early. I opted for a boost token which is added to the recently deployed enemy, increasing their attack and defence capability.

Now to the row cards. As there were three row cards and three levels in the game, using them as a level marker was a no brainer – all I needed to do was number the cards and create a token to mark the level. Also, because the enemy decks and upgrade decks are level based, by placing these decks alongside the row cards, it makes it clear which deck belongs to which level.

Final Thoughts

I’m happy with how the grid system has developed. It’s simple and effective, and importantly, it does a good job of emulating a video game (as much as is possible with a card game). I’m particularly proud of the dual use grid cards – the events add more variability to the game, providing more options for the player, and the row numbers track the level and allow the decks area to be better organised. 

Next time I’m going to discuss the combat and enemy A.I. Until then, have a blast!

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.