Passages & Plunder – Safety of the Surface

Passages & Plunder is a board game of exploration and greed I’m working on. There’s a playtest version available, try it! This post is a design diary that won’t make much sense unless you’ve played it, so there.

The basics of colony management and Underworld exploration worked from the start. They’ve been refined a lot, different approaches tried and discarded, sure, but they worked. The ending didn’t. It’s a game where only one person can win, and with an open score there was no doubt as to who was winning. Which almost inevitably meant everyone else would not contribute to surviving, instead focusing on getting as many points as possible. While it was the intended behavior, it meant the games would end in everyone’s defeat. Lose due to score, by helping someone else win, or lose together due to the colony being overrun – not a great choice. The problem, I realised, was in players knowing who was ahead.

I’d considered obfuscating the score. What if the plundered resources (printed on expedition cards) sent to the Surface were not tallied on the track, but kept in a pile, to be counted at the end? But that would turn the game into a giant memorization exercise. And besides, there isn’t a lot variance in the amount of resources on each expedition, just knowing the number of cards in the pile would tell you enough. This didn’t seem worthwhile.

The approach I had actually tried was to have secret objectives revealed at the end of the game. “Gain 2 points for each dead colonist”, “Gain 3 points for each building”, that sort of thing. It was… okay. Along with identities that gave bonus points for specific actions (“Priest: gain 1 point each time you donate a card to the warehouse”), it also addressed another issue: single path to victory. If all that matters in the end is the score, and the score is gained by completing expeditions and nothing else, everyone behaves the same way. Moreover, it doesn’t matter how we get to the end, what state the colony is. Only the score matters.

With goals and identities, things got better. Goals introduced some uncertainty and a bit of long-term strategy. Identities varied turn-to-turn tactics. But it was 2 extra decks, 2 extra cards each player would get. It was extra bits, not an extra system. And I like systems. It didn’t feel right.

Enter Sponsors. Sponsors are an amalgamation of both goals and identities. Flavor-wise, they are the powerful organizations that are paying for the colony and expecting a return on their investment. Each sponsor has an action that earns their favor (donating a card to the warehouse earns you the favor of the Empress), and an event that advances their agenda on a separate track (the Pledge gains points each time a colonist dies). You can see how the previous ideas have been folded into this one. In addition to specific events, each sponsor likes two out of four resources in the game, and selling them to the sponsor advances that sponsor’s agenda as well.

At the end of the game, players earn bonus points based on their relative standing with sponsors and the sponsors’ agenda score. Uncertainty comes from a simple rule: at the end of each turn, players take the favor tokens they earned that turn, and secretly choose only one to keep, discarding the rest for a point each.

Finally, a dynamic system. Have you invested heavily into a particular sponsor by choosing to keep their favors? Perhaps you’ll try and advance their agenda. Is another sponsor getting ahead? Now may be the time to do them a favor or two.

It took several games to get the numbers right. It also quickly became apparent that not enough favor tokens were entering the game, with players mostly ending the turn with only one. That failed the uncertainty requirement, so I added quests: every time a sponsor’s agenda advances past a certain point on the track, the mayor takes their favor token and places it on one of the expeditions, to be claimed by whoever completes it. If a sponsor is doing well, more people have a chance to get into their good graces. More dynamic, more system!

As sponsors are a new addition, I expect they’ll still undergo some change. For instance, right now it may in fact be better to go for the second place in each sponsor rather than vying for the first. I’m not sure if that’s the way I want it to be. More playtesting is required, clearly. And I may still add secret goals back into the game, now that they have sponsors as a foundation.

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