September 11th, 2018

South Park Self

SPACE TERMITES!

Over the last few years stv&jo have variously participated in a sort of bloody-mindedly perverse version of Ludum Dare, which is a game jam, a themed, annual competition to design a video game in 48 hours. While stv and his cohorts have in the past actually programmed a game, some combination of jo&stv have at various points also run a personalised version where they design a board game or RPG to the specified theme, and within the specified time. This is, in fact, how jo and I came, back in 2013, to invent Space Amnesia, which was a LARP which messed with the theme for that year ("10 seconds") to play with the idea of an amnesiac spaceship crew receiving their memories back in short, if not quite 10-second, bursts. We never quite perfected the LARP, but it had a couple of rather entertaining test plays.

This year's August Ludum Dare had the theme of "running out of space", and jo&stv and I and their friend Sara ended up trying the board game version this last weekend, delayed from the actual August date by the fell descent of lurgis. We ended up with a strategic tile-placement game called Space Termites! (the exclamation point is integral and vital).



You are an intrepid space engineer, tasked with building a spaceship in simultaneous co-operation and competition with your fellow space engineers, and hoping you do so well enough to survive the subsequent space termite attack. The "running out of space" theme comes in the reduction of your spaceship size not just by termite depredations, but by your deployment of your fiendish module-folding skills, which allow you to compress and fold back the spaceship you have just carefully built, to retain all necessary facilities and make sure (a) no sticky-out bits are gnawed off by space termites, and (b) it's small enough to be picked up by the rescue vessel. You are scored competitively on how many of your tiles survive. Tiles are placed according to the air/power/water connections, and facilities designated by the same processes, and you end up with something that scorns design regularity (we decided space engineers have no truck with architects) but during various different games did, in fact, amorphously come to resemble a space fish, the Millenium Falcon if you squint, or a Star Destroyer with its front point gnawed off. Unlike this one, which once the termites have finished will look more like a Borg cube.



The game is ridiculously entertaining and rather back-stabby to play, and also weirdly tactical for a basic, silly concept, but it was also absurdly fun to design. It's fascinating to me how incredibly generative limitation can be (which explains, I suppose, why I'm so into highly reductionist genre convention). If someone tells you "design a board game" you flounder, but if someone says "design a board game about running out of space", ideas self-generate in excited flocks and have to be wrangled over heatedly while they bounce off each other and mutate. (It is not entirely impossible that this process was unduly exacerbated by (a) wine, and (b) high levels of postgraduate education among the participants, which means things became at times conceptually dense and polysyllabic.)

And I really think we struck it lucky (or highly intentional and clever. Or both.) with the core concept, because the balance between co-operation and back-stabbing really makes the game interesting, and ramifies out the tactical possibilities in weird and challenging ways. Also, I have to say, there were untold opportunities to make cheerfully mean space engineer jokes. Sorry, engineers. You can laugh when the termites get me.

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