Killing Bugs Like it’s 1999

Posted on August 26, 2016 By

The heroes of Newton

I picked up the Systems Failure RPG on a whim about ten years ago. Okay, it wasn’t totally a whim. It was in response to the publisher’s public cry for help; they were on the verge of bankruptcy and needed all the sales they could get. I’d been eyeballing a couple of their titles, and used their crisis as an excuse to pick them up. (And yes, the publisher recovered from its slump and is still going strong today. You’re all welcome.)

Fast forward a couple years: I’m moving to Colorado, and deciding which games to bring and which to give away. “I still need to read this one,” I think, and pack Systems Failure into a box labeled “Yet Still More RPG Books.”

Fast forward a couple more years: “I need a book to read on the bus. Oh, right. Systems Failure!”

Fast forward another week: “That looks pretty fun. I won’t be able to get any of my friends to a new system, though. I wonder how hard it would be to convert to Savage Worlds?”

And then… nothing. For six years.

…Until a month ago, when an opportunity arose for me to run a one-shot of anything Savage Worlds. Since the group had already played more than their share of Karthador and Ghost Punchers, I let my gaze drift across my gaming bookshelf until it landed on Systems Failure.

“Yes,” I said to myself, nodding with melodrama. “It’s time.”


In Systems Failure, the players take on the roles of American resistance forces fighting a guerilla war against an occupying force of aliens. The aliens, which feed off (and shoot) energy, are called “bugs” because they look like giant insects. The world is post-apocalyptic, though more Dawn of the Dead than Mad Max (the cities are still prime for looting, if full of bugs). It’s still got nomadic automotive barbarians, of course. Because those guys are cool.

Our crew of survivors set out to trade crops for batteries at the local barter-town, but found the place taken over by an advance force of bugs. Never one to walk away from a fight, they waited until nightfall, scouted around a bit, then commandeered a National Guard tank and charged the bug HQ. Wackiness ensued.

Savage Worlds handled the setting beautifully. The only things I actually converted were the bugs themselves, with which I played fast and loose. They might not have been mechanically identical to their counterparts from the original system, but they were narratively the same: increasingly fast, tough, and able to shoot energy beams from their bodies.

We all had a good time with it.I won’t be surprised if we return to the world of Systems Failure. But if we don’t, that’s fine; I’ve got dozens of other unread, unplayed RPGs still waiting for for their moments in the sun.


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Robots Dropped, Rules Changed

Posted on August 24, 2016 By


I finally fought my way free of the Sarlacc pit long enough to do some playtesting on that Robot Drop game I keep muttering on about. And, as I suspected, the game as written was as dull as a butter knife sealed in rubber and wrapped in bubble wrap.

The biggest problems were these:

  • When you can put robots into play anywhere on the board, the “move” action is pretty pointless.
  • When you’ve only got one action a turn, it takes forever to make any meaningful changes to the game state.
  • It also takes roughly forever to deal 20 damage to an opponent’s Home.

With that in mind, I made a few tweaks to the rules:

  • Robots only come into play adjacent (diagonally or orthogonally) to their Homes.
  • Players have three actions a turn.
  • You only need to inflict 15 damage on a Home in order to win.

(I’m actually a bit unsure on that last one. The first couple playtests suggested 15 is the sweet spot, but the next tests howled that 15 is still too high. I might try 10.)

The second iteration felt more exciting than the first, but it’s still a little slow for my tastes. I’ve got some ideas for the next iteration that should speed things up without sacrificing too much strategy. I’ll keep you posted!


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Dropping by Design

Posted on August 22, 2016 By


Last week I casually brought up that I was working on a new game, and rambled on like a senile old man about its components. (“Back in my day, we didn’t have numbers on game pieces. We had shapes like triangles and birds’ feet, and you just had to count ’em!”)

Today I’d like to revisit Robot Drop in a little more detail. Specifically, let’s look at the game’s setup and turn sequence.


  • The game is played (for now, at least) on a 7 x 7 grid. Each player has a “home” in one space of that grid.
  • At the start of the game, each player shuffles his pile of 10 robots and draws three.
  • One player is randomly chosen to go first.



Turn Sequence

The game is played in a series of turns. On your turn, do the following in order:

  1. Draw a robot.
  2. Take one action, which may be any of the following:
    • Put a robot into play into an empty space on the board.
    • Move a robot in a straight line up to two spaces (and yes, you can pass through friendly units).
    • Rotate a robot any amount. (Remember: facing matters.)
  3. Count down all timers in the game. So if you just played a unit with a Timer value of 4, it counts down to 3. Or a robot with a current timer of 2 counts down to 1.
  4. Attack! All units that have counted down to zero attack simultaneously. When a robot attacks, it deals damage equal to its base Timer value to the first enemy robot in the direction that it’s facing. (Attacks pass through friendly units.) For example, if a robot has a Timer value of 4, it deals 4 damage.
  5. Reset all robots that have counted down to zero back to their based Timer values.


I’m still messing around with the victory conditions. The simplest and most traditional idea is that you win if you inflict 20 damage on your opponent’s Home. There will probably be some other ways to win too (control the magic Bot Spot? have the most birds’ feet?), but it’s a good place to start.


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In Defense of Default

Posted on August 17, 2016 By


I’m working on a new game. It’s called “Robot Drop” (for now) and, while you might think it sounds like a typical “dudes fighting on a board” game, it’s actually an exploration of temporal and tactical game play space using… dudes. On a board. Who are… um. Fighting.

Okay, it’s not exactly smashing genre boundaries, but it does have some cool new mechanics that I think are different enough to make it interesting.

Let’s check out one of the playing pieces.


The key element here is the unit’s Timer value. When the unit comes into play, its timer is set to that stat. At the end of each turn, the timer “counts down.” When it hits zero, the unit attacks, dealing damage equal to its Attack value.

Clever, eh?

What’s not so clever, is that each unit has six numbers on it.

Oh, sure, six numbers is nothing on a chit for a war game like Delta Commandos Squad Forward Assault Leader, but I’m targeting a more general audience; an audience (like myself) that would be a little freaked out by so many numbers on a playing piece.

Clearly, the solution here is to make most of these numbers their default value.

For example, Speed will almost always be 2. Let’s just say “units can move two spaces” in the rules, thus making it the default, and remove the stat from the unit.

Shields? Default to zero. Range? I’m going to get brave and give everything infinite range, since the board really isn’t that big. As for Attack

It’s no coincidence that Timer and Attack are the same value. If you have to wait five turns for your attack to go off, it should be pretty powerful — and in this game, 5 damage is enough to destroy most units.

So let’s make the Attack value default to being the same value as the Timer.


Let’s see how it looks now:

Ah, that’s much cleaner!

What’s more, you’ll note we now have space for text or icons or whatever on the playing piece. So if we want to deviate from the default (“Shields 3” for example, or “Speed +2”) we can do that where necessary without cluttering up all the other units.

So is the game any good? I’m just printing up a prototype right now, so we’ll find out together in the days to come!

Game Design     , , ,

The Blank Page

Posted on August 12, 2016 By


Last week, while talking about one of my game design projects with a non-gamer friend, he asked, “How do you do it? How do you just… come up with a game idea?”

The question caught me off guard. Concepting games is like tying my shoes: I’ve done it so much, I don’t really think about it anymore. Oh, I don’t mean the iterative process of designing, testing, and refining. I think about that stuff all the time. Rather, I’m talking about the flash of pure magic that takes me from blank page to workable game idea.

Every game is different, but I realized that in general, my ideas come from three sources:

Embracing the Theme: If you have a setting, a story, or a real-life thing you’re trying to replicate in game form, start from the theme and work your way down to the game mechanics. What aspects of the theme lend themselves well to gaming? (For example, in a Star Wars game, you’d be better off making a game about dog-fighting spaceships than political wrangling in the Galactic Senate.) Find a fun way to replicate the feelings of those aspects and you’re well on your way to filling that blank page.

Grabbing a Mechanic: Playing games is super-inspirational. I don’t know many times, while playing a game, I latch onto some mechanic in that game and see how it could be twisted or expanded into something else in another game. (“Yes, building your deck from a common pool of cards is cool, but what if the cards were on fire? Boom! Whole new genre!”) Once you’ve got a sweet core mechanic, you can build a game around that. Even if the mechanics of the resulting game ultimately look nothing like their inspiration, it doesn’t matter; the inspiration is what got you from blank page to game idea.

Going Random: I’ve written a bit about using random game generators to spark new game ideas. I’ve gone so far as to use them for projects here on the blog. Even if you’re working top-down (theme first) or bottom-up (mechanics first), adding a random element to your concept can help spark ideas that might take the game in directions that would otherwise never occur to you.

Now, these aren’t the only ways to dream up game ideas. They’re probably not even the best ways. But they’re methods that have worked for me and, if they help you start filling your blank page, I’m glad to have shared them.

Game Design     , ,

Sweet Sounds of Barsoom

Posted on August 8, 2016 By


Jaxar the Barbarian, aka “that juice-fueled toddler” loves to go on long walks.

“Outside!” he cries, pulling at my hand. Once on the sidewalk, he leads me down the street, around the corner, up the hill, and through a thousand miles of orc-infested wilderness en route to Mordor. Or maybe a playground. He likes swinging on the swings.

Between moments of active parenting, I use these epics journeys to listen to audio books. Recently, I’ve been listening to a lot of books from Librivox. Librivox, for the uninitiated, is an amazing website that provides free public domain audio books. They’ve got an army of volunteers who read and record the books, then release the recordings themselves to the public domain.

Thanks to these saints of the spoken word, I’m catching up on my John Carter novels. They’re a bit cheesy, and definitely products of their time, but they’re packed with awesome gaming ideas and pure pulpy fun.  What’s more, the reader sounds more than a little like Nick Offerman, so it’s easy to imagine Ron Swanson narrating Carter’s Martian adventures, which makes them all that much more entertaining.

Oh. Neat! I just poked around the Librivox site some more and found they’ve got Kurt Vonnegut, Andre Norton, and Fritz Lieber… and that’s just in the sci-fi category.

Come on, Jaxar! That ring won’t toss itself into Mount Doom!

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Poking at Patreon

Posted on July 27, 2016 By


First of all, I should establish that I’m not actually dead.

But I have been spending the past few weeks with Dream Quest Academy, helping teach kids about video game development and basic computer programming principles. (Give a kid a block of TNT in Minecraft, he’ll blow it up. Teach a kid how to spawn infinite blocks of TNT, and he’ll blow up the world until the game crashes.)

While away from the blog, I starting thinking about Patreon and pondering what its possible role could be for this website and various other creative endeavors.

For those who haven’t heard of it, Patreon is a platform that lets fans of a creator become patrons by subscribing to his or her efforts. In return for their monthly patronage, the creator give them rewards such as exclusive content, behind the scene info, or a shocking amount of control over what project creator tackles next.

I’ve got enough fun stuff going on here on the website that I can imagine a successful Patreon endeavor. (“Want to see updated Ghost Punchers material before anyone else? Become a patron!”) But there’s also such a wide range of content, I’m not sure what people want to see the most. World-building thoughts? Game design posts? Whiny-yet-humorous essays on the hardships of being a middle-aged father?

And there’s no reason to limit myself to blog content. With patron support, I could actually finish and produce some of these game ideas I’ve been kicking around, or maybe do some more fiction.

It’s… a bit overwhelming to think about. But exciting, too. I’ll continue to ponder, but while I’m pondering, if you have any suggestions, please let me know.

Blatant Self-PromotionPersonal     , , , ,

More Machete Madness

Posted on July 13, 2016 By


Earlier this summer, I wrote that I’d be sharing the Star Wars movies with my family in the now-classic Machete Order. I also promised to let you know how it went… then dropped the ball until now.

I found I didn’t miss Episode I at all. And I don’t know if it was the context, or just the fact I hadn’t seen it since it was in theaters, but Episode II wasn’t as bad as I remembered. Oh, it still wasn’t good. It was, in fact, rather stupid, but it was pretty, the action scenes were fun, and it did a good job of setting up Anniken as willing to cross every line in order to save Padme in Episode III.

My daughters enjoyed the movies and didn’t seem to realize or care that the prequels weren’t up to the bar set by the originals. And that’s fine. I restrained myself from pointing out the worst parts of Episodes II and III. Well, mostly. I might have said something about how foolish it was for the Jedi Council to blindly accept a clone army created as part of a secret plot a decade earlier. (“Oh, what a shiny wooden horse! Bring it here. And we don’t even know where it came from — how exciting!”)

Out of curiosity, I asked Thing One if she realized that Senator Palpatine was Darth Sidious. To my surprise, she said no. I’m guessing that’s the case for lots of kids who saw the prequels first, or didn’t make the connection between Sidious and the Emperor. I’ll be curious to see her reaction if she watches the prequels again knowing that the kindly old politician is actually a Sith schemer.

My final surprise was how much my two year-old son got into the movies. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised; flashing lasers, explosions, and bright colors are appealing on a primal level. Also, he’s in his “trucks, tractors, and robots” phase, and Star Wars, with its spaceships, vehicles, and droids definitely scratches that itch.

Overall, I’d have to recommend the Machete Order. It was a positive experience that elevated both Episode II and Episode VI, and helped tell a cohesive story.

PersonalRecommendations     , ,

Spider Plan

Posted on July 6, 2016 By


Weeks ago, I promised to work up what the Spider Siege board game looks like from the perspective of the spider player. It’s got to be different from the human players, right?

While those two-legged meatbags scurry across the board trying to gobble up resources like iron, food, and population in order to create and maintain their armies, their eight-legged adversaries are ignoring such logistics and simply conquering the realm. Right?

Um. Yes?

I’ll be honest. After spending more time than I’d like to admit pondering the spider-side of the game, I’m not entirely satisfied with what I’ve come up with. But it’s better to have something you can test (even if it’s not perfect) than to spend still more time coming up with something you think is perfect (because it’s not).

So ready or not, I’m pulling the trigger on this spider-plan.

Spider Cardsspider_card

While human players draw resource cards for each of their resource spaces, the spider player draws spider cards for each space the spiders occupy. (This encourages you, as the spider player, to spread your units out as much as you can.)

Spider cards have up to three bits of information on them:

  • Power Value
  • Magic Value
  • Spider Type

I’m thinking they always a Power value (probably 1-3), but the others don’t show up on every card.

Spider Actions

Like human players, the spider player can spend cards from hand to pay for the actions listed on his or her command sheet. Unlike human players, those actions are more restricted in terms of where they can take place. New recruits, for example, need to enter play where you have a nest, and new nests can only be spawned where you have a minimum of three units.

Here, check it out:


Hmm. Actually… this should work. It’s close enough to the human player experience that it doesn’t seem completely disconnected, but different enough to seem like its own thing. I feel better about it now than I did when I started writing it up.

Not to jinx it, but we might be ready to prototype this game.


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Advanced Factions & Actions

Posted on July 4, 2016 By


Happy Independence Day to all my American readers! And happy “Putting Up With Americans Day” to everyone else!

Before I dedicate myself to the over-eating and celebratory explosions for which our founding fathers fought, I’d like to take a few minutes to revisit the economy of the Spider Siege board game. (The founding fathers have no recorded thoughts on the subject, but I’d like to think they’d be opposed to freedom-hating giant spiders.)

When we last discussed such things, it was in terms of how expensive different units should be. On that lovely “menu” of costs (see above), I also included a section for “actions,” but never explained how they work.


Actions are resolved pretty much the same as recruiting units. You spend resource cards from your hand to pay for them, and they do what they say they do. Only, instead of putting units on the board, they affect the board in unique and interesting ways.

For example, the first action, “Move,” is something we’ve discussed before: Spend Food to move units on a 1-to-1 basis.

The fun part about actions is that they vary by player.


Each player has his or her own faction. (Most of these are human factions, but remember that there’s a spider faction too, for which I still need to solidify the economy.)

Different factions have different types of units. One might have a bunch of archers, while another might have cavalry.

Likewise, they have different actions. The archer faction might have something like:

Arrow Barrage: Spend 4 Metal and choose a space adjacent to at least one of your Archers. Destroy all enemies in that space.

Or the cavalry team might have:

Charge!: Spend 2 Food per unit in a space to move those units into an adjacent space and attack all enemies there. All your Cavalry units get +1 Attack during that attack.

Okay, these are just off the top of my head, but you get the idea. Each faction has its own list of units you can play and actions you can take, based on that faction’s particular schtick.

(Hmm… maybe I should go ahead and design those factions next. It’s one more way to put off working on the spider player’s economy, which is turning out to be more of a headache than I’d expected.)

Enough spidery stuff for now! Go forth and declare you independence from something!

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