DESIGNER DIARY pt 4: AGENTS IN TIME — Rip It Up and Start Again…

It’s been a while since I posted one of these, and since we’ve had all manner of fun and games trying to find a publisher for Agents in Time, I figured another instalment was probably overdue…

— April 2017: Travelling Man, York and various houses —

Having established that we had several issues with not only the cluttered and clustered world map, but also the whole concept of world-spanning events, and collectible objects ‘strewn’ through these locations and across various time-zones, it took a lot of balls and an about turn of sizeable proportions to scrap most of what we had, throw the world map away, and start again, but that’s pretty much what I chose to do…

The world map was proving unworkable, so the next best thing was a timeline-based system whereby players could move from one location to another via a form of time tunnel. Using tiled hexes for these locations made immediate sense (and everybody likes the equal range of movement offered by hexes, right?) and we came up with something which would reflect that the further away from the ‘core timeline’ player’s Agents travelled, the more crazy and varied the possible consequences should they start Paradox-ing things that far out, and so on and so forth…

Thus we had black as the ‘core timeline’ of major events, and drifted slowly towards amber and red as things got decidedly more messy… this initial board/map concept stuck for a short while, but we realised early on that we would need to extrapolate each of the 16 major events to their logical (or illogical) conclusion in order to properly portray what might happen if you messed about with the Main Timeline (as it became known)…

pre-set board

This in turn, quickly led to another mess: it was too hard to work out how several events and paradoxes might interact with each other and the most likely consequences thereof… To put it bluntly, we were stymied at this point, and the game had degenerated into a random object-collection game in which everybody avoided moving towards the furthest edges of the board (where the consequences were game-breaking for a player’s Agent a lot of the time).

That illusive ‘light-bulb moment’ came when I scrapped the whole concept of a set board/layout, and decided we should just have 48 dated events (hex-shaped tiles that eventually became the Timespots we use now) which were either the right way up because a Timespot event had happened, or flipped the wrong way up (because it had been stopped, or paradoxed — the term ‘flipped’ became standard parlance at this point!).  Moreover, these 48 Timespots would be used to randomly generate a different starting set-up every game — a marvellous idea, although 48 tiles proved way too many, and we cut it down to 36 after several lengthy playtest sessions, and especially when it became apparent that balancing all the Objective cards was going to make for an awful lot of cards to print.

Object_cards_oldAt this point, the objects were proving a bit of a nightmare to deal with, and much as Ocean and Stephen were insistent that we could make objects work in the context of the game, I remained unconvinced: there was already too much going on with trying to flip the right Timespots to complete your Objective cards, without having to have the right object in-hand as well, and I just wanted to make sure the core game would work before worrying about how to incorporate objects into the mix. We were also still tied to a two-stage Planning and Action ‘box’ system wherein players placed Agents on the relevant box to indicate their intended action, before being allowed to actually carry it out, always assuming their plans hadn’t been scuppered before they got the opportunity to act.

— early May 2017: Travelling Man, York —

Playtest games started to drag on for much longer with the increased Timespots and varied Objective cards (even without the objects getting in the way), and it became readily apparent that we could just scrap the boxes, skip the first Planning stage of each turn, and allow players to place Agents directly onto the Timespot where they intended to carry out an action. Some basic placement and movement rules were drawn up, based on having to start on the Main Timeline (to prevent players from just going wherever they wanted and ‘doing their own thing’), and ironically, this was also when the first real sense of limited interaction with other Agents started to appear… It was still a two-stage process of placement first and then action, but it felt like turns came around a lot quicker now that we’d finally discarded the ‘majority goes first’ rule.

The ability to affect another players’ Agents on the same Timespot reared its head at this time, too, and now it really did start to feel more competitive and ‘game-like’… and with all the deception and planning now out in the open, the game started to take on a pleasant sense of players competing for similar (or completely opposite) goals. We also reduced the number of Agents down to four to speed the game up, but ultimately it would be the decision to scrap the two-stage placement and action sequence of each turn that would drag the game kicking and screaming into its modern incarnation…

Scrapping the two-stage turn process wasn’t the only major change at this juncture, we’d also agreed to have players belong to a certain faction (Scientists, Anarchists, Assassins, Peacemakers, Warmongers, and so on), and introduced a punishing Black Stone/Spot system. This proved to be a few too many changes at once, but also a hell of a learning process, and helped to forge the modern version of the game…

The unique Score Tracker was still a faraway glint in the eye at this point, but against all odds, we were in a position to publicly demo Agents in Time at the UK Games Expo 2017 the following month, and received some positive comments and great feedback, which I’ll probably talk more about next time…

 

 

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