Mars Attacks – The Design Challenge


Every game has its own combination of tricky bits to get right, and one of the most important things to do as a designer is work out what these are as early as possible so you get more time to focus on them.

For Mars Attacks I think that the biggest challenge is balance. I’m not talking about balance between Martians and Humans (though that has to happen as well). I’m referring to the balance between skill and luck.

Every game is a balance between these two opposing elements. However, for most of my games luck is a subsidiary element and is often only there to provide a randomness for the outcomes. This residual luck (as it were) is easy to design with as it’s not even really seen as luck by many players. It’s just how you resolve stuff.

For Mars Attacks we need a different balance point – one that’s shifted more towards randomness. Why? Well the background dictates it. As I discussed before, the comic style background cries out for a different approach. Mars Attacks really needs the weird, wacky, larger than life melodrama to really do it justice. Unfortunately, this sort of event tends towards potent as well as random and so can easily tip things too far. Personally I don’t tend to play games that are primarily driven by randomness, and though Mars Attacks has the benefit of being quick to play (so randomness is less of a problem), I still don’t want it to feel unskilled. It has to be a game where the more skilled player wins every, or nearly every time. Exceptionally poor or good luck might tip the balance once in a while, but it should be unusual enough to be noted as such.

So the weird and dramatic story elements like rampaging robots and falling cars need to be balanced by opportunities for player skill. Finding the right balance point here is the challenge.

Actually, I know what I want. I want a skill based game with lots of story. This means that any skill I sacrifice for randomness needs to be greatly rewarded with extra fun story elements.

The main way I’m doing this is by keeping the core rules very much like a normal skirmish game. Strip everything back and this is what you end up with: a simple, but fairly traditional, skirmish game. There is luck and randomness used to resolve actions, but nothing more. The main additional random element comes in the card draws. This is more dramatic than, say, DreadBall, simply because of the types of things that are on the cards. However, they are major story elements and so their presence is required and any lost skill is worth it.

As you’ll see if you try out the beta rules, some of these events can be very potent, perhaps a bit too potent as they stand. I may need to rein a few of them in, and when more are added they also need to be carefully watched for the balance between luck and wackiness.

Overall I think it’s working pretty well so far. There’s  plenty more playtesting to be done, and you guys are more than welcome to join in.

See you in the ruins 😉


This entry was posted in Game Design Theory, Mars Attacks!. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Mars Attacks – The Design Challenge

  1. Anthony says:

    Definitely enjoying the rules. However the game feels limited by the very scenarios you follow. Will there be an option for a point-based game? I know the game lives and dies by it’s scenarios but you’d have to have a crazy amount of scenarios to encompass a lot of the units that we’ve seen so far. It also feels as if it robs the game of a customized force if I’m unable to choose my forces as I see fit. Will there be circumvention for this or no?

    • Quirkworthy says:

      A similar point was raised earlier. As I said on that post, my intention is to give points values so that you ca swap forces and play any given scenario with whatever you like. In reality, most people will probably play them as given, but it’s always nice to have the choice.

      As to how many scenarios there will be… the answer is lots. And lots 🙂

      • Anthony says:

        Fantastic, I’m incredibly glad to hear there’s versatility within scenarios. How will the game scale up? Have you done any play tests using larger and larger play areas? If so, what’s the possible endgame of that, or will this always be at it’s heart a skirmish game first and foremost?

        I apologize for the barrage of questions.

        • Quirkworthy says:

          No need for apologies. I’ll invade you later 😉

          I’ve played a couple of larger games and they work fine. Because it’s a simple game at heart, there’s no real issue with adding more grunts on each side. It’s not an extra burden of rules, it’s just more things to attack with. Obviously the games take a little longer, but not as much as you might imagine.

          The other things that larger games allow is more players and more big stuff, like saucers and vehicles. They work OK on the single mat, but come into their own when they have the space to run about. Bigger playing areas mean that two (or more) players per side can still have a decent sized force each. On a single mat they won’t have much each.

          Not sure what you mean by the end game. If you wanted to play with several players a side you could get very large games indeed without it breaking down. I can’t see that being a common way to play, but it’d be fun once in a while. An ideal club event, or something like that.

        • Anthony says:

          I’m talking regarding multiple factions, sometimes on the same board. How do you resolve things like event cards on multiple playmats? Regarding to endgame I guess the easiest example would be Armageddon to Warhammer 40k.

          At much larger point (or scenarios) values will we see whole blocks of Greenville under contest and will there be larger formations for troops to benefit from that?

          Like if I toss a wing of saucers together, they are granted bonuses for moving in unison. Let me know if I’m not being clear.

        • Quirkworthy says:

          Good questions. I’ve got some ideas for dealing with those , but for the moment I want to refine the core single mat game as much as possible. That, after all, is what anything bigger must be based on, and so it needs to be properly nailed down before we worry about the details of the bigger games. The test battles I had simply demonstrated that the principle worked.

          I think that a 6×4 game (6 mats) would be possible with 2 players, and that would probably be about the limit. Of course, more players would make even bigger games work.

          At this size you do indeed need rules for moving larger groups, and this is where some of the heroes come in. Martians particularly are military commanders (on the whole) and so aid their troops.

        • Anthony says:

          Neat. I’ve followed your blog for a while, mostly lurking and I’m very impressed both by your candor and professional expertise. I was especially excited about Deadzone and now this even surpasses that. I look forward to seeing what you come up with. What’s some sticking points you’d like beta testers to look over or test? I’ve been running a few games and for the most part it’s an incredibly fast and fun game. No sticking points yet on my end.

        • Quirkworthy says:

          Thank you Anthony, glad to hear it’s working smoothly 🙂

          The current Beta concentrates on the core of the rules which I think is fairly solid. We’ve got 4 weeks left of the Kickstarter and will be covering many more part of the game over that time. I’m going to be working through some of the heroes next, and they’ll need a new scenario or two for you guys to try them out in. Plenty to keep you amused 🙂

      • Tyrone says:

        I’m hoping for an Agents of Smersh sized scenario book. That would be so awesome. Crazy time consuming to write, but awesome.

        • Quirkworthy says:

          I’ve not seen how big those scenarios (“encounters”) are, but a review I looked at said 1600! We won’t be doing that many.

        • Tyrone says:

          Lol, Yeah. The 1600 is based off of encounter set-ups which are actually pretty small in length. A scenario is much larger than an encounter, so I definitely was not saying that many. A fair amount for replayability would be nice though.

        • Quirkworthy says:

          Absolutely. If the KS keeps going the way it is I think we’ll be talking in the order of dozens of scenarios, plus the ability to swap things out for the same points costs. Plus the different factions. That should be a fair bit of replay value without any repetition 🙂

  2. Torkel says:

    hahaha sweet Quirkworthy banner! 😀

  3. tornquistd says:

    With DHK I was surprised that more people did not do scenarios but to be fair I only did one after I had the understanding required to do one. I am telling myself that I am in the Mars Attacks kickstarter for the figures (brains in a jar and ack, ack is just to much to turn away from) 🙂 but with that said it increases the odds I will end up playing the game more than I am expecting to. Perhaps a scenario builder mechanic (cards?) could add depth to the game and reduce the size of the rule book. I could see dealing x cards and discarding x cards and laying a your cards one or x at a time as an interesting way to produce a scenario. It seems like it could match the Mars Attacks history as a card game.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      Mars Attacks is a rich enough background to do several games in, and I’ve already half worked out one board game. That’s going to have to wait for a while though (at least).

      A scenario builder is a lovely idea. Unfortunately it’s rather more complicated than that. What makes the best scenarios fun are often the bizarre or unusual elements which are exactly the bits that don’t sit well in rigid processes. I can see how you could do a bad one, but doing a really good one would be extremely complex. And, once you’d spent those months making it work right, it would probably only need to be a couple of pages long anyway so all the work would be almost invisible. It’s a tricky “sell” all round.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s