Game Design

Terraforming Mars – A Walk Through Game Design with Jacob Fryxelius

Hey everyone!

Today’s design interview is a real treat. Jacob’s game not only is a pioneer in it’s genre, but it’s an incredible example of synergizing strong theme with great game play. This game plays on our childhood aspirations of exploring space and colonizing other planets. Let’s hear from the master!

How did you work to foster increased interaction in your game design and how important was interaction in your game development?

     In the case of Terraforming Mars, theme was all important from the start, not interaction. Some projects, like Martian Rails, are naturally interactive because they go between all cities, not just your own. The global parameters are also naturally interactive since they are part of the game state for all the players. How you lay tiles was also born thematically, as were the bonus steps on the global parameters (like releasing water when the temperature reaches 0 degrees). All these things added interaction, and we welcomed it and tried to make it as good and interesting as we could within the boundaries of the theme. The only artificially added things are the Milestones and Awards, and the draft variant.

How did you consider replay value in the design process?

    As I said before, theme comes first in Terraforming Mars. And because terraforming is such a huge and varied subject, replayability comes naturally from the myriad of things you can do (208 different cards). We just preserved it. Another thing that added replayability is the 12 different corporations, but those were actually added because of theme – we gave them asymmetry and special powers to give players a richer story, and to make them feel their identity making a notable difference in gameplay.

What was the most substantial change that happened during playtesting?

    Many things changed during the development, but the most dramatic change during the final beta testing was the introduction of the ‘1 or 2 actions’ rule. Before that every player did their whole generation before the next player had its go. This of course caused increased downtime as the engines expanded during the game, but I was very reluctant to using a ‘1 action at a time’ rule that some suggested because that would remove so many combos and surprises from the game. Then I realised that a ‘1 or 2 actions’ rule would fix it all, and more: Downtime is almost eliminated, you can still make surprises with your 2 actions, if you have difficulty in deciding your strategy you can just take 1 obvious action now and get some more time to think it over, you can stall, you can rush. It was beautiful.

How did you find the artists and graphic designers for your game?

    FryxGames is a family business, and my brother Isaac made the graphic design. He and Daniel (another brother in the company) made a lot of the artwork.

What are the major dynamics that make your game unique? How did you brainstorm or come up with the original concepts behind those?

    I would say that the investment of 3 for buying new cards to you hand (besides the cost for actually playing them later) is one of the more unique features, resulting in a tight balance between long- and short term planning. But overall I think the many interlocking mechanics, all scientifically grounded, are what makes the game special: the 6 different resources, the tile placement, the project cards and their combos, the buying of cards, timing of playing them, races for bonuses and milestones etc. Us brothers in FryxGames always discuss our games with each other and try to make them better, but the starting point for Terraforming Mars was that I designed a prototype, got feedback, made the next prototype etc. And for me, the game comes from the theme.

How did you think about barrier of entry when you designed your game?

    When the game was pretty much finished, we added Beginner Corporations to make it easier for new players to get into the game by removing a lot of the initial choices you usually make in this game. They also allowed new players to play against experienced players using the unique corporations.

What is one piece of advice you would give to new game designers trying to get into this space?

    My advice would be to get your priorities straight. Make games because you love making games, not because you want to get rich or live off it. VERY few people are able to live off making board games. After that you can go about finding partners for the different steps needed to publish a game: design (you), graphic design, artwork, playtesting, funding, production, distribution, marketing.