Words in the Sky Devblog 01: Inception

Words in the Sky is one of my current work-in-progress game projects. It’s an auction style word game where players take on the role of competing astronomy labs racing to explore the galaxy. On their turn, players will spell words using the letters in the constellations present during that season for prestige and expertise. At the end of the year, the most prestigious lab will be recognized at the international astronomy convention.

I’ve been working on Words in the Sky for a couple of months now, and now that I’m fairly sure I want to keep going with it, I felt like this was a good point to start talking about its design. So let’s jump right in!

Words in the Sky is an example of a game that started as a concept first outside of its theme. During Waitress Games‘s last game designers’ retreat, a bunch of us game designers got together and shared concepts and playtesting for a week. Over dinner Zintis May-Krumins, Mike MihealsickChris Solis, and I were talking about genres that didn’t often mix, the idea for mixing the word game and area control genres was brought up.

There was a moment of quiet as we all simultaneously realized that, though an unlikely combination, there seemed to be a very interesting potential game idea in there. So, after finishing our food we started our prototypes of the game, then under the alternating project names “Worder Placement” and/or “Alphabattle”. It wasn’t until a few iterations later that I decided on constellations as the theme.

Rules

In this first version of the game the rules went as followed:

  • A flop of random letter cards was revealed each round
  • Players took turns spelling words from their limited pool of workers; the first turn player rotated
  • Players could place multiple workers on any letter in the word they spelled to increase control of that letter
  • At the end of each round, the player with most control of each letter won it for the bonus round
  • In the bonus round, players used the letters they won to spell the longest word possible, longest word won

Important lessons

The first few playtests went well. The game was definitely playable, and at this point we were looking for broad sweeps to start chiseling down the design space and deciding what the direction to take the game. Here’s a few things that were determined very early:

This was not a game about hoarding vowels

Given that letter availability was randomized, English’s reliance on vowels pushed the game to be excessively random. Further, since letters were a controllable commodity the prognosis for players who did not manage to win any vowels before the bonus round was frustratingly bleak. The alternative was to accept suboptimal tactical plays in order to stock up on letters during the main phase to have strategic options in the bonus round, but this felt both too delayed of a reward and too abstract for the intended audience.

To solve these problems, vowels made were always available though in some iterations they scored for less.

Frequently refreshing letters was important

One of the early iterations of the game allowed letters to stay on the board if they were not won. This lead to a stagnation of the game, as difficult to use letters ending up being seen many rounds in a row. Moving forward, each round had a fresh set of letters to work with.

Repeating opponent words wasn’t in the spirit of the game

Repeating or using the same base word as another player was a very strong “spoiler” move, since it allowed access to matching or beating control on every letter the previous player had claimed. Given that the game was also about showing off a large vocabulary rather than a “valuable” one, it felt doubly bad for the aesthetic of the game for this play to be so powerful. Thus repeated words became prohibited.

Next Iterations

The next era of iterations continued to focus on defining the design space of the game. It also had some interesting tweaks to the scoring formula, so stay tuned for that post!

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