Designing the Game

By Matt Haberfeld

During the development of Dark Side of the Mine, there were two main design concepts I wanted to foster.  First, that players have to consistently make difficult decisions.  And second, that the strategy potential of the game is not entirely evident on the first playthrough.

The prototype card designs

I designed the economy of the game in a way that the players are always trying to get more cards, better position on the asteroid, and more points.  The accumulation of any one of these things typically sets you back in the other categories.

To start, you don’t naturally draw enough cards to sustain your mining operation.  I settled on a starting hand size of 5, where you typically net -2 cards each turn.  If the player uses cards for every action, they will have very limited options after two turns.  In order to draw more cards, players have to use the communicate action.  This also has some notable drawbacks, in that it moves the robot closer to the dark side and it may allow other players to draw cards as well.

To deepen the hand management aspect of the game, each player plays 1 card from their hand face down to build the dark side on their turn.  This allows players to execute a multi-turn strategy, and potentially hide that strategy from their opponents until the next turn.  However, players also need a plan to get to the location before their opponents do.

Finally, the game has upgrade cards that enhance the abilities of the robots.  When properly used, a player with upgrades will outscore someone without them.  But they are a trade off as well, since every time the player upgrades they don’t score points or move their robot.  Upgrades also have some of the highest point value locations on them, so if they use the card as an upgrade, they lose the ability to play it face down to the asteroid.  While they are certainly powerful, they have an opportunity cost that requires players to change their playstyle to use them as much as possible.

Every action the player takes puts a strain on either the number of cards in their hand, their position on the asteroid, or the number of points they accumulate per turn.  What I saw most often is that new players approached the game in a tactical way and decide that, “In this moment, 4 points is better than 3 points so I will make this move.”  These players did just fine, but they did not often win without considering their options more than one turn in advance.

Once players have a few games under their belt they really start delving into the long term strategy that the game has to offer.  Rather than approach the game tactically, playtesters began seeing that scoring 3 points on this turn instead of 4 would mean that they could score 8 points next turn, or draw three cards instead of one.  Opportunities to bend or break the established economy of the game always existed, but it takes time to notice them.  It was very rewarding watching players actively create situations to take advantage of rather than simply reacting to the current game state.

The game was meeting the design concepts I had envisioned and had a solid core, so I decided to take it to Unpub 8 in Baltimore.  I discovered a lot about the game over the weekend; notably that it was a hit with families and that children as young as 10 instantly “got it”.  I had never playtested with children and was surprised (in a good way) that they were able to crush their parents’ scores.  The feedback was mostly positive, although there were definitely some rough edges that would need work over the coming months.

Dark Side of the Mine will be on Kickstarter in March, 2019.

Look for Part 3 of the Dark Side of the Mine Designer Diary soon.