#SC15HACK Team: “The Great Filter” Board Game

#SC15HACK Board Game Team (left-to-right): Tiffany-Marie Austin, Tony Faddoul, Chad Ostrowski.

Our team at #sc2015hack set out to design a board game.

The initial board game description, as created by Chad, was:

As beings of a fledgling spacefaring civilization, you and fellow players must learn to cooperate, avoid home planet destruction, and settle other star systems before global cataclysm renders your species extinct.

Friday, the first night

Chad wanted to make this a cooperative game, where all players work together, rather than a more traditional competitive game. If humanity is going to do big things like explore and settle other star systems, or even prevent the premature destruction of our own planet’s human habitability, we will need to learn to cooperate with each other!

Tiffany and Tony had not previously played a cooperative game, so Friday night was our “research night” during which we played the award-winning cooperative board game Pandemic (and drank real beer that tasted like root beer).

Competitive or cooperative?

On Saturday, with the limited time we had, we attempted to get down to business. We were joined by Bruno this evening. Bruno had never played a cooperative game, either, so we started out talking a little bit about if it should be competitive or cooperative, with most of us deciding that it should be cooperative.
We briefly discussed the idea of having it be a mixture of cooperative and competitive. 

To perhaps design the game so that the best possible outcome—the most “total points”—would only result when all players cooperate, but to also incentivize players to defect on their fellows. Essentially, the idea would be to work in The Prisoners’ Dilemma—but in a multiplayer setting with other gameplay elements on top. We decided that this seemed too complicated, and that it would probably result in longer game time than we wanted. Though cool-sounding, we scrapped the idea and agreed to go with a purely cooperative game—except for Bruno, who kept trying to pull us back toward competitive gameplay mechanics!

The game board

Next we talked about what the game board should look like. Chad’s initial idea was to have it be a stylized 2D version of local section of our galaxy, with Earth and other potentially habitable planets big and friendly. But the goal of the game is to leave our solar system—which means that those beautiful other planets would only be moved to at the conclusion of the gameplay. A board game with no movement around the board sounds tremendously boring! Especially a cooperative game.
We had three other main ideas and no conclusions. The final result could be a combination of these things:

  1. Our solar system. Players must learn to bootstrap colonies in other parts of our own solar system before they can hope to bootstrap an extra-solar colony. Moving between a Mars colony, Moon colony, Venusian floating city, Earth, etc, though—how and why would that happen within the game? This idea makes some philosophical sense but it’s hard to envision what sort of gameplay it enables.
  2. Just Earth. This seems to most firmly enable the part of the game description about “preventing global cataclysm.” Players must move from place to place around the Earth to address home-planet problems, while also using the same problem-fighting resources (money?) to build their starship (potentially an actual lego-like model starship similar to the flying machine from Forbidden Desert).

We eventually settled—uneasily—on the third option for the game board, although we probably all envisioned it differently. Tiffany, at least, very much wanted the Earth AND the under-construction starship to both be present on the board.


So then, what do the players actually do on each turn?
This is where it all starts to get fuzzy.

In other cooperative board games (at least Pandemic and the others designed by Matt Leacock), there’s some sort of “bad stuff” that can happen to the different locations on the board. Players must scramble to fix these problems while also trying to work towards larger goals. At several unpredictable times throughout the gameplay, the rapidity/severity of the “bad stuff” increases.
For our game, “bad stuff” is any possible “great filter” stuff:

  • climate-related problems
    • hurricanes
    • sea level rise
    • drought
    • wild fire
    • etc
  • human/social problems
    • war
    • poverty
    • hunger
    • etc
  • resource depletion
  • Etc, etc

We decided we wanted to break these problems into at least three categories, which would also correspond with different parts of the starship.

  1. Technology ⟷ propulsion (represented with the color black in the game)
  2. Human ⟷ crew (represented with yellow)
  3. Environment ⟷ ecosystem (green)

So the idea here is that bad stuff happens—you draw a card that says something like “wildfire in California” which requires a certain number of “green points” to fix. Players have to coordinate with each other to get someone to California, and to make sure they have enough “green points” to fix the problem. BUT, in fixing this problem, we all have fewer “green points” left to build the “ecosystem” module of the starship.
Everyone wins if they’re able to save up enough of each color to build all three modules of the starship.

Everyone loses if humanity goes extinct. (This game clearly believes that the great filter is ahead of us!)

That’s about it

That’s about as far as we got.

There are obviously still a lot of questions.

  • Do players collect cards of the different colors? Or tokens of some sort?
  • How exactly is movement around the board accomplished?
  • What causes the frequency/severity of “bad stuff” to increase? In Pandemic there are “epidemic” cards mixed in. What is our equivalent?
  • Do the players have to make it to a specific location in order to “cash in” their tokens/cards of a color and build the corresponding module of the ship?
  • How exactly are the “bad things” represented on the board?
  • What sorts of special abilities can we give each player?
  • What sort of “bad stuff” falls into the “technology” category instead of the “environment” category? (Fixing environmental problems is often a mixture of human and technological factors. For example, carbon capture requires the technology to make it feasible and—probably—legislation to create a market for that technology.)
  • Can we incorporate the idea of “breakthroughs”? Example: a card that says “breakthrough! fusion power” which lowers the cost of fixing problems like resource depletion and weather catastrophes, and/or (up to the players?) lowers the cost of building the “propulsion” module.

I’m sure there are more questions than that! It’s a very incomplete idea, but definitely more complete than what Chad started with!

Everyone seemed to enjoy the spirited discussion.