Orbiters: Version 3 Design Process

Orbiters is now in its 3rd incarnation. It’s gone through many changes since December — here’s a short account of some of the design challenges and solutions that have shaped those changes.

Challenges

  1. From the very beginning, I wanted Orbiters to play quickly. And from the very first playtest with version 1, it was clear that play speed would be a big challenge. There was simply too much information for players to process before they could make decisions.
  2. Version 1’s gameplay was too generic; the rules were simple, but they didn’t particularly suit the theme.
  3. Finally, it was just too difficult to complete an objective, especially without already knowing which satellites, or how many of them, would be needed for it.

Changes

Information Overload

Players immediately suggested reducing the amount of information in the game — further generalizing descriptions of satellite data products, or even replacing the text altogether with a system of icons. It was clear that the information overload problem had to be solved before the game could be fun, but I rejected the icon idea because, after all, Orbiters is an educational game, and part of what it offers to players is increased familiarity with relevant scientific vocabulary. Furthermore, as William pointed out, “cool science words” have their own appeal, which I didn’t want to lose.

What I did change from version 1 to version 2 was text layout on each card. I separated a satellite’s data products from other information (flavor text), which turned blue and moved to the bottom of the card.

orbiters space satellite game CloudSat card
CloudSat in version 1 (left) and 2 (right): flavor text at the bottom, data products at the top

For version 2, we put all the satellite cards face-up on the table and had players bid on them from a fixed budget. This way, players would be able to see exactly what they needed for any given objective. Objectives were dealt one at a time, and players tried to complete one objective per round for three rounds. The thematic reasoning behind the bidding was that players were hiring research assistants who were experienced in the interpretation of a given satellite’s data (raw satellite data is freely available to the public, so we didn’t want the rules to include paying for data). This was something of a stretch, but the bigger problem with version 2 was still information overload: seeing all 25 satellite cards spread out at once caused the game to start off at a crawl as players tried to read everything, searching for the data types that matched their assigned objectives.

playtesting Orbiters satellite card game JPL
25 satellite cards on the table at once: too much.

For version 3, we cut the overload by laying out just five satellites at the beginning of the game. New satellite cards are added one at a time as satellites are launched. This should get the game started much faster, but also support the game’s learning goals of familiarizing players with satellite functions — because scrutinizing five cards is appealing, while scrutinizing 25 is intimidating.

Orbiters space satellite card game version 3
New play layout: 5 satellite cards visible, funding in progress.
Thematic Gameplay

We got rid of the idea of paying researchers from version 2, which had felt a bit forced to begin with, and instead instituted an elegant and intuitive low-bidding mechanic of William’s design. Players bid for the objectives they want to complete, but just like agencies doing contract work for the government, they propose the lowest budget they think is feasible. Low bidder wins, and receives the objective card along with funding in the amount of the low bid. Players then need to get the necessary satellites into orbit, which requires funding each satellite’s launch — but once a satellite has launched, its data products are available to all players. Of course this is a very simplified model, but it is much truer to the theme of the game. Version 3 needed some kind of currency that would allow players to contribute money to satellite launches, so I added a funding card:

Orbiters space satellite card game funding cards
One card represents either $1, 5, 10, or 20 million, depending on orientation.

In our next round of playtesting, I’ll be looking to see how many funding cards are necessary for play and whether or not I should consider using some kind of token, which would make the game much more materially complicated (and expensive).

Difficulty

With satellite data now being available to all players once each satellite is launched (which happens when any combination of players has contributed a total launch amount), the problem of being unable to complete objectives because other players have swiped the necessary satellite cards should be solved. What will be difficult instead is deciding on a bidding strategy. We’ll be looking to see how much of a role strategy has versus luck in a particular player’s success; for a casual, quick game like Orbiters with a learning objective, I’d like to see a balance where a good strategy is likely to lead to more success, but where luck also continues to play a limited role and helps level the playing field among players of differing ability/age.

I’m excited to see Orbiters shaping up as the quick, fun, educational (and affordable) card game I envisioned last fall. If you’re an educator or educational games enthusiast and would like to playtest or buy Orbiters, check out its new page where you’ll find updates and contact info.

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