Gardening In Outer Space

Gardening In Outer Space

July 12, 2018 0 By Ryan Sanders

Interview with designer, Néstor Romeral Andrés on his family of games, Martian Gardeners. 

Néstor, thanks for joining us today for this interview. It wasn’t that long ago, that we interviewed you as the head of nestorgames. However, today we are here to talk to you as a designer. Most specifically, the designer behind Gardens of Mars, Gardens of Io, and the just-released Gardens of Enceladus. For those they may not know about your Garden family of games, could you tell us a little bit about each game in the series and how they differ from each other?

Néstor

Néstor: Thank you again, Ryan.

The three games form the Martian Gardeners family. A family that I plan to expand up to 5 games in total. In these games, a group of up to 5 Martian Gardeners competes to score the most points planting or harvesting flowers on some planets or satellites of the Solar System. It sounded like a stupid theme at first, but people loved Gardens of Mars so much that I decided to stick with it for future iterations, and also use the same martian meeples and similar materials to give consistency to the whole saga.

Gardens of Mars, the first one, uses a hexagonal board and a dice drafting mechanism for determining how far the gardeners move. When the dice pool gets exhausted, the player in turn rolls as many dice as free spaces (with no flowers) are surrounding her martian.  So the better you do planting (more flowers around) the fewer options. That self-balances the game nicely. The Martians move and plant flowers scoring points for the size of the group they’ve planted the flower adjacent to (same colour). This is called triangular scoring (as groups grow bigger you score more points planting on them).

Gardens of Io is, on the other hand, deterministic. That’s no luck based; except for the initial distribution of flowers among the players. The scoring mechanism is the same, but in this case, the Martians toss the flowers from the scoring track that surrounds the garden and move forward as many steps as the points they score. So your next placement depends on the points you score this turn. You have to find a perfect balance between points and positioning. Sometimes you achieve a ton of points and a perfect landing position and you feel so smart. Also, this game includes 5 special actions that spice game a bit. Although the game is reminiscent of Gardens of Mars, the feeling and gameplay are completely different.

Gardens of Enceladus is also deterministic. In this game, the gardeners harvest flowers instead of planting them. They take turns moving orthogonally and then picking two adjacent flowers (the one underneath the martian and an adjacent one). By doing so, they create holes around other flowers as the game progresses that end up becoming isolated (called ‘soliflowers’). Those special flowers can also be harvested on your turn even if you’re not next to them and are the key to winning the game. The game includes 10 special actions that players can ‘purchase’ and execute. Finally, the scoring is a MinMax (also called Knizia scoring), where the number of points is given by the colour you have the fewer of. This, again, is a balancing mechanism that forces players to diversify.

Thinking back to the original game, Gardens of Mars, what originally sparked the idea that became the game, and why the Martian theme?

Néstor: Well, I wanted to do something about Martians; not sure what. But being an avid reader of Martin Gardner’s articles since I was a kid, somehow that combination of words was hidden in my mind waiting for an opportunity. Once I had the theme (a garden) the rest was pretty straightforward.

I think coming up with the background story was the best phase. I was playing a computer game called Homeworlds and got stuck in a level called ‘The Garden of Kadesh’ (if I remember correctly). I never solved that level and I quit playing it, but the seed of an idea was already in my mind. Trying to escape a garden? How is that garden? Where is it? What are the prisoners? What do they have to do to escape? The idea ended up morphing into a peaceful flower gardening championship on Mars.

Gardens of Mars

The idea of the number of dice you reroll is the number of empty spaces (which points wise you do not want) is a pretty intriguing mechanic. How that idea come about?

Néstor: It was naturally born (as most of my games). I was looking for something to determine the number of dice to be rolled and that was right there in front of me: number of free spots around.

Moving on to the Gardens of Io, we see you introduce one-time special abilities, that everyone shares, once one player uses them, they are gone for all players. Why did you decide that these special powers should be introduced to Io?

Néstor: I noticed that some publishers like to add some ‘spice’ on top of solid but simple games. For example, White Goblin Games asked me to add seven ‘powers’ on top of HONG. Also, Big Kid Games asked me to add some powers on top of Gardens of Mars for its Kickstarter campaign (moved to 2020). I’m not a fan of adding actions on top just for the sake of it, as they might break the core game if not implemented correctly. So I had to create a set of mild actions that don’t imbalance the game too much, but still, make it more interesting.

Did any games inspire you when you were designing Io?

Néstor: It was heavily influenced by its predecessor. Not any other game that I know of (although you’re always unconsciously influenced by everything you experience in life, including games). I was too focused on making it different and unique, but still good and similar.

Gardens of Io

One thing that is unique in the Gardens family with Io, is that you don’t actually move around on the main board where the flowers are. Instead, players move their Martians on the outside of the boards. Why did you decide the change?

Néstor: I was looking for a different feeling. I had the need of giving the scoring track more importance (in Mars, it simply surrounds the board because it’s how most games do).

In Enceladus, on the other hand, I’ve completely got rid of the scoring track.

Which leads us to Enceladus, why did you choose to get rid of the scoring track in that one?

Néstor: I thought two games with scoring tracks were enough. Also, I wanted to do the opposite and also make the change noticeable at first sight. In the first two games, they transformed flowers in hand into points on a track. In this case, they add flowers to their hands instead (opposite direction) that end up being points, so no track needed.

What was the hardest part of designing Enceladus, and how were you able to solve the issue?

Néstor: I had an idea for a long time consisting in placing domino-shaped tiles (as in Heptalion) on cell pairs of the board and then scoring for the 1-cell holes they create. Unfortunately, each iteration of the game was expensive to produce because it needed too many tiles. Stupid me, it took me weeks to figure out that I actually didn’t need the tiles, as players can simply pick flowers in pairs. Sometimes the trees don’t let you see the forest, as they say.

Also balancing the special actions has been quite difficult. With ‘balancing’ I don’t mean making them equally powerful, but making them not too weak but not too strong. They’re not equally powerful. Their power depends on the game state for each player. Moreover, an undesired collateral of implementing special actions is the Analysis Paralysis. If on each turn, players have to check the possible income of each and every available action, the game would stall. By putting a ‘high’ price, players would only consider them on just a handful of moments at the endgame, when the board is less crowded and has more clarity, thereby not increasing the thinking time much.

Gardens of Enceladus

The Martians are the same in each game, they all have different unique shapes. In IO you introduced names to each of the Martians.  What inspired the different alien types? For example, Robbie looks like Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet.

Néstor: Well, the names were actually introduced in Mars, but not in the rulebook, but on a BoardGameGeek post. You’re right on Robby (Forbidden Planet is one of my favourite movies ever). The tall one, Ali, is inspired by Alien (best movie ever). Bot is one of the maintenance robots in Silent Running. Marty is the standard big-head martian as in Mars Attacks. I don’t know about Bob; he’s just called that way.

I know this may seem silly but do you have a favorite alien to play?

Néstor:  I’d say Bob.

You mentioned that Gardens is planned as a pentalogy – any hints on the next two games, either name wise and/or gameplay wise?

Néstor: No plans yet, but I’d like one of them to be boardless. The last one could be a multiplayer solitaire with a shared hub.

As you mentioned earlier, Gardens of Mars was picked up by US-based Big Kid Games. They will Kickstart in the future, however, there will be some new changes to the game, besides the aforementioned powers, and art, are there any other changes?

Néstor: Yes, it will also include new scoring methods (by creating flower patterns on the board). I’m trying to keep it simple, though.

What was the best piece of feedback you received for any of your playtesters when it came to any of the three Garden games we are talking about here today?

Néstor: They loved the triangular scoring. This makes players score higher and higher as the game progresses, creating a nice curve of tension and also allowing players lagging behind to catch up if they play well enough. It solves many design problems (although it might create others if you’re not careful).

The first game takes place on Mars, but the second and third games take place on one of Jupiter’s and then Saturn’s moons. Is there an interesting story behind you picking the places the games take place?

Néstor: Not really. I just like those places for some reason. I might come up with a story before the saga comes to an end.

These Martians are flying all over the galaxy to plant or harvest flowers. Are they just really into flowers? Are flowers their food source? What is the backstory to why they are doing this?

Néstor: Again, I don’t know. The players seem to love the theme so I’m just expanding the ‘universe’. I think Big Kid games, however, will include a brief ‘terraforming’ story on the introduction for Gardens of Mars.

When you look back at this family of games, what is something that you love about each unique game?

Néstor: In Mars, I like how players try to get surrounded by as many free spaces as players, so they can re-roll again on their next turn. Only a few figure this out, though.

In Io, I love when you score big and, at the same time, you end up in the perfect position for the next turn. This is quite difficult to achieve.

In Enceladus, I like the way holes are created by taking pairs of flowers, isolating the valuable ‘soliflowers’. It is exactly the effect that I wanted. Also, the action+movement combos that give you the victory.

I want to shift gears a little bit, and ask you as a designer is there a type of game you haven’t designed or game mechanic you haven’t used that you really want to try out in the future of one of your games?

Néstor: I’m a terrible card game designer. I’ve designed a few games with cards (Halloween, The Temple Of The Flying Blades, Top Speed…), but they act just as another component. I’d like to create a cool mechanism for a deck of cards.

Also, I’m designing a party game. We’ll see…

One thing, I forgot to ask when we did our past publisher interview earlier this year, was what is the best way to store nestorgames? Should the board be rolled with the picture inward or outwards? Should the rules be over the board, or the board goes over them? Things like that.

Néstor: Boards must be kept inside the case tightly rolled with the picture outwards, then the pieces, then the folded rules. So the first thing you see when you open the case are the rules.

Oh, before we go, I want to congratulate you on nestorgames 9th anniversary! As you look back over the years, what is your favorite part of this whole nestorgames chapter of your life so far?

Néstor: Thanks! It’s been lots of fun, but the best thing has been making friends along the way.

Thank you, Nestor, for taking the time out to do this interview about the Gardens family. As we come to a close, is there anything else you would like to add or say?

Néstor: Yes, once Gardens of Enceladus gets released, I will offer a discounted pack of all three games of the saga, or an equivalent discount to those customers that already purchased any of the first two in the past. I hope you like them.

ThanksNéstor for agreeing to do this interview and taking the time to do it.

Quick Links: