The Inquisitive Meeple chats with Illinois designer Jason Glover, on his solo game, Desolate and its expansion Dark Matters.
Jason, thank you for joining us today to talk about your new game Desolate. For anyone that follows you on Twitter, you have shown off a lot of Desolate in the last few months. The base game has been out a little while, with some expansion coming soon. First off, could you tell us a little bit about the gameplay of the base game?
Jason: Well, Desolate is a solo-play only game that has the player working through a deck of exploration cards in an attempt to locate five power cells, so that can blast off and escape an abandoned moon station. Along the way, you will have to deal with aliens via a press-your-luck dice mechanic that is full of tension. You have limited ammo and each ammo you spend equates to one die being rolling. So if you spend you three ammo you get to roll three dice. So you can find yourself overspending and that can lead to running out of ammo, and thus death. You also must monitor your health and your oxygen levels. health is lost during conflicts, but oxygen levels drop as part of a timer mechanism. You only have so much time before you either run out of health or oxygen.
You also start with a couple of randomly drawn useful items that will both aid you on your adventure and make each game a unique experience as they will shape some of your choices.
What is the story behind the creation of Desolate?
Jason: Interestingly enough Desolate was born during the design process of another solo-play game I was working on entitled Iron Helm, which is still in the works. Iron Helm is a much grander experience and fantasy themed, but the core mechanic is similar. While honing this core mechanic I decided to create a smaller game that focused almost exclusively on it and that is when I decided to create a smaller and tighter experience. I wanted a different theme of course, so escaping a space station seemed a good fit for a dark and gritty game. The shared mechanic has players drawing two cards, keeping them face down, and then revealing one and deciding to either resolve it, or pass and then be forced to resolve the unknown card. Desolate was essentially a game a created to test this out and it works quite well. I learned a lot from it and Iron Helm will now use a slightly hybrid version of this.
Why did you decide to design a solo game over say doing a co-op game that can be played solo?
Jason: I have always wanted to create that perfect fantasy themed solo game. I think many designers have wanted to do that. Like I mentioned I started work on Iron Helm almost two years ago and that was where Desolate derived from. I also had some success with my free print and play solo roll and write game Doom Realm and that also sort of introduced me to the amazing community out there that love solo games and print and play games. So I now have Doom Realm, which is a free PnP solo game and Desolate, which also has a free PnP version. I just like making games that people have access to and enjoy. Of course, there is also a print version of Desolate for those interested.
You added a way to get loot crates, in the game, much like a video game or an RPG, it is also part of the exploration card (they are split dual cards). What inspired the loot crates and why the split cards?
Jason: A couple of thoughts went into this part of the design. First, I wanted a way for players to find random loot, but I also wanted to keep the total card countdown. Adding a separate loot deck may have worked, but by putting the random loot on the bottom (upside down) of the exploration deck I was able to save a deck of cards. Secondly, raiding a loot crate forces the player through the exploration deck quicker as well, which speeds up the game. I wanted as few moving parts and using the duel cards allowed for a streamlined experience that still delivers the excitement of finding random loot.
When you first see the artwork for the cards I think the thing that stands out the most is that black and white art. Why did you decide to go with black and white art over color and what mood/tone do you think it sets for the gameplay?
Jason: When done well, I think black and white artwork and graphics can really draw a person in. It sets a dark and serious mood. I wanted Desolate to feel like something that has been around a long time and having zero color does give it a timeless feel. Also the lack of color sort of allows the player to fill in the blanks in the theme. It almost creates a blank canvas that allows the players’ imagination to take over. There is no flavor text on the cards and only the simple story on the box to set the theme. I think the lack of story and the black and white design couple to make the player create their own story.
Let’s turn our attention some to Dark Matters. These are two new expansion of 18 cards each that will not only add more of the same but also new card types. What new card types will Dark Matters be introducing and what do they add to the gameplay?
Jason: First of all I would like to mention that there will be 12 new item cards between the two boosters. That alone will add a ton of replay to the game. Now onto the new types of cards.
I had some people asking for a more difficult game and I felt one way to handle that was to create a way to determine starting equipment. In Desolate some items are better than others. I know many designers strive to balance things like this, but I wanted the items to vary mechanically as well as in power. So this brings me to the new character cards. Character cards allow the player to take on the role of one of the survivors and it also indicates to the player their starting equipment. In this way, the player can choose a character, which is ranked by difficulty, and have a unique experience each time. It is a nice thematic was to adjust difficulty and players may choose to use these new cards or not, but they are a good way to introduce the player to all the items in the game and each character has a different feel.
The other major addition is the new affliction mechanic. You can now gain mental afflictions via particular cards in the game. There are four affliction cards and each is unique and causes the player to gain a phobia. These phobias mess with the game’s mechanics in a negative way. Basically, afflictions make things much harder for you. There are ways to get rid of them, but it is not easy. If at any point the player gains all 4 afflictions, they go mad and lose the game.
I also would like the quickly mention that there will be four new rooms between the two boosters. The Cold Storage is a creepy room the houses the corpses of all your fallen comrades. It causes the player to gain an affliction. To counter this room we also have the Sanctuary, which will remove a gained affliction. Another nasty room is the Dark Passage, which is basically just a long dark tunnel, but it takes a while to navigate and thus you lose one oxygen. Lastly, the Warehouse allows the player to draw an item card, which is quite awesome.
There is a lot of stuff going on in these to boosters that will really up the tension as well as give the player more control.
What is your favorite thing about the new boosters?
Jason: I think what I am happiest about is the customization and increased replay value that is offered by the expansion. Players can choose to use the new Character Cards or not, or add the Affliction Cards or hold them out. Players also gain 12 new items that will up the replay level substantially. There is just a lot packed into two 18 card boosters.
Do you think we will see more 18 card expansions after Dark Matters or do you think you are done with tinkering in the Desolate world for right now?
Jason: Yes, I think there will be at least one more in the future. Likely late this year or early next. I want to explore the idea of adding a bit more of a narrative to the experience. The idea is to have event cards that can be randomly added to the exploration deck. When the player reveals one, they must be resolved, but they also are one-time use, so they would be removed from play. You would have a bunch of them, but would only add 2 or 3 to each level. This is just an idea at this point, but I think it has potential.
Going back to the base game for a moment, what was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome and how did you overcome it/fix the issue?
Jason: The biggest hurdle with a game like this is the balancing. When you are drawing a resolving card and working through a deck that is depleting your resources, you really have to get it right. You want players to fail more than they succeed, but you do not want them winning really easily or losing terribly. You want every game to be tense and very close. This issue was resolved with endless play-testing and score tracking and adjusting values until it was right where I wanted it.
As we come to a close, The Game Crafter has a solo design contest going on, what advice do you have for any designers out there, when it comes to designing a solo game?
Jason: I actually have some good advice for them. Being that it is a solo game, I myself leaned way too much on myself for testing. It is very tempting to simply test the crap out of the game yourself because you do not need more players. I urge designers to still put the game in front of as many people as you can. If that means making a free PnP available then do it. Other people will find flaws. I thought I had things nailed down but I had other designers make strong suggestions. Do not rely on yourself too much!
Thanks, Jason for joining us to do this interview. Readers can pick up Desolate on The Game Crafter by clicking on this link. Also, the new Dark Matter expansions are out now, and pack 1 can be found here and pack 2 here.