Up now on Kickstarter with about a week to go (and already well funded), Planetarium is a new game from Stephane Vachon and Dann May. In it, each player will tinker with the building blocks of a new solar system, guiding the cataclysmic beauty of its formative elements. Gameplay is all about moving the nascent planets through space as well as triggering changes in the surface conditions and composition of these worlds.
We got a chance to catch up with Dann, who did some of the design and was the art director for the project (along with his brother Greg, who was the project illustrator). Dann took some time away from the formation of new planets to answer some of our questions about this project, so we wanted to share them with you!
Also, forgive us the formatting of this article – normally we might try to scale down the images and fit several cards together as landscape images, but we think May’s art is too nice to scale down. Gaze upon it!
The elevator pitch… Planetarium is a beautiful board game about the formation of a unique solar system.
Dann: The basic rules are quite simple; make a move, play a card, draw a card; and it plays quite quickly in around 30-45 minutes. That said, it has several levels of depth, thanks to the choices, underlying interactions, and variability in the set-up. I actually think most hobby gamers would like it in their collection (except if they exclusively like very crunchy games or dislike the theme). And because of the accessibility, I can also see growing families and people who just love space science enjoying it (even if they own or play very few modern board games). I’d classify it somewhere between a “gateway game” and a tight mid-weight modern game with room for expansions.
Dann: While we were developing Planetarium a couple of games came up. We referenced Ticket to Ride a number of times for its complexity level and fast turns. Also, the end game cards have some similarities with Ticket to Ride tickets, though we were much more cognizant of the differences than similarities in that case. For example, in Planetarium you are not penalized for incomplete goal cards, but they take up space in your hand during the game, and so drawing them incurs a cost of sorts.
The theme of orbiting a star and matter accretion lent itself to a certain sort of movement mechanic, and so we referenced the theme more than anything else there, but traditional games like Go, and Checkers, where one simple move can be very important, were always swirling around in the back of my mind. While there are a few special exceptions (like in those traditional games), the move mechanic stayed very simple, and actually became slightly more simple during development.
Stéphane has credited Machi Koro as inspiring him during the very early stages of game design, and the solo-variant of Planetarium uses a two dice distribution curve to move the planets in a way that mimics gravity. But we’d need to go back to a much earlier iteration to find similarity of mechanics in the base game!
Even with those comparisons, I can’t think of too many games that actually have similar mechanics, although the mechanics are quite simple and seem very common sense, so there must be games out there that do something similar.
Andrew: There is a lot of what looks like real science in the flavor text of the cards. How important was scientific accuracy to you guys during design? Is there an educational element in your design philosphy? And how do your sci-fi stretch goals factor in?
Dann: We’re huge science fans, and in particular, of space science. We’ve never framed the game as “educational”, though we are definitely happy you can learn cool things from it. We approached it as an experience that blended a space science theme, fun game play and the imagination. The fact you are creating a new solar system every game, and engaging your imagination in that process, is as much a part of the science theme as the bites of science fact included on the cards. The science theme can be educational, something to revel in, or happily overlooked, depending on who is playing. But it’s certainly the opposite of a game that you play once, learn things, take a quiz, and you are done with, it is designed to be a space-science sandpit to have fun playing in.
It was very important to me that we worked to keep the mechanics resonating with the science. However, there are always going to be levels of abstraction in a board game, and times when smooth game play has to take priority over thematic accuracy. So we walked that line, looked for places where we could enhance the scientific theme, and where the game was working well while slightly deviating from it. One example is the board has matter moving at the same speed in the outer orbits as the inner orbits, but by adding in a rule to make that more realistic, or changing our core board, we would have complicated the game a lot more, so in that case we erred on the side of smooth and accessible game play.
During the late stages of development I invited James Lewis to join us on the project. James is a scientist who is working with NASA on their Journey to Mars mission. We were able to start playing the game with James at a stage where there was still development time to have a back-and-forth about the specific function and theme of the cards, and once we had reworked those, James provided us with the specific card text. Some of the card themes in the final game are from Stéphane’s original submission, some we added during the development at Game Salute, but all of them then went through this process with James, where he added in original ideas and then we shaped everything up.
The Sci-Fi Set is all about indulging in some novel additions to the game that are very much optional. We’ve put a lot of time into the base game, and that is where our efforts have been directed these past 9 months. We knew we’d want to add in some fun extra content for Kickstarter backers, but we also didn’t want to rush through expansion content that wasn’t completed, or could be in the delivery timeline we set for the game. And so a while back now, the Sci-fi Set idea came up as a way for us to create some quirkier content, which with a Science-Fiction theme we could distinguish as apart from the base game in a fairly clear way.
If we get to do game expansions in the future they will be science-themed. Don’t get me wrong, we love sci-fi too, and are having a lot of fun with those cards, but we intend there to be a difference between the core game and these fun, sometimes tongue-in-cheek Kickstarter bonuses. Maybe there isn’t a language for it yet, as pretty much anything made for a game is currently called an “expansion”, but with Planetarium, if it is science-themed, then its an expansion, if it fanciful or literary, then it is a novelty. We’re trying that on for size!
Dann: Thinking back on how I came up with the look for a game is always a bit of a blur, but a few signposts do get planted along the way. The first for Planetarium was the idea of using the starry dark of space as a design element. Generally a game might have card frames for icons to sit in, but I decided to totally avoid any design elements crowding or hemming in the visuals. For me that summoned up feelings of a blank canvas, that you will “paint” your own solar system onto during the game; and created feeling of space. I also wanted a feeling universality and timelessness, which was another reason to avoid that look of a sci-fi computer overlay that are so often used in space or sci-fi themed games, as though they can be cool, they always seem to date a design, or flavor it in some way.
The second signpost was the style of the art, which is created by Greg May (my brother) in 3D. With the images we are looking for a hyper-realist style, where colors are intense and scenes dramatic. The idea there is to compliment those black negative spaces with exciting and evocative images, to get that “glittering gem on a black velvet cloth” sort of feeling. The negative space is a big part of making those images work nicely too. By being consistent with the way the low, high and final cards are differently framed we can create a consistency and also highlight the differences between those cards in a subtle way. So the art and the design both express the theme and the mechanics – the beauty of planets all being circles! Hitting upon that varying framing of the planet in each card type was the point where I felt it was probably going to really work, so that once it was all laid out it would still look elegant.
The other part of the design was getting the board layout working. I totally redesigned the board, and tried to maximize table space while giving each player a sense of being on the right side of the board. Don’t you hate it just a little in games when you have to sit with the board upside down? Well I figured that in space there is no up and down, so with the board there should be no up and down. There is of course some small text in the Legend, and so there is a little sense of up and down, but I eliminated it as much as I could.
As far as why take this path with the art? I am drawn towards the purest expression of a game’s theme, and whatever style best expresses that in light of the intended audience. Solar system creation is a grand theme, it’s an epic concept, and so I think art and design for it wants to be spacious, dramatic and energized. I also trust that people love to see something new and striking if it also really suits the theme of the game, and if I can create something that stands out, or makes a mark, then I see that as a plus for the game.
Andrew: Game Salute has had the occasional rocky road when it comes to KS fulfillment, but we know you’ve been working hard to get things moving in the right direction. How confident are you folks in your estimated March 2017 delivery date?
Dann: I can drill down a bit more on that with two questions. How confident are we that we have the Kickstarter and production of the game scoped out well? And, how confident are we that we can resist the call for just one more big stretch goal?! We are confident of both of those. The major advance these days with the publishing team at Game Salute is we are a lot leaner and meaner; we are making less projects, and we are confident the company has settled into a more realistic publishing schedule. Speaking specifically about Planetarium, as always you have to be realistic that delays can happen, but we are cautiously very confident.
Dann: Firstly, I’d probably consider sticking with Luna, it has a lot of history and a certain poetic ring to it — it would also save on a lot of costly changes! Then I’d consider a poetic Old English compound name, like Owlkin, Wolfcharm, or Tidecaller. And then I don’t know… let’s say, Ohwow.
Thanks so much for talking with us about Planetarium, Dann! The game looks particularly gorgeous, and I can’t wait to give it a try!
You can check out Dann’s phenomenal artwork on his personal site, and get yourself over to the Planetarium Kickstarter now!