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Zomblobs! is finally in a playable state!   It’s a tabletop tactical wargame, played on a map with hexagonal cells, miniatures (folded paper for this version) and six-sided dice.  It’s the beta, so it’s not yet precisely balanced or perfectly presentable, but it’s playable!  (If you print out the PDF and prepare some paper, anyway.)

Zomblob!

I’ve worked long enough in the game industry to believe that game testers are the last line of defense between a working game and a broken one.  There’s definitely more polishing I want to do before I call Zomblobs! an alpha-release-worthy product, but it’s in a state where the game will benefit greatly from playtesting and experimentation.

Polishing can be pretty prickly

If you all have the time to at least read through the rules and give me some feedback, I’d greatly appreciate it.  If you have time to print out the game and play it for a while, I’d really love to hear what you think of it.

Many thanks for your interest!  I’ll be writing more articles on the game, especially if there’s something important to address that I haven’t yet covered in my previous articles.

Consume or be consumed!

For Science!

UPDATED!

Now, in convenient just-under-19 MB size!  It’s a bit JPEGgy, but that’s just how the Zomblob crumbles.

Zomblobs Rules Beta Smaller

…and, because commenter “ironshield” down there has a very good point on printing, here’s the exact same data split into a “text” file and an “extras” file, just in case you want them that way.

Zomblobs Rules Beta Text

Zomblobs Rules Beta Extras (unit tokens, maps, map widgets, templates, that sort of thing)

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I’ve written about this a little bit before, in my Losing Control article, and I previewed it a little bit in my card preview in the Keeping Track article.  One of the key mechanics of my Zomblobs! game is the Heat mechanic.

Once again, here’s the preview card:

zomblob card murmurer

Of note for the Heat system (which I suppose could use a more snappy name, but hey, “Heat” worked for BattleTech, and this is inspired in big ways by that game, so I can’t be too picky) are the three key values in the lower left corner, and the Heat values in each Action Tile.  Action Tiles are the largest visual elements on the card, the stack of pink and blue rectangles on the right side.  They define what the unit can do for its Action each turn.

A unit’s options are limited by its present Heat value.  Heat is a scale from 1 to 12 (easily tracked with a D12, 2 D6s or pen and paper) which every unit needs to track.  The Norm value is where the unit starts along the scale in any given battle.  The Coma value is where the unit slips into a comatose state, unable to move, and only able to use the universal Recover Action instead of any of its other Actions.  The Fever value is where the unit crosses the threshold between cool and warm.  This is really where each breed (Aspirant, Feral or Zomblob) most strongly differs.

The card above shows a Zomblob unit, which starts in the warm section of the gauge.  While it’s there, it can only use Actions that have the pink “warm” background (and the standard Actions, Recover and Absorb).  These actions will make the unit’s Heat go down by the number noted in the costs section of the ‘Tile.  Zomblobs prefer to be hot and fevered, and when they cool down, they start malfunctioning.  This is reflected in the blue Action Tile; when in its non-Norm phase (cool, in this case), a Zomblob unit can only use the Actions with blue backgrounds, and as can be noted, the Murmurer’s cool Action isn’t quite as desirable as its warm ones (though it may be useful in mirror matches… otherwise, it’s going to be attacking its teammates).

Aspirant units, on the other hand, start off in the cool section of the gauge and melt down into mania if they get too hot, and their available Actions will reflect this.  Feral blobs are perhaps the most quirky here, as they are about as effective warm as they are cool, just in different ways.  A unit that specializes in fast melee single target strikes while cool might settle into slower strong Area of Effect or Swipe (arc) attacks while warm.  Ferals don’t particularly mind being warm or cool, they just function differently (and unlike the other two, they may use the Recover and Absorb Actions while in their “non-Norm” state).

This dance between heat states is one of the most important things to track in the game.  Sure, Health is important and the Time system is key to some tactics, but Heat will dictate what Actions you have available on any given turn, and that can make all the difference.

Consequently, one of the most crucial aspects of Support units in the game is the way they can help other units manage heat (or inflict heat troubles on opponents).  Notice the last Action Tile on the sample card up there.  The Murmurer can make a target unit gain heat (and time).  This is a multifaceted tool, usable on *any* target.  Sometimes it might be advisable to heat up your own unit, even if it does mean a time delay (though I might just reduce or omit that to make the Action more useful).  Sometimes it’s best to heat up an opposing unit to throw their tactical options off.  It might even be useful against an opposing Zomblob, purely for the delay.

Each unit also (often) has access to the universal Recover Action, which costs 2 Time Points but heals 2 Health Points and moves the unit’s Heat 2 units towards its Norm.  Sometimes it’s best to stop and take a breather.  (Though the healing part of that might be too strong… playtesting will be key to nailing down the magnitudes of these functions.)

This will probably make more sense with more cards to compare, but that’s the core idea behind the Heat system.  It’s a way to modify the tactics of combat, and a way to make choices and timing more important.  Do you go for the big attack that will put your unit in its “off” state, or do you play it safe and Recover or use a cheaper Action?  I think it’s these choices, and their concurrent risk and reward, that make this sort of game most interesting.

What think you?

Oh, and I’ll write more about the combat system next time.  That’s really important, too, I’m just trying to break these articles up into concepts.

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One of the cardinal… guidelines… of game design is the K.I.S.S. mandate: Keep It Simple, Stupid.  Designers (and I count myself in this group, though I’m just an indie, and an artist by day) have a tendency to want to make intricate systems with many moving parts.  Part of the beauty of a good game is how well design elements mesh and make something more than the sum of their parts.  Tangentially, this is why emergent gameplay is so fascinating, but that’s an article for another time.  This tendency is an asset and a liability.

Like a precision watchmaker, I find joy in making initially disparate parts work together to make a great game, and like that watchmaker, sometimes most of my work will never be seen.  It’s like working in special effects in a movie; if you’re doing your job right as the FX guy, nobody knows because the effects are seamless.  (I almost went into movies; that is what my degree was geared for, Pixar-style, but I refuse to work in California.)  Like a good watch, a good game should present a simple function to its end user, and do an excellent job with this primary function.  Maybe there are bells and whistles under the hood that are there for further tinkering, maybe the function takes a lot of work behind the face, but in the end, a watch tells time.

A game provides… what?  A good play experience at the very least, hopefully with more depth as players dig into the strategies and implications of the design.  This exploration should come naturally, though.  Dropping an encyclopedia on a new player might be fine in some niches, but generally, the old Othello tagline “a minute to learn, a lifetime to master” is a pretty good rule of thumb.

Of course, each game will be different, and will appeal to different players, so this is more about culling extraneous design elements than it is about establishing a baseline for all games.  If a particular game design element just isn’t giving a lot of benefit for its cost, maybe it needs to be cut.

A couple of days ago, I posted a unit card for my Zomblobs! game.  This is a game that is meant to be a tabletop wargame, in the vein of BattleTech or WarMachine… just with blobs and some other quirks.  Here’s the card again for reference (and remember, it’s effectively boiling a whole page of data into a single card):

Zomblob Card Murmurer

As Andrew and Yeebo noted last time, it’s a busy little beastie.

There are three major mechanics in play here that drive the game engine:  Time, taken largely from my Tick Talk Time articleHeat, inspired in equal parts by BattleTech and Hordes and a simplification of what I wrote about in my Losing Control article, and the D6 Combat (no fancy single word keyword for this yet) based largely on the World of Warcraft Miniatures tabletop tactical game.  There’s nothing revolutionary here, like 4D space or psychometric controls, but that’s not really what I’m aiming for anyway.  This is a part of a bigger whole, ultimately, but it needs to function as a tabletop game as well.  Consequently, I’m dancing around a few self-imposed design constraints.

One, I want it to be easy to pick up, both for new players and veterans of Warhammer and the like.  Two, I want it to be a relatively small scale game, where every unit is important (think Final Fantasy Tactics rather than Warhammer).  Three, I want to explore the tactical implications of time.

It’s that third one that I hung a lot of hopes on.  Zomblobs! Tabletop isn’t a game where players take turns moving their whole army, like Warhammer or WarMachine.  It’s more like the WoW Minis game, where units move according to their own personal clock, and turns can wind up interwoven like the queue in Final Fantasy X.  (Again, I wrote more about this in the Tick Talk Time article.)

This, of necessity, means each unit needs a way to track their time.  Officially, these are the rules for Time (though I may rework the text for clarity as time goes on, this is the core of the design):

Every Action in the game costs Time.  Time is listed in the Costs section of each Action.

When an Action is used, the unit gains Time Points as noted in the Action Cost.  A unit can never have more than 6 Time Points.

Each unit will need to track its current Time.  A D6 die will work well for this.

A unit can only take its turn to move or use Actions if it has no Time Points.

If all units have Time Points, remove one Time Point from all units.  After this, any units that now have no Time Points may take their turn as normal, acting in Initiative order (highest initiative goes first, roll for ties), choosing to move and/or Act.

A unit’s turn incurs at least a single Time Point cost no matter what, even if they do nothing but pass their turn.

This should do what I want it to do, with teams interweaving their turns, units acting when they are ready instead of waiting for their laggard teammates.  This is also a mechanical theme; Feral units are fastest and will be able to act more frequently and move farther, while the Zomblobs are slow, plodding, powerful beasts, and the Aspirants are somewhere in between.  It might be a lot to think about and track, though.

…wandering off on a brief tangent again, Mark Rosewater has written a few times about tracking information in the Magic the Gathering game (though my Google-fu is weak today and I can’t find said articles, sadly).  The game has this Frankenstein’s Monster card with a weird mishmash of counters to show its state.  In recent years, they have tried to make counters only be +1/+1 or -1/-1, with a few exceptions like time counters.  This streamlined the game and made it easier to understand just what those little counters on the cards meant.  In effect, it means that the players have to track and parse fewer things to understand the game state.  The game has been “dumbed down”, perhaps, but it made it easier to play while still maintaining the bulk of the complexity and tactical depth that comes with those unit modification counters.

…back to the Time mechanic of Zomblobs, then, it’s one more thing to track in the game.  This, on top of Health (Hit Points, really, as Yeebo wrote eloquently about) and Heat (both of which will have a 12-unit span, making them trackable with a D12 like Time Points can be trackable with a D6).  Now, tracking three things per unit isn’t terrible when compared to some tabletop games, but it does mean fiddling around with pen and paper or dice.  I’m not inherently opposed to this, it’s expected in this sort of game, but I am keenly aware of the potential pain involved in tracking too much.  It seems like tracking Time isn’t quite as essential to the unit as Health or Heat (it’s not even part of the unit card), but at the same time, it’s pretty central to what I’m doing with the game’s combat tactics and pacing.  Time and Heat are both costs for each unit’s action, and they are fundamental to how units interact.

On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that the time system will be too much to handle for players who just want to take turns.  I think in the balance, the Time system adds enough tactical depth that it’s worth the cost of tracking it.  Maybe I’m wrong, but hopefully playtesting will give me a better idea of how well it’s received.

I hope to have a set of PDF files available here in a couple of weeks or so for printing by beta testers.  I’d greatly appreciate any help in testing this, especially by those of you who do have experience with other tabletop wargames.  I’ll make a big post on that when it’s ready, but I figured I’d mention it now.  In the meantime, does this make sense?  Any thoughts?

Thanks for the input!

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Welcome to the latest sneak peek at the current state of the Zomblobs! project.  This is a unit card for one of the Zomblob units.  Each unit will have a miniature, a card and some dice to keep track of game data.  The units will play on a hex grid by default, but the game engine can convert readily to a gridless system.  The core game that I’m making will consist of six units for each of the three breeds, Zomblob, Feral and Aspirant.

I’m in the middle of something at the moment, so I’m not going to dig a lot into much of this, but I’ll do a proper writeup of it over the next few days.  I just wanted to get this out there and see what sort of impression it leaves.  It’s not exactly final, as I want to tweak the visuals a bit for colorblind players, and I may tweak some of the values and effects.  This is pretty close to what I’ll call my beta version of the game, though, and while the details might change on this particular unit, and the graphic design may change a bit, the mechanics are all where I want them.

Zomblob Card Murmurer

See you in a few days!

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As noted before, Zomblobs! has three breeds of blobs vying over global control:  The Aspirants, the Ferals and the Zomblobs.  One of the high level design rules I’ve made for myself is that I want each breed to play differently, but still be as balanced as possible.  Call it the StarCraft influence, perhaps.  Balance between three factions is inherently more interesting to me than two faction balance.  As such, one of the big things I want to change between the factions is the finer details of controlling units in tactical combat.

Some time ago, I purchased the Privateer Press Hordes: Primal book so that I could learn about the game.  I have a passing interest in tabletop miniature wargaming, and I really like what I’ve seen of WarMachine, so when I found a great deal on the Hordes sourcebook, it seemed like a good purchase.  It’s actually an older version, but that’s fine.  All my WarHammer and WarMachine books are older versions, too; that’s how I get ’em cheap.  Since I’m not on the cutting edge, itching to play in tournaments, older sourcebooks work just fine.  (Aside to Hordes fans… if I mangle some of this, it’s inadvertently.  I’m still digging into the system.  I welcome corrections.)

Hordes has a curious mechanic they call Fury.  Commander/spellcaster units they call Warlocks command a group of Warbeasts who can in turn generate Fury points as they are prodded into combat actions.  The Warlocks then can leach those Fury points from the Warbeasts, using them to fuel spells and special actions.  At first blush, this is all upside, which is a bit odd considering that WarMachine, the sister game, is one of resource management like the typical mana point system we see in RPGs.  Fury-generating actions are useful in combat, and spells the Warlocks cast are similarly useful.  Generation and use of fury points provide combat benefits.  So where’s the resource management?  Warlocks and Warbeasts have Fury limits, true, so there’s an upper limit to what can be done in any given turn, but an upper limit is a different thing from a pool that depletes.  It’s also important to note that Warlocks don’t generate Fury on their own.

The significant catch is that Warbeasts can “frenzy” if they fail to pass a “check” performed with a dice roll.  Warbeasts who have Fury points on them are more likely to fail this check; the more Fury points, the more likely they are to fail.  When a Warbeast “frenzies”, the Warlock (and therefore the player) loses control of the Warbeast.  They will tend to still try to attack enemies, but they do so in a blind fury.  They can even turn on allies or even their “controlling” Warlock.  As such, as the designers note, Hordes is a game of risk management rather than resource management, though there is still resource management on the battle level, as usual (losing units makes your team less effective, losing your Warlock means you lose the battle).  Warlocks need Fury to fuel their powerful abilities, but pushing their Warbeasts too far flirts with losing control of their most significant assets.  You will want those powerful abilities that come only with the use of Fury, but the more you use them, the more likely the Warbeast frenzy system is to blow up in your face.

So… what of Zomblobs?

Thematically, I really like the notion of losing control.

Aspirants are the most intelligent of blobs, and strive to always be in control.  They know that they could slip into the natural, instinctive mayhem the Feral blobs embrace if they lose control, and they aren’t sure they can get back… or if they would want to.  And Zomblobs, well… zombies have long represented the loss of control that most humans fear, a primal, deep rooted concern, as the loss of control wouldn’t be a surrender, but a corruption.  Aspirants are deathly afraid of losing control, either to become a Feral blob or a Zomblob.  They fight not because they want to rule, but because they do not want to be ruled… or corrupted.  They know passion, they know fear, but they do not lose control.  (Think Spock, not Data, and Trekkies know the trouble an uncontrolled Vulcan can get into.)

Feral blobs love being reckless and dancing on the edge of being out of control.  They draw strength from that savage adrenaline rush.  They don’t want to buckle down and bow to the sort of control an Aspirant cherishes.  They glory in acting, not thinking, the faster the better.  They love the hunt, and they cherish the kill.  Life is simple for a Feral blob, though they don’t follow directions well, especially once they get rolling.

Zomblobs are corrupted monsters, some were once Ferals, most were once Aspirants.  They no longer have full control of their faculties, though they are stronger in some ways for it.  They don’t follow detailed orders well, but their single-minded drive to consume and corrupt means they are utterly implacable and totally committed to their course of action.  Nothing short of complete defeat will keep a Zomblob from its destination, though they can occasionally be confused once they accomplish their orders.

Mechanically, I’m torn on this.  I believe that players tend to like to keep the reins and control their units.  Hordes does show that some fun can occur when that control is loosened a bit, and the WarHammer Greenskin army of Ork and Goblin fame thrives on a bit of chaos.  It still seems like an acquired taste, though, and I’m not sure how many players want to trade power for a more unwieldy toolset.

I’m thinking of two major design approaches to this.

On the one hand, I’d play it safe and go with a Fury-like system, where each unit has a threshold where they lose control and do their own thing in combat (though just for a turn in all cases; control can be reasserted pretty quickly once the fury is expended).    Ferals would have less control than Aspirants, and Zomblobs would be even less controlled.  The “frenzy” equivalent would balance this loss of control out, and indeed, it can be a calculated risk to intentionally drive units to go crazy.  I like the choices that might prompt.

On the other hand, I’d really like to make playing each breed a distinct experience, really embracing the flavor of the factions.  Aspirants would play like normal ‘Tactics games, with full control.  Feral units would pick a target at the beginning of a skirmish and begin hunting.  Players could nudge them with interim commands, but for the most part, Feral blobs would just go for the kill and then wait for new targets.  Zomblobs would just be given a direction and/or a location, then be left pretty much alone.  Players wouldn’t have much control at all.  It’s almost like the difference between commanding a group of snipers, a nest of rabid trench fighters, or a wind-up flamethrower automaton with C4 nailed to the tanks.

Now, in all this, players can play any of the three blob breeds, so they can always find one that fits their taste, and they would probably still have full control over the RNA layout, so they can prepare loose cannons before a fight.  Still, I’m not sure that diverging too much between playstyles, as I’m thinking of in the latter option, is a good idea.  I really want to make it work, and I think it could be a lot of fun, but how many players will bother with the Ferals or the Zomblobs then?  Might the game be poorer when players don’t like two thirds of the potential units?

Any thoughts?

…perhaps it’s telling that I’m leaning to the latter design, with elements of the first, though it could be more risky.  It seems like it could be more fun.

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