I think every designer wants to feel like a genius artisan? You want to make something that feels like an impossible effort, something that radiates blood and sweat and toil. Something that evokes the same sort of awe you feel watching a glassblower work, hours of patient coaxing guided by years of diligent training. You want the player (that kindred spirit!) to stand at the edge of your board and get a little vertigo, imagining the climb.
Which is why I’m vaguely embarrassed that Meltwater just kind of happened to me.
The very first prototype.
In March of 2016, I was busy bashing my head against the concept document for a different game project, and mostly just coming away with blood and bits of bone fragment. The project was a mess of ambitious ideas and inspirations, and I felt absolutely paralyzed. Frustrated out of my mind, I decided to throw together a little design exercise, using only the simplest rules I could think of.
I once attended a talk by game designer James Ernest, where he said - and I’m paraphrasing -that as soon as he had a new idea, he’d throw together prototypes as fast as he could think of them, even if he had no idea how to win yet. The important thing was to get Something, Anything, on the table and in your hands. In my deadlock, this seemed like exactly what the doctor ordered.
I’d recently been struck by Brenda Romero’s Siochán Leat, and Brett Picotte’s Push Fight, and some beautiful examples of Conway’s Game of Life . So I threw together some simple rules for pieces that would starve and move. I used a simple 8x8 chessboard setup, because it seemed like as good an arbitrary start as any.
The skeleton was all there from the word go. The pieces could push each other into overcrowded regions. Overcrowded pieces could run away to new squares, changing color if they had to. This seemed like it could go somewhere! A player could even choose to let some overcrowding happen, so that pieces would move *themselves* without having to spend actions. Neat!
I also liked the mounting tension provided by Romero’s Cromwellian English, so I also included randomly-placed neutral pieces to crowd out the player pieces. For some reason, I had radiation on the mind, so my encroaching pieces were radiation markers. The resulting word association also led me to Cold War themes and a retrofuturist alt-history aesthetic.
No idea why. Here’s an unrelated picture from my desk.
This simple prototype had some interesting features. It was also incredibly dull.
You’ll note there’s only one real front where anything player-driven can really happen. The back field was completely pointless until some radiation dropped, at which point some arbitrary nonsense would happen and then we’d be back to some boring shoving along the line. Sid Meier says, “A game is a series of interesting choices,” and the choices here simply weren’t interesting.
I needed variety of choice. And for that, I either needed a more interesting set of pieces (like chess), or a more interesting game board. I opted for a new board, mostly because it seemed like the easier path to explore first. Because of my plain white test board, I’d joked that the game was taking place in Antarctica. Why not try an actual map of Antarctica?
So I hopped on Google Image search, and grabbed the first map of Antarctica that looked decent, threw a hex grid over it, and reduced it down to a minimalist design. By sheer coincidence, I ended up with exactly 56 hexes, the same number as you’d find in a standard poker cardsheet. Well that seemed convenient, I should use that…
The second map. It might look pretty familiar, if you squint a bit.
This is how everything happened in Meltwater’s design. Or at least, it felt like it. I’d run into a problem, like discovering a missing gear in a pocketwatch. And then a gear would fall out of the sky, right in place, and the watch would work. Some more examples:
Where do I start my pieces?
- Well, let’s look at where stuff actually is on real-Earth Antarctica.
- Huh, these US and Russian research stations make kind of a natural line of battle. I can use that.
- The Russians feel a little crowded, near the coast, but the US feels like some of its pieces are stranded in the middle of nowhere, giving the Soviets a piece advantage.
- That kinda mirrors the whole thing where the Soviets were rich in men but poor in resources. I guess that’s intentional now.
- Testing shows it works extremely well. Good job, me.
- Well, I don’t need a billion pieces if new ones enter the map as old ones leave. I guess there would be some refugees from the blast, maybe.
- Heck, they’d even add population pressure in addition to radiation. Let’s try that.
- I guess refugees would show up from the nearest landmasses. Argentina, Australia, South Africa…
- Two of those land near the Soviet territory, and one way back in the US boonies. Guess that works with the Soviet manpower theme.
- Testing shows it works extremely well. Good job, me.
- Well, randomness can be mitigated with foreknowledge.
- I’ve literally got six of GMT’s COIN series games on my shelf. I like Volko Ruhnke’s deck mechanic, with an active card and a preview card. Maybe I’ll try that.
- Wow, that actually works brilliantly. Now the oncoming information really informs some daring and cool plays, but never without a chance for countermeasures. Good job, me.
And maybe most importantly:
How do I make the game feel less lopsided at the bitter end?
- All of these catch-up mechanics I’m trying to wedge in feel arbitrary and inelegant.
- And like, there’s no gotchas or lucky rolls. The information is all there. If you end up in a lopsided game, it’s always your own fault.
- Can’t you just concede if you screw up that bad?
- Actually, I was kinda impressed that Konstantin Seleznev made concession such an unabashed part of Septikon: Uranium Wars.
- What if the fact that you can always just concede... is kinda the point?
- Good job, me.
Again and again, I’d turn around and stumble tail over tea kettle over the solution, to the point where I sometimes felt more like a developer than a designer.
I did make numerous changes to smooth out play, of course. Moving stockpiles used to take two actions, because it seemed like an appropriate amount of effort, but the change to one action allowed for more daring plays. There was initially a Raid action that could destroy stockpiles, but it fell away as players decided that stealing stockpiles was simply better than destroying them. I tried at least six different variations on the final Attack procedure. I put two years into the project. And as I came to understand my game and its subject, I came to consider the message of the mechanics in play, and all those philosophical underpinnings I blathered on about in the first two designer diaries. I let those guide me as I nudged the tiller and shaped the aesthetics and elaborated on the argument.
But the mechanical core of the game was already in that second prototype, almost by chance. Everything flowed from there, like water following gravity.
When I threw together that initial model on the 8x8 grid, it was never supposed to reflect the final concept. I had visions of a much bigger game, with Agricola-style farming and harvesting and complex lines of supply and all kinds of bells and whistles. What I got instead was Meltwater. A simple expression of a simple idea, strong enough at its core that even *I* couldn’t screw it up.
And I think this game I found is better for it.