The making of Avertigos, a Singapore-made board game with flying sail-ships

Editor: Siddharth Jain, Creative Director of local game studio Playware, is our guest writer today. Together with Ian Gregory (Witching Hour Studios), Siddharth has started a Kickstarter campaign to make Avertigos.

I have always been fascinated with sail ships; triremes. junks, tall ships, maritime history, the age of sails you name it. One of my favourite fantasy concepts is the flying sail-ship. Seaborne sailors would climb up to such heights, on swaying masts, when they’re attending to the sails or checking on the rigging. Now imagine them having to do that hundreds of feet in the sky! It’s an exhilarating /terrifying thought. Imagine the open deck of a ship, hundreds of feet up in the air, pulling those manoeuvres, the wind not just in your hair but roaring all around you….it would be magnificent!

First Concept Drawing.

One day, around July last year, we were having a company meeting. It was one of those ’what’s next’ brainstorm meetings, where we’re trying to figure out what new project to do, and I suggested a game with flying sail ships. At the time, no one took it seriously because they thought it was an off-hand remark. Our lead artist George though, picked up on it and a few days later, he showed me a concept art he had been working on, and it was gorgeous. We all fell in love with it, everyone’s imagination was ignited, and the idea took off. From there we discussed the world it would be set in, the lore of the world, and most importantly what kind of game we should do – would it be a meeples and tokens board game? Stats and punch outs like a war game? After many discussions (read: Arguments), we all agreed to do a living miniatures game.

Avertigos Prototype Miniature.

Being veteran simulation and videogame developers, we knew we wanted an underlying system that worked. We started working on prototyping and refining our core-systems immediately. When we had a system, that was unique and we knew played well and were ready to start thinking about developing it into a full-fledged product.

I believe in the maxim “if you have a good team, you can do great things”.

So, I approached Ian Gregory (Witching Hour Studios) to help us. Which ended up being a great choice as Ian has contributed many things to this design from the initial idea of modular ships, to the upcoming Pirate King (big reveal coming soon)

Design Stage 1 (Quick & Dirty).

When we were discussing the world of Avertigos, and the lore behind it, we decided it would be set in a science fiction/alternate history of our world, where Zheng He’s fleet was never destroyed (by the Hong Xi Emperor) and China retained its maritime influence. This led to Asia being a sea power when the Age of Sail happened (1400s-era China had a larger fleet than even 1800s Britain), and the Colonial Age never quite took place as we know it. Eventually, flying ships would be made and instead of actual wars over boundaries and land, we’d have trade wars at the frontiers over exotic resources.

The nature of the story meant that doing anything less than living miniatures would be disrespecting the world behind the game, and short-changing players. With living miniatures, we can continue to grow the world, flesh out the story, recount events from other places, follow the development of technology, and the people within.

World of Avertigos.

So why the Asian theme?

Asia has a rich history, filled with beautiful art, folklore, beliefs and people. I felt there isn’t enough attention paid to it on the world stage when it comes to entertainment, especially in gaming. So, we decided that we want to showcase more about it, instead of going with typical themes and archetypes.

Cultural Referencing in design.

The design process was quite complicated. We had to refine a number of things at the same time, and they would often affect how other components of the game worked. What took the most focus were the ship designs, the movement cards, the height system and the strategy board.

For instance, our ship designs went through a few iterations. We eventually settled on the various ship classes (Scout, Patrol Boat, Frigate and Destroyer) early enough, but then had to work out their functionalities, which design would best represent that class, and so on. We also initially started with single piece ships whose abilities would be determined by character cards the players would choose from, but found it to be inelegant. These cards didn’t communicate what a ship could do very easily. So the natural progression was to make the ships themselves modular, with the player choosing module cards for their pilot board and actual modules to fit on the ship hull. This not only made it easier to identify the ship’s ability, it made each ship visually different and also gave the game a lot more replayability – with each game, players could create completely different ships that would influence strategy and style of play in new and unexpected ways.

Iterations of the ship.

Of course, once we decided on modules we had to work at balancing. That took quite a bit of time and many, many play sessions – tweaking and adjusting power so no module would be overpowered compared to the rest, no particular combo would arise that was unstoppable and would thus form a competitive meta, compensating for the abilities for the different weapons so that trade-offs felt real and meaningful without being crippling, and most importantly determining the cost of the modules so that players would face a real decision when buying and assembling ships in game. For example, do you wait an extra round to hopefully get what you feel is a better ship, or do you get something cheaper first to maintain your advantage? We’re quite proud of how agonizing these choices can feel!

Weapon Modules Concepts.

We 3D printed all the ships in the office to see how they’d look, test how they would move, how the modules would fit, what’s the best way to tell Bow modules apart from Hull and Stern Modules, and how they’d fit on the height widget. When we were finally satisfied, we then had a few different size tests to see what would be best for being on a table top.

3D Prototyping of Modules.

I knew from the get-go that I wanted a game about flying sail ships to take place in all 3 dimensions. It wasn’t enough to simply move across the board in the X and Y axis, I wanted them to move in the Z axis as well. This is in part because it had not really been done before, and also because it’s a game about flying sail ships! Limiting them in height would be a travesty!

It took a lot of work for our design team – we had to figure out how to move ships up and down first. After a number of false starts, we settled on our 3-tier height widget. After that, there were many design iterations to figure out the best way to move the ships up and down, until we finally settled on the current design. Which is a two-part widget, inner and outer, with a knob on the inner shaft that would fit into grooves on the outer so that it could be locked in at whichever particular height the player choose. The final part of the process was deciding how far apart each height level should be. Too close, and a player would not feel the impact of the height visually, but too far apart and the ship will feel wobbly.

Iterations of the Height Widget.

So, we wanted a point to point system that allowed flexibility in movement. Most table top games either used a measuring tape system, or had movement guides that felt inelegant. Instead of taking those two routes, we opted for a third – cards. Our first batch of cards had directional arrows similar to movement guides, but the result was that it felt very unnatural and didn’t give the players enough control over their movements. The way we looked at it, while sky ships should be able to pull off really hard turns, the natural flow of movement should be a lot more graceful.

So the next iteration were cards that had holes punched out at the base, and holes at the top. Players would align the hole over the compass, and turn the card as far to the sides as they could before hitting the stop markers. While this gave us the kind of movement we wanted for these ships, we found that there was a lot of arguments breaking out as to whether players were going past the markers or not, leading to our final iteration of the turn markers – the small semi-circles at the top and bottom of each card, and the red bottom corners for turning cards. This made it easier for players to see if the cards were aligned properly, and whether players were within their turning range.

Steps from the Evolution of the cards.

One other element of card design was types and abilities. Cards had to do more than just move. Healing was obvious enough, but what else? At that time, getting enough AP (action points) for the guns and capturing islands was taking too much time. So we decided that some cards should give out AP. Once we worked out the abilities, colour coding the cards and their order of play was easy – if you wanted the good stuff, you’d need to go faster. It would be a reward for playing a really hard game.

The final element of card design wasn’t the card itself, but the base of the ship. Our first design of the base was a rectangular block, where you lined up the base of the card with the front of the block. Simple enough, really. The problem that rose from that was that movement was very static – you could always tell where an opponent was going. Trying to line up the center of each card with the corners of the block was just as messy, so we opted to bevel the corners and have a three-sided front instead. We found that this gave players a lot more movement options, and the angling of the options made for much more interesting deliberations and anticipations.

The first thing we did when it came to the board was to scour the map for island clusters that would suit the game. It had to be island clusters – that would properly convey the frontier feel and work well with the warrior-merchant going after resources objective. We settled on a particular cluster in the South China Sea – I won’t say which, but I’m sure you can figure it out (read the newspapers, folks). Initially, we tried a photo-realistic approach, but that didn’t translate well to the board. We made the islands smaller, and something was still off. We then experimented with old cartographic styles, and the pieces fell into place after that.

One of the other things we tried during the board development was to have the board with holes in it, and these holes could be populated with islands that would be placed on discs of their own. The idea was that it would make the play area different each time, but what happened a lot was that if you tried to randomly distribute the islands, you’d often have one player being close to a large number of high value islands, and another being starved of resources. So, in the end we kept the islands static and worked towards balancing resource distribution.

Even after settling that, something else felt missing from the board. The game was fun, we’d balanced trade post and claw usage so no one player could create an over-sized engine that would be hard to take, there was challenge…..but there was just something else. One day we were sitting around the board, discussing it, going over the lore, when it hit us – if these islands have resources merchant-warriors fighting over them, then surely those same players would be looking to create trade routes to maximise profit and create resource monopolies. That was when the final piece of both board and game design fell into place, creating both the map you now see, and the final victory condition.

I hope the game is successful, not just commercially but in sparking a new wave of Asian-centric games. I mean, not just in using bits of our culture for a game, but to be respectful of our history, the rich tapestry that is our people, and try to reflect these things in the game. We’re looking to introduce more factions that will represent other Asian cultures over time, and eventually expand it to include other regions, creating a very rich world. I’d love to see stories being written about the world of Avertigos, and it would be especially exciting if Asian authors become involved. And of course, I’d want to see skirmish and strategy tournaments, people taking up the tactical challenge and bringing it to another level.

The love that we have been getting for this game have been both exhilarating and humbling at the same time. We want to continue exploring the world, the flying sail ships and the Avertigos who fly them.

Team GameAxis

We are Team GameAxis. And we will play games for food.