Solarius Mission

Earlier this month, I reached out to Andreas on Twitter and requested an interview about several of his upcoming games.  He is an amazing person and was very gracious in answering my questions.  This is the first part of our interview where we will focus on an upcoming new release he co-designed with Michael Keller from Spielworxx titled “Solarius Mission”.  This interview is fairly lengthy and chock full of information so enjoy! If you have questions for “ode.” please leave them in the comments! Thanks to my partner Alexander Klein for translating the interview from German to English.

Grant: Please tell us a little about yourself including your interests, what motivates you and what you do in your free time (other than design great games!).

ode.:  Hi! Firstly, let me thank you for inviting me to do this interview, it’s been a real pleasure. I was born in 1976, so I’m about to turn 40, and I work as a personal assistant for the disabled. My wife Claudia and I began to get a bit deeper into the board gaming hobby around the year 2000, and since then our involvement has ramped up. I work long hours, but that means that I also have a lot of free time. Unfortunately, that free time is usually at awkward times of the day so I don’t have a lot of people to play with. Over the years I’ve filled that player-void with solitaire games. Playing games like Agricola, Le Havre, Loyang, Ghost Stories and Antiquity eventually led me to my first ideas for my own board games.

It was around this time that I met Ralph Bruhn from H@ll Games and Uwe Rosenberg, which just so happened to be right when he has finished working on Loyang. I told him how much I had enjoyed playing his game solitaire and not long later he had roped me in to play testing the half-finished official solo version of Loyang! As a result of this work Ralph brought me to the Essen Game Convention to help teach and demo the game as it was released. The following year I delved deeper into the developmental side of gaming and was allowed to help a little more on the next game that was being produced: Luna, by Stefan Feld (ode., that is one of my favorite designers, in addition to you of course!). You could say that these two years spent working with Loyang and Luna awoke my own personal desires to really get to grips with my own game. Alone, for this reason, I’m very grateful to Uwe and Ralph for helping me start out.

“Over the years I’ve filled that player-void with solitaire games. Playing games like Agricola, Le Havre, Loyang, Ghost Stories and Antiquity eventually led me to my first ideas for my own board games.”

So how about some other things about me! There’s two other big passions in my life; Music and Football [foot-ball, not soccer! Here in Europe it’s called Football! ;-)] I’m a big Bayern Leverkusen fan, and I also love to listen to music whenever I can. From a music standpoint I like Punk, Hardcore and Indie Rock in particular, but honestly I like to listen to anything and everything that I consider good, honest, well made music. You’ll find plenty of pop, jazz and blues in my collection at home.

Between my wife and I we have a lot of pets; three dogs that are ours, and also a couple of foster dogs from our local shelter. On top of that we have seven cats and two goats that occupy our garage and garden, and we’re actually adding chickens to the mix! It’s no surprise then that we live out in the country near the Dutch border.

Grant: Talk to us about your upcoming release titled Solarius Mission. What is the theme of the game? What are the major mechanics used in the game?

ode.: Solarius Mission is a Sci-Fi themed Euro Game that puts the player at the head of a fictional race that has to explore the universe using their space ships. They have to fulfill missions by exploring and colonizing new planets, building space stations, erecting supply outposts and delivering goods.

Solarious Mission Supply Station
A Supply Outpost!
I’ll try to describe the ‘engine’ behind the game: firstly the dice.  There are two kinds of dice in the game, first off the technology dice, of which each player has four and places them in their own tableau. The dice come in four colors and are stored on a table with colored columns. The four colors are crucial to the game, and are found on the second sort of dice also, but more about that later. The technology dice start with lower numbers showing and players attempt actions to turn the dice to higher valued sides. As well as increasing values, the players try to move the dice from the left hand column towards the right in order to obtain extra spaces for resources or unlock special actions.

 The second kind of dice are the action dice. These start in a bag and are drawn and placed on their own space. From here players take one dice on their turn and this dice dictates what they can do. The action dice show the same four colors that are found on the technology dice. These colors represent the four aspects of the game the players are trying to manipulate; money, fuel, dice value increases, and dice movement advances. So if a player chooses a yellow dice for example, a player can either receive money, or receive resources from a yellow storage space that is in their tableau.

Having taken one of the action dice and used it, the dial moves and in doing so enables more powerful actions to be taken. After a players turn they draw another dice and place it so that the next player also has four to choose from. Each dice that wasn’t previously chosen then receives a designated bonus that accumulates over time. So the longer a dice isn’t chosen, the more worth it carries, even for a mundane or unnecessary action it can be worth taking for all of the bonuses associated with it.

Solarius Mission Player Board with Dice
An early prototype of the player board showing the various types and colors depicted on the dice!
I’ll try to explain wherein the value lies in these dice: the value shown on the dice dictates how much of an action can be taken, and the color dictates which and where the action can be performed. For example, if I take the yellow dice that shows two pips, I’d be able to either take two SpaceBucks [the currency of the game] or I’d be able to collect two yellow resources. This interaction with colors and numbers means that a dice might be all but useless if it’s rolled low, and a player cannot collect as much from it. However these dice, combined with the bonus dial, will accrue value over time, and dice which once were overlooked will become very appealing to players.

On top of all that, the action dice have more than just pips on each face, they also have stars on some faces. This star is a wild that represents the technology dice of the same color that is in the players’ tableau. This element means that action dice will have different values and worth to different players, if I have a matching technology dice showing a five, then the action dice is a five for me only, and could be only a one or two for someone else if that’s what they had showing on their corresponding technology dice. So the more a player increases their technology dice, the greater the value of an action dice may become. This allows players to try out differing strategies and paths to victory as their tableaus and action-dice-potential will alter the course of play every game.

Grant: I love dice games and it sounds like Solarius Mission is going to be very interesting! I also love Sci-Fi and am pretty much guaranteed to be into this game. Why did you choose Sci-Fi as the theme after having designed such a successful terrestrial based game like La Granja?

ode.: The story behind both games so far: Back in 2009 I met Mike (Michael Keller). We started talking about our ideas for upcoming games and continued over e-mail or chat for several months. At one point he asked me to help him on one of his game ideas. It was his idea to create a Sci-Fi game in the vein of Race for the Galaxy and Quarriors. So this means you would build up your dice and fight your way through space. He was running out of ideas on how to fix or address the problems the game had. So I was able to come in and assist and started to redesign the game from scratch. It so happened, that a complete new game came to life and so I was no big help for Mike in his effort. Instead of one functioning game, we were back to two games with issues!  So at this point both games had Sci-Fi as a theme. But I was never fond of these Sci-Fi-themes. So I decided to change the theme of my game to what was more fun to me and that was farming.

Actually the Sci-Fi-version of my game was never played by anybody but me. I changed it very early and started designing the game with this new theme and was hoping this would reflect in the rules. Mike and I decided to work on the new game together. Since his game was a huge inspiration and we were talking about this anyway a lot. So besides Mike’s game of course Glory to Rome was a huge influence on La Granja because the multi-use cards were the first thing I was going for with the new game. So we ended up working on La Granja together.

But Mike continued designing his Sci-Fi game – which he called “Dice for the Galaxy” back in 2012 – and we never stopped talking about it. And through the course of time it changed here and there. After La Granja was published in 2014 he asked me if I again wanted to join in with his old sci-fi game and I agreed and again I took over. But this time I did not design it from scratch. I just added a few things because back then the game had almost no playable space. Which was something the playtesters and I both really wanted for the game, that of being able to actually move your spaceship through space. After a phase of 2-3 months, Mike and I joined forces again to playtest and balance the game. That was the point when again Spielworxx came in and we arrived at where we are today.

Solarius Mission Teleporter Space
A Teleporter Space!
Grant: I love the initial art and really like that it is 1950’s Cold War-esque with a Pulp Fiction feel. Why did you choose that look and feel?

ode.: Like I said, I am no big fan of Sci-Fi-themes because to me most of the games look like they are set in a Star Wars or Star Trek-like world. Well, I like those, too but I was raised by “The next generation” and I like Sci-Fi-games like Race and Roll for the Galaxy or Star Realms. But what I don’t like is that most of the games look the almost the same and most of those games are “geeky games”. If you are into Sci-Fi, you like them. But if you are not so much into Sci Fi, you will not take notice of those games. So I wanted something different for our game. And my wish always was to have a strong Cold-War-esque feeling to the game. Like Russia, the USA and China battling for living space in outer space or in other words, the Cold War ascending to the stars! And my vision was a mixture of a pulp science fiction setting but also a setting everybody would like to play, even when you are not into Sci-Fi! And when I first wrote Harald Lieske about it we didn’t even have a contract for the game with Spielworxx. But even back then he was already amazed because that is exactly what he likes to draw. He is a total geek for comics, you know and when Spielworxx signed us he was all excited. Here in Germany Sci-Fi themes are more like a niche. Selling games with those themes is very hard and I personally think the reason is, that they look like nerd games. So what we were trying for was to transfer this game in a typical Euro game but maintain a space theme.

The cover is an idea from Harald Lieske as well. He studied North Korean propaganda poster-art. You need to have a look at those posters as you will immediately see the inspiration for our game’s look. With a simple google search you can find stunning posters. And I am not talking about the contents transported with these posters. The expression and the style of art is very strong, very colorful. The other part of the cover style is an old TV show called Thunderbirds. You remember this old puppet show? (I actually do and loved it!) But besides these influences you will surely find Harald’s own style. What I mentioned are just influences as Harald draws all his illustrations for real. He uses brush and easel to give life to his vision. That is very unique in a time when most drawings for board games are done on a graphics tablet.  And I think you can see that level of care and detail in the final product!

Grant: Talk to us about the player board as it looks very similar to La Granja’s board. What is new about the way you use this unique and ingenious player board idea?

Solarius Mission Player Board
An even earlier prototype version of the player board which according to ode., the game was designed around!
ode.: The player board went through many changes. Actually the initial ideas for this board are from Mike, my co-designer. He designed this chart for the technology dice and how they work in this two dimensional way. How this chart works I explained already in the interview. And when I took over designing the game I made just a few arrangements for playability. I added a few elements and shifted them around and so on.

“They [the player board] are the unique element in this game and Mike did an awesome job designing them. What I did was only to design a game around this. So now the board of a player is the controlling device to act in space.”

I think the board of a player is the engine he has to run effectively to control the game. The technology dice are determining the player’s strategy to play the game. They are the unique element in this game and Mike did an awesome job designing them. What I did was only to design a game around this. So now the board of a player is the controlling device to act in space.

Grant: What are the major mechanics of Solarius Mission? Was there a mechanic that started in the game but has since been removed through playtesting?

ode.: The core mechanics are the dice like I explained above. And besides that there is outerspace. Players move through space with their ships and try to find planets in order to colonize them. In the beginning the planets are laid out face down in space. But they have a colored backside which shows the players which category they belong in. Once again the four colors from the dice and the chart on the player board come into use. The colors are representing a certain element in the game. Like yellow is all about money. With yellow actions you can get money. And yellow planets need money in order to colonize them. All planets show a requirement. And the requirement is connected to the element the color represents. So, for example, a yellow planet is discovered by a player. He knows that in order to colonize it, he will need money. He flips it and it shows an amount of money he needs to have and another amount he needs to spend. So, for example you might need to have 7 SpaceBucks and discard 5 of them. This will earn the player two victory points. But you have to make a decision. Do you want to colonize this planet? Can you? What happens, if you don’t have the money? You can decide to colonize it. And then you just take the planet to add to your playing area. Now you have time until the end of the game to fulfill the requirement of 7 SpaceBucks and discarding 5 of them. You can do that “on the fly” while playing at anytime so there is some flexibility in the mechanics that I like. Completing a planets requirement is an anytime action. If you cannot colonize this planet you have placed in your play area by the end of the game, it will earn you minus points. But you can claim the planet and try to colonize it. And your last option is to just leave the planet be. Don’t colonize it, don’t claim it. Just exploit it. You may take resources according to the VP number of the planet. And in your next turn you can fly away to other sectors of space.

So, the hidden information in this game is a bit guess work. But you have a pretty good clue what the planets want from you. Yellow planets want money. Black planets want fuel. Blue planets want your technology dice to be upgraded in the indicated way and brown planets want your technology dice to be shifted to certain columns. You know what the requirement is about, but you don’t know the quantity of it. That is the hidden part!

Myself, I am not the biggest fan of hidden information on an explorable board. Most of the time it just means you are relying on pure luck. I don’t like it when one player can draw a bunch of great planets and resources and get ahead, when another player can be punished for drawing badly and have nothing to show for it. That’s why we designed the layout of the planets this way, so that the players don’t know the exact layout of what’s what, but they will have a pretty good idea of which direction to go. So there’s an aspect of uncertainty there, but not total randomness.

Grant: I have had bad experiences with random drawings in one of my favorite games Eclipses, where every planet that I drew was not very good and I was unable to be able to collect the proper resources needed to develop my empire. I personally love the use of iconography in games. Why did you choose iconography for Solarius Mission?

ode.: Mike and I are a big fan of colors. In La Granja we had the different phases of one game round in different colors and other elements of the game were referring to these phases by having these colors. You could easily understand what special effect you could use just by checking the colors.

In Solarius Mission, Mike planned the four colors from the beginning to be a crucial thing. The four colors are found throughout the whole game, from the action dice, to the technology dice as well as the colors found in the player tableaus. They’re also found on the artwork of the individual actions, the commodity mission cards and the planetary requirement spaces as well.

The problem we discovered later was that we needed ten different colors for the game, colors for the dice, colors for the iconography, colors for the commodities as well as background art work for the space theme. Finding all these colors, whilst still being able to differentiate and be appealing to the eye, was something that wasn’t easy. 

For us the iconography is our way of making the game more accessible and playable, obviously you have to learn the rules, but once you have the basics down then the iconography is very intuitive and allows the players to divine the meanings, instead of referencing the rule book all of the time.

Grant: What do you think new players will like about the game? What will they struggle with?

ode.: It’s not really in my nature to brag about how good my own game is, I’d much prefer to leave that to others to do if they like it! The only thing I can really do is listen to the praise and criticism of play testers and try to adapt what they say into making an enjoyable game. I do however think that the dice system, the crux of the game, is a very original mechanic. It’s a little complex, but that provides players with multiple ways to play the game, which is always fun for those that want to test out new strategies and tactics.

This is something that’s really important to me; I prefer to replay games rather than learning a new one every time I sit down to play. What really fascinates me in games is digging down and exploring what a game can do and how it can be played, so obviously that’s something I wanted to incorporate into Solarius Mission. The desire to play a game over and over should be high, and I’m interested to see if people think that way about my game as I do. Play testing also helps with this, because we played over and over and it’s still popular amongst a lot of those people.

It is this point however that might also contain the largest difficulty with the game, the learning curve with such games can seem a little steep as there are a lot of rules, and a lot of choices. Teaching the game can take a while and sitting down to get to grips with it will take some time. Experience has shown us that after the first half of the game players are much more aware of how the game works and what they should be doing in order to play ‘better’. Up until that point there will always be bits and pieces that are over the players heads, but that’s not to be unexpected in a game like this. It was the same way in La Granja.

Grant: When do you expect this game to release and who is going to publish it?

ode.: The game will be preliminarily available in Germany during August, and will be published by Spielworxx. The preordering is already underway. US customers will be able to get a hold of the game through Fun Again Games, from whom it can be pre-ordered.

Grant: What are you most pleased about with the design of Solarius Mission? What are you still unhappy with?

ode.: The thing I’m most pleased with about the game is it’s longevity. Again, I accomplished designing a game that is one hundred percent my own taste in games. So I think I will still have fun playing the game once it has come out. I’m pumped to see what the final product really looks like and to play that at game sessions in order to fully appreciate all the hard work that’s gone into Solarius Mission.

“The thing I’m most pleased with about the game is it’s longevity. So I think I will still have fun playing the game once it has come out.”

Something that’s a little sad to me was that we had to really throw away a lot of ideas that were good and fit well into the game, but made the game much more complex. Since October of 2015 we’ve been actively reducing extra parts and streamlining the game, and play testing has really helped in this department, all of which have made the game a much better one. Nonetheless you always think about your own ideas, and we really had some great ones, but they just had to go in order for the game to be better and more accessible.

“Something that’s a little sad to me was that we had to really throw away a lot of ideas that were good and fit well into the game, but made the game much more complex.”

What a great interview from Andreas “ode.” Odendahl! I appreciate you taking the time my friend to share with us the inside scoop on this amazing looking game.  If you are interested, the rules can be downloaded here from the Spielworxx website: http://www.spielworxx.de/downloads-regeln-und-vassal-module/

Look for the remainder of my interview with ode. where we will discuss 2 other upcoming games, La Granja: No Siesta from ADC Blackfire Entertainment and Stronghold Games and Cooper’s Island (no publisher as of yet)!

-Grant