Interview: 'Space Cadets' Designer Geoff Engelstein On Co-Op Game Design

Imagine yourself on the bridge of a starship exploring the galaxy. Whatever the mission may be, whether diplomatic, scientific, or military, you and your fellow crew mates must perform your individual jobs in concert to successfully operate the ship. No, this isn't "Star Trek," it's "Space Cadets," an ambitious new title from Stronghold Games that debuted just last week at Germany's Essen Spiel games fair.

"Space Cadets" has all the trappings of a good co-operative board game, a booming genre that is not without its flaws. Engelstein and his son/daughter team of co-designers have sought to remedy these issues, and I explained last week how the inner workings of "Space Cadets" pulls this off. Now, read on for the full transcript of my interview with Geoff Engelstein, where you will learn exactly where "Space Cadets" originated and how it has evolved into its current, final form.

MTV Geek: Let’s start with the age old question of mechanics versus theme in game design. Were you trying to solve some issue with co-op games, where the mechanics came first, or were you just trying to design a cool game about being on a spaceship bridge?

Geoff Engelstein: It’s really a combination of both. There was a game that came out, and I don’t really remember the exact title of it, but it was one of the Star Trek roleplaying games or board games that came out back in the ‘80s, where one of the central mechanics in that game was a bridge. Each person was on the bridge, and each player had a control panel, but it was really simple. The helmsmen had a chit that they put in a speed box, etc., and it was meant to give you the feeling of being that officer. But it didn't bring out the full flavor of what it could, which I guess is why nobody remembers it.

That idea always stuck with me. Right around the year 2000, I came up with the idea of doing a computer version of this game, where each computer could be networked and show one console on each screen.

Geek: Did that ever go anywhere or did it get filed away?

Engelstein: It kinda got filed away for a while, but then a friend of mine got involved in the video game industry. I pitched her this idea where each person would have their own little mini game in order to do their job, and a captain would coordinate everything. She said “oh, you mean like Puzzle Pirates?” There’s a game on Yahoo called Puzzle Pirates, so I went and checked it out, and obviously it wasn’t space themed, but sure enough it was similar to what I had in mind. I have not played puzzle pirates and still have not to this day but it caused me to shelve the idea again.

Then, a couple of years ago I thought maybe it wouldn't work as a computer game, but I bet that as a cooperative board game, it would be fun to bring in the framework of this co-op starship idea. It could solve some of the issues I saw with coops such as the idea that one player could dominate and tell everyone what to do.

Geek: Did you have any bad experiences with co-op games or were you just going of the general logic that they were susceptible to bullying or loud voices in the room.?

Engelstein: I haven’t had any personal bad experiences. Maybe that’s because I’m always the guy telling everyone what to do? As much as I loved the Lord of the Rings game from Knizia, or Shadows over Camelot, some of the artificial restrictions they put in such as not showing people your cards or only being allowed to talk in generalities about your hand, these stop you from feeling like part of a team.

I wanted that feeling of the players trying to rely on each other. Almost all of the minigames happen at the same time and we did try running them sequentially, where everyone watches the other people go, but we liked that feeling of focusing on your thing and looking up in 30 seconds when the dust clears to see how everyone else did. It just had a much more fun feel to it.

Geek: How serious were you about pursuing the video game route. Is this something you do in addition to your board game designs?

Engelstein: When i was in high school I published some games for the Apple II, so I knew at some point I wanted to get back to that.

Geek: Were there any other major factors that influenced the Space Cadets design?

Engelstein: There are a lot of games that I like to play, such as Robo Rally or Ricochet Robots. My wife hates those games, but there are other types of games that she likes a lot more, she just doesn't like the spatial relation games. I thought it would be kinda cool to mix together a bit of spatial relation game for a guy who likes that, a poker game for a guy who likes that, a tile laying game, etc.

That was the genesis, and from there, we were just off to the races.

A look at the Space Cadets helm minigame, inspired by Robo Rally

Geek: Back to the mini game concept of Space Cadets, you made a great point about being able to get a diverse group of gamers to the table. But there are numerous of these mini games stuffed in the Space Cadets box. Were there any that were the easiest ones to design, that haven’t changed from day one? What about the opposite? Any mini games you didn’t expect to have in there, or ones that have changed a lot in development?

Engelstein: There are both of those. The first would be the helm game, where you play a game kind of like Robo Rally by playing arrow cards [to steer the ship]. For the most part, that has remained pretty much unchanged. The initial idea that you’d have a certain speed, you’d have to play that many cards, and your energy could be used for extra cards, has pretty much always been in there. The one thing that we did add was special maneuver cards that we added later because we found that people needed a safety valve for when they didn't draw the right cards. Also, we simplified the cards. There used to be a lot more, sometimes with crazy complicated maneuvers, but it was too much with the thirty second time limit.

Also, the torpedo game is the same. You complete little puzzles to fill the torpedo tubes, and then flick a disc down the track. We have played a lot with the values of flicking the torpedo, and everything used to be a lot more complicated. Maybe that’s the story of my life with my game designs? I start things complicated and I bring them down. There used to be arcs to the weapons, some that fired forwards and some that fired backwards. You would have to decide in advance which tubes you were going to fire and in what way. We got rid of all that but the core mechanics never changed.

The ones that changed the most were the sensors and the jump drive. The sensors went through a whole series of iterations. In some of the earlier versions, we were actually doing stuff with transparencies. We had a bunch of different little transparencies with concentric circles on them and dots in certain sectors. You had to overlay them on each other to match a pattern card, and it was actually kind of of interesting, but in the end it just didn't really capture the flavor that we wanted. We tried a whole bunch of things until we finally went with the idea of pulling shapes out of a bag. That was nice because it fit thematically with the idea of using your senses to make a decision and feeling around to make a lock on a target.

The other station mini game that changed more than anything else was the jump drive. For the longest time, you had to take these wooden cubes, and when you put energy into jump drive, you accumulated more cubes. When you wanted to jump, you had to take the cubes and make a tower, one giant tower 9 or 10 cubes high. There was a track that had what we called “containment chambers” and a twisty path in-between. So you had to make this stack of cubes and push it along this path from one chamber to the next. It was fun because it was very dramatic. Everybody would pause and nobody would touch the table, putting all the pressure on this poor jump drive officer. It was with much reluctance that we got rid of it. The main issue was that it just wasn’t a good feeling when the jump drive failed. If it succeeded, everyone would jump up and yell and scream, but if it fell over you just got such a feeling of... it was just so negative and took the wind out of everybody’s sails. Although you could try again next turn, it felt like this insurmountable hurdle.

When it didn't work it was just way too negative, so we tried a whole bunch of different games, and the one we ended up on was a Yahtzee variant where you earn special abilities to manipulate this pool of dice. This is nice because it gives you something to do during the course of the game, as opposed to the old system where there was action only at the end.

Geek: It sounds like you've had to put in a lot of work fine tuning this collection of mini-games. How long has it been in development? At what point did you start playtesting?

Engelstein: Throughout the whole course of the actual development on this game, counting the time where it was a videogame, it’s probably been bouncing around for 4 or 5 years now.

I’d say we started playtesting about a year after coming up with the board game idea. We brought it to various cons in various forms, but we got serious around the time we were wrapping up The Ares Project.

Geoff Engelstein runs a demo of Space Cadets at Gen Con 2012

Geek: What should gamers expect to get in the box when they pick up Space Cadets? Scenarios? Missions?

Engelstein: It’s pretty extensive, that’s what scared some of the publishers. In terms of missions, there are six in the rulebook and we've already got at least two that should be available on the website shortly thereafter. We hope to post missions and mission packs, and I’m sure that some of the advanced ones with additional rules can be put together for an expansion.

Our hope is to have a whole fan base that can create missions and post them for others to use. There’s 20 different map tiles and most scenarios take six of them, randomly chosen. There are also 16 different randomly chosen enemy ships, that have various special abilities.

I've played the first mission 20 or 30 times, not even counting the demonstrations at shows, and there is always some fresh and interesting tactical challenge that you face from the configuration of tiles. It’s not like a Mansions of Madness where the scenario has certain surprises and a different experience when you replay it.

Geek: You mentioned difficulty in finding a publisher. How did you eventually wind up with Stronghold Games? What’s the tale there?

Engelstein: Stephen lives not too far from my house, and we had been to various gaming events. I had spoken with some other companies about it, who were concerned about some of the early components, such as the jump track and the timers, so I decided to really try to push Stephen to do it. I thought it was a good fit for what they were trying to do since he told me they were trying to move into some newer titles and he always liked science fiction games.

We arranged a time, had a nice demo where him and some other players had a good time, but even so he was still a little iffy. It probably took a good six months of going there and back. It was probably around June or July of 2011 that I first showed him, then at Metatopia (a playtester convention) Stephen said “show it there, and I’ll send somebody to check it out, get reports back, and then I’ll let you know.”

So I ran a demo and it was wildly successful. I hate to say this but sometimes I think that [demo] went better than I thought it possibly could, or has since. All of the players were into it, roleplaying, and had such a good time. The Stronghold people he sent came back and said to him ”you must do this game, we had such as good time playing it, it’s a winner!”.

Another publisher was at Metatopia at the same time and actually approached me during that playtest, pulled me aside and said “I want to sign this came. I thanked him very much but told him I had to wait until Stronghold made their decision. I didn’t want to yank it away from Stephen at that point because we had given him the shot. I went home that night and told Brian and Sydney that it had gone so well that a different publisher had come up to me, and they didn’t believe me!

We went back the next day to playtest some more games, and as we walked in, the other publisher was coming off the elevator. ran over to me and said “oh my god I was thinking all night about the game, even if you don’t do it with me, here are some ideas I have for you, I just want to see it succeed,” so Brian said, “oh well I guess you are telling the truth.”

Geek: The influence of Star Trek seems big on this game, but are there any other big pop culture influences here?

Engelstein: The initial muse was Star Trek but the other big one would be Galaxy Quest. I just love that movie, and if you talk about the spirit, that was the spirit we wanted, of people just thrown into a situation where they did not know how to drive a spaceship and did not know what to do. They are just bouncing off the sides and everything else. That’s always what I had in the back of my mind. In fact, briefly we toyed with the idea of trying to get a Galaxy Quest license for the game, but just decided it was probably too obscure.

Geek: Is that silliness meant to be reflected through thee cartoon-ish art style of Space Cadets?

Engelstein: Absolutely. And we kept simplifying the game because it is supposed to be lighthearted. Some of the most satisfying playtests have been at conventions with families that have kids as young as 7 or 8 years old. They take their roles very seriously and feel that they are contributing. You can play Pandemic with kids that age but they need to be coached through the whole thing. I wouldn't take an entire group of eight-year-olds and have them play Space Cadets, but one or two can definitely handle stations such as the sensors. We really wanted to keep it on their level.

There were plenty of elements we could have added, but we wanted to keep it light and family friendly, on the level of a gamer party style game. In the rules, there is plenty of fluff explaining that you don’t really know what you are doing, slamming into walls and asteroids, trying to get people not to take the game too seriously.

Geek: One thing I found fascinating is that you co-designed Space Cadets with both your son and daughter. So wow does the team of three family members work in designing a game? Did you have strong points and take lead in certain areas, or was it direct collaboration and brainstorming?

Engelstein: In this case it was more a general group effort. We all have our strong points, but I think the kids were much more likely to come up with the crazy ideas and fun things to throw in, while I stepped in to figure out how the math would work, or what physical mechanic would let that idea work. It becomes a situation where it is difficult to tell where the idea actually came from. It got to the point where on car rides and family vacations, people were constantly coming up with ideas for mini games and it led to free-for-all type discussions. When it came to playtesting, everyone was there, and it was nice to have the family as one of the playtest groups.

Geek: So how do you settle disagreements among a family design team? Do you ever have to send a co-designer to their room?

Engelstein: There were only a few times when we had a difference of opinion, and for most of them, we just put the game on the table and tried it out each way. Usually the right was simply presented itself, but in a couple of instances we had differing ideas and honestly, I made the final call on a couple of those. It was very very few though.

Geek: So you never got outvoted?

Engelstein: This family is not a democracy. But in the kid’s defense, there were a couple of elements where they strongly felt it should be one way and I felt differently. We kept it in my way and only after 6 or 9 months of testing did I come back and tell them their approach was right.

I think we are a pretty close family anyway, but it is very gratifying to have these sort of activities. As your kids get in their teens, you always feel that they are going to be off doing their own things, and you won’t have anything in common, but this gave us a common base, a way to interact with each other, something we could always do together

Geek: Well thanks a lot for your time today Geoff. I have to ask, though, what is your secret recipe for raising game designer children? Any tricks up your sleeves?

Engelstein: Play lots of games. We started playing games with them at an early age, taking them to cons, and just introducing them to that world. Brian has always been a tinkerer so it was very easy to get him involved in a design project. My daughter is more of a player but she also gets into it and can come up with interesting and creative ideas.

It’s been nice to show the kids that you can have a project, sketch it on a piece of paper, and turn it into a product on store shelves that people can buy. It’s a great lesson to show them that this sort of thing is possible in your life, whether you want to design a game, write a book, etc. You don’t have to wait for something to fall in your lap, you can just go ahead and do it.