The origin of the Living Planet
Everything started around two years ago when I was in Valmeinier, a ski resort in France where I go every year joining close to 200 players for one week of skiing and gaming. This event is organized and managed by a friend who takes care of a building of apartments for rent in this ski resort. And every year it is a great place of inspiration and playtesting. The mountain, the snow and all those players eager to playtest new games, this is the best combination for me to work very efficiently. I designed many games there, Archipelago being one of them for example, and I always make sure not to miss those sessions every year.
Anyway, this is for the place and time where the idea came up. But how did it came up? I’m not at all claiming that I invented the concept of the living planet. Being a huge fan and avid collector of comic books I think the triggering idea came more from Marvel’s initial conception of Ego the living planet, which appears originally in issues of the mighty Thor. Even if I didn’t directly think about Ego, I’m sure it had an unconscious effect on me. I was probably around 8 or 9 years old when I read about Ego for the first time and I loved the concept at that time. For those of you who never read about Ego, the concept was used again this year in the movie Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2. Although the Living Planet portrayed in the game is far away from Marvel’s version, the concept of a planet that would be alive the same way as a human being is still there.
I remember that the whole background story for the game was well established in my head before I even started to write the rules or even design game mechanics. Only after I had written this short novella did I start thinking about the game mechanics that would fit the story.
First, I knew that I wanted a modular game. For those who know me a little bit, they know that I love modularity in a game since this ensures me an almost infinite variation of boards and thus a very high re-playability. This is one highly important element for me. So I decided to represent the planet with modular hexagons, something kinda like Archipelago. I knew I needed an exploration game with some resource extractions and the buildings / machines that would allow you to extract those resources from the planet. This was nothing really new in its functioning since many Eurogames do that. No, the original element would not really come from here, although I knew already that I wanted to manage those resources gathering in a different way. The main originality and big difference would be coming from the planet itself. I wanted the players to be scared of the planet more than the other players. I wanted them to spend more attention on the cataclysms occurring on the planet than trying to count the victory points of their opponents and checking out their strategy. The Living Planet had to be their main concern. Since my story was mostly about this planet taking revenge on its oppressors, the players had to feel that and be cautious.
Back to the resource gathering part, I liked the system designed in Settlers of Catan, but always felt it was a little too random to my taste. So I wanted a similar system but with a really reduced random factor. The players had to have the choice of the dice value they wished on each of their extracting machines. That was the first step. Initially the leader was rolling the dice for the 4 players and then deciding the order of play on the leader board. This rule lasted for quite some time and playtests, until we all realized that the game was really strategic, involving a lot of planning and thinking, and that even this random part was too much. Unbalancing the game and a source of great frustration for the more strategic players. This random part didn’t go along versus the tactical / thinking / controlling part. That’s when each player’s card set entered, to eliminate that dice rolling random part. The last rampart of luck factor fell down that day!
Thus, the cataclysms that were initially random and could hit the same player every turn, became more equal in their distribution over the landscape of the planet.
I also wanted a stock market system that would simulate the prices of the different resources in the universe, and of course I wanted the players to be able to influence, bet and play with the stock market in a similar way as it is currently done on Earth.
Once most of the game design was done, the most difficult part has been to balance the ravaging effects of those cataclysms on the game. This was the tricky part, because if the planet was too aggressive, then the players couldn’t progress in the game. And if the planet was too soft, then nobody would be scared of it, and that was totally opposite to my original idea and the background story. So we spent many playtests where it was too easy for us, and then too hard. And back and forth like this until I reached an acceptable balance where our corporations could progress in exploiting the planet while still being afraid of being hit by various cataclysms. In the end I have to say that I am very happy with the final result and even more happy to see the great editorial job that Lumberjacks [Studio] is doing. And also very impressed by the beautiful artworks that the artists have given to make this game alive or should I say… this Planet alive ;)