As I’ve previously recounted, I made it my habit to spend a week or two every Summer at Boy Scout camp. I mostly enjoyed these trips, though it was certainly an abrupt shift for an indoorsy, nerdy kid primarily focused on computers, video games, and books. Suddenly, I was outside, with no video games or computers to keep me company.
Perhaps surprisingly, I was OK with this. I also enjoyed things like hiking and exploring and campfires and canoes. But one year, I was really into a specific video game. I don’t remember exactly which one, but it was one of those games where you’re in space and your goal is to expand your race before you get taken over by other civilizations. I’m actually really bad at that sort of game; I just don’t have the patience or the attention span for them. But for some reason I was really into this one.
(Even more tragic / pathetic is that I didn’t have much money for video games growing up, so it’s quite likely this game I was into was really just a demo that I was playing over and over again rather than buying the full version. This happened a lot. I’ve played the first level of quite a few games that I haven’t gotten further on just because all I had was the demo!)
One of our options for passing the time was a deck of playing cards. It was not uncommon to find a rousing game of Spades going on in the evening, and for a while Spoons was popular until it was outlawed due to violence. A variety of games based off Speed were also popular at that time.
One afternoon, finding myself somewhat bored and thinking about this game I enjoyed playing, I decided I was going to make up a new card game. Specifically, I was going to re-create this video game I enjoyed playing as a card game!
Since I was essentially creating this card game on the fly, the rules started off being a bit…fluid. But as I refined them, it really started to take shape. Each player would place seven cards face-down in front of them, in a circle, without looking at them. These cards were their planetary defenses. Each player would then draw five cards. These five cards were their “fleet” of starships. On your turn, you could choose to build another ship (draw a card and place it in your hand), fortify your planet (draw a card and place it face-down), or attack someone else’s planet.
In an attack, the defender would turn over one of his planetary defense cards and the attacker would play one of his fleet cards. Both cards would then be discarded, and the victor (whomever’s card was higher) would draw a replacement card.
Once all a player’s planetary defense cards were eliminated, the player was eliminated as well.
As a card game, it was OK. Certainly not as well-designed and well-balanced as the best games are. Each game was quite long, as it could take ages to whittle down a player’s planetary defenses, only to have them be built back up again after a couple of unlucky draws. A low card in your hand is basically worthless. And so on. I tweaked the rules a little bit, allowing players to play multiple fleet cards together in one turn and making victorious planetary defenders replace their defenses with the attacker’s fleet card, guaranteeing that the remaining defenses were less powerful than they started. It still wasn’t great.
But here’s the thing…people actually liked it. Some of my fellow Scouts actually asked to play it on subsequent afternoons. It didn’t absolutely take off, of course, and I’m not sure we ever technically finished a game, but it was different. Novel. It had a story behind it. It was entertaining.
I don’t think I have a bright future as a game designer ahead of me. I’ve played enough games (both well-designed and poorly-designed) that I know what a difficult job it is. But that one Summer, I was the guy with the cool new game.