Quantum Post-Mortem

15 September 2015

Fascinating post-mortem of Quantum, by its designer, Eric Zimmerman:

Quantum is a strategy game for two through four players that incorporates elements of tactics, resource management, and empire building. Players each begin the game with a small fleet of three starships on a customizable map built of modular tiles. Your goal is to expand by building Quantum Cubes on planets, along the way growing your fleet and evolving its abilities. […]

Another element that opened up the possibilities of the game during this early prototyping period was the addition of special power cards. While I was working on it, I remember seeing a talk at the Game Developers Conference by Rob Pardo, one of the lead designers of World of Warcraft. According to Rob, one of the philosophies at his company Blizzard was to make the player feel overpowered. According to Rob, special abilities and power-ups should feel mighty and spectacular, rather than just being some kind of incremental stat improvement.

As I started adding the advance cards to the game, I tried to have them embody this approach, especially when it came to the permanent card powers. My goal was that every card should feel incredibly powerful – a potential game winner in the right situation. I loved seeing my playtesters' faces grow greedy as they read the cards, astonished at how good the powers seemed to be.

The challenge of powerful cards, of course, is balancing them. […]

Designing the right mix of cards came down to good old-fashioned balancing and testing. There are a number of heuristics I tried to use in designing the cards to be balanced. For example, no card simply gives players an extra fourth action each turn; instead, some cards give you an extra action, but that action is limited, such as a free move that is only one space. There are also cards that do give you a completely open-ended extra action, but only if certain conditions are met, such as if you have more ships on the map than any other player. […]

It seemed hopeless; I had designed a game with a combat system that no one wanted to use! The solution to this problem was to directly link combat to winning the game. […]

One strong focus of our work was the language of Quantum: the terms in the rules, the names of the cards and units, and the other words we used in the game. In early prototypes, the titles of the advance cards were more technological: "Ferocious", the card that gives you a combat bonus, was originally called "Armor", while "Energetic", which gives you a movement bonus, was titled "Propulsion".

The names of the card were clear, but they felt generic. Thinking about how to emphasize the player-as-commander, I changed the names from nouns to adjectives. Rather than describing the player's fleet, the cards now described the player. Instead of "Fuel", "Evasion", and "Engineering", the cards now had names like "Brilliant", "Cruel", and "Stubborn".

Quantum is one of the best boardgames I recently played. It was unavailable for a year but I finally got my hand on the re-edition. The post-mortem shows all the history behind the game and how some concepts were found and implemented.

The game is really fast, complex and deep. There's a bit of chance in the game through the roll of the dices (obviously), but I don't think it matters that much in the end. Your decisions are way more important than your luck.