04 March 2022
To infinity and beyond, Cole Wehrle takes a giant leap into sci-fi with ARCs
Words by Christopher John Eggett. Originally appeared in issue 62 of Tabletop Gaming Magazine.
Where does a designer go after making the game of the year? Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile was an innovative outing that solved legacy gaming and how to tell a story from worldbuilding alone. ARCs trades in the somewhat fantasy-medieval setting for a swashbuckling sci-fi one. Cole Wehrle takes some time to give us the full story on bringing this 70s space opera inspired game to our tables.
“Oath took a very long time, it started straight after Root finished and took about a year and a half on my desk, and then 18 months where we had a staff of five people working on it,” says Wehrle, “It was a huge project. And towards the end, and this always happens, is you find ‘problems’ – and they’re actually choices – that you’re ‘unhappy’ with but cannot fix within the thing you’re making. And the only way to address those ‘problems’ is to do it in a totally different framework.”
And that’s how we arrive at the beginning of ARCs.
THREE ACT STRUCTURE
Wehrle links the pace of his last two games to this new one, suggesting that Root takes its Redwall inspiration and uses the regular beats of cycling through multiple character perspectives creating even turns. Oath, on the other hand, has very long turns, “it’s old fashioned in that way. You take a long turn and it’s like you’re composing a little paragraph,” he says.
“ARCs has a very cinematic flow,” says Wehrle, “which is you sometimes take long turns. And then sometimes things are intercut. And sometimes, the pace of the shot speeds up and it feels like the rat-a-tat-tat like a gun. And other times there’s very long kind of slow movements in it.”
“The mechanical framework of the game for me mirrors a lot of the movies that I grew up loving – the kinds of sci-fi movies that influenced everybody of my generation, like Star Wars,” says the designer. Previous conversations about the game had made this comparison too – the sense of some space-opera swash-buckling that not only lives through its own in-world cohesiveness, but it’s meta structure of the trilogy.
“For the look of the game, we’re drawing very heavily on kind of science fiction at the right before Star Wars came out. We wanted to return to that like pre video game, fantastic space,” he continues.
“One of the things that Oath gave me,” says Wehrle, “is a whole way of approaching thematic games from a different angle. So the core conceit of Oath were that there are certain kinds of stories that you can only tell in a tabletop roleplaying game, or in a ten hour game of Twilight Imperium.”
“And we thought, ‘what if we divide that up into smaller pieces?’ – and in Oath those pieces are still quite large. It might take two or three hours to play, but you’re constructing stories that might be 20 hours long,” continues the designer, “and so much of the design around thematic games has been focused on delivering the really crisp 70-minute game. People talked about the three act Euro, and Oath says ‘hey, you don’t need to do that,’.”
“The idea of doing a space game in that format was really compelling because the great science fiction sagas of our own time are episodic. They have these big narrative chunks.”
Wehrle started this interview with conversations about trying to understand how this game – one designed ‘out in the open’ and almost immediately playtested – connects with his previous work. It’s hard to disentangle from something as big as Oath, but ARCs is a kind of synthesis of both.
“Sometimes in game design we talk about flow and immersion. Players get into a flow state where they are completely at one with their player position and are thinking within the story, but then they sometimes have to read some text, or look up their Twilight Imperium tech tree, and maybe check the FAQ,” says Wehrle, “so civ games have tons of flow breaks, and it kind of pulls you out.”
“So what I tried to do with ARCs was take all of that stuff that changes the nature of the game and put it between sessions. So when you start a game of ARCs you are playing a game that is going to have very fast turns, lots of back and forth – and then the situation is going to be settled, the dramatic moment is played out,” continues the designer, “and then, in the in-between game, the pieces are slightly reset and we prepare for the next episode.”
ARCs sets up players as equivalents of citizens in Oath, “you’re all little fiefs in a loose confederacy of galactic states. You have some buildings on planets, but critically you’re on the same team,” says Wehrle, “So the player positions overlap. I might have some factories on a planet that you have a fleet above – we’re all kind of working together. At the start of the game, every player is going to be confronted with two narrative paths called fates that they can pick.”
“And these fates could be very, very different things. For example, you could have a fate that says like, you want to form your own state – you’re separatists. And another one could say you think that the empire is in disrepair and that you want to try to restore order. Or maybe you want to be an industrialist or something,” adds the designer.
These initial motives are at the heart of the storytelling of ARCs.
“So let’s say you select the separatists fate card and what it will tell you is that you need to change your alignment to be an outlaw, and you need to try to own this amount of territory. And so over that first game, you are making the decision of ‘when do I reveal the fact that I want to break free?’ and ‘am I going to be able to break free in a way that allows me to keep the integrity of my borders?’,” explains Wehrle, “then if you were successful in breaking free, you will unlock new upgrades, which will change the pieces you’re allowed to play with and the abilities of those pieces. In addition, every player always has their main fate, but starting with that second session, you are also going to be secretly opposing someone at the table. If your goal is to create your own independent state in the next game, someone else might have a counter fate that is breaking your territorial integrity.”
Failure to live up to your fate however isn’t complete failure. “If you failed to, say, successfully separate yourself from the old state. That’s going to give you a different B plot, which is going to mean that there’s unrest in the wider galactic citizenry that can lead to other things happening. This can open up new subplots later on, and it’s going to add different technologies and it can even change the way the action deck works. Our hope is that the players start in positions of complete symmetry with each other, but by the end of the last session, they are as different as two roles in Vast.”
This slowly increasing asymmetry is something that’s going to bring character and narrative to your games. These mechanical treats are designed to mean a lot to players, as there’s so few to collect.
“One of my design rules is that the average player will get between zero and two new things per game. And then in between games, they might get one to two new things. And that also allows the new things to be very dramatic. Such as – you completed the first step of your space nomad quest. Now in game two, your buildings can move,” says Wehrle.
The action of the game takes place on a nice large map of space, but the way the game’s actions are solved is with a form of trick taking that blends itself with a kind of action programming.
On any given player’s turn the leading player will play a card into an action slot,and other players can either play on that same action, or try to do something else, less effectively. While other games with robust action programming in them, like the excellent Rurik, there’s a bidding mechanic to leapfrog into the lead. Here the game is all in the cards.
“You have a hand of cards – one player is going to pick a card to lead. Let’s say they pick move – they’re going to get all the actions on their move cards. So they’re going to get four moves or something,” explains Wehrle, “and then other players can play a card of that suit that’s higher and take all the actions on it. Or if they play a card that that’s off suit or a lower number. They can still play it, but they just get one action or that action could be just copying whatever the lead suit is.”
This means that players might draw a random hand and only get battling cards – it doesn’t mean they can only battle that turn. It means they don’t get to decide when they move or build – these would become reaction moves.
“You’re making choices as you’re playing the game of ‘which cards am I going to sacrifice to turn into the other actions that I might need?’ So if I might have a really good card that I want to play, but right now somebody else decided that it was time to build and I don’t have a build card. I have to make the decision of ‘is it worth me interrupting this to try to seize the initiative? Or do I just want to take my build?’ – because if I don’t copy his build now, I might not have a chance to do it this hand,” the designer continues.
All of this is in service of moving around a board, battling other’s ships, building on planets. The battle system is described as a much more simplistic version of the Oath battle system in the sense that you choose objectives and throw some dice.
“I wanted to try to design a game that was entirely about exchange rates between different actions. As in, ‘do I want to trade my four move actions for one combat action?’ Because one combat action at the right time can be worth much more than those four movement actions, but you don’t really run into the problem where you feel like you’re running out of time,” says Wehrle.
“While Oath has a premise of changes being slow, on a generational scale, ARCs is more like a narrative switchboard. There are 20 or 30 switches that can be set into the A or B positions. And as you play a game, depending on how each match goes, you flip a few switches. And that could mean that – in Star Wars terms – the Death Star was built or unbuilt.”
Naturally, this has massive ramifications for the next game. After all, if Luke Skywalker had sorted it all out in A New Hope there wouldn’t be much point of the following two films. Although, Wehrle says, the threat does linger – if only in the form of travelling down a different path in the game.
“If it’s built, the victory conditions and the pieces that are in the next game are going to be dependent upon that choice. And if it wasn’t built, maybe the plans for it are now shuffled into the tech deck and somebody else can try to do it,” says the designer, “and if the empire gets shattered early or something, it puts you down on a different plan.”
Cole holds up a chart to the camera. Divided lozenges sprout diverging lines into others in what looks like an arrangement of power-point-friendly Christmas trees, “we’ve got a lot of charts that look like this for all the different plotlines. It’s much more like designing a narrative game, in that I have a big web of narrative plotlines that have to plan – and that’s fun for me as a designer because I can craft things a little bit more.”
“I don’t want players to feel like they’re being railroaded, or that they’re on ‘plotline a’ and there’s three different endings you can achieve. The game doesn’t really do that ever. But it has a sharper and more pulp narrative spirit than something like Oath,” says Wehrle.
“People felt like Oath was good at telling stories because there’s a really strong language, a lot of nouns and verbs that players can combine. And its primary interest is history and historiography. ARCs has the same basic approach, however it’s not trying to do history, it’s trying to do something like ‘epic storytelling’,” he continues, “in the traditional sense of epic – there’s all these interesting rules about how narrative arcs have to work. Many of those rules don’t apply to Oath because history is messy and if something doesn’t fire right nobody worries about it. It’s history, sometimes there’s no third acts.”
There are many ways that game designers get their ideas, but few start with the sentence “I was reading a lot of 18th Century poetry,” which is what Wehrle says to us about the early spark for the game’s mechanics.
“It’s something that happens to me once in a while. I found it so interesting that these poets oftentimes used card games as metaphors. They might be talking about politics, or love, or any kind of conquesting, but they use card games – particularly Whist.”
Wehrle goes on to talk about Alexander Pope’s ‘Rape of the Lock’, where there is a huge section that uses cards as a metaphor. The ‘mock-heroic’ poem is a satire of the heroic form but that means it contains much of the same structures of that which it’s poking fun at. Pope injects the card metaphor throughout – usually to express some form of strategy and also to undercut the grandiose language around those attending the royal ball that is the setting of the poem.
“The whole moment is ‘how are these hands played?’– and so I started thinking that there’s something in trick taking card games that lends itself to telling stories,” says Wehrle, “every hand has threats and perils, there are a lot of turns and surprises. Playing a trick taking game often feels like a magic trick.”
But making the game itself came from a faster, looser approach. The designer says he usually takes time off after a big game release. Unusually though, right after the he was done with Oath he wanted to work on this idea.
To do that he picked up the German trick taking card game Sticheln (now published in English as Stick’em) and took the cards with the elegant concept of building a trick taking games where what you win in the tricks are actions that players take in a game of Root.
“So I set up Root on the table and said, ‘okay, everybody’s got to move action, a battle action, and we’re all playing the same faction. You can recruit whatever. Here are your cards. Let’s play Root with a deck of cards.’,” says Wehrle, “and I was stunned that within two or three days, it worked.”
“Oftentimes when I’m working on a design, I go off in a cave and just stew for a long time. And this is the first time that it felt like a game jam where I started to asking myself, ‘how quickly could I build this thing?’ And so within about a week I had this like working trick taking game.”
This speedy development was further moved on by extracting Root from the process and finding its own identity.
“I said, ‘let’s forget Root for a second,’ and I’m just going to draw a map and write some very simple rules about how things should move around. The game has a big board, it’s got more spots that Root but about the same table presence,” says Wehrle, “there’s more spots because I wanted it to feel bigger, it’s space after all.”
ARCs might be one of the simplest games in this loosely tied ‘series’, “I wanted the big storytelling stuff of Oath with a simple mechanical framework that’s even easier than Root,” says Wehrle. The quickstart is reportedly only four pages long.
IN SEARCH OF SPACE FANTASY
Delving further into the stories we can create, Wehrle has a noble goal.
“I want to try to really capture how and why space games feel different from fantasy games,” he says, “and so I tried to do this in small ways and in big ways. Some of the structural ways that I’m doing it are things like ‘all your ships can sustain a damage.’ So, you know, all your ships can be damaged and then you can make a choice of like, ‘do I want to fly home and try to repair my ships? Do I think they can finish out this campaign by themselves?’”
On top of this, the map is larger, “you have to contend with more distance, and you can feel a little bit more alone – which can be very good,” the designer continues.
That loneliness is only thematic however, as one of the key struggles the designer was attempting to overcome is an essential problem in asymmetric designs – that each player has their own set of rules and players don’t really know what others are doing. The issue is solved through the central trick taking mechanism – even if one player is attempting to steal a galactic secret from an ancient library while another is trying to crush a rebellion, both are competing for tricks to take these actions.
“The action structure binds the two positions together and gives the game a lot of tension – even if we’re all trying to do different things,” says Wehrle.
While the core of the game is ‘done’ the work of creating content to fit within it to tell these stories is going to take the next several months. One thing the designer wants to include is something like a ‘vagabond mode’.
“I really want to include the ability to throw away everything you’ve built and have a single ship,” says Wehrle, “and so it’s sort of like playing in vagabond mode where if you lose a game really badly, what the game does is it shunts you on a different narrative path where it says ‘okay, it’s time for you to leave everything behind and here’s your single ship mode’.”
The scope of ARCs is much more grounded in play, “every episode of this game is about four to five hands usually,” says Wehrle, “when we play in the office, it usually takes us maybe an hour or a little bit less than an hour to play through a session. And then a completed arc is two to four session. And the reason why we kept it short is because I feel like a lot of campaign games right now are offering really good 20 to 40 hour experiences, but that’s just a lot of time.”
“We just want people to play their first game and then go ‘let’s just play the second session right now,’ – and then they can finish their saga next weekend. Or the intrepid group that wants to sit down and spend four or five hours to play through the entire thing in one sitting.”
That ‘one more game’ feeling is something that’s struck the Leder Games office too.
“I don’t want to build it up too much because it’s still in development,” says Wehrle, “but I had to stop playing it in the studio because everybody was enjoying it too much. And I’m like, ‘no, we have to design content. And they’re like, ‘no, can we just play another round?’”
The game is cautiously pencilled in for a March Kickstarter at the earliest and the designer hopes to have the game in people’s hands by the end of 2023. Of course, this is all subject to change with the ongoing shipping issues. Until then, we’ll just have to watch the stars.
[This article has been updated to reflect the correct release date]