20 June 2022
From Set a Watch to Maxmum Apocalypse, the new question is can we survive the cold embrace of outer space in Stardriven Saga?
“Stradriven: Saga might be my magnum opus,” says Mike Gnade, the owner of Rockmanor Games. Rockmanor has had a string of particularly interesting hits – the biggest is probably Maximum Apocalypse (now with an associated roleplaying game), but also D&D downtime simulator Set A Watch and the recent courtroom frolics of Lawyer Up. Stardriven: Saga is a spiritual successor to Maximum Apocalypse, but with everything turned up to eleven. Oh, and in space.
“We’ve got the first half of the campaign locked in at this point,” says Gnade, as he catches us up on the development of the game. The old card system for storytelling is gone, to be replaced by a book for the branching paths through the game. The scale and scope of this game can’t be underestimated, and Gnade is here to show us the way.
EXPLORE AND SURVIVE
The core conceit of Stardriven: Saga is the offer of expansive exploration, while trying to survive. The first mission sees you and your crew, having escaped experimental Warp Gate situation, crash land on an unknown planet. Together you’ve got to explore the world and salvage what you need from it to repair your ship.
Here you’re flipping tiles as you explore, deciding who to leave on the ship and who to send out scouting – usually depending on their class and the skills that they have available – and as you explore you may find unexpected things to interact with.
“Stardriven: Saga is a cooperative adventure game for up to six players, but has been designed to be a lot more solo focused,” says Gnade, “Maximum Apocalypse ended up being pretty popular with solo players. We have a mechanic where you control the meeples on your ships when you don’t have additional players.”
This shakes out as a worker placement mechanism that uses up your generic energy and supplies resource – something you’re going to need to get back out into the stars, or do nearly anything. Recharging these batteries is at the core of the game, as it represents your currency and health as a whole – running out of this means game over. In space and on the ground, everything has a cost.
“You’re controlling one character, which is represents you, but all the characters on the ship are potential lives and characters that you can play out,” explains Gnade, “I know some people like to play RPGs and really advance their character through the campaign. That’s fun, but I like variety, and here you can always swap out.”
From there, assuming you survive the planet and find the pieces of your ship that you need to get back into space, the world opens up into the stars.
“We have this book of star systems,” says Gnade, “and while in each star system the time you can spend in it varies – based on player count and how fast you’re playing, but we’re shootings for about 12 star systems. Each takes over an hour to complete, so we’re looking at something like a 20 hour game.”
“The way we’re writing it, there’s two central storylines, with two ‘end points’,” says Gnade, “but you could get to the end of one storyline, and be done with the game, or you could go back and pick up that thread from mission four.”
This idea of a free-flowing exploration of the universe and the story is refreshing.
“We’re trying to keep it sandboxy and open,” says Gnade, “but we want it to be punchy throughout.”
The star system board, or book, allows a view of alien planets that players can decide to freely move between and explore. It’s a simple but lovingly presented grid that accounts for locations, alien craft, and the odd wreck too. You can activate your engines to move around the system in a simple orthogonal manner, pirate ships might spot and follow your ship, and you’ll need to make turning manoeuvres – allowing for flanking attacks.
Swapping between characters is another freedom the game offers for players. This fits in with an interesting character progression feature.
“A lot of the big unlocks are in a technology tree and in new weapons and equipment. And between play sessions, you have that equipment to assign. So you can build your character class and your deck however you want,” says Gnade, “and if you want switch it up and change from a scientist to be a soldier next time, or you struggle in a mission and you need to switch to a soldier, you can do that without being incredibly paralyzed.”
“You’re going to earn experience – or knowledge – and that’s universally shared by everyone. So you can store it up and build a new character with it, or you can use it all on one character to make them really awesome,” he continues.
Being a survival game, there has to be a risk of failure to your favourite characters. While there’s no perma-death for a character, there’s something else that might be worse – if you die enough.
“What we have is that every time a character dies, you can clone your character,” says Gnade, “you can make a biological clone of your character – and your character becomes worse. They lose their maximum health. So the cloning process will slowly weaken your characters. You know, a clone of a clone isn’t as good as the original.”
There is also a legacy element for the game planned, including adding to your character boards with stickers when you upgrade. While it’s early days for this campaign aspect, Gnade tells us that the motivation is partly to avoid needing to reset everything every time you play. Simply adding the sticker works as a saving mechanism. This also leaves the team open to the idea of a ‘new game plus’ mode where players can start with advanced characters, but an even more hostile universe.
There’s currently five biomes in the game, although of course, this could change during development. These include a toxic world, an earth-like setting, a scorched volcanic planet, plus ice and desert biomes. These all offer different hints as to what’s happened before you arrive, whether that’s alien technology, fallen adventurers, or even just interesting enemies and monsters.
Players can explore, drawing and placing tiles as they want when on a planet’s surface. This leads to an interesting choice about how you open up the map. After all, heading out in a single direction is interesting, but also means you’ve got a long way to come back.
“The primary way you explore is by setting up an away team from your ship and taking your shuttle all down to the surface of a plan and exploring outwards,” says Gnade. While on the surface players can move the shuttle (remotely from the main ship if they need to), or, if they’re in orbit, they can provide some covering fire to protect from the bigger threats that might arise on the map.
In space however, there’s a different kind of exploration.
“And then there’s the derelict ships,” says Gnade, “ships that are decommissioned or destroyed in space. Players can dock with them and explore. These ships are dynamically built, and shaped differently than planets. They’re a set shape and number of tiles. You can choose where to dock with them but you lose the benefit of being able to take your shuttle with you and fly over the terrain or have your ship orbit where it can like shoot down. These ships are a little more dangerous – they’re sort of like our dungeons.”
These space hulks are perilous places which add further environmental problems like fires, or malfunctioning airlocks. These hazard tiles, which can be found in other biomes, are much more numerous here.
As for the actions you can take, you pre-roll some dice at the start of your turn – and while there isn’t a success-failure mechanic, rolling higher is better. Better rolls mean you’ll be able to perform you actions more effectively.
“Your basic actions are just ‘spend any dice’ – it doesn’t matter the value in the slot for the action that’s listed on your board,” says Gnade, “so if you want to move, you put it in the movement slot, you move a space, just like you would in Maximum Apocalypse. Then, when the dice interact with tiles that you explore on, when you stumble into a trap, if you have higher dice, it’s going to be easier to get yourself out of that trap.”
“We’ve been living with Maximum Apocalypse now for five years – playing it, watching other people play it, hearing about it and doing multiple expansions for it. And we’ve seen these interesting things where some conservative players will get to a point where they just don’t risk moving because they don’t have actions left and they know that they could really screw up if they move ahead,” continues the designer, “so we wanted to empower those people to say, ‘well, I feel like I can move ahead and explore because I just rolled three, sixes – and I know I’ll be able to probably get out of anything that’s thrown my way.’ Plus they’ve all got these cards in their hand, so they can be more confident. It keeps the game moving and progressing at a steadier clip.”
THE STARDRIVEN EXPANDED UNIVERSE
When asking Gnade about the story of the game, he hesitates – not only because it’s often unfair to ask about how a story is going to unfold in a game that’s still in development – but because Stardriven is going to be the setting for multiple games.
“I’m designing Stardriven: Saga, and Tom Walsh – of Set A Watch – is designing for it too. Chronologically it happens before Saga,” says Gnade, “his game is a competitive game where you’re managing your crew, which are represented by cards, and warping around the system and exploring it. The whole idea is that this area of space has not been accepted into the federation yet. You’re playing as criminals, federation or rogues trying to influence the voting worlds of the system.”
“The importance of this system is that, at the centre, there is an ancient Warp Gate.
The aliens and peoples of the system are working on an experimental shop that will hopefully be able to work with the gate.
So, Todd’s game ends with that Warp Gate being activated and the council of worlds voting on whether or not they’re joining the federation – and the crew of my game is the crew of that experimental ship that takes the Warp Gate.”
“Whether or not Todd’s game ends in war or peace, the six member of the crew in my game are the people who snuck aboard this experimental ship and took it through the warp gate out of desperation – and crash landed somewhere else in the galaxy.”
“And from there it follows something like the Lost In Space tropes of finding out where you are and how to get home,” continues Gnade, “you can follow the clues left by an ancient civilisation – this precursor species that became highly technologically advanced. Or you can follow the line of finding your way home instead – in which you’ll come across the evil alien empire that’s exploiting the DNA of other species to create their own army. These are the main threads we’re thinking about as far as the story goes.”
With this all ahead of us – and the piratey fun of Seas of Havoc soon to launch on Kickstarter – we’re looking to the future for this huge space outing. Stardriven: Saga hopes to be launching on Kickstarter in the latter half of the year. This timeline, like any right now cannot be set in stone.
“I haven’t felt this way since I designed the original Maximum Apocalypse,” says Gnade when we ask about his hopes for the title, “and I’d love to be able to call this season one of Stardriven: Saga and to open up the system to other game masters and people who want to create additional content for it. That’s my dream moving forward.”
The best way to stay up to date with these dreams and the game is to sign up to Rockmanor Games’ very occasional newsletter on their website.