Dev Diary - The History of Floating Islands
While there have been many games that I've worked on over the last few years, most of them have not been seen by anyone outside of my immediate family. A few of those items were shelved, either because I didn't have time/resources to work on them or because I felt I wasn't ready yet. Other games were abandoned entirely, lessons learned.
Of those that have made it beyond that initial conception stage, Floating Islands is currently our primary design.
In 2018, we came up with the Sugarpunk theme for Honey. I started creating a thematic story around a society that used islands floating in the sky that ran on glucose for power. Since Honey was a game built entirely around mechanics, with theme an afterthought, I wanted to try and design a game that started with theme. The Sugarpunk, floating islands theme, of course, seemed like a great place to start.
It was important to me from the start that the islands floating in the sky be central to the gameplay. Why would there need to be islands and why would they need to be floating? Well, maybe if you're moving between them and moving them around then that would make sense. I started with a single piece of the Kingdom Builder board for my initial inspiration, using tiles from that game as islands.
The goal of the game was to move islands around the board more efficiently than your opponent to create the largest archipelago. It was important to me that the players have a character that moves the islands and that the movement of that character between connected islands be a single action regardless of distance. Initially, I envisioned pieces of different sizes that you might have to move between other islands, which might be difficult. I never really tested that out as the game evolved differently once I started testing it.
There were a lot of struggles early on. The idea was solid and played really well. Shanna was concerned when I explained it, but she was pleasantly surprised at how smoothly the game flowed. But the initial game was too easy to tie.
An anchoring action was added to give the player choice and emphasize a risk of island theft. A currency was added to the game to control the rate at which people anchored islands. The currency had to be earned and didn't flow extremely well. Also, it was a little to easy to trap someone on an anchored island, so...
I added a jump option. This took extra moves to do depending on how far you traveled. Still with all the added things, plus a number of other options which came and went, it was too easy to tie.
I looked into a few alternate ways of playing the game, my favorite of which was a deck builder where the cards could be used for currency or for the action that they displayed (things like anchoring or moving). I even tried adding treasures to the map for people to go after that might give you special skills or victory points. Ultimately, all of this along with the jump action was scrapped when I finally decided to add tiles with different values and a build action.
The build action was an action that was less "race to get it first" and held a large cost that lead to a large value. The flow was great and there were multiple paths to victory that we were able to balance really well.
In August that year, a little over a month after I came up with the idea, we went to GenCon so I could start pitching Honey. Along for the ride was a version of Floating Islands that I was pretty happy with. As much as I liked it, though, I wasn't prepared for the reaction we got.
The people who played it ranged from a father and his daughter who were mainly interested in the theme to a couple of guys who loved strategy games. It was approachable and lent itself to either friendly or highly competitive gameplay. It was perfect information, but it offered a variety of ways to tackle the puzzle.
There wasy, of course, some feedback that we took into account and started developing on it a little more to try to balance it more, expand the options with goals and expand it to 4 player.
Not long after, Honey took over our development. We were doing pitches and designing some interesting variants, and eventually one of those pitches became a publishing deal. Floating Islands stood mostly untouched until January of the next year when we prepped it for PAX South where we would get some more playtests and show it to the publisher for Honey as an idea for a possible expanded universe.
The playtests once again went really well, with people coming back with their more friends to play again. But an issue that had begun showing its head became an issue - the more competitive way to play was too punishing and allowed for some really bad experiences when playing against someone who didn't like to play cutthroat.
We did a quick fix for that and a couple other small issues shortly before showing the game to the publisher.
It was the worst game of Floating Islands that we had ever seen. The AP was strong. They turned a 30 minute game into over an hour and a half. Ultimately, one player wound up getting stuck specifically because of the new rule we had made that limited island theft.
After a couple of conversations about polishing gold, we determined to work on ways of expanding the game to pull out the good parts, increase the theme and add some randomness and hidden information.
We added a second character for each player (interesting but a bit too complicated), a wind element (challenging to implement placement and changing them), more random treasures (too hard to determine placement) and scavenging (hard to create proper value, took too much focus off of the puzzle).
The one element that really changed the game up for the good, though, was to remove the automatic income every turn and replace it with an action to do income. This was balanced by adding a cost to every action. It emphasized the need to be efficient in spacial movement and created an obvious need for buildings as they increased your income.
Meanwhile the "classic" version of the game was entered into a contest where it performed quite well. The income action was the only element of the post-PAX game that carried back to this version. I determined that this version would be something I would come back to later while I treated this new work as though it were a sequel, prioritizing only that the spatial puzzle be retained.
Over the next few months all of those new items would be scrapped or shelved, and we would start focusing on goals and a new idea of every player starting from the center. This lead to us being able to implement a less symmetrical design.
From there we implemented a borrowing system which was interesting but was eventually scrapped when we changed the economy again. This time, there would no longer be income. Instead, certain actions would cost multiple action points. To work with this change, we created a specific purpose for each island type and created upgrades tied to your buildings.
These upgrades included extra actions, a return of the jump option, and better ways of gaining resources (which now served to lower action costs and were required for certain buildings).
Finally, the wind element was added back and, as an attempt to make the game longer we added a second half to the game called "The Storm".
The Storm begins after the wind builds to a certain level and starts blowing islands away. During this second half of the game, players have to minimize losses as much as possible while trying to continue building their engine if they can. This adds a new element of strategy and an interesting level of tension.
Floating Islands still has a way to go before it's complete, but I feel like it's heading in the right direction. There are still a few ideas worth looking at, a few that are currently there that will likely be changed or removed and a good deal of balance. I have a generally high expectation for quality and love the process of polishing a game. But I feel like the game is approaching the finish line, and I'm really happy with what it's turning out to be.