Updated: Jan 21
The S.S.O. comes with a wide range of crew, 12 in the base set actually, 4 command crew, 8 general crew. They've all been repeatedly tweaked throughout development, some more or less than others but one that's been the fiddliest so far has been the Botanist. Depending on your tastes and possibly age they are probably either Matt Damon in The Martian or Bruce Dern in Silent Running (or in the case of one playtester Pauly Shore in Biodome and in the case of my wife Charlie Dimmock), the S.S.O. uses Hydro Pods to supply oxygen and so one crew is matched to getting the best out of that pod. But extra oxygen supplies have the potential to seriously unbalance the game. Version one allowed the Botanist to generate 2 oxygen per turn which was balanced but dull and not thematic, so they got a little morale boost for tending their plants sprinkled in, which was powerful and thematic but condemned the Botanist to the Hydro Pod all game long. So currently they have 2 abilities, one for activating 2 Hydro Pod abilities (which does the double duty of future proofing, since at some point if SSO does well the second or third major expansion will feature an extended Hydro Pod); the other ability gains oxygen and morale but only outside the Hydro Pod. Which seems to have made the Botanist more mobile and proactive. So maybe not Bruce Dern after all. Now I just have to figure out a Hewey and Lewey mechanic.
Another version of the Botanist. It should be said, every version gets noted and boxed away in case I can use or reuse it. The previous version was still too powerful, too connected to the Hydro Pod and, above all, too resultant in easy, obvious choices. What looks like being the Botanist's final version now drains other crew to provide oxygen, connecting the Botanist to the Pod but with the ability to rove free and far. It feels quite "Silent Running" turning working the Hydro Pod into even more of a chore, which pleases me personally. Most importantly though, it forces the player to make choices, how much to drain and when and if morale is worth oxygen.
The base set of SSO comes with a Challenge Deck representing the ship's A.I. turning on the crew in the style of HAL in '2001: A Space Odyssey', ironic since the original basis for the shape of the game was 'Sunshine' which features a perfectly professional A.I. but gains its horror from a psychotic murderous former Captain hunting down the crew. So from original conception there were two Challenge Decks, one featuring an A.I., shutting off locations and dumping oxygen, and one featuring a murderous Captain, killing individual crew off and lowering crew's morale. But to keep retail price to £15 and distribution costs down I had to choose. Against the A.I., due to its shutting off locations crew grouping up is dangerous, but in the First Captain Deck as he stalks and kills off lone crew, splitting up is dangerous. However in the game's basic mechanics, lone crew with lowered morale are removed from the game, so splitting up is inherently risky, and useful locations need to be fully exploited by multiple crew so some bunching up is efficent. Which in short makes the A.I. deck the one with a few more finely balanced difficult choices. Additionally, the game is SSO, its named for the ship, the ship defines the look and atmosphere of the game so the first Challenge Deck representing the ship itself felt appropriate.
Still, there are fundimentally two Challenge Decks, both of which will hopefully be avalible for launch, both demanding exactly contrary responces to their challenges. During set up players are made unaware of which deck they are facing, making two decks significatly more challenging and tense than one especially since in the first two decks only 1/3 of the cards will identity your challenge, making your best path certainly uncertain, until the threat strikes.
Crew numbers has been the most important balancing act in the whole game. SSO is largely based on base 6, the challenge deck is 24 cards and each crew arrives with enough oxygen to last 12 turns, or 12 cards. Originally every player received 3 crew for 1-4 players, 2 for 5-6 each. Originally originally that carried on with 1 for 7-12 each, but the 'party game' version lasted until all of one conversation with Mike Hutchinson, and a personal acceptance of the unfeasibility of of 7+ players playtesting. That left a crew count of between 3 and 12 in play. Now the 3 crew single player had the heaviest playtesting, for obvious reasons, and because my game play tastes are frankly masochistic playing SSO with 3 crew is punishingly tough, but satisfyingly winnable. Opening up to multiple player playtesting it became quickly obvious that 6 crew represented a comfortable beginner level playing experience, providing 2 crew to work the hydro pods for extra oxygen and 4 to complete missions in good time. It became equally obvious that 8 or more crew made the game far too easy or far too dull. Whilst crew breathing rates increase alongside oxygen levels so the pressure remains on, Missions do not scale in difficulty well against player numbers from 8-10, leaving 2-4 crew not necessary to success, making their experience quite dull and killing them off a ready source of extra oxygen for an easy game.
This realisation led to 3 crew for 1-2 players 2 for 3, 1 for 4-6 emerging as the best numbers for game play. But SSO is a game of crew death, it is a horror survival game after all, and while player 'elimination' is a feature, eliminated players continue to effect the game by directing the Challenge Deck, its best limited. Meaning that forcing players to take just one or two crew sucked. Which led to introducing a crew deep freeze element, so crew numbers remain limited while players can suffer a certain amount of crew death without suffering player elimination.
So now 1 player has 4 crew, 2 players 3 each, 3 players 3 crew 1 frozen, 4 players 3 crew 2 frozen, 5 and 6 players 2 crew 1 frozen. This led to further difficulty levelling. Victories are scored depending on surviving crew and additional oxygen but new bonus points are scored by freezing extra crew during set up to boost their victory score.
So, having written this blog a few weeks ago between writing and posting playtesting and hard thinking have made some of the above statements big fat lies. Firstly, eliminated crew no longer effect the game. This feature was taken out in the interests of streamlining and was replaced by a mechanic allowing infinite crew levels provided oxygen supplies are sufficient. So, elimination will only occur shortly before total failure. Secondly, there are now two crew levels, 6 for story mode and 4 for challenge mode with players having varying numbers of crew.