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Skirmish Games: Developer’s Diary for Martian Racing Federation

Hopefully the subject of this blog should be on free release by now, if it isn’t it soon will be. Some time ago a fairly casual comment was tossed off on a Facebook group in relation to Gaslands that there should be a team of Martian aristos slumming it on earth. If you’re not familiar with the system that will need a little explaining. Gaslands is a post-apocalyptic Mad Max/Death Race 2000 style game played with Hot Wheels scale cars. The background is that it is a dystopian TV show since Earth lost an inter-planetary nuclear war with its Mars colony and has since become its TV studio, of which Gaslands is its highest rated show. Gaslands the tabletop game has ‘sponsors’ as factions. So, the idea was suggested that the rich kids of Martian gajillionaires would come to earth with such high tech as to be essentially untouchable and form a sponsor. We decided pretty quickly that having them as an actual sponsor wouldn’t work, in background terms the Earth is a lawless, radioactive and deadly place with its own resistance forces, its pretty unlikely that even the most debauched Martian youth would actually choose to set foot on it. Also, Gaslands is pretty heavily built on your cars getting trashed and your drivers getting blown up, a team that came across as largely untouchable seemed like it would just suck the fun out of it. However, the idea of a super high tech, and super speed team was one that didn’t sound like it would be sucking the fun out, not at all. Which started something that became a bit of an ongoing thing that frankly, I’m glad to have finished off with this release.

So, the big idea was that it would be something like the computer games Zero G and Wipe-out or the pod-racing sequence from The Phantom Menace. It was decided that this was probably what people on Mars did when they wanted to race like civilised people rather than watch the blood sport carnage of Gaslands. There was one central principle, and that was that it should feel super-fast.

A little bit of behind the scenes here. Time Extended, the process by which the majority of Gaslands’ free content has been put out, is a more complex beast than outsiders might assume. It goes through a sort of process, but its pretty ramshackle and it goes something like this. Mike, who does not live a time rich lifestyle, bellows some barely comprehensible briefs at me, usually based on some half legible notes I’ve flung at him based on something that came up in a playtesting session that made everyone go “yeah, that’d be, like, totally rad dude”. I have more free time because I know how to look after myself and have an obsessive bent, so I then spend weeks thrashing it out with our core playtesting group, going back and forth with Mike until one or both of us declare it perfect. Or, as good as we can get it. Or, it is what it is.

Then Mike pretties it up with images, usually running a painting contest or similar because he likes that sort of thing, then he sends it to Osprey for it to get the official okay. Osprey, as with most parts of the hobby industry, are not replete with an excess of time and staff, and Time Extended, being as how it doesn’t translate into direct funds, is not top of the priority list. So, this part of the process can see something of a slowdown. At some point the Time Extended hits the digital shelves and we get to working on the next one.

Only we don’t, because we tend to work on things in clumps, so we tend to do the content of multiple Time Extended, or the new edition, or other stuff all together until we run out and then do it again. Which all goes together to explain the reason why we’ve ended up writing what would become the Martian Racing Federation rules on at least three totally separate occasions to my memory.

Another behind the scenes thing is that Mike is a brilliant human being and has an undeniable genius, but for some reason he has a serious blind-spot for writing scenarios. I don’t know why, but it’s fairly certain that in the first edition of any scenario he suggests there will be at least one of either an unwinnable game event, an eternal turn loop or a situation where people win by doing something dull and/or insane. In some instances, all three. This goes for each version of Martian Racing Federation.

So, a little of this game mode’s history. The first version (or one, or most of the first versions) boiled down to a version of Gaslands where you bolted on long templates to your moves in each gear, depending on your gear. It didn’t feel like breakneck speed, still had you doing hairpins in the middle of these mega straights and still had you going back to first gear at various points. In short, it just felt like normal Gaslands, only a little more stop-start.

The second version, which I was pretty happy with, took the video game mentality of the mode to the extreme. This was based on an idea where Mike wanted the gears to be able to go up endlessly with vehicles that had no top gear at all. The problem with this was that if you wiped out or lost your gears at all and the other guy kept shifting up, you were out of the race. We solved it by a system where you simply never lost your gears from wiping out or even being destroyed, you just got re-spawned at your last gate in your current gear. It felt very Super Mario. You counted gears with a normal gear dice and a “tens” dice that ticked up each time you went past 6th gear and you had to place a long template for all but one of your tens, with your other template being whatever was legal in your current gear. It was a good version of what it was, myself and at least one other playtester still have versions of it knocking around somewhere. Mike insists he has no recollection of it whatsoever.

Still, coming up to the present. We have big ideas (as we always do) relating to Gaslands and A Billion Suns. A Billion Suns is coming out in August 2020, we’re all set. Only, A Billion Suns isn’t coming out in August 2020, now its coming out in October 2020 (its not, its coming out in February 2021, but we didn’t know that at the time). So, we wanted something to put out instead. Martian Racing Federation is futuristic, A Billion Suns is futuristic. Back to that drawing board we all go.

This time around the decision was made that MRF (Martian Racing Federation) would be much more puzzly and highbrow than the previous super video game versions. This decision was arrived at from a couple of perspectives:

1) The development and playtesting team concluding it since Mike had junked a perfectly good version that was very video game like. Mike claims not to remember this version and not to have consciously junked it, just lost it in the shuffle of schedule that I explained above.

2) There are a lot of fan made video game versions of Gaslands, and they’re very good. It was decided that it really wasn’t our place to design something that the fans were designing themselves and tell them how to do it. Its our place to suggest something else, something that it might not have occurred to them that they wanted.

3) While those previous versions felt high speed, they never felt like moving with zero-G control, you didn’t feel like you were banking vertically around a post before lazering away at 200 MPH. You usually felt like you were arrowing into a peg as hard as possible so that you could use the re-spawn to turn around.

It went a little like this:

Idea 1: Have people add on long straights to their moves, that means they’re going fast.

Response 1: But long straights are kind of boring

Result 1: Have people smush together all of the templates into massive long winding mega templates so that they have to figure out where a hairpin after a swerve after a gentle after a turn will put them. That’s lots of movement, so its fast, and it sounds bastard hard, so it’s fun.

Idea 2: Skid dice have to be used.

Response 2: Do they though?

Result 2: Stringing along six templates in a row creates a situation where lack of forward knowledge is essentially identical to randomness. Adding randomness into that created a situation where planning was pretty much impossible, then you were asked to do a lot of planning, so you just felt sort of annoyed and powerless. It also meant you just didn’t need the dice anymore. So we took the skid dice out.

Idea 3: Still have people wipe out and get shot up by guns.

Response 3: That’s just annoying.

Result 3: Not have it then if you’re going to be like that.

Idea 4: Hey, if we have people pre-programming their templates we can have them mess with each other’s sequence of templates.

Response 4: If you mess with a first template in a plan then people can be so screwed as to be out of the game.

Result 4: You know, it’s a lot easier being part of the problem than being part of the solution.

All of which ended up with what we’ve begun describing as the euro-game version of Gaslands. Templates have a rating, you select up to six of them in a set sequence, then you must lay them down in that sequence, and they must not exceed in total the rating that your car can handle. It sounds weird, but its good fun and worked pretty much instantly for the Death Race scenario of Gaslands. It was decided that there should be a scenario where the racers slam at insane speeds down a canyon (or something), partly because a rolling road is a bit of a table top given if you’re trying to simulate crazy distances and speeds, partly because it felt a bit more pod-racingy.

There was a version where whoever got down three tables first won. It was crushingly dull and 66% a total waste of time. There was a version where everyone pretty much died on their second activation. That didn’t work too well either. We landed on a rather nice middle ground where death is inevitable and excitingly quick, but you can win by dying slightly after the other guy. Which is also very Gaslands.

All of which is the story of how the longest and most torturous route to a published Gaslands supplement was completed. Of course, at the time of writing this blog its not out there yet. So I’m not ruling out a version 4.


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