Galactic Era: Interview with Channing Jones

I won't lie, I do love me a bit of 4X, so when I heard that a new one was careering its way to Kickstarter like a drunk to a kebab house, I was more than a little interested. Noting that Galactic Era would be on show at the UK Games Expo, I made a beeline for it with my partner and sat down with Channing Jones, designer of Galactic Era, to have a run through of his upcoming game to see how it shapes up.

It isn't often that we do interviews here at Polyhedron Collider. It's not because we're grumpy old men who don't like interacting with the outside world (although in my case, that's certainly a factor), it's simply because we very rarely have the time to actually perform them. Nevertheless, I was suitably interested in Galactic Era to find out more about it. After all, there's really only two big space-based 4X games out there, Twilight Imperium from Fantasy Flight Games and Eclipse from Lautapelit, so a bit of competition can only be a good thing. 

So after a bit of back and forth, Channing was kind enough to answer a few questions about Galactic Era and the work he's done to get to where he is now.

Galactic Era - Player Deployment

How did you come up with the idea for Galactic Era? How long has it been in development?

It's been in development since 2015, although as a young teenager I already tried make a game I called "Galactic Empires" which had some similarities to Galactic Era. I even remember sending a prototype of it to a publisher (Avalon Hill). It was rejected, but I at least got a reply! I had two motivations for making this game.
The main one was that really I like the 4X genre and I wanted to make a great game of this type with all the improvements I wanted to see, for example a lower level of luck in the game. That includes less luck in what kind of stars you discover, because I know from experience that it can really make a difference, but also less luck in the outcome of combat, because I find it quite frustrating to lose a game after playing for a long time just because of some bad dice rolls. The secondary reason was that I wanted to incorporate all the research I did into the topics of UFOs, spirituality, paranormal phenomena and conspiracy theories I have done over many years since 2006 into a game and make it known thereby. If you put these things together they make a quite a consistent and complete model of reality that explains almost everything.

Thanks for taking me through it at UKGE this year - have you made any changes to the game based on feedback since Expo?

Yes, one big change that came about because of the UKGE was asked for by a visitor to my stand, namely to make the sector boards double-sided. I originally did not want to do that because of the extra work, but then I figured out a way to do it easily. So for the grid I just mirrored the front side, kept all the planet names and then rearranged and added some space anomalies (nebula, neutron stars and asteroid systems). So the "B" sides are somewhat similar but also different enough. Also I did some tweaking of scoring numbers because of a playtest session there. 

Galactic Era - Player Tech Tree

How has playtesting gone? Has it been a frustrating or enlightening process? Were any serious flaws in the game revealed? Also, have you had much positive feedback? What do players enjoy? 

I’m currently on the 47th version of the rules and I've recorded about 80 playtests of which I participated in about 65 myself. I meticulously recorded all the statistics of these sessions so I could discover any outliers and correct those. This is especially necessary for this type of game that has factions with asymmetric powers. Also I wanted all the 5 technology fields to be equally useful, so I had to do a lot of tweaking for that. The last few months have been an immense amount of tweaking the numbers for everything though to make sure all is balanced.
I did not discover any serious flaws in the core mechanisms. It was quite difficult to find a good way to influence turn order though. One surprising thing I then discovered was how important turn order is and that you really have a big tactical advantage being last when at war with another player. Being first in turn order also has advantages, which are more obvious, so one mistake that novice players make is to compete for first place in turn order.
Feedback has been very positive especially in the last few months as the rules have become mature. In the beginning there were quite a few problems that I had to fix though. Strangely enough I started with a relatively simple game and added a lot of the features you see now later in the development process. Players enjoy the alignment mechanic very much, the high replayability of the game (which was not always the case) and also that there are many different ways to win the game (both peaceful and warlike).

How "big" do you expect the game to be? Is it intended as a rival to games like Eclipse or Twilight Imperium as they're the obvious comparisons?

It is a “big” game and – if you want to see it that way - a rival to those games except for miniatures. I do not intend to match those games in that regard. It is similar in playing time to Eclipse but a bit shorter than Twilight Imperium. The goal I set was to have an epic space game playable in an evening. I do think there is room for more than one epic “4X”-style space game though, so I don’t see it as detracting from these games, but rather bringing something new and different to the genre. 

Galactic Era - Full Board

One of the things I found during our quick playthrough was that the turn track seemed to influence a lot of my tactical decisions during the game. Is that intentional? Have you made any changes to that side of things?

Yes and no. You can make a lot of points due to the turn track (the “galactic story” as it’s called) if you want to, but it entirely possible to win a game while mostly ignoring it. The idea of the game is that there are many possible paths to victory. You can also win by having a large population, for example. So if you don’t switch your alignment during the game you still score 4 points while switching once will give you 6 points or even 8 points if you switch twice. You often win the game with around 80 points, so 2-4 extra points are not much of advantage, especially if consider what else you could have done with those actions.

How many players and what kind of weight is the game intended to be?

The game is for 2-6 players. For 2 players there are some special rules, you namely use a “dummy” third player that the two players bid for control of. The game is in the upper category of complexity (level 4 on BGG) and the rulebook may seem intimidating at 30 pages, but players usually find it quite easy to understand once they have played a few rounds. Most of the game mechanics are intuitive, because they match the theme. 

Are there opportunities in the game for alliances? Wars - so one group of allies can attack another for example?

Yes, there is combat in the game and that is one of the main aspects of the game (although a peaceful game is also entirely possible). Players can have informal alliances and “gang up” on the leading player. There is also one formal “alliance” (or “truce” a may be a better term) in the game, namely that all the players on the “light” side must always be at peace with each other. You are only allowed to have negative interactions with a player you are “at war” with, so you have to “declare war” first, which is easy for players on the dark side, but very hard if you are on the light side. 

Galactic Era - Player Board

The dark/light mechanic is the USP here - has that undergone any tweaks or changes during playtesting? I like the idea, but the Star Wars reference is quite that intentional?

This core mechanism has remained almost entirely unchanged since the beginning. It’s heavily based on the background story, but it turned out to be very balanced from the beginning. It is intentional, but I would say that both Star Wars and Galactic Era get this basic idea from the same source material, rather than me copying any ideas directly from Star Wars.
A universal dark/light duality and resulting paranormal powers have been well-established ideas in esoteric circles (and even religions) for hundreds or even thousands of years. Even texts from ancient India (the Vedas) talk about this fundamental conflict. It’s very common in the fantasy genre but very uncommon in the sci-fi genre for some reason. I got the details on how this works in the game from my years of research into spirituality, UFOs and esoterica, a large portion of which is from the cosmology as stated in the “Law of One”. You can find the references to this material at the bottom of the backstory page on the Galactic Era website.

How many factions are in the game? Is the game balanced or deliberately imbalanced (like an Eric Lang game)?

There are 15 factions (or “star peoples”) in the game and my intention was to have them balanced, which I think I have succeeded with. 8 of these offer different special powers depending on which side you play them and the rest have either no difference or only a difference at setup. All the 5 five technology fields offer equal chances of winning the game, but each in a very different way. With Genetics, for example, you try to win by having lots population whereas with Robotics you try to win by having lots of ships and technology. Military offers a path to victory by winning lots of space battles. Spirituality makes you impervious to attacks by other players and gives you knowledge of otherwise hidden things.

Galactic Era - Fleet Deployment

Any other information we need to know? Anything you're keeping back as a surprise or bonus for backers or players?

I have prepared many stretch goals that you will not see on the Kickstarter page initially when the campaign launches. This includes improved quality components and additional content (extra star people, story and sector). Also there are some secrets regarding the background story waiting to be revealed. Which may happen if backers fulfill various social media goals. These secrets will answer the following questions: 
Who were the ancient builder race and where did they come from? Why and how did they leave behind all these artifacts? Which faction is actually the most powerful one in the galaxy? Is there some more powerful force that is actually in control? 
These mysteries will be solved as we publish more short stories regarding the backstory. You will be able to read these on the Galactic Era website.

For those of you who wish to know more or back the campaign, it can be found on Kickstarter now.
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