One of my goals is to play more games and extract some tips on good game design along the way. This is my eighteenth review in this series called “50 games”.

Recently I’ve been playing Desolate, a card-game made by 1-man-team Jason Glover which was originally made as a single player game, but has since been extended to support 1-4 cooperative players.

It’s a fairly simple game at heart, but comes with a variety of items and stats, which gives it a “paper rpg” kind of feeling. Essentially you have arrived at a space station as part of a rescue mission, but everyone on it is dead and your ship crashlanded and oh, there’s aliens. Better fix your ship and get the hell out of there!

After playing a few rounds I thought perhaps the game was too easy, and opened the extension set which adds space diseases. This made things a bit more interesting, and the extension for multiplayer makes it a collaborative experience while still maintaining the “alone in space” feeling.

I like that there is a bunch of items and characters, which allows you to change the challenge level fairly easily.

The game is easy to learn and understand. This is great because it means you don’t have to study a rule book to play the game, which also means its easier to introduce it to new players. However it also means (I fear) that the game can get a bit repetitive and potentially not as open-ended as I hoped. I haven’t played enough to really confirm that, but I have a hunch.

One issue with a game with essentially 20-odd “narrative” cards is that once you have found the “best” tactic for choosing these, the game will basically just be a repeat every time. I think a way to “fix” this would be to combine cards, so that depending on where you come from, the outcome of the next card is altered. For example, something basic like an encounter could be harder if you just went through a massive room like the warehouse (e.g. a large species has made this place its home) or even just be more challenging depending on the “dungeon level” you’re on. If you’ve just picked up a crate, perhaps the contents depends on how many aliens you’ve slain (e.g. maybe you could find the axe after exhausting your ammo? it might be badly needed in this situation).

In the end, a single player board or card game is all about, I think, creating a story around the events. And what would be better than help create a story via what happens in the game, instead of a (fairly predictable) set of static events, over and over again.

It’s not really my aim to criticize - I quite like desolate and the extensions - it just got me thinking how to do something similar and make it more dynamic. The same can also be applied to video games, for example with procedurally created content - track what has happened so far and make that part of the algorithm. How much better is it to find a scrap of food when you are really really in need of something - anything - to eat? Or to find a single bullet when you have walked in terminal fright since using the last one?

So what lessons can I take from this game from a gamedev and game design point of view?

  • Track what’s happening in your game. Use that info to create a dynamic and fulfilling narrative.
  • Random is fine, but can be even better if intertwined with some other input. E.g. a single event can instead be split into two different ones, depending on whether the player is injured or not.
  • I kinda disliked finding medpacks and ammo early on because the game says you cannot pick them up (since I was at max health). I would prefer if the narrative said something else for that situation, for example I might find useless things instead. Or let me carry medpacks with me - or let me travel back to previous room and pick them up laters.
  • In this game you win immediately when you find the last power cell. I think a “there and back again” would have worked really well, as it would be even tenser going back to the ship with your salvation in your backpack. This would also be super easy to implement (I might even make some house rules for this… hmmm)
  • I really liked how the game was pretty basic and then gradually got more advanced through extensions and eventually became a multiplayer game! That’s an organic evolution of a game, great stuff!