The Genesis of a New Tabletop Project

by | Oct 28, 2016

Getting Started

The minimum amount of time required to make a half-way decent board game seems to fall in the 2-3 years range. That’s the equivalent of how long it would take to get your masters degree. And trust me when I tell you that the pay is about the same. Bearing that in mind, you are really going to need to like the subject matter of any game you put together. I’ve been working on my first board game for almost 6 years now and if it wasn’t intrinsically connected to another passion  of mine (Kung Fu and Tai Chi) I would have given up a long time ago. I’ve read articles about some famous designers that could care less about theme. They are totally into the mechanism of the game and theme is almost an afterthought. I have discovered that this type of thinking doesn’t really work for me. I’m not a mathematical genius. I’m a logician. Sort of a cross between a magician and Mr. Spock with his phaser set to stunning. For me, the mechanism of the game has to evolve out of the theme naturally. To that end, I have been spending a copious amount of time researching my next project. I’m still not sure about all the details but I wanted to share with you the inspiration.

Research Your Inspiration

I’ve been thinking a lot about developing a game that involves time dilation and/or time travel. There has been a ton of fiction and nonfiction written on the subject. Back to the Future, Interstellar and Inception (what’s your deal Christopher Nolan?), Time Cop, The One, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Terminator, and 12 Monkeys are just a few films that come to mind right away. In addition to these cinematic adventures I’ve been checking out Robert A. Heinlein’s All You Zombies, Hyperion and Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons, The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, Hyperspace by Michio Kaku, and A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. I’ve also checked out various television shows (Star Trek, Dr. Who, Misfits) that usually feature an episode or two to this delicious pastime (pun intended). I have no doubt there are many other books and films I have not mentioned.

The Mechanics of Time Travel

Most of what I’ve come across in scientific books and articles talks about the impossibility of moving backward through time. But almost everyone agrees that time dilation is the real deal. The sound of two black holes merging was recently recorded in the form of sound waves. You can hear a clip of Black Holes Colliding. This proves the existence of gravitational waves which further proves the Theory of Relativity that Albert Einstein was kicking around before they had a way to measure it. Here’s an article about The Theory of Relativity

Special relativity says that every person has their own time. Time passed for a stationary observer is greater than time passed for a moving observer or “the faster the speed you travel physically, the slower the speed of increasing of your age will become”. One person’s clock says something different from another person’s clock. The reason a person’s time can be different from another’s is because of time dilation, which can be thought of more easily by the twin paradox.


The twin paradox shows how time changes because of speed. The faster someone or something moves or the more mass they have, the slower time passes for them. This is shown by a pair of twins. Imagine that the first twin moves at a fast speed, near the speed of light for example, while the other twin stays in one general location. When the first twin returns from his trip, he will be younger than the second twin. Thus time and speed are related. If a train is moving around the earth at the speed of light then time will become slower for the passengers aboard the train and upon stepping out of the train they will step down in the future.

A Question of Tone

Sit down with hard core tabletop gamers and you will find out very quickly that everyone is an expert. In everything. We all know every science fiction book and fantasy novel and we’ve all watched every episode of every TV show and every movie (even the obscure foreign language original). It’s a tough crowd to introduce a new take on a much-loved subject like time travel. At this point in the process I have to start thinking about tone. If I want to run with the big boys of science I may lose the more casual gamer. If I am too irreverent about the mechanism of time travel then the true aficionados will feel cheated or that the mechanism of time travel is being bastardized yet again as a novelty. If I want to create an original and successful take on time travel I will have to find a careful balance between scientifically viable notions and the types of scenarios that create an interesting story. Preferably this balance will manifest in the game mechanics directly and serve to illustrate time dilation as a type of working model of relativity. Ha ha! Tall order.

Throwing Paint at the Wall

I brought up the idea of a time dilation game to my childhood friends Antony and Nick and they both recommended science fiction books illustrating the concept. Nick and I started chatting about a couple of directions for the game. Being huge fans of the choose-your-own-adventure series Lone Wolf by Joe Dever, we started throwing around the idea of a fantasy-based game with a time travel twist. In Lone Wolf, you work your way through a series of choices to end up with selected items and a unique series of events culminating with a dramatic finale.

Dipping into this rich well of inspiration, let’s imagine that the big bad at the end of the game is a dragon. Each space in the game might take the shape of a hexagon and then you would proceed to build the map as you explore the catacombs of a dungeon or an enchanted forest, etc. At a certain point you would come across the dragon’s lair. Scorched by dragon flame and your lack of awesome items, you are about to die a horrible death until you are flung back in time to an earlier point in the adventure. Now you have to take another path and find the proper items before you are french fried again. Let’s say this second time you screw it up again and are yet again saved by the time travel magic and sent back for a third go. The thing about going back in time is that if you run into your past self you will influence your first time through and immediately cease to exist. In the second and third times through you will need to avoid yourself in order to defeat the dragon at the end. This all assumes that you are able to bring the items you collected the first and second time with you the third time. That way you can assemble the famed dragon reaper sword (or whatever).

This version of the game completely throws out any scientific notion and plunges us directly into the realm of magic. I figure if you are going to go back in time you should just make it something that by its very nature cannot be explained: magic.

Getting All Science Fiction Up In Here

The other game idea had more to do with time dilation. I had an idea for a group of space explorers being sent out among the stars to find a planet worth terra-forming. In this reality, Earth is on its last legs. We’ve depleted all our natural resources and we’re looking to relocate. These space marines/scientists find a suitable planet and proceed to set up machines to create an appropriate oxygen atmosphere. This type of planetary evolution would normally take eons so they launch a miniature black hole into our Earth’s core to slow everything down. This greatly increases the gravitational pull on Earth and as a result the rest of the universe appears to be rapidly propelling itself into the future. Lo and behold! A native species evolves and takes over Planet X. We run out of time and humans are now on a one way trip from Earth and must populate the planet’s surface. War ensues and the only advantage the humans have is their ability to dilate time. The natives have adapted to survive in an oxygen atmosphere in addition to their natural atmosphere (who knows… methane?).

This is more of a sketch than the other idea. I imagine that there would need to be a lot of move tracking in this game as various groups within this universe would be traveling at different rates through time. There would be no time travel per se but the use of time dilation as an equalizer might be interesting. One game that I like that has an interesting wheel mechanism is called Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar. This game involves placing workers on various wheels of different sizes and then jumping off in order to collect goods and items and ultimately to honor the gods. It’s a totally different theme but the different sizes of wheels could be considered different rates of time (aka time dilation). I’m not really too keen on making a worker placement game but the wheel mechanism is pretty cool. It could be used to track various types of progress. Another option is a 7 Wonders set collection type of game. But in this type of game there would need to be a lot more interaction between all the interested parties. Heck, maybe I’ll make the first game to utilize a lazy Susan.


So far I have one simple game and one epic game. The final product will likely fall somewhere in between. It occurs to me as I write this that time dilation could also be used in the fantasy-themed game. It would be interesting to move through a room with other players frozen in time. You could greatly influence the outcome as soon as time returned to normal. Most board games appear to be frozen it time so this static feeling may need to be addressed throughout game play. The space game will likely need to take on a more episodic nature. This will require a modular board and likely multiple sessions. This version of the game could be a cross between a role playing game and a board game. The topic is so broad that a large view of time travel is too much for us mere mortals. It would be great to have an overarching concept that governs the environment of each smaller scenario. One particularly interesting idea would be to document a scenario with digital photos and then recreate it so you can go back in time or dilate time and play among your previous actions. Obviously I have quite a journey ahead of me. I’m hoping my future self will travel back and hand me the finished product. We’ll see. He might be a tyrannical despot that has given up on board games. Who knows? I’m fickle that way.