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Super Inventions as our big guns

Updated: May 13, 2021

My adult life up until now has been captivated by celestial mechanics and instruments to decode them. From the early encounter with cosmography as an 18-year old, via my geography teacher (with the Titius–Bode law calculating the spacing between planets at the end of my upper secondary education), to my UA (University of Antwerp) Master thesis about Chinese scientific and cultural influence (via astronomical instrument inventions during the Yuan Dynasty), up to my Bachelor studies in astrophysics at UCLan (University of Central Lancashire) and my job at the UGent (University of Ghent) Armand Pien Popular Observatory as a science educator (where one of our story line super inventions resides; the real 19th century brass telescope I work with in outreach projects), I can say that this game is a reflection of my affinity for observational instruments. A lot of knowledge picked up in the last 20 years are carefully picked and polished in a more than 5-year endeavour.

Composition (Vincent Verhoeven) Sphinx Sol Ange (Diego Sanchez)

In this blog I will disclose a short history of the hardship to get to this point. The outcome we have reached until now is already beyond my wildest dreams. And most of this is thanks to an amazing team of play testers, graphic designers, illustrators and 3D-sculptors I have had the fortune to encounter. A special thanks go out to Deborah, Diego and Ana for joining and supporting me on this journey. And since we are nearing a turning point towards pre-campaigning preparations and logistics, I am anxious to meet other professionals along the way in the coming phases.

This blog will also project the roles of the special characters and instruments from the solo module, with their optional addition to an advanced multiplayer game. Normally I love to write as many blogs as possible, but now there are more gaps between them due to the increasing amount of work that comes with this project for a starting publisher. Nevertheless, this one will be really extensive to make up for the gap you readers might have felt. I will show the work I am covering now with the rulebook, the graphical draft design changes that were critical to support the super inventions and connect the existing game pieces in a more comprehensive and intuitive way.

After an in-depth introduction of the most marvellous mechanical instruments in history to master time and space, I will sketch the current decisions on how we fit our work on potential stretch goal modules (rockets, seasonal events), art and storybook, and on other steps in the project.

A turbulent history of the game concept

First rush of ideas

"Heelal Nieuwsgierig", Universal Curiosity

The game concept was conceived in 2015 though a unpublished monster of game prototype under the name of Universal Curiosity. The theme was set around academics working their way up in one of the four universities, under the banner of one of the four seasons, via accomplishments of bachelor and master degrees, up to a doctorate following by multiple papers. Research can be done and rockets could be launched varying from several lunar to several Mars missions to even solar, Rosetta and Voyager missions. Different professional radio and visual telescopes around the world could be hired to research different fields. Nevertheless, this was just a beast to flex back my game designing hobby as a teenager.

Scientific genius, artistic failure

Simplified predecessor of the reinvented AstroNavigators

In 2017 a simplified game version was conveyed for a young audience, aiming at observing constellations, travelling the world and taking off to the Moon, under the name LunaTix (Tickets to the Moon with intended whimsical pun). The scientific idea was ingenious, and would be developed to encourage school kids to learn about the mechanics of the heavens in a fun way. Presented at Spiel in 2018, it was a demonstrative hit for an older audience, but the graphics and illustrations were left to be desired when coming to promote the game within a crowdfunding scope with one year deadline spiced with no experience and limited human resources. The campaign was cancelled because it was undermanned and underestimated in a non-profit and experimental environment. Since then I can't stand hearing the name LunaTix anymore. It brings up a lot of bad feelings and disappointments. But nonetheless, this was the core source of the fuel I needed to pick up this project and rise again.

Hatching a flagship game

Concept representation of AstroNavigators (Armillary Games)

After a cold shower in 2019, I couldn't let this unique concept go to waste with all the gathered experience. Some ingredients were missing: a board game community, thematic drama and a professional illustrator. Since procuring these missing parts, the early machinations for the history of astronomy has found its way into the game. The most important thing left out was the soul of the game designer itself who has an extensive knowledge of old astronomical instruments and ancient cosmology. Oversimplicity, together with age and investment restrictions now out of the way, Armillary Games was born to publish scientifically inspired games themed around astronomy, physics, meteorology, space flight, a.o. The name AstroNavigators was also the right evocative one to explain the overall theme of the new game. After the creation of the different characters of the game, the instruments they hold were changed into their observation instrument as "weapon of choice" with unique powers, that can even be shared! For the solo-game we ended up with "super weapons", converted into "Super Inventions". Each basic instrument comes with a set of techniques, which combined with others could result into a revolutionizing invention. This idea has come to me, as I reflected on my thesis in 2003 of several ancient instruments that have led to nowadays observational techniques and star map coordinates.

Inspiration, lead by example

This board game is not only going to be a flagship game for Armillary Games, but also the culmination of my life's work and research. In the meantime I am also studying a Bachelor of Honours degree in astrophysics at the University of Lancashire, providing me with a rather professional insight of the coordinate systems we use today to understand the current cosmographical structures.

It goes without saying that I am a hardcore board gamer, and I won't shy from playing Phil Eklund (cf. Ion Games/Sierra Madre) or Vital Lacerda (cf. Eagle-Gryphon) games. However, I love a mix of eccentric themes (cf. Mindclash Games), deluxe editions (cf. Awaken Realms, Stonemaier Games), immersive narratives (cf. Portal Games), meaningful contributions to society (cf. Ion Games/Sierra Madre), but most of all the beauty in simplified representations (like the games Marco Polo I - II and Istanbul). One thing I believe a good game needs, is the use of good iconographies in order to make language independent games, and the use of less to no text boxes. Another great designer, Eric Lang from CMON, demonstrated simplicity, immersions in even a short game length very well with the latest Marvel United game (co-published by Spin Master Games). Hey, I even play this game with my 4-year-old son! However, the latter touches a commercial IP-genre which is way off my intent with AstroNavigators.

From instrument techniques to super inventions

How do the super inventions work? First of all, these are optional for an advanced multiplayer game, but the main target of the astronomer chapter in the solo mode.

In the example, Jarrah Walker unlocked the technique orientation with the Octant, and techniques time and star map with the Astrolabe, triggering Harrisons' Sea Clock. This would have been imperative if this were the invention needed to decode Proctor's secret star map hidden by the antagonist Arman (Piñata) Cherepakha.

TableTopia screen shot of AstroNavigators prototype (Armillary Games)

Graphical detail upgrades

A list of changes on the existing game boards and cards.

  • Matching the lunar trajectories within a framed area on the board, so the Zond 5 mission board can fit during the first chapter of solo mode

  • An orbital 'parking' area for the command module during Apollo 8 solo mode and multiplayer missions (where a lander is involved)

  • small esthetical touches like path lines, starting positions markings instead of black house icons, zodiac symbols on the star map to get a sense of a planets position compared to the stars and zodiac symbols on the orrery board and ecliptic constellation cards to support the super invention: the Philosopher's Orrery. The time zones in comparison with GMT has been added to support the ability of super invention: Harrison's Sea Clock.

Updated Main Board of AstroNavigators (Armillary Games)
  • the orrery board (see next chapter) has been adjusted with the Earth's north pole region on the main board compared to the ecliptic plane of the Solar System. This way it mimics the same orientation as the Earth and star map of the main board. The same goes for the EQ-axis of the 1880 Brass EQ-telescope when aligned properly. Everything to the north of the playing field will therefore be in the direction of the North Star (Polaris).

The current development of the 4 Super Inventions

1) 1880 Brass EQ-telescope

  • Background:

    • The oldest telescope (built in 1880) in Europe with an automated guiding system. This telescope is an engineering symbol of a pinnacle in the evolution of telescopic EQ-mounts, clockworks and photography. Lenses and an equatorial mount are combined with a cog mechanism and weights to automate the guiding system compensating for the Earth's rotational axis

  • My story to tell:

    • Arman Cherepakha is more than 100 years old today, and used this European observatory to analyse the stars and peer at the Moon before even men discovered how to reach the skies with wings. He even managed to get hold of one of Richard Anthony Proctor's secret star map after showing off his 1880 Brass EQ-telescope, 120 years ago! In the meantime, rumour has it that he managed to flyby the Moon with his comrade Teplovoy Ekran during the Zond 5 mission in September 1968, based on this map and an ingenious observation instrument, called a super invention.

  • Developments:

    • Ana has completed the (movable!) miniature model of the telescope, but is still testing the print for its stability and balance. Next to this, a small miniature of the observatory will be made for the deluxe version to be placed on the Earth map.

  • Gameplay additions:

    • If this telescope is included in a multiplayer game, it gives the astronomers at the location the telescope ability. But when unlocked as a super invention, the player who made the invention can observe a card at the current week, the top card of the observation deck and the top card of the Solar System deck simultaneously! Given that all visibility requirements for lunar, constellation or planetary observations are met.

1880 Brass EQ-telescope by Ana Román (Tiny Factory Studio)

Mechanics demonstrated by Ana Román (Tiny Factory Studio)

2) Syrian-Egyptian Spherical Astrolabe

  • Background:

    • This astrolabe from 1480 is a combination of the traditional disc version from the Persian Golden Age (11th to 13th Century) and the star globe based on the star map of Hipparchus of Nicaea (190-120 B.C.). To hold this spherical astrolabe was not just to have a God’s-eye view of the world, but it was also a state of the art piece of miniature engineering. The instrument’s celestial component is the finely formed skeletal framework (the rete) that surrounds the inner sphere. It carries 19 pointers that represent bright stars in the sky, and turning the rete completely round once represents a day. The rete’s largest silver circle (look at the following picture of the instrument) is the ecliptic. It is divided into the signs of the Zodiac, and the Sun can be located at a fixed point on the ecliptic for any day of the year. The sphere inside the rete holds the observer's azimuthal coordinates. Rotating the rete accordingly moves the Sun across the sky, enabling the astrolabe to solve many practical problems relating to astronomy and time keeping. "If this seems an extraordinary and potent object, it is all the more so for being the only surviving complete example in the world." (History of Science Museum)

  • My story to tell:

    • The tales of Sphinxes and powerful astronomical instruments in Egypt, Greece and Syria had taken hold of the memories in Leo Maseko's youth. The lion with a human head that scorched the skies with terror. Under the name of Sol Ange, there is still a sphynx holding the key to the human endeavours of understanding time, space and their puny role inside the universe.

  • Developments:

    • The illustration of Sol Ange has been finalised by Diego and Ana has started preparations for the sculpture and the pillar tokens for the game.

  • Gameplay additions:

    • Once this super invention has been unlocked, Sol Ange from Thebes will be able to support the inventor to choose between an observation by the sphynx on Earth or the standard movement on the lunar trajectory during the astronaut chapter. Depending on the continents the player visited, a set of pillars will be given to indicate where Sol Age can go. Once an observation has been done on a location with a pillar, the pillar is removed. Further details, like whether or not the available continent tiles need to be unused, is still subject to playtests.

Player board with conceptual depiction of the pillar mechanism (Armillary Games), and Syrian-Egyptian Spherical Astrolabe from 1480 (Oxford History of Science Museum)

3) Harrison's Sea Clock

  • Background:

    • Navigating the stars was especially evolved when men tried to cross the oceans to seek for trade routes and land to conquer. One of the forefathers of world-class navigators is Prince Henry the Navigator, the initiator of the Age of Discovery in the 15th Century A.D. The Portuguese used a nautical astrolabe to measure their latitude position. But soon great empires were in need of a more reliable and more accurate instrument. The measurement was limited to the error of the length of the alidade and the observer's sighting stability of the ruler. On a ship with giant waves this was really challenging. The octant or sextant was the solution because its accuracy was only limited to the accuracy of the instrument thanks to the fixation of the celestial object with the horizon. However, they only were invented in the 18th century. But the biggest problem to solve in accuracy was the longitude position. Clocks indicating the mean time of the home position could be compared easily with the current time at sea if only the first water and pendulum clocks weren't jostled around by the clashing waves on a ship. Exact time keeping was impossible. The British Empire even set a challenge for a great reward to anyone who thought could solve this problem. Only in the 18th Century A.D., John Harrison came to a mechanical solution for a pretty accurate sea clock. This clock works with springs and could preserve the time of the mean meridian.

  • My story to tell:

    • Several stories tell the tail of cultures and instruments for latitude measurements in navigation, but the hardest thing to master at sea was time difference linked with space (position). The astronavigation on Earth would not have been complete without this super invention! How do we measure our position? Say your current astronomical noon (12h) at sea (Sun's highest position in the sky) differs -6 hours from Greenwich, with a GMT of 18h (06 PM) on the main sea clock, then you know that you are in the west of London 6 x 15° = -90° Longitude. Latitude can be measured with sextant or octant. 360°/24h=15°/h.

  • Developments:

    • A new line with time zones is added to the main board.

  • Gameplay additions:

    • After unlocking this invention, the inventor may check there "real position on the current latitude" at sea alone! After a traveling action, the player can use the solar D12 as if the player would check the sextant or octant for the current time. The die result tells the deviation of longitude on the same latitude. If the position before the roll is positive, the result is positive, otherwise it would be negative. Navigate your position to the new longitude. For 12 the type of value does not matter. If the inventor decided to check the position in this manner, the new position must be used. In case of a pair value either side squares are valid. If the new position has no water mass, ignore the result.

Updated Earth Map of AstroNavigators (Armillary Games), and, Harrison's Sea Clock (FinMedium)

4) The Philosopher's Orrery

  • Background:

    • It was not clear until Kepler's mathematics and Newton's physics that we live in a heliocentric system. Once this model became apparent, the ecliptic plane needed new mechanical visualisations. The first orrery that was a planetarium of the modern era was produced in 1704 and presented to the Earl of Orrery, Charles Boyle, from which the name is derived. The type we want to depict in the game however is an educational version, famously depicted by Joseph Wright of Derby in his painting: A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery. This version nicely portrays the ecliptic linked on an armillary between the tropics with the Solar System orbits.

  • My story to tell:

    • The game portrays lunar cycles with the observation card slots, it shows the constellations on a star map connected to an armillary, but in order to connect the planets with the stars, visualizing the planets on the star map was necessary to complete the cosmological awareness in the game. The use of zodiacal symbols on both game boards was a logical enhancement.

  • Developments:

    • The zodiacal icons were added on cards, main board and orrery board

  • Gameplay additions:

    • After unlocking this invention, scoring planets triggers the chance to look in the main observation deck for the current background constellation of a planet and score it for free. This can be done after checking (with a ruler if needed) for the Earth-planet-constellation alignment on the orrery board.

Overview ecliptic link and picture of on orrery like in Joseph Wright of Derby's painting (scienceart)

Updated Orrery Board of AstroNavigators (Armillary Games)

Star Map of AstroNavigators demonstrating planet positions (Armillary Games)

Updated Star Map of AstroNavigators (Armillary Games)

A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery (by Joseph Wright of Derby)

Arman Cherepakha and Sol Ange as special playable characters

What do these characters look like as an advanced multiplayer option? The specifics are not final yet and are still undergoing playtesting, but here follows a small overview of the ideas. In a next blog, the mechanics will be disclosed in more detail.

  • Arman Cherepakha

    • ability (local): use of the 1880 Brass EQ-telescope's special ability. Arman may not score constellation or planet sets. Tokens are awarded however.

    • hidden agenda 1: "mission still unknown", trigger: if Arman is in last position on the lunar trajectory, he moves +2, resolving all difficulty values as normal.

    • hidden agenda 2: "mission still unknown", trigger: a lunar token not only negates one difficulty value, but it gives +1 movement.

    • hidden agenda 3: "mission still unknown", trigger: a planet set token gives +2 movement.

  • Sol Ange

    • ability: choose a hidden agenda from any unchosen character in the game. Once disclosed, use the matching astronaut for the astronaut chapter. Use a pillar instead of a vehicle die to travel. Sol Ange has flight +1, but no chain travelling, vehicle tokens nor vehicle die.

    • hidden agenda: see ability

    • Special ability of super invention is always triggered during the astronaut chapter

The final sprint to campaigning 2021

  • Super inventions (focus solo play)

  • Sculpts super inventions and Sol Ange (sphinx)

  • Original drawings of constellations

  • Trailer board game

  • Precampaign with (online) demonstrations

  • Previewers

  • Campaigning strategy and KS or Gamefound page

During and after campaigning

  • stretch goals rockets and seasonal events

  • art and info/story book

I hope you have enjoyed this update. Tell me what you think or shoot whatever question you want to ask below or via Facebook. The update for TableTopia version 3.0 has been uploaded, but the new rulebook version and a TTS update is still coming up.

Talk to you soon!

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