What Makes the SPECIMEN Tick: A Design Interview with Steve Baldwin
We asked designer Steve Baldwin a series of questions about the design of his new board game ‘Specimen.’ To give you guys more of a feel for what this game is about, here are Steve’s own words. Enjoy! – Toxic Bag
Toxic Bag: Tell us about the new look for Specimen.
Steve: I have always conceived of the game as a film. I was actually imagining scenes from an imaginary sci-fi film as I was coming up with the game events. So I decided early on that instead of having artwork done for the events and characters, I wanted live actors posed with costumes and props. Once playtesting had progressed to a point that I was happy with the game design, Joe and I hired a costume director, a photographer, and six actors, and started building props. The end result was a nine-hour photo shoot that produced some amazing pictures. Joe and I are now in the process of manipulating the photos and we hope to start releasing them in the next few weeks. I’m very excited about how they’re coming out! Now if I can only find a place to store that flamethrower prop…
Toxic Bag: How long does it generally take to play Specimen?
Steve: It was really important to me to make a game that can be played in one sitting. So far in play testing we’ve found that the game can be played as quickly as two hours, but three and a half hours seems to be the norm.
Toxic Bag: Is this a two-player game only? Can more than two people play?
Steve: I’ve been asked that question a lot during our open play tests. The current version of the game is for two players. I’ve explored optional rules that would make the game for 8 players (one person would control each crew member and the monster.) The biggest obstacles are distributing the cards and the fragile nature of the crew. I haven’t worked out a system that would give every crewmember a card or two to play each turn that I like. Also, crewmembers die very easily, and I’m not sure how excited I would be if my character died 15 minutes into a 3 and half hour game…
Toxic Bag: Could you compare this game to some of the other Card-driven games on the market?
Steve: I would say that Specimen uses a hybrid version of the CDG game systems that are out there. The biggest difference is game scale. Most of the other CDG games that I have seen are historical/strategic games that cover an entire campaign or war involving millions of men and equipment. Specimen focuses on the events taking place on one spaceship. There are seven astronauts and one monster. That’s it.
Since there are no reinforcements, each side has to be very careful not to waste the crew’s lives or Specimen’s wounds. I think that this limitation makes the game more intense in the mid to late stages. The players have to decide whether to play OPS and move or have an event happen. And that decision gets tougher when either the Crew is split up and alone or the Specimen only has one or two wounds left.
Toxic Bag: Please explain the Specimen attributes for us as well as how a player ‘builds’ their monster.
Steve: The current version of the game has 24 attributes to choose from. The Attributes can be broken down into three categories: offensive, defensive and special. Offensive attributes can be anything from a spikey tail (which gives a bonus die in combat) to razor-sharp talons (a +1drm for combat rolls). Defensive attributes help the monster negate the Crew attacks. Things like an armored exoskeleton (a -1drm for Crew combat rolls) to toxic blood (if wounded, there is a chance that the creature’s blood will get on the Crew and potentially kill them! The Special attributes are just that; special. Faster evolution (the monster gets bigger, quicker) and embryo implanter (the monster can reproduce!) are just a couple of examples.
Each attribute also has a point cost associated to it of zero to three points. The Specimen player has three points to spend on attributes and must take three attributes. So, whichever trio of cards they take, the total point cost can’t be more than three.
The rule of thumb is the higher the cost, the better the attribute. However, you can build a very nasty creature with three 0 or 1 point attributes.
Toxic Bag: I see that some of the crewmembers are officers. How does rank affect the game?
Steve: I wanted to make the crew makeup realistic. So it was obvious that there’d be a Captain of the ship. After that, I decided to have a first and second officer. One of my goals was to make this game have a horror flavor to it, and so rank only really enters play later in the game when the monster attacks. As the crew dwindles, the chances increase that the survivors will panic when the monster attacks. Having an officer present helps the rest of the Crew with their panic checks. ‘Course, that means you have to keep the officers alive too. (Laughs)
Toxic Bag: This is a CDG, so how important is hand management?
Steve: Like any CDG, there are certain cards that really should be played as the event. Specimen is no different. Crew events like the flamethrowers and the trackers are really important events and skipping them can be adverse to the Crew’s health. As for the monster, not playing the Air vent movement event really puts the monster in a bad spot. But for the most part, I tried to design the card events as things that you want to have happen, but you could probably win without. That’s where hand management comes in. Holding a card or two, waiting hand after hand to draw that one specific card to work out a sequence is not a winning strategy. You have to play the hand you’re dealt, not the hand you wanted.
Toxic Bag: How do you see the strategy challenge for a player in Specimen?
Steve: Both sides face big challenges in the game. The Crew holds the advantage in the early turns, but they have several choices facing them. Do they hunt down the monster while it’s tiny and weak or do they fix the ship so they don’t explode? Maybe they split up (always a great idea in horror!) and try to do both? The monster has to be careful in the beginning, this is when it is at its weakest. During the middle turns, things even out as the Monster evolves and gets stronger, and the Crew fatalities start to increase. The situation flips during the later turns when the monster has the advantage. But the Crew isn’t totally helpless, as they will be better armed (guns and flamethrowers) and can always abandon the ship.