You wouldn’t think so, but the life of an indie board game designer doesn’t often include much time for actually designing games. It’s so awesome to be able to work on a few new game design ideas again at last!
I have been thinking about making a trio of games designed to sit together on the shelf. Similar boxes, connected themes, and a sufficiently similar overall feeling to them that they make sense as a set.
Separately, amongst the other game design ideas floating around in my head, I have been thinking about making a mushroom game, a game about bubble net feeding, and a game using area control. The ideas eventually coalesced when I decided that the set could be themed around Fire, Water, and Earth, with Mycelia representing the Earth element.
Mycelium (plural mycelia) is the root network and therefore actually the main part of many kinds of fungi, while the mushrooms we recognise are actually the fruiting bodies of those mycelia. In the real world, some types of mycelia interact with others, connecting and sharing resources.
In Mycelia, players represent different families of mushrooms trying to fruit. The aim for each player is to have the most mushrooms fruit in one of the families they are growing.
To grow mushrooms, players must create the conditions where their own mushrooms will thrive by placing hex tiles in a pattern to form a network of mycelium (represented by the tiles) and Environments (represented by the gaps between the tiles).
Each fruiting body or Mushroom has its own Fungus Family requirements, as indicated on the Family cards. When the Environment meets those requirements, a mushroom can grow. If the Environment also includes the Ring Bonus, players can also add one of their Fairy Ring tokens.
In this example, the symbols on the tiles around the Environment match both the Fungus Family requirements and the Ring Bonus star.
I created 5 draft symbols, and mock-up cards and tiles, so we could test the principles of the game and hammer out how exactly it would work.
This was the basic ruleset I started with:
Shuffle the Mycelium hex tiles and place them face-down in three piles. Flip the top tile in each pile.
Shuffle the Fungus Family cards and place the deck face-down within reach.
Deal out 3 Fungus Family cards to each player, and give them the 10 Mushroom tokens and 5 Fairy Rings in the colour of their choice.
Mycelium tiles represent the spread of mycelium throughout the Forest Floor. Players use them to build the network of mycelium around each Environment, and cards give you your Fungus Family codes, which allow you to grow a Mushroom.
Tile selection – choose one of the three face-up Mycelium tiles, and replace it from its pile once you have played it into the Mycelium network. If any pile runs out, continue playing with the remaining piles. Do not create a replacement pile.
Tile placement – each tile must continue the network, and can be placed corner to corner diagonally against any existing tile, forming a pattern of hex tiles shaped like interlocking flowers with Environment spaces in their centres.
Each tile is marked with Environment symbols. Placing the symbols around a space creates an Environment – each Fungus Family requires a particular combination of symbols to grow a Mushroom.
If the completed Environment matches one of their Fungus Family’s needs, the player who completes the circle may place their Mushroom token in the Environment. If the Fairy Ring element is also present, players add a Fair Ring token, which adds a bonus to their score.
If a player completes an Environment but cannot match it to any of their Fungus Family cards, the Environment is available to the next players in player order. If no one can populate the Environment, it remains available until a player is able to claim it.
Players can choose to either lay a new Mycelium tile or swap a Fungus Family card.
If you swap one a Fungus Family card, you must discard one of the three in your hand.
When you place a Mushroom token in an Environment, discard the relevant Fungus Family card and draw another.
Players must either lay a tile or swap a card; there is no option to pass.
When all the tiles are played, the game ends. The Family whose Mushrooms rule the Forest Floor is the winner.
Play-testing – test #1
What we knew at the start of the play-testing sessions is that we were trying to match each Family card to a space or Environment created by laying the Mycelium hex tiles.
In the first test, I was looking for the basic mechanical functionality of the game – does the concept work? Are there too many Fungus Family cards, or too few hex tiles? Is it too easy to create Environments? Should some (or all?) of the hex tiles have a blank side, to make it harder to create an Environment? How does the game flow?
George went first, and won with 7 standard Family tokens and all 5 of his Fairy Ring tokens, while I had 5 of each.
After the test, we felt like it was possibly a little too easy to meet the Fungus Family card requirements, and that there might be an advantage to playing first. We also found that it was very hard to be the one to close any Environment that you set up – if you lay the 5th tile, your opponent can always lay the 6th.
Play-testing – test #2
We decided to make a couple of changes for the second test – first of all, we confirmed that, rather than missing a whole turn to swap one of your cards, you can pay for the swap with a Fairy Ring token as part of your turn, and still lay tiles and possibly place a Mushroom.
Secondly, we decided to remove the “pattern” requirement – in other words, hex tiles can be laid in any arrangement, and the Environment can be any shape.
Thirdly, rather than requiring the symbols around the edge of a single space to match the Fungus Family card, all the symbols around a closed Environment space can contribute to any card, but none can be used twice for the same match. As before, players can complete an Environment even if they cannot populate it.
Fourth, we decided to trial laying two tiles per turn (until there weren’t enough flipped tiles available). Players can chose from any face-up tile in the 3 tile piles, and do not flip the next one until after their turn ends.
These changes resulted in a runaway victory for George. The main difference seemed to be that he was able to create large Environments, playing more than one Mushroom in a turn, and often taking the Environments that I started, so our concern that drawing two tiles instead of one wouldn’t fix the issue was justified.
I went first, and was unable to place a Mushroom at all until almost the end of the game. George won with 7 standard Family tokens and all 5 of his Fairy Ring tokens, while I only managed to place 1 of each.
As well as not feeling good because one player was able to completely control the board, which is definitely skill-related, the lack of the pattern felt like the wrong game. A player with strategic experience in games like chess is likely to have a huge advantage here, which means strategy is rewarded, but the loss feels very painful compared to the previous version.
Play-testing – test #3
The good thing about this game, already, is that I wanted to play again. I wanted to win, figure out a way to strategise, and it felt achievable.
When you are developing a game, though, it’s just as important to STOP playing it as it is to test it – you need some time to absorb what you learnt. So we decided this would be the last test for the day, to allow us processing time.
For this third and final test, we reverted to the original placement rules – the Environments could only be the size of one hex tile, and the flower pattern was restored.
We decided to keep the two tiles per turn, as we knew that offered important strategic flexibility.
We decided that swapping one Fairy Ring token for one card was still very expensive – I chose to lose badly rather than pay to swap in the last game – so we changed it to allow players to swap 1-3 cards.
We also decided to trial a centre tile with one blank side, to revisit the idea of some tiles with fewer options.
This game came out much more evenly, with the ability to strategise by placing two tiles allowing much greater flexibility, but the constraints of the pattern meant that it was easier to anticipate your opponent’s choices.
George went first again this time, and while he won by exactly the same margin again (7 and 5 to my 5 and 5), this felt like a game I was involved in, and my losses felt more like errors I made than simply an insurmountable obstacle.
For a brand-new game idea, Mycelia already plays really well. It feels like a game of skill where strategy and thought pay off, and while it is officially abstract, I can see ways to integrate the theme in a satisfying and rewarding way through art and components.
Our next steps will be to see if there’s any obvious pattern in starting player/winning score, and look for ways to mitigate that.
Some things we want to try:
- player 2 gets to lay 3 tiles on their first turn
- player 1 only gets to lay 1 tile on their first turn, while player 2 gets 2
- player 1 only gets 2 Fungus Family cards, while player 2 gets 3
- the starting tile symbol arrangement is more complex than just a hex with all 5 symbols and a blank (perhaps wildcards?)
- the starting tile is a different shape (perhaps a completed tile flower?)
… lots of options to try out.
If you want to hear us thrash out the details, here are some videos to watch:
Making the prototype
And if you are interested in my art process, you might like to read my post about our visit to the Hoyt Arboretum, where George and I had our first try at watercolour painting. I am hoping to illustrate this set of three games in the same way, with digital line drawings coloured by hand with watercolours. More on that in another post!