Welcome to Looting The Trove, a look at the behind-the-scenes development of the games in the CTG library. This month, with the completion of Cloudspire: Ankar’s Plunder (games are currently scheduled for March fulfillment, pending COVID-related delays), we’re diving into the design of Cloudspire’s acclaimed solo scenarios with one of Cloudspire’s designers, Josh Wielgus.
While Josh Wielgus, Josh Carlson and Adam Carlson all worked together to design the complete Cloudspire package, Josh Wielgus spent a large chunk of his time on the solo scenarios. For him, there are three primary design principles when it comes time to create a new solo scenario: thematic resonance, highlighting a faction’s unique strengths and weaknesses, and creating unique objective. His inspiration comes from a variety of places – including the old Goldeneye game for the N64.
“I always found that game fascinating as a single-player experience because the objectives were so varied and really kept you on your toes,” Josh said. “These are especially interesting when they tie into the story and map for the scenario in thematic ways.”
Coming up with unique, surprising objectives frequently ties into Josh’s third design principle: highlighting faction uniqueness. It’s also what can frequently make Cloudspire feel so hard.
“For example, the brawnen can get by in a lot of cases by simply relying on their long range siege towers. Brawnen 4’s map, however (Annihilation), is specifically designed to make that almost impossible, forcing you to find a different build to successfully win the scenario,” Josh said. “Also, we think it’s critically important to make the player always feel behind or like they’re losing. While that seems mean, there’s a very real psychological aspect to it in terms of making a player feel like they’re in the heat of a stressful battle, and it creates a palpable sense of accomplishment upon success.”
When talk of Cloudspire’s difficulty begins, it’s not long before Ignition (Brawnen 1), the game’s notorious first solo scenario, comes up.
“We (perhaps foolishly) made it a ruthlessly tough opener that forces you to really learn how to play solo in a smart way,” Josh recalled. “Seeing posts on social media with it set up and folks ready to go feels like a rite of passage at this point, and I know everyone who passes it with three renown feels a massive sense of accomplishment.”
Designing a solo scenario and placing it in the context of a larger solo campaign requires a lot of preparation. First, Josh sits down and considers the unique facets of the player faction and how those might be manipulated to fun effect. New faction Horizon’s Wrath, for example, includes a map-crossing cannon ball mechanic instead of fortress spires, a movable fortress, and special “swabbie” units that can help promote their fellow sky pirates. Brainstorming how these elements can work together – and, sometimes, against each other – led to the creation of scenarios like the faction’s first, Strike The Bell.
“There’s a Horizon’s Wrath scenario with four spires blocking your cannons, but helping you defend your base,” Josh explained. “The objective requires you to have a clear lane to fire on the enemy’s fortress gate, however. So there’s this cool timing aspect to it all where you want to leave the spire in play to defend your base, but you also want to take it down to create a lane for your cannonballs.”
After Josh decides what kinds of unique faction mechanics would be fun to highlight, he begins brainstorming overall game mechanics that can be challenged or exploited by tying the scenarios into Cloudspire’s overall story.
“I sit down to talk over story arc with [content writer and editor] Ryan Howard, who also gives a lot of feedback and ideation on map design and possible objectives,” Josh said. “We typically talk at length about what we can work in from a gameplay perspective and what story notes might lead to a really interesting objective.”
After that, he starts crafting each scenario in a spreadsheet, looking at the skills of the opposing faction or factions, interesting waves of enemies he could bring out, spire placement, choke points and all sorts of invisible elements that make scenarios challenging.
“I tend to make my scenarios way too hard at the outset, as it’s easier to scale things back in an intuitive way than it is to ramp things up,” he said of his process.
Once he feels good about a scenario, he signs off on it being sent to playtesters – first to the relentless eye of internal playtester Salem Scott, and later to the larger Chip Theory’s playtester community.
“If all is well, we make a couple last adjustments before our editing and rules team puts the final stamp of approval on it,” he said.
It’s hard for Josh to pick a favorite scenario he’s designed, but right now, his top choice would probably be Can You Ever Turn Back?, the first scenario for the griege. The griege are one of the most versatile factions in the game, thanks to the versatility of mechanics like tunneling and evolution.
“Griege 1 makes you think really, really hard about the best way to use everything, though,” Josh said. “I had spent most of my time on the brawnen and grovetender scenarios prior to the griege, so by the time I got to a third faction, I was much more comfortable with the process and had a good idea of what worked and what didn’t. Griege 1 is a real brain-burner, and I think does a great job of highlighting the strengths of Cloudspire’s solo play.”
For the Ankar’s Plunder factions coming later this spring, Josh is excited to show off some new challenges. In addition to Strike The Bell, another new favorite for him is the first Uprising scenario, The Shape Of Things To Come, which allows your units to sneak across the battlefield underwater. The unique mechanics it required, both for The Uprising and its grovetender opponent, took weeks for Josh to perfect, but he’s happy with the outcome, which is one of the game’s most memorable battles. The four bonus solo scenarios, featuring one new scenario each for The Uprising, Horizon’s Wrath, griege and narora, were also fun to design, as they allowed a new level of creative freedom. While the four solo and two co-op scenarios for the expansion factions don’t require any other Cloudspire product besides the base game, the bonuses pull from every Cloudspire expansion currently available, giving designers an even broader, weirder brush to paint with.
“The biggest thing is just that there’s these two super cool new factions to play around with and find winning strategies with,” Josh said of the Ankar’s Plunder cycle.
Is there any solo content Josh would be excited to see in a future release? He was a little reticent to answer.
“Whatever I say here is going to lead to rampant speculation, even though we’re not working on any new Cloudspire content right now,” he emphasized. “So I’ll just say I think it’d be fun to put together a singular campaign using all the factions at some point, where you’re alternating between them. It would be a tremendous amount of work (especially with seven factions already, and possibly more in the future), but I think it could tell a compelling story and break away from the mold a little bit.”
The new printing of Cloudspire and the new Ankar’s Plunder gameplay expansions (the Horizon’s Wrath and Uprising factions and the bonus scenarios and skirmishes, which also come in an expanded hardcover format) are available for preorder in the Chip Theory Games store.