Intrepid Layers of Design

Intrepid had me when the cover said “hello”. My first thought was, “a Gravity board game?” followed very closely by “IT MUST BE MINE!” Once I played the game, though, I found a lot more happening than a space station in peril.

I should note that despite the visual references, Intrepid is not Gravity. It’s the movie next door, depicting what might have happened on the International Space Station while Sandra Bullock’s shuttle was getting blown up. That also scratches my itch for space- and science-themed games, which means… well… it must be mine.

You play the crew of the ISS, cooperating to keep the station functional in the middle of a disaster. You roll a pile of dice, then assign them to various systems and try to generate enough oxygen, nutrition, power, and climate control to Not Die. Simple, right?

Maybe. But there are some unusual things happening with those dice.

Intrepid prototype starting setup.
Actually, there’s a lot happening here. But the dice really are at the heart of it.

Intrepid Explorations of Dice

Intrepid is designed by Jeff Beck, whom I already admired for the delightfully villainous Word Domination. Jeff ran several games of Intrepid as part of the game’s Kickstarter, and got up early one morning to teach me and another European player the game. (Spoiler: we lost. Big time.)

As we chatted during the game, Jeff told me that he enjoyed dice games, but wanted to see approaches that weren’t just “roll and make sets” or “roll and assign results“. Over the two years of Intrepid’s development, he set out to find different ways of manipulating dice, of forcing players to think about their initial roll in different ways. This exploration became the ISS crew members roles taken on by each player.

In Intrepid, each player has their own crew member with a unique relationship to the dice. The American crew member increases and decreases her dice values, trying to form pairs of dice. The German crew member rolls a huge number of dice, but has to spend pips on some of her dice to use other dice on the station.

“Brazil, where hearts were entertaining June…”

In our game, I played the Brazilian crew member, who is part of the Mission Critical expansion. Unlike my German companion, I had access to all my dice, but most of my station systems were locked out of play. I had to spend some of my dice to activate my systems so I could go about my job of keeping the crew eating and breathing.

Each of my locks had a number. I had to assign the locks to different systems, then roll the dice and use the matching dice to unlock the locks. At first, this seemed like a serious limitation. How could I get all the systems we needed working?

Finding New Layers

Then I began to understand how many of my systems moved locks around. I could unlock a system with a 2, then use the system to move the unlocked “2” lock to another system and unlock that. I began to feel a little clever.

The real “A-HA!” moment came when I added a station system that let me gain a new die and set it to the value of one of the locks. Now I could set my locks, roll the dice, unlock a system, move the lock to unlock the next system, use that system to generate a new die with the number I wanted, which I could pass to my German friend, who could pass me back another die that I needed… for a moment, we felt like GODS OF DICE.

We couldn’t master these skills in one game, of course, which is a big part of why we died. But we got big endorphin jolts from figuring out how we could do more with what we had.

That’s what makes the dice manipulation of Intrepid so powerful. Each crew member applies a set of conditions to their dice. Most of the conditions are simple. They look like limitations. Then you start to figure out the system, and you realize your limitations are actually superpowers. Now you have to learn how to use the powers to help yourself and your teammates…

It’s a fascinating challenge, and I’m looking forward to exploring it in detail. That won’t be for a while — the Kickstarter wraps up this week, and the game comes out in 2021. But in the meantime, I’m looking for chances to apply this design lesson to my own work.

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