Venus Needs Men!

Inspirations

The game obviously owes a great deal to the classic pulp sci-fi comics of the 1940s and 50s such as Planet Stories, Startling Stories, Weird Science-Fantasy, etc. The art (by the fantastic Jeff Durham) is meant to be reminiscent of Wally Wood, Al Williamson, Earle Bergey, and the other great pulp illustrators of the period.

Readers of Robert Heinlein will recognize the Titanians as the Puppet Masters from his novella of that name, though mine are insectoids rather than slugs.

The Martians’ mind control powers owe something to Ray Bradbury, and their use of brains in cybernetic machines comes from Keith Laumer’s novel A Plague of Demons.

The Venusians (the linguistically correct term is "Venerians", but that sounds like a disease) were inspired by the ancient Greek Amazons, and more recently by Wonder Woman and Xena, Warrior Princess.

The Ganymedean appetite for human flesh is from Damon Knight’s story "To Serve Man", and their underwater habitat is from John Wyndham’s novel Out of the Deeps.

And what sci-fi (as opposed to SF) milieu would be complete without killer robots – Daleks, Cylons, Borg, Laumer’s Bolos, etc.?

Rationale

  • ''Isn't it pretty silly to have intelligent, organic life forms on Venus, Mars, Ganymede, and Titan?''
    Yes, but back in 1954, we didn't know very much about the rest of the solar system, and it was at least possible that these planets could support life.
     
  • ''Pluto isn't a planet any more!''
    True, Pluto is no longer classified as a planet, but that doesn't mean it suddenly ceased to exist. Anyway, in 1954 it was still considered a planet.
     
  • ''Well, Ganymede and Titan were never planets.''
    It depends on your definition. Ganymede and Titan are, respectively, the eighth and ninth largest bodies in the solar system (besides the sun). Each is larger than the planet Mercury and not much smaller than Mars. Also, it's more convenient to refer to the players' home worlds as planets.
     
  • ''So the alien force field has been protecting Earth until now, but why haven't the aliens been attacking each other?''
    The aliens all have similar force fields protecting their home worlds. That's also the reason why collected population is safe once it's been teleported back to a home world.
     
  • ''How come the aliens can teleport population back to their home worlds, but they can't teleport themselves to Earth?''
    There has to be a teleportation portal on each end. The alien spaceships contain such portals, but they have to get to Earth before they can use them to collect population.
     
  • ''Why can't some of my spaceships move while others are attacking or collecting?''
    Because it keeps the game simple, and adds some interesting tactical decisions. Or because the commander-in-chief of each planet's military forces can only concentrate on one thing at a time.
     
  • ''Why can my spaceships move from Earth to anywhere else on Earth, but they can only attack neighboring areas on Earth?''
    Because they're using direct-fire weapons that require line of sight.
     
  • ''So how can they even attack a neighboring area, which may be several thousand miles away?''
    They take off high enough to get line of sight that far.
     
  • ''Okay, then why can't they take off, fly to the other side of the Earth, attack, and fly back?''
    That would take too long. Also it might expose them to opportunity fire.
     
  • ''But there aren't any rules for opportunity fire!''
    Oops, feel free to add them. :-)

Development History

Venus Needs Men! has been through quite a bit before it settled into its current form. It began in spring 2001 as an outgrowth of a space opera board/RPG I had been experimenting with since 1997 (I may yet do something with it). This earliest version was significantly different, though similar in many ways:

  • There were seven planets (the same six plus "Asteroids"), each with its own special abilities; Earth was just another planet like the rest.
  • Each planet began with certain resources (men, women, psionics, water, technology, hypno-jewels, and zoranium) and sought to acquire others. Venus, of course, needed men; Mars, being a desert planet, needed water; Earth needed technology, etc. You had to carry resources back home on your spaceships.
  • On your turn, you performed 5 phases (draw cards, move units, resolve conflict, collect resources, and build new units). Any player could capture enemy units, though Mars and Venus were better at it.
  • There were 54 "plot twist" cards, some of which were pretty wacky -- "The moon is made of pizza", "Giant interstellar broccoli", "Killer nebula".

At this stage I was calling it "Ganymede Needs Women", but it acquired its present title within a couple of weeks. I worked on it for a month or so, but it never made it beyond my alpha testing in this form. There was a strong tendency for players to simply agree to trade resources with each other, but I wanted more direct conflict.

At the end of this stage, I tried converting it into a card game with no board but with resource tokens. Each player had a different deck including characters, military units, gadgets, and "flukes". You could move characters and units from your home planet to any other planet directly (though the Asteroid player could hijack you en route). But I moved on to other projects before I even fleshed out all the decks.

In fall 2002, I came back to this, but abstracted it away from the solar system and removed the characters. There were only four resources (energy, raw materials, workers, and technology) occurring on 24 planets. The goal was to control planets on which the key resources for your species were found. There was an Advanced version which added unique special abilities for each player. I never developed this version either, even to the alpha-testing stage.

In early 2004, Brian Kelly convinced me to check out Ubercon in Secaucus, New Jersey. One of the events was a board game playtest session run by Gil Hova. I decided to brush off the earlier, board game version and try it out.

It was at this point that I came up with the theme of alien planets plundering Earth's resources, and to make it simpler I cut it down to a single resource, population. I removed the Earth player and changed the board to show nine areas on Earth (the current 8 land areas plus "Middle East") with 100 population total, and tracks of varying lengths between each planet and Orbit. I considered having the spaceships be d10s, so to attack you would just pick up your spaceships and roll them. But I didn't have enough d10s on hand, so I used plastic pegs instead.

Each turn still had the same 5 phases, but now all the players moved in turn, then all the players attacked in turn, and so on. This reduced "turn angst" since all players were involved in every step. It also made turn order extremely important (Venus went first, Pluto last) because during movement, the last player had the advantage of seeing where everyone else had moved, but during combat the first player had the advantage of being able to destroy their opponents before the opponents could shoot back; during collection, the first players might collect all the population in an area, leaving none for the last players.

I also introduced the idea of teleporting population back to your home planet instead of having to carry it back, as a means of speeding up gameplay. Building new spaceships was not automatic -- you had to roll 6 or higher on a d10, or else expend 3 population from your home world. You could have up to 10 spaceships in play.

The Martian mind control, Titanian parasitism, and Plutonian destruction special abilities originated in this version, as did the term "Zap card". There were 48 Zap cards, numbered by priority, several with meta-game effects that didn't survive into the current version -- one let you look at another player's cards and discard one; another let you steal one at random; others forced each player to pass a card to another player.

I worked on this for about a month before the con, doing fairly extensive solo alpha-testing, and got it to a point where I thought it was reasonably well-balanced, although Pluto took 6 turns just to get to Earth, unless they got the Wormhole Zap card. The first beta playtest (myself, Gil Hova, Andrew Hawes, and Don Miller) went pretty well, though Gil (as Mars) had his spaceships destroyed and for a long time couldn't roll the 6 or higher to build a new one. But they were very encouraging and provided some useful feedback, so I kept at it for several more months off and on and tried it out on several friends and relatives.

A few of the things I tried or thought about that were later axed or never made it in:

  • Build a new spaceship if you roll a number greater than the number of spaceships you have on the board already.
  • Earth wins by scavenging a certain number of technology cards from the other players. Since actually depriving the original owner of the technology is not very realistic even for a space opera game, this required duplicates of all the technology cards.
  • Earth can move a certain amount of population from one Earth area to another on their turn.
  • Pluto can combine single spaceships into dreadnoughts and behemoths, with boosts to attack, defense, and collection abilities.
  • Pluto can set up robotic factories on Earth to build new spaceships there.
  • Get a Zap card whenever one of your spaceships is destroyed.
  • Add the moon as an unpopulated area bordering Orbit.
  • Simulate actual planetary positions and motion from 1954 in concentric tracks. I still think this is cool, but it's complicated and doesn't add much gameplay value.
  • Raid other planets to steal population. This could make the game go on forever.
  • Have an inexhaustible supply of population with different density in each area -- then the game becomes more about controlling the areas with the highest density.
  • Add back other resources besides population.
  • Multiple types of population -- orthogonal male/female vs. brawn/brains attributes, unequally distributed across the Earth areas. Each alien planet except Pluto would score more points for one attribute.

During the spring of 2005, I wrote a program in Python as a Monte-Carlo-type simulation of the game, to try to test the effects of rule tweaks on game balance. I got this working and gained some insights from it, but the problem was that the simulated players weren't very smart, so what seemed balanced on the computer wasn't necessarily in real life.

About this time I also started thinking about self-publishing and looking into what it might cost. I scoured the Web for artists and was lucky enough to come across some of Jeff Durham's work -- it was exactly the mood and theme I was looking for. He was interested in the project and turned out wonderful illustrations. So now I had to produce it!

I also started working with Brian Kelly on the board layout and design. He's posted some early working versions on Flickr.

In August 2005 I brought it to one of the Albany area playtest sessions (Spielbany) to get some more feedback from (a) experienced game designers who (b) didn't know me. This was another very useful session and provided more encouragement as well as ideas. I also started frequenting the Board Game Designers Forum, which helped me think about game mechanics in more abstract terms.

By the beginning of 2006 I had received quotes from a couple of manufacturers. The game balance and playability seemed to be in pretty good shape, so in February I froze the rules and put together the game box layout and card designs and sent them off to the manufacturer. For the rest... wait and see!