I spent a chunk of time today talking with a fellow GM and good friend. See, with the recent release of Mass Effect: Andromeda, I've been kicking myself about how simple a concept the game's core premise is: you're sent off to explore another galaxy, some stuff goes wrong, and now you have to find a new home while establishing a beach-head of sorts for your people. Exploration type games are things we've talked about before, but there's a big problem with them. Today I want to talk about that, and some ways to address it.
The first problem with an Exploration focused game is the burden on the GM. I mean, world building is nothing new, but when doing something like this your creative brain has to be going in high gear. The whole point of exploring is to discover new things, and that is hard to keep coming up with. Especially when you have to find a way to make alien landscapes, vistas, and scenery pop and come to life for players with only words - unless you're artistically talented.
This isn't the only problem, but when you consider how much of exploring is finding new things - peaceful things - and running around to see what sights are on a planet that can be a lot to constantly have to develop. Especially when what you spend hours working on could literally only end up being seconds of table time when it happens.
The other problem is that exploration would get repetitive. As a part of a game, Exploration adds a nice spice to other content to really bring things together. On its own, especially since most systems don't have great support for inventive exploration mechanics, it is only a matter of time before the game ends up in a "show up, look around, pile back into the ship" cycle. And that's just sad.
So What Do?
So how do you fix this? Simple: add a story and opposition. Yes, this brings up combat, but you can keep combat from being the primary focus of things. The more story, the more things that are t here to push back against the PCs - challenges and puzzles - the more exploration can work to spice the game up. I mean, PCs are probably expecting to run into aliens anyhow, so why not give them some?
Add challenges around that contact too.
In short: mix it up. A game based around combat may work, but only because t he system is built around combat. To work with exploration, you either need a system that does similar (which may be more strategic/logistical in nature than some want) or to find ways to work in other things that aren't directly exploring to help keep things moving and interesting.