Mothership Hack

January 20, 2022

Inspired by the Mothership sci-fi horror rpg, I have been thinking about how it might play in a more heroic tone for a science-fantasy game. While it is a d100 system, its quite different from the BRP engine, in that Stats are more important than skills. A skill is a bonus of 10-20% added to a Stat. Key to the arrangement of mechanics in Mothership, is that failed Stat and Save rolls give your character stress, and critical failures (a double roll above the Stat/Skill level, e.g. a 99) trigger rolls on the Panic table, which is full of dangerous complications.

When your typical chance of success on a roll is around 20-50%, players are encouraged to avoid making rolls by interacting with the fiction in a slow but steady way – which works fine until you get jumped by monsters. Stress is used for experience, as you reduce stress gained in adventures, you turn that into improved Stats, Saves, and Skills. So for those who take great risks and survive, there are also good rewards.

Stats

For this hack, I think five Stats are needed:

  1. Speed (SPD): use this for tests involving perception, initiative, movement, and quick reactions.
  2. Strength (STR): use this for tests involving brute force, endurance, ignorance, and intimidation.
  3. Intellect (INT): is used for most skill tests in stressful circumstances unless another Stat is more compelling in the situation.
  4. Psionic (PSI): used for tests involving psionic talents or “sufficiently advanced” technology. In a fantasy game I would call it Power (POW).
  5. Warrior (WAR): used for combat tests and warfare (yes it could have been COM for combat, but COM makes me think of Comeliness in the old AD&D Unearthed Arcane. CON for conflict would also work, but is close to Constitution, perhaps BAT for battle as an alternative?).

For a non-horror game, I think the Stats should be higher than in Mothership, so I would let players assign Stat values of 20, 30, 40, 50, and 60. Mothership has Stats cap out at 85, so with the customisation options below, you do not want starting Stats higher than 60.

Saves

Mothership is not to different from BRP, except what might be Endurance and Dodge are merged into Body. Keeping with just three saves:

  • Chaos: used to resist mental harm from psionic (or magic) attacks, and to perceive true reality. In Mothership this is called Sanity.
  • Will: used to resist loss of control over your actions from situations involving fear, passion, and other emotion surges. In Mothership this is called Fear, but I think Will or Willpower covers a wider range of situations, especially if you want to insert Runequest or Mythras style passions for the PCs.
  • Body: used to resist physical harm, including from disease or invasive organisms. Could also be called Thews if you want to lean into Sword & Sorcery genre.

Assign the scores of 20, 30, and 40 to Saves for a horror/pain level similar to Mothership, or fudge the numbers up 10 to 20 points for a more heroic tone.

Wounds, Mana, and Fate

Mothership uses both Wounds and Health for tracking physical harm, with each Wound having 10+1d10 Health, and most characters having two Wounds. Any time you lose enough Health to cross a Wound threshold, you roll on a Wound table for potentially painful complications.

For my hack, I want a bit more certainty around Health, so Health is determined by 10 + STR divided by 10 (round up) for each Wound point.

Mana is the pyschic or magical equivalent of Wounds, and Essence is the equivalent of Health. Unlike Health, you are burning Essence points to fuel any PSI talents that you are using.

When you burn a point of Mana off, you get complications like nose bleeds (minus Health), migraines (plus Stress), conditions that impose disadvantage on checks, or a permanent increase your minimum Stress score.

For my hack, Essence is equal to 10 + INT divided by 10 (round up) for each Mana point.

Fate is a heroic resource to keep PCs alive, and Luck is the equivalent of Health/Mana. You can spend Luck at any time to manipulate fortune before making a roll (e.g. spend a luck point for Advantage) or after a roll (spend luck points to nudge the die result).

When you tempt Fate, however, flip a coin. If it lands the way you call it, there is no effect. If not, you make a roll on the Doom chart of horrible fates for heroes. Perhaps you get cursed by the Gods, lose a few points off a Stat or Save, or have the GM draw a Major Arcana card from a tarot deck to interpret what happens next.

For my hack, Luck is equal to 10 + SPD divided by 10 (round up) for each Fate point.

Character Customisation

Keeping this really generic, although you could customise archetype packages for genre/setting. Each player can choose three of the options below for their character, but each option can only be selected once:

  1. +5 to all Stats.
  2. +20 to one Stat.
  3. +10 to all Saves.
  4. +25 to one Save.
  5. +1 Wound.
  6. +1 Mana.
  7. +1 Fate.

Having specific trauma responses to stress and panic is a bit harder to make generic. I might cut them entirely for a heroic campaign, or build a unique one for each PC based on discussion with the player.

Skills

Not much to say here, as the skill list should be tailored to the genre and setting. Broad or apprentice level skills should be +10% to checks, defined or expert skills should be +15%, and specific or master skills should be +20%. Adding in some perks or stunts for Master skills is quite appropriate. Skills greater than 20% might make sense if you campaign is aiming for transhuman or demigod power levels.

So Militia Training is +10% to WAR checks, while Melee Weapons is +15%, and Long Spear is +20%. Perhaps your hero might acquire and learn to wield a Spear of Destiny at +25%.

For our science-fantasy game you might have Psionic Training at +10% to PSI checks, Telekinesis at +15% and Soul Blade at +20%. Perhaps you character learns alien secrets and learns to manifest the Dual Soul Blades at +25%.

Mythras or Call of Cthulhu have some good packages of skills, and while Mothership only hands out a few skills at the start, for a more heroic level of play I think you could give out more skills to starting PCs, e.g. two Master, two Expert, and four Trained skills.

Vices

I would be temped to take the list of Vices from Blades in the Dark and have players pick one for the PC to indulge in to reduce Stress in downtime actions.


13th Age Icons – Old Solar System

January 19, 2022

This week I have been reading some Leigh Brackett planetary romance novels and thinking about the Old Solar System, the one writers imagined before the early space probes confirmed there was no life on Mars of Venus. There are some games out there that use this milieu of canals and crumbling ruins on Mars, and lush jungles teeming with dinosaurs on Venus, such as Rocket Age or Cavaliers of Mars, as well as some modern works of fiction, such as S. M. Stirling’s In the Court of the Crimson Kings.

The inspiration I had for a game, was to drop Atlantis into the Old Solar System mix. Let us just start by saying the universe and the laws of physics were different before the fall of Atlantis, and thus handwave away the boring bits of modern science. Then we drop the players and their characters into this world at the height of Atlantean power, as its empire stretches across the known worlds of the Solar System in an era of glory and shadows. We can add the “missing world” between Mars and Jupiter that people thought might have once been the source of the asteroid belt, a Vulcan between Mercury and the Sun, and perhaps a Nemesis counter-Earth on the opposite side of the Sun from Earth. Jupiter can have a solid surface, an area equal to one hundred Earths to swallow the armies of Atlantis in endless steppes and insectoid mound cities. The unknown worlds beyond Saturn can be a frontier of dark enigma and alien menace.

Now we all know how this story ends – Atlantis in its hubris angers the Gods and is destroyed in a deluge – so the standard D&D5E campaign of heroic defence of the status quo is not a good fit for the spine of the campaign. After all, the status quo is an imperial power that exploits its military might to colonise and exploit the other worlds. So it is easy for Atlantis to be presented in ambiguous our even villainous terms, and for the player characters to be a band of exiles, rebels, and outlaws. At any rate, part of the creative tension for the campaign is the how, when, and why Atlantis eventually falls.

As I often do at the start of planning a potential campaign, I use the Icons framework from the 13th Age roleplaying game to help think about the major personalities, factions, and organisations for the campaign. At the start of the campaign the players define their relationship with the icons, whether positive/allied, negative/adversarial, or complicated/ambiguous. Icons that are not of interest to the players then fade into the background unless needed as a B plot filler. So here is a first draft of icons for the Atlantean Solar System, mixing some ideas from Ancient Greece and planetary romance tales.

The High King

The High King is the ruler of Atlantis, his legitimacy derived from divine descent in an unbroken line of Kings back to the founding of Atlantis. As the embodiment of monarchy he is the ultimate source of order, law, and justice, and high priest to the traditional Gods of Atlantis. The current High King married a daughter of the morning star, a love match contrary to the advice of the oracles. All of the High King’s children are daughters, so he has no male heir to succeed him as High King. The High Queen is believed by many to have been cursed by the Gods, but the High King will not divorce her. In desperation, the proud High King has begun a search for immortality. Meanwhile, plots and conspiracies begin to form around potential marriage alliances with his daughters.

The Council

Nine noble houses share blood ties to the High King, and by ancient law must be consulted by the High King before new laws can be passed, or any of their number executed for treason. The Council is the embodiment of aristocracy, born to rule, with wealth based on land ownership, with no room for merchants or commoners in their ranks. While the long debates of the Council encompass diverse opinions, conservative views and traditional virtues dominate. As the High King grows weaker, unity in the Council fades, as each arrogant House plots to gain control of the succession to the throne of Atlantis.

The Helmsman

The leader of the Fallen Star, a crashed space ship from outside the solar system. He has become a key advisor to the High King, as the lore the Helmsman and his Nepharian crew have shared has increased the technology and sorcery of Atlantis to new heights. To the envy of many, the original Nepharian crew are immortal, though their children born in Atlantis are not. Powerful people are also jealous of the influence that the Helmsman has over the High King. The Nepharians seek to repair their ship, so they can escape the doom that pursues them from across the stars.

The Vril Guild

The wealthiest merchants of the Atlantean Empire, are the Vril Guild, which has a monopoly on mining Vril from the planet Aschanda, which lies between Shalbatana (Mars) and Neberu (Jupiter). Vril is they key power source for the wonders of Atlantis, its cruel war machines, and every new feat of invention and engineering that the merchant princes can devise. Unlike most of the factions in Atlantis, the guild is open to women. The wealth from this monopoly funds every imaginable luxury and decadence, as well as the ability to influence policy through corruption. Despised by the Council and the Myrmidons, the guild knows gold can also buy a path to the throne.

The Myrmidons

The generals of Atlantis all share views that justify the expansion of the Atlantean empire. While a few see it as the duty of Atlantis to uplift other peoples and bring them the wonders of Atlantis, most Myrmidons see the endless wars as opportunities for glory, loot, and slaves. While excellent soldiers, the Myrmidons tend to be conservative and superstitious, as only the wrath of the Gods can defeat the armies and fleets of Atlantis. The foremost Myrmidon is the governor of the Atlantean possessions on Neberu. As the empire expands and bleeds on the frontiers, demands for conscripts from Atlantis, slave-soldiers from the prison plant of Vulcan, and levies from its tributary states keep growing.

The Tyrant

The most brilliant, charismatic, and treacherous leader from Atlantis now languishes in exile on distant Kayamanu (Saturn). Loved in many quarters for unexpected victories against great odds, they are also hated for their philandering, corruption, and dueling victories against many nobles. The Tyrant indulges in smuggling drugs from the twilight shrouded fungal forests of Kayamanu, designing new superweapons, and annoying distant rivals with multi-layered conspiracies, while awaiting the inevitable recall from exile to deal with some future crisis that threatens Atlantis.

The Orator

The most brilliant, charismatic, and ambitious leader in Atlantis is a rabble rousing hero of the people, and the best admiral in its fleets. Exploiting the decline in the High King’s authority and the divisions in the Council, the Orator offers a vision of a better Atlantis, one where all male citizens can vote for their rulers and their laws, and share equally in the wealth of the empire. Unpopular in the highest circles of Atlantis, but fearing riots if he were to be assassinated, the Orator has been “promoted” to the office of governor of Shalbatana in the hope that the Warlord or the Red Queen will prove his undoing.

The Priest-King

The leader of the ancient Saurian civilisation on Ninsi’anna (Venus), which once had colonies and outposts throughout the Solar System, before abandoning them and withdrawing home in some long forgotten crisis. A tributary state of Atlantis, the Saurian pyramid cities have many wonders and legacies form their Age of Glory. The Priest-King balances sharing some of this lore with Atlantis, against the desires of his people to keep their traditional way of life intact. The Priest-King is also the foremost alchemist of this age, with many elixirs and potions derived from the fecund flora and fauna of the tall forests of dawn star world.

The Amazon Queen

A leader of a hidden city, where women rule. The Amazons once defeated and invaded Atlantis in an ancient war, earning rights of free travel throughout the Solar System. Individual amazon warriors sometimes fight for Atlantis, and sometimes against Atlantis. The Myrmidons would love to find and plunder the secret fortress city of the Amazons, which they believe lies concealed somewhere on the Tellurian Moon. The Amazon Queen has an unmatched reputation for courage, wisdom, and virtue. Like the High King, she also claims divine descent from the Gods. Of late the Queen’s brow is furrowed by dire portents from her oracle.

The Warlord

The leader of the nomad tribes of Shalbatana, the Warlord is the most honourable foe of Atlantis. Pledged to fight until the Atlantean oppressors are removed from the red soil and canal cities of Shalbatna, the Warlord is a dangerous and wily leader of seasonal raiders, professional bandits, and all the dispossessed refugees who have sought refuge from the harsh laws of Atlantis in the untamed dryland deserts. The Warlord faithfully follows the ancient traditions and customs, even when it poses a risk to his cause. His base is usually a wilderness camp or cave system, changing with every passing season.

The Red Witch

The last free Queen of the city states of Shalbatana, the Red Witch is the most implacable foe of Atlantis, seeking vengeance for a family slaughtered by the Myrmidons. The Red Witch uses terror, black magic, torture, assassins, and revolutionaries alike in pursuit of her feud. Some of her followers will occasionally act as mercenaries for other factions, but the Red Witch is unrelenting in her opposition to the works and men of Atlantis. Among the canal people, she is both feared and loved, in the dryland wastes she is considered without honour, but in Atlantis she is feared and hated. Great would be the reward for the hero who can humble her in chains before the High King.

The Storm Wolf

Leader of the pirate clans of the Great Red Storm of Neberu, the Storm Wolf is a fearless, reckless thief. From the safety of storm hidden bases, unassailable to the Atlantean fleets, he raids convoys and cities alike, with swift attacks and rapid retreats. His followers have links to smuggling networks, and other bands of criminals throughout the solar system. The Star Wolf can offer sanctuary to the enemies of Atlantis, for a price, which includes access to the myriad debaucheries of his free city. The Storm Wolf is also infamous for freeing slaves found aboard the ships he plunders, and recruiting them to join his clan.

The Dreamer

In ancient days, the Titans were overthrown by the Gods, and imprisoned in deep and dark places. In recent years one of the imprisoned Titans has begun calling out to people in their dreams. These dreams convey secrets and ways of accessing powers never meant for mortal minds and hands. A hundred cults have secretly bloomed in Atlantis, and elsewhere in the Solar System. Some cultists are content with a few crumbs of power and pleasure, others have become zealots who search for the hidden prison of the Titans.

Hubris

The unifying theme for all the icons is hubris. Nearly all of the icons display elements of excessive pride, self-confidence, arrogance, conceit, vanity and similar traits. They all believe that they are right in the views of what should happen, and that compromise is a fatal weakness. Thus are the seeds for tragedy sown.


Barracks Emperor AAR

October 30, 2021

The Barracks Emperor megagame was run on Saturday 16 October 2021, with 32 players in the Newlands Community Hall, and another nine online players. Most of the briefing materials for the game are available on my website. In this post I will give a brief overview of events from the game, and then go through a lot of the player feedback. I have another post planned that will go into the weeds on the design of specific mechanics and how well they worked.

Orient Map with web camera mounted on a tripod.

The game started in 249 CE, with Rome celebrating its 1,000th anniversary. Then in quick succession the empire is struck by plague, and invasions by Franks, Goths, and Sassanids. With each game round representing three years, we played through to approximately 265 CE, by which time the Roman Empire was doing a bit worse than in history, as the Goths had managed to take Rome, bribe the Senate into ratifying a Gothic Emperor, and then handing out enough imperial real estate to make the other Gothic players Senators. All things considered, ceding Dacia to the Goths in the first game round may have been a mistake.

Goths with their loot from Rome, northern Italy is a bit pillaged.

Meanwhile in the Orient, the Palmyreans (Yellow) had successfully played off all of the other factions, looted the Sassanid home regions, and managed to move into the vital province of Egypt. While the Emperor (Blue) had led a large army to the East, they might have been better off defending Rome, but not even the leadership of Empress Decia Britannicus Maximus was enough to turn the tide. The Sassanids had managed to take Armenia and the other northern buffer states.

A large cube represents a legion or equivalent force. Smaller cubes represent light infantry or auxiliary forces. A disc is a cavalry force. The white wooden walls represent extensive border defences, while the castles represent city walls.

Other minor catastrophes included a rebellion by poor farmers in Sicily, and nomad raids into the African provinces, the Picts crossing into Britannia, and the Franks settling in Belgica. There were about five Emperors during the course of the game, although Emperor Philip the Arab lasted into the third game round, doing much better than their historical counterpart.

Apart from losing half of Britain and Gaul, and letting the Franks pillage Italy, at least Hispania has been defended.

Player Feedback on the Game

The players generally enjoyed the game, with a median score of 4.44 out of a possible 5. All of the online players who submitted feedback rated the game a 5 for enjoyment. The briefing information had a score of 4 out of 5. The Difficulty rating was 3.04, very close to the Goldilocks rating of 3. Rate of Play was 3.69, so the game was on the slow side. The Control team were rated 4.35 for their job. Player involvement was rated at 4.23. Value for money was rated at 4.65.

My thanks go to David, Dutton, Kerry, John, Scott, and Jeb for volunteering to play control, and to Alasdair Muir, Ben, Bernard Ganley, Clarence Beaks, Io Brindle, John Morton, Thomas Cole, Madeline Collins, Max, and Scott Daly for help with playtesting. I also thank Dr Hamish Cameron for loaning me two books on Queen Zenobia and the Sassanid Empire. As always, any mistakes in the game are on me and not these fine people.

A Weekend of Megagames

Rather than ask the usual question of what price people thought was fair for a day long megagame, we asked what a fair price was for a weekend of megagames. The median value was $NZ75.64 (approximately 40 GBP or 54 USD). The price selected by about one third of the responses was $NZ60. Overall though, the number of people willing to commit to a full weekend was too low for it to feel like a viable event – only the Saturday game was of real interest.

Printing and other costs have been going up, and inflation looks like it will be 5% this year. So I have signaled that the cost for megagames I run next year will be NZ$25. The major costs for this event were hall hire (a bit under $200), printing (about $500), MDF tokens (about $150), and pizza for the control team (about $150). My thanks to Alasdair Muir, Aaron Lavack, and Paul Compton for being generous patrons.

After chatting with a few people, we think the best course of action for 2022 is to hope for vaccine rates to improve and aim for four games a year, with one roughly every three months. I will be posting a call for people interested in designing megagames for a pitch session before Christmas – if I try designing four megagames in one year, my wife will not be happy with me!

Keep, Stop, Start

On our feedback forms people can write free text to tell us things from the megagame to keep, things to stop doing, and things to start in future games.

Keep Feedback

There were several favourable comments on the combat cards and battle system.

I really enjoyed the combat system, the picking a unit type made upsets possible even against superior forces. As you never really got an army massacred (or at least we didn’t maybe it happened to Rome as we crushed them) it made loss in battle not feel as bad if you got unlucky.  

The policy system also received positive comments. I was pretty happy with this as its about where 30% of my design time went (with the combat system and game maps being the other two big time sinks).

I really liked the policy card deckbuilder mechanic, was itching for more new cards etc to show up. Could be a really good unified mechanic where for example trade and inflation affect it rather than being separate tracks. Deciding what cards to pay for could be more agonising tho, we were often able to just play everything relevant.

Everyone really enjoyed the policy phase as it was exciting to see what would come out and the teams got to get together and make some meaningful decisions that really impacted the game state. I think in a future game giving the teams less RP’s would be good as over on the orient map we often had more than enough to do everything we wanted each turn. Would have been a little more interesting if a team really had to scramble to get the RP’s they needed, having to chip in their own wealth or constantly petition the Senate for more RPs.

Most of the new cards were in the Roman Imperial Reforms deck, which only a few of the players would have spent much time with.

The Imperial Unity Track. The Bronze SPQR Eagle was made by an artist in Russia. The Black spots at the 50 point thresholds were trigger points for mutinies. Note the frustrating printing error on the 30 point line. Final Unity was below 50, as the sack of Rome dropped Unity score by half.

Stop Feedback

The less fun part of the feedback to read, but often the most important for better games in the future. Players are always right about problems. The normal text in the bullet point list below is the verbatim feedback, anything following in italics is a comment from me:

  • Very complex aspects of rules. We have a short time to read the rules, absorb the naunces, etc. Less is more. The player interactions more than make up for the simple rules mechanics.
  • Wearing masks, hot, hard to communicate, very long time in them. Bring on vaccs rates and lowered levels.
  • Resource and wealth transfer (we did not build the economy into a spreadsheet, so to transfer tokens between physical and online factions required instructions over discord, and then taking photos and uploading them to confirm transactions had gone through)
  • Demotion when killed, could be cool to potentially end up with a very different (perhaps stronger) character (this would have definitely helped the Romans, who started the game with worse generals than all the non-Roman factions)
  • Barbarian King having full control of other factions troops – possibly require consent to use them. In general, the Goth King removed other Goth players’ feelings of agency as factions would negotiate directly and they could move others troops. (Barbarian King having full control over troop movement is not what was intended in the rules, they should have only had full control over replacements.)
  • The money mechanic for barbarians did not add much. (It had three functions: determining who was King, as a scoring metric, and for conversion into RPs in the planned late game Barbarian RP shortage. It could also be used for bribes and some conspiracy actions. If we had players for the Franks as well, wealth would have been more of a horse race)
  • Having some people online and some in the room. Feels like it adds lots of hassle but not much benefit. (We needed a third Control on the Orient map for the Romans. Its noticeable in the feedback that the online players were happy with the hybrid format, but the in person players were less happy. The hardest role in the game was probably that of the Palmyrene team member who was their only person in the hall, with the rest of the team online. I also note that there was just one volunteer to play in person diplomats for the online teams.)
  • The massive randomness when it comes to battles. Some randomness is great but felt this was too much. I’m not sure the online players added much.
  • Inflation seemed a bit much. (Yes, inflation sucks. The debasement of the Roman currency and the subsequent inflation is a major economic event in the period. Inflation was very low in the game compared to playtests. In one playtest Inflation went from 10 to 13 in the first game round alone!)
  • Online players.
  • If people are online I think its best if they are not expecting to interact heavily with live players. Its quite hard to be online & IRL simulataneously. Perhaps they can make one offer via control but not direct negotiations. (Post game feedback, we think that online players are best suited for asymmetric roles, e.g. Gods on Mount Olympus, or Megacorporation AIs, with their own core subgame that interacts indirectly with most of the other subgames)
  • Parts of the game that don’t add majorly to the play / seem tangential / un-needed complications (but which parts?)
  • Lots of freeform actions every turn – the problem is that you never really get a feel for if they were useful / impactful, and particularly when you’re submitting things you don’t know how they go. Maybe reduce the number of them to allow them to be more impactful? I dunno. (Most factions had one special action per game round. As Plot Control, I tried to give feedback on outcomes for all special actions. The most common special action was probably assassination attempts, which were mostly unsuccessfulin the modern era only about 25% of assassination attempts succeed, and its harder in the ancient era as you do not have explosives or firearms.)
  • Realistic map spaces looked painful to fit pieces into. (The large leader tokens did not work – they needed specific names on them. If I run this game again I would look at a separate map for Italy, and an Orient map that focuses more on the central corridor between Antioch and Cetisphon.)
  • I think that there should be at least one option for the player who moves first to have some initiative in terms of battles. Our enemies could always pick and choose what battles to fight and where, making it very difficult for us to gain a true upper hand. I believe the Roman players did not have a great battle strategy in the orient, or we would have been wiped out (or as close as we could have been). They should have been able to mass armies that had huge advantages for nearly every battle, where it would then just come down to dice. I know the Romans should have a tactical advantage for being Rome but at least in the orient it felt bad to be the strongest faction with most prestige and still have very little control over the war other than just trying to bait them into battles in bad spots. (The initiative sequence was chosen as the best reflection of historical events. At least one faction used a special action to flip the initiative sequence for a game round. I’ll say a bit more on how we might change this below).
  • Obviously my playthrough of this was as an Online player. I would say not having individual goals for the online players. Something else for them to try and scheme about and go for. I would also say I struggled to know who the Roman blob was. They didn’t seem to have any individuality to them. (Although it did make it seem realistic as well.) (A problem for the non-Roman factions is the lack of information about the personalities and life events. I also decided not to over complicate the online game due to its experimental nature.)
  • Battles in both Barracks and [Romance of the] Seven Worlds were basically based on a lucky dip – if it was a light infantry battle, your opponent with 3 light infantry had a bonus over your 2 light infantry, even if you also bought 10 cav and 10 heavy inf. And then, after the battle, you destroyed one, maybe two of the enemy units, irrespective of whether it was a 20 v 20 battle or a 2 v 2 skirmish which is pretty anitclimatic. The space one had a similar issue, as anyone who participated in the attack on the capital planet knows – the great rebellion with a huge armada just ended up being an anti climactic 1 v 1 that was decided based on who got lucky with what card was drawn, and nobody actually ended up dying. That combo of reducing big apocalyptic battles to near irrelevance + randomly making most of your army redundant leads to some pretty counterintuitive and lackluster battles. (The design goal was to emphasize combined arms, and operationally the best approach was intended to be spreading you “bets” across multiple encounters. The number of large battles in the period 235-285 CE was small – about 26 battles with more than a few legions. The Romans had a strong military philosophy of avoiding risky battles, fighting with fire and famine rather than the sword, and their historical disasters reinforced this. If players want more emphasis on big battles, then the game system needs to such that it only generates a very small number of battles each game round.)
Faction RP income had a fixed component, and a variable component (die roll, potentially with advantage/disadvantage). Romans could also mint coins for bonus RPs, but this risked inflation.

Start Feedback

This feedback is usually a lot more fun to read.

  • More dice throwing, chance, rogue events and cliffhangers to generate even more tension. (My own preference is that unless the rogue events are common in the fiction or history, is for these to emerge from player actions or player initiated special actions, with event injects from Control only as a last resort for a stalled game)
  • Better play location flow/control so they are all at the right places as turns are processed. (While the movement combat system worked, it did not work well enough, and we only got through the first half of the game – so players did not get to see how terrifyingly strong the late game Roman army gets. For our next game we will be trying to secure amp/speaker/microphone and I am looking at buying a projector to better display game time to players)
  • Some way of forcing interactions with other players in diplomacy. Giving stronger directions to players who don’t roleplay so easily or don’t understand the rules. Maybe FACTION secret objectives.
  • Faster turns – strict timers. Goth players did not feel like they had much of a role until they sacked Rome. Their goals were achieved easily and became a bit repetitive. (If I ran the game again with the same number of players, I would be tempted to make all the player roles Roman and Palmyrene, with Control handing the non-Roman factions).
  • More tools to keep to time/add time pressure. (For my next design, I will look at resurrecting a classic mechanic. Teams take turns at the map table. At the start of your turn, your commander issues orders for a minute. Commanders then have two minutes to resolve moves and attacks – with no conferring with team members. At the end of your move you leave the table, but can leave one player behind to silently observe the actions of other teams. The main limit of this mechanic is you can only have about five teams per map table.)
  • Guidance for how to make federated generals? Although for the time period this was fine. (This was on the Roman Imperial Reform cards, I should have put the information into the Goth briefing more clearly.)
  • The issue was that the Goths basically achieved objectives in turn 2 (end of turn 1 really) but maintaining advantageous peace was boring at a meta level. Not sure how to solve this really or if it needed to be solved.
  • Better time management.
  • Another sink for money, e.g. dice increase. (Classic money sinks for the Roman era include building monuments, temples, and sponsoring games, but the Barracks Emperor period was such a disaster that these activities stopped happening. I could include it as an option in future games.)
  • More direction from Control.
  • Audio system to speak to hall.
  • “Start” earlier, as in ask people to be at the hall for an earlier start so can start on time. (we really needed to be in the hall for set up an hour earlier).
  • Have formalised teams at the start.
  • Additional goals for barbarians, create reason for infighting.
  • Stricter limits on the lengths of turns. There was lots of waiting for lots of people  while a few people did big turns. (The biggest delay tended to be the orient Map with its three factions. I did not spot this in playtesting, being more worried about Usurper and Mutiny disruption on game time).
  • Better time control, maybe a beep telling people time of a specific phase is ending and a big announcement of the start of the next phase.
  • More involved combat and politics. (More involved is usually more time consuming)
  • A big ending – full summary from all regions. (We needed the hall for at least another half or so, I just squeaked out the door after cleaning and packing up was finished).
  • Strict time limits or turns being more led e.g. movement phase starts on the hour and lasts til quarter past.
  • A total beginner’s guide (maybe co-written by a non-gamer). (A good idea – anyone want to volunteer to write it?)
  • More changes in position/appointments for Romans. More communication about significant events when they happen. More things to buy with wealth.
  • Game Feedback: Like the game where it is.  Lots of good interactions and mechanics.  Personally think the Emperors/Rebel Emperors needs a little more power and abilities to do stuff otherwise the Roman Empire is never going to last.  While it was great to win and bring about the downfall of the Empire, it was obvious halfway through the game the Empire was finished.  So what is the point of keeping the Empire propped up?  Why should the Roman players even bother.  Needs to be more incentives or rewards for keeping the Empire alive. (If we had played through rounds 6-10 as designed, you would have likely seen the Roman economy improve, and the Roman force pool would have expanded up to double its starting size, and also introduced many fortification and heavy cavalry units. In hindsight, I should have linked Roman military reforms to the number of military disasters, rather than a random card draw. This could have given regional teams more options and trade-offs to consider in their policy phases.)
  • The players need a list of ideas and possible uses for the Conspiracy Cards.  I didn’t realize you could peek at the combat deck or re-arrange it.  It was only at the end one player pointed out we could use a conspiracy card to move the Palmyran armies during the policy phase.  Just something to help so all players know all their options and can better play the game.  Not feel like they were at the mercy of chaos and with on control over anything. (The problem with me telling players what they can do, is it restricts their imagination to options that are min-max solutions. As Control I want to be surprised and delighted by what players create).
The quaint New Zealand custom of the lunch break is observed. Bottom left: Treasury Table, left side Roman regional faction tables, right side from top to bottom Orient, Danube/Italy, and Gaul maps. Senate and Imperial Household tables were on the stage.

Hybrid Game Feedback

The following feedback is focused on the online part of the game:

  • I would love to see the asymmetry of online vs in person explored more – for example online could be playing with completely different mechanics to IRL people rather than trying to shuffle coins around between online teams and order map movements. Imagine an alien invader game where the alien factions are competing between themselves in a discord-focused game and sending invader units and stuff to Earth, but they don’t actually manage the attacks on earth (eg it just provides the pools for Control players to place on the map and IRL players to react to) (Agree)
  • The biggest thing that would have helped us was more communication with Rome. Not being in person it was extremely difficult to get anyone to talk to, let alone which faction when they split. It would be nice to know that we at least can communicate with Rome, even if it was just control saying hey we want to talk and they could just ignore it. Then we at least know it is on purpose and not because no one is watching the discord irl.
  • Need to clarify how command works and better communication with online control.  I am Roman Dux and the entire time I can’t issue orders to any units due to inability to reach control or I finally get told after several minutes I can’t issue orders to that unit.  Hell I can’t even issue orders to units to stand down and not fight us so what is the point of having this position? (Not knowing exactly what happened, I think I needed to brief Orient Control better on how to handle this situation – which occurred in history. Or have a much clearer mechanic for Roman units switching loyalty to Palmyra)
  • Communication with control was awful on my end.  Background noise and side converstions made it almost impossible at times to hear Orient or Plot Control or worse issue orders for anything.  I would type in orders and nothing would happen.  Then I am getting asked what are my orders later.  But when I try to make sure my other orders have been carried out, Orient Contro disappears and I have no way to reach them.  It literally got to the point where one player had to be the go between because he could communicate with control better and could relay questions and orders between us.  
  • Lots of confusion over who is rebelling and who isn’t.  The Palmyrans attacked two Roman Armies because we were told by Control they mutinied and then heard nothing after asking several times if they were still rebels and moving into other Roman provinces.  Need just a black flag or marker to designate if a group is in open rebellion or not for us online players. (I should have used different colours for Roman regional forces, but big tokens for “REBEL” or “USURPER” would have helped)
  • Updating the discord server for the next channel with more channels for better communication. (There is an upper limit to how many Channels Control can keep a close eye on based on limitations of screen size)
  • Have a dedicated control channel for the different factions. This control text channel should be where moves and official actions are posted and maybe have the different phases be announced and actions can only be done in the phases. This will keep the online players from spamming the chat with actions that can be done whenever.
  • Have a bot channel for each faction and a bot to handle resources. This would require a bit more effort for setting up the bots to move and manage resources. (Although having the confusion about whether or not funds had been sent was also somewhat helpful in the game?) The alternative would be having different roles in the factions that would be in charge of these things. E.g. The diplomat IRL would be the one that could move the money between banks in their faction only and then the players would have to talk to them about it. But still require approval somehow? (This idea likely wouldn’t work unless the faction was completely aligned)
  • Have more voice channels. – One for control to stay in. – One for team to talk together. – Enough extras that pairs of players can also chat together. – Multiple channels that would allow factions to talk to each other (Each faction had a dedicated channel for talking with every other faction, “more channels” is consistent with feedback with other online megagames)
  • Part of the last point is different but having 1 or 2 laptops setup on discord with a headset and mic with the camera on that players on site can use to go up and talk with players online. Just leave them in the channel and the camera on so online players can jump in and chat after coordinating with other players. (Our spare laptop was made available to the Roman Imperial Household. I do not know how keen people are on bringing their own laptops or tablets to megagames, as there is a small risk of damage, loss, or theft).
  • Another camera of the room as a whole would be great just so the online players could see the room (and hear if they want) so they can get more immersion. You could also have it so that announcements will hopefully work through there (good idea, we had another camera, but found we could only get one meeting going with the Zoom account we had)
  • Get players to use their phones and let them know to bring ear buds if you want more interaction between online and IRL players. 
  • The last few points made would require a bit more technological setup and use and obviously with that comes issues if any arise. And of course it would require more assets to be used. I’d be happy to try my hand at being in control and helping out with most of these ideas as they are my own and I do know if I want change then I should be willing to help make it happen. (We love people who volunteer to help Control)
  • Overall it was an amazing game, had tons of fun and I wish I could’ve played in person as well as online. Looking forward to the next game(s).
The elevator pitch for Barracks Emperor was “Its a mash up of Junta and a tower defence game”.

Overall, it was a good game, but needs some tweaks to make it a great game. A lot of lessons were learned about the hybrid format with online players. We definitely need to remedy the timekeeping problem, which will require a mix of equipment, game structures, and setting player expectations about how much time they get for decision-making at the map tables.


Barracks Emperor Political Economy

September 5, 2021

An overview of the game economy and policy choices players will face in the Barracks Emperor megagame on 16 October 2021.

The first draft of the economic rules involved a lot of counting, and income tracks for all 40 odd major provinces. It also had a nice trade subgame. It was a bit complex, and simpler is always better, so the political economy of Barracks Emperor is now an abstract model rather than a simulation of the Roman economy.

There will be two economic currencies in the game: Resource Points (RPs), and Wealth Points (WPs). Factions use RPs. Characters use WPs. RPs can be converted into WPs, and vice versa. At the start of the game, 1 RP converts into 8 WPs, and 10 WPs convert into 1 RP. When inflation strikes in the game, the number of WP required to buy an RP increases, but the RP:WP conversion rate remains the same at 1:8.

Resource Points

RPs are an abstraction of all the resources available to a government to make and implement policy decisions. It includes taxes in coin or kind, bureaucrats and other officials, and the loyalty and obedience of the people it controls. Factions will have an income of approximately 10-15 RPs at the start of the game. There are three sources of RP income:

  1. Fixed Income. This is normally 8-10 RPs per faction. Fixed income is difficult and slow to change.
  2. Variable Income. This is a 1d4 roll (1d6 for the faction that controls Egypt). Control can grant advantage/disadvantage on this roll to reflect the current state of the game. For example, if most of your provinces have pillage markers in them, you might roll with disadvantage (roll 2d4 and keep the lowest die).
  3. Mint coins. Roman factions can debase their currency. This generates 1d4 RP for the Romans and +1 RP for other factions in that region, but may trigger inflation.

RPs have three main uses:

  1. Paying faction expenses.
  2. Paying to action policy options.
  3. Paying for military operations by the faction.

RPs cannot be transferred between factions, unless a policy option specifically allows it. There is a workaround, in that you can convert your RP into WP, hand them over to a character in the target faction, and then they can convert the WP back into RP.

Faction Expenses

This covers the costs of paying troops, maintaining public infrastructure, and for the imperial household – keeping the people of Rome happy with bread and circuses. If you choose not to pay your faction expenses:

  1. Use Logistics to move tokens.
  2. Recruit tokens by any means.
  3. Control may adjudicate other affects as make narrative sense, e.g. conspiracy actions may be easier if targeted at a faction unable to pay its supporters.

Policy Options

Each faction has its own deck of 12 Policy Option cards. Each game round, Control deals five of these cards, placing the cards on a track of slots numbered from 1 to 5. The number is the RP cost to adopt and implement that policy option in the game. Some actions also benefit from having more RPs spent. The faction leader decides which options are chosen – but smart leaders will consult with their subordinates. The faction leader has two special powers to manipulate policies:

  1. The leader can call for a “mulligan”, and discard all five cards. Control will then draw four replacement cards, placing them in the slots numbered from 2 to 5.
  2. The leader can swap the slot locations of two cards.

Most factions have a mix of policies around recruitment, governance, and faction improvement. During the game the mix of policies may change, e.g. reforms by the Emperor may add or take away powers from provincial governors.

The cost to action all five policy option cards would be 15 RPs. This is unlikely for most factions, as they have expenses and operations to pay for, so trade-offs must be made.

Military Operations

All factions have a Logistics rating that is the number of free token moves each general in that faction has for operations each game round. At the start of the game, most factions have a Logistics rating of three, or zero for the European barbarians. Logistics ratings are reduced for famines and plagues, but can be improved through policy options.

In addition to free moves from logistics, each RP committed by a faction leader to operations allows each subordinate general to move one token. For example, if your faction had a Logistics rating of 3, and their leader spent 5 RPs on operations, then each General could move up to eight tokens. If the faction has three generals, they could move a total of 24 tokens (which would be pretty much all the Legions in one region for a Roman faction).

Wealth Points

Wealth Points (WPs) represent coins, and other forms of portable wealth. For individual players, the WP they have at the end of the game can be considered a scoring metric (as can owning land for Senators). Players can exchange these freely with each other.

Most Romans characters have an income each game round of 1-3 WPs. This abstraction probably overpays Equestrian characters and underpays Senators. The Emperor is a source of patronage to increase salaries for Roman characters. Barbarian WP income depends a lot on how many Roman provinces they can pillage in a game round. Romans can also bid to purchase large agricultural estates (latifunda) that generate WP income.

If the Emperor executes a Roman character, they confiscate all of their WPs and latifunda. In all other cases of mortality your WP are kept for your next character.

If there is a trade subgame, it will generate WP for players, not RPs. Bank loans and mortgages on latifunda, and all interest payments, are also in WP, not RP. The Roman government cannot borrow WP from the banking system – its just not a thing they did.

Imperial Patronage

The Emperor has a few things they can do for free each turn:

  • they can appoint a Senator as Consul, this promotes the Senator’s political die
  • they can honour a successful military commander, this promotes the general’s political die
  • they can give any Roman a salary promotion, boosting their WP income
  • a number of jobs in the imperial faction are appointed at will by the Emperor, such as the commander of the Praetorian Guard
  • the Emperor can change Roman assignments, e.g. moving an aristocrat from a military command to the Senate and vice versa, or sending an Equestrian commander to a different front.

Splinter Empires

Part of the imperial household RP income derives from imperial estates owned by the Emperor all over the empire. This has built up over the centuries through confiscations and investments. If a region in the empire breaks away from central rule from the Emperor in Rome, faction RPs will be adjusted.

Splinter Empires will also get some new policy option cards, reflecting the benefits of decentralisation and a focus on regional defence. Splinter Empires can also attempt to implement imperial reforms in their region (see below).

Imperial Policy Reform

There is no science or technology subgame in Barracks Emperor, and any special actions attempting to introduce ahistorical technologies (including Greek Fire) will fail. What the Emperor has instead, is a series of reform options grounded in the history of the period, and each turn an Emperor can choose to action one reform. The frontier of plausible possibilities for these reforms are those undertaken by Emperor Diocletian (reined 284-305 CE). I will not go into the specifics, but the general broad categories of reform include:

  • restoring power to the Senate
  • reform of provincial government
  • religious innovation towards imperial theocracy
  • economic reforms, such as remonetization
  • military reforms, such as increasing the strength of the cavalry
  • increased centralisation of government – potentially increasing the number of players in the imperial bureaucracy and the number of reform actions allowed by the Emperor
  • increased decentralisation of government, such as devolving power and authority to regional capitals.

Many reforms have a cost in Imperial Unity to implement.

Imperial Unity

This works a like the Terror Track in Watch the Skies, and tracks popular support for the Roman Empire on a 0 to 250 scale, starting at 200. If it hits zero, the Roman Empire collapses. When it passes through a 50 point threshold, the Legions check for mutiny (there will be an automatic mutiny check in the first game round). Imperial Unity affects the number of free token recruitment each Roman region gets each turn. Volunteers dry up when Imperial Unity hits low levels – you can conscript soldiers, but that reduces your RP income and Imperial Unity.

Control will adjudicate the state of the Empire on each map each game round, and award either -1d4 to -5d4 Unity (depending on how calamitous the situation is) or +1d6 Unity (if the frontier is holding against the barbarians).

The following events will always affect the Imperial Unity score:

  • A new Emperor in Rome improves unity based on a roll of their Military/Political dice
  • If the Emperor does not adopt any reforms in a game round, their respect for tradition improves unity by a roll of their Political die
  • If the Emperor commands in battle and wins, they can celebrate a triumph in Rome, unity improves by a roll of their military die
  • If Rome is sacked, Imperial Unity is reduced by half (round down), and the maximum possible Imperial Unity score is reduced by 25.

As Imperial Unity is reduced, the cost to implement imperial policy reforms drops, and if Imperial Unity is at 1-50, reforms are free. Some reforms also act to reduce the maximum possible Imperial Unity, not just the current score.

If you think of the Imperial Unity score as “how many years does the Western Roman Empire survive after the end of the game?” then the historical Imperial Unity score in 285 CE was 191 Imperial Unity.

Marketing

If you want to buy a ticket to play the game in person, click here. If you live outside the Wellington region, and want to participate online, click here for a ticket.


Combat in Barracks Emperor

July 28, 2021

So I wrote a draft post about a dice pool based combat system I designed, and had playtested a few times. Then I reflected on my design goals, and discarded the draft post (and the dice pool combat system). I will explain why, then cover some historical sources that have influenced this game design, and then outline how the next iteration of the combat system will work.

All game design is an act of balancing the focus you put towards different, sometimes contradictory, design goals. No game can be all things to all people. A brief overview of my design goals for this megagame. First, this megagame needs to provide a model of ancient warfare, politics, and economy – and a model is an abstraction, not a simulation. Second, it needs to have space for player agency – the players need to be able to make meaningful decisions. Third, it needs to be capable of fast resolution – players need to be able to resolve battles, taxation, mutinies and other key game mechanics in one minute of time or less. Finally, the combat mechanic needs to provide feedback to the wider game system through things such as casualties, territory capture, or soft factors like faction prestige or leader reputation.

My main reason for abandoning the dice pool system was on speed of resolution grounds. With one die per legion, plus dice for auxiliary units, leaders, and discipline, each regional map had the potential to generate battles that might have involved as many as 12-20 dice being rolled for each side in a battle. Figuring out how many dice, and what size of die to use, was just taking a little too long. Its also the kind of iterative mental activity that burns a lot of energy over the 6+ hours a megagame runs, especially when players turn to Control to verify and validate their numbers, multiplying the number of brains being used in the task. Dice pool systems work best when the number of dice is around 3-8, easily fitting in one hand, and also being easy to sort or count. I was planning on a “Roll and Keep Best Two Dice” system, but even with that I was feeling it would just take a little too long.

A second reason was thinking about the level and focus of the game. Barracks Emperor is set more at a strategic political-military level, with three year game turns, rather than at the operational or tactical levels for which month or week long turns would be more appropriate (along with much more detailed maps). So rather than a detailed battle system that tries to reflect scouting, flanks, reserves, etc, the game just needs something that quickly lets the players get back to politics and diplomacy. So this meant thinking about using a mix of techniques for speeding up mechanical resolution:

  • Using deterministic mechanics rather than stochastic (random) mechanics
  • Simultaneous resolution
  • Able to be resolved with absent players
  • Removing extraneous steps in the process
  • Burying as much detail as possible about the game engine “under the hood” of the player facing game components.

Sources

A few more books and articles to add to those mentioned in my last post.

  • Dan Taylor, Roman Empire a War: A Compendium of Battles from 31 BC to AD 565, Pen & Sword Books Ltd, 2016
  • David J. Breeze, The Frontiers of the Roman Empire, Pen & Sword Books Ltd, 2011
  • Mark Hebblewhite, The Emperor and the Army in the Later Roman Empire, AD 235-395
  • Frontinius, Stratagems, translated by Charles E Bennet, Loeb Classical Library, 1997
  • Vegetius, Epitome of Military Science, translated by N P Milner, second revised edition, Liverpool University Press, 2001
  • Phillip Sabin, The Face of Roman Battle, ..Journal of Roman Studies, 11/2000 volume 90, 1-17.
  • Lukas de Blois, The Crisis of the Third Century A.D. in the Roman Empire: A Modern Myth?
  • Peter Temin, The Roman Market Economy, Princeton University Press, 2013

Sitting at the back of my mind is also Edward Luttwak’s Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, which I read in the 1990s but which I have not reread more recently. I understand serious classicists have issues with the text, but for me the key lesson was that border defences change over time.

A Time of Change

Because most of the visual media that we see about the Roman Empire is based on the late Republic and early Empire period we instinctively think of Roman soldiers with segmented armour, and large rectangular shields. The third century is a period of transition in Roman arms and armour, and renewed experimentation in tactics and force structure.

Legio III Cyrenaica of New England (United States) in a 1st century A.D. portrayal of a legion. From Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 3.0

So what kind of changes are we looking at in the third century?

  • the primary sword changes from the short gladius to the longer spatha
  • the shield changes from the rectangular scutum to an oval design similar to what the auxiliary forces had long used
  • a shift from the lorica segmentata (see picture above) to maille armour (see picture below)
  • increasing numbers of heavily armed cavalry, such as the cataphracti, especially as a large reserve force under the direct control of the Emperor or a trusted subordinate
  • the arms and armour of the Germanic tribes approaches equivalence with the Romans, as does tactical knowledge through barbarians serving in the Roman army
  • the full strength of the ten cohort legions (up to 6,500 troops) proving too slow in the face of raids by small warbands, leading to the creation of smaller fast moving vexillations (detachments) with only one or two cohorts plus supporting cavalry
  • at times, a deterioration in the legendary discipline of the roman forces, as exemplified by the large number of military revolts in this period
  • a decline in Italian volunteers serving in the legions, making the legions more provincial in focus (possibly abetted by the Severan dynasty allowing soldiers to marry, increasing ties to the community they were based in). My assessment is that while the number of barbarians in Roman service increased through this period, it was not a significant change at this time, unlike how events played out in the 5th century.
  • quality and quantity of recruiting also affected by wider economic problems and the deaths from plague and other calamities
  • an increase in the use of artillery engines (possibly a reaction to manpower shortages)
  • Roman cities were largely unwalled at the start of the 3rd century, and mostly walled by the end, as the emphasis for defensive strategy shifted from strong forward defence along the limes (borders) to more of a defence in depth strategy (supported by the decentralised government of the Tetrarchy, with four regional military commanders)
  • a shift away from amateur aristocratic command by senators, and command being placed in the hands of long service military professionals in the equestrian class.

Most of these factors do not need to be simulated in the game at the level of individual battles. Instead they will be policy decisions that the Romans can implement to try and increase their overall effective strength.

From Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 3.

The Face of Roman Battle

Most media portrayals of Roman warfare vary in quality from bad (flaming projectiles and cavalry charges through bad terrain) to worse (soldiers discarding their shields and battle formations collapsing into individual duels).

The classic Roman battle is a heavy infantry fight, with support from other arms such as cavalry, skirmishers, and artillery. Among its salient characteristics are:

  • Formations generally remained intact in close order until morale failed – none of those swirling Hollywood melees where one person fights another single person at a time.
  • Fighting with steel weapons in close proximity to the enemy (as opposed to longer distance archery) is a psychologically stressful state, and breaks and lulls in the fighting would be common (which reflects my own experience with re-enactment battles).
  • Roman generals largely did not do front line heroics (rare exceptions, such as Emperor Julian the Apostate, tend to demonstrate why this was the case) – this not a game of Warhammer with Champions that can overpower formations. Lower level leaders, such as the Centurions, did lead from the front, and often suffered high losses as a result.
  • Battles often took hours to resolve, before one side broke and ran.
  • The victor tended to lose around five percent of their force, while the loser would normally suffer 10-15 percent losses and could suffer heavy losses of 50-100 percent if encircled or pursued by cavalry. This is different from gunpowder battles, where both sides could take heavy casualties before one side retreated or collapsed.
  • A disciplined, high morale army with good leaders, could fight and defeat forces that outnumbered them by 4:1 or more (the 3:1 ratio you see in old wargames is not really a good rule of thumb for combat mechanics).

The Romans always considered the Persians, who had a lot of cavalry in their armies (including some elephants), to be their greatest enemy, but in the third century the assured dominance that Rome had usually enjoyed over the Germanic barbarians was fading. Between around 235 and 285, about one battle in ten was a catastrophic defeat, in which the bulk of the Roman army present at the battle, and most of the Roman leaders, were killed or captured. The key thing for the game is that almost every faction in the game is capable of beating every other faction on a good day. I have not found any good details on the strength of the Sassanid armies, so they will get a number of tokens that is close to Roman strength (and will get better if they repeat the historic feat of taking control of Armenia).

Map

The map will mainly feature Roman provinces as the main unit of geography, with a few special locations on the borders.

Large forces will be kept in containers off one side of the map, and represented by miniatures for leaders or standards for other formations. I will be using 28mm models from Aventine Miniatures.

Movement

The number of players needing to act at each map table will vary based on the number of player signups. It could be as few as three, it could be as many as nine. The number of teams needing to act should not be more than four. Within the constraint of 20 minute game turns, this gives me enough of a time budget to allow each team to move sequentially, rather than simultaneously. The three year timescale means a double blind system (i.e. hidden movement) is inappropriate. The key movement mechanics I have in mind are:

  1. Teams move in prestige order, from lowest to highest prestige.
  2. Each team will have one minute at the map table to move its game tokens.
  3. Each team can initiate a maximum of five invasions of regions containing enemy pieces.
  4. Mountain and Desert regions cost “two invasions” to enter.
  5. To invade deeper into enemy territory, you need to mask the forces in the border province by leaving behind more tokens than than the defender has in their border province.

Combat

The tricky bit in the mechanics is not so much the process for determining victory, as in determining the consequences. One of my decisions has been to try and model the one in ten catastrophe. Because the battles are abstract, the players do not have a high degree of agency over the outcomes, and I do not want players feeling they have been reduced to impotence by one die roll. The key combat mechanics I have in mind are:

  1. Teams resolve battles in prestige order from highest to lowest (this is the reverse of the movement order)
  2. Each team has one minute to initiate and resolve battles.
  3. If no one finds time to resolve a battle, the forces involved do not fight that turn.
  4. Each side rolls three dice: a leader die, a discipline die, and a decisive unit die (the decisive unit is determined by a card draw, and a quick comparison). High score wins. High prestige wins ties.
  5. The winner converts one large combat token into a small combat token. The large token is placed in the Reserve Pool.
  6. The defeated side removed half of their small combat tokens, and converts all of their large tokens into small tokens. One of the large tokens is placed in the Dead Pool, the rest are placed in the Reserve Pool.
  7. If you retreat through provinces containing enemy tokens, you will lose additional tokens to the Dead Pool.

Having all your large tokens removed in one battle sounds pretty dramatic, but read on.

The Decisive card specifies a unit type, such as Infantry, Cavalry, Skirmishers, Fleets, or Forts. Depending on relative unit strength, each side will get to roll a d4, d6, d8, d10, or d12. The masking and retreat rules are there to ensure that any player trying to raid deep into enemy territory is carrying a logistic penalty and bearing an appropriate level of risk. The movement-combat initiative also makes your deep raids more risky when you move first.

Feedback into the Wider Game

Combat tokens placed in the Dead Pool are permanently removed from your force pool. Some policy options can bring them back, but are expensive.

Combat tokens placed in the Reserve Pool return to play. The rate at which they return to play depends on other factors (Imperial Unity for the Romans, Prestige for the Sassanids). For example, if Imperial Unity is between 201 and 250, 1 in 2 Roman tokens in the Reserve Pool return to play at the start of the game turn. If Imperial Unity is between 151 and 200, only 1 in 3 Roman tokens in the Reserve Pool return to play at the start of the game turn. There will be a policy option that can increase the rate of reserve token return, but once again it will be expensive.

So while you can knock a side down, and take their tokens off the map, you cannot keep a side down for ever. In 2-3 turns they will be back in force.

The winner of a battle gets a Fort token in the region, the loser of a battle will lose a Fort. This represents shifting control and influence among the local inhabitants, as well as the occupation of key fortresses. The winning side gets +1 prestige (the defeated side does not lose prestige, as all factions shift one step towards zero prestige at the start of each game turn).

Defeated leaders make a mortality check, if they fail they die and the player gets a new character. Victorious leaders roll to see if they are promoted or gain honours (improving the Military or Political die one step, e.g. from d6 to d8).

The winner can choose to loot, gaining wealth, and placing a plunder token in the region. Plundering reduces faction RP income.

Still Needs Playtesting

I will be doing a playtest of this system on 7 August, focused on the frontier regions between Rome and Persia. For the playtest I will represent a legion with three large 16mm wooden cubes, while smaller detachments will be 10mm wooden cubes. Cavalry forces will use discs. Things I will be looking at closely in the playtest:

  • How do the players respond to prestige based movement-combat initiative system
  • Do the rewards from battles (promotion/prestige) balance the risks (loss of military strength, territory control)
  • Can battles be resolved in under a minute?
  • Do players concentrate their forces (to win one big battle), or disperse them (to spread risk across several encounters)
  • Does the ebb and flow of relative advantage look anything like the historical back and forth?
  • How does the three way dynamic between Rome, Persia, and Palmyra work out?
  • Does the mutiny/usurper mechanic work?


Barracks Emperor

July 8, 2021

My next Megagame on 16 October 2021 is a historical scenario based on the Crisis of the Third Century (tickets on sale at Lil Regie). This is a period lying between the end of the Severan dynasty around 235 CE, and the start of Diocletian’s reign and the creation of the Tetrarchy around 285 CE. In the 50 years in between there were around 26 Emperors, major barbarian raids into Gaul, Italy, and the Balkan provinces, splinter empires in Gaul and the Orient, plague, droughts, floods, inflation, a decline in free trade, a banking collapse, and several major battles with the Sasannid Empire. The survival of the Roman Empire was not a sure thing, and the actions of a few key Emperors, such as Aurelian, were essential to restoring the situation of the Roman Empire. In this post I will write a bit about the sources I have used, and the key issues that I am trying to include in the game design.

Sources

The primary sources for this period are bad, and I am not the level of classical scholar to try and parse out the gaps and details myself. Key events often cannot be reliable located in time or space. Some short-lived usurpers are only attested to in a single literary source, and by one or two coins. In the eastern provinces, only by studying Sasannid sources can you start putting together an account of both Roman victories and defeats in battles. In the Christian sources, Emperors who persecuted Christians are generally portrayed as very bad people, while Emperors who stopped persecutions get a better presentation. The paucity of reliable historical narratives helps explain why a lot of modern Roman Empire media focuses on the late Republic and Early Empire, for which there are more reliable source materials, or just go straight to fiction with a sprinkling of historic names (e.g. the movie Gladiator).

My main secondary sources for the period have been:

  • The History of Rome podcast
  • The Cambridge Ancient History Volume XII, The Crisis of Empire A.D. 193 – 337, Second Edition, 2005.
  • This online map of the Roman Empire in 211 CE
  • David S. Potter, The Roman Empire at Bay AD 180-395, Second Edition, 2014.
  • John F White, The Roman Emperor Aurelian: Restorer of the World, New revised Edition, 2020.
  • Kyle Harper, The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, & the End of an Empire, 2017.
  • Nathanael J. Andrade, Zenobia: Shooting Star of Palmyra, 2018.
  • Beate Dignis and Engelbert Winter, Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity: Neighbours and Rivals, 2010.
  • Jonathon P. Roth, The Logistics of the Roman Army at War (264 B.C – 235 A.D.), 1999.

My thanks to Dr Hamish Cameron for loaning me the books on Zenobia and Rome & Persia. I did look for modern boardgames on this period, but they were generally unsatisfactory. Most are either too simple (e.g. lots of Euro games), or too focused on individual tactical encounters. Two games that did merit considered study were:

  • Imperium Romanun II is an old style hex and counter game, and has the usual problems with strong mechanical incentives to create a single uberstack of units to resolve the situation in one decisive battle.
  • Barracks Emperor is a four player deck building game, which is just not a style of of game I like, and its premise that there were enduring factions trying to control the people who would become Emperor is just wrong.

More helpful was Philip Sabin’s Lost Battles: Reconstructing the Great Clashes of the Ancient World, 2013. While this is focused on earlier battles, many of Sabin’s thoughts on ancient battles echo my own ideas, and it is a good systematic attempt to provide a model for wargaming ancient battles.

Playtest map

Key Design Elements

The overall objective is to design a megagame playable as a one day event for 20-50 players. As a hobby game, it needs to provide entertainment to the players, as they play to find out if Rome survives the crisis period, and if it does survive, how do the institutions of Rome adapt and change?

First, I made the decision to skip the period from 235-248. While there are some major periods of upheaval, it was still relatively quiet compared to the early 250s, when the plague hit, major barbarian raids occurred in Gaul and the Balkans, and the Sasanids conquered Armenia and defeated the Roman armies in the East. I then chose the start of Diocletian’s reign in 284 as the end point. As a megagame can process a game turn in 20-30 minutes, getting in a dozen game turns in a day, this suggests a timescale of three years to the game turn. This makes each game turn a bit abstract – its the exciting bits of those years, not the dull bits. It also lines up with what seems to be the median reign duration for an Emperor.

Second, the order of battle. While we know roughly how many legions and fleets Rome had in the early 3rd century and their usual deployment locations, there is little detail on what happened to them in the crisis. Roman sources are silent on their defeats in the east, and vague about who fought on what side in the various civil wars. So my decision is to make the 35 odd Legions the main Roman combat units, with about the same number of counters to represent the Auxiliary units (of which there were 100s, too many to model in a megagame). Our knowledge of Sasanid and Palmyrean strength is even more debatable, but from a game design point I can go with “strong enough to beat the Romans on a good day.”

Third, player roles. These are split between the following groups:

  1. The Emperor and their household – the imperial household was a major landowner throughout the empire, a natural result of confiscating estates from executed traitors over the centuries. A key factor in the crisis, is that there is no fixed succession mechanism for appointing new Emperors, and since 69 CE, it was pretty clear that only people with armies got to vote on the matter.
  2. Senators – wealthy aristocrats with a small role in the government of the empire, and a tradition of commanding most of the legions. It is during this period, that the Senate loses the last of its influence, as the Emperor gains more power and the Equestrians gain a greater role in government. But history is a series of contingent events, and maybe in the game it will not work out that way. A Senator can expect to rotate between assignments in command of legions, and being in Rome. A trusted senator might be appointed as Dux – a regional commander for one of the game maps.
  3. Equestrians – the knights of Rome, not as rich as Senators (usually) but more likely to have achieved their positions by merit. Equestrians control several key positions, especially the Governor of Egypt, and the commander of the Praetorian Guard. During this period more long term career soldiers gained promotion into the Equestrian class, and into a career in government.
  4. Palmyra. This trading city is a Roman client state with a mixture of Arabic, Greek, and Roman culture. In this period it exploited Roman defeats in the Orient to form a splinter empire, which at its apex controlled the provinces from Egypt up into Anatolia. Queen Zenobia is also one of the few women to have played a significant role in the events of the period (there is frustratingly little about the various wives of the legion generals and the Emperors).
  5. Sasannids. A new dynasty in what is now Iran, replacing the Parthian dynasty, but keeping the terrifyingly dangerous armies of heavy cavalry. Rome’s only diplomatic equal in the world, they defeated several Roman armies and raided many of the provinces in the Orient.
  6. Other Barbarians. If player numbers permit, there will be roles as Gothic or Frankish tribal leaders, and possibly as the King of Armenia.
  7. Rhetoricians. if player numbers permit, there will be roles dedicated to making speeches that summarise the game action. Many of these roles will have a religious element (Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Pagan cults, etc).

Fourth, factions. While the Sassanids and Palmyreans are cohesive teams, the Roman Empire lacks big factions in this period. The Roman Emperor was simply too powerful for alternative centres of power to persist. Factions tended to emerge spontaneously between groups of Senators or generals who were in close proximity when a mutiny happened or an Emperor died. So faction formation is a task for players in the game, not the pre-game briefings.

Fifth, the maps. The map regions are fairly straight foward. One map for Gaul, Britannia, and Hispania. One map for Italia and Rome. One map for the Danube river and Balkan region. One map for the Orient, from Anatolia in the North, to Alexandria in the South, and east out to Ctesiphon, the Sasannid capital. Africa was a relative backwater in the time period of focus, and so only needs a map if we have a lot of players. The main unit of territory is the province – given the strength of Roman logistics and the three year time for a turn, you can move almost anywhere on the map if you need to. So no need to count movement points.

Sixth, the economy. One of the triggers of the crisis period was a perfect storm of financial problems for the Roman Empire. Climate change and plague reduced income, while the Several dynasty had increased the pay for the Army (which consumed about 75% of state income). The Emperors also had to cover most of the cost of the bread and circuses that kept Rome happy, and finding largess to reward friends, and cash donatives to keep the army on side with bonus payments. From my reading, I am not convinced that inflation was a major problem until about 270. While the currency was being debased, people retained confidence in it for a good long time. In the game, a major problem facing all Roman players is that income is less than expenditure, and if you do not pay the legions, they can mutiny and start a civil war. To keep the accounting simple, each regional team will make strategic choices based on a Resource Point (RP) economy, with about a dozen RP a turn to spend. Individual players will have Wealth Points (WP), which can be converted into RP (if you go heavily into debt you can maybe supply a legion for a game turn), but WP mainly exist as a player objective for scoring how well they are doing relative to other players.

Seventh, major policy and reform options. While the Romans fought hard, they found the traditional Roman heavy infantry legion inadequate to the task of defeating the Sasanids or the northern barbarians. During the crisis period and into Diocletian’s reign, a lot of things were tried or experimented with, such as increasing the strength of the cavalry. Some ideas worked, some ideas failed. As much as possible, it will be a player choice to make or not make these changes to the Empire. Change too much, too fast, and imperial unity will suffer. Change too little, and the barbarians might sack Rome. I assess the tetrarchy reforms as being the limit of what the Empire could bear at this time – no converting to Christianity just yet.

So what will the players do in the megagame?

I sometimes describe Barracks Emperor as a combination of a tower defence game, and Junta.

Each of the frontier map regions (Gaul, Balkans, Orient) is an operational wargame, while Italy and Rome are mainly political games (lots of players talking with each other). Rome is under stress from the pressure on its frontiers, but the major crises really occur when the border defences are stripped in order to fight civil wars over who should be Emperor and whether or not the legions get their backpay.

The key decisions that players make:

  • If my legion revolts, do I try and crush the mutiny (my troops might murder me) or become an usurper (the other players might murder me)?
  • If there is an Usurper in my region, do I support them and march on Rome, or do I try and crush their revolt? If we march on Rome, how many legions stay behind to defend against the barbarians?
  • As a Barbarian, when, where, and how hard do I attack the Romans? Do I accept Roman bribes to hold off an attacking, or to support a civil war faction? Can I get to Rome and sack it?
  • As Emperor, which Senator do I send out to take command of Legions or to act as a regional Dux? Can I trust my equestrians to remain loyal? Can I bribe people to stay loyal? Do I lead Roman armies in person or delegate the risk to another commander?
  • As a Senator, do I support the Emperor, or conspire to replace them with a better general/politician?
  • As Dux, I can’t afford to pay for everything, so who do I choose not to pay – the legions, the navy, or the civic government?
  • As Dux/Senate/Emperor, which policy option/reform do I choose this turn?
  • As a Legion commander, how do I defend most cost effectively against barbarians? All out defence will wear the legions down – do I try and get lucky with smaller units?
  • As a regional team – do we stay loyal to Rome, or do we declare independence and form a splinter empire?

That is all for now, I will try and do future blog posts covering some of the mechanics in finer detail.


Romance of the Seven Worlds AAR

June 12, 2021

Romance of the Seven Worlds (ROM7) was a megagame run at Wellycon XIV on Saturday 5 June 2021. It had 27 players, four control, and ran from about 10.30am to 4.30pm with a half lunch break. In this post, I will cover the feedback from players and control after the game, and my own observations of what worked well.

During the game Earth was saved as gravity generators were destroyed. This then set up the seven worlds to crash into each other, which was stopped by a magic ritual (with a tech project as backup). The Emperor had died, but come back to life through a clone, but with the High priest ascending to be one with Dyzan, it was going to be hard for the Emperor to complete their ritual of renewal for continued immortality. The destruction of Fangoria was going to make life hard for all the Zing addicts, as the drug was only cultivated on Fangoria.

Player Enjoyment

The median score was 4.6 out of 5, a small improvement on our last megagame The Colossus of Atlantis in June 2019. This is a good result, and that while a bit chaotic, nearly everyone had a good time and all but one player was interested in returning for future megagames.

Rules and Briefings

Everyone read the rules before the game (or at least part of the rules) and the rules got a 4 out of 5 for how well they prepared people for the game. This was a small improvement from 2019. Written feedback on the rules included a comment that it needed another draft, and someone also suggested video tutorials. I have long wanted to do video tutorials, but they require time and technology. The key obstacle is having the rules finished with enough lead time to make and distribute the video. The main block to finishing the rules early is player registrations for the game – if the number of players is not quite what the various subgames require, then the rules need to be amended. For ROM7 I locked the rules a week beforehand, having had to merge parts of the intended Minister and Noble subgames together.

Game Difficulty

The median answer here was 3.3, close to the Goldilocks sweet spot of 3. Our last game in 2019 got a 3.2 rating.

Rate of Play

The median answer here was 3.4, but the answers were not as tightly grouped for the Difficulty question. Our last game in 2019 got a 3.3 rating. As one person on the Control team put it, we got through ten turns of action in five game turns. Several players wrote comments about wanting better time keeping, and an easy to access board with turn number, current game phase, and time remaining in the turn. This may require some tech investment, or looking at ways of projecting the game time information. It is something we have done better in the past, but did not do well this time.

Player Involvement

The median answer was 4, most of the players felt pretty involved in the game. Our last game got a 4.1 rating. In written feedback, one player felt they did not have enough reasons to leave their world and interact with other players, while another was happy not to be involved with everything. Some feedback from the nobles that they found it hard to find the time to participate in the ministerial subgame.

Control

The median answer for how well the Control team did was 4.7, a small improvement on 2019 (4.6). Dutton, John, and Scott all did a great job, but the game would have run more effectively with six Control rather than four. About a third of the survey responders were willing to take on the Control role in the future, so hopefully a few hands will be raised when I ask for volunteers for Barracks Emperor in October.

Value for Money

This got a high 4.8 rating, a solid improvement on the 4.5 in 2019. In the ticket price survey, the median value for a day game was $NZ 30.40, and for a half-day game $NZ 15.80.

Venue

This is the fourth time we have run a megagame at Wellycon. For the previous three games we had a more discrete space to ourselves. Wellycon has grown, with 1100 people attending this year. So this year we got allocated some space on the stage, with instructions “take what you need, but no more.” The Control team is very aware that it was cramped, loud, and had non-players wandering through taking a short cut to the Dungeons & Dragons basement. It made the propaganda/media phase hard.

If that is the space we have available next year, then I think the better option will be to just run a demo table, with signups for a game later in June or July. Shifting to a weekend that is not a holiday weekend will also increase options for interested players who had other options for fun that weekend (such as a LARP convention out in Wainioumata, an SCA event up in Carterton, and all the hundreds of boardgames being played at Wellycon). The local community hall in Newlands where I live can be rented for about $200 for the day, and has power points, a kitchen, parking, and a supermarket two minutes walk away.

Communication and Marketing

It is pretty clear that Facebook, word of mouth from friends, and people signed up to our mailing list are the main ways we get people signing up for megagames. A couple of people found us through the Wellycon website, but the store posters did not pick up anyone this time as far as I can tell. A note on casting, while the Emperor role was cast almost instantly, we struggled to find players for the heroic Earthling or imperial minister roles – the Guild, Noble, and Common roles all proved more interesting.

Design Goals and Mechanics

I set out to design a game inspired by Flash Gordon, and I described it as a bit of a “reverse Watch the Skies“, where meddling Earthlings infiltrate and subvert an alien empire. My research consisted of watching the 1980 movie, the 1930s film serials (on Amazon prime), and reading reprints of the Sunday Comic strips from the 1930s and 40s. Compared to modern imitations like Star Wars, there is remarkably little in the way of academic or fan analysis on these works. In reflecting on past designs I wanted to make economic growth hard, and to have strong non-military solutions for problems. The game had mechanics for:

  • Movement
  • Exploration
  • Combat
  • Economy
  • Science
  • Magic
  • Imperial government and petitions
  • Romance
  • Loyalty
  • Pulp Actions

So there was a lot in the game, and it mostly worked and meshed well together.

Movement: I tried to keep this simple, you could move a character anywhere, but moving rockets or armies cost fuel tokens. Movement direct to the imperial capital faced barriers from “orbital defences” and “force fields”.

Exploration: various secrets and treasures were hidden in imperial vaults, which could be found by exploring the wilderness maps. I think this worked well, but given the time pressures on the game turn, I did not need the “you are lost for a minute” cards.

Combat: this worked well for 1:1 battles, but stumbled when scaled up to battles involving a dozen players. The attempted attack on the imperial palace (see picture below) took way to long to resolve. The lasercut MDF tokens and various strength cubes were great, and I will be using them again. We were close to maxing out on counters by the end of the game (started with about 15 rockets and 13 armies in play, but had 30 counters for each available) so I think I could have dialed combat losses up a notch.

Economy: Most players had a base that had four actions they could do two times each turn (example pictured below), if they had the Radium Points (RPs). Gaining RPs, however, required fighting for them in the Radlands of Targol, or acquiring them in trade. The two Pirate players did well in these battles, gaining large amounts of RPs, then hoarding them as per their objectives. So the trickle down economy did not work. Still, the economy did not fall over – everyone had some free actions they could do – but I probably needed to have a player role dedicated to crushing the pirates.

Science and Magic: On the whole players managed to work down the tech trees to get to the advances they needed to solve various problems in time. The pollution aspect of economic advances did not come through well. I am personally a bit tired of science subgames and tech trees, but I felt I really needed Science in the game, given the role of Dr Zharkov in the original sources of inspiration. Designing a lot of useful science advances is a high effort/high risk part of design – it takes time to do right, and if you get it wrong you can break the game. I am thinking that my design time would be better spent on designing interesting asymmetric powers for specific player roles that are present in game turn one, focusing on things that spur player conversation and trade.

The science process required each science role to calculate how many science dice that they had. These were then rolled for a project, trying to generate a set of dice with scores of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. If you were short one die, you could take “Zing” a cognitive drug in the game, to adjust one die roll to a different number. Completed advances could be traded to another player by simply spending six dice.

Imperial Government: I think this needed a few more players to work, as it was a bit isolated form the rest of the game. No one, for example, used the power to grant permission to wage war, and the imperial government lacked a degree of menace. Perhaps in a future run there should be imperial generals actively deploying to the subject worlds to hunt down rebels and outlaws. If I run the game again for less than 25 players, this is the subgame I would cut out.

Imperial Petitions: The three councils (noble, guild, and commons) met for five minutes each turn to adopt a petition to the Emperor. The Emperor then chose one petition, which was implemented. This is a simple, but powerful mechanic, as could be seen with the petition that just said “Destroy Fangoria”, leading to a jungle world being deforested. Councils did crowd the game turn, but allowed me to give the Emperor great power in choosing which petition to grant, but not unlimited power. With more players (over 30) I would look at making this kind of subgame a full time diplomacy/political role.

Romance: this megagame had very weak factions at the start, the guild, noble, and common players on each world were intended to be “frenemies” rather than allies. The design intent was for the card draw and match romance mechanic to allow emergent factions to be created in play. This did not work well, and the Terran Charisma, a special action card the Earthlings each had which allowed one player to change a character objective each game turn, had a much more significant impact on the game. The mechanics remain sound, but require more time for the players to engage in them.

Loyalty: This was a very experimental mechanic, but it did work well. Each world had a bag of loyalty discs, initially a mix of imperial, noble, and guild tokens (three of each), and one outlaw token. Most players had actions that let them look at or change the discs. Loyalty linked to the economic and military games by determining the loyalty of strength cubes that the players built – which could be decisive in battle as one of the possible combat cards “Sway” determined the winner on a 2d6+Charisma+Loyal Strength Cubes (on both sides counters). Loyalty also linked to the success or failure of Pulp Actions (see below). Loyalty discs were also influenced by the Propaganda phase – Control would add a loyalty disc to each world bag based on who had the most effective speeches. Late in the game when Unobtanium bombs were used by rebels, imperial loyalty discs got added to all the world bags.

Pulp Actions: This was the creative special action/wizard wheeze for the game. They were constrained to actions suitable for small bands of plucky heroes or devious villains. In adjudication, Control would determine how many loyalty tokens you needed, and then randomly draw three world loyalty discs – reflecting the support of the little people on the world, the guard who deliberately looks away, the taxi driver who gets you away from the secret police, etc. This was part of my design intent – to emphasize politics and people over economic growth and military power. So when the rebels attempted to assassinate the Emperor, they needed to draw three white tokens from the world loyalty bag, while a player trying to escape quickly from a prison just needed to tie discs that favoured them, against discs of the captor’s loyalty. This mechanic worked well, but we needed more Control to have more bandwidth for player initiated pulp actions.

Note: when doing a pulp action to steal a rocket, please make sure you steal a fuel token first.

Components

A few experiments that worked well. First, I got a bunch of Neck Wallets to both display key character information at a glance, and to provide pockets for card and counter storage. One change needed here – spot colour to make role identification easier. The final character sheets were laminated, so if a player trained one of their traits, it could be quickly adjusted with a marker pen.

Second, inspired by the foam counters used in a UK space race megagame, I got Battle Kiwi to make some MDF laser cut counters that could fit 10mm wooden cubes without requiring hours and hours of precise cutting of foamboard. This allows a lot of rich information to be packed into a counter. The example below has strength cubes loyal to Nobles (blue), Guild (orange), the Emperor (black), the Outlaws (white), as well as a Tech cube (yellow), and a Shock cube (pink). These work really well, as long as no one slaps the table hard. Total cost for 63 unit counters and a similar number of control markers was $NZ 167. I definitely plan to do something similar for Barracks Emperor, with one of these counters for each legion, and each cube representing a cohort.

Finally, I went for very abstract maps. ROM7 is not a hex counting panzer pusher game. So I purchased some art from Michal Kváč on Artstation, made a few tweaks in GIMP, and had seven worlds ready for exploration. I did learn not to rely on goggle drive when emailing files to the printer I use, Dropbox is the preferred solution for sending a dozen things off to print at once.

Closing Thoughts

This was a densely packed game, incorporating 18 months worth of ideas. For the number of players, I could have cut a subgame and a mechanic or two, but on the day it all worked out thanks to the players and control getting stuck into the game and having fun. On the whole, I feel like a future run of this game needs tweaks and a polish, not a rewrite.


Pulp Actions in Romance of the Seven Worlds

May 9, 2021

Unlike the boardgames that they resemble, megagames allow for improvised rules to be added to the game by player actions. These actions are adjudicated by the Control team, who try to balance novelty and delightful surprises with fairness to other players and the world environment of that particular megagame. For example, no amount of persuasion on the part of player would convince me that they can invent steam engines in ancient Rome, or machine guns in medieval Europe. Clear constraints on what is possible exist to encourage player creativity.

There are three broad options for handling improvised actions in Romance of the Seven Worlds. One is via the Open Science project, which allows characters with science training to try and discover a useful scientific advance. The second is via petitions to the Emperor in the Councils. The third, Pulp Actions, is the topic for this post.

In this megagame, Pulp Action is the term used to describe what are called Special Actions or a “wizard wheeze” in other megagames. A Pulp Action can be used to create a dramatic narrative effect on the game. All players will start the game with at least one Pulp Action card. The scope of the Pulp Action is chosen by the player initiating the Pulp Action, within the following constraints:

  • The Pulp Action must involve your character, plus any friends willing to assist;
  • The Pulp Action must be something could be carried out by a small group of people;
  • The Pulp Action takes place at a specific location;
  • The Pulp Action places your character at risk – you could be wounded or captured;
  • Pulp Actions cannot be used for assassination attempts.

You must make a short narrative description of the action in a pulp tone, and can suggest the mechanical effect. Control will adjudicate what happens, including giving any targets of the Pulp Action a chance to play their own Pulp Actions in response.

Pulp Action cards are one use, unless specified otherwise.

Gaining Additional Pulp Action Cards

Pulp Action cards can be gained from the Romance subgame. Control will award some Pulp Action cards to players based on which characters get the most spotlight time in the speeches made in the Propaganda Phase.

Control Adjudication of Pulp Actions

The adjudication of Pulp Actions is an art, not a science. Control may modify this procedure in play.

The primary method of determining the success or failure of Pulp Actions is by drawing three loyalty disc tokens from the bag for the world where the action is taking place. If the Pulp Action targets a character or asset controlled by other characters, then you need to draw more of your loyalty tokens than of theirs.

If you are attempting a Pulp Action against a similar player role (e.g Noble versus Noble), then the appropriate loyalty only works for the player on their home world and Control will adjudicate what other loyalty the player should be trying to draw.

If two opposed Pulp Actions are tied for success, then control will get players to roll dice to break the tie, adding Charisma, Dueling, Science, or Tactics scores as may be considered appropriate.

Loyalty Tokens NeededDifficulty of the Pulp Action
0Saving Throw: Escaping from a death trap, prison, or execution chamber, sneaking undetected into a guarded facility to scout, countering a Pulp Action that targets you.
1Minor Effect: Replicating a normal action power, setting a trap to capture another player, setting up or searching for a secret base, securely hiding a secret, improving the guards defending a region, disrupting or delaying a science project.
2Major Effect: doing a build action for free, setting a trap to wound other characters, strength hits to a combat unit, sabotaging a superweapon, stealing the results of a science project, theft of resource tokens, creating a new social event, or giving a propaganda speech.
3Irreversible Effect or Impossible Action: Attempting to kill a character, destroy a region, imperial agency, or combat unit.

Example of a Pulp Action

A player proposes to sneak an explosive charge aboard the Emperor’s personal rocket, timed to explode when they next travel, so that the Emperor crash lands in the wilderness of a random world when they next move between world tables.

Control rules that this action must take place on the world where the Emperor currently is (in this case its Targol), and is a Minor Effect as it disrupts or delays the Emperor. The action is successful if one or more White (Hope) tokens are drawn – each Hope token maroons the Emperor incommunicado for one minute, but if more Black (fear) tokens are drawn than white tokens, then the action fails and the saboteur will be captured on Targol.

If the player had asked for the Emperor to be killed by this action, Control would refuse to allow it as being too close to an assassination attempt. They might allow it to wound the Emperor, but this would increase the number of white loyalty tokens to two.


Science Actions in Romance of the Seven Worlds

May 6, 2021

As the economic game models a feudal past, so the science game imitates the retro futurism of the 1930s. In the empire, only the Guilds have much in the way science training and lab equipment – just enough to fulfill their charter duties. The number of real scientists in the empire can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

The general process for this minigame is that players acquire Science project cards, decide what project to research, acquire science dice (d6), and then roll science dice to progress the chosen project towards completion. Science actions can be undertaken only by characters that have a Science rating of +1 or more.

Science Project Cards

At the start of the game, the number of project cards will be quite limited. As some projects are completed, new project options will be unlocked. The following sources exist for Science project cards:

SourceAcquisition Method
DiscoveryCompleting some science projects will unlock new science projects.
ExplorationIf you explore a world, you may discover a Science project.
Imperial ArchivesThe Librarian Guild can draw Science project cards as a build action.
Imperial MinisterCan potentially use a Ministry of Conscription action to acquire Science dice.
Terran ScientistCan give anyone the Scientific Method project card.
TradePlayers are free to trade a Science project card to one other player once they have completed the project.

Some examples of Science Project cards (these are draft). Red text indicates a penalty or side effect that players need to remember. Most of the science projects involve pure science, warfare, economics, and superweapons.

Science Dice

Science dice can be kept in reserve, traded with other players, or used on researching science projects. You can acquire one science dice from the following sources:

SourceNumber of Dice
Science RatingOne die per point of science rating your character has.
Science ProjectsSome completed Science projects grant bonus science dice.
Imperial MinisterGovernment power use can create some science dice.
Science ActionThe Science build actions can build sets of three science dice.
Science ConferenceAny character with a science rating can grant you a bonus die by visiting your world and sitting down for a one-minute conversation about science.

Rolling the Science Dice

You can progress research on any, all, or none of your science projects. You can only roll science dice for each project once per World Phase. Each project card has six progress squares, numbered from 1-6. A die can only be placed in an empty square, with a number matching the number rolled on the dice. Extra dice with the same number are wasted research. Keep the project card and dice on your world table.

After rolling Science dice, you can spend a Zing token to either:

  • Reroll three science dice of your choice; or
  • Change the number rolled on one science die to a number of your choice.

Note: Your projects are public knowledge once you put a science die on them.

Completing Science Projects

When all six progress squares are filled, the project is completed. Inform Control of your accomplishment, and to get any unlocked project cards. Make notes on any bonuses you now have, and you can now trade the project card to another player for them to use.

Creating Your Own Science Project

Open projects can be found in the game, which allow you to create your own science project. You will need to discuss your ideas with Control. Anything that is too much of an “I Win” project without serious penalties or side effects will likely to be rejected. Creating a last minute invention to counter someone else’s super weapon is, however, very genre appropriate.


Economics in Romance of the Seven Worlds

May 4, 2021

The key to understanding the economy in the Romance of the Seven Worlds megagame is to know that it is not a growth based economy. It tries to model a feudal system of power, not a capitalist system of power. The Emperor also has a highly developed sense of the aesthetic value of undeveloped wilderness, and polluting your home world with the toxic wastes of heavy industry is one of the ways the Emperor might be persuaded that your home world should be destroyed.

Income

No one in the game has a cash income that they get on a regular basis – even Imperial ministers have to compete for their budgets. This game’s equivalent of Resource Points (RPs) is the Radium Point – same RP abbreviation, sexy new glow in the dark colour. The vast majority of RPs available to the players are from mining on Targol (the imperial capital world). Anyone with a Rocket unit can fly to a region where the Control team spawn RPs, and if no one else wants to fight you for it, you collect the RPs. One region might have 50 RP, a second region 20 RPs, and a third region 5 RPs. Only the Noble and Guild players have Rockets at the start, so if the other players want RPs they will have to beg, borrow, or trade goods and services for them.

There is an opportunity cost to mining for RPs on Targol – if you only have one Rocket you cannot also use it to fight meteors in the same turn you are mining. Not defending your world is a bad thing.

It is quite possible that you will experience a cycle of good and bad income turns, where you fluctuate between plenty and starvation in terms of your ability to afford build actions. Its always good to have friends who can loan you a few RPs.

Economic Actions

Each of the three types of world role (Noble, Guild, Commons) has a different type of economic structure, called a Base, that has four different types of economic action available to them. Each Base is linked to a specific region on one of the maps ( a noble palace, guild hall, or common city). Lose control of that region and you lose most of your economic power. Below are three examples of Bases. Each action can normally be done twice a turn, but Widgets (a rare token) allow a third action to be done at the second action cost. The cost is in RPs – if the cost is 0, then it is a free action for you. Everyone should have at least one free action. If the cost is “T”, then the RP cost is equal to the game turn number.

Damage from meteors that hit worlds will increase the cost of actions, as can pollution, damage from combats, rebel sabotage, or pulp actions by other players.

Three examples follow – these are working drafts and not final.

Guild base example – a world that specialises in science.
Commons base example – a world that specialises in warfare.
Noble base example – a world that specialises in cognitive drugs useful in science and training.

Trade

Players can trade most game tokens – RPs, Widgets, Fuel, Zing, Science dice, and strength cubes. The different action costs mean that it may be cheaper for another player to do that action, and some players are more effective at some actions than others. The commons players, for example, are nearly always better at actions that influence world loyalty.

One of the functions of the economic system is to provide reasons for the players to talk with each other. Several key resources only exist on one world.

Terms, conditions, and enforcement of trade deals and loans is entirely in the hands of the players.

New Economic Bases

One possible outcome of an imperial petition in the Council phase is that the Emperor can grant permission to build a new economic base. Some science projects can also allow players to build new economic bases. If you can capture another player’s base, then you can use it – but of course before you can capture it in chivalric warfare, you need formal permission from an Imperial Minister. Some science projects might also change the cost or effectiveness of some economic actions.

Next blog post will probably be on the Science subgame.