The DOOM Economy

December 3, 2016

I think they key thing about the DOOM economy in Colossus of Atlantis, is that I have absolutely no idea what will happen when the game is actually played. This is equal parts exciting and terrifying.

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Made in China as a flower pot holder. Can you spot the Alien influence?

Player actions in the game will increase the DOOM score. If the total DOOM score from all player actions hits a secret and predetermined point, the game ends with Atlantis sinking beneath the waves. The team with the lowest DOOM score wins a moral victory. Up to five players can assure personal survival through the cataclysm if “The Ark” Great Wonder has been built. A couple of the other wonders can influence the Atlantis DOOM score, halting its increase for a turn, a one off reduction in score, or allowing House scores to be reduced through sacrifice (which does not change whether Atlantis sinks, but can boost your chance of a Moral victory).

House and Atlantis DOOM scores are public information.

DOOM is a collective action problem inspired by the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Actions that increase DOOM have the potential to benefit the player whose action has triggered the DOOM increase. If your House nobly eschews the use of actions that increase DOOM, you may well save Atlantis, but your rivals who do increase DOOM may outperform you in the game.

DOOM tokens are also a negative feedback loop. They are a way of giving a boost to a player who has not done well earlier in the game, by giving them an option to catch up in effective game actions. Negative feedback acts to stabilize and prolong the game (See chapter 18 games as Cybernetic Systems in Rules of Play by Salen and Zimmerman MIT Press 2004).

Getting into the gritty detail, DOOM is increased:

  • by the number rolled on a DOOM die (a d13)
  • by the cost of each Sorcery card purchased by a player
  • by the value of any Governance cards that DOOM is used to power up for City options
  • by the value of any Governance cards used to activate Sorcery cards
  • for roleplaying reasons (if Atlantis falls into anarchy, or the players are misbehaving)

Each map table will probably have at least one DOOM die rolled on it each game turn. So if we have five map tables and ten game turns, then that will make the Atlantis DOOM score increase by roughly 380. But a player with a DOOM die involved in multiple conflicts might roll the DOOM die four times in one turn. The DOOM ray technology upgrade also allows more DOOM dice to be rolled. So perhaps the upper range of DOOM from normal combat activities is closer to 1,000.

There are 18 sorcery cards. The cost to buy a complete set is 171 DOOM tokens. So if we have seven factions and all the cards are purchased, that is 1,197 DOOM. That is a large investment of DOOM tokens, when most teams will get perhaps 5-10 tokens a turn between all their players.

The cost of Governance cards used to power up cities and fuel sorcery card use is hard predict. The cards have a value range of 1-10, with an average of around 6.5. Higher value cards have usually (but not always) stronger effects. The limit here is going to be the number of DOOM tokens that can be used as fuel.

You get one DOOM token per conflict you lose, and each time you leave a Council meeting without any rewards. Player choice can see rewards distributed evenly, or hoarded by a few. So social inequality increases the chances of Atlantis sinking – I am okay with that as a design feature. The number of conflicts each turn is variable. Again player choice can lead to conflict free map tables. Or there could be a lot of eris on a table, and a player could get anywhere from 1-4 DOOM tokens.

Finger in air time, I expect most players to use DOOM tokens at least some of the time. The temptation to use DOOM will always be there. Maybe it will be 1,000 points of DOOM over the course of the game.

So, if I pick a secret DOOM threshold of 3,000, then its quite likely that Atlantis will sink. If the threshold is 2,000 it will probably sink quite early. If the DOOM threshold is 4,000 or more, then the chance of Atlantis sinking goes down.

So Sorcery cards are equivalent to nuclear weapons. You want some to act as a deterrent force against other players, but you may not actually want to use them in play. Given human emotions, once one House starts using Sorcery, the other factions may respond in kind. Another possibility is the kind of player who likes smashing sandcastles other players build, deliberately maximizing their DOOM generation (social mechanisms in the game might be able to deal with that – its up to the players to spot it happening and do something about it). A House that feels they are losing badly after a series of betrayals may also feel justified in dragging Atlantis down with them.

In my next post on The Colossus of Atlantis I will address aspects of emergent play in the game.


Conflict in Colossus of Atlantis

November 10, 2016

Let us start with two video clips. The first is the Talos scene from Jason and the Argonauts. It neatly demonstrates a Colossus versus Trireme battle. The second is from Oliver Stone’s Alexander movie, the main battle scene (not the best quality sadly). Which I think is a much better take on Hoplite warfare than in the movies Troy or 300.

Design goals

My design goals for conflict between the forces that players control in The Colossus of Atlantis are for conflict to be:

  • Simple
  • Fun
  • have scope for mastery
  • fit with the theme
  • Quick

I have tried to keep conflict relatively simple by:

  • making conflict automatic if two or more players send units to the same region
    • the only exception to this is if a player declares they are a coward (by saying “Phobos!”), and withdraws their forces back to their home city
    • cowardice has a potential cost – you can be fined by the courts, and if you don’t pay, your home city can be attacked (see below for an image of what that looks like)
  • keeping the maths to simple addition (no subtraction, multiplication or long division)
  • restricting the types of forces and the number of possible attacks to four

The maths is simple – add your strength ratings together for all your controlled units. Roll your dice, and add the two together. Highest player wins, both players lose in a tie.

I have two main ways in which conflict is fun. First, you get to roll dice, and you have a chance that each roll will explode (allowing you to keep rolling until the die stops exploding, and adding all the numbers together). Every now and then the Chaos dice will allow a player to pull off a lucky win against the odds. So there will always be some tension in a dice throw. Secondly, when you win you always get rewarded. You get some money, some victory points (VP), and some other useful game resources.

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Course of Empire by Thomas Cole [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I believe there is scope for mastery of the game to be demonstrated. This arises from observation of the emergent play – if you can see the choices other players are making in how they allocate forces to regions, and react to them with skill, then you should win more conflicts (and earn more rewards). A cautious player may concentrate their forces on one or two areas. A bold player may split them between four areas, hoping to get lucky and find a region no one else is contesting for a cheap victory. Understanding how the dice can work out will also probably help with system mastery.

Exploding Dice

Because the Chaos die generates numbers from 1-4, and explodes on a four, its actually impossible to get a roll of four on the dice. Four +1-4 gets 5-8, and of a course a second four explodes again. You will roll from 1-3 75% of the time, and then 25% of the time you will roll 5+:

  • 75% of the time you will roll from 1-3
  • 18.75% of the time you will roll from 5-7
  • ~4.5% of the time you will roll 9-11
  • ~2% of the time you will roll 13+

One implication here, is that if you have a one bonus die advantage over your enemy, but they have four more combat strength, then you will have roughly a 25% chance of winning.

The DOOM die generates numbers from 1-13, but only explodes on a 13. So it exploding is a rare event – you might not see it happen in the game.

  • 92.3% of the time you will see a roll from 1-12
  • 7% of the time you will see a roll from 14-25
  • less than 1% of the time you will see a roll of 27+

Intuitively you would think that the d13 has a better chance of giving a victory against long odds, but its good to see it confirmed in the math.

Theme

I believe that a megagame conflict system trying to model Ancient Greek hoplite combat for a megagame should keep it simple, following a cultural style of combat where both parties agreed to fight at a particular place, the battle was fought quickly, and the defeated party conceded defeat. I thought about incorporating rules for skirmishers, cavalry, chariots and fortifications, but playtesting showed that this made it too complicated.

I added Triremes after the second playtest, as I redrew the maps, splitting them into one set of six land regions, and a second set of coastal regions, plus one gateway to the hollow earth. This reflects the importance of naval warfare in ancient Greece, and also fit with a change to how trading worked in the game – opening up possibilities for blockades and smuggling.

Quick

This relates to simple. A few things have been done to keep play fast. First, all players in a region are in conflict with each other. Diplomacy over forming temporary coalitions just takes up too much time in the fifteen minute game turn. With 13 potential conflicts to resolve, battles need to be done in under a minute. Second, players can resolve more than one conflict at a time. If two players are resolving a conflict in region one, three different players with a conflict in region 5 can be working through that. That is another reason why there will be lot of dice for each game table.

I also removed an early playtest option for spending DOOM tokens to adjust combat outcomes. This created an auction bidding mechanic, which just took too much time. Now you need the right Colossus upgrade (the DOOM Ray) and you spend the token before you roll the dice (a DOOM die).

Part of being quick is in constraining the choices the players can make. Most humans can only effectively evaluate three to five options. More than that and they start taking mental short cuts. So while I have 13 colony regions for players to squabble over, and they each offer slightly different rewards, there are only three types: land, coastal, and hollow earth. The fourth option, attack on home cities is constrained by law and politics. I also only allow four attacks maximum – and no splitting up of unit types. All your hoplites go to one region, and all your triremes go to one region (and it could be the same region).

Right, back to editing the game document!

 


The Cold Stars Shone in Mockery

November 7, 2016
Kapcon registration has gone live, so I will do another post on progress with the Colossus of Atlantis meagagme soon. In the meantime, here are my musings on running a SF campaign next year, based on an email I sent out to my current play group.
Feedback I have on what my players want in an SF game:
  • the current campaign’s episodic/story arc structure seems to work well
  • party should have access to a ship, not be stuck on a station or planet
  • a mix of aliens is okay
  • posthuman/transhuman elements are worth a look.

I was recommended to watch Dark Matter (party wakes up on a spaceship with no memories, the ship has a cargo of weapons and some locked doors) and the Expanse (for a greater dose of realism in space). My recommended reading to my players was Altered Carbon (FTL is only possible via uploaded minds, central protagonist is an Envoy, a type of troubleshooter trained to use whatever tools are available to solve problems). Other media recommendations are most welcome. The title of the post is from a line in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. My current go to place for insight on spaceships and SF tropes is the Atomic Rockets website.

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Art from Starvation Cheap by Sine Nomine Publishing

System

Past feedback was that some of my players would prefer not to use a D100 system in the next campaign (so that rules out Eclipse Phase, River of Heaven, Revolution D100 or M-Space). One issue identified was never actually feeling like your characters were competent, or not being able to judge your relative competency against opponents, which was really brought home by watching how an 80% Endurance skill meant next to nothing if the blow taking you down was a critical hit (you had to both roll a critical yourself, and have it exceed your foe’s roll, so that 80% baseline skill might only end up with a 3% chance of success). I have also found a few elements of the RQ6/Mythras system to be fiddly (adjusting skill chance by dividing/multiplying skill level, a lot of die rolls lead to boring outcomes, and choosing combat effects after the skill roll is made is an immersion crushing waste of time). I do have some ideas to retool D100, but that would take some work.
I have backed, but not yet received a few SF kickstarters, which might arrive early next year:
  • Bulldogs! (Fate based courier missions/salvage teams)
  • Mindjammer (Traveller based agents for the Culture-like Commonality in a universe where thousands of years of STL colonisation happened, and FTL is only a few centuries old)
  • Coriolis (Firefly meets Arabian nights, with mysticism in the dark voids of space)
  • SF ports of Blades in the Dark (Apocalypse World derived system that is probably the most mind bending system I have read in the last year or two)
I have a few other SF games lying around, mostly in PDF format:
  • Firefly (Cortex+ dice pool system)
  • Edge of Empire (Star Wars dice pool system)
  • Stars Without Number (old D&D in space)
  • Strontium Dog (Traveller, focus on mutations and bounty hunting)
  • Nova Praxis (Fate)
  • Cepheus (OSR Traveller clone)
  • Fading Suns (D20 decadent nobles in a declining empire)
  • Rocket Age (retro 30s pulp)
  • Eldritch Skies (Savage Worlds, near future with Cthulhu)
  • Numenera (Cypher D20 system)
  • Night Witches (okay its a WWII game powered by the Apoclaypse, but on reading it I thought its completely adaptable to a SF game where everyone is a fighter pilot on the losing side of the Great Patriotic Space War)
The problem with nearly every SF game that tries to handle transhumanism, is that there is lots of paperwork when shifting bodies, and its pointless to spend character generation resources on physical attributes, when you can buy better in-game. As such I don’t think any first generation lineage game engine can cut it. Eclipse Phase is weirdly over complicated for what it tries to do. Zak Sabbath had a simpler OSR take on this issue.
I lean towards something more descriptive, like Cortex+ or Fate, but that means buying into the abstractness of plot point meta currency systems, and being in tune with not trying to track every last plasma round and credit chip. The alternative is to drop the mind uploading/body hopping aspects of transhumanism. If I did that, then I might build the combat engine around fighting to the point where the PCs combat armour is knocked out, rather than fighting to the point where carbonised brains splatter the bulkheads. At which point why not go full Mecha?
None of the Apocalypse World hacks for SF look like a finished product to me.
So far I am not sold on any particular game engine – more suggestions are welcome. Systems I have not looked at much include:
  • Ashen Stars (Gumshoe variant, good for investigations)
  • Fragged Empire (creatures created by humans after humanity’s fall)
  • Polaris (a French game, looks blue)
  • Corvus Belli Infinity (a 2d20 roll under Target Number game , so I have some familiarity with that from Conan, and its going to be used for the John Carter of Mars game as well).
I am not fond of the level of detail and 3d6 systems used in GURPS/HERO systems. After playing Dragon Age and D20, I am not fond of hit point bloat systems, so while I could retool Fantasy Age into “Space Age”, that would take some work. I don’t see any ports of 13th Age into an SF setting yet either.
Do you have a system recommendation, or preference for one of the above game systems?
The Cold Stars Setting
I am thinking of mixing the following:
  • Earth colonised by aliens, like the British Raj, there has been some uplift, but much of the alien ways remain incomprehensible
  • At least one group of aliens has mucked around with humans and enabled psionic powers (its a way to establish character exceptionalism), and the concept of a psionic gestalt could provide another reason for why the PCs are in a party together
  • Several powerful alien races, and an ongoing cold war, and humans can be clients to various alien patrons, so there is background tension, espionage, boundaries that are forbidden to cross, Casablanca zones, and no one wants a war to break out with dinosaur killer level kinetic weapons
  • FTL: entry into FTL space is easy, the hard part is getting out again – you need to home in on a beacon signal or specific type of variable star signature, before the heat build up inside your ship kills you.
  • The characters are specialists in dealing with colony worlds where the beacons go dark, so they have a good ship and a job that gets them into trouble. They also have a license that keeps all of their high tech equipment functional, but if they go dark themselves, then it all stops working four weeks later when it realises it has not received the latest security update.
A Future History
The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy has future history as a colonisation-empire-collapse pattern, although it assumes that human beings will be doing the colonising. TvTropes also has a standard future history, similar to the above and a standard Sci-Fi setting. The “Consensus Cosmogony” (to use Donald A. Wollheim’s phrase) is as follows:
  1. Exploration and colonisation of the Solar System
  2. World War III
  3. Interstellar exploration and colonisation
  4. First contact with aliens
  5. The cycle of empires
  6. The final empire
  7. Humanity’s final fate (these days its likely to be some kind of singularity ascendance, in the old days it was white togas and flared shoulders for everybody).
The key insight here, is that most visions of the future recycle the past. Not every SF work follows this pattern. In Andre Norton’s “Star Guard“, humans are only allowed off Earth to act as mercenaries for other aliens, and this occurs in quite a few other series, such as Jerry Purnelle’s “Janissaries” books. In The Course of Empire, by Eric Flint and K. D. Wentworth, humans are sepoy soldiers for aliens who have conquered Earth. Which is getting closer to what I want for a setting I think.
The Raj Pattern
The Raj Pattern for Sci-fi could be summarised as:
  1. Present day – human princes feud among themselves, while in the background the planet begins to burn from climate change
  2. First contact – aliens become involved in trade with Earth, and by “divide and rule” tactics quickly establish permanent outposts
  3. Alien influence grows as governments outsource their core functions in exchange for trinkets and longevity
  4. Alien influence consolidated in corporate governance that effectively controls all taxation on most of Earth
  5. Human rebellion/mutiny against their alien corporate overlords is quashed
  6. The real alien government turns up and implements direct rule, while still trying to help the poor primitive apes to ascend the ladder of civilisation
  7. The Great Big Space War – humans have a choice, help their alien overlords, passive resistance, or active rebellion.
  8. Independence?
In terms of how it relates to PCs, its the value/loyalty choice in step seven. At any other point of the cycle prior to that, the smart money is on the aliens.
I am thinking that a lifepath character generation system makes some sense, if it gets player engagement with the setting. Traveller used to have as a feature death in character generation. In a Transhuman setting, you could have a conflict that causes players to roll 1d10 to see how many times their character was KIA and restored from backup.
Espionage
I found a few blog posts on espionage in SF. Sadly the series does not seem to have been concluded. Its key points:
  • spy stories are about tension, in particular, they are about middle class apprehensions, the current threats to personal comfort
  • part of the tension comes from familiarity with the world – and SF worlds will inherently be unfamiliar (even if they do adopt the Consensus Cosmogony)
  • there are two strategies for coping with this:
    • stress glamorous, exotic locales, so in SF, ham up the alien and the weird
    • focus on quotidian elements, so in SF, keep it human and current tech
  • using technological Macguffins leads you into Technothriller territory (which tend to be more black/white morality than the grey quotidian novels which draw on the threat of betrayal to ramp up tension)
  • in speculative fiction, “while the underlying themes may get representation in the narrative’s plot, it is harder to overlay those themes onto our real world because their relationship to our world is more oblique”
I did a search for Cold War rpgs a while back, and found a few – most of which had an occult focus with the Cthulhu Mythos or similar. I suspect its harder to do the betrayal theme in a long running campaign with the 4-6 players you usually have in a tabletop campaign. If a Firefly game can be summarised as “get a job, stay flying”, then an espionage focused Cold Stars game could be described as “find a secret, stay alive”.
Cold Wars
Being old enough to remember watching the Berlin Wall come down, just in time for my end of year Political Science exam on the Cold War, I can remember the fear of nuclear war. Its abated today, and shifted to the rogue state. So in an rpg reflecting modern fears, its not so much the alien invasion, its the one shot dinosaur killer strike from a splinter faction or rogue captain with a ship and an FTL drive (which is the key problem with reactionless drives, every merchant captain controls a world killer).
A thought a had a while back, to represent this tension, is to just ask the players if the world ends in fire at the end of every game session., if any of the players says ‘yes”, then the campaign is over. Time to move on to a post-apocalyptic game?
Technology in the Future
Currently on Earth, technological change is increasing at an exponential rate. It is increasingly difficult, even for experts, to remain on top of this change. This makes SF games date quickly. It also means that any single person trying to figure out how people will behave and what physical items will look like in the future has some problems. I have a few present-day topics that I want to explore:
  • social inequality
  • automation
  • 3-D printing
  • the shared economy
Social Inequality
One reason to have aliens in the setting is to create an “upper class” that human characters can never truly be part of. I have a couple of different ideas for implementing this mechanically in the game. One is to have the players roll dice to see which one of them has a privileged background. That character starts with property and cash. All the other characters start in debt. Another is to invert the benefit table from Traveller, with each term of service prior to start of play leading your character ever deeper into debt.
Automation
The future of warfare is likely to involve human-machine teams, where the sharp end of conflict is conducted at machine speeds. Human decisions remain important for starting and ending conflicts, and for resolving complex situations not anticipated by software. In space warfare, I simply don’t see any reason why humans would be climbing into turrets to shoot at piloted fighter craft in line-of-sight ranges. Machines will do that job better than we can. The important human decision is around hiding, running away, starting the fight, or trying to surrender before the ship explodes. In other fields, I think close quarters urban fighting is likely to remain a human skill set, but everyone will be using drones to make their perception checks, and calling in precise-strikes from networked assets.
One idea I had for implementing automation in combat is to make the PCs make a survival check in each round of combat. The PC with the worst roll takes one point of damage per combat round, e.g. in round three they take three points of damage. If you can’t win quickly and break the enemy’s lock on your location, you need to run before the rest of the drone swarm turns up. At any rate, I think SF games need to move beyond replicating World War II or Vietnam in space.
3-D Printing
I had this idea of disposable spaceships. Order it, a 3-D printer makes it, its engines are good for a few jumps, then you recycle it when you dock because that is cheaper than paying the docking fees for three days. Amusing, but I suspect players prefer a more permanent home. It would be a universe where you only own what you choose to carry. Escalated to a mass scale, it gets you lots of small starter colonies that no longer have functioning spaceships, and are always interested in imports of up to date printing templates and OEM printer gunk.
Shared Economy
This flows from automation, the current trends in copyright and licensing, and social inequality (I donate money to EFF.org to try and stop this from happening). While there will always be work for humans, the amount of work that will propel people into the property owning class will diminish. Everyone else will end up using major items on a time share basis, with no true ownership.
What the characters spend their time on is pretty important, as different games will vary the emphasis on:
  • trading, aka spreadsheets in space
  • movement between points in space, is it routine or risky
  • fine tuning gear, aka more spreadsheets in space
  • relationships between characters, love and hate in a tin can
  • character archetypes – broad roles and competencies
  • character skills – specific competencies, less niche protection
  • old school character attributes (strength, charisma etc)
  • character values – passions, drives, triggers.

I asked my players what they preferred to do in games. For the most part my campaigns have been old school (there have been dungeons, monsters and loot) with the addition of lots of social action with NPCs and grey morality – hopefully giving the players meaningful choices about who their friends and enemies are, and whether they are heroes or “the baddies”. I am still thinking a lot about what the core character activities in a Cold War in Space game should be.


Second Colossus of Atlantis Playtest

October 24, 2016

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The second playtest was done with seven players over four hours. In that time we got through seven turns. That was good, but still about twice the speed that the map game requires. EDIT: should be half the speed. So it needs more work, a bit more than I was hoping for, but there is still three months to go for playtesting and refinement.

Feedback – Keep

Players liked the monster, and liked the decision-making around which card to play on which option when governing their home cities. They liked the distinction between troops you could build and troops you could move (but there was also comment around how hard it was to verify the second part).

I think that using an exploding d4 for combat worked well. Mostly the bigger armies won, but there were a couple of upsets. I have 40 12 sided Roman/Greek numeral dice numbered 1-4 on the way to me now. Much easier to read than the traditional pyramid shaped dD4.

d4

Feedback – Stop

Swapping Technology cards was annoying – players would have preferred a more consistent set of cards each turn. This might be mitigated in actual play, as I was swapping the cards around each turn so everyone got to see a range of game abilities. I was also swapping player roles around for the same reason. It was noted that the Lawyer has no map game ability, making it feel under powered.

While the movement phase was one minute long, the attempt to make all players move at the same time did not work well. Too much hanging back on final troop commitments. I need a system that is otherwise sequential, or allows all players to plot movement at the same time.

Trade – was not working as a tool for giving players something to do each game turn. Once you had a good trade deal, you stuck with it for most of the game. I think I am going to have to admit failure, and go back to something like a commodity card based trading system. If I do this, then it may make sense to create a Merchant role among the players.

City improvements were spiky, and luck with card draws dominated the early game. It looked like players preferred the Orichalcum upgrade path for slow but steady city improvement.

Comparing research scores between all players was another step where the counting was taking too long. While I was trying for a mechanic that prevents people from getting too much or too little research, I need a faster way of implementing this in the game. The DOOM input was also too time consuming (as it turned into an auction, that involved calculating square numbers).

Feedback – Start

I need to create some sticky labels for troop counters, so that the number of tokens in play is reduced to the minimum needed. Once people had >10 tokens in a region a lot of time was spent on counting tokens. Other feedback from the players: more monsters, more uses for money and a faster way for resolving diplomacy.

I am thinking that I should have Colossi involved in the game from the beginning, and provide more choices around how they are powered up. I did think about having a “King of Tokyo” mini-game, but don’t see a way to insert it without it costing more time.

Next Steps

I spent a bit of time on Sunday mulling over the feedback and scribbling ideas down. I think the way forward is to expand the role of the home city and its options, making them the core of the map game.

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The idea here is have eight options on the player’s city map. Each map table will then have a number of regions that players can compete over (might be eight, might be 13). Each player gets a set of numbered objective tokens, so that we can determine which armies are going where.

The Tarot cards, rather than being used to represent city improvements, are instead used to represent Victory Points for controlling a region, and with Major Arcana cards also spawning Orichalcum (which is then used to upgrade cities). The deck will need to be reshuffled after about six game turns.

The ordinary playing cards, continue to be used for city options. Players should get six cards to allocate between the eight options. My thought here is to divide the options into two main types: actions this turn, and preparations for next turn. I am thinking about being able to use cash in place of a card, e.g. you can spend $10 to replicate a value 10 card. If money is scarcer than it has been in the first two playtests, this could be an interesting option. but if money is too easy to find, then its not going to make a better game.

Possible Map Turn Sequence

  1. Allocate Governance cards and Objective Markers (one minute)
  2. Reveal cards/markers (one minute)
  3. Move Hoplite, Trireme, Leader, and Colossus tokens from City option box to the Map Region that matches their objective marker (one minute).
  4. Resolve conflicts (if any) (ten minutes)
  5. Players not involved in conflicts can do other map admin work (e.g. handing out research cards)
  6. Collect rewards from winning conflicts (VP cards, cash, orichalcum, one use vote cards, trade cards, etc). (two minutes)

I was thinking that letting players challenge each other to combat would be cool and fitting with the Greek theme, but I see too much risk of it extending the time taken to resolve each turn. I really need map game turns to take no more than 15 minutes.

Research

Just a quick idea: cap the number of Research points at the game turn number. This avoids the problem of comparing player scores, and puts a hard limit on how much research each team can do.


First Colossus of Atlantis Playtest

October 9, 2016

Yesterday I had four people who kindly devoted four hours of their Saturday afternoon to the “half-baked” playtest of Colossus of Atlantis. In that time we got through five game turns, which is not too bad for a planned six hour game, but definitely has room for improvement. Part of this can come from making the game simpler, part can come from more rigorous time control by Map GMs – every table should have some one/five minute Sandtimers.

The test focused on the map game. As there were only four players, I kept the map to seven regions. Each region is identical at the start of the game, but changes quickly as it is colonized by the players. The number of regions means that from turn three onwards, there are no easy gains for players.

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Region Map

On the picture below the Yellow Circle token indicates Eris (“Strife”) in that region. The Red Shoggoth is a monster. The domino tiles are hoplite units, while the Chess Knights represent Leaders. The Tarot cards are unique colony upgrades, while the normal playing cards are turn based governance choices. The red hexagons are orichalcum mines. The green castles are fortresses. At the bottom you can see the grey plastic colossi.

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Mid-game situation

Between game turns we glossed over most of the Council phase, but allowed players to pick some research advances, as this allowed me to see how they interacted with the map game. We also got to see how Colossi changed the game in turn 5. The scary monster became easy to drive off.

2016-10-08-17-03-02

End of Game Scores and Research

The tally in the DOOM column is actually the sum of the turn by turn Victory Point scores. As you can see there is quite a spread in the VP scores. Gold had a few poor card draws and was subject to card loss from Tribute to other players more often. We did not focus on DOOM in the game, so I will need to make that a focus of the next playtest.

I asked for Keep, Stop, Start feedback. I was told to keep the laminated region maps (good for writing on), the monster threat, the colossi (a clear signal of reaching the midgame), and the permanent region upgrades from the Tarot cards (which made the regions distinctive). I was told to stop exploration (the Major Arcana event cards were too wide ranging, and the process of looking up what each meant took too long) and stop the process of comparing “high suit” scores in the normal playing cards (it was tricky with four players and seven regions, scaling up to 13 regions and seven or more players was going to be time consuming). I was told to start putting more quick reference information on the region maps, prepare role reference cards for the players, to schedule a mid-game lunch break, to rethink how population growth would work, put something to track the game turn number onto the map tables, make city size relevant to city functions other than tribute and trade, and to have collateral damage from combat. There needs to be a simple way to track and reference technology unlocked by research.

There was a lot of minor feedback on the rules – areas for clarification and consistency.

Income was not a major constraint on player actions. Trade deals were usually in the $35-$45 range, but as the card values went up and down, new trade deals were more rare than I thought they would be. If you already had a good trade deal, moving your governance cards into other options was better choice.

We had a couple of PVE and PVP combats. The monster was usually driven off, and regions did change hands. The dice pool combat system worked, but the process of assembling the pool is a bit fiddly. So I will think about how that could be improved.

The turn sequence needs some work – especially around the timing of combats and the order of resolving the governance options for regions.

When it came to Orichalcum, my gut feeling is the current game mechanics do not work well. Players should want Orichlacum and Vril, it should be awesome to get and use. So I need to rethink how it fountains into the game, and what players can use it for.

So quite a bit to keep me busy until the next playtest in Christchurch in two weeks, but the concept and core mechanics seem viable, so the first playtest was a success.

 

 


Building a better tech tree

June 28, 2016

I have had a stimulating couple of weeks working on some ideas for Colossus of Atlantis II. One goal for the redesign is to have a better tech tree. Last time the research game was “go fish” in the card deck, followed by “collect a set” trading, and for some of the teams, eventually building a colossi or two. I think I can do better next time. Ideally I want every team to have the chance to put Colossi on the table in time for them to make a difference. I am also keen to move away from people holding large piles of cards for trading – I want trade negotiations to focus on a contract like piece of paper where people haggle over the split of profits.

Tech trees have always been a staple of RTS games, but they go back further, to the old Civilization boardgame (1980), if not earlier.

Some of the design questions you need to consider in building a tech tree include:

  1. Is the research order set? How much choice do you want to give the players – this can be crucial if there is a system mastery challenge where some options are better than others.
  2. Is the research order known to the players? If its known it can be a spoiler, if it is not known the uncertainty will change player strategies.
  3. Can steps on the tech tree be skipped? If players do screw up, is there a catch up mechanic?
  4. How much control do the players have over the research effort?

Technology developments can be great rewards and motivators. Its a way of adding complexity to the game as the players master the core rules of the game, by adding new capabilities to the game mix.

Time is a constraint in megagames. You will only be able to process a finite number of game turns. If you make the tech tree too big, teams will never complete the end of the tree, and this may disappoint the players. This suggests you need to calculate the resource fountain or flow dedicated to research, against the cost of the options. You definitely want a playtest of the system. After several turns what does it look like for teams that focused on research, ignored research, or did a bit of research?

Because technology can be used to change the game rules, you also need to consider how this change is reflected in game state information. All the other players and GMs need to be able to verify and understand the research outcomes. Keeping things simple is always a good idea.

In real life, tech change tends to be evolutionary, not revolutionary. One thing I would not want to do, is to have one option in the tech tree that is a dominant strategy. Some teams will spot it, others may well miss it until it is too late.

Putting this all together in a new package

I usually have about four hours available for a megagame, and get through about eight 20 minute turns, after briefings and delays are taken care of. So I want less tiers of research than I expect game turns. I think the tech tree should be open knowledge to the players, especially as I want to run the game more than once.

Because each team should have five players, that sets the upper bound of research effort each turn – five attempts to generate research points and buy technology cards. That means no more than five branches on the research tree. With the mechanics I have in mind, at the start of the game a player should be generating 1-12 research points a turn. By the end of the game, a player should be generating 2-24 research points a turn.

research2

This is a table I put together quickly, so the numbers might be fine tuned later. It has four tiers of research, although I might extend it to a fifth tier as well. There are two concepts represented in the cost/reward structure – diffusion of knowledge and diminishing returns.

The first team to research a breakthrough pays the highest cost, but reaps the greatest reward in Victory Points. The costs diminish as the knowledge is spread throughout society, but the Victory Points drop more quickly to zero. This can be done by building a card deck, set in a prearranged order, so the cost of the top card is the highest cost, and so on down to the cheapest and last card.

If a team focuses on maximising research, they should unlock most of the tech tree within five turns, granting them three or more turns to enjoy the fruits of their labours. A team focusing its efforts elsewhere, can catch up with a bit of effort.

I do have some problems to work on. First, I need a way to make it clear who gets the privilege of choosing cards first (it could just be random).

Second, because I need to keep the research card decks in one place, but my initial map design has multiple maps where research can be generated, I need to find a way to accurately transmit information about research (do I give the players cards or token chips, or rely on Map GMs to coordinate the information).

I also have not decided exactly what the research will do, but it is likely to be a mixture of:

  1. Adding more units to a team’s force pool.
  2. Improving the capabilities of controlled units (e.g. rolling a d8 rather than a d6).
  3. Changing game rules.
  4. Unlocking new types of units, such as the Colossi.
  5. Allowing the build of ancient wonders of the world.

One option I am considering, is allowing a narrow thrust up the tree to unlock the Colossi at Tier IV or V. But all the branches of the tech tree lead to Colossi (each gives the Colossi a different capability). After all, making a game about giant steam bronze robots, and not letting the players use and enjoy such leviathans, would not be good design.

 


Rebellion Bingo

June 13, 2016

A_cavalry_patrol_sabring_the_rioters_in_the_streets_of_ComanestiThis is an idea for a taxation-rebellion mini-game mechanic, useful for megagames set in agrarian economies where the peasants do not really care who is in charge, so long as they do not “tax” too much of the harvest.

Each tax region in the game gets its own “bingo card” with a grid of boxes. If control of the region changes, the player who lost control gives the province card to the player gaining control.

When a player desires tax income, they queue for the appropriate map GM’s attention and present the Tax Card. The player indicates which boxes on the Tax card they wish to strike out, and these are filled in with a permanent marker. The map GM then consults a master reference to check if any of the boxes struck out triggers a rebellion. This look up step is likely to be the most time consuming step in the process, so I am continuing to think of ways in which this process could be refined. Keeping the number of boxes to a small number, say a dozen, would be one way of managing the information. Another might be to draw the boxes in a pattern shape, making it a bit easier to visually identify.

As an additional modifier, some boxes do not trigger rebellion, but just increase the future strength of the rebellion. If a player strikes these, the GM can give them some feedback on grumblings of discontent among the peasants.

This might interplay with military actions, in that raiding a province is represented by harvesting tax in a just conquered province, and then leaving as the peasants erupt in rebellion. Some experimentation is required to determine a hard cap on how much tax a player can collect in one action, otherwise someone is sure to say “I’ll tax all 20 boxes right now thank you”.

Tax regions that are likely to be more rebellious could have more than one trigger box to start a rebellion. Some trigger boxes could be made conditional, such as “trigger rebellion only if tax collector’s capital region is more than X distance away”. Another twist could be a “insurrection” modifier, where if there are rebellions in adjacent tax regions when a player collects tax, then they must strike out an extra box without collecting revenue.

Conversely there may be options a player can implement to reduce the chance and strength of rebellions. Keeping a garrison in the province is an obvious one. Another is allow structures or organisations to be built (e.g. Palaces and Bureaucracies) that reduce the number of boxes struck out when you tax.