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.


Combat in Romance of the Seven Worlds

April 29, 2021

The design intent for the combat mechanics in Romance of the Seven Worlds is to have a quick process that produces outcomes similar to the comics and movies. In particular, combat can lead to units changing sides, or duels between opposing commanders. It is expressly not intended to produce realistic combat outcomes, or to require much in the way of logistics beyond spending fuel to move places.

One of the key factors in the combat system is a desire to limit the number of combat units each player can control. Most players will start the game with no more than one or two combat units, and have a maximum of three to five units that they can command. By limiting the number of units each player controls, we can have each individual unit be rich in information about its capabilities.

Each cube counts as one strength point. Yellow cubes are tech cubes, and count as a strength point for tech battles, when all other cubes are worth zero strength. The other colours used for strength cubes determine the faction loyalty that group of people support:

  • Black: support the Emperor;
  • White: support the Rebels;
  • Blue: support the Nobles;
  • Orange: support the Guilds.

So the unit pictured above has a strength of seven in Attrition battles, three in Tech battles, and one to two in Sway battles. Note that loyalty cubes may also be important for Pulp Actions targeted at the unit. The above unit is more likely to be sabotaged by the Rebels than anyone else. In Tactics and Chance battles it has a strength of zero.

Meteor Guard

This is a player versus environment (PVE) combat mechanic. Each game turn Control will pawn a number of meteor swarms in up to five of the zones on the Space Map. Players who control Rocket units can then choose to intercept the meteors and try to destroy them. This costs a fuel token, and you can only intercept meteors in one space zone each game turn.

This is a simple process, where the player rolls 2d6, adds unit strength, and if this is equal or greater than that meteor’s fixed strength rating, then the meteor is destroyed. If the roll is equal or less, then the Rocket takes one hit, reducing its strength. You can keep trying to shoot a meteor down as long as you have time left left in the Warlord Phase, and strength left in your Rocket.

Any meteors not shot down strike the planet in their space zone, damaging bases and units there. This is a bad thing, and players should work together to stop this.

Battle Process

This is a player versus player (PVP) combat mechanic. The usual trigger is a player moving units to a region controlled by another player, and declaring an attack. If in doubt, Control will determine if a battle happens.

First, any of the players involved in the battle draws a battle card. There are seven types of battle card:

  • Cliffhanger: place a one minute sand timer down, when it runs out draw another battle card. If the Warlord Phase ends before the battle is resolved, then all the units involved in the battle are locked in combat until the next Warlord Phase (you could use a Pulp Action to escape the situation). For each Cliffhanger card draw, all players in the battle add 1d6 to the dice they roll.
  • Romance: place a one minute sand timer down, players involved in the battle may court each other using the Romance mechanic. Unexpected alliances and betrayals may occur. Otherwise treat as a Cliffhanger.
  • Attrition: roll 2d6 + Strength.
  • Chance: roll 2d6. Do not count strength cubes at all for battles resolved by chance.
  • Sway: roll 2d6 + Loyalty + character Charisma. You only count strength cubes that have loyalty matching your declared faction – this includes cubes on units controlled by other players!
  • Tactics: roll 2d6 + character Tactics.
  • Tech: roll 2d6 + Tech + character Science.

If for some reason you are unable to roll dice for your units, your side is assumed to roll a 2 when Control calls time at the end of the Warlord Phase. Character attributes only count if the character is present in the region where the battle is fought.

Astute players will have noted that outnumbering a player 10:1 matters not at all if a Chance battle occurs.

Duels

In battles, a tied result causes a duel to be fought between opposing commanders (duels may also take place in other parts of the game and use the process outlined here). Duels are 1:1 fights, no ganging up. At the start of the duel, each player announces the stakes they are fighting for:

  • Capture: win one duel round to capture your opponent and win the battle;
  • Wound: win two duel rounds to wound your opponent and win the battle;
  • Kill: win three duel rounds to kill your opponent and win the battle.

To resolve the duel, each player rolls 2d6 and adds their Dueling score. Dueling ties can be won by playing an Inspiration card. Otherwise keep rolling until one player achieves their stake. Note that while a “Death” outcome for a character can be negated with a Pulp Action, the battle will still be lost. If both duelists achieve their stakes in the same round of dice rolls, then both sides are assumed to have lost the battle for casualty purposes, and the defender retains control of the region being fought over.

Battle Outcome

The player with the highest score wins the battle. If there are multiple players on one side, their scores are not combined together – it is just the highest score that counts.

The winning player gains control of the region where the battle took place (unless it was already controlled by an ally).

Units lose strength cubes based on the type of battle card used to resolve the battle:

  • Cliffhanger: as below.
  • Romance: if peace broke out between the players, no strength cubes are lost.
  • Attrition: each of your units loses strength cubes equal to your foe’s highest die roll (max six cubes).
  • Chance: each of your units loses strength cubes equal to your foe’s lowest die roll.
  • Sway: winner gains all defeated strength cubes with matching loyalty from enemy units.
  • Tactics: no one loses cubes.
  • Tech: each of your units loses tech cubes equal to your foe’s lowest die roll (no loss if you have no tech cubes).

If a unit has no strength cubes left, it is destroyed and removed from play. It can be rebuilt later using the normal build action process. Surviving units on the defeated side can disperse and retreat into the local wilderness, or if Rockets are available, retreat to a controlled base on any of the seven worlds.

Battle Evolution

As various science projects are researched or Pulp Actions implemented, your combat capabilities may change during the game. The core mechanics above will remain, but new bonuses or penalties to the die roll, new battle cards, or different battle card draw process, or casualty process may happen.


Putting the Romance in Romance of the Seven Worlds

April 25, 2021

As I am running my Romance of the Seven Worlds megagame on 5 June at Wellycon, its time to start posting some explanations about the game mechanics. In this post, its the romance subgame.

The design intent for these mechanics is to reflect the source material, facilitate emergent factions that will surprise us in play, and to tie into the player objectives that should drive gameplay.

Romance is used in a broad sense, covering a wide spectrum of relationships – from bitter hatred and jealous rivals, through mutual respect and platonic friendships, to passionate true love. A megagame is not a dating app and this romance subgame is not an excuse to sexually harass people. Be respectful of the personal space of other players, and do not touch people without their consent. There will be a safety brief about these mechanics at the start of the game.

Romance of the Seven Worlds is inspired by a range of planetary romance novels, comic strips and film serials from the first half of the 20th century, and the classic Flash Gordon movie from 1980. In designing this game, the goal has been to try and replicate the sense of wonder, larger-than-life adventures, and pulp action from these sources, but without the racism, colonialism, and misogyny that were present in many of the stories. In these sources, characters often made quick decisions about whether or not they trusted or disliked each other. We also do not have the time of a weekend LARP to allow slow burn romances to kindle, so the romance rules reflect the original six panel comic strips, which did waste panels on sultry looks and sitcom miscommunication.

Image from The Rise and Fall of the Trigan Empire, Mike Butterworth & Don Lawrence 2019.

The romance subgame is optional – you must choose to opt in to the subgame during casting. All players with characters that can be romanced will have a heart symbol on their character tag. Romance is not restricted by character faction, role, gender or species – you can court any player with a romanceable character.

If you opt into the romance subgame, you will receive an envelope at the start of the game containing cards you can give to your friends and lovers. These might reflect you loaning special powers or character abilities, or a bonus Pulp Action card.

Courting

You will be able to “court” other player characters in the game mainly in the World Phase – which is the open unscripted part of the game turn when players are free to move about and do actions as they see fit. You might be able to use a Pulp Action to court in other game phases, and there is a chance that battles can be ended by Romance.

Courting requires your character tokens to be in the same physical space on one of the world maps. You then need to have a conversation with the player who is playing that character role in the megagame. If you both agree, then you can each draw a card from the Romance deck (a deck of playing cards). If the cards you draw are:

  • Different Colours: nothing happens
  • Both Red: you are friends.
  • Both Black: you are rivals.
  • Both Red and Matching Card: you are best friends.
  • Both Black and Matching Card: you are bitter enemies.
  • Both Jokers: you share an unbreakable bond.

A card matches if it is the same value, e.g. the Jack of Hearts and Jack of Diamonds are a best friends match, the Ace of Spades and the Ace of Clubs are a bitter enemies match. Once a relationship is established, you should roleplay the situation to the best of your ability. Specific mechanical effects follow. The card decks will be weighted towards producing friendly results at the start of the game.

You can court a player once per game turn. You can court any number of different players in the same game turn (but this may not be the best use of your time).

Friends

You like your friends and should try to help them where possible. You may reveal any, all, or none of your objectives to your friend, and you can change one of your objectives to match that of an objective your friend holds (or vice versa). Keep the playing card to use for Inspiration. You may draw Romance cards again with your friend.

Objectives Note: Most players will start with 3-5 objectives about what they want to accomplish in the game.

Inspiration Note: Inspiration cards can be played to ask Control for the benefit of the doubt in a narrative situation, or to win a tie. Yes, you can win battles through the power of friendship. Inspiration cards are one use. If both sides in a tie play inspiration cards, the value of the card will be used to break the tie where possible (Aces High, Hearts trump). Inspiration cards are one use.

Rivals

You wish to see ill done to your rival, whether by your hand or that of others. You should not willingly help your rival. Note this rivalry down as a new objective. You may draw Romance cards again to overcome the rivalry only if an appropriate narrative moment occurs (e.g. surviving a duel with your rival, being imprisoned with your rival, both of you have death warrants signed by the Emperor, your true love asks you to reconcile, etc). Return the cards you drew to the deck.

Best Friends

While you can have any number of friends, you can only have one best friend at a time. If you already have a best friend, you must choose between them. Decide to either keep your card for inspiration, or for one of you to carry both inspiration cards. Give your best friend your bonus Pulp Action card (first best friend only). Both of you must reveal all of your objectives, and can change any, all, or none of your objectives to match each others. You may draw Romance cards again with your best friend.

Bitter Enemy

Only the death or disgrace and exile of your hated enemy will satisfy you. Add the elimination of your enemy to your objectives for the game. You can only have one bitter enemy at a time, if you already have a bitter enemy you must choose one feud to pursue. Return the cards you drew to the deck.

Unbreakable Bond / True Love

As for Best Friends, but give them your Unbreakable Bond Pulp Action card, which can always be played in situations involving your partner (normally Pulp Action cards are one use). You can only have one unbreakable bond at a time.


Drafting objectives in megagames

September 30, 2020

Riffing on Tony Martin’s recent post on traitors in megagames, which made me reflect on loyalty and internal tension in megagame player teams, here a couple of mental tools I use to help me think when crafting objectives for different factions and roles in megagames.

Fear, Honor, and Interest

And the nature of the case first compelled us to advance our empire to its present height; fear being our principal motive, though honor and interest afterwards came in.

Richard Crawley (1910), translation of Thucydides history of the Peloponnesian War

In a speech before the Spartans, Athenian diplomats argued that these are the three greatest motives, and used them to explain their reluctance to give up their empire without a fight. Their attempt to persuade the Spartans not to go with war with Athens failed, but I think these three primal motives can be used to build strong objectives for megagame factions and individual player roles. For a bit more on this speech on the meaning of the three terms try this article.

Fear: this objective is about something you are afraid of. You want to stop it from happening, or defer it as far as possible into the future. Pretty obviously, players respond well to clear and present dangers that threaten their game role with harm or loss of agency in the game.

Honor: this objective is something that you must, or must not do, during the course of the game. This is more about how you behave in trying to achieve your other goals. While a player may not appreciate the restriction on their play, I believe that such constraints help encourage creativity. For Thucydides, honor was about maintaining the reputation of the state, and thus deterrence credibility. I have taken a different approach here closer to a modern sensibility for the word honor.

Interest: this objective is about something you desire. You want it to happen, to have more of it, or you want to control it. If nothing else, you can use greed – a desire for more stuff. It is in many ways the reverse of fear as a goal.

For good measure, you can have these personal motives be in tension or conflict, so that a player must choose which is more important to them. If you must always honor your agreements, but when your closest ally threatens to drag you into an unwinnable war, what will you do?

DNA

I found the “DNA” idea on a roleplaying forum a few months back. It is an abbreviation for Desire, Need, and Agenda. Alternately it can be Desire, Need, and Assets. Assets are possibly more relevant to a player role in a megagame than an agenda, as the player will create the agenda using their assets to fulfill their needs and desires. I am unsure who to credit with the original DNA formulation, but it is a good technique for helping a GM decide what an NPC is likely to do in a scene without having to refresh themselves on six pages of backstory.

A quick example of a DNA for a familiar character: Dracula

  • Desires: to be reunited with Mina Harker, who he believes to be the reincarnation of his mortal love.
  • Needs: human blood to survive, and to retain an appearance of healthy humanity.
  • Agenda: plans to sail on a ship carrying crates of earth from the homeland to Whitby, in order to establish a base in England closer to Mina Harker.
  • Assets: a castle in Transylvania, the children of the night, three vampire brides, etc.

Analysing Goals with Criticality

In larping terms, a subcritical game situation might be one in which plot is low and boring, and nothing is likely to change. A supercritical situation might be one in which characters are likely to explode on each other and quickly transform the game outside of playable range as most plots get resolved to the point of non-playability. A system that is critical, however, is one in which many actions are likely to have a substantive impact without destroying the larger system as a whole. In a game, this looks like a situation in which characters can have a meaningful impact without breaking the game.

J Li and Jason Morningstar, Pattern Language for LARP Design

The key insight I got from this reading this section of Pattern Language for LARP Design is that if a faction or player goal can be achieved during a game, the game will be better for everyone if that success or failure leads to a new critical situation with uncertain outcomes and further action needed by players to respond to the change in the state of the game. This is more of a reflective tool, for use after drafting some goals, as you try to imagine what might happen in your game. I recommend reading the entire document, as it has a lot of ideas applicable to megagames.

One of the ideas explored in Tony’s post on traitors was on the role that a combination of active obstruction and passive incompetence can play in stalling the emerging narrative of the megagame. One possible approach, thinking about criticality, is to structure key decision points into the game for the players, that must result in a change in the game, rather than preservation of the status quo. For example, in the last run of Colossus of Atlantis, one faction was always going to be exiled (voted off the island as it were) every time the Assembly met (about three times during the game). They could be recalled back from exile by a later Council vote or Assembly meeting, but I deliberately made exile a hard mechanic in the game to focus player attention and diplomacy.

A Practical Example

In working on a revision of Colossus of Atlantis, I will use these tools for the leader of the House Atlas faction. The House of Atlas starts the game as the ruling royal family of the city of Atlantis and the Atlantean empire. Alas for House Atlas, the high king has been cursed by the Gods, and his wife has borne him only daughters.

Fear: the House of Atlas fears losing control of their traditional role of sovereign, which in accordance with the constitution at the start of the game, can only be filled by a male citizen, born in Atlantis (faction goal). You also fear any weakening in the laws of Atlantis, that currently favour the institution of monarchy, over the interests of the other factional ideologies (Democracy, Oligarchy, etc) that have divided the city of late (personal goal).

Honour: the daughters of the House of Atlas are coming of age, and one daughter must be married each game round, with a respectable dowry, to one of the other player roles in the game (personal goal). While you hold the office of sovereign, the laws of Atlantis allow you to pay for dowries from the Treasury of Atlantis. This is not Ptolemaic Egypt, and your daughters cannot marry anyone in your family (faction goal).

Interest: you want a strong military and prosperous economy for a stable Atlantean Empire. You should be feared and respected by the rival empires of Hyperborea, Thule, and Lemuria, safe and secure from the threat of rebellion or barbarian raiding (faction goal). The people of Atlantis should never go hungry for grain, nor the Gods for libations of wine in the temples (personal goal).

Personal Desire: Poseidon should be the Patron God of Atlantis, as he was for your ancestors (personal goal).

Personal Need: Live long enough to see all of your daughters married, and the birth of an heir to the throne (personal goal).

Agenda: strongly recommend you consult with your daughters before offering their hand in marriage to someone (play hint).

Assets: Palace Guard, Royal Cavalry, keys to the Treasury of Atlantis, a casting vote on any tied council votes.

Criticality: Your eldest daughter gets married, and the treasury is not bankrupt, success! Now the suitors crowd around for the hand of your second oldest daughter, and the benchmark has been set for dowry expectations. Are the happy couple now both playing for the House Atlas team, or another noble house? Is their first child a boy or a girl? What happens if the constitutional amendment to allow women to be citizens succeeds? A witch approaches you offering a herbal remedy to help with your lack of a male heir, how do you respond? You now have three sons-in-law, which one do you designate as your heir? The marriage between your youngest daughter and the exiled Prince of Lemuria is causing the Lemurian ambassador to threaten war, how should Atlantis respond to this threat? Strong military and prosperous economy – how are you paying for both enough wine and enough spears to keep everyone happy?

I think that set of goals should work well, and they have a lot of hooks for interacting with the rest of the team, and many of the other player roles in the game. If I can think of different mixes of Fear, Honor, and Interest and a touch of DNA with similar levels of criticality for the other factions I will be pretty happy.

Next blog post, might be on the topic of adjudicating special actions. I have some ideas rattling around the head on that topic, maybe this time it will not take me six months to finish the post.


Assassinations in Megagames

September 9, 2020

So my ambitious plans for weekly posts did not come to pass. Here is the long delayed post on Assassinations in Megagames.

First, by assassination I mean “murder by sudden or secret attack often for political reasons : the act or an instance of assassinating someone (such as a prominent political leader)”. This is the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition. Death from natural causes, in battle, or by execution are all quite different.

Second, the problem. Assassinations are challenging because they directly target a player’s character and/or role in the megagame. Character death and/or role change is a disruptive experience, and has the potential to make the experience of play an unhappy one for the affected player. In chatting about death mechanics in megagame design forums I have definitely run into people who think character death is a bad experience to include in a game. Part of the joy of Megagames, however, is the agency granted to players to try special actions in the game. So how can we reconcile this?

Mechanical Implementation

Factors I think need to be considered: (1) An assassination attempt follows a player decision, rather than being a Control inject into the game. (2) An assassination attempt is a secret action, requiring Control adjudication (unless your game is big enough to have a player in the role of assassin for hire, or some kind of assassin’s guild). (3) Some form of mechanical resolution is required, its not a game of rocket tag.

A short digression on bad megagame mechanics:

  • Pinatas – where players get a free swing and might get lucky
  • Vending machines – where players put in resources and get what they want
  • Roulette wheels – where players put in resources and might get lucky.

The reason I think these forms of mechanics are bad in a megagame, is that they do not require interaction with other players. If the best way to get something done in a megagame is to ignore other players, I think the overall game experience is likely to be poor. Combine these with the surprise of an assassination for the target, and players are potentially being told “you’re dead, no saving throw”. Which is not fun.

Now some examples of what I think are good mechanics from a couple of boardgames I like:

  • Junta – a key interaction in this game is that each player chooses a hiding location each turn (e.g. Home, Bank, Nightclub, Headquarters). An assassination can only succeed if another player successfully predicts where you are hiding. Some locations allow special actions, e.g. being at your HQ allows you to start a coup.
  • Dune – in battles, subordinate leaders in a faction can be killed. Each leader can play one card for defence (e.g. a poison snooper) and one card for attack (e.g. a projectile weapon), or commit an expendable “cheap hero” to lead in their place. Having a leader killed can cause your side to lose the battle.

Both of these games have elements of bluffing and trying to predict what the other players are doing. The mechanics are all player facing and do not need Control adjudication.

Simulating modern era assassinations

The key insight from the article I read in writing this blog post is that assassination attempts are rarely successful in the way intended by the assassins (or desired by gamers).

From 1875 to 2004, there were 251 serious assassination attempts on national leaders, with 59 successful assassinations. This excludes leaders murdered during coups, or plots that were uncovered before the assassination was attempted. Rounding up, you could call it a 25% success rate. If you include less serious assassination attempts, the success rate drops to around 20%. Assassination attempts are more likely in large nations, autocracies, and states at war, but are still a relatively rare event in modern history (about one every two years).

Firearms were used in 55% of attempts, and explosives in 31% of attempts. Firearms had a 30% success rate, while explosives had a 7% success rate – and explosives tended to produce more collateral damage to other people.

The actual impact of an assassination is relatively small:

  • Assassinating autocrats has a 13% chance of accelerating a transition to democracy, and a 19% chance of increasing future leadership transitions by institutional means
  • Assassinating democratic leaders causes no institutional change or change in leadership transition
  • Successful assassinations have a 25% chance of ending a high-intensity war early, a 33% chance of extending the duration of a mid-intensity war, and have no statistically significant effect on triggering new wars. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand is a significant historical outlier.
  • Failed assassination attempts can allow autocratic leaders to impose repressive measures in their country.

Simulating pre-modern assassinations

I do not have a handy article for success/failure rates of pre-modern assassination attempts. When government is dominated by mainly hereditary dynasties, there is an inherent fragility potential in dynastic succession. Assassinations are usually done by family members or subordinate officials, rather than foreign professionals. An assassination can end a dynasty, install a regent or council of wicked advisors, or replace a weak leader with a strong leader (and vice versa). The stakes are definitely greater than for modern governments.

Considerations for a Megagame

First, is this appropriate for your game? Not all games will require assassins, or perhaps you could make assassination the key focus of the game – a John Wick megagame? In the Survivor: Dark Lord megagame, I started most of the players in service to the Dark Lord, and every 20 minutes the Dark Lord executed one of their minions, and Control drew one random name out of the Assassin ballot box (which players could pay resources to stuff with the names of targets). So by the end of the game nearly all the players had new roles as rebels fighting the Dark Lord. Another way to include assassination in a game is simply to have it occur as a major event in the first Act of the game, e.g. Caesar gets murdered in the Senate, starting a civil war.

Written and oral briefings to the players should be clear about the distinctions between role (e.g. President), character (e.g. Abraham Lincoln), and outline what happens if a character death occurs. I think the main options following an assassination are:

  • replace with natural heir after a short break, keeping the player in the same role with little or no change to their goals, resources and abilities. This returns the game to the status quo.
  • replace with new character, keeping the player in the same role, but with different goals, resources and abilities. This can change the game a bit.
  • replace by shuffling team assignments, e.g. a Vice President becomes President, and one or more other players on the team shuffle into new roles. This is definitely likely to change the game.

Replacements should be made quickly. This means having prepared alternate roles and characters before the game. These roles/characters should be potentially as fun to play as the original, not third tier operatives acting above their pay grade.

Making assassination an interesting experience

My own design assumption is that it can be taken as given that significant leaders have bodyguards, doubles, and secret service detachments, and that they are effective at their job. I do not see “hire more German bodyguards” as an especially interesting decision for players. I think that for assassination actions to be interesting, they need to involve the following elements:

  1. Resources – the action needs a cost of some kind, otherwise players will keep trying it over and over again (Pinatas are bad mechanics). This can include the time taken to set the action up.
  2. Secrecy – the action should be a surprise to the target. This is likely to require Control adjudication to resolve.
  3. Conspiracy – the action should be more successful if more players support the action, and this takes time to organise, and allows betrayal.
  4. Betrayal – a plotter might betray a conspiracy causing it to fail, but in the same vein having a “loyal” person on the target’s team support the conspiracy should increase the odds of success.
  5. Risk – both plotters and target should have skin in the game, with potential consequences for both depending on how the uncertain outcome is resolved.

A simple mechanic

For a modern game like Watch the Skies, if you wanted an approach that simulates reality more than Hollywood movies, you could say assassination attempts have no effect on democratic states (at most you might ask the player to sit down for a minute as their replacement character is sworn in), but for an autocratic state roll a d20:

  • Resources: A special action card, special agent, and/or a resource token.
  • Secrecy: If ten minutes are spent preparing the attempt, then on an odd numbered roll, the target is informed who commissioned the assassination attempt, and on even number they are left to guess
  • If less than ten minutes is spent on preparing the attempt, the target is always informed who commissioned the assassination attempt
  • Conspiracy: Add +5 to the roll if you are supported by a conspiracy inside the target state (alternately, roll 2d20, use the best result)
  • Betrayal: Change to the conspiracy bonus to -4 if the plot is betrayed before the action is resolved (alternately, roll 2d20, use the worst result).
  • Risk: On a roll of 1-15, there is no effect
  • On a roll of 16-19, the target is assassinated, and the player must sit out for a minute, and then resumes play in the same role. Repressive security crackdowns mean that future assassination attempts in that state later in the game only succeed on a roll of 20.
  • On a roll of 20, the target is assassinated and the player must be given a new role in the game. Another player on their team must take up their old role.

You could also flip this around, and have the target roll the die, with 1 and other low numbers being the untimely demise of victim. This might allow them the use of any “luck points” or similar resources, and gives them more involvement in the resolution.

A more complex mechanic

For the Barracks Emperor megagame design that I am working on, the assassination mechanics need to reflect the history of that era of Roman history.

First, this is a period of history with a rapid turnover in Emperors, and many failed revolts. It averages out to about one new Emperor every two years between about 235 and 285 CE, with no one managing to create a stable dynastic succession until Diocletian set up the Tetrarchy. Not including character death is a disservice to the era.

Second, There are essentially two main ways that Emperors are murdered. The first way is a decision made just before a battle between rival armies. It was not uncommon for junior officers desiring promotion, or senior officers wanting to collect pensions, to collectively decide to murder an Emperor or Usurper if they thought their side’s chance of winning the battle was low. A bonus of preventing the battle with a quick act of murder, was preserving the Roman army for use against barbarians. The second way is a conspiracy among palace officials and aristocratic members of the Senate. These did not always succeed and often led to widespread purges of the Senatorial class. Which explains why part of the oaths a new Emperor swore before the Senate was an oath not to murder them.

Third, when a character is killed, the player will respawn with a new character somewhere else in the game. I did have people say I should just have an “heir” fill the role of a dead character – but its really clear in the source materials for this period that the heirs or relatives of deceased Emperors and Usurpers were either too young to succeed or were murdered as well. So having having the mutinous commander of a legion re-entering play as the commander of the same legion does not feel right for this megagame.

The KISS design principle suggests there should be one conspiracy mechanic to handle both forms of imperial murder. As part of the wider game system I plan to give each character their own mortality track. When a mortality check is required:

  1. Roll 3d6.
  2. If the roll is a 13, the character dies.
  3. If the roll is 8-12, check that number. If it is rolled again in a future mortality check, the character dies.
  4. If the roll is 3-7, or 14-18, the character survives.

So you pretty much have a 90% chance of surviving the first mortality check, but you are bucking the odds if you survive more than five such checks. Most characters will only test mortality if involved in battle, or in a province struck by disease, but Emperors will have to check at least once every game turn.

A conspiracy check is made (a) before any battle involving an Emperor/Usurper, or (b) if a conspiracy special action is submitted to control with any character named as a target (this will be a limited resource, budgeted to occur not more than once per game turn).

The conspiracy check is done like this:

  1. For a battle, get all the characters with the army in one place. For a conspiracy special action, get all the Senator, Praetorian, and Official characters in Rome together.
  2. Everyone closes their eyes.
  3. Control asks everyone supporting the conspiracy to raise a hand. The Praetorian commander gets to raise both of their hands.
  4. A majority supporting the conspiracy means the Emperor must make a mortality check.
  5. A tie or minority supporting the conspiracy means no mortality check occurs, and the Emperor is told the name of one of the conspirators.

This is relatively straightforward, with a maximum of one die roll, but it should engage all the players involved. The main requirement is the time required to assemble all of the involved players, and some private space where the rest of the players cannot see what is happening. It will need rule clarity – should an absent player default to supporting or opposing a conspiracy, or not being counted at all?

Comments and criticism of the ideas in this post are welcome.