Decline & Fall Part I: Failure

In the 15 odd years I have been tinkering with my ideas for a Decline & Fall of the Galactic Empire game, I have accumulated a lot of failed designs. This is not a bad thing. I learnt a lot from my failures, and most of the time I had fun along the way.

The original inspiration was to come up with a game around the bits I found interesting in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels. This in turned was inspired by the historical events of the fall of the Roman Empire. I did not find the Foundation itself too interesting, it was always the description of the Empire in decline that captivated me, and once the Empire fell and its capital of Trantor was sacked, the rest of the novels held little interest for me. Over the years I found quite a few other books with similar themes, and the artwork of Michael Whelan was pretty inspiring as well.

My original design intent was to create a multiplayer boardgame, that could be finished in an afternoon, was balanced (in that good play would be rewarded, victory required some skill and luck, but so that you had not obviously lost the game before it was half-finished), and that at the end of which the players could survey the debris and wreckage of the Galactic Empire and know, as Seth (a frequent playtester) put it, “That it was all their fault.”

There were many valiant failures. Over the years I have filled close to 4 rubbish sacks with cardboard counters from different design iterations of what the players nicknamed “Housewar” (a reference to an epic hand moderated SF play-by-mail game I had run from 1990-1993). Sometimes I managed to get a few of the design goals right, other times my prototpes were a shambles from beinning to end. I will go through as many of them as I can remember:

(1) A Fleet of a 1,000 Ships: this early version had a big map, a random event deck, and many, many ship counters which had 4-5 variables of strength and quality. In play, the players formed great towering stacks of ships, but avoided combat as the concentrated fleets were both too powerful and too vulnerable.

(2) Paths of Glory: captivated by the World War One card-driven strategy game designed by Ted Racier, I began experimenting with games that focused on cards that let a player choose between an action from a set menu of game actions or an event on the card, or a mixture of both. The problems I ran into were the difficulty of pacing events, as it was hard to encourage the players to play events that damaged the Empire, and the card-driven engine did not work well in a multi-player environment. Unlike a two player game, it was much harder to analyse what might be in an opponent’s hand – and players were always reluctant to ‘waste’ a game action on something as minor as spying on another player. I tried splitting the events into two decks: one common, the other containing the decline events, without success.

(3) Flawed Symmetrical Maps: Many of my early maps featured an extremely symmetrical Galaxy, with a central hub of territory and four identical spiral arms. The Imperial Capital in the middle was the only real geographical feature on the map, other territory might produce an income, but only the capital produced victory points. This featurelessness was a result of two factors (a) my desire for the game to not involve trading resources and (b) the lack of any real geographical or historical context in what was a fantasy game. The major problem I found in a 5+ player game with symmetrical maps, is that three players tended to gain control of a spiral arm each, with the remaining two fighting over the fourth. The two fighting always ended up doing badly. I found in practice that my setup mechanics often produced strong meta-gaming play, where players would growl at each other as they indicated what sectors they wanted to control at the start of the game.

(4) Weak Asymmetrical maps: did this fix the problem? No, instead it revealed a new one. While I could add crinkles and fjords to the map, the dominance of the capital remained strong. What became important was not only the capital, but the small number of sectors immediately adjacent to it. So long as you had the ability to attack the Imperial Capital, you could make yourself Emperor frequently. So the first players to lose these strategic points, started to rapidly fall behind in the accumulation of victory points. I did find that 60 sectors is a good number for random setups, as it divides evenly for 3-6 players.

(5) Republic of Rome in Spaaaaaace: I tried one design with a greater emphasis on politics and voting in an Imperial Senate, but it was so baroque that it collapsed in confusion. I vowed not to try that again. Eventually I came up with my “make one element complex” rule for game design (and its collorary “keep everything else simple”). So I could have complex events, OR complex politics, OR complex combat, OR complex technology, OR complex economics, but not all complex in the same package. Not unless I could find playtesters willing to go into seclusion for a week with me.

(6) Two Track System While in the UK I played with designs where the players controlled both loyal imperial forces, and rebel forces striving to overthrow the empire. The intent here, was that if a player started losing the Imperial game, they could try for a rebel victory by conquering the Imperial Capital with a rebel fleet. At the start the Imperial units were very strong, while the rebel units were very weak. It did not work too well the one time I tested it, and I lost interest in trying to fine tune it. I think this was because I did not really find it plausible that every great noble house of the Galactic Empire would be working hand in glove with rebel scum.

(7) Junta in Spaaaace: While I enjoyed playing the Junta board game it had a few flaws, chief among them being that you often knew you had lost the game before the half-way point if the first President had succeeded in being corrupt. But I liked its coup mechanic, where a short conflict was fought, and then the forces reset. This fit well with the concept of a civil war in the Galactic Empire, with the new Emperor restoring stability for a while. I tested this last year, and parts worked well (although I ignored my one complex thing rule with a ‘blame mechanic’). But it was hard to incorporate the element of decline into a game of shuffling portfolios.

To summarise my key design problems after much trial and error:
(a) setup, mid-game, and end-game balance issues, players had trouble scoring victory points and winning felt very reliant on chance
(b) the map was pretty unexciting as most of it was irrelevant
(c) the decline feel, relying on random cards from a deck, simply didn’t deliver a reliably paced decline and fall sequence.

So after ten months of not doing much tinkering with my design, I decided that what I needed to take the game forward was to go and read a solid history book that looked at the fall of the Roman Empire. What I needed was a concept that I could hang a game mechanic framework off. In my next post, I’ll write about what I found.

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