Buckets – Grand Strat Washup

What went right?

Sometimes you forget the things that go right, because they do not cause you any stress on the night.

  • Venue was good, with excellent lighting
  • Map creation went okay (about three hours), helped by players who found errors on the between map movement routes
  • Printing was all done when I got there
  • The assistant GMs were all awesome under pressure (Thanks Will, Jan, and Tim)
  • Volunteers who helped with counter/card preparation were also much appreciated
  • Counters were okay
  • Late sign ups were heartening
  • Gameplay, things starved and plagued in a satisfying manner
  • Combat felt a bit more stremlined than last year
  • Most of the players seemed to be having a good time
  • Raiders seemed to work okay
  • Support from my hosts (Jan and Rose) with a place to stay and transport to/from event was a great help
  • Player behaviour was pretty good.

What went wrong?

This is a longer list.  I think I should preface the list by saying: “Dillon needs to stop being a hero, and start sharing some of the design work for these games.”

  • Adding a Victory Point penalty for having the Demon unit, and not telling people about it, was a big bad dumb GM move
  • Map Design: the central team should have been given more assets on the Southern/Northern maps, as it was Texarkana and the Neo-Federals were playing in somewhat of a vacuum
  • Resource Spawn: feedback from the GMs was that this was the most time-consuming part of processing each player turn at a game map (at least early on
  • Not enough to do: there was very little to do during map turns, except wait for a turn at the map
  • Meta-gaming: there was a bit of meta-gaming play around manipulating the queue mechanic, and some attempts at filibustering with Presidential speeches
  • Raider unit Off-Map movement: a lot of players wanted to move Raider units between maps as part of a move, and the ‘Off-Map’ phrase did suggest that this was not an unreasonable expectation for them to hold, although it didn’t actually say ‘Between-Map’ move … the reason I did not allow this is it would have made Raider units too powerful, essentially gaining the ability to teleport between any empty space on the map.
  • Player:Map table ratio was out of equilibrium.  The original design was for twenty players (the number of sign ups a week before the con), which would have worked for the three tables, once there were almost 35 players, the waiting times for actions grew too long, especially on the crowded “Western” table, this also links to…
  • Too many action tokens: based on last year, I thought we could get through sixty action tokens a turn with three map tables.  I dd not properly account for adding more options for gameplay into each player turn.  In theory non-presidential players had 4-6 decisions to make in sixty seconds, which was a heroic assumption on my part for people who might not have played such a game ebfore, or even read most of the rules.  This also links to…
  • Too many players: we had close to 15 signups on the day of the game, and with that many players there needed to be more maps and more things for them to do.  I should have had more faith in my earliest expectations about sign ups and kept working up a game for for five teams of 6-7 players each.  As it was I had already thrown a few things out and merged other roles together, and it was too late on Saturday to retro-fit it back in.
  • Treaties were hard to enforce: some of them were barely legible, pre-generated forms would have helped here.  I’m not sure if they helped or hindered gameplay, but the Diplomacy phase did give the GMs a much needed break.
  • Assassins: not sure if these helped or hidnered the game either, they had about a sixty percent chance of success and teams got about two attempts each if they submitted RFA forms (again, these should have been pre-generated, I mis-read the target on one form).
  • Quality Assurance: rules and components could have done with one more QA pass by somebody who was not Dillon.
  • A few players seemed to leave early – suggests they were not having a fun time.

Initial Thoughts for Next Time

First, recruit a few co-GM/designers early on.  Second, set a clear date for pre-registration for the game and an absolute cap on the number of players (probably somewhere in the 25-25 range).  Third, find mini-games that they players can do when not at the map tables, which can be resolved between players or with a very light GM footprint.  Those are probably the big three things I want to do next year.

Some more specific ideas:

  • One minute timers at each map table
  • Use a Holistic Action Token System (i.e. draw action tokens from a HAT to determine which faction moves next at that map table, so each team wants one person at a map table, not three people waiting in line)
  • Collect e-mails during pre-registration, and e-mail the rules and all other supporting game materials to players no later than one week before the game
  • Try to tie the LARP to the Grand Strat (if the ideas are strong and its not going to break either game).

Next post, I will work through some more specific themes and ideas for next year.

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18 Responses to Buckets – Grand Strat Washup

  1. Jan-Yves says:

    Re: resource gen. It’s a pity it took so long because I liked the random resource generation idea.

    Re: treaties. It was hard for map GMs to enforce these as we really didn’t know what was what. I think if we had one person from each team assigned to a table this would work better – they can choose where the displaced army retreats to.

    Re: signups. Partly our fault for not promoting it enough.

    • texarkana23 says:

      The GM retreat guidelines was a partial protection against players retreating into dead end cities, but I am thinking about how more of the game can be turned over to player moderation plus light GM supervision.

      Random resource spawn works for some things. It turned out to be much harder to stockpile and trade from what I imagined, so a fixed growth system might have worked better.

  2. xy says:

    My comments from the GM table, mostly minor:

    * the strength stat became a joke pretty quickly. Since radiation, combat, starvation, plague, and locusts could all reduce it, the latter in bulk, it rapidly went to 1 for everything on the map. Also plague dropped population, so there wasn’t much chance to replace it. This meant that attacking worked most of the time – by midgame almost every attack was tech 8+ vs strength 1.

    * incredibly minor, paperclips overlapped at 10 tech/1 strength which was pretty fiddly. Only a pain because that’s what the stats of most things approached…

    * and, it was very hard for the players to tell why, with plague hitting between turns – I think we needed a marker saying PLAGUE HAPPENED or for anything else that happens between turns.

    * control markers were a constraint – we ended up pretty much saying to players ‘you need to go find control markers for us’, but that should be explicit

    * moving units between maps was problematic

    * rad symbols under where the unit card goes meant a lot of lifting cards up to see where you could search

    * possibly an unexpected result of moving to seats for queueing was that people had no idea how the map was going while they were waiting – this either added a lot of time for each move at the board, or lead to an situation where the person in the queue was just following orders from another team member who was waiting at the table.

    That is, bob waits in line while phil stands at the table and plans. when Bob arrives at the front, they just follow phil’s orders. Maybe nobody at the map should be able to talk except people at the line? Dunno.

    * farming was very very swingy – most of the common numbers for resource growth seemed to be towns, so you had to be lucky to get food to grow even if you put effort into seeding.

    This did produce a nice collapse of civilisation, so if that’s what you were after it worked.

    * a vicious cycle was that if you control most of a map, and try and farm in peace to feed your towns, you probably starve since there aren’t many actions being done on your board!

    * resource placement took a while after rolling the dice – I should have made a table of # -> location on the map somewhere, rather than scanning looking for the towns with 11 on them.

    * Oil and militia worked notably well

    • texarkana23 says:

      Resource numbers varied between maps, some areas should have generated a bit more in the way of food than others … but the raiders denuded a lot of the south of food.

      Unit stats: I am beginning to think four stats is too many for this type of game. Next time I’d focus on two stats, which is enough for some variation and tradeoffs. That would also eliminate the overlapping paperclip problem!

      Plague: d’oh!

      Map movement: not so much an issue last year, as almost nobody moved units between zones. The workaround (call Dillon to handle it) worked okay, but definitely something there needs to be a better process for.

  3. xy says:

    A really simple way of handling raiders would be to put the off-board space in the middle of the map – that way it’s clear that hey, they’re on this map, just off the main transport routes.

  4. chaos says:

    First off, our team had a really good time, so thanks. It was the highlight of BOD for me.

    (I apologise if any of these examples are too specific or not the kind of feedback your looking for, but here is some of my random thoughts)

    • The assassinations were pretty hilarious, but a more open mechanic might have been good, you might also have considered moving those “high value” players to teams that weren’t doing too well.

    • The “downtime” was really good, it gave the teams time to strategise, talk with other teams and take a bit of a break from some pretty intense action. This facilitated people working as more of a team, rather than running around by themselves. One team attempting to use the lecture hall projector to show their up-to-date photos of the board was great.

    • The agreements being binding only for one turn was a good idea as it meant alliances could shift quickly.

    • More trading mechanics may have been good.

    • I don’t know about the middle board, but every member in our team had something to do every turn and none of them complained about the lines, we never had Action tokens left.

    • I don’t know if the chairs made any difference, if you are standing waiting in a line, you still don’t know what’s going on with the board. Because the actions were complicated, it made sense to use the time team members were in line to figure out what they could do when they got to the front, otherwise they ran out of time and missed opportunities to perform essential actions. I didn’t take a turn all night, but as the “Vice-president” or overwatch role I was insanely busy. I get that this was annoying for our GM though, perhaps it would have been better for the president to send orders to team members while they were still in line, ie targets to attack, but the actions were too complicated to easily communicate without standing over the board.

    • Regarding the map design, while Neo-Fed did operate in a bit of a vacuum on our board, to be fair, four teams started with assets on that map. The fact that we had informal non aggression pacts with three of them before the game started did mean they didn’t encroach too heavily into “our” board. Especially as we managed to formalise and keep non aggression treaties with every team (except Texarkana) until the last turn. I was extremely surprised the middle map didn’t immediately make a move on the unclaimed and undefended territory in Texarkana’s map as we identified the middle map as a death trap at the beginning.

    • The lowest score defends was a good idea, it meant that you tried to have a well rounded unit. Near the end of the game it did seem that attacking was far easier than defending though and four stats was hard to keep track of.

    • It was very difficult to attempt to defend anything. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it seemed strange that you couldn’t get units off your board, you could attack them, defeat them, make sure they had no retreat available and then they would appear randomly somewhere else on your board, taking one of your flags. Maybe they could have returned to the defeated capital?

    • When two units were defending a square, you should have been able to pick which unit was defending, Ie a powerful tank unit sitting in a square with a lowest score of 6, shouldn’t be worthless because a milita with strength 1 is also sitting there.

    • I noted that other teams freely changed their roles, ie switching roles in line because that was the role needed next, we found that keeping our roles throughout meant that each player began to understand exactly what they could do each turn, and the president (and vp) could order particular people to undertake actions.
    • Yep, the penalty for using the demons was … a little extreme. It would have made more sense if there hadn’t had an upfront cost, Ie if we hadn’t been having to make hard choices to keep them. (Especially when they ate units, rather than the population we expected, appeared on the opposite board we had asked for, where we had a non aggression pact with every team on that board and then latter ate a different unit than they said they would). We chalked these losses down to getting burned when dealing with the devil. As it was, we used them to take an empty town, kept them so no one else would use them against us, unsuccessfully attempted to attack a capital and then gave them up. We found them too expensive for their function, let alone the penalties. The angels also appeared identical in everything but name. (I could be wrong). To be fair, some of the underutilisation was our fault as we were unaware they could move anywhere on the board, wings duh.

    • If a team had chosen the Infernal legion over the angels because it was the easier, or more powerful path, penalties would have felt more like karma. Grand Strats are all about the glory anyway right? And at least we went down in glorious demonic tinged flames and had fun doing it.

    • It may have been beneficial to have some way to identify who was in each team and their role. Rather than people continually asking what team you were on (sometimes halfway through a negotiation).

    • Linking the LARP and Grand Strat sounds great.

    • By the way I’m still insulted no one tried to assassinate me. How rude.

    • texarkana23 says:

      This is useful feedback, thank you.

      Middle board line was always twice the length of the other tables. I assumed players would spread out over the other tables once they saw what the waiting time was like, but that only happened to a smalle xtent late in the game.

      This is the first time I have used chairs, in part because the last few times people spent a lot of time standing in lines, which is quite tiring after a few hours. If we had a stage, then the tables could be down below the stage, allowing people to observe from above. As we cannot guarantee a stage, simply designating one side of the table for “spies” might work.

      Unit retreats – we needed something like a “Disrupted Unit” box in an empty part of the map, with the unit requiring an action token to get back into play. That would have been a big penalty for being knocked off-map.

      Demons: I must not improvise game breaking mechanics on the night…

      Team IDs, could print name badges (which could then be loaded with additional information as people are doing with LARPs), I also thought co-ordinated team hats might be a nice idea.

  5. John Morton says:

    It was interesting being a player in one of these games after a couple of years as an assistant GM. By interesting, unfortunately I mean, “so frustrating I quit and went home after an hour”. I chatted to some players after the game and got the impression I wasn’t alone in being unhappy about some aspects of the game.

    The big problems from my point of view where the size of the queues, the complexity of the game board, and the overall fairness of the game.

    Queues

    They were simply too long, and they where always going to end up being too long, even if their where only five factions of five players. In the absence of any other sub-game, it was the only place to be, so three queues would end up having 8 players each, even without another ten players in the mix.

    Interestingly, efforts made to mitigate the effects of the queues were actually counterproductive. The seating took the weight off your feet, but prevented queued players from seeing the map, amplifying the isolation and boredom of being in a queue. Simplifying combat sped it up a little, but at the expense of robbing the players of decisions to make when the finally got to the end of the queue.

    There were other emergent properties of long queues:

    * Having the resource refresh run at the end of each player’s turn often meant that more time was spent doing that, than the player’s turn (more so at the start of the game).

    * Long queues pressure queue GMs to work faster, but applying this sort of cognitive load results in more errors being made (I observed GMs to be inconsistent between tables, and between actions at the same table)

    * High cognitive load on the GMs reduces their ability to scrutinize the turn process and spot when players were prevaricating

    So: long queues == long periods of boredom followed by doing too little. Once the MATs where scaled back, it meant never being able to do enough just to stop everyone from starving. Hamish said that they where about as bad if not worse than in Survivor: Darklord, and definitely a major step back from last year’s game.

    Solution:

    Keep them short by design. I like the queue mechanic; I think it’s one of the most flexible and reasonable ways to manage player turns. But it turns into Soviet-style rationing if the player to queue ratio is too large. In the Colossus game, my map queue seldom ran to more than six players, I never felt especially pressured, and neither did my players after they got the hang of the game — and they had more to do during an action phase. A six player maximum queue depth seems like a good rule of thumb.

    Map Complexity

    There where at least five map resources that I spotted, and each unit had four variables. The territory connections where kind of convoluted and spanned maps. Some resources needed to be moved and grown, others didn’t. Units needed supply. Some places were dangerous. Random events removed resources and reduced combat effectiveness. Other players combat units nicked your stuff and kicked over your carefully built defenses. Units teleported to arbitrary locations as a result of retreats. And most of this stuff happened when players where not present, nonwithstanding the fact that the seated queues prevented players from taking in the map state until the beginning of their turn.

    After three turns I still couldn’t figure out how the game should be played. I doubt anyone on my team really understood what each role was supposed to do, especially not the level of cooperation necessary between captain and general/warlord roles if we wanted to keep anything alive.

    Solution

    Have several relatively simple sub-games rather than one complex map board, which is what the short queues observation tells us anyway.

    I’d ditch the SoC-style random resource generation and entirely move resources off the map into an Avalon Hill Civ-style resource trading game. I’d drop the units down to just strength and logistics, and the cities down to being population sources for army strength, and locations for certain disaster mitigating upgrades and militias.

    Raiders would start at strength 2 (their max) and logistics 10 while Armies start at strength 8 and logistics 2, with 10 max in each. Logistics upgrades cost money based on the unit strength, while strength upgrades cost money and population. Such upgrades require supply, though off map is considered in supply.

    Combat always pits strength against strength, and costs the victor strength and the logistics to move into the territory. The loser must retreat to an unoccupied territory or off the map. Raiders can move from off map to any unoccupied territory. Armys can only move from off map to an unoccupied controlled territory.

    Units would consume logistics rather than food in the diplomacy phase. Disaster cards from the trading game would implement famines, locusts, grey goo, reality TV and other nasties that would further sap unit strength, logistics, and city population.

    (This system is flawed, but it’s simple enough that I could whip up a play test in an afternoon, and fix the bugs in isolation of any other mini games).

    Fairness

    Playing my turns at the map quickly, in the spirit they where intended to be played while it became apparent that other factions where fucking about and generally gaming the queues as hard as they could get away with kinda sucked.

    Realizing that the game wasn’t, in fact, a game of post-apocalypse empire building, but an apocalyptic decline and fall game, too late to enjoy a last bit of mayhem before the final curtain call kinda sucked.

    But the thing that sucked the most was having the blue team treat “off map” as one place, so that they could take all their raider units from each table and dump them on our home map. After three turns of broken supply lines, pillage and wasteland search based disasters we asked if we could respond in kind and where told we couldn’t. That’s when I left the party.

    In retrospect, I should have convinced my team that we were fucked, glassed New York and knocked off for a game of Dominion. L’esprit de l’escalier I guess.

    I’ll discuss the trading subgame in another post.

    • John Morton says:

      I should note that the raiders thing is just one of those difficult judgment calls that goes wrong sometimes; “keep the newly established precedent” can be as destructive as “the proper rules apply from now on” depending on the circumstances.

      If I’d otherwise been enjoying myself I wouldn’t have thrown my toys from the crib.

    • chaos says:

      Red (Your team I assume) did decide they were fucked. They attempted to glass New York. Blue had anti nuke Tech.

      • xy says:

        Glassing New York worked, but:

        * army and militia were both strength 1 already (see above)
        * 2 population died, net advantage to defender (their food didn’t get eaten so they had the potential to recruit for logistics)
        * 4 parts destroyed
        * city became rubble, net advantage to the defender since they could now search there
        * as a capital it was still worth 10 vps
        * gain a radiation marker – did they do anything? i don’t remember seeing any effect

    • texarkana23 says:

      I’m sorry to hear you didn’t have fun. I noticed you had left early, and I realised that meant I’d failed to deliver the fun playtime I’d hoped for you.

      I agree with you that the qeues were too long, and this made some parts of the game broken/breakable. I suspect the sweet spot is around 5-7 players per table, so with the number of players we had, five tables would have been needed, possibly even six tables (although that then requires more GMs).

      I think part of GM inconsistency was unfamiliarity with the rules. I hope to avoid this next time by involving more people in the design work, and better distribution of rules direct to players (via email).

      I’m interested in what you say about players having less to do, in that I thought I’d actually added in more for them to do in this game, possibly too much to get done in a one minute turn. Getting the moment to moment gameplay is pretty important, small individual decisions need to be fun, as well as contributing to the big picture.

      Map complexity. I agree about moving to two factors to represent unit strengths. I also agree that the cattan resource spawn is not working here, its too time consuming. Its probably better to shift the resource generation to the interphase when the GMs kick the players out and tidy up the maps.

      Yeah, I should have stressed the DBAD principle (Don’t Be A Dick) around meta-gaming. Its fairly easy for the veteran gamers to filibuster parts of the game in way that will make virgin gamers cry with frustration.

      The Raiders really needed more thought from me, and explanation about how they worked. They were motorbike wasteland bandits, not storm troopers with assault shuttles.

      • Russell says:

        The raiders turned out to be the most powerful unit on the map. They had all the abilities of the armour units plus the ability to be put down on an empty space. When they came into play they would often lose you a territory and any resources that may have built up there. Search on others maps meant the the bad stuff happened to these on the map but you got to keep any good stuff.

        They were difficult to remove. Getting a unit close to them meant the unit got attacked and had to defend using logistics. When you did attack them they bounced to a random territory (several times this cost us a territory). Finially if you did manage to remove them one token brought them back (with above costs) or two could cost you your capital as happened in the last round.

        If you want the motorbike wasteland bandits dont let them attack nor take territories and cities. Give them the following abilities
        # Destory resources
        # Reduce the strenght or supplies of nearby units and cities.
        # Chance to evade attacks.
        If they fail to evade they are destroyed. When destoryed there should be a delay before they can return.

        I think that the militia should be replaced with a buildable city strength. I saw several examples of strong units in cities kicked out because to the militia unit also there had weak stats. The best use for the militia would have been to sit them outside of the city to stop raiders two tokening it

        My thoughts on the stats
        Strength : This should always be the attack and defence stat
        Logistics: Used only for movement cost
        # no cost if only moving in own territories?
        # -2 str penatly if logistics zero?
        Tech and veteran these could give a bonus to strenght at certain levels
        ie their tracks may look like 0 0 0 +1 +1 +1 +2 +2 +2 +3
        Tech could help with searching rabble and wastelands, it could also help raiders evade ot to spot them.

  6. Things For you:
    Cities needed 0 spaces for tokens for food/pop/parts when they had nothing left, this would’ve simplified a bunch of things.
    Obviously, it’s blue-sky. But an hour or two of playtesting with stuff would help with my familiarity a lot. I knew I was GMing since the start of the convention, but AFAIK there were no rulebooks around on Saturday morning for me to grab and read between games.
    Tim said it, but anything about a square that’s important can’t be ONLY written inside the square. My map had RAD written next to all of the region names after the first turn to work around this, but I didn’t think to suggest it to other GMs.
    Drawing from the bottom of the deck sucked, Coloured card sleeves (different colours for each type fo card in the game) are a must IMO, to save on potential pile confusion (I never quite screwed up the piles) but also to make sure that people can draw from the top, which is less screwing around. (I guess I cared most about speed optimization.)
    I agree with a lot of the things you’ve said? I had a fairly good time being a GM, even if I was losing it at the point where I realised I was being intentionally filibustered, and I had that one diplomacy phase where I had to shout for quiet from the players so I could remember how to add to 10.
    ANything that involves generating to parts of tables needs lookup tables handy, so you can reference it. But then, that’s again blue-skyee, and moving resource gen out of the player interaction phase will help with that anyway.

    Things for me:
    I should have verified more what the intended rules were. My initial take on how Captain powers worked was that they took food from a city to seed a field, rather than simply generating a new food token from supply. I rather suspect this skewed the food generation on my map first turn.
    Nukes were, RAW, not nearly powerful enough vs units. I believe that the second time I enacted a nuke, I violated the card and dropped all of the units stats down to min.

    • texarkana23 says:

      I didn’t think to specify coloured sleeves. The other map tips are pretty sensible too. Tables – probably enough room to place them on the game map too.

  7. Anarchangel says:

    I think a lot of my comments about the game have already been covered, but I have a couple of additional points, some rewordings and some reiterations:

    More Roles/Queues/Minigames
    In terms of fundamental difference in gameplay, I felt like there were two roles in this game: President and map guy. I like the idea of Army’s vs Militia, but I don’t think they were distinct enough. I also don’t think Raiders were distinct enough, but they’ll get a separate point.

    I would have liked to see a separate resource game that didn’t require queuing at the same tables, maybe an intrigue/tech/soul game. It’s a pity initial numbers necessitated those being cut.

    At any rate, I like the queue system. I think John’s comment about average queue size of 6 is good. One of the best things for me about Colossus was picking the queue that was shortest and finding something to do in it! I think that’s an interesting and socially acceptable metagame tactic.

    Map Strategy
    I didn’t think there was any. Attack was boss and boxed up units were effectively indestructible, so there was no way to control area in a useful way.

    I like the idea partially expressed above that defeated units with no way of retreating be placed off map. I would add that it should cost a MAT to bring them back, and that when they are brought back it should be into a city controlled by that team. I think the -1 all round is fine at that point.

    Raiders
    I was excited about being a warlord. I wanted me and my motorbike wasteland bandits to zoom around the landscape stealing and wrecking, but in practice they were pretty much just slightly more mobile armies, and they were only more mobile if you could afford to spend a truckload of MATs on them. I disagree with the mobility point brought up above. I would have had to queue at least three times and spent three MATS to move them between maps. Realistically, that’s at least two turns and a considerable expense of MATS, plus at least two turns on the next board before they’re doing anything useful. That’s not mobile.

    I would have liked to see Raiders be rated entirely differently from Armies. Don’t even give them strength. An army unit is thousands of dude with tanks; a raider unit is a truckload of guys with AKs. Activated armies just drive off raiders in a space they act in. If two raider units end up in a region, they don’t fight, and if they do, no one cares – a couple of guys die and they recruit some more in the next town. Give them 2-3 movement, one centralised off-board area from which they can drop onto any map, and the ability to steal anything that isn’t nailed down (but with a limit). That would have made them fun and distinct from the military arm. In fact, I like this idea so much I think you should have them in every game, and I’ll even volunteer to help playtest and GM next time to make sure!

  8. texarkana23 says:

    Nice idea about raiders having different rules rather than just slightly different numbers.

    MAT granuality, one MAT to shift maps was too few, if three was too many, I’m not sure two would have been “goldilocks” either.

    Resources: I struggled to find a way to incorporate the soul mechanic in a way that would not have been an admin nightmare.

    My next post will be on the balance between attack and defence.

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