Buckets 2012 Grand Strat Design Ideas

First up, if anyone else wants to be involved in the design process let me know and I’ll try and set up an email loop.

My big goal is to improve the moment-to-moment gameplay in the Grand Strategy game.  This means both identifying things that broke in this year’s game and fixing or eliminating them and identifying the game elements people found most fun, and trying to enhance or extend them.

My initial design frame is to do the Big Damn Galactic Empire, although I think I will steer clear of an explicit decline and fall scenario, leaving it open to the players whether or not the BDGE survives or falls.  Working title is Sun and Starship (SAS).  Mark was interested in tying this in with the LARP, which could be very cool if we can pull it off.  One possibility is that deals made in the LARP could flow through and change the initial set up for SAS.  Another is that game currency earned in the LARP could be recycled for use by that player in SAS.

Broad approaches to improving gameplay:

(1) Game Masters that share a consistent and expert knowledge of the game

(2) Improving the advance information given to players about the game

(3) Making the Map Game work better

(4) Adding in side-games/mini-games that give people interesting choices to make that do not involve the Map Game.


I conceive of side-games as games players can elect to play that may have some influence on the Map Game, or no interaction with the Map Game at all.  The side-games would be optional, and as part of the registration process, players could indicate which of the side-games they were interested in playing.  Each side-game should be a fun game in its own right.  Here is my current list of side-games:

  • Pleasure Planets: players compete to establish the most luxurious and decadent of pleasure palaces for their character to retire to.  Mechanically, I imagine this is some kind of auction/bidding game for limited resources.
  • Imperial Senate: a political game in which teams compete in elections to gain the power to implement the reforms they are sure will save the BDGE from collapse.  Mechanically this would involve diplomacy and vote trading.  Reforms could have a positive or negative influence on the Map Game.
  • Committees: a political game in which players attempt to complete paperwork forms, which once signed and stamped result in actions on the map Game or other side-games.  I’m toying with the idea that an assassination can only be successful if the victim signs their own assassination form.
  • Merchant Princes: a trading game, which could possibly supply luxuries for the Pleasure Planet game, dodge pirates and corrupt Imperial officials to transport rare goods across the Galaxy for cash.
  • The Casino: a gambling game.
  • Imperial Court: a game about succession to the Imperial Throne, could involve Usurper Fleets on the map game, but is more likely to be intrigue based.  Atmosphere rule: no one may enter the Emperor’s presence without a hat, due to the Follicle Nerve Gas Conspiracy of 4038.
  • The Cabinet: a game focused on the Emperor’s intimate circle of advisors as they try to prevent the Emepror from weilding any real power.  I’m sure I can get a Grand Vizier in here somewhere, perhaps they are the only personal who can hand the Emperor paperwork.
  • Corruption: get the most Galactic Credits, you win.
  • Interpretative Dance … okay, I don’t really know how to make a game out of that, but I intend to be open minded about what could be included as a side-game.

One concept I am considering is having two currencies in the game.  One currency is for players, another currency is for factions.  The former could be Galactic Credits while the latter could be Atomic Power.  Atomic Power would be gained in the map game, and could be converted into Galactic Credits for use in the mini-games.  The reverse would not be true, Galactic Credits cannot be converted into Atomic Power – otherwise mini-games like the Casino could break the map game.  So we have a situation where some players can become fabulously wealthy, but without that making the map game a side-show.

A Better Map Game

A lot of room for improvement here.

First, aim for five map tables from the start.  There are some obvious process improvements: explicit mechanics for retreats and inter-map movement.  I think for retreats, if a unit has no obvious escape route, then we place it in a “Deep Space” zone.  Inter-map movements can be handled by a floater GM, but they need to be the last thing a unit does with its turn.  Otherwise you get two units acting at the same time on one map table, and that can break the game.

Second, change the combat units from four factors to two factors (e.g. SHIPs and TECH).  One possibility I want to explore is whether or not I can actually put the essence of the movement/combat rules on the unit counters themselves.  So rather than having to consult a rule book to see how Pirates/battleships interact, its right there in front of you.

Third, give the players maps.  Totally encourage players to use digital cameras to take photos of game maps.

Fourth, shift the generation of new resources on the game map, to the interphase between game turns, rather than between each individual player turn.  Fewer resources will probably help the players make better decisions.  I still want to keep transitive economics though (where it costs one resource for +1, three resources for +2, six resources for +3, ten resources for +4, etc) as that gives players interesting choices around resource tradeoffs.

Fifth, tone down the variability of any external event mechanics.  Losing one strength to random damage is okay, losing half your strength to two consecutive events breaks the game for a player.  Losing your fleet to an attack by other players, thats cool, losing it because the GM rolled an 8 and a Black Hole opened up, thats not so cool.

Sixth, I could try pre-printing the map zones and then gluing them to the newsprint.  This would save a chunk of prep time on the day and might make everything more consistent/error free/easier to read.  Like with counters, I could add rule text directly to the game map to save on referencing the main rule set.

Game Mechanics Are Easy.  There are many different ways of doing them, but good mechanics will fail if placed within a broken framework.  With the combat mechnics, we can go with either strong defence, or strong offense.  Each position has its merits.  Either way, it should be obvious where your enemies will retreat to when you attack them.  I’ll write more about possible mechanics next week.

Improved Advance Information to Players

By having a clear cut-off date for pre-registration, team allocation can be done well in advance.  I’d also have an upper cap on the number of players in the game (35).

Game rules should be available at the time registration opens.

Based on the mini-games each player signs up for, the possibility exists of generating a custom rule book for each player.

Knowing in advance who is playing, allows us to print materials with player names.  Forms for the comittee games for example, could include the names of players assigned to each committee.  Player names could go on map game counters that they have personal control over.

Expert, Consistent GMs

Players get very frustrated when GM A interprets a rule differently from GM B.  While the Uber-GM may troubleshoot this, its usually impossible to wind the clock back.

This is not rocket science.  Recruit a pool of GMs early, involve them in the game design and playtesting, and make sure they have all read the rules well before D-Day.


3 Responses to Buckets 2012 Grand Strat Design Ideas

  1. I’m in for the advance GM signup/being on emailing lists about game design?

  2. John Morton says:

    A bunch of observations:

    * By all means link the LARP and Grand strat in terms of shared background; it will make it easy to share room dressing and encourage folks to costume up on both nights. However, don’t have the results of the LARP deeply inform the starting conditions of the Grand Strat as 1) LARP outcomes are wildly unpredictable, 2) grand strat factions should start out on a reasonably balanced footing, 3) some people play in one or the other but not both.

    * Keep the map game to three maps, rather than more, as three is more than enough stuff to keep track of. Assuming 6 factions, three maps at 6 per queue is enough to keep 18 people busy. Assuming two other sub-games at 6 players a piece, that makes for 30 players, which is about typical for GS games of the last few years. You can get away with adding another player per faction to handle co-ordination, if the game roles are fluid enough, and cope with only 24 players by losing map players (resulting in shorter queues).
    i’d go for three distinct theatres for the maps, with all movement between them requiring a move into Deep Space, then a move out onto another map, ie two MATs worth.

    * Let’s just make the map the week before the game. I think we can easily determine what resources our venue has by that stage, and just sort it all out at our leisure over the course of an afternoon. If we start with an abstract core design, and some usability guidelines it should be an easy job.

    * Pre-registration is all well and good, but experience suggests that people will find out about it at the last minute, so the game will still need to be flexible with numbers between about 24-36.

  3. texarkana23 says:

    Pre-reg problems: if we have a lot of side-games, they can soak up late signups without more pressure on the game maps.

    Maps: I should have a map designed beforehand next time, and it may make sense to print parts of the map and glue them onto the newsprint (for things like number tracks).

    Number of Maps: will depend on the size of the venue. Five would be nice for a galactic game, one for each of the spiral arms and another one for the core. Could also work with four, where we have a realistic ‘black hole’ in the core, and stick the Imperial Capital on Earth.

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