The Maths, it hurts

An elegant idea for a game mechanic, pursued to the logical extreme, tends to become unplayable.

This is what I got by asking myself “How long does it take to play a game?”.  In the case of my last redesign of Housewar, I got a bad feeling that the answer was “Too long.”  Many times in the past I have overloaded a game with too many mechanics, and the game has collapsed under its own weight.  While individual mechanics may be entertaining, if they reach the point where players spend twenty minutes resolving an action, and then have to spend five minutes figuring out where they are in the game and who should move next … then that is a fail for the design.  I’m trying to avoid ending up with a game that looks like Arkham Horror with all the expansions in play at once.

So what can the design strongly influence in terms of speed of play?

(1) the number of game actions each player can do (more actions = more time)

(2) how these actions are resolved (greater complexity = more time)

(3) the number of players allowed in the game (more players = more time).

What the designer has weak influence over is the individual and collective player context.  Some players simply take longer to play games.  Groups of players that enjoy diplomacy can spend half an hour arguing over the placement of a single counter.  Some of the relevant factors here include:

  • knowledge of the game rules (expert players can make decisions more quickly, or at least on a more informed basis, if knowledge is weak, much time will be spent consulting the rulebook, or discussing interpretation of the rules)
  • time taken to assess the current game state (the more complex the game, the more pieces on the board, the more information is concealed, the longer this takes, and an expert player may take longer because they can see more valid moves than the novice)
  • choice identification (is there an obvious good move, or multiple good moves to choose from, or is the player choosing the lesser of many evils)
  • interaction (diplomacy takes time, and the amount of time taken escalates with each additional player added to the game, mind you, all this interaction can be fun)
  • knowledge of other players (risk appetite, trustworthiness, quirks, etc).

A nice design goal is to try and set things up to avoid complete paralysis of decision-making.

So when I looked at the last set of mechanics I put together for Housewar, I made an assumption of two minutes per player turn, and quickly found a combined estimate of about an hours worth of gameplay to resolve one peace/civil war cycle.  Not optimal for a game with thirteen such cycles.  My turn structure involved approximately eight decisions per player, so to reach the two minute time, each decision would have had to have been made in under 25 seconds.  That is very unlikely to happen if the players engage in any diplomacy at all.

My design goal: simple games should play to a completion in under an hour.  Complex games should finish in under three.  After that people start getting bored or burnt out.  It takes a special kind of person to sign up for one of the historical conflict simulation games where an entire evenings play only advances the game by one turn/two months of game time.  For Housewar, I would like it to play to a finish in around three hours.

So what can I do to speed things up?  Today’s answer: try to make decisions in parallel, not in sequence, i.e. make the players make as many decisions as possible simultaneously, rather than one at a time.  Also, get rid of the plot cards (too time consuming for all the players to read and understand them, and to figure out the optimal play for each).

In both peace and war turns, all the players secretly allocate one leader each to one of three plot/strategy choices (military, elite, and popular).  They can also commit power tokens.  When all players have chosen, their choices are revealed and resolved.  For each plot/strategy, the player with the best leader (plus any power) gets the maximum benefit, the player with the weakest leader gets little or no benefit, and the other players get a small benefit.

This should happen a maximum of five times before a trigger to start/end a civil war occurs.  So players have interesting choices around whether or not they play high value leaders first, or hold them back.  Later in the game, as some leaders have been removed, the choices should get harder.

An example: Military plots

  • the player(s) with the lowest value Military leaders gain +1 power token
  • the player(s) with the highest value Military leaders gain control of 1-5 fleet units
  • the other players gain control of one Fleet unit

To save time on deployment in a civil war, fleets get deployed on the map as soon as control is gained of them.

I might also have improved the scoring, with Elite plots working like this:

  • the player(s) with the lowest value Elite leaders gain +1 power token
  • the player(s) with the highest value Elite leaders gain +1-5 Glory
  • the other players gain +1-5 Glory based on Blame tokens*

This inverts my traditional one player scores glory at a time, to all-but one player scores glory at a time.  So it becomes less about getting ahead of the others, as making sure you do not fall behind the pack.  This makes a race to 100 glory more feasible.  In past playtests the glory score always seemed to spread out, so that after five hours of play, one player was on 40, a couple were on 30, and the rest had ten or less.

*Having lots of blame in front of you is risky, as if you get too much pinned to you permanently, then you automatically lose the game.

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