Pax Victoria at Buckets of Dice 2013

Some things worked well, other things did not. Afterwards I remarked that I really needed a co-GM whose sole task was to keep whispering in my ear “Too complex, make it simpler”.` That we only completed four full turns in four hours means I failed to design the time structures of the game – I had wanted to complete eight game turns.  This was largely due to the large number of teams (eight), and the land mechanics being too complex.  The map also ended up being a bit cluttered.


Some things did work well.  The map itself was pretty to look at, although we had some stability issues on the tiny tables.  Marking hex terrain with a thick coloured border around the hex also worked very well.  Next time I should try and get hold of a decent wargaming table to mount the map on. The physical appearance of the game counters was also good.  I spent a few hundred dollars on dice, leader stands, and wooden/plastic tokens from The Game Crafter  and from I also used sticky labels printed out on my laserprinter for the counters, rather than spray adhesive. Overall it was a better looking game, and an easier to assemble game than most of the games I have done in the past. Lots of reuseability in the components, so people will see them again.

I also think the pre-game strategic options and diplomacy worked well.  It also meant I had to have the game 99% finished a week before the Con, rather than the night before the con.  It also motivated me to actually throw some content on my website.  This had room for improvement, as I failed to take into account that some people would be too busy in the week beforehand.  Ideally people should be able to delegate or select proxies.  It was a real buzz for me to walk into the Con at 0900 and find people already plotting for the Grand Strategy game that night.

The picture above shows the state of the game at the end of the night. A few cities and sea zones had changed hands, but because the Orange-Black, White-Green wars had been largely one on one affrays, no truly decisive land action had taken place.  The neutral islands had been occupied, so if the game had lasted longer, the sideline players would have started intervening.  Naval combat did not start until turns 3-4.  What this tells me is that I had too many sea areas for the number of naval forces in the game, and that everyone was more interested in dividing up and grabbing colonies rather than fighting each other.  So one simple fix there is to start teams with island colonies, and to reduce the number of sea areas down a bit.

Naval movement and combat worked well.  Land movement and combat did not. As well as some rules complexity, people found it to hard to see what was happening on the front lines. The leader stands hindered as much as they helped, as people found it hard to calculate hex radius distances, and the support units cluttered up the map.  The off-map reserves really needed better mechanics for voluntary deployment and removal, as it encouraged players to do counter-intuitive meta-game tactics, like deliberately leaving gaps in their line and trusting their neighbour not to exploit.

Amphibious movement and invasions were too complex and time consuming given the brief number of game turns completed. Almost no one chose Guards units as a strategic option, which makes me think that I should have called the units Marines, as they were actually the best units to do an amphibious attack with.

Trade mostly took place away from the map room, I have no idea how well that worked, but at least we didn’t run out of cards this year.

I did get feedback on the night that players wanted to build units.  I am thinking about this.  I tried keeping the game simple by having the builds effectively take place before the game began, but several teams wanted the option of building up their navy mid-game and it just wasn’t possible in the Rules As Written.  This is something I will work on for the next version.

With eight teams, teams were averaging around five to six minutes for a game turn, not the two minutes I had hoped for.  If I had built a second map just for naval actions, then I could have split the moves up a bit and had less overall downtime for the teams.  The bonus action (“The Big Push”) was ignored by some teams early on, then towards the end everyone bet big on it, which told me both that the economy was generating too many resources and everyone had figured out how important a second full action was.  The “shells” on the game map proved too fiddly to keep track of, so I would dump them from the game.

A lot of teams, when they got to the map, tended to give orders by telling each other what to do, not by telling a Gm what they were going to do. It makes me think that going back to the old, old system of the team leader having a free minute at the start of a team’s turn to look at the map and give orders, followed by a set time of the team’s minions moving pieces and not talking except to tell a GM they are attacking, might be a better system for getting things done quickly.

I liked the game enough, that I will run it again at Kapcon 2014. So people in Wellington or further afield, now is your chance to volunteer to help out.  For my 2014 Buckets game, I am pondering about running To Reign in Hell, a game where the players represent legions of Demons trying to take over Hell.  I’m sure I can adapt Dante’s classic map somehow.  I’ll have another blog post on Pax Vicky in a couple of weeks when the survey I am running concludes.

I also ran a simple Dragon Age tabletop game, where the players were Djinn working for the Ottoman Empire in an alternate history 1960s.  A successful investigation of a dodgy hospital exploiting a leper colony in Jerusalem ended with icky alien bug like things being squished.  The stunt system worked well at making the characters look baddass, so Dragon Age may become my convention system of choice.

I enjoyed the Dresden Files LARP on Sunday night of Kapcon. It helped that I was paired up with an extrovert who was my long lost brother, and we had fun roleplaying crazy Russians on Circe’s Island. Which sank. But I freed my brother from being a vampire’s thrall, earned brownie points wit the Catholic Church for retrieving one of the holy swords of the cross for them, did not get hunted down the Warden, did facilitate the defection of a White Council member to the Red Court, and got a free ride to Paris from the Queen of Summer. Not bad for a poor boy from the Ukraine who can talk to the (mostly) dead.

16 thoughts on “Pax Victoria at Buckets of Dice 2013

  1. Ged June 6, 2013 / 6:47 pm

    That looks a very good analysis of Pax Victoria to me. I think with those changes you’ve suggested, there’s a very good, replayable, game under there. I wonder if incentivising 2-on-1 combats may prove hard when teams have limited actions/time at the map table, and they would rather focus elsewhere. Though it is clear to me now that’s a great way to smash a team, so its reserves can’t recover, and should have been something we looked at more. Though Midland was winning its wars alone in four turns, and would have really struggled against a proper alliance, yet such an alliance had little incentive with only 1VP each for two teams taking half of Midland: perhaps the VPs and incentives there would be hard to juggle any better?

  2. texarkana23 June 6, 2013 / 6:52 pm

    Something I am considering, is that aggressive players get to nominate locations on the map (which are controlled by other teams at the start of the game) that are worth bonus VP if their team manages to capture them. These objectives would be secret, allowing for some more espionage options.

    Which fewer sea zones, and an easier to understand and execute amphibious attack, then some long range battles become possible as well.

  3. John June 8, 2013 / 5:04 pm

    There are three major game design problems I find with your grand strats:

    1) You have a simulationist’s taste for rules complexity. You either have, as in this game, speciallist units, communications rules, supply lines and lots of special cases (and hidden consequences) or you strive for the utmost brevity, but still have lots of hidden consequences.

    2) You never quantify the time costs of actions, nor the extent to which players find themselves with either too much to do, or too little. No analysis makes this a crapshoot. This is really a consequence of:

    3) Every game feels like the first, last and only play test of the game.

    • texarkana23 June 8, 2013 / 5:24 pm

      Hopefully I can fix a few things by running the game a second time in Wellington. Buying the game pieces also encourages me to run similar games in the future, e.g. a Flower Power II would look very similar to Pax Victoria. I will take supply off the map, so logistics is merged into economics/building stuff. Where I had five units involved in attacks, I think I can cut that down to 2-3.

      I am wondering if I should write two rulesets, one being the double-sided A4 with flowcharts that is a simple “How to make decisions and play the game fast” and a longer set which explains the “why” underlying the “how” of the simple rules.

      Player time at table has a few things interacting. What I am thinking about now is passive versus active teams. Some teams sit back and do little, for which two minutes is fine. Others want to make every possible attack, for which two minutes is not adequate, and GMs don’t actually like forcing people away from the table.

      In an ideal world, there should be just a bit more that could be done, than the players can get done each turn, so that they are making some decisions about trade-offs.

      I think if I have a naval table and a land table and an economy table in the map room, with a GM at each, that I can speed up play a bit. I am also doing some calculations based on different time budgets of 20, 25, and 30 minutes, and different ways this can be allocated between teams. I also think having a dedicated Door GM who tracks time, and sends the next team in when its their time will help flow. The arrival of the next team also communicates clearly to the current team that their time is up.

      • John June 8, 2013 / 7:24 pm

        Make table time something you buy, perhaps? Instead of spending to attack, spend for time in 30 second increments, and at increasing costs within a turn?

        Keep the navel and land on the same board; they have too many close interactions, and having to overlay both states onto a master map to understand the game state sounds horrible.

        An usher sounds useful, especially for post game time analysis. I’d also consider publishing the turn order on a white board, or via a computer and projector.

    • texarkana23 June 8, 2013 / 7:37 pm

      Yes, I am thinking about some kind of time purchase system, with a baseline amount thrown in for free. This could be a straight fee system, or some form of auction.

      A lot depends on the number of teams. For diplomacy, dropping below five teams is inadvised. More teams adds to the diplomatic uncertainty, once you drop to four teams the diplomatic static is either stalemate (2:2) or murder (3:1).

      For Pax Vicky II, using the end-game map state from PV I, Midland becomes a monster team, with Mercia-Oxbridge uniting against it, and then possibly Rent or Redwall with one of Rutland or Tyneshire, for a five team match.

      I will look at getting something like a portable whiteboard or magnetic board for displaying initiative information to the players (and saving my voice too).

      • Hamish June 12, 2013 / 3:17 am

        An auction would take a lot of time, but the idea of paying for time in victory points has appeal.

        Also, if you want people to attack, give people VPs for attacking. Not for the consequences or rewards of attacking, but for the very act. Every time you attack an occupied region, +1 VP. Take the indie RPG lesson: incentivise what you want to see at the table.

        Without having played in this one, but having played in just about every other of your grand strats, I agree with John’s analysis. Especially number 3. It usually feels like you come up with an entirely new system every year rather than refine the good parts of the last one and dump the bad. As a player, the first turn or two are usually spent learning how your new rules work in practice, rather than remembering how they work and learning a few tweaks.

  4. John June 8, 2013 / 5:44 pm

    So WRT Pax Victoriana:

    The biggest outright problem with the game is that there is only one venue where players can alter the hard game state — the map — and they only have 2 minutes to do it in. I started the game with a dreadful sense of foreboding that I’d spend most of my time being bored as a consequence of this, but fortunately the game complexity ended up working in your favour: we spend the first 150 minutes pouring over snapshots of the map trying to figure out how the rules worked, and didn’t notice. However, by the end of turn three we were breaking out games on our phones. I think we spend no more than 10 minutes on map actions in a four hour game.

    Finding a good game structure that balances out the frustration of having too much to do against not having enough to do is probably the hardest design problem for a Grand Strategy. And unfortunately, changing this structure radically changes the game. I think the best to can do for now is to reduce the number of teams, drop the Big Push and rigidly enforce the map action time limit.

    If you run this game again, I recommend filming the entire thing. Get a camera on in the map room with a good omni directional mic and another camera in the teams room. Have a GM mark the start of the official time limited parts (start and end of map moves, logicistic phase), then afterwards you can analyse:

    * How long it takes between map turns
    * How long clean up and turn sequence announcements take.
    * How long does it take for assistant GMs to go from deferring to your authority to becoming confidant and authoritative arbiters of the rules.
    * How often do the players look frustrated? Bored?

    • texarkana23 June 8, 2013 / 6:39 pm

      Adding mechanics for stuff to do away from the table is something I would like to explore. I have trade cards, I’m thinking about more options for diplomacy and espionage.

      One possibility is for some decisions about economic stuff to be done by the team while away from the table, handed to a GM when they go into the map room, with the results waiting for them when they leave the map room.

      If I could recruit a more technically minded co-GM, I could try doing more with technology. I should collar David McClaggan for lunch sometime and see if he can help.

      • John June 8, 2013 / 7:17 pm

        Economic orders sound good, especially if they reduce the length of the logistics phase. Process them in parallel with the map board stuff.

  5. John June 8, 2013 / 6:54 pm

    Game complexity. Everything is special cases.

    There are six kinds of mutually exclusive actions one can do, so that’s a restriction for a start. Land units had the additional restriction of being in your HQ radius. Then there’s terrain restrictions, the need to spend shells to attack, and the (in practice) unenforced two minute time limit. That’s too many different classes of restrictions.

    There were something like three different types of special army unit, and I have no recollection as to what they did. I think some could support at various kinds of ranges.

    The dice where a good idea in principle, removing the need for look up tables, but where hobbled by having both letters, and different behaviours depending on what unit they represented.

    The biggest hidden consequence was the way reserves spilled out onto the map like antibodies when you weren’t looking. This had negative consequences on attack, as if they where your own, they’d just get in the way of an advance. I think they where a complete surprise to Rutland, too, as reserves totally broke their amphibious invasion.

    Personally, I’d have two kinds of action: Do things with land units and do things with sea units (amphibious assault is a special case of land movement).

    Keep land units to just leaders and infantry. Make Supply centers harder to attack, much like rough terrain, so you don’t need fortresses. Drop the HQ range mechanic; instead have leaders assist in attacks from a distance. Remove shells from the board; give players shells they have to hand over to make attacks, to retain an economic restriction.

    No clue as to how to handle reserves and new units – perhaps that’s a third class of operations action.

    For the dice, replace letters with “oh shit”, “miss”, “‘splosion” and “wicked awesome ‘splosion”, and have the defence dice results deduct from the offence results. Weak units defend with less dice than strong, so merships suck, battle ships rock, and battleships and leaders get an extra hit point, so they go to damaged then the dead box, then removed from the game.

    This should move the mechanics to: 1) how many dice do we roll? 2) eliminate miss and explosion pairs of defence/offence dice 3) work out damage from the rest (ie oh shit always hurts you, wicked awesome explosions always hurt them). One lookup table (how many dice?) and basic arithmetic.

    Whatever. The most important take away here is that consequences of combat ought to be obvious, and your assistant GMs should be able to take the wheel inside the first hour.

    • texarkana23 June 8, 2013 / 7:47 pm

      Some of my ideas to improve this:

      Dice faces are -1, 0, 1, 1, 1, 2 (for number of hits generated).
      Number of dice = adjacent units + artillery committed by player decision (each such use eliminates one artillery). Total cap of six dice (as I think this is one reason naval combat ran faster than ground combat).

      Cavalry: commit if you win, to increase hexes taken (each such use eliminates one cavalry)

      Cavalry and Artillery will not be on the map, will be off to the side as a floating force pool.

      So player decision is “I attack here, with X Artillery” possibly followed by “I commit X Cavalry to exploit”.

      HQs – remove from game.

      Guards units – become Marines, use for Amphibious attacks only.

      Reserve units – I agree rules for these need to be a lot more comprehensive and thought out.

      One technical idea, if I can grab a video camera, then I could do a very basic youtube clip, with a few minute overview of how a game turn is supposed to work.

      • John June 9, 2013 / 2:36 am

        Show, via a video clip will definitely help. Rules examples don’t show you much about the map, or make visually obvious that surrounding a hex is the path to victory.

  6. John June 8, 2013 / 7:14 pm

    Other things.

    The full rules for the Victory points where actually spread across the rules briefing and the team briefing, which meant that, as I had not time for the pre-game PBM stuff, I ignored it, and so never grasped how much of a difference aggression made to the victory point penalty.

    But the most important issue WRT aggression is that the team who won *won before the game started*. High aggression just wasn’t worth the VP penalty.

    In the future, I’d dump the whole pre game phase and just start everyone on the same footing. The cause and effect chain between starting units and final VPs is so long you’d have to run a hundred games to tune the balance.

    Trade was good. It’s worth keeping in mind that all the trade system does WRT hard game state is delays the movement of economic resources from being earned to being spent — this is why people spent large on the Big Push in turns three and four: that’s when they stated cashing in sets. However, the most important thing it does is it gives players another thing to do while waiting to get to the game board. That’s more important that game balance, so keep it even if it’s hard to tune the economy just right.

    Finally: Loved that map. It was a good combination of pretty and informative. A keeper.

    • texarkana23 June 8, 2013 / 7:54 pm

      I liked the engagement that some players had with the game leading up to game day, although I noted that not everyone could participate.

      There was feedback that people wanted to be able to build units mid-game. I am thinking of a way of combining pre-game and in-game. Current idea is:

      1. Pre-game options increase your starting fore for turn 1.
      2. Pre-game options reduce the cost of building units in-game.

      So if it cost 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 etc “build points” to build a unit in game (e.g. building two units costs 3 BP, three units cost 6 BP etc), then a team which built four units pre-game might have a build sheet (all carefully pre-printed so they don’t spend time on maths) which reads 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 6.

      Trade as a fountain is okay, so long as its balanced with sinks for surplus resources.

      Aggression might have had less impact if the game had been designed well enough to actually hit the 8 turns intended (I think Midland would have cleaned up Mercia for a few more VP among other things). I will take another close look at the VP spreadsheets when I analyse the survey feedback stuff next weekend.

    • Ged July 2, 2013 / 4:39 pm

      You (IIRC you were Oxbridge) actually needed the aggression, though. Midland would have gone to town on Oxbridge if you hadn’t had such a well-reserved army, and that forced us to consider other options instead. But I agree that aggression makes a significant difference to VPs, and balancing it well enough to give each side a fair starting point needs too much iteration for an indie project.

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