Feedback and ideas for Pax Victoria II

I will upload the PDF of the survey results to the http://www.housewar.org website (probably tomorrow as I have been writing this all night) .  Bits of it will get mentioned in passing here.  I will start by going over the survey results and comments.  After that I will highlight some lessons from past Grand Strategy games.  Finally I will outline changes I intend to make to the game for Pax Victoria II at Kapcon 2014.

Most people thought Pax Victoria was okay, with a 3.58 rating our of 5.  Only one person said it was terrible.  Still a lot of room for improvement as only three people said it was great.

Advertising and Communication

In terms of advertising, most of the players heard about Pax Victoria through the SAGA website, and SAGA club meetings.  This is not something I have much influence over, so I appreciate the club officers promoting my game.  Most players signed up to the email list, but there were teething troubles, and only 60 per cent of the players found it helpful.  Again, some room for improvement in how that tool is used to support the game, such as better permission settings for files and archives.  My website was also useful for many people, so I intend to be more proactive about using it in the future.

Some people had issues with Yahoogroups.  I would appreciate suggestions for other electronic email options.

I had about four people proof early copies of the rules for me, but only had feedback from one or two people.  I need to get more advance playtesting done to improve the rules, rather than relying on written feedback.

Strategic Options

Nearly everyone read their team briefings, and three-quarters were able to communicate with team mates about strategic options.  Readership of the rules and guide were also high, so inasmuch as the design was in good shape, players could get a good understanding of the rules. In play, some of the rule sections were insufficient.    However, not everyone had time in the week before Buckets to make strategic choices, and it would have been better to have a proxy/delegation system for busy players to hand their choices over to their team mates.

Most players found the strategic choices interesting, and 70 per cent enjoyed making them.  My main comment when the choices were made was that Guards units were under-represented, and that perhaps I should have called them Marine units, as they were the best amphibious attack units in the game.  In play, Factories producing shells turned out to be useless, as there was an oversupply of shells from trade.  In the survey, two-thirds of players said Factories were underpowered, and half thought shipyards were underpowered (in part  because the low number of turns completed reduced the number of extra ships built).    The three options most considered overpowered were shipyards, artillery, and leader HQ value.  So shipyards may have been a very relative option, based on your geography.

Nearly everyone who was able to take part in pregame choices enjoyed them, so I definitely intend to keep them for future games.  I have done stuff like this before, but only a few players got to participate, and I think its better to involve as many people as possible.

Aggression Rating

This was one of the big experiments of the game.  A slight majority found this a balanced, interesting decision.  Opinion was evenly split between some influence/a lot of influence on the game.  I am uncertain about whether to retain a mechanic like this, which penalises player choices.  The comment made by Hamish that I should incentivise the actions I want to see in the game, rings true.  The mechanic started from trying to balance troop reserves, versus troops on the map, with the idea being that a too aggressive player would eventually run out of reserves and have to stop attacking.

Where the mechanic really failed, was in that there were insufficient VP to be gained from land campaigns, and reserve units were irrelevant to naval campaigns.  I have some ideas for secret objectives, Hamish suggested I give people 1 VP for each attack they make … which will certainly encourage an offensive doctrine!  What do other people think of the idea?

Game Map and Tokens

The map was considered pretty good, so all the money spent on the laser printer and toner (about two grand) was worth it.  Game tokens worked well (they only cost $200), and I enjoyed not having to cut out a thousand cardboard counters!  The tokens will make an appearance in future games.  The naval dice worked okay, but the land dice were confusing, six different letters was just harder to sort out mentally.

Shells did not work too well, too damn fiddly, and we did not clearly explain or mark the different shell values.  Leader and support units also added to the clutter, and for port units, there was just too much stuff piling up in and around the port (which may be realistic, but did not help the game).

I was a bit stunned that pretty much everyone said multiple map tables was a bad idea.  While there is some friction in inter-map communication, having two tables reduces crowding around the table, which will be a problem if I have a game with less teams, with each team having more players.  There are practical limits to how big the map can be made (one axis of the map cannot be greater than two arm lengths, otherwise the middle of the map cannot be reached by GMs and players).  Size also increases the cost (colour toner is not cheap, and commercial printing now costs around $200 a time for a Grand Strategy game set, which is why I’m trying to do it at home for better quality control because sometimes I get a crap job at the commercial printers).

There were too many sea areas, and not enough Fleet units.  I will see if I can order more tokens, although if I reduce the number of sea zones and teams, I should have enough Battleship tokens for one fleet per sea zone.

Rules

People felt they best understood the naval rules, with land combat and movement rules being the least understood.  Its clear with the benefit of hindsight, that the land rules were too complex, which combined with too much clutter on the land map (six different unit types, shells, leaders, trying to count hex ranges, etc), made the game much harder to play, and the turns much longer to play.  A side effect of complicated rules, is that it becomes too risky to allow players with a weak understanding of them near the dice, forcing teams to rely on the player with the best rules knowledge to do everything. Which is not what I want in a team game.

The push back, advance/retreat rules were insufficient.  This was bad design on my part.

Some players commented on the GMs grasp of rules being not good enough.  This is what playtesters of my Housewar game refer to as the “Dillon-in-a-box” problem.  As much as I try to write good rules, its very hard to get alignment of understanding between all the GMs, which is why I try and “float” rather than run a specific part of the game.  I try and spend time in the first turns watching the GMs and hoping it all works out with no major problems.

Trade/Economy

Seemed to work okay. Its definitely useful having options for people to do when away from the map table.  Most people were only busy about half of the time, so there is scope for expanding off-map actions.  Most people found it took a bit of effort to collect cards.  I did not collect data on the size of card sets handed in, so I would appreciate feedback on whether or not people were trying for five of any kind, five of one kind, and any other tactics used to boost trade returns.

There was some clear feedback, that players wanted more control over unit builds in the game, rather than being straitjacketed by the pre-game strategic options.

The Big Push Mechanic – Table Time

This was another experiment/innovation.  Early on, bids were low , then increasing (6, 10, 12, 31 were the winning bids in turns 1-4).  It was successful as an economic sink for shells, but as shells were almost useless, it was not an interesting decision to be making.  With only four turns played, only two teams had extra actions.  I suspect this was just too powerful in an eight team game, but may work better in a five team game.

Player preferences for accessing the map were:

  1. One random action per team per turn (40 per cent)
  2. Determine team actions through other mechanics (30 per cent)
  3. One fixed order action per team per turn (20 per cent)
  4. Purchase all  time at table (10 per cent).

Two-thirds of players were happy with two minutes per turn, with feedback that the two minutes should be strictly enforced, but a quarter of players wanted a minimum time guarantee, with an option to purchase more time.  One player suggested longer turns at the start, explicitly for learning the game, with shorter turns later on.

“There’s a really cruel tension here between being a hardass with the time (which is required if you want to get through the number of turns you need to get through) and helping confused newbies.”

Team Size

Most people liked being in small teams of 2-3 players.  If I reduce the number of teams, however, then either I have to cap the total number of players at a level lower than you get at Buckets, or just have teams with 4-5 players.  People also indicated a preference for having more than five teams, and as the number of teams is one of the most important factors in determining the time each game turn takes, this runs against the wish expressed for more turns to be completed.  While 60 per cent of players preferred resolving actions with their team present, 40 per cent did not, and I suspect if had teams of 8+ people, that team mates would increasingly get in the way of each other.  Its a hard thing to balance.

At a minimum, I should try for a team marker on name tags for future games, so players can identify teams more easily.

Other Player Suggestions

Simultaneous resolution of map actions – this is possible, but only if the rules are no more complex than for the DIPLOMACY boardgame. Otherwise the GMs vanish for half an hour and nothing appears to happen with the game.

Trading turn/initiative cards with other teams – this could be fun, I’ll keep it in mind.

Solo player roles outside the team win/lose framework – quite possible, having journalists whose job it is to produce in-game newsletters has been done before, and I have also had foreign diplomats or mercenaries in games in the past.  One thing to note, however, is that it is common for solo players to be more or less permanently recruited to aid a team, and if a team is aggressive at this recruitment it can gain a considerable advantage.

Project the table into another room – possible, but its another bit of tech to be purchased or borrowed, and more set up time (and the game does take hours to set up for one person). Ideally someone would volunteer to set this up for me…

Announce last turn loud and clear – yes, this could have been done better.

More diplomacy during the game – yes, I have some ideas for this.

More VP rewards for countries – yes, definitely needed more VP on the main land continent.

More off map activities – yes, definite scope for adding some more trade, espionage and diplomacy options.  We are limited, in that all off map stuff needs to be transparent and easily mapped to the hard state of the main game map (otherwise we get close to creating an extra quasi-map table with all its associated friction for keeping the two sets of information in alignment).

Low risk actions for newbies – this is tricky, if its low risk then its also likely to be low-value.  If there is actually more to do at the map tables, then this may reduce the problem as even the newbies need to be doing something in the time allowed.

Brief Overview of Past Grand Strategy Games

First, my record keeping is not the greatest.  I started doing these style of games around 20 years ago, as an evolution from the Freeform/LARP games I had run at games conventions.  So what these comments are, is highlights that have stuck in my memory, cool stuff players did, and spectacular mistakes on my part.

A Medieval Civil War

For this game, almost everyone started as a solo player, and we went through an extended diplomacy phase before the map wargame began. I was surprised that out of 30 odd players we ended up with two teams of 14-15 players, and one solo Necromancer who ran around plague bombing cities.  My lesson, if players can choose teams, they will invariably choose to be on the largest possible team, in order to maximise their chances of survival. Also memorable for Stephen Hoare, noticing the “here be dragons” icon on the map, asking me if there were Dragons.  I did a “can neither confirm nor deny” speil, and Stephen ran around telling everyone he had control of the Dragons.  Players asked me to confirm this, and I repeated the “can neither confirm nor deny” line, so Stephen ended up with some massive bribes.

Peace Treaties

This was a post-great war “treaty of Versaille” style game.  So one subset of players was playing out the Russian civil war, while everyone else was playing a pure diplomacy game.  My big mistake was having a traitor on a team, but only on one team.  In hindsight, high level politicians are unlikely to betray their own country from malice, and the traitor screwed their team beyond recovery.  Design lesson: no traitors, or everyone has traitors.  I don’t think the mix of war and peace worked well, as the two games played out independently of each other.

Empire, Houses, Rebels, and Horde

The map was a bit awkward, in that it was a mixture of fixed nodes connected by lines, and zones that some teams could move through easily, and other teams not at all. The Emperor wanted to remain Emperor, the Houses wanted to be Emperor, and the Rebels wanted to overthrow the Empire, while the alien horde (played by Zane Bruce) wanted to eat everyone.  It worked okay, but it was noticeable that the solo player for the alien horde was much more effective with map actions, as he did not have to consult with anyone.  For that reason I have been wary of giving solo players significant military assets in future games.

Decline & Fall of the Solar Empire

One of my best games, but it ran very late.  It was a mixture of strategic map movement, and tactical combat on mini-maps using a detailed system that required players to design and build warships.  The combat system consisted of probing shots to eliminate decoys, and then hammering the big guns when you found a real target.  Four teams of rebels competed to overthrow the Evil Empire (run by GM NPCs following a script).  In the concluding battle, one sharp eyed player spotted that the hidden counter for the Emperor’s Flagship was 2mm smaller than the other ships, and probed it.  A GM turned to me (the evil Emperor) and said I should retreat, so I wheeled out the “Evacuate in our moment of triumph? I think you oveerstimate their chances!” line from Star Wars, got destroyed, and then forced the GMs to fight a civil war while the few rebel survivors watched…

Decline & Fall of the Galactic Empire

A fairly forgettable game.  It was pretty bland.  I have tried to avoid symmetrical maps since then.  I remember being very annoyed with a player who deliberately trashed the map at the end of the game, preventing useful post-game discussion.

Matrix Games – Dragon Empire

A narrative mechanic system, where players wrote arguments for what happened next.  Theme was succession dispute in a Chinese Empire.  There were riots. GM resolution was a choke point, and because arguments did not succeed (especially if opposed by other players) it was possible to go for a long time with no effect on the game.  It is a good way to generate random events though, so I may use it in the future again.  See http://hamsterpress.net/ for more about Matrix Games.

Flower Power

One of my best games, fondly remembered for the epic last minute thwarting of the Begonian menace.  I had a lot of teams, and a lot of solo player roles, and a few LARP elements involving the RANT drug.  For whatever reason, the chemistry of the game just worked, and there was a strong narrative conclusion that was very satisfying.

Fortress America

A bit of a disaster.  Too many units, too many different types of dice, too complex a rule system. I never want to have a game involving nukes again, because players in a game do not behave like political leaders in real life.  Because people did not understand the rules (my fault, poor design) the invasion forces never got off the beaches, so we never felt like the game was reaching a climax.  Oddly enough, players most enjoyed the bombing raids, because you used an abstract force against a  specific target in an easily identifiable way.

Survivor: Dark Lord

An experiment, with everyone starting on the Dark Lord’s team, and through assassination and execution, becoming rebels.  Player feedback was strong on not liking being assassinated and having to start over, fun, but not a game for investing much in your strategy.  Simeon Lodge’s dark lord costume was epic.  The auction/exploration system for relics was flawed, too easy for player collusion or too rewarding for standing in line for a minute. Combat was based on DUNE and very unforgiving.

Colossus of Atlantis

I tried for a more of research based game, with cooperation and conflict mechanics.  The map was a bit too bland.  Where the game fell down badly was the political system, based on Athenian democracy the players broke it in the first turn.  By changing the rule of the speaker being determined by lot, to elected, the speaker became speaker for life, because whenever a vote was held on the office, people filibustered the vote until the clock ran out.  Realistic, but very frustrating in an actual game.  Lesson learned: don’t let players change the meta rule structure easily, and flagpost the consequences of doing so more strongly.  This may have been the first multi-map table game.

Voting is useful, in games focusing on competition within a state.  Voting systems between sovereign states tend to be consensus based (i.e. everyone has a veto) which tends to create stalemates (which are not fun).

American Apocalypse

Not my worst game, but there was a lot of inter-map table friction, and meta-gaming of the map queues to prevent other players having a fair go.  The economic system collapsed quickly, and everyone was starving to death. It may have been too easy to trade territory, and the end of the game felt a bit flat.  Units were an evolution of the Atlantis game, with each unit having four strength attributes, but as the economic system fell over, so did the combat system, and it became too easy for some players to win cheap victories.

Sun and Starship

I tried to model this game on the Byzantine strategic situation of being a central power playing off external rivals.  I was undone by Gerald’s pirate alliance, and the lack of capital defences to keep the pirates out. So we quickly had pirate emperors.  Learning from Atlantis, the political side was improved, and the Imperial Council was a fun alternative to map/trade actions.  Not enough trade cards, and too many on map counters was the feedback.

Thoughts for Pax Victoria II

Victory Conditions

  • Trade Victory: ship trade goods off-world for VP (an economic sink)
  • Diplomatic Victory: all any four teams to jointly agree to enforce peace, they end the game and allocate 100 VP between them all five teams, minimum one VP per team.
  • Aggression Victory: each player allocates secret VP objectives for their nation (City, Mine, Sea Zone, Railway connecting two cities) with a 1 VP, 3 VP, 6 VP, and 10 VP objective being chosen by each player.  All objectives must be controlled by other nations at the start of the game (except rail, which can be partially in your country).  Objective VP are cumulative (i.e. if a city is worth 3 VP for one team and 6 VP for another team, its worth a total of 9 VP).

Another way of doing the Diplomatic Victory is to have a list of five or six “political issues” (such as native rights, taxation, etc) and for each state to get different VP (which are secret) based on what outcome is agreed at the conference table.  This allows a bit of roleplaying in the game too.

Teams

  • Combine Oxbridge-Mercia, Rent-Tyneshire, and Rutland-Redwall into joint teams (reducing the number of teams from eight to five)
  • Allow players to nominate themselves to be a formal team leader

Time and Motion

Option (a) 25 minute turns, if push actions take two minutes, GM phase three minutes, then seven teams get two and a half minutes each.  If only five teams, then four minutes each.

Option (b) 25 minute turns, push action takes two minutes, GM phase three minutes, but the other teams get an amount of time determined by other game mechanics. For five teams:

  • one team gets two minutes
  • one team gets three minutes
  • one team gets four minutes
  • one team gets five minutes
  • one team gets six minutes.

Rules

  • Build a one page summary that focuses on turn process (where to be, what to do)
  • Main rules (how to do)
  • Guide Book (why to do)

I am investigating options for videoing a short “how to play the game” clip for YouTube.

Game Map

  • Reduce the number of sea zones.
  • Align sea zones to initial national border boundaries.
  • Add rail lines between all adjacent nations.
  • Start with all mines under player control.

Turn Resolution

Door GM displays the turn initiative order on a wall mounted display board.

  1. Door GM announces start of your team’s turn.
  2. Your team enters the room.
  3. GMs in the map room instruct the previous team that their turn has ended and they must step away from the table now.
  4. Perception Phase – team members may look at map and talk, but not touch tokens. Team leader chooses when Execution phase starts.
  5. Execution Phase – team members can touch tokens and talk with GMs, but not with other players.
  6. Door GM announces start of the next team’s turn.
  7. Collect Build Order sheet on the way out, with economic summary filled out by a GM.

While the last team is filling out its build orders for the next turn, the Big Push action is resolved. One team gets a Naval push, and one  team gets a Land push.  Only one person is sent into the room for the push action from each team.

What I hope here, is that the social dynamic of the next team being in the room, will essentially embarrass the team at the table into moving away as fast as possible.  GMs are soft-hearted creatures and hate telling people to stop having fun at the table…

Leader Units

Removed from game to reduce clutter and allow players free choice as to where they want to act.

Shells

Removed from game. Players can ignore supply if it looks like they can connect to a friendly city (no hex counting or bean counting required).

Artillery and Cavalry Units

Removed from the map table, these become an abstract resource any General can call on.  Each time they are used, the total resource available is reduced by one (or, the resource is reduced if you roll a -1 result on the dice).

Guards Units

Rename Marines. Specific role is amphibious operations.

Fortress Units

Remove supply/movement role.  Only remaining role is a bonus die for defence/impede advances post-combat.

Ground Movement

Three hexes plus unlimited rail movement. I don’t expect much movement with the unit changes and reserve unit rules, but players may want to withdraw to rough terrain.

Ground Combat

Cap at six dice (down from nine).  Artillery bonus dice cannot exceed dice from regular units. Cavalry do not contribute dice, only bonus hex capture if you win.

Change die facings to -1, 0, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2.  The number is the number of hits generated in battle.  All -1 results hurt the attacker.  As well as numbers, I can make the printed labels different colours (black for -1, red for 2) for faster identification.

Reserve Units

There is only ever one front line.  There is no game benefit from having a double line of units.  All invasions must overcome an assumed coastal defence force (port cities are harder than beaches).  After combats/invasions, GMs automatically fill out the gaps in the front line with fresh units (unless no units are available).  So apart from the front line, and fortress units, there should be almost no other clutter on the game map to worry about.  Dead units are not available for reserve unit use.

Naval Combat

Change die facings to -1, 0, 1, 1, 1, 2.  The number is the number of hits generated in battle.  All -1 results hurt the side rolling the dice (different from land combat).

A Mership is removed by one hit.  A Submarine is removed by two hits. A Battleship is removed by three hits.

Trade

Have cards that can be traded for economic, espionage, and/or research benefits.  Economic benefit – increase unit builds and trade cards in future turns.  Espionage benefit – increased time at the game table, bid for Push actions, trying to uncover secret VP objectives, and pay for spies in the map room during other teams action turns.  Research benefit – unlock and build airpower options.  With a smaller number of teams, trade options may be more restricted, and the overall number of cards may be lower.

What I am considering is a move away from absolute trade numbers, to relative trade numbers.  In a relative system, the value of your set hand in is compared to what the other teams cashed in that turn, and based on that rank you get a fixed return.  This allows the economic growth/build to be more predictable, and also gives players something else to worry about (sure, you have an awesome trade set, but is now the right time to cash it in?).  I am open to suggestions for ways of making trade more interesting, but not too overpowered.

Trade is risk free … I would like there to be some opportunity for treachery or disasters, but its very difficult to enforce without GM presence and attention, otherwise players can just agree to hide the bad cards and pretend they never existed.  Any clever suggestions for how I could make nasty stuff happen with trade?

Strategic Options

Options do two things. First, they increase the number of units you have at the start of the game. Second, they reduce the cost of building that type of unit during the game.

So a standard build cost for, Battleships for example, might be 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, where the first build costs one point, and building three units costs (1+2+3) six points.  With a few strategic option points pre-game the build chart (pre-printed for GM/player convenience) might look more like 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, so building three units only costs (1+1+2) four points.

Research

I do not want players to research an “I win” button.  Air power is a logical are for research to focus on for a WWI/Great War themed game.  Air power starts at zero for all nations.  Because of the low manpower and resource cost, it can be quickly developed into a formidable war machine.  But due to the rapid evolution of air technology, if not maintained, it will quickly decay away into obsolesce.

Most airpower research = +5 airpower units (for a five team game)

Least airpower research = +1 airpower units (or zero if zero research)

Airpower template card, place in the ocean alongside the front border between two hostile nations, allocate air power counters as you see fit. Counters can move to any other card template.  Counters cannot move after combat.

Counters have four missions (missions must be unlocked by research, with scouting coming first, then superiority, and finally tactical/strategic airpower roles)

  • Superiority (destroying enemy airpower)
  • Scouting (getting espionage cards)
  • Strategic (strategic bombing of cities)
  • Tactical (tactical ground support of combat operations)

Strategic bombing range is equal to one hex per game turn (so unlikely early on, quite easy after a few turns) or a product of further research.

Air Process for active team:

  1.  Move air counters between different fronts and missions. One mision per counter per turn.
  2. Choose to engage in superiority battle, or not
  3. Choose to scout, or not
  4. Choose to bomb, or not.

Superiority Missions

  • Only units on Superiority missions can ever destroy other air counters
  • Calculate dice as per naval battles
  • Roll for both sides
  • A -1 reduces your airpower counters by one, other hits reduce enemy airpower, players who are defending do not suffer strength loss from -1 rolls, as their aircraft can be salvaged and repaired
  • After battle, stronger side is superior, otherwise neither is superior

NB: Superiority is the decisive air combat mission that enables success at all other air missions.

Scouting Missions

  • As above, but hits generate Espionage cards
  • If enemy is superior, they attack you before you roll dice, if you are superior, they attack you after you roll dice, units destroyed before you roll dice do not roll dice.

Strategic Mission

  • As per Scouting Mission
  • Economic attacks, damage does not accumulate, first “1” hit is -1 Trade card, first “2” hit is -2 Trade cards, additional hits inflict VP damage, which can accumulate

Tactical Mission

  • As per Scouting Mission
  • If not destroyed by enemy, add one die to a ground combat operation (this will require coordination with other players).

Finish

Okay, this post clocks in at over 5,000 words, a new record for this blog!

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