Colossus of Atlantis at GENCON

August 23, 2017

So I went to GENCON and ran my Colossus of Atlantis Megagame with 27 players and a control team of eight players (including myself). The game mostly worked, most of the time, which is about as good as you can hope for a Megagame.

The overall outcome was that Atlantis did not sink, but Europe did, and the two high-Kudos teams merged together to dominate that generation of Atlantean politics (with a Kudos score of 12,261). As in the previous game, players started changing the rules so that DOOM tokens were treated as an efficient energy resource, being renamed mid-game as “Destiny” rather than DOOM. The final Destiny score was 1,517, and the Destiny score required to sink Atlantis was 2,000. Over half of the Destiny points were gained in the last turn, due to the sinking of Europe.

Possibly the best compliment I had came a couple of days after the game, when one of the players said to me that while the game was complicated, it had worked smoothly. The half hour lunch break proved essential, given the distance to food vendors and washrooms. One team turned up in full on ancient costumes, a trident, and brought delicious cupcakes and other treats with them that they shared around.

2017-08-17 14.13.12That the game went well was in no small part due to the Control team, with Catherine McNamara doing number collation for DOOM and Kudos, Witt Yao handling hatred scores and the rival empires, and Jesse, Jessica, Peter, Joseph, and Benjamin on map table duties. This is the biggest control team I have had for a game, and everyone did well for not having been run through how the game worked prior to GENCON. It is a blessing back in Wellington, that I can often recruit my mini-game playtesters for Control duty.

2017-08-17 14.13.46I think I definitely want to be using a PA system again in the future, if I have a large hall space. Otherwise my voice would have been lost in the vast space of the Lucas oil Stadium. The PA let me focus on timekeeping, along with using a countdown timer on my smartphone, to keep things mostly moving along after the long first turn. We finished seven complete turns, rather than the hoped for eight turns, a result similar to the last play at Kapcon in January. The projector screen that the Megagames Coalition hoped to have for GENCON fell through, and another suggestion at one of the design seminars was to play countdown videos off You Tube to help with time keeping.

2017-08-17 14.14.08Now for the initial feedback from players and Control broken down into Keep, Stop, Start themes, with my own comments following in italics:

KEEP

  • Council options – after looking at how these played out, I think the game would play better with a reduction in the overall number of options (and many of them were duplicated between Councils)
  • Separate map tables – after looking at the size of the tables we had at GENCON and the maps the other coalition games had, I wish my map tiles were bigger, but back in Wellington there was only just enough room for the map tiles, player cities, and other game resources.
  • modifying and writing laws – I had some feedback that the delay in getting a law ratified by the Council of Law made some players uninterested in trying this option. The problem with a same turn change lies in communicating the change to all of the other Councils, players and Control (possibly this could be done in something like the Watch the Skies press conference/media phase).

2017-08-17 14.45.03STOP

  • too many tokens – I agree with this, but I need to think about which tokens can be dropped. I can also just try and reduce the rate at which tokens fountain into the game so that handling them is easier.
  • too many rules – see comment on rules clarifications below
  • unit caps made armies depend on upgrades too much – one problem here was a hard limit on the number of counters (everything for the game had to fit in one suitcase), if I had dropped to five players per faction, everyone could have had an extra token of each of the three unit types, but increasing maximum force sizes makes it harder for players who have been defeated to make a come back later in the game
  • the d4 was too weak – another way of doing dice for the game would be to use d6s and d12s, this would also be cheaper. I did have exploding d4s in the previous version of Colossus but this tended to extend combat time rather than change combat outcomes.
  • factions having two players at one map table (and thus dominating that table) – this was a feature of having five map tables and teams with six players, I was dithering over whether or not to drop the spy player role and have five teams of five rather than four teams of six, and went for the latter option on the day. If I had one more Control available I could have run a sixth map table.
  • wonder stacking – this would have been less problematic if each House could only buy each Wonder once, and I note here that the Council of Wonder unanimously passed a resolution to allow players more flexibility in the purchases (i.e. making it easier to stack wonders).

2017-08-17 14.45.48START

  • some people liked the abstract region map, others wanted something more like a contemporary map
  • make chaos happen earlier – Colossus is a very player driven game, so if the players choose to cooperate over territory division, not a lot happens. I did have feedback that the rival empires needed to be stronger/scarier (and I was deliberately avoiding making them too strong in this game)
  • more time for discussion planning and trading – another good reason to try and trim some parts of the game
  • more rule clarifications – this makes the rules longer, and I am not sure what a good length for a Megagames rule book is and I was aiming to keep the main rules to 13-14 pages. It will always be too short for some players, and too long for others.
  • Kudos cards drawn over a certain amount should give a static result – because of the number of cards drawn due to some wonder stacking, some people ended up having to count 160 Kudos cards in one game turn.
  • upgrade cards should be single use – I agree with this, but worry about them being hoarded for the last turn (I don’t think people carrying 20+ cards in their pocket is elegant design) so another option is to require them to be used in the following game turn (or to pay a higher cost for a more flexible use)

2017-08-17 14.14.27

NEXT STEPS

After this game, and the opportunity to see several other Megagames in action I have some thoughts on what to do for the next iteration of Colossus:

  • In some ways the easiest resource token to drop is Talents. Each of the remaining six resources could then be the key resource for one of the six player roles (Kudos for Generals, Cogs for Spies, Arete for Kings, DOOM for Sorcerers, Vril for Architects, and Orichalcum for Merchants) with that resource being needed to purchase/use upgrade cards or to activate certain Council options.
  • Player role briefs should have more information on council options and upgrade cards.
  • To make the map easier to understand in the early-game, each region should only spawn one type of resource. So land would spawn Arete cards, coastal regions spawn Orichalcum, rival empires spawn Vril, cities spawn Cogs, and Kudos and DOOM tokens depend on winning/losing battles.
  • To make dividing the map up evenly between layers less dominant as a strategy, Control will vary the number of resource tokens/cards each region spawns.
  • Oaths did not get a lot of use, perhaps half a dozen times in the game. Perhaps I should drop that mechanic?
  • Perhaps rival empire attacks should be driven by player bribes?

2017-08-17 14.45.13

Colossus is next going to be run in the Seattle region in the next few months, so I am going to be trying to do a quick turn around on small changes to the rules by mid-September. Feedback is welcome here, as are any stories about events that happened in the game which I missed.

 


Settlers of R’lyeh

July 12, 2017

This is a hack of the Settlers of Cattan game, using some of the figures from Cthulhu Wars. Although I see dreams of madness have inspired other designers along similar lines, what I offer here is a small island somewhere in the South Pacific, some fever dream ridden settlers, in a desperate race to complete a great temple and then join their Deep One cousins forever before R’lyeh sinks beneath waves again.

Shoggoth by Nottsuo <http://nottsuo.deviantart.com/art/Shoggoth-594261203&gt; CC 3.0 License.

Prepare to play Settlers of Cattan as normal, but grab the Cthulhu figure from your Cthulhu Wars set and replace the Robber pawn with Great Cthulhu. Place Cthulhu beneath the sands that cover the city of R’lyeh (i.e. on the Desert tile). Replace the Knight cards with Cultists from Cthulhu Wars, and grab a High Priest figure if available.

To set the right tone, I suggest playing at night, with candles, while playing A Shoggoth on the Roof.

The Stars are Right

When a player rolls a seven, the stars are right, and Cthulhu wakes. Move Cthulhu to any hex tile on the Cattan map. Do not discard Resource cards. Instead the player who rolled the seven has a number of destruction points equal to the lowest die on their dice roll that turn. For example, if a player rolled a 5 and a 2 for the stars are right, then they have two destruction points.

For each destruction point the player must either:

  • remove one road
  • downgrade a city to a village
  • remove one village

All tokens removed or downgraded must be adjacent to the tile that Cthulhu now occupies. All destruction points must be used if possible, even if this means a player must remove or downgrade their own game tokens, or must place Cthulhu to revel and slay in gay abandon in a tile that is not the player’s preferred choice. You cannot move Cthulhu to a tile where it inflicts no destruction, unless there are no player tokens left on the map.

If you downgrade a city and the player controlling the city has no village token that can replace it with, then that player must place a village token from another player of their choice, as the inhabitants join another splinter sect of the cult of Great Cthulhu.

The stars are right effect is also triggered if a player must apply the deluge effect due to inability to acquire resource cards (see The Deluge section below).

Cultists

When you play a cultist card you dream of Great Cthulhu, and then move the Cthulhu figure and apply all of the stars are right effects with the dice roll you made that turn.

Tip: for maximum impact, wait until a turn where you roll a double 4, 5 or 6 before using your cultists.

The first player to gain three Cultists gains the High Priest figure (if you do not have one, use a Cultist figure of a different colour). This does not count as an extra Cultist and merely serves as a reminder that you have the biggest cult. If another player ever has more Cultists than the player with the High Priest figure, they immediately take the High Priest figure.

High Priest

If you have the High priest when the stars are right, then your destruction points are equal to the higher of the two dice. For example, if a player with the High priest rolled a 5 and a 2 for the stars are right, then they have five destruction points.

Note: unlike the bonus for holding the largest Army card in a regular Settlers of Cattan game, holding the High Priest does not grant two bonus VP.

2017-07-12 15.35.30

Cultist, Cthulhu, and High Priest figures from Cthulhu Wars

The Deluge

If a player has no village or city tokens on the game map when the stars are right, or they no longer have the ability to get any resource cards from their remaining villages or cities when it is their turn, they must apply the deluge effect:

  • after moving Cthulhu and applying destruction effects from the stars are right, invert the tile Cthulhu occupies. This represents R’lyeh slowly sliding back beneath the waves and is a permanent change.
  • remove the circular numbered token from the inverted tile – it no longer generates resources.
  • if any road token now has inverted tiles on both sides, remove it from the board as the local geometry becomes non-Euclidean.
  • if any village or City is now completely surrounded by inverted tiles, remove it from the board. Their inhabitants have gone to join the Deep Ones.
  • road, village and city tokens removed by deluge effects are removed permanently and cannot be rebuilt later in the game.

Winning the Game

It is possible no player will reach 10 victory points before the deluge effect sinks R’lyeh below the waves, in which case dread Cthulhu wins. If a player reaches 10 VP first, they complete the great temple, and join the Deep Ones below the waves forever. All the other players should make “glub blub blub” noises as their settlers drown.


Pools

July 5, 2017

One of the key themes I am planning to incorporate into an Operation Unthinkable Megagame is that after almost six years of a world at war, most of the combatants want nothing more than to go home. So there will be a mechanical thread running through the game of a “clock” of political will that is running out of time. I also needed a way of modelling initiative at a theatre level, logistics and replacements, military capabilities, and all the wunderwaffe of alternate history. My ideas have developed a bit since my last post.

1945-05-01GerWW2BattlefrontAtlasFirst, for logistics, I started with some data on comparative munitions production by the allies in 1944 (the original numbers were something like millions of tons of munitions a year). This broke down as follows:

  • Canada – 1.5
  • United Kingdom – 11
  • USA – 42
  • USSR – 16

Because the UK and USA have commitments in the Pacific Theatre of Operations, I divided their scores in two, and added the Canadian score to the UK score to reach:

  • UK and allied forces (Canada, Poland, etc) – 7
  • USA and allied forces (Free France, Brazil, etc) – 21
  • USSR – 16.

This gives me a baseline score for how many supply tokens each side gets. Each token is a bonus attrition effect die to cause enemy casualties in battle.

While thinking about this, I was also thinking about the problem of how to determine which side starts the war, and how to handle initiative at the European scale. During the Second World War you generally had one side on the offensive, while the other side was on the defensive. A traditional I-go-U-go initiative system just did not feel right to me. So what I plan to try testing is having each side’s supreme command group (4-6 players) secretly allocate 100 points among the following five categories:

  • Alternate History
  • Initiative
  • Logistics
  • Military Capability
  • Political Will.

Alternate History

Alternate History points will allow players to use military capabilities that are not part of their historic force for mid-1945, including captured German equipment, vehicles that were only in prototype or blueprint form (such as high-altitude fighters for the USSR), and atomic weapons. It will also represent potential political choices, such as propaganda campaigns, influencing neutral nations, sending troops to secondary fronts like Greece and Norway, and redeploying forces from the Pacific. Some Alt-history cards are in both decks, so the first side to draw and spend the points for it gets it.

Each turn the Supreme command team will get to draw five cards for free. They can then spend Alternate History points to draw extra cards (the first card costs one point, the third three points, the fourth six points, etc). Each card has a cost to be played, either one, three, six, or ten Alternate History points. The cost will be weighted based on just how implausible the event is. For example, in the aftermath of WWII the Soviets managed to secure about 200 tons of Uranium oxide from German facilities, while the Western allies secured about 1000 tons. The allies let the Soviets have the plans for A9/10 rocket capable of reaching America, but there was no actual rocket prototype anywhere. So having a card option for a one-off dirty bomb is probably going to cost one or three alt-history points, getting a working A-10 ICBM is probably going to cost 10 alt-history points, and a German A-bomb to go in it another 10 alt-history points, as that is more alternative universe material than alternate history.

Initiative

The side that allocates the most points to Initiative is the side that starts with the initiative. In a tie, the western allies get initiative.

Victory conditions will then be switched so that the side starting the war is the side that needs to try and get to the far side of the game map to win.

When you have initiative, you get to make most of the attacks in the game, but you only have a finite number of supplies to help. When you do not have initiative, you get to stockpile supplies, accumulate replacements, and make limited counterattacks.

After each game turn, the supreme commander for each side makes a bid in initiative points. You must bid at least one point, and can bid up to half of your points. The side with the highest bid has initiative next turn. The losing side’s bid carries over to the next turn.

I think how this will play out is some back and forth, but the side with the higher pool should be able to do several two turn offensives, and a month of continuous operations is about the maximum that the Red Army could do in WWII.

Logistics

I discussed the baseline for logistics above. Allocating points to logistics increases the stockpile of supplies you have at the start of the game after the six week pause since the German surrender, and increases the baseline logistic supply (representing improved road, rail and port supply networks). I will apply a diminishing return here, possible a square root, so a 16 bid gets you +4 supplies and a 25 bid gets you +5 supplies.

Logistic points are also used to buy replacement cards to reinforce units suffering from battle casualties:

  • the UK and the USSR are both exhausted for manpower, barring play of some alt-history options, so each time they play their replacement cards it costs more
  • the USA has not exhausted its manpower, so has a fixed cost for replacements.

I am still thinking about whether airpower draws replacements from this pool, or has its own fixed schedule of replacements. I am leaning towards the latter option.

Military Capabilities

This pool is used to refresh military capability cards. These cards represent the chrome and colour of history, such as the Russian all female bomber regiment “the Night Witches”, or the deployment of the M-26 Pershing tank, as one use cards that grant a bonus.

Once used Military capability cards are returned to supreme command, who can spend points to regenerate the cards, and they then pass back down through the chain of command to front line commanders.

Political Will

Political will represents how long you can keep your armies fighting before you start to have major problems on the home front and the front lines. When your Political Will hits zero, the other side starts getting “Morale” cards that can be used to facilitate desertion from your combat forces, and to try and reduce your Political Will by an effect die roll.

Game options to increase Political Will will be rare. In most cases its just going to keep going down. Each turn you do not have initiative, you roll an effect die for Political Will loss. This is a cumulative effect. So the third turn in which you do not have initiative, you roll three effect dice. I may also have a drain on Political Will for key cities or river lines being taken/crossed by the enemy.

Back of the envelope calculation, for an eight turn game, you probably want a Political Will of 25+ to avoid having morale cards used against you. There is an obvious interaction with Initiative – a high Initiative pool means you will lose less will due to being on the defensive, but the combat advantage for being on the defensive should even this out a little.

The Effect Die

Events tend to have a no long term effect, a small effect, or a large effect. Borrowing from the 2d20 damage system when Operation Unthinkable  asks for an effect roll it means rolling a d6 for:

  1. A one point effect
  2. A two point effect
  3. No effect
  4. No effect
  5. A five point effect
  6. A six point effect.

Interaction Between the Pools

When any points pool, except Political Will, hits zero the following process is used.

  1. The Pool is refreshed to its current maximum score.
  2. Roll two effect dice, plus one effect die for each prior time the pool was exhausted.
  3. Each die roll must be applied to either Political Will or the Pool that hit zero.

For example, an Initiative Pool of 25 hits zero for the second time. The player rolls three effect dice and gets two, three, and five. The player chooses to reduce the Initiative Pool by two and Political Will Pool by five. So the Initiative Pool is now refreshed to 23. They could also have chosen to reduce either pool by seven.

When Political Will is reduced to zero:

  1. Refresh Political Will
  2. Give the opposing side a Morale card, plus one Morale card for each previous occasion Political Will hit zero
  3. Reduce all five option pools by one effect die roll.

If any pool is permanently reduced to zero, its zero effect is then applied each game turn. This will probably result in a collapse of Political Will in a few game turns.


Information Rich Combat Mechanics

June 13, 2017

The Modiphius 2d20 system is one I have used a couple of times to run convention games based around the Conan roleplaying game. I am thinking of adapting it for use in a Megagame.

First, a Quick summary of the 2d20 system:

  • You always roll at least 2d20.
  • You can roll up to three more d20s for situational modifiers, such as other players assisting you, to a cap of 5d20.
  • The roll is compared against an Attribute (usually in the 8-15 range) and a Skill (usually in the 1-5 range), potentially generating 0, 1 or 2 successes for each d20 roll
  • For example if you have an Attribute of 12 and a Skill of 3, and you roll 2d20 and get a 12 and a 2, you have three successes
  • If the number of successes equals the task difficulty, you succeed, and for each extra success you gain a point of Momentum
  • You can then spend Momentum to cool stuff in the game
  • Weapon damage is handled by rolling d6s
  • A damage roll of 1 or 2 inflicts damage equal to the roll, a roll of 3 or 4 does nothing, but rolls of 5 and 6 trigger special effects based on the weapon type (e.g. bypassing armour, or extra damage).

It recently occurred to me that I could adapt this as a mechanic for handling Army/Front level combat in Megagames. Traditional wargame mechanics often involve a lot of counting of various factors, followed by some maths as you try and make sure you reach the golden 3:1 ratio considered the minimum to ensure success in land warfare. In a Megagame there is no time for all this counting, you need to be able to take in the situation at a glance and get on with resolution. At the same time I want rich information from the combat result – if we are only doing a few combats each turn, then they need to actually move stuff around on the map and add to the game narrative.

ostfront-6-december-1941

The situation in Army Group Center’s sector of the Eastern Front on 6 December 1941. This is a German map, the Soviet reinforcements that are about to launch a counteroffensive are not on the map. Sourced from the Dupuy Institute blog.

Generally speaking, formations of Army/Front size are rarely destroyed in combat – the exceptions being encirclement (e.g. destruction of Army Group Center in 1944) and/or running out of space to retreat (e.g. British at the Fall of Singapore in 1942). What is important is how ready is the unit for further combat operations, and what is the momentum on the front.

So I am thinking of a mechanic where we are rolling d10s, and the important factors about a combat formation are readiness, on a 1-10 range, and quality, on a 1-5 range. A rested unit at full strength with brand new equipment would have a readiness of 10 (so most units would be rated nine or less). Quality is something that can be worked out based on historic performance (for World War Two, based on effectiveness scores from post-war quantitative analysis, I would put German units at 5-6, the  UK at 3-5, the USA units at 4-5, and the Russians at 2-3). Units roll a base 2d10, then +1d10 for each supporting unit flanking the enemy. Units then roll 2d6 for damage, but can spend supply points (or play special capability cards) to boost that up to 5d6 (I will have to playtest that cap, or perhaps allow it to be exceeded by special limited use cards).

The force being attacked also rolls for its defence, and the force with more successes is the force that gets Momentum points to spend. Units that are defending get bonus Momentum for defending river lines, urban terrain, mountains and prepared/fortified positions.

So we also rolled some d6 for damage, and while we throw away the 3-4 rolls as in 2d20, in this 2d10 system, the rolls of 1-2 are used for Attrition Effects and the rolls of 5-6 are used for Maneuver Effects.

Attrition Effects

Spend your Momentum points to reduce the targeted unit’s Readiness score by 1-2 points. The defender can also spend Momentum to hold the ground the occupy (the default assumption is that the attack does move the defender backwards) at a cost in Readiness.

In theory with 5d6, if you roll enough 2s you can take a unit from Readiness 10 to Readiness 0 in one attack, in practice its likely to take a while to grind forces down. At a glance in the European Theatre in World War Two, it was pretty hard for any force to sustain continuous operations with land forces for longer than a couple of months (the US/UK tended to run out of supplies first, the USSR to run out of tanks).

Maneuver Effects

This is where it gets more interesting and you can spend Momentum to:

  • reduce your own Readiness losses
  • reduce enemy Political Will (i.e. capture a large number of prisoners, or a city or other vital objective)
  • gain initiative for your side next turn
  • exploit the breakthrough (deep penetration and/or forcing flanking formations to retire)
  • capture enemy supplies that you overrun.

Using the two sets of dice, lets the game create a rich tapestry of potential game information. The downside is getting the players to make those decisions around spending Momentum quickly. This would be the key thing to stress test in playtesting the design.

Doctrine

One way of representing historic doctrine is to programme the first choice a side makes (or perhaps even the first two choices). For example, UK forces could be required to spend their first Momentum effect on reducing their own Readiness losses, Soviet forces on getting a breakthrough, and US forces on maintaining the initiative.

Initiative

I used to own a copy of a game called Renegade Legion: Prefect, which focused on hover tank battles on a planetary scale. The side that had initiative did nearly all of the movement and combat, while the side without basically sat there and hoped for a counterattack to give them the initiative. That concept bubbled to my head while thinking about this hack.

So my plan for this 2d10 system is that the side which starts the game on the attack holds the initiative. The initiative allows you to attack as many times as you like (up to one per Army formation). The side without the initiative gets a limited number of counterattacks. Both sides can spend Momentum on initiative, with a cumulative penalty for any side holding on to the initiative for consecutive turns. Another way of doing that might be to have an escalating supply cost, so you could hit a point where one side runs out of puff, no matter how well they are doing on the map. Frustrating, but a representation of Clausewitz’s theory of the culminating point.

A zero score for initiative could be taken as both sides are temporarily exhausted and spend a couple of weeks (or longer) resting or maneuvering before one side resumes offensive operations. Maybe both sides would be limited to a small number of attacks, like counterattacks.

Recovering Readiness

Units should recover Readiness quickly. Fifty percent of lost Readiness per two week turn seems okay as a starting position for playtesting. In this system I would just about never remove a unit from play, but at Readiness One I would not allow it to initiate attacks. Front lines would also be continuous – if you run out of actual Army formations, you would just deploy a Readiness One Battlegroup counter.

While Readiness should bounce up and down, quality would change only rarely – perhaps reflecting a unit gaining an elite reputation, or being issued with state of the art equipment in sufficient numbers to have an impact on operations (one Super Pershing does not a +1 Quality increase make).

…and now I really need to get back to revising The Colossus of Atlantis. GENCON is only 63 days away.

 


Hack what you like…

March 23, 2017

As my current Runequest campaign is drawing to a close I have done a little prep on my idea to hack Night’s Black Agents (a GUMSHOE variant for vampire hunting at a James Bond/Jason Bourne level of competence) into a SF setting (with some help from Ashen Stars). I was originally thinking something Star Wars Old Republic era, but I might try the Coriolis setting (Firefly meets Arabian Nights). I have not run GUMSHOE before and it will be interesting to try a new game system that requires a different level of self-discipline from the GM. For NAB you need to build your vampire conspiracy and your vampires before the campaign starts, and then stick to the decisions you made so that the clues the players acquire make sense for analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of their fearsome foes.

I have also been thinking about what to do after the next campaign is finished. While I have some setting ideas I want to explore, I am not sure which system to use, or if my ideas are strong enough to make a serious stab at designing a game. Bearing in mind a comment from a friend recently that he could design eight board games in the time it takes to design one roleplaying game, because roleplaying games are complex.

Key Roleplaying Game Design Articles that Influence my Thinking

These are articles and webpages that I keep coming back to for inspiration.

Vincent Barker, A Quick & Dirty Outline and The Fruitful Void.

Jared Sorensen, The Big Three Questions.

  1. What is your game about? This is the premise.
  2. How does it go about that? These are all the game elements.
  3. What does it reward? This is the game system.

John Wick adds a fourth question “How do you make this fun?”. Other people have added even more questions to the list.

Whitson John Kirk III, Design Patterns of Successful Roleplaying Games.

A few other random quotes on rpg game design:

  • The First law of RPG Design – A game is not about what it is about, but how it is about it (also known as Ebert’s First law).
  • The Rule of Jared – only roll dice when its important.
  • The Mearls Paradox – a roleplaying game that is complete is not a roleplaying game at all.
  • Jared’s Rule of Combat – Fight scenes need to be exciting. Combat does not have to be.

Specific Articles on Magic

Aliette de Bodard, Magic Systems and my world building process.

Brandan Sanderson, Sanderson’s Third Law of Magic (but follow the link to the post on the second law, its the most relevant to roleplaying games).

Roleplaying Game Design is Still a Contested Space

A few recent forum threads gave me a rehash of the GNS debates and similar history from the Forge era. The best concept I gained out of that time investment was the idea of focusing on the fiction you are trying to emulate. It also helped steer me towards realising that my creative agendas fall more in the “gamist” rather than the “simulationist” camps.

The most recent attempt at simulationist design I read, I stopped when it said as an example of play “Roll 15d10 to climb a wall…”. What I would rather have in a game is one die roll, or a dice pool of not more than 6-8 dice

Lessons learned from Kickstarters

There seem to be four kinds of successful gaming product on Kickstarter:

  1. Genuine innovation (the rarest beast).
  2. Ancillary products (dice and other gaming aids).
  3. Next Editions of an established gaming product.
  4. Love Letters to an older game that will never get a Next Edition again.

I also have to say, that after backing 66 projects since May 2013, that I am no longer enthused to back anything that does not at least have a quickstart or ashcan version (for an RPG) or a demo of a physical product (game aids). I think the only really innovative game I have backed is Blades in the Dark. The three games I have been waiting the longest on delivery were all “good ideas” from established designers and companies, but are now approaching two years overdue. While I suspect they will eventually deliver, I think in the last few years Kickstarter has become more of a place to take roleplaying games that are already 80-90% finished.

I do not have any interest in making ancillary products, and I do not have an IP to do a Next Edition with, so that leaves genuine innovation and love letters. Try as I might, I have not figured out a new and interesting way of rolling dice, or changing the practice of play around the gaming table. So that leaves taking the “love letter” approach to writing a game. Here I find my ideas keep returning to the D100 System. The game I would most like to pay homage to is Runequest 2nd edition, which packed an awful lot of game into 120 pages. It did this in large part by making a lot of the setting implicit in the rules, art, and examples of play. not by devoting large amounts of space to fluff text and short fiction.

Of course, there is a Next Edition of Runequest due out this year, and based on the designer blogs and draft I saw at GENCON, its going to be quite good. But there are at least two open license D100 systems on the market that I can use as a starting basis. “Hack what you like, to make what you love” as Vincent Barker put it. So that is where my thoughts are at right now, trying to innovate at the edge of the D100 system, and producing a focused setting with a light touch, the way RQ2 managed.

Now, I need to get back to drafting some Megagame rules…


The Galaxy Will Burn

February 9, 2017

The Galaxy Will Burn is the working title of my new Megagame design for Kapcon 2018. A whole bunch of ideas fell in place for this today, but first, progress report on my other games.

Colossus of Atlantis

I am part way working through working out an example of the revised Council mechanics. I decided to start with the Council of War, as that involves a lot of changes to all the systems for interacting with the enemy empires. The options are still a bit too raw for public exposure, but I think the process for the meeting as outlined below should be an improvement.

The Council of War

The Council of War meets in the Diplomacy Phase, after House meetings have finished. The Council of War meets for a maximum of five minutes. All actions at the Council of War are resolved in the following order:

  1. Quorum
  2. President of the Council.
  3. Council Actions.
  4. Research
  5. News
  6. Control administration.

1. Quorum

The Quorum for a meeting of the Council of War is 2/3 (round up) of the Strategos players. If the meeting starts late, the time allowed for the meeting is reduced.

2. President of the Council

The Strategos present at the start of the meeting with the highest Arête score is appointed as President. In the event of a tie in Arête, the older player is appointed. Strategos who are late to the meeting cannot be appointed as President.

3. Council Actions

Starting with the President, each player chooses one Council Action to resolve. After each player has made their choice, the President chooses which player makes the next choice. Each Council Action can only be chosen once per meeting. Players who are not present when it is their turn to act, forfeit their choice of Council Action for that meeting.

If the DOOM Action is chosen, the player must choose a second Council Action. If that action is an Arête Action, it becomes Corrupted.

Control can penalise any player taking too long to make a choice by taking one or more of their Arête cards away from them. Control will give a player a five second warning before doing this.

See below for detail on the different Council Actions available for the Council of War.

4. Research

Each player draws a random research advance. Player(s) that chose a research Council Action draw a second advance. Each player can then purchase one Strategoi research card – these act to upgrade Hero units.

5. News

It is the responsibility of the President of the Council to inform Control of any changes to the game that have resulted from Council Actions.

6. Control Administration

Each Council Action not chosen by a player now has its rewards increased, as indicated on its card.

My goal is to finish the game revisions before the GENCON website opens for game bookings on May 28.

Aquila Rift

This is my space pirates themed Megagame for Wellycon X. I have started a Facebook event for this game, and as usual that will be my recruitment ground for playtests and first comments on changes to the rules.

The current goal for Aquila Riftis to have a playtest set of rules by the end of February. At the moment the two key mechanics I want to nail are the movement and search rules. For movement I intend to have “star systems” connected by “wormholes”. Wormholes will be colour coded: Green (safe), Yellow (chance of delays), Red (chance of damage). I might have some wormholes restricted to a subset of the players, e.g. a route connecting two patrol bases might be coloured blue (no pirates allowed). For movement: all merchants, then all space patrol, then all pirates. When space patrol moves, they can spend fuel to deploy search tokens. If a pirate moves through a search token there is a chance they trigger a fight with a patrol vessel. If a pirate enters a system with a merchant, they then dice to intercept (ship quality counts, spend fuel to boost odds). A pirate that intercepts a merchant, captures the merchant (KISS). Combat only occurs between patrol and pirate ships. If you run out of fuel, take damage and jump to a base.

This is deliberately intended to be a simpler game than The Colossus of Atlantis. The three main player roles will be Governors, Space Patrol, and Pirates. There will not be a complicated trade system – a major reason for people being pirates is that its easier than working for a living. Any trade mechanic which allows players to get wealthy through legitimate trade therefore undermines the rationale for having a game about piracy.

First playtest will be in March sometime.

The Galaxy Will Burn

This Megagame will be a return to my favourite theme, the decline and fall of complex political organisations due to their own internal processes.

The main player role in this game, is that of sector governor, responsible for the administration and defence of several star systems. Every player in the game belongs to a public faction and a secret faction. Memberships do not overlap between the two factions. Your faction wins if at any point all members of the faction have been declared Emperor at least once. Game play is resolved through five minute turns, with a one minute gap between each turn. I may test some of the submechanics for this game (such as movement and combat) at the Aquila Rift game.

After each five minute turn, you must change the game table you are playing at. If you spent the last turn being a Governor at your home map table, this means either:

  1. Going to the Imperial Capital and trying to gain a seat at the cabinet table for the next committee meeting.
  2. Going to another map table, and spending the next turn there as a Raider.
  3. Taking a five minute break to do other things.

After a five minute turn at the Imperial Capital, you must change the game table you are playing at by either:

  1. Taking a five minute break to do other things.
  2. Going back to your home map and spending the turn as Governor.
  3. Going to any other game map table, and spending the next turn there as a Raider.

After a five minute turn as a Raider, you must change your game map table by either:

  1. Going back to your home map and spending the turn as Governor.
  2. Going to any other map table and spending the next turn there as a Raider.
  3. Taking a five minute break to do other things.

After a five minute break, you can return to play as a Raider or a Governor. It is deliberate that the only way you can move to the Imperial Capital is after a turn spent as a Governor. There is nothing to stop you from a life as a pirate (or having it forced on you lose control of your worlds as a result of imperial politics). While there will be some chaos, I am hoping this will lead to some interesting emergent play.

Rising Tensions

Each game turn, the number of recruits available to a player choosing to raid increases by one. If the political decision at the Imperial Capital supports a reign by a Strong Emperor, all the existing Raiders are removed, and the recruitment rate is reset to one plus the number of Strong Emperors in the game so far.

For example, during the first game turn Raiders recruit one ship. By the fifth game turn they will be recruiting five ships. If there is a Strong Emperor at the end of turn five, then in turn six the recruitment rate will be two ships, and in turn seven the recruitment rate will be three ships. If there is a second Strong Emperor at the end of turn seven, the recruitment rate in game turn eight will be three ships.

Each time a Strong Emperor is declared, the number of chairs around the Imperial Capital table is permanently reduced by one. This represents the trend in political systems to become closed to outsiders.

The Imperial Capital

At the start of the game there are 13 seats around the Imperial Cabinet table. These seats are given to the players willing to commit the most money. This is a one round auction – everyone writes and reveals their bid at the same time. The money spent is also your voting power while on the Committee (and you spend some on every vote you take part in). The chair of the committee is the player spending the most money on getting a seat at the table.
Each Cabinet session can address a range of topics, most of which channel perks and kickbacks to the players, but the crucial one is choosing a Strong Emperor. If this option passes, the Cabinet meeting immediately ends.

The Strong Emperor

The appointment of a Strong Emperor immediately ends the actions of all Raider players for the rest of the game turn, and removes all Raider ships from play.

The Emperor then has one minute to make any changes they deem necessary for the continued security of the Empire. Each change must be clearly enunciated and each change must be specific.

  • “mumble taxes mumble rhubarb atomic power mumble” – nothing happens because no one knows what the heck the Emperor meant
  • “The Dagobah system is now controlled by Governor Tarkin” – control of the named system changes to that of the named player
  • “All systems in the Coriolis Cluster are now controlled by Governor Cook” – change is too broad, each of the systems needs to be individually named.
  • “The Sixth Fleet moves to the Hoth system” – the move happens
  • “The Moth ball Fleet moves to the second map table” – change is not specific enough, a system name is needed.

After their minute of glory, each Emperor secretly chooses one of the possible endgame victory conditions and places it in a ballot box. When there is 30 minutes of game time remaining, one of these ballots is picked at random and announced to all players. The Emperor can tell people what option they chose, but is not required to tell the truth!

Victory Conditions

The game could end in any of the following ways:

  1. A civil war – players split into factions, and fight until only one candidate to the throne survives.
  2. Successor states – the faction controlling the most territory at the end of the game wins.
  3. Dark age – the faction with the most atomic power wins.
  4. Hedonistic twilight – the faction with the most money wins.
  5. Republic – the faction with the most status wins.

Combat

My plan is to keep combat simple.

  • Raiders and Battleships roll 1d6 per ship
  • Imperial Dreadnoughts roll 2+d12 per ship

For each matching die roll you have, you lose one ship. Yes, the more ships you have in a battle, the more ships you will lose. The rationale is that the battle is the result of the logistics cost of multiple small encounters.

Highest roll wins the battle.

Resources

Raiding gets you cash, and reduces the resource base of other players. Being Governor gets you a mixture of cash, atomic power, some status, and the chance to gain influence with the Imperial Fleet through successful combat operations against Raiders. Imperial politics can get you any of the above.


Colossus of Atlantis – Next Steps

January 29, 2017

First the bad news. I was going to try and run Colossus in Auckland at Battlecry in February, but I have cancelled as work is going to be very busy that week and because Battlecry does not have a confirmed venue due to insurance problems. The good news is that I am still on track to run Colossus at GENCON in August, and I will be designing a pirate themed Megagame for Wellycon in June. The working title for that game is Aquila Rift, and my plan is for the main player roles to be corrupt governors, underpaid space patrol captains, fat merchants, and a lot of pirates. I’ll post more about that in February.

I think the short summary of revisions I am planning is:

  1. Reduce the fountain of Talents into the game to align more closely with the expected spending by players each game turn.
  2. Reduce the fountain of Cogs and to make Cogs valuable to all player roles, by having all players have upgrade cards they can buy.
  3. Make each Council have a path towards defeating the enemy empires.
  4. Make each Council have a path towards a high risk/high gain VP goal.
  5. Provide more structure and clarity for the Council process, and more options for actions that Councils choose between.
  6. Making Challenges and city attacks easier to do in the game.

Some new ideas I want to explore in a future blog post are:

  1. Creating a research process that facilitates emergent play.
  2. Whether there is scope to add some more player roles into the game. I am thinking about Historians, Oracles, and mercenaries from the foreign empires.
  3. A few more bells and whistles on how DOOM is handled.
  4. Monster Blood as a resource.
  5. Reworking Votes (a democratic Athenian concept) into Arete (a Greek concept for virtue/excellence) as a resource used to control Councils and to activate some powerful game options.

The Fountain of Talents

At Kapcon the generals united against the enemy empires, and a large number of talents flowed into the treasuries as a result. Even without this bonanza few people struggled to rebuild lost forces or to fund other options. I want the decision to spend money to be interesting, not trivial.

At the start of the game, you will be able to spend 1-10 Talents per fundable city option (Hoplites, Triremes, and Magikos). So initially 30 Talents of income a turn would be handy. This matches the rough spread of incomes from contesting territory, and the baseline 10 talents per turn from holding your city.

The revision here, is that rather than city upgrades granting you free Hoplites, Triremes, or sacrifices in the city temples, it allows you to spend more talents. So if the initial cap on Hoplite builds is 10, and you upgrade it by five, now you can spend 1-15 talents a turn on building Hoplites. Not being able to so easily replace losses may also make players think more about running away when badly outnumbered.

The Fountain of Cogs

To make play simpler, I will cut down on the number of Cogs spawned into the game, but also reduce the cost of all upgrades or other gameplay options that require Cogs. The Cog income is Turn Number + Vril + (DOOM tokens x Turn number). For example, in turn 3 if you have one Vril token and spend two DOOM tokens then you will get 10 Cogs. This also makes Vril very different from Orichalcum – Vril gets you extra Cogs, Orichalcum gets you a +1 to a city build option that can be reassigned.

Every player role will have uses for Cogs. This means it will no longer be automatic when a team meets that they hand all their Cogs to one person. Cogs will represent innovation. One possible breakdown for what Cogs can be spent on could look like this:

  • Strategos will spend Cogs to purchase Hero upgrades
  • Philosophos will spend Cogs to purchase Sorcery cards (which then require DOOM tokens to play)
  • Arkitekton will spend Cogs to purchase City upgrades, or to gain discounts on the cost of constructing a Wonder
  • Basilieus will spend Cogs to purchase Colossus upgrades
  • Emporos will spend Cogs to create Trade deals.

2017-01-23-city-template

I have been reworking the City tile, making it more of a left to right read, with tokens being stacked up on the white space to the right, and space for Orichalcum and Vril to the left. This is not a complete revision! In this version, Magikos is compared to each player you face, so if you had a Magikos score of 12, and you fight two enemies with Magikos 13+ you would roll two Chaos dice. If one of then had Magikos 11 and the other Magikos 12, you would roll one Chaos die and one DOOM die, and if they both had Magikos 11- you would roll two DOOM dice.

Defeating the Enemy Empires

I think the Strategos at Kapcon had a good time working together to defeat the enemy empires. What I want to do next time is ensure that every Council has its own path to defeat the enemy empires, so that the decision about which path to take is a more interesting one. The broad themes I am imagining are:

  • Council of War – raiding the enemy empires to weaken them, then invading the enemy empire first with an Atlantean army, with the risk of the victorious commander then marching on Atlantis and making themselves Hegemon of all Atlantis
  • Council of Wisdom – defeating the enemy empires by researching powerful unique spells that strike them with plagues, earthquakes, tidal waves, etc., with the risk of the spells backfiring and increasing DOOM
  • Council of Wonder – defeating the enemy empires by building expensive Wonders that can be used for defence or in battle
  • Council of Law – assimilating the enemy empires through dynastic politics, or funding conflicts within the enemy empire
  • Council of Trade – ensuring peaceful coexistence with the enemy empires through trade agreements, with the risk that if they do attack the enemy empires will be more powerful.

All Councils will have a high risk/high gain Strategy

At Kapcon the council of War earned a lot of VP for all the Houses. The Council of Wonder was the biggest source of VP, but it was open ended based on talents thrown into this sink. Next time I want all the Councils to have a similar set of options that could gain a House 1,000 VP. The themes I am working on for the councils are:

  • Council of War – defeating the enemy empires creates large rewards of talents, VP and other resources (but see below for how I plan to handle it differently), but it also creates an army that might be strong enough for the general to march on Atlantis and make themselves sole ruler (idea taken from The Republic Rome boardgame)
  • Council of Wisdom – researching the path of ascension, finding what is required to become a demi-God, then attempting the heroic quests necessary to reach this goal (with the risk of being punished for all eternity by the Gods)
  • Council of Wonder -making big wonders will still generate VP, but it may be harder to finish projects and the VP will not be equal to the Talents thrown at the project, but if you manage to build seven wonders, you can be responsible for triggering the Golden Age of Atlantis
  • Council of Law – a political path towards becoming High King of Atlantis, such as successfully challenging all other Houses, and managing to sack at least one city controlled by each other House
  • Council of Trade – earning enough talents to complete the Colossus of Atlantis before another House builds it first. Might have another option about turning Atlantis into a Thassalocracy (a trading based maritime republic).

More Options at Council Meetings

While some Councils got a lot of Officers at Kapcon, others were short and thus had less to do. What I plan to do now is to adapt a mechanic I first saw in the Puerto Rico boardgame. Council meetings will have three steps:

  1. Determine how much Arete each player has. The player with the most Arete is President of the Council. Oldest player wins in a tie.
  2. The President makes the first choice among the options in front of the Council. Each option can only be chosen by one player each turn.
  3. The President then chooses who makes the next choice. That player then makes their choice, and chooses who will go next.
  4. Once all players have chosen, adjudicate results and collect rewards.
  5. Options not chosen, increase in value so they will be more tempting next turn.

I would give players thirty seconds to make a choice. I want there to be around 6-7 choices in front of them. Some options will be unique to the Council, e.g. the Council of Wonder builds wonders, others will be common between all Councils.

Common Council Options

These six options will probably be the core options. Each turn you get to pick between these and a couple of the unique council options. I will probably add a twist to each of the corrupted options, so this is by no means complete. This set up is similar to one I used in a version of my Decline and Fall of the Galactic Empire baordgame.

  • Arete: gain Arete.
  • Corruption: gain Talents.
  • DOOM: gain a DOOM token and choose one of the other options. The option you choose is now corrupted, flip the option card over. Anyone choosing a corrupted option also gets a DOOM token. Corrupting an option a second time has no further effect.
  • Kudos: gain Victory Points.
  • Research: gain Cogs, a bonus research token. If corrupted, also choose an option from the next deck of cards and add it into the current deck.
  • Scandal: Spend Arete and gain a challenge token for use against one of the other Houses. If corrupted, this option does not cost you Arete.

Note: I am thinking of having a research process that has unpredictable emergent patterns, so that different players will have different costs for each upgrade, thus creating  natural opportunities for trade deals between players. I’ll try blogging about that idea soon.

Unique Council Options

These options will vary between Councils, but their may be synergies between the two councils. Each Council will have one deck for the first half of the game, a second deck for the rising tensions of the second half of the game, and a Last Turn Madness deck for the last turn of the game. These options will be more powerful than the common options, but require a player to either spend some of their Arete in order to be successful, or to roll dice and hope for luck. In order for the madness cards to have their desired effects, I am thinking of inverting the standard turn sequence in the last game turn, i.e. resolve the diplomacy phase first, and the map phase second. This would also mean getting two Diplomacy stages in a row.

I will not try and cover all five Councils here, but looking at the Council of War, its options might be something like this.

  • First deck – Armaments: increase the strength of the Army of Atlantis. Raids: player can attack an enemy empire (resolve on their map table next turn) with their House forces.
  • Second deck – Foreign Wars: Player can start a war with an enemy empire, using the Atlantean army. The war continues until it is concluded (requires multiple victories). More Armaments: the Atlantean army gets even stronger.
  • Third deck – Civil War: player can march the Army of Atlantis on Atlantis itself. This creates a mini-game around whether anyone tries to stop them. If the player succeeds they claim the title of Hegemon and +1,000 VP. Rule Change: make a change to the combat rules, requires majority backing from Council.

Note: I am thinking of adding a map tile to each game table which features the locations of the enemy empires. You need a Council option to move there, so it will not be attacked every turn, but the potential rewards keep accumulating.

If an enemy empire is completely defeated, there is a spoils phase. rather than there being one pool of VP, Talents, etc. to be divided, there will be a number of prizes that the players take turns choosing between. For example, one possible prize division might be:

  • 100 VP
  • 50 VP
  • 10 Cogs
  • 5 Orichalcum
  • 2 Vril
  • 150 Talents
  • 75 Talents
  • Three DOOM tokens
  • Five Arete
  • Three Arete
  • A research token.

Not so easy to split it equally now?

Making Challenges and City Attacks Easier

In Kapcon there were several steps required before you had a shot at attacking a player’s home city. While it looked good on paper, in practice the Court of Law focused on expanding offices. So each Council now has a common option of being able to pick on another player, granting you a challenge token for their House. This token can then be traded around, but can be used in a future game turn to challenge a member of that House. If you get multiple tokens, then you gain a bonus for the attack.

With city attacks being easier, I will look at adding a city upgrade that is defensive walls, but as I want to choke down the supply of Cogs, focusing on defence will have opportunity costs elsewhere.

I will have to do some more thinking on the consequences of a sack. I think for the attacker, defeat and loss of troops is sufficient a penalty. For the defender, defeat needs to cost more than the 30 odd talents and resource tokens they would pick up from the colonies. One potential way to do this, is to have options on the war council that increase/decrease the rewards from sacking cities. Its something to playtest down the track.