Hacking Watch the Skies

May 9, 2018

For its first Megagame, the Wellington Megagame Collective is adapting Jim Wallman’s Watch the Skies (WTS) game to a Cold War setting (WTS:CW). The game will be run at Wellycon on 2 June 2018. If you are interested in playing you can register here. Cost is $19 for the Saturday. This post explores the reasons for the changes we are making to the original WTS game in order to best fit the Cold War element.

Why hack WTS instead of just running the original game?

I can think of three reasons (1) because we can, (2) because we want to, and (3) because we need to.

One of the great things about manual games, like board games, tabletop roleplaying games and megagames, is that the mechanics are transparent to players. If you can play these games, then you understand them well enough to tweak them to your preferences. Computer games, however, tend to be black box technology that is harder to understand and hack.

In gaming, everyone builds on what has come before. There is very little that is new under the sun. Playing around and tinkering with new game concepts and the mechanics to play them is how we come up with cool new games to play.

Choosing the Cold War as a major thematic element of our game does require us to make a few necessary changes to make the game fit with the history, and some minor changes to help evoke the history of the period in the game.

Why the Cold War?

  • its an interesting period of history, lots of chrome for the UN and Science games, plus colour for the Special Action cards
  • a lot of period movies can be referenced, including a range of classic flying saucer and alien invasion movies, and the Dr Strangelove movie to capture the absurdity of mutually assured destruction
  • its an interesting design challenge – can we reproduce the mistrust and paranoia of the Cold War, give players nuclear arsenals, and reach the 1970s without nukes being used?

Choosing the starting year for WTS:CW – why 1962?

1962 is after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion (April 1961), before Cuban Missile crisis (October 1962) and the assassination of JFK (22 November 1963). Its a time when the USA is a global hegemon, but the USSR is still seen as a credible challenger, not yet undermined by corruption and stagnation. By 1962 the old Empires of Europe have largely given way to newly independent nations, but France and the UK are still global powers with bases around the world. I think its a good point in time to drop the players – there is still a lot of scope for creative moves in the great game of geopolitics.

A note on game balance – in the early 1960s the USA had almost 40% of global GDP, and its government budget was over double that of the USSR (the CIA tended to significantly overestimate USSR economic and military strength) and perhaps ten times what the UK or France had. For balance purposes, the USA will start WTS:CW with only slightly more Resource Points (RPs) than the other teams, but dominates the initial influence rankings in many zones of the globe (which gives the highest influence team access to unique privilege cards). The Non-aligned Movement (NAM) will also be a more cohesive political bloc than it was historically, representing a third way alternative to the Super Powers (which France under Charles de Gaulle is also doing to an extent). The relative weakness of the minor powers is represented by imposing a permanent budget reduction if they build the largest size of Army/Fleet units.

WTS covers roughly three months of time per game turn. For WTS:CW I decided that a time scale of one year per game turn was needed in order to encompass the full range of events in the 1960s. It also means that success for the human teams is reaching the 1970s without alien invasion or nuclear armageddon occurring. A couple of changes follow from this. First, logistics is easier. Conventional units can be redeployed wherever you have bases, at no cost in RPs. This also frees up RPs for investment in the Influence game, otherwise overall RP incomes would need to be increased. Second, Public Relations (PR) is more forgiving. PR starts at zero, and can increase to +/- 9, but moves one space towards zero each turn. If PR is positive, +1 RP is gained to budget, and if PR is negative -1 RP is lost. The 1960s was a time of economic growth, and team RP budgets will probably increase during the game.

What features help make WTS:CW a Cold War game?

First, team briefings will highlight the ideological competition and the goal of having a better PR score than your adversaries, secure bases around the globe, and high influence scores in as many zones as possible. Because USA is in number one place at the start, they are the obvious target for all of the other teams. Players should be mistrustful and suspicious of other teams – I want to evoke the fear of the “missile gap” where everyone is worried the aliens are giving military technology to the other teams. An outcome where all the human teams hold hands and sing about the age of Aquarius in order to defeat the aliens should still be possible, but not the most likely outcome.

Second, the map. First, it uses the Cahill-Keyes projection rather than the Mercator projection in an attempt to minimise distortion of the parts of the map I expect a lot of the competitive play to take place in (Africa, Middle East, and Central America). Rather than the mix of colours in the standard WTS map, NATO regions are all dark blue, and Warsaw pact regions are Red. This is a visual signal to players – trying to establish bases or do combat in an opposing alliance region is high risk and can trigger DEFCON 1. The NAM regions are in green. Otherwise each zone has all of its regions the same colour. As with the normal WTS map, postage stamp size states are omitted, and in places several small states are merged together, with a few exceptions such as the French presence in Djibouti.

Note: for WTS:CW Egypt is in both the Africa and Middle East zones, and Turkey is in both the Europe and Middle East zones. The map below is a work in progress, lacking city names and PR/RP tracks.

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The Space Race is part of the Science game. It is handled by a secret RP bid from Scientists, with the winner advancing one space towards being the first to land on the Moon. Lower bids might get an advance, depending on how far back you are from the front runner. Each time you advance you get a choice of reward (PR boost, Influence boost, or Science Credits), with the rewards increasing the further down the track you have advanced.

There only five nation teams in WTS:CW. Many states are still recovering from WWII (e.g. Germany, Japan, Italy) or do not have enough political prominence yet (e.g. Brazil) or are outcasts from the international community (South Africa). It also reflects that I am only expecting 20-30 players, so I would rather not invest time building components that do not get used.

There are two forms of combat between conventional units: regular and irregular. Regular combat is the default system, irregular combat occurs if corporate or revolutionary units are involved. In irregular combat, results are indecisive, with limited casualties (to represent quagmires like Vietnam). In regular combat, the defeated side loses all of their units. Units will be represented with dice, with three sizes of dice (12mm, 16mm and 22mm). The largest dice are rolled first. Each team has only six of the largest dice, so will need to be careful about where they place them. I was influenced in this design choice by the use of dice to represent soldiers in an American Revolution megagame at GENCON last year (see image below).

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In the Influence game will be handled by either the head of state or an intelligence minister (depending on how many players the team has). The Influence game starts with a round of drafting Influence Operation cards, followed by resolving the operations. Each player gets a hand of cards, chooses one, placing it face up in front of them along with any Agents or RPs, then passes the remaining cards on clockwise. The last card is discarded rather than passed on.

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The cards have a hardwired action and target zone (see examples above). After all cards are tabled, they are resolved in the order they were played in. For each operation card an outcome card is drawn (see examples below). For quick play, one outcome card can apply to all of the player actions in that operation phase. The card specifies a success condition for the operation. The number inside the circle is how effective the action is – for an influence action its usually +1 or +2 influence, for a Base action it would be placing one or two Bases in the region. Actions that reduce other team’s influence automatically target the team(s) with the highest influence. Rare black circles indicate a penalty for failure.

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If you have the highest influence in a region, you gain its privilege card. This grants bonuses like:

  • a permanent +1 increase to RPs
  • 1d6 Science Credits
  • choosing a card from the discard pile for use next turn.

I am still working on what causes Stability to change, but it is likely to be a mix of inputs from UN crisis resolution, Terror Track thresholds, Special Action cards, and player actions (e.g. a rousing speech from a team leader may make the world a better place, or plunge it into chaos). The lower stability is, the easier Influence Operations become in a zone. So if you want to defend a region you dominate, you want high stability. If you want to degrade another team’s influence, then disrupting stability is the way to go.

For DEFCON and Nukes I am adapting a mechanic from the Twilight Struggle boardgame. If a team’s actions cause DEFCON 1 (global thermonuclear war) to occur, then they will be judged as losing the game. Political leaders control use of nukes at DEFCON 3-5, Military leaders control nuke use at DEFCON 2.

  1. DEFCON improves by +1 at the start of each turn.
  2. If the Super powers do not build any nukes, or large combat units, DEFCON improves by +1 that turn.
  3. Nuclear test ban treaties and similar actions can improve DEFCON.
  4. Several key actions cause a DEFCON check to be made. If a d6 roll is less than current DEFCON, then DEFCON is reduced by one. These actions include nuke use, direct combat between USA/USSR units, combat in NATO/Warsaw pact regions, coups (attempts to convert another team’s base into one of your own), and playing DEFCON Special Action cards.

The design intent is to allow some scope for player skulduggery, but for everyone to get very cautious about further provocations when DEFCON reaches 2.

We are still three weeks away from running WTS:CW, so all the above might be changed or dropped if playtests show its not working, but the rules and briefings will all be locked down a week out from the game.

What is not changing?

If it is not mentioned above as being hacked, it is being kept from WTS with as few changes as possible. In particular I am doing nothing to the key UFO mission/human interception mechanic, as it is a thing of beauty and underpins the entire game. The process for researching new technology is the same, we changed a few names to reflect the 1960s and added some weird science options and a unique technology for each team.

What about the aliens?

Without giving the twist away, we are not using the default WTS peace-loving Rigellians. As our media references for the 1950s and 60s include a lot of flying saucer attacks and alien invasions, the human teams should be prepared for the worst.

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Ready Party One

April 23, 2018

A campaign premise I sometimes pull out and tinker with is “Humanity has fled the destruction of Earth, and now exists in one refuge system.” A static version of Battlestar Galactica without the wagon train to the stars aspect. I sometimes pair this with options like:

  1. All high technology has been disabled by the energy fields that protect humanity.
  2. Some high tech has been disabled (anything that generates signals that the Enemy might detect). Cue some kind of Thought Police/Inquisition to making sure no one dares reinvent the radio.
  3. Human high technology lasts for a while, enabling a dictatorship over other sentient folk in the refuge (each of which has their own way of surviving incursions like the humans until business as usual can resume).
  4. Because other aliens have also done (3) there are a lot of vestigial empires and associated ruins.
  5. Many habitable worlds in the system (due to forerunner engineering) all linked by portals, or by limited space travel. With lots of relic scavenging – like Alistair Reynolds novel Revenger (2016).

Today’s addition to the toolbox is to make the sanctuary a crapsack world, a bit like Ready Player One, where the alternate VR is an attractive past time for the 99% of humanity living on soy paste and recycled water. The twist is that completing quests/dungeons in the VR activates portal travel or other Macguffin devices (or a nice meal, or the admiration of NPCs who watch the stream on replay channels). So in a campaign, you start playing the hard SF game, then when you need to get from A to B in a hurry, you log into the VR and do a quick mythic mode instance and off you go.

The VR is where the former alien hive minds/AIs get to experiment and interact with humanity in a safely contained system. Cue factions and conspiracies dedicated to finding out what is really going on/keeping the truth hidden from the sheeple.

The VR could be divided into nice little theme parks. Samurai World is right next door to Musketeer World and West World, and maybe the bleed over into each other in a few places. Maybe with a bit of digging you can figure out how to access the old forgotten alien VR realms, where the stories are completely different from those nice comforting fairy tales from Earth, where the plucky hero always wins the rematch.

I think the campaign would work well with a mix of game systems. Something crunchy for the “real” world (Eclipse Phase?) and something simple for the “fantasy” world, which could easily be D&D or something a few more baroque buttons and dials like Blades in the Dark. Not more than a one page PC sheet, and damn easy to create a new VR PC as required.

I should note that I have not actually read Ready Player One or seen the recent movie.

 


d100 House Rules

March 18, 2018

I am mucking around with a few rule variants for d100 roleplaying games.

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You can’t beat the classics.

Fatigue

I have never met a player who enjoyed tracking encumbrance and fatigue, and I do not enjoy it much as a GM either. I had a lightbulb moment today, and started riffing off the morale rules in Moldvay D&D for a Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition hack intended for a Megadungeon crawl.

Test for fatigue when (a) the first PC or foe is eliminated from the combat and (b) when half of the people involved in the combat have been eliminated.

Resolve the test by rolling 1d100 versus CON. Add an advantage die if fresh (first encounter of the day) or unencumbered. Add disadvantage dice for heavy armour, exhaustion and other factors:

  1. Success – keep fighting
  2. Failure – add a disadvantage die to all skill checks for the rest of the encounter
  3. Fumble – add two disadvantage dice to all skill checks for the rest of the encounter.

Pro – low amount of bookkeeping required, Con – does add a process step mid-scene where everyone needs to roll dice and record a result. The table also needs some shared expectations around when the disadvantage dice get added to the CON check – which requires the GM or game system to signal clearly when they think the PCs are tired or trying to carry too much stuff around.

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Art from the cover of the Conan 2d20 rules.

Mastery

In Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition you score a critical success on a roll of 01%, and fumble on a roll of 96-00%. Which tells you a lot about that game system. Thinking about the Conan 2d20 momentum system inspired me to try adding a second threshold for critical success, and giving player’s more tempting opportunities to spend Luck Points to adjust d100 rolls (using an optional rule, possibly from Pulp Cthulhu).

A critical success is scored on a roll that exactly matches the skill level, or when a roll is made equal or less than the skill’s mastery level.

For example, if the reckless swordsman Fitz the Harsh has a skill of 92% and a Master of 06%, then Fitz scores a critical success on a roll of 01-06 or 92, a success on a roll of 07-91, a failure on a roll of 93-95, and a fumble on a roll of 96-00.

Using the optional Luck point system, you can spend 10 Luck Points to cancel a fumble, or shift any other die roll by one per Luck Point you spend.

Mastery does not increase the way normal skills do. So far my thoughts are:

  1. Start with 01% mastery in the PC’s eight archetype/profession skills.
  2. Gain 01% mastery when Skill level reaches 90%.
  3. GM discretion to grant a point of mastery for milestone achievements in the campaign.
  4. Otherwise mastery improvement requires rolling fumbles equal to the current mastery level to gain +01%. Note: this assumes a table play style where a fumble is adding a complication to the scene (e.g. a dropped weapon), rather than an opportunity for the GM to hammer the character into the afterlife (e.g. an arrow to the eye socket).
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Card from the Dungeon Solitaire deck – available from Thegamecrafter

Initiative

As part of PC generation I am thinking of having the players draw three major arcana cards to represent past, present and future. While I originally thought of just using this for inspiration in shaping the character concept, today I thought of using it to help shape initiative.

  1. A player draws three major arcana cards (there are 33 in the deck I intend to use). If any of the three cards match PC cards, the party as a whole holds initiative and the PC(s) with matching cards gain a bonus action they can call on at any point during the encounter.
  2. If the PCs do not have initiative and there is an NPC nemesis level opponent (Skills at 90%+) the nemesis gains initiative now, otherwise repeat step one.
  3. If the PCs do not have initiative and there is an NPC elite level opponent (Skills at 50%+) the elite gains initiative now, otherwise repeat step one.
  4. If the PCs do not have initiative after nine card draws, the NPCs have initiative.

Initiative is then run using the “popcorn initiative” rule, where the last person to act in the scene chooses who acts next. The last person to act in a round gets to choose who acts first in the next round. Note: there are obvious ways of manipulating this system, lets call it “tactics” and not worry about people setting things up to get two attacks in a row.

An obvious tweak to represent surprise or preparation is adjust the number of cards the party gets to draw.

 


Megagame plans for 2018

March 2, 2018

This is what I hope to achieve in the Megagame space in 2018:

  1. Set up a Wellington area collective of people interested in designing, testing, and running Megagames.
  2. Run Watch the Skies at Wellycon in June.
  3. Run a revised version of Colossus of Atlantis in the second half of 2018.

Last year I had hoped to do a megagame of Operation Unthinkable (an alternate history scenario where the USSR and USA/UK fight a war in central Europe in 1945) in late 2018. I am being more realistic about how much I can get done, and this is now more likely to be a project in 2019.

Wellington Megagame Collective

I want to run Megagames that work as good games and are a heap of fun for the players. But I need help. The volunteers I have had for Control in running games have been fantastic, but running The Galaxy Will Burn taught me that I need to ask for more help earlier in the process in order to make the final game a good one, with all the supporting logistics sorted out ahead of time.

So if you would like to be involved, send me an email at grand.vizier@gmail.com. I will be looking at setting up some kind of discussion meeting later in March to handle the basics of group name, purpose, how the money gets handled, and what kind of initial structure is needed. I’d like Watch the Skies to be the first group effort.

Watch the Skies

Watch the Skies (WTS) is the most famous megagame design in the world right now. I think a factor in its popularity is that its so easy to build on the template of “today’s world” plus “mysterious aliens”. The aliens can be friendly, they can be hostile, they can be divided into factions, or anything else that Control’s imagination can come up with. At GENCON the aliens were there to cover the genocide of the Dinosaurs, which required drilling down through Italy into the planetary core to retrieve their old Doomsday machine.

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My initial concept for WTS is to set it during the early Cold War – taking inspiration from the movies of the 1950s and 60s rather than more recent media like the X-Files and UFO TV series. So rather than multiple teams of similar sizes, its more likely to be two large teams (USA and USSR), the alien team, and a number of smaller teams (US and USSR ally states or more non-aligned nations like India or China). I will take input and refine the idea from whoever volunteers for the Collective, as figuring out how the aliens will slot into the game is important.

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Colossus of Atlantis

main-qimg-2e8c75308a30514c28e19b94accd4dd1-cOver the next few months I intend to revise Colossus of Atlantis for a game in Wellington in the second half of the year, building on the feedback and experience from last year. I have been doing some more reading of Greek history, and looking at how several games about the Peloponnesian War have handled things like city-state politics and battle resolution. At a high level the changes I want to make are:

  1. Reduce the overall number of game components, while expanding the opportunity for player creativity when it comes to designing and building Colossi, Wonders, Spells etc.
  2. Have a Junta style map of the city of Atlantis, with the potential for street battles there between different factions to change the government. The image above gives you an idea of the city layout, although its dimensions are a bit off and there is at least one too many rings compared to Plato’s description.
  3. More detailed continent maps, so “Libya” actually looks like North Africa.
  4. More emphasis on the kind of political factions found in Ancient Greece, e.g. Oligarchs, Democrats, Tyrants, Medes, etc. The factions struggle to control voting blocs in Atlantis, and to control the semi-autonomous Atlantean colonies.
  5. Emphasising the role of fear, interest, and honour identified by Thucydides in triggering conflicts. I may frame Atlantis as being at the height of its power, with the rival empires as the rising challenges to Atlantean supremacy (to echo current real world politics a little). For dealing with the rival Empires I want to have a simple global map, so all up there will be three levels of map in the game: globe, continent, and Atlantis. The globe map may include a hollow earth section.
  6. Changing the structure of play away from 20 minutes for each of the Map Phase, Team Phase, and Council Phase to one where the play at Map tables can proceed in an asynchronous fashion (i.e. if one map table gets its turn done quickly, they move onto their next turn rather than waiting for everyone else to catch up). After an hour of play there would be a half hour break for diplomacy, snacks and toilet breaks ending in the Assembly phase where votes are resolved on important matters.

Quite a bit of work to do there, which is another reason to run WTS in June. Also, if you have recommendations for venues in the Wellington area, please let me know. The ideal venue is available for an all day hire, has a large hall with a kitchen, toilets, and a side room or two, and needs to be priced around $200. I think the price is largely going to restrict us to Church and community halls.

 


The Galaxy Will Burn AAR

January 28, 2018

The Galaxy Will Burn megagame was run at Kapcon on Saturday 20 January. This is my after action report. The player facing game files can be found here and the Control brief can be found here. We had a larger Control team than last year, but did not sell out all of the player positions, so a couple of the Control team got to play in the game. Overall we were up on numbers from 2017.

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Red Rocket by Nigel Sade, used under license.

The game was to a large extent dominated by a slight majority of players both wanting to play aliens rather than humans, to belong to secret factions and being willing to betray their public factions. This set the scene for a late game rebellion by the Alien Liberation Front, which led to a climactic battle at the Imperial capital, with the rebellion being crushed (partly from an unlucky mix of low value cards, and an opponent drawing three Aces and holding an Ace Pilot privilege card to turn all three Aces into value 10 cards), but the overall position of the empire ended up with the humans giving away their dominant position. But it was a loyal alien admiral who saved the empire. From a design point of view, some things worked well, others did not. I will address that in the feedback sections below.

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Group photo of the participants

My thanks go out to the Control team for their time, my partner Catherine for her patience in the weeks leading up to the event, and for the support that we had from Battle Kiwi, who made our laser cut tokens, Kapcon, for giving us a venue to use, and The Caffeinated Dragon, Cerebus Games and Counter Culture for advertising our event. My plan going forward is to form a collective in Wellington to work together on future design, development, production and execution of Megagames. The work load I took on was a bit too much. In particular I need to allow more than three months lead time for development and playtesting. I am hoping that our first collective Megagame will be Watch the Skies at Wellycon in June, followed by a new version of Colossus of Atlantis in the second half of 2018.

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End of the game – Earth has upgraded orbital defences and most of the Imperial Megaships defending it against the alien menace.

Some headline numbers from the feedback forms:

  • Enjoyment: a mean score of 4.6 out of 5 indicates that most people had a good time. The lowest score was a three from a Politician. Last year for Colossus of Atlantis, the comparable score was 4.7.
  • Briefing: about 86% of the players read the rules before the game. A mean score of 3.75 out of 5 indicates that there is still scope for improvement here, but it is a small improvement on the 3.3 for Colossus last year.
  • Difficulty: a mean score of 3.1 is almost unchanged from the Colossus score of 3. The range of scores, however, was wider, with both a 1 (too easy) and a 5 (too hard).
  • Rate of Play: with a mean of 2.6, The Galaxy Will Burn had more time pressure on the players than Colossus, which had a mean score of 3. In particular, the politicians had a lower score here, with a third of the politicians rating it a 1 out of 5 for too much time pressure.
  • Control: a mean score of 4.3 is close to the 4.6 score from 2017.
  • Value for Money: a mean score of 4.7 matches the Colossus score for 2017. Despite this, the overall amount of money people indicated they were willing to pay was down on 2017 – $28 for a day game (down $5) and $22 for an evening game (down $1).

As is my usual practice, I asked for free text feedback written by the players for the three categories of Keep, Stop, Start.

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Imperial Capital – everyone points dramatically at the Deep State.

Player Feedback – things to KEEP in the Megagame

Gaining actions. The brutal time pressures. Legislative governing system. Massive fleets. All of it. Interesting and varied crises. Original mini-games. Lack of reliable information between game rooms. The political system was very satisfying and even. Secret factions. Cards unexpectedly changing gameplay. Bribing the press. Pregame information. Distinct and interesting factions. Everything. Jenga towers not too influential (a good thing). Card deck as a randomizer. The separated play areas was good. Separation of map and political game. Faction legacy rewards.

Its worth remembering that different players can like and dislike the same features of the game.

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Carefully making sure the Quadrant economy did not collapse.

Player Feedback – things to STOP in the Megagame

Strong Emperor. Privilege cards requiring alien starbases. Awkward distribution in set-up. Third choice roles. Remove nonsense role/faction/race combinations. For hidden roles, knowing who they are at the start. Vague and different rules from sector to sector, felt like a separate game. Media interference slowing game turns. Align player sheets to game rules. Too much voting. Randomness in legacy was too much. Jenga was time wasting. Wrong rules and changing rules. For secret faction members, being moved between quadrants sucked, plans ruined. Media interviewing players mid-action. Players hoarding megapower tokens. In-faction communication was poor. Left players playing their own game.

A few comments in response from me:

  • A few players got third choice roles because almost no one ranked politician as a first choice. People usually got a preferred faction or friend in their faction.
  • Rule inconsistency – even with a Control playtest a week before game day some bits of game play were not perfectly aligned across all the rooms.
  • More playtesting would have led to better balance in the privilege cards and token economy.
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Political values chart – this would have worked better if projected on a wall for easy reference by players and Control

Player Feedback – things to START in the Megagame

Reduce turn length and number of actions. Less randomness in combat, add a bluff mechanic. More solid rules for players and control. Knowing what to do/firm targets rather than vague paragraphs. Clarity for battleship set up. Politicians can sometimes look into sectors. Rules for amendments. make the political round shorter (although it was fixed). Increase secret faction influence on game play. Incentives to defect from faction. Having a chaos element. More inter-room interaction. Allow more actions (accumulated to many privilege cards).

A few comments in response from me:

  • The combat mechanic did not scale well with the size the fleets eventually ended up at – most of the playtests only went through two game turns, not the half-dozen we finished on game day.
  • It was a deliberate choice to keep objectives and “victory” more about narrative quality rather than a numerical output from game mechanics.
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Final Blame Scores. The faction with highest blame could not be appointed as Strong Emperor.

Control Feedback

After the game was packed up most of the Control team went along to a local pub for a debrief. We had picked up on a lot of the same issues that the players identified:

  • Time Management: More interaction was needed between the Imperial capital and the Quadrants. There was minimal impact until right at the end. This was partly due to the political mini-game taking a lot more time to get through than I had anticipated. This led to turns taking longer to get through and a reduction in time for diplomacy. It was also partly due to the Media talking to politicians when Control needed to be resolving game mechanics with the players. Its been more than a decade since I last experimented with media player roles, and we need to find a better way to utilise the role – part of which is to give media other things to do in-game, such as running a twitter feed or printing hard copies of media information.
  • Control: could have had the Crisis Control role doing a bit more to help with the imperial capital political game, and I think we could have had an additional control player just to handle factions (secret factions, changing factions and faction legacies). We are not at the player numbers where we can afford to have a Control player for each faction.
  • Mechanics that did not work: Centralisation and Decentralisation looked exciting on paper but in play had no effect.
  • Crises: feeling from Control was the number and degree of impact on the game could have been increased. The A5 templates could be increased to A4 in size.
  • Sound system: worked and was essential, volume could have been a little higher.
  • Too many tokens: the number of Battleships could have been reduced by half, and the fountain of megapower tokens into the game could have been reduced by a third. The approach I used in TGWB and Colossus where players can buy large numbers of privilege cards is not working well – too many cards, and not enough cards actually getting used.
  • Fleets and combat: it was too hard to actually destroy Starbases, making most combats indecisive.
  • Information tracks: most map tables started writing glory scores on the white boards. It would have been useful to have additional tracking sheets for relative control of sectors/hyperlanes and faction initiative. Stands for map roles that could change hands were useful. If we had player shields to screen hidden information, bulldog clips could be used to put information like that on the side of the screen visible to other players.
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A typical quadrant map in the middle of the game.

That is all for now, feel free to add comments if you played in the game. I would in particular appreciate on the following elements of the game:

  • Megaships – were they awesome, or just annoying?
  • Strong Emperors – did they add to the game or detract from it? If you were a Strong Emperor, was it fun?
  • using the Jenga towers to represent the economy – was drawing the blocks exciting or frustrating?

Looking ahead to 2019, because of a clash with other hobbies, I will be looking at running a game in mid-February rather than late January. I would be interested in hearing if a shift away from Kapcon and Wellington anniversary weekend would make it easier or harder for players to attend.


TGWB Update

December 9, 2017

A second playtest was held last weekend. I will be doing some more playtesting over the Xmas break down in Christchurch, and will then try and squeeze in another session in Wellington in early January. The main improvement from the playtest is a much better handling of the NPC Pirate and Warlord forces, dropping technology cards, and speeding up play by making some of the player actions automatic each turn, reducing the number of choices you make. The revised player mat is below.

Screenshot 2017-12-03 17.38.33

Game tokens have been ordered from Europe and the USA, and I am about to confirm an order for some laser cut tokens from battle Kiwi here in New Zealand. The five Jenga style block towers for use in the trading mini-game have all arrived from Auckland, and the star themed NASA playing cards are on their way from Book Depository. Apart from the laser cut tokens, I am expecting delivery of the rest of the game components before Christmas.

I have updated the main webpage for the game, with information on the factions in the game, and a copy of the draft rules. In a change from my past Megagames, The Galaxy Will Burn will not be balanced around factions with even numbers of players or player roles. If a faction is really popular during casting, then it will have more players. During play of the game, it is expected that player diplomacy will even out the effects of team size.

While we did not playtest the political game last weekend, we did walk through the mechanics and based on the feedback I cut down the number of government agencies to three branches of government and five offices of government. The Megapower economy was also simplified. The main use for Megapower tokens is in the political game, i.e. Quadrant map players decide how many they want to buy, give the Megapower tokens to their faction leader, and the faction leader then uses these tokens to acquire privilege cards for their team members.

The three branches of government are:

  1. The Executive – which proposes methods to resolve crises, and elects strong emperors.
  2. The Legislature – which votes on changes to how the imperial government works.
  3. The Judiciary – which allows the controlling player to veto actions by other government agencies.

The offices of government the main source of one use Privilege cards for players. The five offices are:

  1. The Treasury –  which is responsible for economic and financial matters
  2. The Bureaucracy – which can shift influence and manipulate blame within the government
  3. The Naval Office –  which is responsible for military matters, including command of the Megaships.
  4. Quadrant Affairs – is responsible for appointing Viceroys in charge of Quadrants
  5. Alien Affairs – is responsible for the peaceful assimilation of aliens into the Galactic Empire.

There is also an unofficial agency, the Deep State. This is all of the various secret services, palace guards, private militias, paramilitary police, and naval forces based around the imperial capital. While no one can ever “control” the Deep State, it is the source of privilege cards with a skulduggery focus (e.g. assassins, spies, coup attempts, selling weapons to pirates). The politician play mat is below.

Screenshot 2017-12-05 19.19.23

 


TGWB First Playtest

November 26, 2017

2017-11-26 12.44.45

Map at set up. Next time I will start the players with more starbases, and vary the number of loyalty markers. Each area started with three loyalty markers, which made the Govern action useless. Next time it will be 1-2 loyalty markers.

The playtest had a few main goals:

  • was there enough to keep all of the map players engaged and busy?
  • how did the budget corruption mechanic work?
  • how much time did it take to complete a game turn?

The first cycle of turns took about an hour to walk through. Part of this was the usual time to learn a game, but another part was on identifying ambiguous wording and offering up some alternatives for refining the game. We then got through 2/3 of a second cycle in 20 minutes. So a general conclusion there is that the number of actions can be trimmed down by about one-third. With five map players per table, trying to process 45 actions in 20 minutes only gives 25-30 seconds of time per action for resolution. The players did raise a concern about the proposed trade mechanic of drawing Jenga blocks, and that people might be too slow. This is something I think Control can manage during the game.

The map itself needs a little more clarity and explanation at the start so that everyone knows how the hyperlanes work (think of them as a really skinny and very long map area) and how starbases connect (the starbases on hyperlanes and sector borders are adjacent to everything) to the map.

Sketch1

This is the A4 sheet the players were planning their turns on. I was asked why trade was not being tracked here, and I do not think there is enough space. The trade tracks will go on a different A4 that all the players share – and this make it obvious when the benefit cards need to change hands. With the budget there are two numbers the players need to track, their current power total, and their permanent budget level. In the playtest only one player had really suffered hits on the budget by the second cycle of turns, but the cards had been skewed towards Clubs/Spades. I will number label the order of actions, and put an arrow going from left to right.

The playtest identified that the first action can just be focused on buying/selling Megapower rather than buy, sell or use. The next two actions are then where the player has more choice, and can now have an action with megapower option, which will even make wording the card text easier, so that is a double win. The bonus action is something that just one player at the table will get.

A suggestion from the playtesters was to make the learning curve easier by reducing the number of action cards players have at the start of the game. During play the players can then expand their action cards, changing the menu of strategies open to them. This can also make the initial difference between Admirals and Governors stronger so that players have to cooperate with their different mix of govern/build and move/battle cards for effective defence of the empire.

The playtesters also asked for more to engage with on the map. I will be doing a pass through the faction game and adding some elements to the map that players can interact with. For example, I will add some alien symbols to indicate the presence of alien enclaves within the Galactic Empire, which will be of interest to the Alien Lives Matter faction. The Imperial Capital game will also create things like Monuments that players will need to defend against pirates. I did have some map bonuses for things like “longest controlled hyperlane” and “most starbases” (a bit of obvious inspiration from Settlers of Cattan) and they worked well.

We had some discussion around what happens if players or game tokens move between maps. My thought is that this needs to be following the play of a one use action card gained from the Imperial Capital, so that it is an exception to regular play and has some definite opportunity cost attached to it. As an end game option, a player who has reached “autonomous” government could lead a wagon train across the stars and migrate to another map table. Another option is to make it cost a lot of Megapower – say one per player already at the table.

One mechanic I borrowed from the COIN games was the distinction between Movement, Patrol and Battle. Battle could only be against units that were revealed, and for Pirates or Warlords in deep space away from the Hyperlanes this meant someone had to spend on action of Patrolling to reveal the enemy. This then allowed another player to initiate the battle action, gaining all the glory themselves. The COIN games tend to be optimised for four players, often working in teams of two. So this mechanic is a bit fiddly in this megagame and will probably be dropped. It also requires me making a mark on all of the game tokens so that the hidden/revealed status is clear at a glance from players.

2017-11-26 15.40.16

Many Warlords have spawned in the bottom left hand side, while there have been battles with pirates in three places on the hyperlanes (top left, top right, and lower mid left).

Some last specific feedback on this map – the hyperlanes need some connecting “bridges” on this map, which will be easy enough to do at the points where they connect closely. I can also make the border the same colour pattern as the hyperlanes, to indicate that off-map travel can loop around. Its possible for a region to get crowded – I will have some overflow/breakout boxes, so you can pick the tokens up and put them down elsewhere.

Overall, it feels good for the first playtest. The next playtest will test out the Imperial capital game.