Unit Density & Fleet Mechanics

September 14, 2011

A Couple of Map Design Notes

Many years ago now, I read a guide to designing variants for the Diplomacy boardgame.  One part of this guide was a deconstruction of the map, which noted that for every three spaces on the map, there were a maximum of two units in the game (once all the units were built).  The most common outcome of a Diplomacy game between players of equal skill is a draw, something the game’s combat resolution system tends to encourage.  But we can postulate that as unit density increases on the map, so does the chance of a draw, or of a series of grinding attritional combats.  Conversely, as unit density reduces on the map, the chances of someone winning increases, and combat is more likely to be dominated by movement, flanking and encirclement.

When constructing an area map, the map has two key elements.  First, the area nodes.  Second, the links between the nodes.  When I visited a PBM company in Auckland in the early 1990s, one of the observations made a game designer there was that the more links connecting into a node, the harder it was to defend/the easier it was to attack.  Going back to Diplomacy, veteran players know that the ‘corner’ powers of Turkey, Russia, England, and France, are all much harder to eliminate early in the game than the ‘central’ powers of Italy, Germany and Austria-Hungry.  Games that have defensive terrain, like mountains, can make high-link nodes easier to defend.

Players = Map Units?

One of the principles I have adopted for designing the Grand Strategy game for Buckets 2012, is that the map will be designed to fit the number of players that pre-register, with a hard cap of 35 players.  If we have 35 players, then we need to calculate how many significant map units we want based on that.  Having one unit per player has some advantages, as each unit could be linked to an identifiable commander.  On the other hand, we do not want the map game to be compulsory for all players.  Having more units than players might also give the players something to choose between when making map decisions, which is good as long the decisions are interesting.  We probably don’t want more than 3-4 units per player however.

So, let us assume 2 units per player, although in practice some players may get to push 3-4 units around the map.  35 x 2 is 70.  Making the map the same density as Diplomacy, would then take 70/2 is 35, 35×3 = 105 map nodes.  That would be 21 map nodes per map table.  That’s not a wildly impractical amount for the space we assume we will have in 2012, but if the game hall was smaller I would have to consider dropping it down.

The Deep Space Option

One option for the game map is to have a Deep Space zone that players can hide in.  Space is big, really big … so big that different players in the Deep Space zone will never accidentally encounter each other.  What the Deep Space zone can do, is facilitate retreats or give space for pirates to lurk in.  By being linked to every node, it reduces the number of empty nodes required to give a bit of breathing room on the map.

Crinkling the Fjords

If every map node has exactly five links, then the terrain is going to lack a bit of variety.  Without actually drawing up a sketch map, I think we can safely assume that nodes towards the centre of the map will have more links than nodes on the edge of the map.  We might make a few nodes “safe” space and say they don’t have a link to Deep Space.  Each map should have a couple of outlier nodes.

At the moment, I am still looking at using the catabolic system for the game economy, with two of the main units being Capital (represented by dice, which can move between nodes) and Power (which cannot move between nodes and can be marked on the mode).  As links represent in part trade routes, the maximum number of Capital dice in a node could be determined by the number of links.

For a side game, I am thinking about something closer to a Civilization or Settlers of Cattan collect-the-set and trade card game.  For this, I could probably identify specific nodes with production of specific resources (such as “Alien Erotica” and “Tastes Like Chicken”).

Fleet Movement

At Buckets 2011, we had major issues with movement, in part related to the Queue system having too many players at each game table.  For 2012, we might try for five map tables to spread the players out a bit.  That is not a complete solution, however, as there is nothing to stop the players all crowding into one game map for some reason.

What a movement system needs to encompass is:

1. Who moves next?

2. What can they do with their move?

3. How long do they have to finish their move?

In games like Diplomacy, everyone moves at the same time.  I do not think this will work well for me, as the combat mechanics are likely to be more complex, and they are likely to suffer resolution sequencing issues when more than two factions occupy a node.  So I have identified three options so far for movement mechanics:

First, just stick with the Queue system, and serve each player on a first come first served basis, with a break every 20 minutes for the GM to tidy the map up.  This makes every player at a map table important, but it can lead to long queues if one table becomes more important than the others.

Second, the Faction system, where movement order is random, but each faction gets one turn before another faction has a second turn.  This means Factions just need to leave one player at each table to maintain their presence there.  One potential issue is the possibility of Factions occasionally getting two turns in a row (last to move in one set, first to move in the next set).  This could be mitigated by resolving each faction in a fixed turn order, but that might make the game dangerously predictable when you consider how alliances might manipulate it.

Third, the Pulse system, where each player has a set of order counters.  Each Pulse, the players stand around the table, place order counters down by units they control.  Each order counter has a unique initiative number.  When the counters are revealed, resolve each order in its initiative sequence.  If you have a few players at a table, you will get through a lot of pulses. More players will slow things down though.

What the Pulse system could allow us to do, is to make the tactical options for each player different, by giving them all slightly different sets of order counters.  This is one thing we can do with a strict pre-registration system that I have not been able to do in the past.

Some Possible Pulse Orders

Resolution would start with 00 and go up in ascending order.  Here I have grouped similar orders in bandings I think are logical (some influence from the Game of Thrones boardgame here).

00-00 Corruption, reduce capital by 1 in any sector, take 1d6 credits

01-05 Hasty Assault (cannot spend tech)

06-10 Defence (can spend tech)

11-15 Move (cannot spend tech, can be fleet or capital)

16-20 Prepared Assault (can spend tech)

21-25 Build (spend capital/power to gain ships/tech)

26-30 Invest (spend capital/power to build power/capital)

99-99 Bluff (nothing happens)

Order counters could be arrow shaped to indicate the direction of movement.  Other orders are possible, feel free to suggest anything I missed in the comments!

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