Pax Victoria at Buckets of Dice 2013

June 4, 2013

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

SAMSUNG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sun and Starship Washup

June 5, 2012

It was one of the best two or three Grand strategy games I have designed and run over the last 20 years, but there is still room for improvement!  My take on the intiial feedback is below, more comments are always welcomed.

Overall Summary

Most of Saturday was spent in preparation, while the maps were easily set up cutting out and stuffing the trade cards into sleeves was a very time consuming process ~4 hours.  One extra player was easily incorporated, giving a final total of 30 players, 6 GMs, one volunteer helping the GMs and a photographer.  The game started on time, finished around 11pm, and managed to get through 10 complete turns (against a maximum target of 12 turns).

A lot of people said they had fun, so I walked away feeling really happy about it.

Distributing game info a week earlier was useful.  Many players had plans, and most of the teams came in team colours (red/blue sashes).  We had name tags too this year.

Combat cards worked pretty well mechanically.  Trade cards did not, there were too few to met the demand, so being able to harvest them became a matter of luck.  Emperor succession worked fairly well.  The politics game worked better than in Colossus of Atlantis, so that was a win for making the political process unbreakable for players.  The outcomes were still unbalanced, two of the five princes ended up not gaining a steady share of the dividends of state, and quickly fell behind.

What broke the game, was the Pirate players deciding to ignore their victory conditions and all cooperate to take the Imperial Capital, combined with the House players choosing to (mostly) ignore the Pirates.  This also revealed that the Prince players were too embedded in the politics game to effectively defend their territories.  So, the emergent play was cool on one level, but also demonstrated that I did not have the balance of incentives right for directing player action.

Player Feedback

I got feedback forms from 25 of the participants.  Thank you to everyone who took the time to fill them out.

What was the best moment of the game for you?

  • scaring people away from my fleet
  • when a pirate became Emperor
  • taking the Imperial Capital
  • causing a civil war via a tied vote just when Mark thought he’d become Emperor once again
  • the whole game was great. I really liked passing bills that supported my [House?]
  • successful negotiations with pirates for significant gain. I had fun
  • recapturing my sector after having lost to pirates
  • marrying a pirate, establishing a trade outpost and having others think this was a good idea
  • trading and diplomacy
  • Winning against 17 dreadnoughts, 2 Maulers, 1 Logistic Ship and 68 Cruisers with 2 Raiders and the Prince having nowhere to retreat
  • trading, fast and furious
  • Josh the invincible most sublime Padishah ruler of the universe
  • Hyperspacing between systems and wiping out whole fleets
  • combat cards better than dice. overall I had fun. Mutual negotiations with pirates for benefit both parties. Bluffing totally superior forces away from a Capital with false promises
  • Capturing a capital with a single raider that I had gained through a pirate attack
  • being voted Emperor again and again
  • stealing the territory later in the game with 20 cruisers and 6 dreadnoughts
  • plotting as a group
  • manipulating the Senate

Which mechanic did you least enjoy, and why?

  • not enough time to do everything
  • Senate seemed ineffectual
  • Raider units only being built by Pirates, too powerful once they joined forces
  • Senate Bills – loud and dominated by shouting, disorganised (common complaint)
  • Unable to get votes if not on the Apparatus Committee, Apparatus Committee created a power oligarchy among the princes
  • combat was too random
  • Pirates able to collaborate. It caused pirates to be too powerful and make game boring
  • the excessive pirate factions. The unit sanctioning mechanic limiting House
  • Board play – not many options available for Houses
  • the queue mechanic was very intimidating. It prevents teamwork, discussing tactics, trading, diplomacy. I found it isolating.
  • battle and harvest, not designed very fairly
  • raiders were too strong (a common complaint)
  • Queue mechanic
  • no point in the Princes taking back the [Imperial] Capital
  • harvesting – quickly became almost useless
  • only one capital attack a turn – makes retaking the capital difficult, allowing one person to establish a secure position
  • the special units and giving pirates to Dreadnoughts
  • card trading – not really relevant to my faction

Which mechanic did you most enjoy, and why?

  • Combat cards, small forces could win
  • Combat was interesting
  • Combat cards were good, if not so random, very simple, elegant and quick
  • the randomness in battle
  • That because they couldn’t retreat the victor got everything
  • Trading cards, trading, it encourages working with others – allowed alternate ways to get resources
  • trading and diplomacy
  • Harvesting
  • Voting system, secret ballot/blind vote for Emperor, vote forms
  • Senate
  • more refined queueing system
  • no action tokens for map queues, like previous grand strategy games
  • I liked making sets of cards
  • Pirates
  • simple resource generation

What one change could we do to make the game more fun for you?

  • more trade tokens/cards, adjust set requirements (a common point)
  • better recycling of trade tokens
  • more economics
  • allow for more fun when unforseen consequences occur
  • fewer turns, it got tedious at the end
  • make the Senate more ordered, allow each Senator to draft and submit one Bill per turn
  • Combat system that doesn’t allow your entire Fleet to be destroyed by an unknown Fleet while not present in the room
  • enforce time limits at tables – make having multiple, foolishly large, Fleets a disadvantage
  • put all Princes on the Apparatus Committee
  • a little more integration so you understand if your team is doing well
  • being able to interact with team more
  • no more queues
  • Being able to give actions [proxy control] to team mates
  • everyone starting off on a more even footing and less rush
  • a little more power for the Senate, but less for the Emperor
  • penalty for House and Princes if capital is taken
  • limit combat results so 2 cannot destroy 50
  • prevent people jamming at the front door, enforce the 30 second rule
  • minimise the voting system, allow a mechanic for executive control of the politics
  • the GMs didn’t seem very aware of some of the rules/what the policies were

Analysis of Feedback

It’s really striking how the same mechanics appear on both the least liked and most liked lists.  I do agree with the complaints that:

  • there were not enough trade cards
  • that the Senate was disorganised
  • that Pirates were too powerful
  • that combat was a little too destructive/random.

Okay, now for some detailed comment from me on how the mechanics all worked out.

Player Response to Victory Point Objectives

Towards the end of the design process, I decided not to give each player role a long list of unique victory conditions, focusing on common scoring systems (territory, votes, power) and one unique flavour buff for each role.  I failed to anticipate one group of players (the Pirates) ignoring their objectives to concentrate on a goal (the Imperial Capital) which really was not all that valuable to them.  This also made clear that I had got one element of the “Byzantium in Space” strategic environment wrong. Istanbul had the strongest fortifications in the world in its heyday, but the Imperial Capital in Sun and Starship was weakly defended. I note here Emperor Gerald’s decision to divert the bulk of the Imperial Capital defence forces to protecting his personal estates on another map table.

So, a new design maxim for me: “Always expect a player to try to break the game”.

Control

It is important to always be able to determine the game state.  It must always be clear who controls what.  I think I made a mistake by having the big control markers, and at having player control markers be mostly white space and coloured lines.  I should have made the colours bolder and cover more of the counters.  I might have been better to give everyone one-two more flagship markers and no control markers.

I now feel that gifting of ships was too easy, although that was not something mentioned in player feedback.

Easy control was also diminished by the large number of ship tokens on each flagship counter.

Imperial Warlord Status

This did not work as intended, in large part because very little information flowed from the game map to the Senate, or vice versa. So we had Warlords in the Senate room asking for, and getting, imperial resources, and then going back to the map and doing whatever they liked with them (which was intended) without the Princes finding out (which was not intended).

Atomic Power

Despite being worth VP, Atomic Power was not present much in the game, being largely converted into Dreadnoughts.  Part of this may be tied to the fact that many players did not harvest, unless trade cards were available, so less atomic power was generated than intended.  Once the Pirates had the Imperial Capital, that also reduced a flow of 30+ atomic power into the game per turn down to zero.

Build Actions

I now think it was a mistake to allow Pirates to build Raiders while in Imperial space.  I should have made Raider builds possible only while in Deep Space.  While they would still be powerful in combat, attrition would reduce any Raiders in Pirate forces operating in Imperial space over time.

Building special units did not work well.  The Princes did not know what the map looked like, or what the sector names were.  I also noticed that players always built all their special units in one place rather than splitting them between different players.  This had suboptimal consequences as it allowed the Pirates to frequently capture large numbers of special units.  A better solution would have been a bill that enabled a player to build one on the map when and where they chose to do so.

The lack of any limit on build actions allowed a few players to build a lot of units very quickly.  That was probably a mistake.  Grand Strategy games work better with a smaller number of significant units to make choices with, rather than trying to shuffle around 100 counters in two minutes.

Movement

I did not see a lot of map movement, so I don’t know if the four moves a Scout had was actually useful, or if hyper-space movement helped or hindered the game.  A few players complained about other players going over time – another sign that there were too many counters on the table.  Another way of doing the Scouts might be to have them increase their stacks movement by +1.

I think the maps themselves worked pretty well, although I could have had more colour on them to indicate home territory for each of the great Houses.  The Imperial Capital map was too small, making it too hard to retreat.

Movement between tables was better than last year, but still too fuzzy for my liking.  I think I need to prohibit movement between maps except between game turns.

Combat

This was largely working as intended.  A few mistakes were made by GMs (one handed out combat cards as trade cards, another interpreted the one ship captured rule as all ships captured) but it was faster than previous combat systems and easier to do when tired.

I think the retreat rules were more unbalanced than the fact that small forces could beat large forces, as having large fleets captured was more catastrophic than having them destroyed.  That is something that can be fixed.  While the Raiders did well overall, if the flow of special units to Imperial fleets improved, then that would be self-correcting.

Counting ships is always slow … so I was thinking that on a map table the flagships could be used to represent nominal fleet locations, with all the ships being held in a reference box by the side of the table (one box per faction).  It does remove an element of tactical control, as the relative strategic balance between a faction would become more important (although I could add static on-map defence only units).  It would make it clearer who is stronger/weaker.

Senate

Worked better than the Athenian democracy in Colossus of Atlantis, but needs further refinement.  Mechanics dominated by loud voices make some players uncomfortable.  I probably need to go with a strict one player, one vote systems, otherwise as soon as one triumvirate can award themselves an unassailable vote lead, they usually do so.

Perhaps what I could have is roughly ten senate positions, and Bills that distribute five favours at a time.  So to pass a Bill, at least one voter is doing it for a future favour promise.  I like the one Bill per turn per player suggestion as well.

Information flows between the Senate were week, and Princes were largely unable to do Map movement or trade cards.  One idea I have here, is to make the Emperor and elected military leader, so they become responsible for leading the Imperial Fleet that turn, only returning to the Senate for a casting vote on tied votes.

Imperial elections were fun, but there was some ambiguity about where votes were directed when sitting around a long rectangular table.  It might possibly be better just to use a secret paper ballot.

Bills need some tweaking for clarity and bullet proofing against player writing illegibility.  More tick boxes!  Someone also needs responsibility for taking Bills to where they can be executed/resolved.  Perhaps bills could create Sinecures, where a player is given a card with the rules for their new power (e.g. the ability to make a special unit) and they keep the card and its associated power until the Senate assigns it to a different player.

Trade

While players enjoyed trade, feeling hampered by the flow of trade cards, I think this mechanic needs a major overhaul.  Watching people sitting on the ground sorting stacks of cards does not look like fun (although it may well be fun for those doing it).  As a GM, making the cards was time consuming and required a lot of printing.  Ideally, I will come up with a trade mechanic that allows deal making and negotiations, but without requiring a large number of game tokens.

Terminology

I kept tripping up on the distinction between Capital area and [Imperial] Capital Sector.  Maps also needed province/quadrant names.

Queue Mechanic

I am tending towards regarding this as a valiant failure.  It makes players focus too much on the map, and the map state of your own forces, and not on the other players and their forces.  In a way its reducing the amount of strategy in the game over the furious execution of tactical moves.  As such, I am leaning back towards the Holistic Action Token system (i.e. drawing faction names out of a H.A.T. to see who moves next).

Another possibility is to have an “exhaustion” combat result for attackers, indicating that a Flagship cannot move again in that game turn (unless perhaps a logistics ship is removed to resupply the force).  This could create interesting possibilities for counter-attacks by fresh forces.


Buckets of Dice Grand Strategy Game – Player Roles

January 8, 2012

State of my thinking on the Buckets Grand Strategy game for 2012.

Players and Teams

Players will have a choice of playing with the large team, in a small team, or solitaire.

The large team is the Imperial Dynasty, a group of immortal clone princes/princesses.  The clone schtick means they can be assassinated, but back in the game five minutes later after their memories have been loaded up into a detanked body.  Goal wise the Dynasty wants to preserve the status quo (they rule the Galactic Empire), so that victory is based on Status.  Team size, about a third of the players.

The small teams are the Noble Houses, and the Enemies of the Empire.  Team size, 3-5 players.

Solitaire roles need to be handled carefully.  Some people could be observers (journalists/historians) with a social role outside of the main game system – perhaps with some ability to influence Status.  Any solo role with real power, however, is going to have to be able to deal with the fact that for the entire game the team based players will be either (a) attempting to suborn them into their faction or (b) attempting to eliminate them.  A solo player with a fleet is vulnerable in a way that a team fleet admiral is not, because they have no one else to back them up and resupply them if they get unlucky (or I make the games rules massively favour solo player recovery from disasters).

I am thinking that rather than having player pirates, we could have NPC pirates/aliens/etc.  have a new fleet spawn each turn on the maps for the players to deal with.

Player Roles

All players should have at least one role in the mechanics of the game.  Novice players should stick to one role, experienced players should choose two roles.  A player could choose more, but they will run into the issue of being required in multiple places at the same time.  So while they may get to do more stuff, they will not be as good as players with one or two roles.  There is some scope for people to volunteer for GM NPC roles in the game.

Admiral: command a force of warships (map game).

Merchant: can trade commodities in the Trade Pit.

Senator: can vote in the Senate and take part in Senate Committees.

Agent: can do espionage, status games.

Governor: can administer territory (map game).

Leader: for a team.

A team should probably try and have at least one of each role covered by a team member.

Player Attributes

This time around, I am going to avoid giving people special power cards.  I’m not convinced they worked well in my last few games.  I am still thinking about how to have an assassination mechanic that doesn’t suck.

Cash: banknotes held by the player.  I’m thinking of having two currencies, a game map one, and a player one, with game currency being convertible into player currency, but not vice versa.  This allows me to have player gambling, without it risking the map game being broken.

Status: these are victory point chits held by players and can be traded between players, with some mechanics allowing players to take them from other players.

Loyalty: this is chosen by the player when they register for the game.  A high loyalty indicates that it will be difficult for the player to refuse orders from the Emperor, or to rebel.  A player with low loyalty, will have more freedom, but might also be executed or forced to rebel early in the game.

The Senate

The senate will do a very limited number of things:

(1) Ratify bills from Senate Committees.

(2) Confirm membership of Senate Committees (5-7 players).

I am tempted to make the secretariat role for the Senate a GM/NPC role, in order to get Senate business done without filibusters.  So what are the Senate committees and what do they do?

(A) Treasury: proposes the budget for the other Senate Committees, but does not directly spend any funds itself.

(B) Trade: can regulate the conduct of traders and trade in commodities

(C) Colonial Affairs: can regulate the conduct of governors and the administration of sectors

(D) Military: can regulate the conduct of Admirals and initiate EMOs (Emperor Mandated Offensives) that allow Core Fleet ships to be used in the outer provinces.

(E) Security: can investigate loyalty, and punish players not following rules established by other committees (i.e. its up to the players, not the GMs, to enforce all imperial regulations).

A limit on player/committee action here will be a finite number of forms released for use every twenty minutes by the Imperial Civil Service (another GM NPC role).

Combat

Will be diceless.  The intent behind this is to speed map play up.  Combat resolution requires the GM to consult a chart.  Each map table will have a different set of charts, with a new chart being used every twenty minutes or so.  The combat process will be something like:

(1) Player A declares they are attacking Player B in Sector Y with Fleet Z.

(2) GM grabs the Combat Results Chart (CRT) and counts down to the row for this battle (i.e. the first battle uses row one, the second battle uses row two, the tenth battle uses row 10, and so on).

(3) The GM reads across the chart columns until a column entry determines a win.  This could be determined by:

  • Fleet Type (a paper-scissors-rock matrix)
  • Most Battle Ships (Usually greater than to win, but sometimes x2 or x3)
  • Most Atomic Power (as above)

So on one row victory may be determined by checking Fleet Type then Ships then Power, the following row could be Power then Fleet then Ships, and the third row could be the same or a different combination again.  We will want to use clip boards with flip open covers for the CRT, so its hard for a player to accidentally read the CRT (our players of course would not deliberately look at the CRT…)

(4) The GM reads across to the Winner/Loser columns, and applies the outcomes there to the two sides, and any damage to the sector.

A couple of things I plan to do with the charts.  First, the more combats in a Map each turn, the greater the damage to sectors caused by combat (disruption of trade, etc).  Second, as the game progresses, the combat results grow more hideous for all participants (representing the absolute trend in warfare towards a final conclusion).

Trade

Looking at imitating the classic Civilisation boardgame system.  So most trade goods are useful, but there will be some bad cards no one wants to be holding at the end of each trade round.


Buckets 2012 Grand Strat Design Ideas

June 8, 2011

First up, if anyone else wants to be involved in the design process let me know and I’ll try and set up an email loop.

My big goal is to improve the moment-to-moment gameplay in the Grand Strategy game.  This means both identifying things that broke in this year’s game and fixing or eliminating them and identifying the game elements people found most fun, and trying to enhance or extend them.

My initial design frame is to do the Big Damn Galactic Empire, although I think I will steer clear of an explicit decline and fall scenario, leaving it open to the players whether or not the BDGE survives or falls.  Working title is Sun and Starship (SAS).  Mark was interested in tying this in with the LARP, which could be very cool if we can pull it off.  One possibility is that deals made in the LARP could flow through and change the initial set up for SAS.  Another is that game currency earned in the LARP could be recycled for use by that player in SAS.

Broad approaches to improving gameplay:

(1) Game Masters that share a consistent and expert knowledge of the game

(2) Improving the advance information given to players about the game

(3) Making the Map Game work better

(4) Adding in side-games/mini-games that give people interesting choices to make that do not involve the Map Game.

Side-Games

I conceive of side-games as games players can elect to play that may have some influence on the Map Game, or no interaction with the Map Game at all.  The side-games would be optional, and as part of the registration process, players could indicate which of the side-games they were interested in playing.  Each side-game should be a fun game in its own right.  Here is my current list of side-games:

  • Pleasure Planets: players compete to establish the most luxurious and decadent of pleasure palaces for their character to retire to.  Mechanically, I imagine this is some kind of auction/bidding game for limited resources.
  • Imperial Senate: a political game in which teams compete in elections to gain the power to implement the reforms they are sure will save the BDGE from collapse.  Mechanically this would involve diplomacy and vote trading.  Reforms could have a positive or negative influence on the Map Game.
  • Committees: a political game in which players attempt to complete paperwork forms, which once signed and stamped result in actions on the map Game or other side-games.  I’m toying with the idea that an assassination can only be successful if the victim signs their own assassination form.
  • Merchant Princes: a trading game, which could possibly supply luxuries for the Pleasure Planet game, dodge pirates and corrupt Imperial officials to transport rare goods across the Galaxy for cash.
  • The Casino: a gambling game.
  • Imperial Court: a game about succession to the Imperial Throne, could involve Usurper Fleets on the map game, but is more likely to be intrigue based.  Atmosphere rule: no one may enter the Emperor’s presence without a hat, due to the Follicle Nerve Gas Conspiracy of 4038.
  • The Cabinet: a game focused on the Emperor’s intimate circle of advisors as they try to prevent the Emepror from weilding any real power.  I’m sure I can get a Grand Vizier in here somewhere, perhaps they are the only personal who can hand the Emperor paperwork.
  • Corruption: get the most Galactic Credits, you win.
  • Interpretative Dance … okay, I don’t really know how to make a game out of that, but I intend to be open minded about what could be included as a side-game.

One concept I am considering is having two currencies in the game.  One currency is for players, another currency is for factions.  The former could be Galactic Credits while the latter could be Atomic Power.  Atomic Power would be gained in the map game, and could be converted into Galactic Credits for use in the mini-games.  The reverse would not be true, Galactic Credits cannot be converted into Atomic Power – otherwise mini-games like the Casino could break the map game.  So we have a situation where some players can become fabulously wealthy, but without that making the map game a side-show.

A Better Map Game

A lot of room for improvement here.

First, aim for five map tables from the start.  There are some obvious process improvements: explicit mechanics for retreats and inter-map movement.  I think for retreats, if a unit has no obvious escape route, then we place it in a “Deep Space” zone.  Inter-map movements can be handled by a floater GM, but they need to be the last thing a unit does with its turn.  Otherwise you get two units acting at the same time on one map table, and that can break the game.

Second, change the combat units from four factors to two factors (e.g. SHIPs and TECH).  One possibility I want to explore is whether or not I can actually put the essence of the movement/combat rules on the unit counters themselves.  So rather than having to consult a rule book to see how Pirates/battleships interact, its right there in front of you.

Third, give the players maps.  Totally encourage players to use digital cameras to take photos of game maps.

Fourth, shift the generation of new resources on the game map, to the interphase between game turns, rather than between each individual player turn.  Fewer resources will probably help the players make better decisions.  I still want to keep transitive economics though (where it costs one resource for +1, three resources for +2, six resources for +3, ten resources for +4, etc) as that gives players interesting choices around resource tradeoffs.

Fifth, tone down the variability of any external event mechanics.  Losing one strength to random damage is okay, losing half your strength to two consecutive events breaks the game for a player.  Losing your fleet to an attack by other players, thats cool, losing it because the GM rolled an 8 and a Black Hole opened up, thats not so cool.

Sixth, I could try pre-printing the map zones and then gluing them to the newsprint.  This would save a chunk of prep time on the day and might make everything more consistent/error free/easier to read.  Like with counters, I could add rule text directly to the game map to save on referencing the main rule set.

Game Mechanics Are Easy.  There are many different ways of doing them, but good mechanics will fail if placed within a broken framework.  With the combat mechnics, we can go with either strong defence, or strong offense.  Each position has its merits.  Either way, it should be obvious where your enemies will retreat to when you attack them.  I’ll write more about possible mechanics next week.

Improved Advance Information to Players

By having a clear cut-off date for pre-registration, team allocation can be done well in advance.  I’d also have an upper cap on the number of players in the game (35).

Game rules should be available at the time registration opens.

Based on the mini-games each player signs up for, the possibility exists of generating a custom rule book for each player.

Knowing in advance who is playing, allows us to print materials with player names.  Forms for the comittee games for example, could include the names of players assigned to each committee.  Player names could go on map game counters that they have personal control over.

Expert, Consistent GMs

Players get very frustrated when GM A interprets a rule differently from GM B.  While the Uber-GM may troubleshoot this, its usually impossible to wind the clock back.

This is not rocket science.  Recruit a pool of GMs early, involve them in the game design and playtesting, and make sure they have all read the rules well before D-Day.


Buckets – Grand Strat Washup

June 7, 2011

What went right?

Sometimes you forget the things that go right, because they do not cause you any stress on the night.

  • Venue was good, with excellent lighting
  • Map creation went okay (about three hours), helped by players who found errors on the between map movement routes
  • Printing was all done when I got there
  • The assistant GMs were all awesome under pressure (Thanks Will, Jan, and Tim)
  • Volunteers who helped with counter/card preparation were also much appreciated
  • Counters were okay
  • Late sign ups were heartening
  • Gameplay, things starved and plagued in a satisfying manner
  • Combat felt a bit more stremlined than last year
  • Most of the players seemed to be having a good time
  • Raiders seemed to work okay
  • Support from my hosts (Jan and Rose) with a place to stay and transport to/from event was a great help
  • Player behaviour was pretty good.

What went wrong?

This is a longer list.  I think I should preface the list by saying: “Dillon needs to stop being a hero, and start sharing some of the design work for these games.”

  • Adding a Victory Point penalty for having the Demon unit, and not telling people about it, was a big bad dumb GM move
  • Map Design: the central team should have been given more assets on the Southern/Northern maps, as it was Texarkana and the Neo-Federals were playing in somewhat of a vacuum
  • Resource Spawn: feedback from the GMs was that this was the most time-consuming part of processing each player turn at a game map (at least early on
  • Not enough to do: there was very little to do during map turns, except wait for a turn at the map
  • Meta-gaming: there was a bit of meta-gaming play around manipulating the queue mechanic, and some attempts at filibustering with Presidential speeches
  • Raider unit Off-Map movement: a lot of players wanted to move Raider units between maps as part of a move, and the ‘Off-Map’ phrase did suggest that this was not an unreasonable expectation for them to hold, although it didn’t actually say ‘Between-Map’ move … the reason I did not allow this is it would have made Raider units too powerful, essentially gaining the ability to teleport between any empty space on the map.
  • Player:Map table ratio was out of equilibrium.  The original design was for twenty players (the number of sign ups a week before the con), which would have worked for the three tables, once there were almost 35 players, the waiting times for actions grew too long, especially on the crowded “Western” table, this also links to…
  • Too many action tokens: based on last year, I thought we could get through sixty action tokens a turn with three map tables.  I dd not properly account for adding more options for gameplay into each player turn.  In theory non-presidential players had 4-6 decisions to make in sixty seconds, which was a heroic assumption on my part for people who might not have played such a game ebfore, or even read most of the rules.  This also links to…
  • Too many players: we had close to 15 signups on the day of the game, and with that many players there needed to be more maps and more things for them to do.  I should have had more faith in my earliest expectations about sign ups and kept working up a game for for five teams of 6-7 players each.  As it was I had already thrown a few things out and merged other roles together, and it was too late on Saturday to retro-fit it back in.
  • Treaties were hard to enforce: some of them were barely legible, pre-generated forms would have helped here.  I’m not sure if they helped or hindered gameplay, but the Diplomacy phase did give the GMs a much needed break.
  • Assassins: not sure if these helped or hidnered the game either, they had about a sixty percent chance of success and teams got about two attempts each if they submitted RFA forms (again, these should have been pre-generated, I mis-read the target on one form).
  • Quality Assurance: rules and components could have done with one more QA pass by somebody who was not Dillon.
  • A few players seemed to leave early – suggests they were not having a fun time.

Initial Thoughts for Next Time

First, recruit a few co-GM/designers early on.  Second, set a clear date for pre-registration for the game and an absolute cap on the number of players (probably somewhere in the 25-25 range).  Third, find mini-games that they players can do when not at the map tables, which can be resolved between players or with a very light GM footprint.  Those are probably the big three things I want to do next year.

Some more specific ideas:

  • One minute timers at each map table
  • Use a Holistic Action Token System (i.e. draw action tokens from a HAT to determine which faction moves next at that map table, so each team wants one person at a map table, not three people waiting in line)
  • Collect e-mails during pre-registration, and e-mail the rules and all other supporting game materials to players no later than one week before the game
  • Try to tie the LARP to the Grand Strat (if the ideas are strong and its not going to break either game).

Next post, I will work through some more specific themes and ideas for next year.


Notes from the Apocalypse

February 15, 2011

Life gets busy.  No work on Decline & Fall for the time being.  I spent part of Jan/Feb reworking my notes on designing SCA war scenarios, and then gave a class on them.  Some more editing is required, but its close to publishable.

New project – designing the grand strategy game for Buckets of Dice 2011.  The core idea is to mix a five-way battle over North America with the two-way conflict between Heavan and Hell.  This will build on the game system used for Collossus of Atlantis (CoA) last year.

Players

Each team should have 5+ players.  Each player will have a specific role ( President, General, Raider, Farmer, Engineer) that will give them action options in the game in addition to the standard options (move, fight, and harvest resource). In CoA I let players have two roles, but I think this gave them too many choices. The Presidents will have the ability to change roles in their team.

Traitors

An option I am considering, given the presence of team Hell.  If included, the possibility will be communicated in advance to the players.

Maps

Looking at five game maps, each with 15 nodes for locating units and resources. The maps will be: Pacific Coast, Atlantic Coast, South, Mid-West (central), and North.  Each team will start largely in control of one of the maps.  terrain will be a mix of Cities, Farms, Factories, and Wastelands.

Turnstructure

20 minute map turns for on mao actions, 10 minute interaction turns for trade, diplomacy and alliances while the GMs tidy the map.

Units

Three main types of units: Armies, Raiders, and Militias.  Each team will have at least five of each unit type.

Armies are the remnants of the US armed forces, regular troops that do good things as long as you have parts and oil.

Raiders are your Mad Max irregular forces. Weaker than Armies, but they can be hidden off the map, and then deployed to raid/ambush vulnerable enemies.

Militias are home defence units, which change sides when their home region is captured.

Each team will also have one nuclear weapon. This is a one shot wonder, which the team must locate in hiding on the map.  So it can be captured or destroyed. Lets hope the President does not lose the bit of paper with the codeword on it.  I might also allow some special capability units to be built (Helicopters, Submarines), but that is chrome for a final polish once the main design is sorted.

Resources

I’m still thinking about the resources that Heavan and Hell will use – I would like to link population/souls together in some way into how the Hosts and Legions interact together.  For the mortal teams the key resources are:

  1. Food
  2. Oil
  3. Parts
  4. Medical Supplies
  5. Population

Oil, Parts, and Medical Supplies are intended to be finite resources that will be exhausted in-game.  This allows people to try strategies based around early resource capture, or hoarding resources for the end-game, or expending resources for early advantage.  Population grows if you have food, and food just grows.  Medical supplies prevent plague from decimating city populations and army strength.

A change from CoA is that resources will remain on the maps. Moving resources around will require spending oil or food (for trucks/mules).  The resource costs could be something like this:

  • One oil to move a stack of resources anywhere
  • One food to move a stack of resources one node
  • One food to prevent starvation in a city/army
  • One oil, three parts, of five food to increase unit strength by +5

Combat

Will hopefully be a little simpler than CoA.  It will still be 3d6 + two random unit strength variables, but the defender will have a static defense (11+variables) for the attacker to beat.  Doubles and triples cause more casualties.  Defeated side gains veteran strength points.  I will do some playtesting to see if more damage/pain is required.