Redesigning the Decline & Fall Game (again)

August 29, 2011

So I am starting work on the redesign of “Housewar”, the decline & fall of the Galactic Empire boardgame I usually play each Christmas.

Objectives

You win if you get the most Glory. The exception to this: the player with the most Blame loses, regardless of their Glory score.  So while players will try and score Glory, they are also trying to shift blame away from themselves and onto the other players.

Conspiracy Cards

Past versions of the game have failed to balance event cards.  So I am trying a new track.  Each turn a player can draw five conspiracy cards, representing plots they can start against other players.  Each plot has two different triggers.  When the target player does either of the triggers, the plotter can reveal the conspiracy and make a die roll to see if the plot succeeds.  There may be a bit of a tradeoff here, between the small easy to get benefit, and the bigger, harder to get benefit.

Rather than have a lot of different cards, I am going for six types of cards, nine versions of each, with three of each flavour (elite, popular and military).

Part of what I am looking for here, is more direct interaction between players that involves contingent events, and the anticipation of something happening in the future.  Some restrictions here: you can start one plot per turn against other players, and you can have a maximum of five plots started against you.

Blame

Blame can be shifted between players, removed, or pinned on a player (i.e. it then becomes part of their permanent blame score and is counting to determine if the player loses the game).  Conspiracy cards can manipulate blame but the three main blame manipulations are:

1. Each player places one blame in front of them each game turn.

2. Each player can move half of the blame in front of another player once each game turn.  Because you cannot move it away from yourself, there are diplomatic oportunities here to form reciprocal arrangements with other players, or to agree to shift all the blame towards a particular player.

3. At the end of each Civil War, the new Emperor gets to allocate blame for the Civil War:

A. The Emperor pins one Blame to one player of their choice (the person they like the most)

B. The Emperor pins all but one Blame to one player of their choice (probably the person they dislike the most)

C. The Emperor does not get any blame pinned.

D. The remaining players pin half (round up) of their Blame.

Confidence Tracks

Working to avoid the yo-yo oscillations of last year, the confidence tracks will be much more negative sum.  Initial confidence value will be 6+ Emperor attribute value (1-6), so a 7-12 range.  However, with each Civil War, the maximum confidence value will be reduced by one.  So the interval between Civil Wars should reduce as the game plays on.

In the Emperor’s turn, they increase a confidence value by one.  All other players reduce a confidence value by one.  All players gain power tokens and a side benefit from adjusting a confidence track.

Military: gain some fleet tokens.

Elite: shift blame.

Popular: pin blame.

Players could run one track down to quickly trigger the next civil war, however, players who defect from this co-operative strategy will gain more power.

Glory

One problem in past Housewar games has been a large degree of variability in glory scored between players.  So in this version all players get at least one opportunity to score glory each turn.

1. The Emperor gets to reign, and score 1-6 glory and possibly generate some power.

2. Non-Emperors get to indulge in decadence, where they score Glory based on the number of blame markers in front of them.

3. Some conspiracies, when triggered, allow a player to score one point of glory.

The sweet spot is for incoming total glory to be just above incoming blame.

Civil Wars/Battles

Not too much to change here, the system worked reasonably well last year, so just some fine tuning.  I’m keeping the requirement to spend power or hold the capital each turn in order to prevent your claimant being killed.  I am adding a power gain at the end of the war based on territorial control.

Counters

I am dithering between having specific House units, or just having Imperial units with markers to indicate control.  The latter probably means less counters overall.  The former makes it much easier to tell at a glance who controls what on the map.

Rather than having a lot of fleet counters, with high value fleets degrading into low value fleets over time, I think I can get away with around 40 fleet units.  Possibly discard one at random from the game after every Civil War.

I am thinking of having House specific leaders (again for the ease of seeing who controls them).  I am also considering permanent removal from the game, if killed in combat (about a 7% chance per battle) or if they become Emperor.  This means a player who is Emperor a lot early on, may hurt in the end-game if all their good leaders are gone.  13 leaders per player should be enough.

Rules

So far, I have managed to keep the rules at four pages in length.  I really miss having my own printer, it was much easier to generate playtest components with one at home.


Decline & Fall IV: I Hate Math

January 5, 2011

One of my take home lessons from reading http://gamebalanceconcepts.wordpress.com/ was that I really needed to do the math when designing games.  Because I’m pretty happy with combat at the moment my focus is on the length of the game, and how players score Glory (victory points).

Running out the clock.
 
Current levers for ending the game:
(1) A player moves from 0 to 100+ Glory (most likely option).
(2) The Galactic Empire moves from 25 to 0 sectors.
(3) The number of leaders drops from 100 to 0.
(4) No remaining atomic power (the least likely option).
 
Leader Zero
 
Ways for leaders to be eliminated:
(1) Death in battle (if one leader committed chance of death is 1/24 or 4.2%, if two leaders committed, chance of one death is about 8.2%, chance of two deaths 4.3%)
(2) Participate in Civil War (1-P, where P is number of players with claimants, 100% end up dying, as the Emperor will die at start of next Civil War)
(3) Card Play (# of cards/deck size, probability of card, chance of success,  options to remove one or many leaders?) Possible card: Purge: play when Emperor, target leader, eliminate on 13+, reduce Con by 1, continue until failure.
 
Estimating battle mortality for (1), assuming Civil War duration of four turns, and each player starting one battle per turn with both sides committing leaders, with an expected loss of 0.172 leaders per battle:
– Four players, 16x 0.172 =  2.752
– Five players, 20x 0.172 = 3.44
– Six players, 24x 0.172 = 4.128
– Seven players, 28 x 0.172 = 4.816

For (2), key variable is the number of players in the game.  Assuming 100% rate of claimant nomination by players:
– Four players = 100/4 or 25 Civil Wars
– Five players = 100/5 or 20 Civil Wars
– Six players = 100/6 or 17 Civil Wars
– Seven players = 100/7 or 14 Civil Wars
 
Combining the two sets for conflict loss:
– Four players, a civil war costs 6.752 leaders
– Five players, a civil war costs 8.44 leaders
– Six players, a civil war costs 10.128 leaders
– Seven players, a civil war costs 11.816 leaders
 
Number of Civil Wars required to eliminate 100 leaders:
– Four players = 14.8 Civil Wars
– Five players = 11.8 Civil Wars
– Six players = 9.7 Civil Wars
– Seven players = 8.5 Civil Wars
 
I’m not sure what the optimal number of Civil Wars/game would be.  One possibility is to reduce the pool of leaders in games with less than seven players.  If we think 8-9 Civil Wars is a good point to aim for, then we can reverse engineer an optimal leader mix:
 
Seven players = 100 leaders
Six Players = 86 leaders
Five Players = 72 leaders
Four players = 57 leaders
 
Possible 100, 85, 75, 60 to keep things at nice round numbers.
 
Empire Zero
 
There are 25 sectors in the game.  Current levers for shrinking the Galactic Empire:
(1) -1 Sector per Civil War (assuming 100% chance of a crisis on the map)
(2) Cardplay (# of cards/deck size, probability of card, one Sector or many Sectors)

24 Civil Wars will end the Galactic Empire through sector decay, but based on leaders, only 8-9 Civil Wars will occur, suggesting scope for a number of other mechanics to accelerate sector loss.  Option: if any player Glory is 50+, then lose 2 sectors after Civil War, if any player Glory is 75+, lose 3 sectors after Civil War (where possible).  This might mean a loss of 4+4+8 sectors, or 16/25 sectors through Civil Wars, so perhaps 4-8 card events are needed to collapse the remaining sectors.
 
This mechanic means that if leader commitment in Civil War  is low, the clock still runs out.  Having a card/action based mechanic for additional sector loss means the front-runner must sacrifice some actions to run the clock out, a negative feedback loop.
 
Glory 100
 
This clock really depends on the rate at which Glory can be scored.  Feedback loops are important here (negative feedback, glory can be reduced and being in front can be a disadvantage, positive feedback, scoring gets faster and faster so an initial frontrunner is hard to overtake).
 
Glory sources:
(1) Resolve crisis (+1-6, risky as action can fail)
(2) Auction (1-4, +2 for highest bid) [cardplay or turn sequence?]
(3) Battle (% x 1-6)
(4) Civil War Glory Pool (1-P6)
(5) Card play (numerous flavours, could be Penny Trades of +/-1 Glory, or more substantial 1d6 Glory gains)
 
(1) Resolve Crisis:
– not a guaranteed success (but with good leader and power, can be close to 95%)
– average +3.5 glory (possibly slightly more than this, as attempt must be successful, which is more likely with higher rolls)
– incentives: if it removes a crisis and restores confidence then non-Emperors may not want to do (unless already a strong contender)
– assumption: one-two players per turn will do this (so more players means a lower average score) [Might need to make it so that in a 4 player game, crisis resolution does not boost Confidence] 

Glory gained will depend on length of game.  Assume 25 full turns,

Four players = +44 Glory each?  Five players = +35 Glory each? Six players = 30 Glory each? Seven players = +25 Glory.  Feels about right for seven players, may need a way of discounting score/increasing risk of failure in games with fewer players.  Could increase the target number required for success by +1 per player missing.

(2) Auctions
– Option A: card initiated auction winner, if sufficient power, can get +1-4 glory, + winner bonus (1-6 Glory)
– Option B: fixed auction every turn with a winner bonus, fix at +1, increase by +1 per player with more glory than you (a catch up mechanic), +1 for each other player that bids, -1 for lowest bidder (so no bid = -1, lowest bid = 0-1, other bids 1, winning bid 1+)
– incentives: if player initiated in option A, only likely when initiating player can win, if it happens once/emperor turn as with option B then its a steady source of Glory.  High spending also requires a player to have atomic power to burn, which must be balanced against the anticipated costs of participating in civil wars and future auction bids.
– assumption for option A: if initiated by card, assume one play per card per game, worth average +4 glory/player, so six cards = +24 Glory, with an outlier of +60 Glory (about a 1 in a million chance)
– assumption for option B: if per turn, then more likely to be 1+0.5 Glory per player (because there will be well more than six turns played, scoring must be lower) and 25 turns per game is possible.

Not sure how the winner bonus might work out for option B, but possibly:
4 players = 3 Glory per turn to winner, assuming even spread of players ahead/behind
5 players = 3.5 Glory per turn
6 players = 4 Glory per turn
7 players = 5 Glory per turn (this is fine because turns will take longer to complete with more players)
 
(3) Battle
– winner has 13.3% chance to score Glory, loser has 20% chance to score Glory
– most competent military leaders have low Glory values, +1
– incentives, player will not always choose Glory (may prefer other options), wash with possible higher Glory values?
– expectation of a glory proc is 26.64%
– if expected score is +1, then in each four turn CW a player will gain +1G from battle (not much, but could be much higher with one of the rare competent high Glory leaders)
– so +8-9G per game
 
(4) Glory Pool
– depends on freq of war, assume 8.5 CW per game
– depends on player negotiation, assume half of players benefit each war (rounded down)
– depends on #leaders committed, and Glory values
– incentives, confident of winning = commit high G leader, share with fewer players, reverse if less confident, but, if losing commit high value leader and hope to get lucky, reverse if winning to reduce chances of people catching up/overtaking
– assuming 100% commitment and 2 Glory leader values
 
4 player = 8 Glory pool, 4 Glory share, entire game gain = 0-34 Glory, avg +17 Glory
5 player = 10 Glory pool, 5 Glory share, entire game gain = 0-42 Glory, avg +21 Glory (if > player share, more equivalent)
6 player = 12 Glory pool, 4 Glory share, entire game gain = 0-34 Glory, avg =17 Glory
7 player = 14 Glory pool, 4.7 Glory share, entire game gain = 0-40 Glory, avg +20 Glory
 
Combined Civil War glory expectations = 25-30 Glory over entire game. But extreme possibility is that one player could pick up that much Glory from one war (assuming some skillful play, luck, and the cooperation/poor play by other players).
 
Balance: each source of scoring worth around 25% of final score?  With (5) card plays to even off the edges?
 
Duration of Game
 
This section is a bit rough.  Number of rounds of play required to score Glory (G) in peace, anticipated frequency of Civil War ( CW).  CW frequency depends on high fast the different Confidence (Con)  tracks can be run to zero.
 
Triggers for CW:
(1) 1/36 chance each player turn
(2) Any Con track hits zero (most likely cause)
(3) Card play (automatic or chance based)
(4) No power in bank (unlikely )
 
Three Con tracks.  Value 1-12 with each new Emperor.  Likely that one value will be lower than others due to the way leader values were generated (40 point buy, four attributes, attribute cost is points equal to square of attribute value, with some fudging for a few über leaders and a few woeful leaders).
 
Crisis chart: 27.7% -1 MilCon, 19.4% -1PopCon, 19.4% -1EliteCon [So cards should reduce Pop/EliteCon more often than MilCon]
Exploitation of Crisis: -1 Con of player choice (subject to crisis availability), incentive is to reduce the lowestCon to trigger the next CW and chance to become Emperor (done instead of trying to resolve a crisis, so incumbent Emperor is unlikely to do this)
 
Will take perhaps 4-5 player turns in typical play for lowest Con to get a crisis, and then that Con can then drop by -1 per player turn.
 
Assume Con value of 7 (likely in early game), 10-11 player turns to proc CW (and 10/36 chance of RNG CW), 2-3 full rounds of play between CW. 
Midgame Con value of 4, 7-8 player turns to proc CW, 1-2 rounds between CW
Endgame Con value of 1, 4-5 turns to proc CW, 0-1 round between CW.
 

Rough estimate that the first half of the game requires 8-12 player turns.  Second half of the game perhaps 6-10 turns.  So feels like Glory accumulation will end most games before leaders/sectors are exhausted, but outlier games would be possible.

Still a bit of work left to do to fully explore the synergy between game duration, methods of scoring Glory, and levers for running out the clock, but I think this back of the envelope doodling has been useful for tuning several game mechanics to a more balanced point.


Decline & Fall III: Mechanics

January 4, 2011

Map

Main change to the map is dropping from a map with 60 sectors, to one with 25.  This pretty much worked, keeping counters to a reasonable density on most of the map.

Random Events

After years of trying to balance a deck of cards so that it would create a sequence of events that crumble that Galactic Empire in a slow decline I gave up.  It was too hard to reward players for playing cards that accelerated the decline and fall.  So I decided to make the cards players pick up a resource that allows them to do things in other players turns, hopefully increasing the interactivity in the game.  As a new ways of doing events I created a table, which players would roll on each turn to see what bad things would happen to the Galactic Empire.

This mostly worked, although I had too many different flavours of each broad type of crises (popular, elite, military).  In revision, I am merging six types of crises into three types.

Confidence

I created three confidence tracks: popular, elite, and military.  Confidence was a 0-12 value, which was crucial to playing event cards, triggering civil wars, and resolving crises.  I intended that confidence would always be slowly dropping over time, ensuring no player would remain Emperor forever.

This failed badly in implementation.  In a four player game, the fact that the Emperor would never choose to reduce confidence, plus a few rolls of 7 on the Crisis chart (Peace: confidence +1), was enough to make the confidence levels stay above 7-8 for much of the game.  For the playtest I made the first Emepror abdicate so we could test the Civil War emchanics, but subsequent Emperors also retained high confidence levels.

Revision: eliminating the peace roll on the crisis chart will remove a random element, the event cards will be changed to have less confidence boosting outcomes, and the way crises are resolved or exploited will result in confidence more often going down, not up.  I will also change how confidence values are set, from 1d6+Emperor Confidence Value, to 6+Emperor Confidence Value (so each Emperor will get at least one full turn as Emperor, unless the 1/36 chance Civil War is thrown on the Crisis Chart).

Leaders

I created sets of popular, elite and military leaders.  The intent here was to add a bit of chrome to the game, as the leaders were of variable quality, and to create an interaction with game events and confidence levels, e.g. a Court Martial event could only affect military leaders.  I thought of popular leaders as having dynastic relations, so for Civil Wars I said popular leaders had to be claimants before elite/military leaders.

Atomic Power

This was the ‘money’ in the game.  It was earned by controlling sectors where power was generated (2d6 roll with chits like Settlers of Cattan), or by being a Viceroy or Emperor.  In play, it was time consuming to determine where income had been generated, and exactly who was owed how much.  The Emperor also tended to be fabulously wealthy, as did whichever player controlled the most Viceroys, with the remaining players being impoverished.  This was bad, because the Civil War requires atomic power, and making the Emperor rich and the Usurpers poor meant that it was too hard to overthrow the leading player.

Revision: I’m dropping the tax chits and multiple layers of taxation.  My intent is to try and create an inflation mechanic. I hope to do this by giving each player a steady, but slowly increasing income, which I call Sinecures.  The goal is that when players reach the end game they should have enough power to do some expensive bidding auctions, or to fully participate in Civil Wars.

Fleets

In past games I have started each player with a large number of fleets, which during the course of the game have slowly reduced in value through attrition in battle.  Its always been nice as a player when you ended up with the last of the Old School Battleships and got to enjoy crushing some of the junk the other players had.  After reading Adrian Goldsworthy’s book on the decline of Rome I wanted to try and link the decline in military power to specific actions by the Emperor.  So there was a mechanic allowing the Emperor to subdivide an existing fleet into two weaker fleets, taking control of one of the new fleets, and the other fleet remaining controlled by the existing controller.

This worked out okay, but with the long Imperial reigns the first few Emperors ended up with more fleets than other players.  Fixing Imperial longevity will alter this, but I am still thinking about other means by which I can reach the design goal: an expanding fleet that is growing weaker over time.

Combat

I borrowed from the Dragon Age tabletop roleplaying game and created a critical hit chart.  When a player scored a double on any of their three dice, then the one die of the three with a different colour was read to give 1-6 points that could be spent on the critical hit table.  There is about a 40% chance of each of the two players in combat getting a double, so most battles (but not all) will see one player (or both) players get critical hits.  This gave players some interesting decisions to make, and removed the need for large numbers of combat cards in the card decks.

This worked well, although a need for separate Winner/Loser charts was identified.

Civil Wars

The intent was to have something like the Coup Phase in Junta (last years version of Housewar was called Junta in Space).  So as the game is played crises accumulate, the Emperor becomes unpopular, loses the confidence of their followers, and dies, thus triggering a civil war that lances the boil of afflications in the Galactic Empire. This leads to a new era of short-lived peace and prosperity before yet another Civil War.

The key mechanic driving the Civil War was that each turn you had to pay power, unless you controlled the Imperial Capital, and if you ran out fo power then your claimant to the throne (a nominated leader) died.  Last leader standing wins the war (although players could all agree at any time who the next Emperor would be).  Tax was not generated during the war, although critical hits did let you steal power from other players or loot sectors.  This worked in that players were compelled to fight over the Capital, and civil wars tended to bankrupt people.  This did make the Capital a cluttered sector full of units.

Revision: add a Blockade rule, where if all the sectors around the Capital are controlled by one player (or a coalition of players), then the power rule is inverted (people in the Capital pay power to stay in the war, people blocakding do not).

Summary

First playest of this incarnation of Housewar demonstrated that it was not a fair and balanced game.  While we had fun, when we reached the end game there was a clear leader, and the game needed soemthing that other accelerated the end of the game, or allowed the trailing players some hope of victory. Some mechanics did not work as intended and will be revised, some worked very well and only need a small amount of polish.


Decline & Fall Part I: Failure

October 30, 2010

In the 15 odd years I have been tinkering with my ideas for a Decline & Fall of the Galactic Empire game, I have accumulated a lot of failed designs. This is not a bad thing. I learnt a lot from my failures, and most of the time I had fun along the way.

The original inspiration was to come up with a game around the bits I found interesting in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels. This in turned was inspired by the historical events of the fall of the Roman Empire. I did not find the Foundation itself too interesting, it was always the description of the Empire in decline that captivated me, and once the Empire fell and its capital of Trantor was sacked, the rest of the novels held little interest for me. Over the years I found quite a few other books with similar themes, and the artwork of Michael Whelan was pretty inspiring as well.

My original design intent was to create a multiplayer boardgame, that could be finished in an afternoon, was balanced (in that good play would be rewarded, victory required some skill and luck, but so that you had not obviously lost the game before it was half-finished), and that at the end of which the players could survey the debris and wreckage of the Galactic Empire and know, as Seth (a frequent playtester) put it, “That it was all their fault.”

There were many valiant failures. Over the years I have filled close to 4 rubbish sacks with cardboard counters from different design iterations of what the players nicknamed “Housewar” (a reference to an epic hand moderated SF play-by-mail game I had run from 1990-1993). Sometimes I managed to get a few of the design goals right, other times my prototpes were a shambles from beinning to end. I will go through as many of them as I can remember:

(1) A Fleet of a 1,000 Ships: this early version had a big map, a random event deck, and many, many ship counters which had 4-5 variables of strength and quality. In play, the players formed great towering stacks of ships, but avoided combat as the concentrated fleets were both too powerful and too vulnerable.

(2) Paths of Glory: captivated by the World War One card-driven strategy game designed by Ted Racier, I began experimenting with games that focused on cards that let a player choose between an action from a set menu of game actions or an event on the card, or a mixture of both. The problems I ran into were the difficulty of pacing events, as it was hard to encourage the players to play events that damaged the Empire, and the card-driven engine did not work well in a multi-player environment. Unlike a two player game, it was much harder to analyse what might be in an opponent’s hand – and players were always reluctant to ‘waste’ a game action on something as minor as spying on another player. I tried splitting the events into two decks: one common, the other containing the decline events, without success.

(3) Flawed Symmetrical Maps: Many of my early maps featured an extremely symmetrical Galaxy, with a central hub of territory and four identical spiral arms. The Imperial Capital in the middle was the only real geographical feature on the map, other territory might produce an income, but only the capital produced victory points. This featurelessness was a result of two factors (a) my desire for the game to not involve trading resources and (b) the lack of any real geographical or historical context in what was a fantasy game. The major problem I found in a 5+ player game with symmetrical maps, is that three players tended to gain control of a spiral arm each, with the remaining two fighting over the fourth. The two fighting always ended up doing badly. I found in practice that my setup mechanics often produced strong meta-gaming play, where players would growl at each other as they indicated what sectors they wanted to control at the start of the game.

(4) Weak Asymmetrical maps: did this fix the problem? No, instead it revealed a new one. While I could add crinkles and fjords to the map, the dominance of the capital remained strong. What became important was not only the capital, but the small number of sectors immediately adjacent to it. So long as you had the ability to attack the Imperial Capital, you could make yourself Emperor frequently. So the first players to lose these strategic points, started to rapidly fall behind in the accumulation of victory points. I did find that 60 sectors is a good number for random setups, as it divides evenly for 3-6 players.

(5) Republic of Rome in Spaaaaaace: I tried one design with a greater emphasis on politics and voting in an Imperial Senate, but it was so baroque that it collapsed in confusion. I vowed not to try that again. Eventually I came up with my “make one element complex” rule for game design (and its collorary “keep everything else simple”). So I could have complex events, OR complex politics, OR complex combat, OR complex technology, OR complex economics, but not all complex in the same package. Not unless I could find playtesters willing to go into seclusion for a week with me.

(6) Two Track System While in the UK I played with designs where the players controlled both loyal imperial forces, and rebel forces striving to overthrow the empire. The intent here, was that if a player started losing the Imperial game, they could try for a rebel victory by conquering the Imperial Capital with a rebel fleet. At the start the Imperial units were very strong, while the rebel units were very weak. It did not work too well the one time I tested it, and I lost interest in trying to fine tune it. I think this was because I did not really find it plausible that every great noble house of the Galactic Empire would be working hand in glove with rebel scum.

(7) Junta in Spaaaace: While I enjoyed playing the Junta board game it had a few flaws, chief among them being that you often knew you had lost the game before the half-way point if the first President had succeeded in being corrupt. But I liked its coup mechanic, where a short conflict was fought, and then the forces reset. This fit well with the concept of a civil war in the Galactic Empire, with the new Emperor restoring stability for a while. I tested this last year, and parts worked well (although I ignored my one complex thing rule with a ‘blame mechanic’). But it was hard to incorporate the element of decline into a game of shuffling portfolios.

To summarise my key design problems after much trial and error:
(a) setup, mid-game, and end-game balance issues, players had trouble scoring victory points and winning felt very reliant on chance
(b) the map was pretty unexciting as most of it was irrelevant
(c) the decline feel, relying on random cards from a deck, simply didn’t deliver a reliably paced decline and fall sequence.

So after ten months of not doing much tinkering with my design, I decided that what I needed to take the game forward was to go and read a solid history book that looked at the fall of the Roman Empire. What I needed was a concept that I could hang a game mechanic framework off. In my next post, I’ll write about what I found.