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.

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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!


Classic Housewar Revisited

June 22, 2011

Housewar was a play-by-mail (PBM) campaign I ran for three years in 1991-1993.  It was a gloriously baroque space opera, lovingly hand moderated, and somewhere around 30 odd people took part in its twists and turns.  At the end of 1993 I got an internet account, was elected to the student union exec, and ran out of time to continue a hand mdoerated game.  I had also figured out that my dream of making a living from running PBM games was not going to work – the future was going to be PBeM games, and I couldn’t code worth a damn.

One of the hard bits of shifting years later was throwing out all the Housewar game notes.  They filled a large trunk at the stage, well over a cubic metre of paper.  I still have a few newsletters and maps somewhere, and I think I only got rid of the five and a quarter floppy with the game files last year.

So its interesting to reflect on what I would do differently now, with a somewhat better educated brain, the wonders of modern technology, and a set of time suck commitments that mean that I can’t spend four hours each night rolling six-sided dice as House Illia attempts to repel House Dlan’s invasion fleets.  So here is a list in no particular order:

1. Build a CAD map with layers.  I used to redraw the map boundaries by hand every game turn for Classic Housewar.  Digital would get around that, and layers would allow a more focused display of particular bits of information.  Also, it could be in colour.

2. Have a supporting website, wiki, blog, and e-mail list.  Tempting to add twitter to the list, as the idea of running a game where all orders were limited to 140 characters has some appeal.  I used to get a paragraph of orders from some players, and 10-20 page manifestos from other players.  The shorter order sets usually did better, as NPCs had a bit more initiative.

3. E-mail battle results to the e-mail list, allowing players to verify combat resolution prior to confirming the final result.  This would save me hours of retconning hand moderation clusterfucks.

4. One move every two months, probably taking two weeks for resolution of a move.

5. A stable rule set.  I used to change the rules every turn, often in major ways, as I was reading a lot of military history and strategic studies books and this meant I was constantly finding better ways of making the game “more realistic”.  I’m sure at least one player observed that every turn of Housewar was like it was an entirely new game.  I’m a lot less obsessed by realism now, preferring a focus on particular themes and keeping everyting else simple.

6. Less is more. Start small, allow growth to a manageable point.  Housewar III in particular suffered from a bloat, with unused map portions, way too many rules, and vast fleets of time consuming uselessness.

7. Use Matrix game arguments to establish random events, rather than having a random event table.  Based on past experience, I would be careful to outline the limits of this, e.g. no black holes, supernovaes, or dinosaur killing asteroids.  Also, while it sucks to ahve bad shit happen, seeing that it was other players doing it to you, rather than cruel dice, is I think better in a social game where people will tell stories about it in later years.

8. Balance the initial economy, rather than generate it with random numbers.  In hindsight, taking an economic system from a WWII game where units took 6 turns to build was not great.  Its really hard to plan that far ahead.  Nor was allowing people at war to build 2-3 times as much as people at peace, without them paying some price for it.

9. Limited warfare.  Housewar battles were fairly bloody, being a mix of WWI and WWII naval game mechanics.  Winners tended to take light casualties while the losers were wiped out.  In turn this meant a few defeats led to elimination of a player.  With a design intent that was more looking for persistent inceremental gains/losses moderated by diplomacy and the balance of power, I would aim for a combat system which produced win/lose without always generating massacres.  My current idea here, is that ships automatically put up a bubble shield wall when damaged, that guarantees they survive to the end of that round of combat, at which point the commander may choose to run away.

10. Less bean counting.  No more logistics points.  Only Seth ever got that the logistics subgame meant you needed enough supplies for consecutive turns to gaurantee a successful invasion.

11. Exploration.  Was never really handled well, and for a space game with wormholes you need a clear idea of the costs/benefits of exploration.  Also, changing the map hard copy was tricky. Probably easier with a CAD map.

12. Scenario.  I think I’d want a bit more in the way of background, and what the motivations for the Houses are, beyong survival and power.  Currently I lean towards a “reconstruction” atmosphere following a Saberhagen Beserker style invasion triggered during a diaspora from Terra.  So there would be a rehtorical space for “unity against the alien menace”, even if I never had said menace show up in the game again (because whichever playergot selected as the invasion point would have to be obliterated by it, otherwise no one would take the green gooks seriously, see point 7 on RNG).

13. Leaders. Used to be in quite limited supply, I think I’d make it trivial to recruit at least one more per turn, so that initial poor luck in random talent generation does not ruin a House’s shot at glory.

14. Diplomacy. Could possibly be handled with matrix arguments.  Depending on how leaders work, I might add a dynastic marriage requirement.

15. Technology.  Inextricably linked to stable ruleset.  Allowing players to create new forms of combat unit always leads to a revolutionary change in rules.  Evolutionary change is much easier to handle, where units get minor bonuses/penalties, rather than being instantly invinceable/obsolete.  Could also be handled with matrix arguments.

16. Declarations of war.  Matrix arguments again, and require the players to articulate their war aims (with some defaults if the players have a complate imagination failure, e.g. attacker wants to take over a system, defender wants to keep them), so once accomplished or failed, a subsequent matrix argument can lead to peace.

17. Balance.  A lot more care at setup, power differentials of +/-10% not +/- 100%.  Ultmately still relies on the players, once you push the go button on the game, balance goes out the window.

18. Mars Convention. Make it explicit in interstellar law, “No use of WMD on human colonies.”  In hindsight, I should have realised that having a x2 economic multiplier for war status, and a x3 for DEFCON 1 status would lead to players declaring war on each other and then having a limited exchange of nuclear weapons to boost economic growth in both states.  All very 1984, but it broke the game badly.

19. Ansible. Be a bit more explicit about how the FTL communications work.  I used to handwave it as telepathy between House leaders, but it does affect how non-leader controleld fleet units should work/react.

20. Limit the number of players to 14.  20+ was a bit too much for me to handle.  Can always have a waiting list, or a reserve list for players who forget to submit orders.

Yeah, someday I’ll run Housewar IV. Someday.