The Core Problem

January 6, 2015

On the way to work this morning, I started reading the Complete Kobold Guide to Game Design.  While the book has a roleplaying game focus, many of its concepts translate over well into designing a boardgame.  The fifth chapter “Seize the Hook” by Rob Heinsoo had three useful nuggets of advice:

  1. Design a game you want to play but can’t because no one else has designed it yet.
  2. Don’t be satisfied with your design until you’ve found the key mechanical hook that captures the game’s theme, creating an experience that’s something like the experience being portrayed in your game.
  3. Understand and follow through on the full implications of your game’s mechanical hook.

Design a game you want to play but can’t because no one else has designed it yet.

I want to play a game about the decline and fall of a Galactic Empire, and I have not seen a game that really captures what I want, although some come close.

The strongest influences on my original conception, are the “Foundation” novels by Isaac Asimov, the Long Night in the Traveller RPG, other classic SF titles like Poul Anderson’s “Dominic Flandry” novels, and some geopolitics theory I was studying for fun at the tail end of my Masters degree.  While for years I called my game design project “Housewar”, of late I now call it “Sun and Starship”, a play on the “Spaceship-and-Sun” emblem of Asimov’s Galactic Empire.  As a lot of the SF concepts were drawn on real world historical examples, I added to my reading with scholarly discussion of the fall of ancient civilisations. Adrian Goldsworthy’s book “How Rome Fell” was important here. It focused on the surviving sources, and the role of minions in brutally murdering weak Emperors when it looked like their pensions were threatened. Great history, but a game in which the key players are killed by NPCs is unlikely to find a wide market.

Don’t be satisfied with your design until you’ve found the key mechanical hook that captures the game’s theme, creating an experience that’s something like the experience being portrayed in your game

Years of trial and error have shown me that trying to build a game on declining resources is hard. Its difficult because shrinking resources is not fun for players. They see the pie getting smaller every turn, but the struggle to tell if their share of the remaining pie is bigger or smaller than their rivals.  Some of the main mechanic styles I have tried include:

  • event-card/action choice driven mechanics, like “We the People” and “Paths of Glory” (which were too random)
  • Cabinet games with bouts of warfare, like “Junta” and “Republic of Rome” (which took too damn long)
  • home-brew systems ranging from the minimalist (half-a-dozen counters per player) to monster games with a thousand counters, that often tried to be an economic game, a military game, and a political game, and did all three quite badly.

Nothing ever quite seemed to work, either because it was too reliant on random events, or because a necessary part of the game, the “who is the Emperor” sub-game, dominated the rest of the game and excluded a lot of potential strategies for game play. It boiled down to “if you are not Emperor, you are losing”.

So now I have a clear conception of a key mechanic, which is that rather than a random event causing a point of downwards decline, a player action will cause a point of decline, triggering a random event that adds some colour to the game.  I have found two ways of doing this:

  • making it desirable to build expensive special power “Dreadnoughts” in an arms race dynamic where players cannot afford to be left behind, with each Dreadnought build causing decline
  • requiring the player who is Emperor to push the Decline along a little (or a lot) each time they take an action turn

I also need to accept that I can’t make a 2-3 hour game be all things to all people. This means sacrificing a lot of the chrome that had remained with the game for years (such as Decadence auction bids and “Blame” games for attacking other player’s Glory scores).

Understand and follow through on the full implications of your game’s mechanical hook.

I think they key to expressing the theme, is that the Galactic Empire is going to collapse, and it is going to collapse due to the player’s actions. This means that for the game’s design to work, it has to reliably deliver a collapsed Galactic Empire, a complete wreck of civilisation, not just a half-empty ruin. This collapse also needs to clearly relate to actions done by the players during the game, and these actions should be logical for the players to do, not forced on them unwillingly. Most of the mechanics I have tried over the years could not deliver the full collapse in a reasonable playing time.

The Core problem

No matter how I build a game map, if the Core is a key VP spot, then blocking access is a way to make other players lose. This defeat is usually clear mid-game, and feeling like you cannot win is not fun (the only thing less fun is being completely eliminated from the game and having to watch the other players fight on for two hours to determine who actually wins).

One way around this, is to connect the Core to every other part of the map.  From this I make the intuitive leap, is a 2-D map the best way to chart a 3-D space empire?  If I recall some reading I did years ago, for 3-D mapping, a sphere of space can generally accommodate 12 similar sized spheres around it (think of oranges in a big net bag). Trying to represent this simply in a 2-D map is difficult. I did have one map version with eight adjacent sectors to the core sector, but even then 2-3 players generally ended up controlling all eight access points. It just seemed like an iron law of geopolitics, any fixed node of importance could not sustain multiple factions in adjacent power projection positions.

I tried a lot of variations of map + senate games (mixes of Junta and republic of Rome) where a political sub-game could change who controlled the Core. While this worked to an extent, it increased both complexity and the time to play the game. It also had the problem that I never had to change adjacent territorial control – so after a political change in Emperor, one of the adjacent military powers would “restore order” in the Imperial Capital.

Another option was to increase the number of VP scoring sectors, but trying this led to players avoiding the core, leaving it under one player’s control for the bulk of the game. Its easier to defend remote provinces with limited points of movement access, then it is to defend core nodes with large networks of connections.  More recently I have been trying to increase both the sources of VP, and the quantity of VP sourced through them. But as my last playtest showed, even a passive gain of +1 VP per turn, in a game where 100 VP was required to win, cascaded into a 30 point VP lead by the time we were half-way through the game.

The King of Tokyo Solution

In King of Tokyo, you are either a giant monster in Tokyo, or not (but want to be as soon as you kick the current “King of the Hill” out). It makes for an amazingly simple game board. A bit simpler than I want for my theme, but I think I can work something like this:

  • the only permanent map space is the Imperial Capital, the Core sector of the Galactic Empire
  • the player who is Emperor, occupies this Core sector, until kicked out, or they choose to flee into exile
  • two related mechanisms will encourage change of the throne, first, the reigning Emperor cannot collect Power to do further actions, once they exhaust their power they should abandon the Core sector, and secondly, the other players have an option to “Plot”, that will over time escalate their effective strength for an attack on the Core to a point where an easy victory is probable
  • now I still want lots of combat and battle fleets elsewhere, but I think I can handle the map through a deck building exercise, by saying each card is a sector in space, connected to other sectors by wormhole tunnels … and that part of the decline theme is that wormhole tunnels eventually collapse, removing those linked sector map cards from the game. So as the game develops, the players will be desperately expanding into new map cards, trying not to have major forces in a sector when civilisation collapses there.

Next Steps

The next step here, is to do a bunch of mathematics around how many actions I expect players to do in 2-3 hours, and setting a Glory scoring mechanism that fits the bill. Having decks of cards potentially helps me scale the game to the number of players, by reducing the deck size to match lesser numbers of players. I also need to go check out a lot more board game design discussion forums. This is something I have neglected in recent years, and as the summary at the end of this article on game design makes clear, there is a lot more out there these days than Consimworld!


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.


Keep it Simple and Awesome

February 28, 2012

I stole the title from an article that was on copyright, but covered success stories for content creators in the digital age – keep it simple and awesome.

So, as much as I like the dice/energy system, it fails the simple test.  Too easy for “The Great Hat Disaster” to bump all the dice, at which point the entire game turn is screwed.  I also could not find enough stuff for the Agents to do that was awesome – it looked too much like being an unpaid intern.

Revised player roles:

  • Imperial Princes (up to 10 players)
  • Great Houses (x3, with 5 players each)
  • Pirates (up to 15 players)

I’m fairly happy with the Senate, no maor changes there.

Combat, because the pirate players are each individuals, I have to drop the idea of Faction based cards for determining victory.

Initially there will be three types of combat units:

  • Raiders (build by Pirates)
  • Cruisers (built by people controlling colonies)
  • Dreadnoughts (built by Imperial players with Atomic Power).

Players are free to trade/gift units to other players (and this is the only way that Pirates can get Dreadnoughts or Imperials can get Raiders, unless they are lucky in combat and capture a unit).  Initially only Imperials control colonies, but as the game progresses, Pirates will capture colonies too.

Later in the game, the Senate will be able to authorise the construction of additional special capability units.  This requires a crisis to trigger, so the players have time to learn the basic combat system before it gets made more complex.

The combat resolution mechanic is:

  1. Draw a card – the card lists a unit type (Raider or Cruiser or Dreadnought)
  2. The side with the most of the unit type wins
  3. The Defender wins ties
  4. The card will list two sets of casualties that the loser takes, winner takes no losses.
  5. Loser retreats.

Casualty results are in the form of [Unit Type] [Loss], where the types of loss are:

  • One unit destroyed
  • One unit captured by enemy
  • All but one unit destroyed
  • All units destroyed.

Initially the Imperial forces have a 2/3 chance of winning battles (because the Pirates probably don’t have Cruisers or Dreadnoughts early on).  The game economy, however, will allow Pirates to rapidly recruit new Raider forces.  This means that the strategic risk of combat is actually borne by Imperial forces – while the chance of losing all your Dreadnoughts is low, losing all of them in an ambush is a great disaster.  This chance of disaster is deliberate, because it will force the Imperials to engage in diplomacy and to work together when there is a crisis.

Pirate players can be bribed by the Empire, gaining the Pirate the designation of Warlord as long as they work for the Empire.

Trade – leaning towards a variant of civilisation trade cards, but simplifying it so each set of trade card lists what the set is exchanged for.  Players get one trade card for each colony world they control.

Civil Wars – ideally I will develop a mechanic that allows the players to resolve the civil war entirely during the period when the GMs are tidying up the map table.  My current idea is to give players “support cards”, which can be traded around.  In the inter-phase, Princes can trigger a Civil War, at which point people spend and compare support cards.

Emperor – to make the Civil War worth fighting, the Emperor will get a lot of beanies to distribute among their supporters.

Maps – looking at having sector capitals that generate atomic power, and colonies that generate trade cards, and some deep space zones for Pirates to skulk in.

Thats where my thinking is at the moment.