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!


Decline & Fall Part II: Sources & Theories

January 2, 2011

My primary source has always been Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novel, although Foundation and Empire was worth a read. For a more historical look at the Roman Empire I have been reading Adrian Goldworthy’s How Rome Fell. To add to the mix, we have Joeseph Tainter’s sociological theories on the collapse of complex civilisations (you could of course go with the current vox pop Jared Diamond, but I found him a little too subject to geographical determinism).

The Foundation Series

Examining the classic novels only, not the later drek that attempted a grand unified storyline.  So what does Asimov give us to work with:

(1) all inhabited worlds owe allegiance to the Galactic Empire – so the whole game map.

(2) the Empire has been around for 12,000 years – which about six times as long as any real life human institution so far.

(3) Trantor, the Imperial Capital, is the Manhattan of Space, an enormous clot of steel and people, a completely urbanised world. “This enormous population was devoted entirely to the administration of Empire, and found themselves all too few for the complications of the task. (It is to be remembered that the impossibility of proper administration of the Galactic Empire under the uninspired leadership of the later Emperors was a major factor in the Fall.) Daily, fleets of ships in the tens of thousands brought the produce of twenty agricultural worlds to the dinner tables of Trantor …. Its dependence on the outer worlds for food and, indeed, for all necessities of life made Trantor increasingly vulnerable to siege. In the last Millennium of the Empire, the monotonously numerous revolts made Emepror after Emperor conscious of this, and Imperial policy became little more than the protection of Trantor’s delicate jugular vein…”

This is equivalent to the grain ships of the Roman Empire, but for the western Roman Empire, Rome itself ceased to be the effective capital of the Empire in the 1st-2nd centry AD.  The Senate declined in actual influence, and the real capital was the Emperor’s court, which was increasingly located in more defensible locations and closer to where any campaigns were being coducted. 

(4) “the known probability of Imperial assassination, viceregal revolt, the contemporary recurrence of periods of economic depression, the declining rate of planetary explorations…” – some useful events to use in-game.

(5) “As Trantor becomes more specialised, it becomes more vulnerable, less able to defend itself. Further, as it becomes more and more the administrative centre of Empire, it becomes a greater prize. As the Imperial succession becomes more and more uncertain, and the feuds among the great families more rampant, social responsibility disappears.” – the specialisation of the capital fits well with Joeseph Tainter’s theories.

(6) Asimov’s theory of psychohistory, a degree of scientific predestination that feels a bit uncomfortable, but its the gee whiz theory underpinning the Foundation series.

(7) “The fall of Empire, gentlemen, is a massive thing, however, and not easily fought. It is dictated by a rising bureaucracy, a receeding initiative, a freezing of caste, a damming of curiosity – a hundred other factors.”

This a bit like the caste system in Diocletian Empire, but a lack of social mobility.  There are a lot of theories about why some Empires fall, most of which suffer from a lack of records and data to analyse (both due to the records being destroyed and the ability to create new records being lost), so sepculation runs rife.  The damming of curiosity is expanded in a conversation with Lord Dorwin, Chancellor of the Empire, in which his version of the scientific method is to read the great books of antiquity, and then through textual analysis determine which of them is more correct – not a hint of field work or lab tests involved.  Earlier stagnation of intellectual inquiry is identifed as a cause of revolts, communication breakdowns, eternal petty wars, and technological decline.  I think thats going a bit far, but its another list of events to incorporate into the game.

(8) “Already they recall the lives of their grandfathers with envy. They will see that political revolutions and trade stagnations will increase. The feeling with pervade the Galaxy that only what a man can grasp for himself at that moment will be of any account. Ambitious men will not wait and unscrupulous men will not hang back.” – so our players should be motivated to be ambitious and unscrupulous, and some more event ideas.

(9) One theme running through the early Foundation series is the role of Atomic power, and how part of the fall is the loss of Atomic power. The Empire’s response to a meltdown is to place restrictions on the use of atomic power as there are few technicians left who understand it, and the idea of training new technicians was not considered.  There is no comparable resource for the Roman Empire, although the Roman Army comes closest as the indispensable resource of state, gradually lost through lack of funds, internecine civil wars and the occasional barbarian calamity.  In The Encyclopedists, atomic power is what allows the Foundation to survive as the balancing power on the periphery of the Galaxy.  In The Mayors, atomic power through the lens of Clarke’s Third Law, dominates the adjacent petty kingdoms through the cloak of religion.  In The Traders, the Empires loss of atomic power is revealed, and in The Merchant Princes it is the effect of economic sanctions and the loss of atomic power that forces the Republic of Korell to surrender to the Foundation.

As an aside, there is no point designing a game about the Foundation – as the way the Foundation prospers is to do nothing and let the sweep of historical forces propel it inevitably towards destiny. Not a lot of interesting decisions for a player to make there.

Joeseph Tainter’s Theory

“According to Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies, societies become more complex as they try to solve problems. Social complexity can be recognized by numerous differentiated and specialised social and economic roles and many mechanisms through which they are coordinated, and by reliance on symbolic and abstract communication, and the existence of a class of information producers and analysts who are not involved in primary resource production. Such complexity requires a substantial “energy” subsidy (meaning the consumption of resources, or other forms of wealth). When a society confronts a “problem,” such as a shortage of energy, or difficulty in gaining access to it, it tends to create new layers of bureaucracy, infrastructure, or social class to address the challenge.

In Tainter’s view, while invasions, crop failures, disease or environmental degradation may be the apparent causes of societal collapse, the ultimate cause is an economic one, inherent in the structure of society rather than in external shocks which may batter them: diminishing returns on investments in social complexity. For contrast, Jared Diamond’s 2005 book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, focuses on environmental mismanagement as a cause of collapse.” (Wikipedia)

Its been a few years since I read Tainter’s work, but from memory there are a couple of ways societies collapse.  One way is to fall all the way to the stone age in one mighty armageddon due to catalcysmic disasters and catastrophic loss of all the infrastructure underpining the civilisation.  This is not especially useful for a game, unless you want some kind of “Great Sombero Disaster” to nuke the game five minutes before you score victory points.

The other way is to have a staircase down, where the society collapses down a rung on the ladder of complexity to simpler forms of societal organisation that are cheaper to organise.  This is more useful for game design, as it means having a mechanic in game that allows the players to modify the game rules, changing the costs of various in-game actions, or eliminating some action options and adding new action options in.

So, initally we need something that makes the game gradually more complex, then a trigger for making the game rebound and be much simpler.

Adrian Goldworthy’s Thesis

In a nutshell: the available economic and military data is crap, so we have to go with what we do know, which is how the Emperor’s tended to die and what we can estimate of the psychological motivations for Imperial security.  There is insufficient information to prove economic decline in any absolute or relative extent.  While there is some information available on military affairs, when it comes to the detail of army organisation, strength and effectiveness, the surviving documents may bear as much resemblance to reality as Hitler’s ORBAT did in April 1945.

So, how did the Emeprors tend to die?  Mainly by being murded by members of their immediate retinue when they lost confidence in the Emperor.  It should be noted that after AD69 and the death of Nero, no dynasty ever managed to rule the Western Roman Empire for as long as the Augstine dynasty had managed.  So nearly all subsequent Emperors struggled for popularity and legitmacy, as most new Emperors were former military commanders who were victorious in civil wars.  This was in part a consequence of the loss of influence and real political power by the Senate – Emperors were able to prevent rivals gaining political power, but it was impossible to prevent Generals in command of armies adequate for border security from gaining enough military power to threaten the security of the Emperor.  As Tacitus put it in describing the civil war of Ad69-70: “for now had been divulged that secret of the empire, that emperors could be made elsewhere than at Rome.”

So succession to the throne tends to be drawn from (a) members of the Imperial family – if any were still alive, (b) members of the Imperial Court (usually a military officer) where no family member could be co-opted, or (c) Army commanders following a civil war.  What this suggested to me in terms of designing a game, was that I needed to track confidence in the Emperor among three different groups: the wider population, the political elite, and the military.  Loss of confidence among any group creates an environment of political uncertainty which can result in the Emperor being murdered, which triggers a civil war.

In Part III I will describe my attempt to put this into mechanics and how well this worked in a playtest.


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.