Buckets 2012 Grand Strat Design Ideas

June 8, 2011

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

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

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

Broad approaches to improving gameplay:

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

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

(3) Making the Map Game work better

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

Side-Games

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

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

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

A Better Map Game

A lot of room for improvement here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Improved Advance Information to Players

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

Game rules should be available at the time registration opens.

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

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

Expert, Consistent GMs

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

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


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 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.