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.


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.

Buckets – Grand Strat Washup

June 7, 2011

What went right?

Sometimes you forget the things that go right, because they do not cause you any stress on the night.

  • Venue was good, with excellent lighting
  • Map creation went okay (about three hours), helped by players who found errors on the between map movement routes
  • Printing was all done when I got there
  • The assistant GMs were all awesome under pressure (Thanks Will, Jan, and Tim)
  • Volunteers who helped with counter/card preparation were also much appreciated
  • Counters were okay
  • Late sign ups were heartening
  • Gameplay, things starved and plagued in a satisfying manner
  • Combat felt a bit more stremlined than last year
  • Most of the players seemed to be having a good time
  • Raiders seemed to work okay
  • Support from my hosts (Jan and Rose) with a place to stay and transport to/from event was a great help
  • Player behaviour was pretty good.

What went wrong?

This is a longer list.  I think I should preface the list by saying: “Dillon needs to stop being a hero, and start sharing some of the design work for these games.”

  • Adding a Victory Point penalty for having the Demon unit, and not telling people about it, was a big bad dumb GM move
  • Map Design: the central team should have been given more assets on the Southern/Northern maps, as it was Texarkana and the Neo-Federals were playing in somewhat of a vacuum
  • Resource Spawn: feedback from the GMs was that this was the most time-consuming part of processing each player turn at a game map (at least early on
  • Not enough to do: there was very little to do during map turns, except wait for a turn at the map
  • Meta-gaming: there was a bit of meta-gaming play around manipulating the queue mechanic, and some attempts at filibustering with Presidential speeches
  • Raider unit Off-Map movement: a lot of players wanted to move Raider units between maps as part of a move, and the ‘Off-Map’ phrase did suggest that this was not an unreasonable expectation for them to hold, although it didn’t actually say ‘Between-Map’ move … the reason I did not allow this is it would have made Raider units too powerful, essentially gaining the ability to teleport between any empty space on the map.
  • Player:Map table ratio was out of equilibrium.  The original design was for twenty players (the number of sign ups a week before the con), which would have worked for the three tables, once there were almost 35 players, the waiting times for actions grew too long, especially on the crowded “Western” table, this also links to…
  • Too many action tokens: based on last year, I thought we could get through sixty action tokens a turn with three map tables.  I dd not properly account for adding more options for gameplay into each player turn.  In theory non-presidential players had 4-6 decisions to make in sixty seconds, which was a heroic assumption on my part for people who might not have played such a game ebfore, or even read most of the rules.  This also links to…
  • Too many players: we had close to 15 signups on the day of the game, and with that many players there needed to be more maps and more things for them to do.  I should have had more faith in my earliest expectations about sign ups and kept working up a game for for five teams of 6-7 players each.  As it was I had already thrown a few things out and merged other roles together, and it was too late on Saturday to retro-fit it back in.
  • Treaties were hard to enforce: some of them were barely legible, pre-generated forms would have helped here.  I’m not sure if they helped or hindered gameplay, but the Diplomacy phase did give the GMs a much needed break.
  • Assassins: not sure if these helped or hidnered the game either, they had about a sixty percent chance of success and teams got about two attempts each if they submitted RFA forms (again, these should have been pre-generated, I mis-read the target on one form).
  • Quality Assurance: rules and components could have done with one more QA pass by somebody who was not Dillon.
  • A few players seemed to leave early – suggests they were not having a fun time.

Initial Thoughts for Next Time

First, recruit a few co-GM/designers early on.  Second, set a clear date for pre-registration for the game and an absolute cap on the number of players (probably somewhere in the 25-25 range).  Third, find mini-games that they players can do when not at the map tables, which can be resolved between players or with a very light GM footprint.  Those are probably the big three things I want to do next year.

Some more specific ideas:

  • One minute timers at each map table
  • Use a Holistic Action Token System (i.e. draw action tokens from a HAT to determine which faction moves next at that map table, so each team wants one person at a map table, not three people waiting in line)
  • Collect e-mails during pre-registration, and e-mail the rules and all other supporting game materials to players no later than one week before the game
  • Try to tie the LARP to the Grand Strat (if the ideas are strong and its not going to break either game).

Next post, I will work through some more specific themes and ideas for next year.

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.