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.


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.


Notes from the Apocalypse

February 15, 2011

Life gets busy.  No work on Decline & Fall for the time being.  I spent part of Jan/Feb reworking my notes on designing SCA war scenarios, and then gave a class on them.  Some more editing is required, but its close to publishable.

New project – designing the grand strategy game for Buckets of Dice 2011.  The core idea is to mix a five-way battle over North America with the two-way conflict between Heavan and Hell.  This will build on the game system used for Collossus of Atlantis (CoA) last year.

Players

Each team should have 5+ players.  Each player will have a specific role ( President, General, Raider, Farmer, Engineer) that will give them action options in the game in addition to the standard options (move, fight, and harvest resource). In CoA I let players have two roles, but I think this gave them too many choices. The Presidents will have the ability to change roles in their team.

Traitors

An option I am considering, given the presence of team Hell.  If included, the possibility will be communicated in advance to the players.

Maps

Looking at five game maps, each with 15 nodes for locating units and resources. The maps will be: Pacific Coast, Atlantic Coast, South, Mid-West (central), and North.  Each team will start largely in control of one of the maps.  terrain will be a mix of Cities, Farms, Factories, and Wastelands.

Turnstructure

20 minute map turns for on mao actions, 10 minute interaction turns for trade, diplomacy and alliances while the GMs tidy the map.

Units

Three main types of units: Armies, Raiders, and Militias.  Each team will have at least five of each unit type.

Armies are the remnants of the US armed forces, regular troops that do good things as long as you have parts and oil.

Raiders are your Mad Max irregular forces. Weaker than Armies, but they can be hidden off the map, and then deployed to raid/ambush vulnerable enemies.

Militias are home defence units, which change sides when their home region is captured.

Each team will also have one nuclear weapon. This is a one shot wonder, which the team must locate in hiding on the map.  So it can be captured or destroyed. Lets hope the President does not lose the bit of paper with the codeword on it.  I might also allow some special capability units to be built (Helicopters, Submarines), but that is chrome for a final polish once the main design is sorted.

Resources

I’m still thinking about the resources that Heavan and Hell will use – I would like to link population/souls together in some way into how the Hosts and Legions interact together.  For the mortal teams the key resources are:

  1. Food
  2. Oil
  3. Parts
  4. Medical Supplies
  5. Population

Oil, Parts, and Medical Supplies are intended to be finite resources that will be exhausted in-game.  This allows people to try strategies based around early resource capture, or hoarding resources for the end-game, or expending resources for early advantage.  Population grows if you have food, and food just grows.  Medical supplies prevent plague from decimating city populations and army strength.

A change from CoA is that resources will remain on the maps. Moving resources around will require spending oil or food (for trucks/mules).  The resource costs could be something like this:

  • One oil to move a stack of resources anywhere
  • One food to move a stack of resources one node
  • One food to prevent starvation in a city/army
  • One oil, three parts, of five food to increase unit strength by +5

Combat

Will hopefully be a little simpler than CoA.  It will still be 3d6 + two random unit strength variables, but the defender will have a static defense (11+variables) for the attacker to beat.  Doubles and triples cause more casualties.  Defeated side gains veteran strength points.  I will do some playtesting to see if more damage/pain is required.