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!

Second Sun and Starship Playtest

January 4, 2015


Over the Christmas break four of my friends at Big Gaming Week agreed to give the prototype a quick go, as we only had two hours available the goal was to see who could accumulate the most glory.  We managed to complete four game turns.

Turn one everyone started with nine Atomic Power. In turn 2 Alan and Dennis remained on nine Atomic Power, while Tim and Tony had 12. In turn 3 the Atomic Power spread was 10-14, after Tony attacked Tim’s territory. For turn 4 the range was tighter, 12-14 Atomic Power. Turn 4 saw an effort to unseat Dennis from the Imperial Throne,  which saw his Atomic Power income for a hypothetical fifth turn drop to 11, with the rest of the players on 15-21 Atomic Power.

In terms of what Atomic Power could be spent on, I had changed the rules from one Atomic Power per unit moved, to one Atomic Power per type of unit moved. This allows a lot more movement, at the cost of each game turn taking a little longer.

The variable cost of Dreadnoughts, however, was found to have too great a chance of rendering someone powerless and unable to act. The design also greatly limited what you could do in another player’s turn (very little unless actually attacked). So being powerless could trigger a karmic death spiral. While the Atomic Power mechanic is based on Cthulhu Wars, it is being used to purchase the equivalent of six Great Old Ones over the course of the game, rather than just one stompy beast of destruction and horror.

The final glory scores were:

  • Alan – 15
  • Tim – 25
  • Tony – 32
  • Dennis – 63

Dennis’ score came mainly from passive Infinite Actions of reigning while in control of the Imperial Capital for almost the entire game. While only +1 point per action, the other players found themselves in a weak position to attack the Imperial Capital, and reluctant to commit to an action that helped all of the other players, but would place them in a position of weakness.

We hit a final Fall value of 3-4, and only had a few Dreadnoughts per player on the map. So in a time sense it still feels like it is taking too long.

The feedback on what was fun:

  • choosing Dreadnoughts
  • dice mechanic in combat

Based on feedback from the last playtest I capped the number of dice that could be rolled in combat (weaker side rolls two dice, stronger side rolls three dice) and gave the winner a clear bonus (choose loser retreat destination, or double Glory, or use a Power die number to increase damage).

The feedback on what was NOT fun:

  • Emperor control was too important
  • downtime between player turns was too long
  • movement is “sticky” (if a Dreadnought was in the wrong place it took several actions to rectify)
  • inability to defend territory/fight defensively when attacked
  • falling behind on power.

I was asked why I didn’t allocate all Bases in the set up. The answer to that is that years ago I had an extensive set up process for Housewar, on a map that had four distinct spiral arms and playtest groups of five players. You tended to win the game in the set up, by dominating one spiral arm and forcing other groups of players to fight in their respective spiral arms. This lead to intense meta-gaming in the initial set up (one playtester used to growl at other players if they dared look at “his” spiral arm, and some playtesters would form set up alliances that lasted the rest of the game).

Tech cards were okay, but there were way too many of them. The number of bonus combinations should be reduced.

Ideas for the next playtest

In order for the Dreadnought purchase mechanic to work, I think I should design the rest of the game economy around the fact that players need to spend either big lumps of power, or little lumps of power, depending on the situation.  So what I am thinking of having is:

  • representing Atomic Power as a six sided die placed on the map (using something like the Dice Dock from Corsec Engineering)
  • the rules would refer to the die as a “Base”
  • when a player spends Atomic Power, they remove dice pips until the cost is met
  • as an action a player can increase Atomic Power at one controlled Base
  • My current idea for exactly how much power that increase should be is that the target Base is increased to six, and roll a die (Skull = reduce another player’s Atomic Power by one, Starburst = +1 Glory, number = increase Atomic Power at a second base by that number), so the Atomic Power gain is likely to be 6-9 points.

Rolling just one die keeps things simple. As a bonus the granularity of the 1-6 range of the Base compared to the binary 0/1 of a Base counter is that it is easier to develop Decline/Fall or Pirate stuff in the game to adjust Atomic Power by +/- 1 than it is to place/remove Base counters.

King of Tokyo

The next big idea is to borrow from the King of Tokyo game, where the Monster in Tokyo scores more points, but is vulnerable to all the other players in the game.  I will do this by making it so that the Emperor cannot use the Increase Atomic Power action while Emperor. There will still be useful bonuses from being Emperor, but it should be a case of play the role until kicked out or reduced in power and forced to flee into exile.

I can also make the Imperial Capital more vulnerable by making it have Wormhole Gateways to every sector on the map.  This makes it so that all players will nearly always be able to attack the Imperial Capital (a major problem in this game has always been players being locked out of geographical proximity to the Imperial Capital, which I have mitigated by increasing the number of Glory sources and the flow of points from those sources). Then there is the idea of Plot tokens (see below).

Pacing of the Game

While the Dreadnought build increasing Decline and eventually causing the Fall is a good mechanic, it is still on the long side.  So my new idea is to keep that mechanic but add the following:

  • when the Emperor takes a turn, they MUST increase either Decline by +1 or Fall by +1
  • each time Decline is increased, draw a “minor” Decline event card (only one card, regardless of how many points Decline increases by) that has a one-off effect on the game
  • each time Fall is increased, draw one to three “major” Fall event cards that have persistent rule changing effects on the game.

I expect an Emperor with a substantial lead advantage to start pushing the Fall counter up the track to try and trigger the End Game in an advantageous position.

The Decline events should do things like:

  • all players place a Pirate token
  • all players remove a Battleship
  • all players lose one Atomic Power
  • change the Monument Track value (needed as the play sequence no longer needs an end of turn phase)
  • trigger Fall (could have one such event for each player in the game, as more players always extend the game playing time)
  • all players gain a Plot token (see below)

Reducing Downtime between Turns

My idea here is to allow each player one simple Reaction move each time another player takes a Turn. These reaction moves are intended to be quick … if you have not done it by the time the active player finishes their move, then you don’t get the reaction move (with perhaps a five second count down for anyone still dithering).  My current ideas for reaction moves are:

  • move one Battleship one sector
  • build one Battleship in one sector (this reinforces the idea of Battleships as “popcorn”)
  • take a Plot token (these can be used to boost your effective combat strength for attacks against the Emperor only, but are discarded when the Emperor changes or when used)
  • use Pirate to steal one Atomic Power.

Movement and Combat

I still lean towards a player’s turn being either Movement or Combat, not a combination of the two.  If this is the case, then I am happy to expand movement so Dreadnought positions are less “sticky”, allowing players to move as many units as they are willing to spend Atomic Power on moving.

Map-wise, I am thinking about building hex tiles, and having the number of tiles based on the number of players in the game. This makes the map scale to the number of players. The other option (which requires a lot more hard thinking) is a double sided map cut in two large sections, flipping the sections to get a map for 2, 3, 4, or 5 players (the approach taken in Cthulhu Wars).

Combat – I am pretty happy with the way this is working out.


With the Base die idea, the current method of determining End Game power (Glory score at start of the End Game) will not work.  So what I can do instead is:

  • the player with the most Glory when the End Game is triggered is the Last Emperor
  • only the Last Emperor can gain Glory (+1 each time they take a turn only), and the last Emperor still wins automatically at 100 Glory
  • only the Last Emperor can build Dreadnoughts (but no new Dreadnoughts are placed in the Shipyards)
  • Starbursts now reduce enemy Glory in combat rather than increasing your own Glory (and if you roll more Starbursts you can double the enemy’s loss of Glory)
  • Strength lost in combat also reduces Glory
  • any player reduced to zero Glory or zero Dreadnoughts is eliminated
  • once any player is eliminated, the Final Countdown begins (there are 13 remaining player turns in the game) and the player with the most Glory at the end of that is the winner of the game.

Tools for creative writing

October 15, 2013 

It’s a nice rant, but as I had a quiet day at work, I took the time to plough through the comments, a mix of horror stories, insight and ‘a-ha’ moments of illumination. 

When I first started designing boardgames on the first relatively modern PC that I owned in 1998 I used a mix of Word (for rules) and CorelDraw (for maps).  I eventually also ended up using Word to design cards and counters, through the use of text boxes and a mix of text and inserted images. It has always been clunky way to do it, as it could not manage to do layers, and this limited how I could display information (I could display text underneath an image easily, but trying to get text to float above an image, in a way that could be easily seen, was hell). 

I never updated my version of Corel Draw, which eventually stopped working on my replacement PCs.  Digital decay has hit other projects I have worked on – I’m not good at off-site backups, copying to DVD or dumping onto external drives – so I lost quite a bit of stuff when my laptop melted down at the start of 2012.  All the early Housewar files (1992-1994) were written in Fulltext, a basic text editor that ran on the old XT PC that I had (with its twin floppy drives and green MDA screen).  I had a few files on a spread sheet as well, but the low memory on the XT prevented me doing anything more fancy. 

While I looked at a few graphic software packages to replace Corel in the early noughties, the one I eventually adopted was Campaign Cartographer, a CAD software system purpose built for maps (and map design was my key focus in playing with graphics) with a lot of symbol files and other tools for people who liked fantasy RPGs.  It can do other things too, such as counters and cards, but I kept using Word for those as it was just a bit faster to use when going through multiple iterations in a short period of time (and because it was much easier to drop image files into than CC was, and a lot of dingbat fonts were useful for this as well).  Certainly though there was a subtle constraint on my design in restricting myself to counter and card design that was easy to do in a word processor. 

CC has been reasonably good for map design, but like all powerful software packages, you need to be constantly working in it to accumulate and retain skill.  Every time I go back and start a new project I am reminded of the importance of getting the layers right at the start, and then of the importance of being self-disciplined about switching between the layers when working on different parts of the map.  The CC publishers have also switched away from occasional CD releases of new symbol files and map types, to doing a monthly update combining examples, tutorials and new symbol sets (later purchasable as an annual collection), but the price point has always made me hold off.  I also still like hand drawing maps the old school way (although if I want to keep doing that I should invest in a scanner).  Even with a specific Fractal terrain world generator, CC struggles to make world maps that look real to me (a 70/30 water/earth map just looks empty compared to a Mercator projection of Earth). 

I parted company with Word when I upgraded my laptop in early 2012.  I just got tired of shelling out hundreds of dollars for software I knew would be replaced a few years later, and I decided to have a go with one of the freeware options.  Since then I have been using Apache OpenOffice.  This has been okay for most of my projects but I have had a few specific problems around writing rulebooks (it does not like having image files dropped into the text, it is not as good for quick counter/card design as Word was, and the auto format style for indents and lists is as bad as anything in word and makes trying to order things logically an exercise in frustration) and a more general issue (word processors are just not good tools for long form creative writing being more suited to short business letters).

 A new problem I realised today – I am usually writing rules in a two column format (it keeps the overall length of the document down) – and then exporting the final into .pdf format for email or uploading to a website.  The two column format for .pdf is not easy to read on modern tablet devices, so I am not sure if there is an alternate format that can repaginate text flow across multiple e-reader platforms, or if I’m going to be stuck with suboptimal layout due to content gardens. 

I have learned that most of the OpenOffice community has moved to LibreOffice over the last couple of years, so just switching software packages might solve a few of my current specific issues.  It is also possible, that I might need to invest in software that is more focused on layout for desk top publishing given that I need to be able to get text and images looking exactly like how I need them to look like in a games rulebook.  Scribus is the name  of the freeware I might go and investigate next. 

For creative writing though, I am intrigued by Scrivener.  I have noticed of late, that trying to write long RPG scenarios or campaign outlines in a Word-style word processors just breaks down as the document reaches a point where I want to jump back and forth between different sections.  The one word after another dictate just doesn’t reflect how I brainstorm ideas out on sheets of paper.  Scrivener seems to promise the ability to switch easily between short creative notes, chunks of research documents, text outlines, editing and an easy offsite backup in drop box. 

Collaborative creative work still looks tricky.  I had a wiki for a couple of years, before a domain name expiry made it vanish, and managed to do some shared work on the wiki for an e-mail based Matrix game, and then for an RPG setting I developed.  I had hoped it would be easy to be able to jump from writing about one topic into writing about related topics.  I didn’t find the wiki language all that intuitive, and again, once you stop using it every day, the skill vanishes quickly.  Like CAD layers, the initial structures needed to be clear, otherwise work could vanish off into hard to find dead ends.  While I have worked on a couple of shared Google doc documents, there is something about Google docs that just doesn’t grab my attention.  If Word is an attempt to integrate everything into one programme, and the trade-off is doing everything sub optimally, Google docs has just felt a bit like an inferior version of Word.

Anyhow, I’m downloading Scribus and LibreOffice, and may give Scrivener a go.

Housewar Design Update

July 7, 2013

One of my plans for the year was more regular playtesting of the Housewar boardgame.  Only managed one game so far, but that is still an improvement from last year.  I also suspect I have a pool of around 10 potential playtesters, so when I get back from the USA I plan to try and do another run through of the game before the end of August.


After a bit of thinking, I reckon I can cut a few sectors off the map, dropping the Spiral Arms down from 5 sectors to 3 sectors.  This leaves 25 sectors to burn.

Using my rough game design rule of leaving 1/3 of the territory empty, I reckon I only need 16-17 Fleets.  I might go with 17, as a prime number it means the Fleets never divide evenly.


I am going to use some custom dice: Glory, Power, and Decline.

Glory Dice

  • One Skull side
  • One Blank side
  • One side with a 1 number
  • One side with a 2 number
  • Two sides with Sun and Starship symbols

Power Dice

  • One Skull side
  • Two sides with a 1 number
  • One side with a 2 number
  • One side with a 3 number
  • One side with Sun and Starship symbols

Decline Dice

  • Two Skull sides
  • One blank side
  • One side with number 1
  • One side with number two
  • One side with Sun and Starship symbols

The Glory die is better at getting Glory, the power die is more powerful, and without a blank side, more reliable, while the Decline die is more likely to result in bad stuff (Skulls) for everyone in the game.  Choosing the right die to roll at the right time will be one of the decisions in the game.

Acceleration of Gameplay

The current design has two ticking clocks.  One is Imperial Confidence, which reduces over time and when it hits zero a civil war starts.  The other is Decline, which is reduced by civil wars and devastation (which is a side-effect of battles during the civil war).  Once decline drops, the ceiling for Confidence drops, making the period of peace between civil wars shorter. So I have been thinking about the levers that push these tracks along.  In my last two games, devastation went up a little too fast, and confidence/decline did not drop quickly enough.

So, inspired by Peruto Rico, I have rejigged the turn sequence into something a bit more dynamic and corrupting.  When a player gets to act, they choose one of the following options:

  • Decadence – all players try to gain Glory/Monuments
  • Elections – all players try to gain Votes
  • Influence – all players try to place Influence markers
  • Power – all players roll try to gain Power
  • Campaigns – active player attacks rebels with a controlled Fleet and may trigger a civil war
  • Corruption – active player takes power from the Corruption card
  • Hegemon – active player takes power from the Hegemon card, chooses who acts next, if another player wants to prevent this, they must place more power on the Hegemon card than was just removed from it
  • Senate – active player draws a Bill, proposes rewards and punishments, all players vote on Bill, then refresh power tokens.

At the start of the game, each of the option cards has one Power token placed on it.  When it is your turn to act, you choose an option from among the options that has power tokens on it.  The Senate option can only be chosen after an Elections option, but when the Senate option is finished, another power token is added to all the options.  This power accumulates, so sooner or later it will be worth it for a player to choose it, even if its not the best option in other considerations.

If a Senate Bill fails, any blame on the Bill is allocated by the active player to the Option cards, so any player choosing that option picks up the blame as well as the power.  Because the Emperor no longer controls the Senate, their chief “beanie” in peacetime is the power to reroll a dice once (refreshing after senate).

After each Civil War, the new Emperor chooses one option, and flips it from “Golden Age” to “Fallen Age”.  Fallen Age options gain +2 power after a Senate action, but immediately reduce Imperial Confidence by one when chosen.  In general, Fallen Age options are inflationary, increasing the rate at which game resources are gained.  It should also contribute to the feeling of “its all our fault why the Empire collapsed” at the end f the game.

The Campaigns card is a “short cut”.  The player activating this card can choose to immediately trigger a Civil War, by spending power equal to the current Imperial Confidence level.  This is likely to appeal to players with a lot of power, and an advantage in Fleet control.  It gets much cheaper to do, once this is a Fallen Age option!

All game resources (Votes, Power, Blame, Glory, Monuments) are capped at 13.

Five of the options involve all the players doing something, and most of the other options should be resolved quickly. So hopefully people won’t get bored!


Setup for Civil Wars can be made faster by having the Fleets deploy in fixed locations.  Fleets will have Golden Age/Fallen Age strength steps, with Golden Age Fleets rolling more Glory/Power dice, and Fallen Age Fleets rolling more Decline dice.

Civil Wars

All players start as contenders for the throne.  Using the option system, player elimination from being a contender is only checked when the Imperial Capital changes hands, or if a player has zero confidence at the end of their action.  Last contender standing wins the war, gains a Monument. Eliminated contenders become raiders and can start building up their power base for the next war…

Contender options are:

  • pass and collect one power
  • Confidence (increase yours, Emperor can reduce others)
  • Intrigue (reveal, remove and place Influence markers)
  • Attacks (move Fleets, fight battles)

All contender options, other than passing, cost power.

Raider options are:

  • pass and collect one power
  • Attack with Fleets
  • Raid (to gain power, but can also burn sectors, increase devastation)
  • Diplomacy (to gain votes)

At the end of the civil war, the Emperor still hands out blame equal to the current Decline value.

A Dune-like RPG campaign

May 16, 2012

The only roleplaying game adaptation of the DUNE universe was released by Last Unicorn Games in 2000.  Only 2-3,000 copies were ever printed, as LUG had just been purchased by WotC, and the license was never exploited by WotC before it lapsed.  So while I have read some reviews, I’m unlikely to be picking up a copy any time soon.

So today I started thinking about the background elements in Dune, and what they might look like in a fantasy setting (setting aside the possibility of a straight take on Dune, its just a bit hard to travel around that universe, and it suffers a bit from plot inevitability).

  • No elves, its 100% human (having no intelligent non-humans though, does cut down on your range of opponents for conflicts with the PCs)
  • A decadent and/or weakening central authority (the Emperor was losing power slowly in the Landsrad as Dukes like Leto II became more powerful)
  • A shadow government of viziers/mages (the Bene Gesserit in the novels, in which they were referred to as witches by some characters)
  • Noble houses controlling significant political, military and economic resources (not big on culture though)
  • the Great Houses have access to a “nuke” (Family Atomics) but
  • Factions with near absolute monopolies on critical resources or infrastructure (water, spice, transport, communication, technology, prescience)
  • A static culture where nothing much has changed in a very long time (technology/research is seen as evil/forbidden or tightly controlled, warfare is limited and controlled)
  • A god-like messiah who turns into a tyrant, then repents (probably not much fun for PCs to be around that kind of train-wreck)
  • ancient conspiracies manipulating events
  • bad guys who wear black hats made from kitten fur
  • a fated reincarnating hero who always dies (Tleilaxu gholas imply a form of resurrection, albeit one in which no one will ever trust you again)
  • perilous wastelands, where the environment is as likely to kill you as the locals are, and spawn super soldiers/nomad hordes that conquer the world from time to time (penal colonies as well)
  • Shapeshifters (Tleilaxu Face-dancers)
  • secret battle languages, assassins, poison (food, drink, weapons) and quite a few tech toys
  • super powers such as precognition, mentats and the voice, as well as Charles Atlas peak human conditioning
  • a defence mechanism that combines cataclysmicly with one rare form of attack (shield + lasgun = boom!)
  • including some theme of contemporary interest (in Dune its the environment, I have been interested in piracy and slavery/human trafficking lately)
  • a mega-corporation controlling commerce (CHOAM, OPEC, etc)
  • an ancient jihad that proscribes some otherwise sensible forms of behaviour (science is bad)
  • a technique for avoiding scrying (the No rooms).

Spice itself has a range of significant attributes as the big McGuffin of the Duniverse:

  • extends lifespan, enhances vitality and perception (but does it act like Viagra?)
  • limited supply, high demand (both difficult and dangerous to harvest, a metaphor for both water and oil)
  • one source (substitutes are poisonous) source is embedded in the ecosystem (unobtanium)
  • catalyst for travel, communication (shipping and commerce)
  • coin, currency substitute
  • mixed with food and drink (spice beer, spice coffee, etc)
  • addictive (but with few serious side effects unless you stop taking it).

Thinking of fantasy games, for Vampires blood is a bit like spice, what other substitutes can I devise?  Runequest had Truestone – a finite supply of cosmic stuff from before the dawn of time (and the supply was guarded by anti-chaos berserkers who didn’t want the one remaining spike of it removed from the body of the Devil). Relics of prophets and saints, milking angels tears, demon essence, slime eggs, magic gems/focuses, and my current campaign has Dragon’s Blood as a source of restorative magic potions.  Overall though, I think its hard to get away from something drug-like, which is ingested/eaten or smoked.  It could be the gateway drug that triggers magical abilities in people, perhaps its essential in teleport spells, and a requirement for immortality.  Black lotus perhaps? Or just Lotus, with the possibility of different effects from different varieties of Lotus.  Then we get a Lotus-eaters riff to make a classical allusion with.

Okay, now working some of this stuff into the basis of a campaign setting.  Lets start with a world that is mostly mundane, but has some fey like wild zones and an unfortunate habit of spawning a Hellmouth every few thousand years, through which enters a ravaging horde (which is how all the various sentient races arrive).  The first race are good builders, Dwarves perhaps, which gives us some nice scenic ruins to dungeon crawl through later on.  Lets postulate unreconcileable philsophical differences between the Dwarven clans lead to a war of annihilation. Exit stage right, the Dwarves, leaving the ruins filled with dangerous artifacts.  Perhaps at the tail end of this conflict the Elves turn up, just enough time to learn/steal a few secrets and to put the boot into the survivors.

So, start of glorious Elven Empire and its golden age.  More incipient ruins are constructed, but more of an above ground nature.  Elves use Lotus to extend their lifespans and to enhance their magical powers, and proceed to live in harmony with the environment (by limiting their numbers there is enough Lotus to go around for everyone).  Ugly Trolls turn up, and proceed to be subjugated by the Elves for slave labour.  Cue time of decadence in the Elven Empire.  Then nasty Goblins turn up, for a quantity versus quality series of battles, ending with the Elves triumphant and the few surviving Goblins fleeing into the wastelands (where over time they can turn themselves into super-soldiers, or at least Uppity Rabid Gobboes).

Humans turn up before the Elves have fully recovered from the Goblin Wars and there is a very chaotic century during which a lot of shit goes down.  The turning point is when one elven Family defects after being slighted by the Emperor, and the Humans figure out how to persuade the Trolls to change sides (“How about ten years of service rather than a lifetime of slavery?”)  At the end of all this the Humans have now established some kind of Empire, and the Elven remnants are hiding out in swamps, forests and concealed fortresses and suddenly having to deal with Lotus withdrawal symptoms and the prospect of having their lifespan reduced by 75% even if the humans don’t kill them first.  This process also creates a lot of ruins.

A while later the Humans are dealing with a major rebellion, when a clan of Dwarves turns up with an offer to good to refuse.  Rebellion collapses as the Dwarves demonstrate how useful this “technology” stuff is.  The clan gets recognised as a noble house, the nobles get exclusive use of the whizzo tech, and the Elves start wondering if the Dwarves still hold a grudge from way back when.

Other bits and pieces:

  • use some Turkish language, because I think jadu (witchcraft) and jadugar (witch) are neat words
  • use some Ottoman Empire culture, because then we can have evil Viziers
  • half-elves are just elves that have fully assimilated into human culture (the term for a human that assimilates into elven culture is “traitor”)
  • Trolls are short-lived, so once they have done their decade of service, they have about five years left to enjoy their retirement (its a Janissary/Mameluke role)
  • some kind of epic transport system (monorail, canals, teleport chambers?) that can be used to circumvent the nasty wastelands, with an order of “neutral” mages that maintain it
  • the Imperial Guard have a level in Badass
  • Goblins are the designated mooks
  • 7-12 Great Houses and many more Minor Houses (including one Elf House and one Dwarven House), each House has at least one thing it can do, either a unique power, or something they are just the best above all others at
  • the Great Houses have access to some kind of “nuke”, but everyone keeps warfare limited to make sure the nukes don’t get used
  • in Dune the Great Houses had planets, here we can probably give them entire cities.
  • why have Gholas when you can have Ghouls?
  • Lets make the facechangers undead as well as doppelgangers.

So, here is hoping that Runequest VI comes out soon, and then I can start playing with stat blocs.

Republic of Rome – Housewar Feedback

January 8, 2012

So we managed to fit a playtest in during the Holidays.  Some things worked well, some things did not, and as usual we only got halfway through the game before we ran out of time (after a four hour delay to the start of the game).  People had fun, and I think the point of maximum fun was the interactions in the political round.  So that is something to concentrate on for the next iteration.

The initiative sequence was a bit confusing, and a fixed initiative would mean less time was wasted.  Perhaps I can resurrect the Hegemon portfolio as an initiative decider, as was the case in earlier versions of Housewar.

Leader variability was crucial to voting, two players with leaders could have vote totals of 4 and 20 respectively.  When it was possible for just two players to dominate voting, they usually did so.  So perhaps I should incline the game engine towards a narrow distribution range for vote totals, so that a dominate coalition is likely to require a majority of the players to participate.

Confidence: went down nicely, but the Emperor did not change for six turns or so, which is too infrequently.  Perhaps a bit of the First president syndrome in Junta.  Because the Emperor was not changing blame was not being assigned.  Glory at least, was moving upwards for everyone at a reasonable pace.

Sinecures: needed to come out faster, a deck management issue, we simply didn’t have enough player money in the game.

Transitive cost mechanics, presenting players with a cost-benefit chart was an inducement to headache inducing math calculations.  better to work out the break points before hand and just have them as fixed costs.

Crises were manageable, in part because the players had twice the military strength of the republic in Republic of Rome, but the same purchasing power to build more units.

Bribes needed to be easier to work out.  A lot of the mechanics I tried proved to be too fiddly, so need to be simplified or eliminated.

Thoughts for next time.

Deck Management

Playing the deck building game dominion (largely a solitaire, positive feedback loops, game) was interesting.  I still tend to shy away from deck building games for the principle reason that a deck of cards is the most expensive component in a boardgame – I think every 50 cards or so would add $20 to the retail price of a published small print run game.  I spent part of the week playing around with deck building ideas.

One set of ideas was to have four decks of cards for each of decadence, politics, and combat, with a house tapping leaders to buy cards from the various decks.  A Rank I card might cost one leader point, a Rank IV card might cost ten leader points.  That would factor in transitive costs, but at the risk of lower rank decks being too easily exhausted, or require a very large number of cards.

A second set of ideas was for each house to have their own deck of cards. This still requires quite a few cards, but it does have some useful things it could do.  Such as making a choice to use a powerful one use per game card ability, permanently weakening your deck.  If each House has a slightly different deck, or unique power,

A third idea, which does not conflict with the previous two, was making the Decline deck be a straight draw of six cards per turn, all the cards being bad shit that hits the Empire.  Trying to mix player benefit cards, and disaster events, always leads to an uneven spread of events.  So one turn nothing bad happens, the next turn ten rebellions break out.


Tonight’s brainwave is that eliminating a decadence phase could speed up play.  But decadence can be kept in, by allowing a player to invoke decadence when “passing”.  So in the Senate, when you see that a group of players has a dominant coalition and will control everything this turn, you just start passing and scoring +1 Glory each time a vote is held.

Needless to say, players would try and game the system, but with a voting mechanic I think that can self-correct over time in a way that is harder to do with auction mechanics (which is traditionally how I have handled Decadence in Housewar).

The Maths, it hurts

September 4, 2011

An elegant idea for a game mechanic, pursued to the logical extreme, tends to become unplayable.

This is what I got by asking myself “How long does it take to play a game?”.  In the case of my last redesign of Housewar, I got a bad feeling that the answer was “Too long.”  Many times in the past I have overloaded a game with too many mechanics, and the game has collapsed under its own weight.  While individual mechanics may be entertaining, if they reach the point where players spend twenty minutes resolving an action, and then have to spend five minutes figuring out where they are in the game and who should move next … then that is a fail for the design.  I’m trying to avoid ending up with a game that looks like Arkham Horror with all the expansions in play at once.

So what can the design strongly influence in terms of speed of play?

(1) the number of game actions each player can do (more actions = more time)

(2) how these actions are resolved (greater complexity = more time)

(3) the number of players allowed in the game (more players = more time).

What the designer has weak influence over is the individual and collective player context.  Some players simply take longer to play games.  Groups of players that enjoy diplomacy can spend half an hour arguing over the placement of a single counter.  Some of the relevant factors here include:

  • knowledge of the game rules (expert players can make decisions more quickly, or at least on a more informed basis, if knowledge is weak, much time will be spent consulting the rulebook, or discussing interpretation of the rules)
  • time taken to assess the current game state (the more complex the game, the more pieces on the board, the more information is concealed, the longer this takes, and an expert player may take longer because they can see more valid moves than the novice)
  • choice identification (is there an obvious good move, or multiple good moves to choose from, or is the player choosing the lesser of many evils)
  • interaction (diplomacy takes time, and the amount of time taken escalates with each additional player added to the game, mind you, all this interaction can be fun)
  • knowledge of other players (risk appetite, trustworthiness, quirks, etc).

A nice design goal is to try and set things up to avoid complete paralysis of decision-making.

So when I looked at the last set of mechanics I put together for Housewar, I made an assumption of two minutes per player turn, and quickly found a combined estimate of about an hours worth of gameplay to resolve one peace/civil war cycle.  Not optimal for a game with thirteen such cycles.  My turn structure involved approximately eight decisions per player, so to reach the two minute time, each decision would have had to have been made in under 25 seconds.  That is very unlikely to happen if the players engage in any diplomacy at all.

My design goal: simple games should play to a completion in under an hour.  Complex games should finish in under three.  After that people start getting bored or burnt out.  It takes a special kind of person to sign up for one of the historical conflict simulation games where an entire evenings play only advances the game by one turn/two months of game time.  For Housewar, I would like it to play to a finish in around three hours.

So what can I do to speed things up?  Today’s answer: try to make decisions in parallel, not in sequence, i.e. make the players make as many decisions as possible simultaneously, rather than one at a time.  Also, get rid of the plot cards (too time consuming for all the players to read and understand them, and to figure out the optimal play for each).

In both peace and war turns, all the players secretly allocate one leader each to one of three plot/strategy choices (military, elite, and popular).  They can also commit power tokens.  When all players have chosen, their choices are revealed and resolved.  For each plot/strategy, the player with the best leader (plus any power) gets the maximum benefit, the player with the weakest leader gets little or no benefit, and the other players get a small benefit.

This should happen a maximum of five times before a trigger to start/end a civil war occurs.  So players have interesting choices around whether or not they play high value leaders first, or hold them back.  Later in the game, as some leaders have been removed, the choices should get harder.

An example: Military plots

  • the player(s) with the lowest value Military leaders gain +1 power token
  • the player(s) with the highest value Military leaders gain control of 1-5 fleet units
  • the other players gain control of one Fleet unit

To save time on deployment in a civil war, fleets get deployed on the map as soon as control is gained of them.

I might also have improved the scoring, with Elite plots working like this:

  • the player(s) with the lowest value Elite leaders gain +1 power token
  • the player(s) with the highest value Elite leaders gain +1-5 Glory
  • the other players gain +1-5 Glory based on Blame tokens*

This inverts my traditional one player scores glory at a time, to all-but one player scores glory at a time.  So it becomes less about getting ahead of the others, as making sure you do not fall behind the pack.  This makes a race to 100 glory more feasible.  In past playtests the glory score always seemed to spread out, so that after five hours of play, one player was on 40, a couple were on 30, and the rest had ten or less.

*Having lots of blame in front of you is risky, as if you get too much pinned to you permanently, then you automatically lose the game.