Classic Housewar Revisited

June 22, 2011

Housewar was a play-by-mail (PBM) campaign I ran for three years in 1991-1993.  It was a gloriously baroque space opera, lovingly hand moderated, and somewhere around 30 odd people took part in its twists and turns.  At the end of 1993 I got an internet account, was elected to the student union exec, and ran out of time to continue a hand mdoerated game.  I had also figured out that my dream of making a living from running PBM games was not going to work – the future was going to be PBeM games, and I couldn’t code worth a damn.

One of the hard bits of shifting years later was throwing out all the Housewar game notes.  They filled a large trunk at the stage, well over a cubic metre of paper.  I still have a few newsletters and maps somewhere, and I think I only got rid of the five and a quarter floppy with the game files last year.

So its interesting to reflect on what I would do differently now, with a somewhat better educated brain, the wonders of modern technology, and a set of time suck commitments that mean that I can’t spend four hours each night rolling six-sided dice as House Illia attempts to repel House Dlan’s invasion fleets.  So here is a list in no particular order:

1. Build a CAD map with layers.  I used to redraw the map boundaries by hand every game turn for Classic Housewar.  Digital would get around that, and layers would allow a more focused display of particular bits of information.  Also, it could be in colour.

2. Have a supporting website, wiki, blog, and e-mail list.  Tempting to add twitter to the list, as the idea of running a game where all orders were limited to 140 characters has some appeal.  I used to get a paragraph of orders from some players, and 10-20 page manifestos from other players.  The shorter order sets usually did better, as NPCs had a bit more initiative.

3. E-mail battle results to the e-mail list, allowing players to verify combat resolution prior to confirming the final result.  This would save me hours of retconning hand moderation clusterfucks.

4. One move every two months, probably taking two weeks for resolution of a move.

5. A stable rule set.  I used to change the rules every turn, often in major ways, as I was reading a lot of military history and strategic studies books and this meant I was constantly finding better ways of making the game “more realistic”.  I’m sure at least one player observed that every turn of Housewar was like it was an entirely new game.  I’m a lot less obsessed by realism now, preferring a focus on particular themes and keeping everyting else simple.

6. Less is more. Start small, allow growth to a manageable point.  Housewar III in particular suffered from a bloat, with unused map portions, way too many rules, and vast fleets of time consuming uselessness.

7. Use Matrix game arguments to establish random events, rather than having a random event table.  Based on past experience, I would be careful to outline the limits of this, e.g. no black holes, supernovaes, or dinosaur killing asteroids.  Also, while it sucks to ahve bad shit happen, seeing that it was other players doing it to you, rather than cruel dice, is I think better in a social game where people will tell stories about it in later years.

8. Balance the initial economy, rather than generate it with random numbers.  In hindsight, taking an economic system from a WWII game where units took 6 turns to build was not great.  Its really hard to plan that far ahead.  Nor was allowing people at war to build 2-3 times as much as people at peace, without them paying some price for it.

9. Limited warfare.  Housewar battles were fairly bloody, being a mix of WWI and WWII naval game mechanics.  Winners tended to take light casualties while the losers were wiped out.  In turn this meant a few defeats led to elimination of a player.  With a design intent that was more looking for persistent inceremental gains/losses moderated by diplomacy and the balance of power, I would aim for a combat system which produced win/lose without always generating massacres.  My current idea here, is that ships automatically put up a bubble shield wall when damaged, that guarantees they survive to the end of that round of combat, at which point the commander may choose to run away.

10. Less bean counting.  No more logistics points.  Only Seth ever got that the logistics subgame meant you needed enough supplies for consecutive turns to gaurantee a successful invasion.

11. Exploration.  Was never really handled well, and for a space game with wormholes you need a clear idea of the costs/benefits of exploration.  Also, changing the map hard copy was tricky. Probably easier with a CAD map.

12. Scenario.  I think I’d want a bit more in the way of background, and what the motivations for the Houses are, beyong survival and power.  Currently I lean towards a “reconstruction” atmosphere following a Saberhagen Beserker style invasion triggered during a diaspora from Terra.  So there would be a rehtorical space for “unity against the alien menace”, even if I never had said menace show up in the game again (because whichever playergot selected as the invasion point would have to be obliterated by it, otherwise no one would take the green gooks seriously, see point 7 on RNG).

13. Leaders. Used to be in quite limited supply, I think I’d make it trivial to recruit at least one more per turn, so that initial poor luck in random talent generation does not ruin a House’s shot at glory.

14. Diplomacy. Could possibly be handled with matrix arguments.  Depending on how leaders work, I might add a dynastic marriage requirement.

15. Technology.  Inextricably linked to stable ruleset.  Allowing players to create new forms of combat unit always leads to a revolutionary change in rules.  Evolutionary change is much easier to handle, where units get minor bonuses/penalties, rather than being instantly invinceable/obsolete.  Could also be handled with matrix arguments.

16. Declarations of war.  Matrix arguments again, and require the players to articulate their war aims (with some defaults if the players have a complate imagination failure, e.g. attacker wants to take over a system, defender wants to keep them), so once accomplished or failed, a subsequent matrix argument can lead to peace.

17. Balance.  A lot more care at setup, power differentials of +/-10% not +/- 100%.  Ultmately still relies on the players, once you push the go button on the game, balance goes out the window.

18. Mars Convention. Make it explicit in interstellar law, “No use of WMD on human colonies.”  In hindsight, I should have realised that having a x2 economic multiplier for war status, and a x3 for DEFCON 1 status would lead to players declaring war on each other and then having a limited exchange of nuclear weapons to boost economic growth in both states.  All very 1984, but it broke the game badly.

19. Ansible. Be a bit more explicit about how the FTL communications work.  I used to handwave it as telepathy between House leaders, but it does affect how non-leader controleld fleet units should work/react.

20. Limit the number of players to 14.  20+ was a bit too much for me to handle.  Can always have a waiting list, or a reserve list for players who forget to submit orders.

Yeah, someday I’ll run Housewar IV. Someday.


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.


Proof of concept

November 10, 2010

I thought to myself, I need the ability to convert word documents into images, without paying the big bucks, and behold, there was software for this on the net. This is useful, as I like to mock up game counters in word, using text boxes. But, if you use finnickity settings and fonts, this rarely translates well to printing on someone else’s machine. Also, much easier to post an image here for comment.

My goal here is to generate some leader counters. The name is for colour, the profile is to allow some visual sorting between leader types, as is the colour. The four number values are for Glory, Popular confidence, Elite confidence, and Military confidence. Feel free to guess which is which.