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!


Decline & Fall Part I: Failure

October 30, 2010

In the 15 odd years I have been tinkering with my ideas for a Decline & Fall of the Galactic Empire game, I have accumulated a lot of failed designs. This is not a bad thing. I learnt a lot from my failures, and most of the time I had fun along the way.

The original inspiration was to come up with a game around the bits I found interesting in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels. This in turned was inspired by the historical events of the fall of the Roman Empire. I did not find the Foundation itself too interesting, it was always the description of the Empire in decline that captivated me, and once the Empire fell and its capital of Trantor was sacked, the rest of the novels held little interest for me. Over the years I found quite a few other books with similar themes, and the artwork of Michael Whelan was pretty inspiring as well.

My original design intent was to create a multiplayer boardgame, that could be finished in an afternoon, was balanced (in that good play would be rewarded, victory required some skill and luck, but so that you had not obviously lost the game before it was half-finished), and that at the end of which the players could survey the debris and wreckage of the Galactic Empire and know, as Seth (a frequent playtester) put it, “That it was all their fault.”

There were many valiant failures. Over the years I have filled close to 4 rubbish sacks with cardboard counters from different design iterations of what the players nicknamed “Housewar” (a reference to an epic hand moderated SF play-by-mail game I had run from 1990-1993). Sometimes I managed to get a few of the design goals right, other times my prototpes were a shambles from beinning to end. I will go through as many of them as I can remember:

(1) A Fleet of a 1,000 Ships: this early version had a big map, a random event deck, and many, many ship counters which had 4-5 variables of strength and quality. In play, the players formed great towering stacks of ships, but avoided combat as the concentrated fleets were both too powerful and too vulnerable.

(2) Paths of Glory: captivated by the World War One card-driven strategy game designed by Ted Racier, I began experimenting with games that focused on cards that let a player choose between an action from a set menu of game actions or an event on the card, or a mixture of both. The problems I ran into were the difficulty of pacing events, as it was hard to encourage the players to play events that damaged the Empire, and the card-driven engine did not work well in a multi-player environment. Unlike a two player game, it was much harder to analyse what might be in an opponent’s hand – and players were always reluctant to ‘waste’ a game action on something as minor as spying on another player. I tried splitting the events into two decks: one common, the other containing the decline events, without success.

(3) Flawed Symmetrical Maps: Many of my early maps featured an extremely symmetrical Galaxy, with a central hub of territory and four identical spiral arms. The Imperial Capital in the middle was the only real geographical feature on the map, other territory might produce an income, but only the capital produced victory points. This featurelessness was a result of two factors (a) my desire for the game to not involve trading resources and (b) the lack of any real geographical or historical context in what was a fantasy game. The major problem I found in a 5+ player game with symmetrical maps, is that three players tended to gain control of a spiral arm each, with the remaining two fighting over the fourth. The two fighting always ended up doing badly. I found in practice that my setup mechanics often produced strong meta-gaming play, where players would growl at each other as they indicated what sectors they wanted to control at the start of the game.

(4) Weak Asymmetrical maps: did this fix the problem? No, instead it revealed a new one. While I could add crinkles and fjords to the map, the dominance of the capital remained strong. What became important was not only the capital, but the small number of sectors immediately adjacent to it. So long as you had the ability to attack the Imperial Capital, you could make yourself Emperor frequently. So the first players to lose these strategic points, started to rapidly fall behind in the accumulation of victory points. I did find that 60 sectors is a good number for random setups, as it divides evenly for 3-6 players.

(5) Republic of Rome in Spaaaaaace: I tried one design with a greater emphasis on politics and voting in an Imperial Senate, but it was so baroque that it collapsed in confusion. I vowed not to try that again. Eventually I came up with my “make one element complex” rule for game design (and its collorary “keep everything else simple”). So I could have complex events, OR complex politics, OR complex combat, OR complex technology, OR complex economics, but not all complex in the same package. Not unless I could find playtesters willing to go into seclusion for a week with me.

(6) Two Track System While in the UK I played with designs where the players controlled both loyal imperial forces, and rebel forces striving to overthrow the empire. The intent here, was that if a player started losing the Imperial game, they could try for a rebel victory by conquering the Imperial Capital with a rebel fleet. At the start the Imperial units were very strong, while the rebel units were very weak. It did not work too well the one time I tested it, and I lost interest in trying to fine tune it. I think this was because I did not really find it plausible that every great noble house of the Galactic Empire would be working hand in glove with rebel scum.

(7) Junta in Spaaaace: While I enjoyed playing the Junta board game it had a few flaws, chief among them being that you often knew you had lost the game before the half-way point if the first President had succeeded in being corrupt. But I liked its coup mechanic, where a short conflict was fought, and then the forces reset. This fit well with the concept of a civil war in the Galactic Empire, with the new Emperor restoring stability for a while. I tested this last year, and parts worked well (although I ignored my one complex thing rule with a ‘blame mechanic’). But it was hard to incorporate the element of decline into a game of shuffling portfolios.

To summarise my key design problems after much trial and error:
(a) setup, mid-game, and end-game balance issues, players had trouble scoring victory points and winning felt very reliant on chance
(b) the map was pretty unexciting as most of it was irrelevant
(c) the decline feel, relying on random cards from a deck, simply didn’t deliver a reliably paced decline and fall sequence.

So after ten months of not doing much tinkering with my design, I decided that what I needed to take the game forward was to go and read a solid history book that looked at the fall of the Roman Empire. What I needed was a concept that I could hang a game mechanic framework off. In my next post, I’ll write about what I found.