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!

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Adapting boardgames

September 20, 2011

An old book I have on designing PBM games referred to “shell” designs.  These were designs that could be easily recoloured for a new theme without requiring a major redesign/new coding of software.  So Unit A and B might be Knights and Peasants in Shell Z, but Battleships and Submarines in Shell Y.

For a Grand Strategy game, the largest difficulty in adapting an existing boardgame, is that mechanics often don’t scale well when upscaled from 5 to 35 players.  This can be due to the iterative nature of the mechanics.  If everyone needs to make five decisions to resolve a coup in Junta, that’s 25 decisions in a 5 player game and 175 in a 35 player game.  We’d probably end spending half the night resolving one civil war.  It can also be due to the nature of the game components, and in this respect I am leaning away from using cards as a resource in the game (I still think they can be useful for objectives or currency).

I’m not happy with how special power cards have worked in some of my grand strategy games.  One reason for this is that I have often gotten the balance wrong, too many/too few cards or too weak/too powerful.  Another reason is that most of the players don’t get to see most of the cards, so they never learn which cards are good or bad, so the decisions they make in the game are not informed ones.  In Colossus of Atlantis and Dark Lord players spent a lot of time getting large numbers of cards, and then only used a few of them.

So in considering how I could adapt the look and feel of Junta into a Big Damn Galactic Empire game I start with the following thoughts:

– the variety of Influence cards is too complex

– the combat is too indecisive

– the Coup phase has too many steps to it

– the various Ministries need to start balanced.

What I am thinking about at the moment is a game with several levels of play:

1) the Rebels are fighting a wargame against the Imperial Governors of the Great Houses

2) the Great Houses are fighting other Houses for influence, and need the favour of the Dynasty to ward off the Rebels

3) The Dynastic Princes are fighting each other for the Throne/control of the Imperial Government, and need the support of the Great Houses.

So we have at least two map displays.  One is focused on the “Core” game, and has the key points needed to control the Galactic Empire and the movement links between those.  The other is the “Periphery” game, representing the border zones menaced by the rebellion.  The Rebel game is probably the simplest of the three – fight the big bad Empire – and that’s not a bad thing, as it could be pitched as “suitable for inexperienced players”.  The other two games will involve a lot more player diplomacy and trading, with the occasional outburst of civil war.  What I see as the main points of interaction are:

1) the Great Houses acquire Influence (a currency) from control of map sectors, which they can trade to Princes

2) the Princes acquire Warrants (a resource) from control of Government Ministries, which they can trade to the Houses

3) Princes spend Influence in voting on the Imperial Budget

4) Houses spend Warrants (a one use document that grants a “free” map action) on the game map.

Part of what I am thinking here, is that the Imperial Fleets used by the Princes are an order of magnitude more powerful than the Great House Fleets.  This explains why the Princes stay in charge of the Empire, and the Great Houses keep their heads down during the internecine warfare between the Princes (or Princesses).

One of my reasons for building game tokens as currency notes rather than cards, is currency is just a bit less fiddly to build and/or keep track of in game.  A few notes of 1, 2, 5 and 10 are much easier to deal with than 55 unique power cards.

So, time to look at how we might adapt the Junta turn sequence:

Budget

1. The Emperor receives a budget of currency (possibly based on how well the Houses are doing against the Rebels)

2. The Emperor proposes a budget.

3. The Princes vote on the budget, possibly spending Influence.  I’ll probably need a fixed order for the voting, as players will likely be standing around a table for this.

4.  If the budget passes, it is distributed, and all Princes gain a Warrant from their Ministry.

5. If the budget fails, the Emperor keeps the budget, and there is a Casus Bellum for a Civil War.

Locations

1. Each prince secretly chooses one of the following five locations:

  • Flagship (grants a Casus Bellum)
  • Office (can spend Influence to gain an extra Warrant)
  • Pleasure World (gain a Decadence resource)
  • Senate (double Influence spending in next vote if there is no Civil War)
  • Court (trade places with the Prince above you in the Order-of-Succession)

Assassins

1. In a set order, each player announces who they wish to assassinate and where.

2. Reveal locations

3. If an assassin is directed against the right location, they have a chance of killing the target (I think most should be around 50/50 chance, with ten players a close to 100% chance would allow a couple of players to be constantly murdered which feels a bit rough to me).

4. If a Prince is killed, their replacement clone goes to the bottom of the Order-of-Succession, and everyone else shuffles up the list. (I imagine the OoS will be tracked on a prominently displayed whiteboard or similar device).

5.  If the Emperor is assassinated, there is a Casus Bellum.  If a Civil War does not start, then the player who is next in the Order-of-Succession becomes Emperor.

Civil Wars

If a Prince has a Casus Bellum they can trigger a Civil War by declaring their intent to usurp the Imperial Throne.  Everyone else is then free to say “me too”.

Only Usurpers can move in the first phase.

Usurpers that control less key victory locations than the number of civil war phases, are murdered by their unhappy followers.  The Civil War ends if a) only one Usurper is alive (they become Emperor) or b) all Usurpers are dead (the non-Usurper Prince next in the Order-of-Succession becomes Emperor).  If there are five victory locations, then the Civil War can last a maximum of three phases.

During the Civil War, rebels gain a bonus to recruitment – this is a hurry the fuck up incentive for the princes.

New Emperor or Emperor wins Civil War

1. The Emperor can execute one Prince of their choice.

2. All Princes score Victory Points based on their rank (from 1-10, with the Emperor gaining 10).

3. The Emperor allocates the nine Ministries among the different princes.

Ministries

With ten players I will need a few more arms of Government than Junta has.  My initial thoughts here include a few Fleet Admirals, Colonial Marines, Naval Intelligence, Imperial Intelligence, Transport, Communications, Pensions, Monopolies … feel free to suggest some in the comments section.

I’m not sure how many rounds of Budget allocation you should get through in one game bound (twenty minutes or so).  One plus a civil war should be possible, two-three without.


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.