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!


Pax Vicky: Iteration, Iteration, Iteration

January 24, 2013

Successful game design requires iteration.  Iteration requires you to recognise that your brilliant  idea is not going to work, and then coming up with a new brilliant idea. Which probably won’t work either, but at least it feels like progress!

Pax Victoria is going through an iteration process, as I turn several interlocking sets of mechanics over in my mind.  They key mechanics I need to cover are:

(1) Pre-game grand strategy formulation and its flow through impact onto all choices made in game

(2) An attrition based land combat system (i.e. its a meat grinder system if both sides are evenly matched)

(3) A maneuver based naval combat system (i.e. one which often results in no battle at all, or a decisive victory/defeat)

(4) “Twitter Diplomacy” – all written agreements must be done in 140 characters or less

(5) An economics/logistics system to allow units to be built/replaced and to track economic fatigue and eventual economic collapse.

I’m well into my third  iteration for all except the diplomacy rules.  For the second iteration I made my usual mistake of creating a dice game, and after a couple of happy days of meshing all the synergies together, I remembered what a PITA it is for GMs to spend time sorting dice and figuring out if a roll was good/bad hit/miss critical/boring and then implementing it in game.  So I took the numbers and underlying math and turned them into a card game of sorts.

For a World War One style game I am influenced by various history books and Great War boardgames that I have played, especially Ted Racier’s Paths of Glory.  So there a few key features I want to represent:

  1. Railway networks and supply lines are important. Industrial armies cannot survive by living off the land. If their supply line is cut they collapse quickly.
  2. Cavalry units are largely ineffective, unless a gap is created for them, or their opponents are weak.
  3. Artillery is the Queen of the battlefield – it was responsible for far more lives lost than the machinegun
  4. Fortresses are situationally powerful. Build them in the right place and they work like magic, build them in the wrong place and watch the enemy ignore them.
  5. Mobilisation of reserve forces is important.
  6. Enveloping units on multiple flanks, or pressing on all sides of a salient, is a tactically strong move.
  7. In a battle of resources, it makes strategic sense for an economically powerful country to focus on attrition, while a militarily powerful nation will be striving for the “Short, victorious war” beloved of politicians down through the ages.

So I have roughly six types of units with the following qualities:

  • a movement rate of zero to two hexes
  • a strength rating of zero to six
  • a range rating of zero to two hexes
  • a stamina rating of zero to two.

Guards

A Guards unit is an elite infantry unit. These will be limited in number.

Full Strength (5) Stamina (1)

Half Strength (2) Stamina (2)

Guards units are tough, the only unit at reduced strength with a strength greater than one, and the only unit with a stamina of two for a glorious last stand around the regimental colours.

Artillery

Artillery is a support unit. Like Guards, Artillery will be in short supply.

Full Strength (6) Stamina (0)

Half Strength (1) Stamina (1)

Special Ability: Because there will only be one unit in most hexes, artillery contribute their strength to any battle within two hexes of the hex they occupy.

Special Weakness: Artillery are the strongest land unit in the game, but at full strength they have a stamina of zero, so if involved in combat they must automatically flip to half strength.  This will make it hard to sustain attacks, as sooner or later you will need to resupply your artillery units back to full strength to keep attacking.

Regular

The standard army unit, no special abilities or features, other than being the most common unit on the map.  All nations will have a similar number of Regular units.

Full Strength (4) Stamina (1)

Half Strength (1) Stamina (1)

Reserve

Reserve units do not start the game on the map. They must be built during the game.  Nations will have very different reserve force pools, based on their grand strategy.  Effectively a weaker version of the Regular unit, but cheaper to build, and in quantity they have their own quality.

Full Strength (3) Stamina (1)

Half Strength (1) Stamina (1)

Cavalry

The last of the limited number elite units, Cavalry are good for rapid advances against light opposition or exploiting gaps in weak defensive lines.  Attacking solid defences, not so good.

Full Strength (2) Stamina (1)

Half Strength (1) Stamina (1)

Special Ability: If a gap is created in the enemy lines to the green fields beyond, cavalry units can move to the gap, and then onwards one hex into vacant enemy territory.

Headquarters

A Headquarters (HQ) is a supply source. If attacked in combat it collapses as Generals flee for safety. It counts as a Rail hex, so if you form a continuous chain of HQs you can carry supplies deep into the wilderness, or use the HQ line to bring reinforcements into the campaign.

Strength (0) Stamina (0)

Fortress

A strong defensive unit that is immobile. Good for defending cities, railway junctions, or key border crossings.

Full Strength (6) Stamina (+1)

Half Strength (3) Stamina (+1)

Special Abilities: (1) Acts like an artillery unit for support, but does not flip. (2) Can have a garrison unit stacked with it (3) Increase the Stamina of any garrison unit by +1 (4) Acts as source of supply for its Hex (5) Counts as a rail hex.

So those are the units.  Apart from Forts, I am keen to avoid any kind of stacking on the map, single counters are far faster to count and so will help players make good informed decisions in less time.

As for the crunchy bit of combat, after playing around with die rolls and realising that would be too hard I thought about a system where you pulled one card from a deck per stamina point the defending unit has.  Today I had the brainwave that it would be faster to pre-print cards with multiple entries for Stamina-1, Stamina-2, Stamina-3 etc.  Each Stamina line has a number, which is the total strength the combined attacking units require to defeat the defender and force a retreat.  Each line will be 1-10 strength, average of 6, accumulating over the lines.  So if attacking a Regular unit (Stamina 1), if you draw a card and get six on the Stamina-1 line, then if you are attacking with only a Guards unit (Strength 5) you fail, but if attacking with two Reserve Units (Strength 3 x 2 =6) you succeed.

Units would get a +1 stamina bonus for defending beaches, cities, mountains or rivers.

The defending unit is always reduced in strength by the attack, unless the card has a symbol indicating that the defender does not flip (I’m thinking of having this on about 10% of the cards).

The attacker flips a number of units equal to the defender’s stamina, plus all supporting artillery.  I may have symbols on a few cards (10-30% of the deck perhaps) indicating that elite units have their effective strength increased, perhaps even doubled, for that battle.  So while overall outcomes are predictable, there is enough variation to keep it interesting.

So how do you win a land war in the Southeast Colonies?

1. Attack reduced strength or stamina 0 units, with full strength units.   A destroyed unit costs more to build than a half strength unit costs to reinforce.

2. Envelop or surround a unit so you can attack with 3+ units, increasing your strength to guarantee a forced retreat. If you keep taking a hex a turn, after a few turns you will be in their capital city.

3. Use overwhelming force, Guard units supported by artillery can smash through on a narrow one hex front if the defender does not have stamina boosting terrain, Strength 5 + Strength 6 = Strength 11 total versus a maximum of Strength 10 on the One Stamina line of a Battle card.

4. Bloody Attrition, from a position of economic strength attack with expendable units so that you create a situation where (1) is possible.

5. Counterattack, wait for them to attack you when you are in stamina boosting terrain, then counterattack while they are weak.

Both 1 and 5 are going to depend a on when teams draw their logistic chits (the number of which you have are determined by pre-game grand strategy choices). Its going to be nerve wracking to see if the reinforcements arrive in time for the big push, or whether you signal to home that its been delayed by mud.

Next Steps

I need to ponder the naval combat design for a while longer, but I can probably do a post soon on how I see the pre-game Grand Strategy choices working.  I also need to do some thinking on the economics.  I found some economic analysis of GDP figures in World War One recently, and while the USA and UK had GDP growth during the war, all the other great powers lost a large chunk of GDP, despite massive increases in the government share of GDP.  So while a wartime economy works, more or less, it does not create an infinite supply train of resources, so I suspect peak wartime strength might only be around 20% above fully mobilised pre-war strength.