Combat in Barracks Emperor

July 28, 2021

So I wrote a draft post about a dice pool based combat system I designed, and had playtested a few times. Then I reflected on my design goals, and discarded the draft post (and the dice pool combat system). I will explain why, then cover some historical sources that have influenced this game design, and then outline how the next iteration of the combat system will work.

All game design is an act of balancing the focus you put towards different, sometimes contradictory, design goals. No game can be all things to all people. A brief overview of my design goals for this megagame. First, this megagame needs to provide a model of ancient warfare, politics, and economy – and a model is an abstraction, not a simulation. Second, it needs to have space for player agency – the players need to be able to make meaningful decisions. Third, it needs to be capable of fast resolution – players need to be able to resolve battles, taxation, mutinies and other key game mechanics in one minute of time or less. Finally, the combat mechanic needs to provide feedback to the wider game system through things such as casualties, territory capture, or soft factors like faction prestige or leader reputation.

My main reason for abandoning the dice pool system was on speed of resolution grounds. With one die per legion, plus dice for auxiliary units, leaders, and discipline, each regional map had the potential to generate battles that might have involved as many as 12-20 dice being rolled for each side in a battle. Figuring out how many dice, and what size of die to use, was just taking a little too long. Its also the kind of iterative mental activity that burns a lot of energy over the 6+ hours a megagame runs, especially when players turn to Control to verify and validate their numbers, multiplying the number of brains being used in the task. Dice pool systems work best when the number of dice is around 3-8, easily fitting in one hand, and also being easy to sort or count. I was planning on a “Roll and Keep Best Two Dice” system, but even with that I was feeling it would just take a little too long.

A second reason was thinking about the level and focus of the game. Barracks Emperor is set more at a strategic political-military level, with three year game turns, rather than at the operational or tactical levels for which month or week long turns would be more appropriate (along with much more detailed maps). So rather than a detailed battle system that tries to reflect scouting, flanks, reserves, etc, the game just needs something that quickly lets the players get back to politics and diplomacy. So this meant thinking about using a mix of techniques for speeding up mechanical resolution:

  • Using deterministic mechanics rather than stochastic (random) mechanics
  • Simultaneous resolution
  • Able to be resolved with absent players
  • Removing extraneous steps in the process
  • Burying as much detail as possible about the game engine “under the hood” of the player facing game components.

Sources

A few more books and articles to add to those mentioned in my last post.

  • Dan Taylor, Roman Empire a War: A Compendium of Battles from 31 BC to AD 565, Pen & Sword Books Ltd, 2016
  • David J. Breeze, The Frontiers of the Roman Empire, Pen & Sword Books Ltd, 2011
  • Mark Hebblewhite, The Emperor and the Army in the Later Roman Empire, AD 235-395
  • Frontinius, Stratagems, translated by Charles E Bennet, Loeb Classical Library, 1997
  • Vegetius, Epitome of Military Science, translated by N P Milner, second revised edition, Liverpool University Press, 2001
  • Phillip Sabin, The Face of Roman Battle, ..Journal of Roman Studies, 11/2000 volume 90, 1-17.
  • Lukas de Blois, The Crisis of the Third Century A.D. in the Roman Empire: A Modern Myth?
  • Peter Temin, The Roman Market Economy, Princeton University Press, 2013

Sitting at the back of my mind is also Edward Luttwak’s Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, which I read in the 1990s but which I have not reread more recently. I understand serious classicists have issues with the text, but for me the key lesson was that border defences change over time.

A Time of Change

Because most of the visual media that we see about the Roman Empire is based on the late Republic and early Empire period we instinctively think of Roman soldiers with segmented armour, and large rectangular shields. The third century is a period of transition in Roman arms and armour, and renewed experimentation in tactics and force structure.

Legio III Cyrenaica of New England (United States) in a 1st century A.D. portrayal of a legion. From Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 3.0

So what kind of changes are we looking at in the third century?

  • the primary sword changes from the short gladius to the longer spatha
  • the shield changes from the rectangular scutum to an oval design similar to what the auxiliary forces had long used
  • a shift from the lorica segmentata (see picture above) to maille armour (see picture below)
  • increasing numbers of heavily armed cavalry, such as the cataphracti, especially as a large reserve force under the direct control of the Emperor or a trusted subordinate
  • the arms and armour of the Germanic tribes approaches equivalence with the Romans, as does tactical knowledge through barbarians serving in the Roman army
  • the full strength of the ten cohort legions (up to 6,500 troops) proving too slow in the face of raids by small warbands, leading to the creation of smaller fast moving vexillations (detachments) with only one or two cohorts plus supporting cavalry
  • at times, a deterioration in the legendary discipline of the roman forces, as exemplified by the large number of military revolts in this period
  • a decline in Italian volunteers serving in the legions, making the legions more provincial in focus (possibly abetted by the Severan dynasty allowing soldiers to marry, increasing ties to the community they were based in). My assessment is that while the number of barbarians in Roman service increased through this period, it was not a significant change at this time, unlike how events played out in the 5th century.
  • quality and quantity of recruiting also affected by wider economic problems and the deaths from plague and other calamities
  • an increase in the use of artillery engines (possibly a reaction to manpower shortages)
  • Roman cities were largely unwalled at the start of the 3rd century, and mostly walled by the end, as the emphasis for defensive strategy shifted from strong forward defence along the limes (borders) to more of a defence in depth strategy (supported by the decentralised government of the Tetrarchy, with four regional military commanders)
  • a shift away from amateur aristocratic command by senators, and command being placed in the hands of long service military professionals in the equestrian class.

Most of these factors do not need to be simulated in the game at the level of individual battles. Instead they will be policy decisions that the Romans can implement to try and increase their overall effective strength.

From Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 3.

The Face of Roman Battle

Most media portrayals of Roman warfare vary in quality from bad (flaming projectiles and cavalry charges through bad terrain) to worse (soldiers discarding their shields and battle formations collapsing into individual duels).

The classic Roman battle is a heavy infantry fight, with support from other arms such as cavalry, skirmishers, and artillery. Among its salient characteristics are:

  • Formations generally remained intact in close order until morale failed – none of those swirling Hollywood melees where one person fights another single person at a time.
  • Fighting with steel weapons in close proximity to the enemy (as opposed to longer distance archery) is a psychologically stressful state, and breaks and lulls in the fighting would be common (which reflects my own experience with re-enactment battles).
  • Roman generals largely did not do front line heroics (rare exceptions, such as Emperor Julian the Apostate, tend to demonstrate why this was the case) – this not a game of Warhammer with Champions that can overpower formations. Lower level leaders, such as the Centurions, did lead from the front, and often suffered high losses as a result.
  • Battles often took hours to resolve, before one side broke and ran.
  • The victor tended to lose around five percent of their force, while the loser would normally suffer 10-15 percent losses and could suffer heavy losses of 50-100 percent if encircled or pursued by cavalry. This is different from gunpowder battles, where both sides could take heavy casualties before one side retreated or collapsed.
  • A disciplined, high morale army with good leaders, could fight and defeat forces that outnumbered them by 4:1 or more (the 3:1 ratio you see in old wargames is not really a good rule of thumb for combat mechanics).

The Romans always considered the Persians, who had a lot of cavalry in their armies (including some elephants), to be their greatest enemy, but in the third century the assured dominance that Rome had usually enjoyed over the Germanic barbarians was fading. Between around 235 and 285, about one battle in ten was a catastrophic defeat, in which the bulk of the Roman army present at the battle, and most of the Roman leaders, were killed or captured. The key thing for the game is that almost every faction in the game is capable of beating every other faction on a good day. I have not found any good details on the strength of the Sassanid armies, so they will get a number of tokens that is close to Roman strength (and will get better if they repeat the historic feat of taking control of Armenia).

Map

The map will mainly feature Roman provinces as the main unit of geography, with a few special locations on the borders.

Large forces will be kept in containers off one side of the map, and represented by miniatures for leaders or standards for other formations. I will be using 28mm models from Aventine Miniatures.

Movement

The number of players needing to act at each map table will vary based on the number of player signups. It could be as few as three, it could be as many as nine. The number of teams needing to act should not be more than four. Within the constraint of 20 minute game turns, this gives me enough of a time budget to allow each team to move sequentially, rather than simultaneously. The three year timescale means a double blind system (i.e. hidden movement) is inappropriate. The key movement mechanics I have in mind are:

  1. Teams move in prestige order, from lowest to highest prestige.
  2. Each team will have one minute at the map table to move its game tokens.
  3. Each team can initiate a maximum of five invasions of regions containing enemy pieces.
  4. Mountain and Desert regions cost “two invasions” to enter.
  5. To invade deeper into enemy territory, you need to mask the forces in the border province by leaving behind more tokens than than the defender has in their border province.

Combat

The tricky bit in the mechanics is not so much the process for determining victory, as in determining the consequences. One of my decisions has been to try and model the one in ten catastrophe. Because the battles are abstract, the players do not have a high degree of agency over the outcomes, and I do not want players feeling they have been reduced to impotence by one die roll. The key combat mechanics I have in mind are:

  1. Teams resolve battles in prestige order from highest to lowest (this is the reverse of the movement order)
  2. Each team has one minute to initiate and resolve battles.
  3. If no one finds time to resolve a battle, the forces involved do not fight that turn.
  4. Each side rolls three dice: a leader die, a discipline die, and a decisive unit die (the decisive unit is determined by a card draw, and a quick comparison). High score wins. High prestige wins ties.
  5. The winner converts one large combat token into a small combat token. The large token is placed in the Reserve Pool.
  6. The defeated side removed half of their small combat tokens, and converts all of their large tokens into small tokens. One of the large tokens is placed in the Dead Pool, the rest are placed in the Reserve Pool.
  7. If you retreat through provinces containing enemy tokens, you will lose additional tokens to the Dead Pool.

Having all your large tokens removed in one battle sounds pretty dramatic, but read on.

The Decisive card specifies a unit type, such as Infantry, Cavalry, Skirmishers, Fleets, or Forts. Depending on relative unit strength, each side will get to roll a d4, d6, d8, d10, or d12. The masking and retreat rules are there to ensure that any player trying to raid deep into enemy territory is carrying a logistic penalty and bearing an appropriate level of risk. The movement-combat initiative also makes your deep raids more risky when you move first.

Feedback into the Wider Game

Combat tokens placed in the Dead Pool are permanently removed from your force pool. Some policy options can bring them back, but are expensive.

Combat tokens placed in the Reserve Pool return to play. The rate at which they return to play depends on other factors (Imperial Unity for the Romans, Prestige for the Sassanids). For example, if Imperial Unity is between 201 and 250, 1 in 2 Roman tokens in the Reserve Pool return to play at the start of the game turn. If Imperial Unity is between 151 and 200, only 1 in 3 Roman tokens in the Reserve Pool return to play at the start of the game turn. There will be a policy option that can increase the rate of reserve token return, but once again it will be expensive.

So while you can knock a side down, and take their tokens off the map, you cannot keep a side down for ever. In 2-3 turns they will be back in force.

The winner of a battle gets a Fort token in the region, the loser of a battle will lose a Fort. This represents shifting control and influence among the local inhabitants, as well as the occupation of key fortresses. The winning side gets +1 prestige (the defeated side does not lose prestige, as all factions shift one step towards zero prestige at the start of each game turn).

Defeated leaders make a mortality check, if they fail they die and the player gets a new character. Victorious leaders roll to see if they are promoted or gain honours (improving the Military or Political die one step, e.g. from d6 to d8).

The winner can choose to loot, gaining wealth, and placing a plunder token in the region. Plundering reduces faction RP income.

Still Needs Playtesting

I will be doing a playtest of this system on 7 August, focused on the frontier regions between Rome and Persia. For the playtest I will represent a legion with three large 16mm wooden cubes, while smaller detachments will be 10mm wooden cubes. Cavalry forces will use discs. Things I will be looking at closely in the playtest:

  • How do the players respond to prestige based movement-combat initiative system
  • Do the rewards from battles (promotion/prestige) balance the risks (loss of military strength, territory control)
  • Can battles be resolved in under a minute?
  • Do players concentrate their forces (to win one big battle), or disperse them (to spread risk across several encounters)
  • Does the ebb and flow of relative advantage look anything like the historical back and forth?
  • How does the three way dynamic between Rome, Persia, and Palmyra work out?
  • Does the mutiny/usurper mechanic work?


TGWB Update

December 9, 2017

A second playtest was held last weekend. I will be doing some more playtesting over the Xmas break down in Christchurch, and will then try and squeeze in another session in Wellington in early January. The main improvement from the playtest is a much better handling of the NPC Pirate and Warlord forces, dropping technology cards, and speeding up play by making some of the player actions automatic each turn, reducing the number of choices you make. The revised player mat is below.

Screenshot 2017-12-03 17.38.33

Game tokens have been ordered from Europe and the USA, and I am about to confirm an order for some laser cut tokens from battle Kiwi here in New Zealand. The five Jenga style block towers for use in the trading mini-game have all arrived from Auckland, and the star themed NASA playing cards are on their way from Book Depository. Apart from the laser cut tokens, I am expecting delivery of the rest of the game components before Christmas.

I have updated the main webpage for the game, with information on the factions in the game, and a copy of the draft rules. In a change from my past Megagames, The Galaxy Will Burn will not be balanced around factions with even numbers of players or player roles. If a faction is really popular during casting, then it will have more players. During play of the game, it is expected that player diplomacy will even out the effects of team size.

While we did not playtest the political game last weekend, we did walk through the mechanics and based on the feedback I cut down the number of government agencies to three branches of government and five offices of government. The Megapower economy was also simplified. The main use for Megapower tokens is in the political game, i.e. Quadrant map players decide how many they want to buy, give the Megapower tokens to their faction leader, and the faction leader then uses these tokens to acquire privilege cards for their team members.

The three branches of government are:

  1. The Executive – which proposes methods to resolve crises, and elects strong emperors.
  2. The Legislature – which votes on changes to how the imperial government works.
  3. The Judiciary – which allows the controlling player to veto actions by other government agencies.

The offices of government the main source of one use Privilege cards for players. The five offices are:

  1. The Treasury –  which is responsible for economic and financial matters
  2. The Bureaucracy – which can shift influence and manipulate blame within the government
  3. The Naval Office –  which is responsible for military matters, including command of the Megaships.
  4. Quadrant Affairs – is responsible for appointing Viceroys in charge of Quadrants
  5. Alien Affairs – is responsible for the peaceful assimilation of aliens into the Galactic Empire.

There is also an unofficial agency, the Deep State. This is all of the various secret services, palace guards, private militias, paramilitary police, and naval forces based around the imperial capital. While no one can ever “control” the Deep State, it is the source of privilege cards with a skulduggery focus (e.g. assassins, spies, coup attempts, selling weapons to pirates). The politician play mat is below.

Screenshot 2017-12-05 19.19.23

 


TGWB First Playtest

November 26, 2017

2017-11-26 12.44.45

Map at set up. Next time I will start the players with more starbases, and vary the number of loyalty markers. Each area started with three loyalty markers, which made the Govern action useless. Next time it will be 1-2 loyalty markers.

The playtest had a few main goals:

  • was there enough to keep all of the map players engaged and busy?
  • how did the budget corruption mechanic work?
  • how much time did it take to complete a game turn?

The first cycle of turns took about an hour to walk through. Part of this was the usual time to learn a game, but another part was on identifying ambiguous wording and offering up some alternatives for refining the game. We then got through 2/3 of a second cycle in 20 minutes. So a general conclusion there is that the number of actions can be trimmed down by about one-third. With five map players per table, trying to process 45 actions in 20 minutes only gives 25-30 seconds of time per action for resolution. The players did raise a concern about the proposed trade mechanic of drawing Jenga blocks, and that people might be too slow. This is something I think Control can manage during the game.

The map itself needs a little more clarity and explanation at the start so that everyone knows how the hyperlanes work (think of them as a really skinny and very long map area) and how starbases connect (the starbases on hyperlanes and sector borders are adjacent to everything) to the map.

Sketch1

This is the A4 sheet the players were planning their turns on. I was asked why trade was not being tracked here, and I do not think there is enough space. The trade tracks will go on a different A4 that all the players share – and this make it obvious when the benefit cards need to change hands. With the budget there are two numbers the players need to track, their current power total, and their permanent budget level. In the playtest only one player had really suffered hits on the budget by the second cycle of turns, but the cards had been skewed towards Clubs/Spades. I will number label the order of actions, and put an arrow going from left to right.

The playtest identified that the first action can just be focused on buying/selling Megapower rather than buy, sell or use. The next two actions are then where the player has more choice, and can now have an action with megapower option, which will even make wording the card text easier, so that is a double win. The bonus action is something that just one player at the table will get.

A suggestion from the playtesters was to make the learning curve easier by reducing the number of action cards players have at the start of the game. During play the players can then expand their action cards, changing the menu of strategies open to them. This can also make the initial difference between Admirals and Governors stronger so that players have to cooperate with their different mix of govern/build and move/battle cards for effective defence of the empire.

The playtesters also asked for more to engage with on the map. I will be doing a pass through the faction game and adding some elements to the map that players can interact with. For example, I will add some alien symbols to indicate the presence of alien enclaves within the Galactic Empire, which will be of interest to the Alien Lives Matter faction. The Imperial Capital game will also create things like Monuments that players will need to defend against pirates. I did have some map bonuses for things like “longest controlled hyperlane” and “most starbases” (a bit of obvious inspiration from Settlers of Cattan) and they worked well.

We had some discussion around what happens if players or game tokens move between maps. My thought is that this needs to be following the play of a one use action card gained from the Imperial Capital, so that it is an exception to regular play and has some definite opportunity cost attached to it. As an end game option, a player who has reached “autonomous” government could lead a wagon train across the stars and migrate to another map table. Another option is to make it cost a lot of Megapower – say one per player already at the table.

One mechanic I borrowed from the COIN games was the distinction between Movement, Patrol and Battle. Battle could only be against units that were revealed, and for Pirates or Warlords in deep space away from the Hyperlanes this meant someone had to spend on action of Patrolling to reveal the enemy. This then allowed another player to initiate the battle action, gaining all the glory themselves. The COIN games tend to be optimised for four players, often working in teams of two. So this mechanic is a bit fiddly in this megagame and will probably be dropped. It also requires me making a mark on all of the game tokens so that the hidden/revealed status is clear at a glance from players.

2017-11-26 15.40.16

Many Warlords have spawned in the bottom left hand side, while there have been battles with pirates in three places on the hyperlanes (top left, top right, and lower mid left).

Some last specific feedback on this map – the hyperlanes need some connecting “bridges” on this map, which will be easy enough to do at the points where they connect closely. I can also make the border the same colour pattern as the hyperlanes, to indicate that off-map travel can loop around. Its possible for a region to get crowded – I will have some overflow/breakout boxes, so you can pick the tokens up and put them down elsewhere.

Overall, it feels good for the first playtest. The next playtest will test out the Imperial capital game.


First Colossus of Atlantis Playtest

October 9, 2016

Yesterday I had four people who kindly devoted four hours of their Saturday afternoon to the “half-baked” playtest of Colossus of Atlantis. In that time we got through five game turns, which is not too bad for a planned six hour game, but definitely has room for improvement. Part of this can come from making the game simpler, part can come from more rigorous time control by Map GMs – every table should have some one/five minute Sandtimers.

The test focused on the map game. As there were only four players, I kept the map to seven regions. Each region is identical at the start of the game, but changes quickly as it is colonized by the players. The number of regions means that from turn three onwards, there are no easy gains for players.

2016-10-03-region-map

Region Map

On the picture below the Yellow Circle token indicates Eris (“Strife”) in that region. The Red Shoggoth is a monster. The domino tiles are hoplite units, while the Chess Knights represent Leaders. The Tarot cards are unique colony upgrades, while the normal playing cards are turn based governance choices. The red hexagons are orichalcum mines. The green castles are fortresses. At the bottom you can see the grey plastic colossi.

2016-10-08-14-35-04

Mid-game situation

Between game turns we glossed over most of the Council phase, but allowed players to pick some research advances, as this allowed me to see how they interacted with the map game. We also got to see how Colossi changed the game in turn 5. The scary monster became easy to drive off.

2016-10-08-17-03-02

End of Game Scores and Research

The tally in the DOOM column is actually the sum of the turn by turn Victory Point scores. As you can see there is quite a spread in the VP scores. Gold had a few poor card draws and was subject to card loss from Tribute to other players more often. We did not focus on DOOM in the game, so I will need to make that a focus of the next playtest.

I asked for Keep, Stop, Start feedback. I was told to keep the laminated region maps (good for writing on), the monster threat, the colossi (a clear signal of reaching the midgame), and the permanent region upgrades from the Tarot cards (which made the regions distinctive). I was told to stop exploration (the Major Arcana event cards were too wide ranging, and the process of looking up what each meant took too long) and stop the process of comparing “high suit” scores in the normal playing cards (it was tricky with four players and seven regions, scaling up to 13 regions and seven or more players was going to be time consuming). I was told to start putting more quick reference information on the region maps, prepare role reference cards for the players, to schedule a mid-game lunch break, to rethink how population growth would work, put something to track the game turn number onto the map tables, make city size relevant to city functions other than tribute and trade, and to have collateral damage from combat. There needs to be a simple way to track and reference technology unlocked by research.

There was a lot of minor feedback on the rules – areas for clarification and consistency.

Income was not a major constraint on player actions. Trade deals were usually in the $35-$45 range, but as the card values went up and down, new trade deals were more rare than I thought they would be. If you already had a good trade deal, moving your governance cards into other options was better choice.

We had a couple of PVE and PVP combats. The monster was usually driven off, and regions did change hands. The dice pool combat system worked, but the process of assembling the pool is a bit fiddly. So I will think about how that could be improved.

The turn sequence needs some work – especially around the timing of combats and the order of resolving the governance options for regions.

When it came to Orichalcum, my gut feeling is the current game mechanics do not work well. Players should want Orichlacum and Vril, it should be awesome to get and use. So I need to rethink how it fountains into the game, and what players can use it for.

So quite a bit to keep me busy until the next playtest in Christchurch in two weeks, but the concept and core mechanics seem viable, so the first playtest was a success.

 

 


Second Sun and Starship Playtest

January 4, 2015

SAMSUNG

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.

Endgame

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.

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.

Decadence

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).


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.