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.

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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.

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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.

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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.