The Core Problem

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!

Xmas Game – Adapting Republic of Rome

I am playing around with adapting the Republic of Rome boardgame for a Sc-fi decline & fall of the Galactic Empire setting.  So this involves:

  1. Eliminating mechanics I did not like in Republic of Rome
  2. Converting mechanics I do like
  3. Changing enough of the game so that its not a poor clone.

Mechanics I thought I could do without included:

  • Bribing leaders to join your faction (especially the obnoxious bit about you keeping both the bribe and the money the leader already has)
  • Events generated each turn by a random die roll – just too random when you already have most events generated by a card deck
  • Provincial governors – just too fiddly
  • Famous individuals sprouting up in senatorial families – too tied to a historical Rome

Some mechanics needed converting, especially in the voting part of the game, where many of the mechanics are tied to Rome’s historical quirks.  Voting is a core part of the game though, because its how the players allocate common resources against common threats.  So the role of Emperor will do much of what the Rome Consul did in game, but there will be other portfolios controlled by other leaders with some degree of influence over the Senate agenda.  With no field consul, any leader can be sent off to quash rebellions as well.

Rather than concessions, the adaptation has sinecures, and these will use the catabolic energy system.  So rather than a flat income each turn, they generate 2-6 income, and on a 1 they are destroyed – possibly to regenerate later in the game.

Probably the biggest core change is what ends the game.  In Republic of Rome, there are a lot of ways ALL the players can lose.  In fact, in over a dozen games I have only seen one player victory, which led to the nickname “Republic of Carthage” among some of my friends for this game.  I have decided to focus on just one end of game condition – if the empire has no Atomic Power left, it falls.  If a player gets to 100 Glory before this happens, they win.

I keep the Unrest mechanic, but I call it Confidence, and split it into Military, Elite, and Popular Confidence.  Some of the things that were in the random events table are now worked into the Confidence table.  Military confidence affects the cost of purchasing military units for the Empire (in +10 increments), trade income die rolls, and the chances of an Usurper successfully persuading military units to support them instead of the Emperor. Popular confidence reduces the amount of Atomic Power collected by taxation (-10 to -40), reduces Viceroy income and increases the number of mortality chits drawn each turn.  Elite confidence affects the cost of purchasing leaders for the Great Houses (in multiples, x2 to x5), reduces Monopoly income, and the chances of Imperial Marines supporting a coup.

Some of the crises event cards will only trigger when a particular confidence level is reached.  At 0 confidence anyone can try and overthrow the Emperor, at 6 confidence Strong Admirals can attempt to overthrow the emperor.  Maximum confidence is 10.

Rather than Land bills I have Welfare bills, but they work in a similar manner – confidence improves short-term, at the long-term cost of having less power to deal with future crises.

While I do not want famous characters, I think I can work in some leader chrome with Weak Emperors and Strong Admirals.  If there are 4+ crises threatening the Galactic Empire, then a Weak Emperor card is drawn.  This is a debuff to the current Emperor (so yet another reason to overthrow them) making it harder to maintain confidence, and possibly changing some rules of play (e.g. an Insane Emperor might not be able to use all of their powers, or might do random things in some game phases).  If a leader successfully leads an armada to victory, on the other hand, they gain a buff from the Strong Admiral card.  This improves the leaders attributes, might grant a special power, and makes the leader eligible to start a Civil War or Palace Coup to overthrow the Emperor.

Combat – I don’t need the complexity of stalemates and disasters, so I can just say a natural 13 on 3d6 is an automatic defeat, otherwise any adjusted roll of 14+ is victory. In Republic of Rome, Legions were more important than Fleets.  I could have reversed that for this game, but I am aiming for more of a balance.  You want Fleets in a Civil War, but Marines in a Palace Coup.  Plus  imagine the second phase of many space campaigns is a messy ground war and/or counter-insurgency operation, for which Marines rather than Fleets are more useful.

I also need to add things that were not really in Republic of Rome at all, including decadence and monuments.  For decadence, I plan to give each leader a decadence rating.  In the mortality phase, leaders can be decadent and score glory for their house.  they risk, however, perishing from overexertion (represented by the draw of additional mortality chits that only affect decadent leaders).  For monuments, if you win victories, you get Monument points. These allow you to try and persuade the Senate to build a monument to the heroic sacrifices made by your soldiers in defence of the Empire, etc, etc.  Each Monument point you have accumulated grants you +1 vote on Monument voting.  If built, you then cash in your monument points and score glory (a bonus in addition to the glory scored when you won the campaign earlier).  The catch … each Monument must be larger in terms of atomic power expenditure than the last Monument built.

Anyhow, should have something for playtesting the week after Christmas.

Republic of Rome Number Crunching

I spent some time looking at the Republic of Rome boardgame for ideas over the weekend, as it is an excellent “cooperation & conflict” game.  One of my thoughts after reading the rules again, was that one element required for successful cooperation mechanics, is a common resource that is difficult for any one player to seize control of.  In the spirit of the “Do The Math” principle I decided to break down the 31 War cards to see what I could find.

Land Strength

Mean strength was 7.8.  Range was 2-15.  Median strength was 8.  Most common strength was 6.

Naval Strength

Not as common as land strength. Only four wars had the two sets of naval strength requiring a naval victory to be gained before land combat started, but these tended to be tough at 10, 10, 8 and 6 Fleets required.  More typically, an army of Legions required only a mean of 2.3 Fleets in support.  This tells us that the Army Concession (2 income per Legion built) is worth far more than the Naval Concession (3 income per Fleet built).

Range for supporting Fleets was 0 to 10.  Median strength was 2. Most common strength was 2 (x11).

Unrest Increase

Only six Wars had an inherent boost to Unrest each turn, usually those that created Drought/Pirate conditions.

Matching Wars

One war with four matching cards.   Three wars with three matching cards.  Three wars with two matching cards.  So that leaves 10 wars with no matching war.  The Social War was an odd one out, as it activated all inactive wars, but did not make them multiply their strength.

Matching Wars are evil, as they multiply force strength, x2, x3, and x4.  As Rome only has 25 legions, a x3 or x4 multiplier makes victory difficult to obtain.  If you had four active, but unmatched, wars they would still be likely to have a combined strength of 30-32.

I did not look at the various leaders that can boost war strength, there are about nine of those, as it can be a bit random whether or not they link up with their matching wars.


The mean treasure gain from a victory is 17.6 … which is not a lot when each active war costs Rome 20 per turn, and it might take more than one turn to crush an enemy.  Range was 0-45.  Median treasure was 15.  Most common treasures were 10 and Zero.

Stalemate Numbers

Six wars had two stalemate numbers, one of which was an 11 (the most likely roll from 3d6).  All the stalemate numbers were 11 or greater, which makes me think they were likely to punish a Senate trying to “get lucky” and do wars “on the cheap”.

The most common stalemate number was 17 (x8), closely followed by 11 and 15 (x7).

Across all the wars, I estimate the chance of a stalemate at around 5-6%, but for the wars with two stalemate numbers, this is closer to 15.3%.

Disaster Numbers

No card had more than one disaster number.  Disasters were usually, but not always, less likely to occur than a stalemate result.  The most common Disaster number was unlucky 13.

Across all wars, the chance of a disaster was about 6.6%.  Combined with stalemates, that is around about a 12-13% chance of not winning a battle, regardless of how many resources are committed.  Again, there is a group of six of super-hard wars with more like a one in five chance of some degree of catastrophe.


Only six wars had a chance of eliminating concessions (sources of player income).