Sun and Starship Washup

June 5, 2012

It was one of the best two or three Grand strategy games I have designed and run over the last 20 years, but there is still room for improvement!  My take on the intiial feedback is below, more comments are always welcomed.

Overall Summary

Most of Saturday was spent in preparation, while the maps were easily set up cutting out and stuffing the trade cards into sleeves was a very time consuming process ~4 hours.  One extra player was easily incorporated, giving a final total of 30 players, 6 GMs, one volunteer helping the GMs and a photographer.  The game started on time, finished around 11pm, and managed to get through 10 complete turns (against a maximum target of 12 turns).

A lot of people said they had fun, so I walked away feeling really happy about it.

Distributing game info a week earlier was useful.  Many players had plans, and most of the teams came in team colours (red/blue sashes).  We had name tags too this year.

Combat cards worked pretty well mechanically.  Trade cards did not, there were too few to met the demand, so being able to harvest them became a matter of luck.  Emperor succession worked fairly well.  The politics game worked better than in Colossus of Atlantis, so that was a win for making the political process unbreakable for players.  The outcomes were still unbalanced, two of the five princes ended up not gaining a steady share of the dividends of state, and quickly fell behind.

What broke the game, was the Pirate players deciding to ignore their victory conditions and all cooperate to take the Imperial Capital, combined with the House players choosing to (mostly) ignore the Pirates.  This also revealed that the Prince players were too embedded in the politics game to effectively defend their territories.  So, the emergent play was cool on one level, but also demonstrated that I did not have the balance of incentives right for directing player action.

Player Feedback

I got feedback forms from 25 of the participants.  Thank you to everyone who took the time to fill them out.

What was the best moment of the game for you?

  • scaring people away from my fleet
  • when a pirate became Emperor
  • taking the Imperial Capital
  • causing a civil war via a tied vote just when Mark thought he’d become Emperor once again
  • the whole game was great. I really liked passing bills that supported my [House?]
  • successful negotiations with pirates for significant gain. I had fun
  • recapturing my sector after having lost to pirates
  • marrying a pirate, establishing a trade outpost and having others think this was a good idea
  • trading and diplomacy
  • Winning against 17 dreadnoughts, 2 Maulers, 1 Logistic Ship and 68 Cruisers with 2 Raiders and the Prince having nowhere to retreat
  • trading, fast and furious
  • Josh the invincible most sublime Padishah ruler of the universe
  • Hyperspacing between systems and wiping out whole fleets
  • combat cards better than dice. overall I had fun. Mutual negotiations with pirates for benefit both parties. Bluffing totally superior forces away from a Capital with false promises
  • Capturing a capital with a single raider that I had gained through a pirate attack
  • being voted Emperor again and again
  • stealing the territory later in the game with 20 cruisers and 6 dreadnoughts
  • plotting as a group
  • manipulating the Senate

Which mechanic did you least enjoy, and why?

  • not enough time to do everything
  • Senate seemed ineffectual
  • Raider units only being built by Pirates, too powerful once they joined forces
  • Senate Bills – loud and dominated by shouting, disorganised (common complaint)
  • Unable to get votes if not on the Apparatus Committee, Apparatus Committee created a power oligarchy among the princes
  • combat was too random
  • Pirates able to collaborate. It caused pirates to be too powerful and make game boring
  • the excessive pirate factions. The unit sanctioning mechanic limiting House
  • Board play – not many options available for Houses
  • the queue mechanic was very intimidating. It prevents teamwork, discussing tactics, trading, diplomacy. I found it isolating.
  • battle and harvest, not designed very fairly
  • raiders were too strong (a common complaint)
  • Queue mechanic
  • no point in the Princes taking back the [Imperial] Capital
  • harvesting – quickly became almost useless
  • only one capital attack a turn – makes retaking the capital difficult, allowing one person to establish a secure position
  • the special units and giving pirates to Dreadnoughts
  • card trading – not really relevant to my faction

Which mechanic did you most enjoy, and why?

  • Combat cards, small forces could win
  • Combat was interesting
  • Combat cards were good, if not so random, very simple, elegant and quick
  • the randomness in battle
  • That because they couldn’t retreat the victor got everything
  • Trading cards, trading, it encourages working with others – allowed alternate ways to get resources
  • trading and diplomacy
  • Harvesting
  • Voting system, secret ballot/blind vote for Emperor, vote forms
  • Senate
  • more refined queueing system
  • no action tokens for map queues, like previous grand strategy games
  • I liked making sets of cards
  • Pirates
  • simple resource generation

What one change could we do to make the game more fun for you?

  • more trade tokens/cards, adjust set requirements (a common point)
  • better recycling of trade tokens
  • more economics
  • allow for more fun when unforseen consequences occur
  • fewer turns, it got tedious at the end
  • make the Senate more ordered, allow each Senator to draft and submit one Bill per turn
  • Combat system that doesn’t allow your entire Fleet to be destroyed by an unknown Fleet while not present in the room
  • enforce time limits at tables – make having multiple, foolishly large, Fleets a disadvantage
  • put all Princes on the Apparatus Committee
  • a little more integration so you understand if your team is doing well
  • being able to interact with team more
  • no more queues
  • Being able to give actions [proxy control] to team mates
  • everyone starting off on a more even footing and less rush
  • a little more power for the Senate, but less for the Emperor
  • penalty for House and Princes if capital is taken
  • limit combat results so 2 cannot destroy 50
  • prevent people jamming at the front door, enforce the 30 second rule
  • minimise the voting system, allow a mechanic for executive control of the politics
  • the GMs didn’t seem very aware of some of the rules/what the policies were

Analysis of Feedback

It’s really striking how the same mechanics appear on both the least liked and most liked lists.  I do agree with the complaints that:

  • there were not enough trade cards
  • that the Senate was disorganised
  • that Pirates were too powerful
  • that combat was a little too destructive/random.

Okay, now for some detailed comment from me on how the mechanics all worked out.

Player Response to Victory Point Objectives

Towards the end of the design process, I decided not to give each player role a long list of unique victory conditions, focusing on common scoring systems (territory, votes, power) and one unique flavour buff for each role.  I failed to anticipate one group of players (the Pirates) ignoring their objectives to concentrate on a goal (the Imperial Capital) which really was not all that valuable to them.  This also made clear that I had got one element of the “Byzantium in Space” strategic environment wrong. Istanbul had the strongest fortifications in the world in its heyday, but the Imperial Capital in Sun and Starship was weakly defended. I note here Emperor Gerald’s decision to divert the bulk of the Imperial Capital defence forces to protecting his personal estates on another map table.

So, a new design maxim for me: “Always expect a player to try to break the game”.

Control

It is important to always be able to determine the game state.  It must always be clear who controls what.  I think I made a mistake by having the big control markers, and at having player control markers be mostly white space and coloured lines.  I should have made the colours bolder and cover more of the counters.  I might have been better to give everyone one-two more flagship markers and no control markers.

I now feel that gifting of ships was too easy, although that was not something mentioned in player feedback.

Easy control was also diminished by the large number of ship tokens on each flagship counter.

Imperial Warlord Status

This did not work as intended, in large part because very little information flowed from the game map to the Senate, or vice versa. So we had Warlords in the Senate room asking for, and getting, imperial resources, and then going back to the map and doing whatever they liked with them (which was intended) without the Princes finding out (which was not intended).

Atomic Power

Despite being worth VP, Atomic Power was not present much in the game, being largely converted into Dreadnoughts.  Part of this may be tied to the fact that many players did not harvest, unless trade cards were available, so less atomic power was generated than intended.  Once the Pirates had the Imperial Capital, that also reduced a flow of 30+ atomic power into the game per turn down to zero.

Build Actions

I now think it was a mistake to allow Pirates to build Raiders while in Imperial space.  I should have made Raider builds possible only while in Deep Space.  While they would still be powerful in combat, attrition would reduce any Raiders in Pirate forces operating in Imperial space over time.

Building special units did not work well.  The Princes did not know what the map looked like, or what the sector names were.  I also noticed that players always built all their special units in one place rather than splitting them between different players.  This had suboptimal consequences as it allowed the Pirates to frequently capture large numbers of special units.  A better solution would have been a bill that enabled a player to build one on the map when and where they chose to do so.

The lack of any limit on build actions allowed a few players to build a lot of units very quickly.  That was probably a mistake.  Grand Strategy games work better with a smaller number of significant units to make choices with, rather than trying to shuffle around 100 counters in two minutes.

Movement

I did not see a lot of map movement, so I don’t know if the four moves a Scout had was actually useful, or if hyper-space movement helped or hindered the game.  A few players complained about other players going over time – another sign that there were too many counters on the table.  Another way of doing the Scouts might be to have them increase their stacks movement by +1.

I think the maps themselves worked pretty well, although I could have had more colour on them to indicate home territory for each of the great Houses.  The Imperial Capital map was too small, making it too hard to retreat.

Movement between tables was better than last year, but still too fuzzy for my liking.  I think I need to prohibit movement between maps except between game turns.

Combat

This was largely working as intended.  A few mistakes were made by GMs (one handed out combat cards as trade cards, another interpreted the one ship captured rule as all ships captured) but it was faster than previous combat systems and easier to do when tired.

I think the retreat rules were more unbalanced than the fact that small forces could beat large forces, as having large fleets captured was more catastrophic than having them destroyed.  That is something that can be fixed.  While the Raiders did well overall, if the flow of special units to Imperial fleets improved, then that would be self-correcting.

Counting ships is always slow … so I was thinking that on a map table the flagships could be used to represent nominal fleet locations, with all the ships being held in a reference box by the side of the table (one box per faction).  It does remove an element of tactical control, as the relative strategic balance between a faction would become more important (although I could add static on-map defence only units).  It would make it clearer who is stronger/weaker.

Senate

Worked better than the Athenian democracy in Colossus of Atlantis, but needs further refinement.  Mechanics dominated by loud voices make some players uncomfortable.  I probably need to go with a strict one player, one vote systems, otherwise as soon as one triumvirate can award themselves an unassailable vote lead, they usually do so.

Perhaps what I could have is roughly ten senate positions, and Bills that distribute five favours at a time.  So to pass a Bill, at least one voter is doing it for a future favour promise.  I like the one Bill per turn per player suggestion as well.

Information flows between the Senate were week, and Princes were largely unable to do Map movement or trade cards.  One idea I have here, is to make the Emperor and elected military leader, so they become responsible for leading the Imperial Fleet that turn, only returning to the Senate for a casting vote on tied votes.

Imperial elections were fun, but there was some ambiguity about where votes were directed when sitting around a long rectangular table.  It might possibly be better just to use a secret paper ballot.

Bills need some tweaking for clarity and bullet proofing against player writing illegibility.  More tick boxes!  Someone also needs responsibility for taking Bills to where they can be executed/resolved.  Perhaps bills could create Sinecures, where a player is given a card with the rules for their new power (e.g. the ability to make a special unit) and they keep the card and its associated power until the Senate assigns it to a different player.

Trade

While players enjoyed trade, feeling hampered by the flow of trade cards, I think this mechanic needs a major overhaul.  Watching people sitting on the ground sorting stacks of cards does not look like fun (although it may well be fun for those doing it).  As a GM, making the cards was time consuming and required a lot of printing.  Ideally, I will come up with a trade mechanic that allows deal making and negotiations, but without requiring a large number of game tokens.

Terminology

I kept tripping up on the distinction between Capital area and [Imperial] Capital Sector.  Maps also needed province/quadrant names.

Queue Mechanic

I am tending towards regarding this as a valiant failure.  It makes players focus too much on the map, and the map state of your own forces, and not on the other players and their forces.  In a way its reducing the amount of strategy in the game over the furious execution of tactical moves.  As such, I am leaning back towards the Holistic Action Token system (i.e. drawing faction names out of a H.A.T. to see who moves next).

Another possibility is to have an “exhaustion” combat result for attackers, indicating that a Flagship cannot move again in that game turn (unless perhaps a logistics ship is removed to resupply the force).  This could create interesting possibilities for counter-attacks by fresh forces.

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A week without computer games

May 13, 2012

Day 6, my fingers twitch, but as much as I’d like to play some computer games I’m going to be good and follow my GPs advice on dealing with the tennis elbow in my left arm.  I did log into World of Tanks to take advantage of the VE day specials, and to take a look at how my Soviet heavy tanks had been rejigged, but I successfully resisted the x5 experience bonus and logged out of the game afterwards.  For a right hander, getting tennis elbow in the left hand is rare, I suspect its the dominance of WASD keys in modern gaming that has done it to me (that and playing computer games 4+ hours a night).

Grand Strategy

This does leave me with a lot of time for reading and thinking, so a good chunk of today was spent working on the Sun & Starship rules for Buckets of Dice 2012.  Most of this was spent trying to nail down control of tokens, so people will always know who controls what in the game, or how control changes between players.  I’m deliberately forcing players to keep ships concentrated in no more than three stacks, so as to encourage raiding tactics and to make it difficult to build solid defence lines.

The Senate Bills have also been fleshed out.  Each of the five committees gets one to four Bills each turn. The exact number is determined by the Treasury Committee, which can increase or reduce the Bills other committees get.  After the first draft I did a second pass for balance, prompted by realising that one committee had a power worth +/- 10 victory points, so I made sure the other committees had something comparable.  I then did a second pass to increase the horse trading options so that most bills gave out boosts to more than one player at a time.

Planning ahead for 2013 I would like to design a railway building game.  This would include options I wish were included in most published railway building games, to whit, the option to say “Screw this, mobilise the army” when someone else pips you to the next rail hub.

Roleplaying Games

I am following the development of the next edition of Dungeons & Dragons over at http://community.wizards.com/dndnext without a lot of enthusiasm.  While I purchased the core 4th edition books, I found that the game had gone too much towards a fully blown miniatures wargame and away from the narrative combat (“theatre of the mind”) that I use in resolving a lot of tabletop conflict.  As a GM I simply couldn’t fit the options available to the players into my own mind, making the game too complicated for me to design scenarios for.  That said, the actual written advice on running/designing campaigns was solid.

I am much more looking forward to The Design Mechanism’s sixth edition of Runequest, especially after the PDF preview was put up at: http://www.thedesignmechanism.com/resources/RQ%20Preview%201.pdf.  I like the clean, uncluttered layout, and the style of artwork.  I’m intrigued by the inclusion of cultural passions (e.g. loyalty, love, hate) and how they might influence the mechanics.  It’s also good to see that mysticism will be a valid magic system in the main rules.

In part because of the upcoming RQVI I took a look at the Stafford Library’s Arcane Lore, which is essentially a 129 pages of GM/design notes on hero questing. One of the big frustrations of RQ was that there never seemed to be enough information about the hero quests of Glorantha to actually run players through, unless you were willing to hunt through obscure mail order fanzines.  I suspect my next campaign game will use Runequest rules, although it may not be a Glorantha setting – there are hints that a new edition of roleplaying rules for the Artesia setting will be a D20/RQ ruelset.

Grabbing a few other PDF’s to read this week, I was disappointed by Monte Cook’s Ruins of Intrigue. While its only 98 pages long, I was hoping for a bit more in the way of interesting crumbled ruins and a lot less overland/wilderness terrain.  While the alternate secrets for major NPCs and foes was nice, with competing explorer factions for Casablanca intrigue, it would have been nice for a range of lost artefacts and other lootable stuff to have been detailed rather than leaving the GM to make up all the loot themselves.

In an old school kick again, I picked up the D&D 3.5 edition of Blackmoor, in part because I read that the map in the 4th edition version was less than helpful. That’s next on the reading list.

Gaming Recap

Skyrim – still have not resumed play of this.

World of Warcraft – 3/8 hard modes, expansion is definitely winding down, have BETA invite not using it yet as I have no interest in the levelling content (I do want to see how the Paladin heals 5 mans and raids).  Guild finished the Rogue legendary dagger two weeks back, so we may go back and finish the Firelands legendary staff next.  Have been trying to clear off some grindy achievements in the down time – still have not found a useful BOE in archeaology.

TERA MMORPG – not going to touch this one, can we please have real armour for females in games?

Secret World MMORPG – looks interesting, modern day occult horror, but dear god where would I find the time!

World of Tanks – upgraded to a premium account, changed play away from acquiring new tanks to focusing on the ones I have that are fun to play – trying to get crew skills to 100%. So while I have researched the SU-14 for example, I’m still happy playing the SU-8 as my artillery piece.  Patch 7.3 has rejigged the Soviet tree, so I’m going to have to relearn how to play the KVs – the 152mm “derp” howitzer has been shifted from the KV 1 to the KV2.

Guild Wars 2 – still looking forward to this after reading more beta info, as a non-subscription MMORPG its one that will be easy to play for just a few hours every now and then.

SWTOR – got bounty hunter healer to L40, enjoying healing much more than tanking, deep down I still prefer WoW.


Xmas Game – Adapting Republic of Rome

November 6, 2011

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.