10 Megagame Concepts

June 12, 2016

Here are ten concept outlines for different megagame scenarios. Some are revamps of games I have run in the past, others are new. I am posting these so I can get a sense of what sounds interesting to potential players, so expressions of “like” and “dislike” would both be useful.

I am also making a decision to “pivot” and “rebrand”. In the past I have called these “Grand Strategy” games, often shortened to “Grand Strat” by the Buckets of Dice crowd. The world wide success of Jim Wallman’s Watch the Skies game leads me to think I should adopt what appears to be the global brand name, in order to boost recognition and hopefully attract a few more players.

1. Warring States

This is a historical scenario, set in the Warring States period of Chinese history, from roughly 320 to 220 BCE. I once ran a play-by-mail game of Diplomacy set in this period of history, so I have done some of the needed research in the past. During this era seven major kingdoms competed to be the first to unify the land that became known as China. It was a time of great development in literature, philosophy, technology, economic and military affairs. At the start of the game, armies would be small and based on chariot borne nobles supported by poor infantry. As the game progresses, cavalry, crossbows, iron weapons, and mass conscript armies would be developed.

EN-WarringStatesAll260BCEKey elements of this game:

  1. Combat resolution will be inspired by Sun Zi’s Art of War, i.e. it will rely strongly on psychological factors and bluffing.
  2. Kingdoms will have to make tradeoffs between trying to expand the territory they control, and trying to develop their Kingdom – the surplus from the rice harvest will only go so far
  3. At the start of the game, changes to the map state can only be done by the King (team leader) but only if one of their advisors (other team members) recommends the move. As the Kingdom develops, new developments will allow more options for map interactions. For example, developing professional generals will allow advisors to move armies on the map.
  4. Diplomacy is crucial to success.

2. Sun and Starship II

This is a revamp of the 2012 Buckets of Dice game, and on a theme I have used several times before. It is a space opera scenario in which noble houses in a great space empire compete for power, wealth and glory, while pirates and warlords gnaw away at the borders of the empire. Most (80%) of the players will be nobles organised in teams and some (20%) will be independent “raiders”. Noble team goal is to gain control of the empire, all players are trying to get the most wealth, and glory (from combat victories).

2000px-Spaceship_and_Sun_emblem.svgKey elements of this game:

  1. universal basic income – every player gets $1 of game currency per minute of game time
  2. to represent the decadence of the Empire, whoever is currently Emperor (and a few of their friends) will have access to a table of food and drink
  3. nobles will alternate between time in committee meetings, team meetings, diplomacy and the map, raiders will spend nearly all their time on the map or diplomacy
  4. rather than one committee, there will be seven committees with the following broad functions: Justice – $ fines for nobles. Trade – creates new movement and trade routes on the map. Colonies – appoints/recalls sector governors. Intelligence – determines which “Black Swan” events occur next. Atomic Power – provides the atomic power that makes Dreadnoughts awesome. Defence – appoints/recalls fleet Admirals. Apparatus – screws around with the other committees.
  5. combat will be based on a “bucket of dice” resolution: Battleships roll 1d6 each. Dreadnoughts roll 1d12 per point of atomic power spent. The side with the highest score wins. Battleships with matching die rolls in your fleet are eliminated as casualties (yes, this hurts the stronger side more). Dreadnoughts are never destroyed – they just go to the repair yard for a length of time based on battle damage.

3. Fall of the Elder

This is a new fantasy scenario with teams of elves, dwarves, humans and individual dragons. The different Kingdoms are competing for magic, gold, and land. It is based on the 1970s boardgame “the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”. The elves and dwarves start with all the good farming land under their control and control most of the ancient fortresses. Humans start in the miserable wastelands, where the dragons also dwell.

Roberts_Siege_and_Destruction_of_Jerusalem

Key elements of gameplay:

  1. 20 minutes of gameplay represents roughly twenty years of gametime
  2. the elves score points for accumulating magic power (and not using it)
  3. the humans score points for gaining land and breeding more humans
  4. the dwarves score points for accumulating gold (and not spending it)
  5. Dragons score points for eating elves, dwarves and humans, stealing their stuff and destroying anything they can’t eat or steal. You can think of them as 100 ton vultures.
  6. heroes are important, Elves train heroes with magic, Dwarves buy heroes with gold, Humans find heroes when they are defeated, and Dragons … well, they are more anti-heroes.

4. Operation Unthinkable

This is a new alternate history scenario based on the actual British plan to attack the USSR in July 1945, following the defeat of Nazi Germany. Teams are based on the combatant nations at the time (USSR, USA, UK, and France). Most (80%) of the players will be military officers working at the Army level with the other players filling political, naval, or air command roles.

Marcia_nel_fangoKey game elements

  1. this will be a double blind map system, i.e. the teams will have maps in different rooms, and will have limited information on enemy dispositions (fog of war)
  2. the game will last from midsummer 1945 to early winter 1945
  3. army officers will have one of three roles: logistics – making sure the army has enough supplies, intelligence – team communications, command – making attack/defence decisions
  4. air command chooses between battling for air superiority, ground support, or strategic attacks on logistics
  5. yes, the allies will get the nuclear option (at a cost of VP)
  6. the game will focus primarily on the front in north Germany, other theatres of operations (e.g. Italy, Japan, Greece, Iran) will be handled in an abstract manner.

5. The Crescent Stars

This is a new space opera scenario, set in a future where humanity has colonised the stars but is just as disorganised as it was on Earth. The main teams are the Solar Union Colonial Committee, the trading Combines, and the Comitas (the free traders). Independent players are the mercenary captains and the system Dictators. The Solar Union tries to maintain peace and stability while encouraging free trade, while everyone else is trying to make money and gain power over the booming sector trade.

Artist’s_Impression_of_a_Baby_Star_Still_Surrounded_by_a_Protoplanetary_DiscKey game elements:

  1. rather than trading cards, trade deals require the signatures of the players who control the systems the trade route requires. Each trade deal is worth a fixed sum of cash, split between the signatories in an agreed way. Each trade deal has a time limit within which is must be successfully negotiated.
  2. As the game develops new movement and trade routes appear
  3. universal basic income (see above)
  4. the combat system will involve very small numbers of units (not more than a dozen tokens per side) and a conflict between two systems should be resolved in under ten minutes through a card play system
  5. technological research.

6. The Colossus of Atlantis II

This is a bronze age steampunk Cthulhu mythos fantasy game, first run in 2010. At the start of the game the players are all members of an Atlantean noble House, as it starts to use its superior technology to conquer the world. Atlantis being Atlantis, corruption will set in and eventually doom will fall on Atlantis.

Atlantis_map_1882_crop

Key game elements:

  1. robust Athenian style Greek politics (this time we will make sure the democratic constitution cannot be destroyed by the players at the first assembly meeting)
  2. profiting from trade routes, using the negotiation system outlined in Crescent Stars (see above)
  3. universal basic income (as above)
  4. technological research with the goal of building the best giant bronze colossus to smash your way across the landscape
  5. occult research with the goal of summoning the best eldritch horror to devour your enemies with.

7. Pax Victoria II/Flower Power II

SAMSUNGThese are retro-future grand strategy battles for fantasy worlds with World War I to World War II technology. The main change from earlier games is to greatly reduce the number of units, for each player on your team you should only have 2-5 units to keep track of, and to place more of an emphasis on sea power.

Key game elements:

  1. alliance diplomacy and coalition warfare
  2. making tradeoffs between importing off-world technology or mercenaries, and developing you economy or expanding your own military.

8. Crusades II

Revisiting a scenario last used in the 1990s, its a medieval holy war to liberate/defend the sacred sites of several major religions. Within each broad coalition of coreligionists are smaller teams that have their own goals and hidden agendas.

Key game elements:

  1. diplomacy and arguing about religious doctrine
  2. trading spice and sacred relics
  3. rare and relatively important battles, as big armies are fragile
  4. lots of sieges and raiding
  5. limited information about where the enemy armies are (so lots of opportunity for selling information and double crossing).

9. Revelations

And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.

A modern day apocalypse with the armies of Heaven and Hell fighting it out over what is left of humanity. Humans can pick a side or go it alone. Did I mention the zombie hordes? Yes, there will be zombie hordes. Learning from the 2011 Apocalypse America game, the economy will not collapse in turn one and leaders should be able to feed their armies for a while.

John_Martin_-_The_Great_Day_of_His_Wrath_-_Google_Art_ProjectKey game elements:

  1. as much gonzo pop culture kitsch as we can cram in
  2. resource scarcity, supplies are unreliable and will be fought over
  3. the map of Earth will be global, but the landscape will have been altered by various disasters and calamities
  4. the number of combat units will be kept at a manageable number (2-5 per player)
  5. to represent the scale of mundane, divine and infernal powers, a polyhedral dice pool “roll and keep best two” combat system will be used, e.g. if ordinary three human armies roll d6s and two Angels roll d12s you might roll a 3, 5, and a 6 for the humans and a 2 and 12 for the Angels, so you keep the rolls of 6 and 12 for a total of 18.

10. The Cold Stars

…the cold stars shone in mockery… – Mary Shelley

This is a bleak post-apocalyptic space opera. Humanity colonised the stars, but then something happened to sweep away most of human civilisation. The survivors hide in deep space or hidden outposts, because they know they are being hunted.

Alcyon_(star)Key game elements:

  1. isolation – this is a limited information game, with different teams being placed in different rooms
  2. exploration – if you make contact with other human survivors, you can start talking with them again, if they don’t kill you first
  3. hidden information, while the broad shape of the map will be clear, small boxes will be used to conceal information
  4. trade – everyone has a clue in the great puzzle, and everyone has something useful for survival, but every trade you make increases the chance that the hunters will find you
  5. the combat system is based on avoiding combat – whatever is hunting humanity has more advanced technology and outnumbers humanity a million to one.
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The Core Problem

January 6, 2015

On the way to work this morning, I started reading the Complete Kobold Guide to Game Design.  While the book has a roleplaying game focus, many of its concepts translate over well into designing a boardgame.  The fifth chapter “Seize the Hook” by Rob Heinsoo had three useful nuggets of advice:

  1. Design a game you want to play but can’t because no one else has designed it yet.
  2. Don’t be satisfied with your design until you’ve found the key mechanical hook that captures the game’s theme, creating an experience that’s something like the experience being portrayed in your game.
  3. Understand and follow through on the full implications of your game’s mechanical hook.

Design a game you want to play but can’t because no one else has designed it yet.

I want to play a game about the decline and fall of a Galactic Empire, and I have not seen a game that really captures what I want, although some come close.

The strongest influences on my original conception, are the “Foundation” novels by Isaac Asimov, the Long Night in the Traveller RPG, other classic SF titles like Poul Anderson’s “Dominic Flandry” novels, and some geopolitics theory I was studying for fun at the tail end of my Masters degree.  While for years I called my game design project “Housewar”, of late I now call it “Sun and Starship”, a play on the “Spaceship-and-Sun” emblem of Asimov’s Galactic Empire.  As a lot of the SF concepts were drawn on real world historical examples, I added to my reading with scholarly discussion of the fall of ancient civilisations. Adrian Goldsworthy’s book “How Rome Fell” was important here. It focused on the surviving sources, and the role of minions in brutally murdering weak Emperors when it looked like their pensions were threatened. Great history, but a game in which the key players are killed by NPCs is unlikely to find a wide market.

Don’t be satisfied with your design until you’ve found the key mechanical hook that captures the game’s theme, creating an experience that’s something like the experience being portrayed in your game

Years of trial and error have shown me that trying to build a game on declining resources is hard. Its difficult because shrinking resources is not fun for players. They see the pie getting smaller every turn, but the struggle to tell if their share of the remaining pie is bigger or smaller than their rivals.  Some of the main mechanic styles I have tried include:

  • event-card/action choice driven mechanics, like “We the People” and “Paths of Glory” (which were too random)
  • Cabinet games with bouts of warfare, like “Junta” and “Republic of Rome” (which took too damn long)
  • home-brew systems ranging from the minimalist (half-a-dozen counters per player) to monster games with a thousand counters, that often tried to be an economic game, a military game, and a political game, and did all three quite badly.

Nothing ever quite seemed to work, either because it was too reliant on random events, or because a necessary part of the game, the “who is the Emperor” sub-game, dominated the rest of the game and excluded a lot of potential strategies for game play. It boiled down to “if you are not Emperor, you are losing”.

So now I have a clear conception of a key mechanic, which is that rather than a random event causing a point of downwards decline, a player action will cause a point of decline, triggering a random event that adds some colour to the game.  I have found two ways of doing this:

  • making it desirable to build expensive special power “Dreadnoughts” in an arms race dynamic where players cannot afford to be left behind, with each Dreadnought build causing decline
  • requiring the player who is Emperor to push the Decline along a little (or a lot) each time they take an action turn

I also need to accept that I can’t make a 2-3 hour game be all things to all people. This means sacrificing a lot of the chrome that had remained with the game for years (such as Decadence auction bids and “Blame” games for attacking other player’s Glory scores).

Understand and follow through on the full implications of your game’s mechanical hook.

I think they key to expressing the theme, is that the Galactic Empire is going to collapse, and it is going to collapse due to the player’s actions. This means that for the game’s design to work, it has to reliably deliver a collapsed Galactic Empire, a complete wreck of civilisation, not just a half-empty ruin. This collapse also needs to clearly relate to actions done by the players during the game, and these actions should be logical for the players to do, not forced on them unwillingly. Most of the mechanics I have tried over the years could not deliver the full collapse in a reasonable playing time.

The Core problem

No matter how I build a game map, if the Core is a key VP spot, then blocking access is a way to make other players lose. This defeat is usually clear mid-game, and feeling like you cannot win is not fun (the only thing less fun is being completely eliminated from the game and having to watch the other players fight on for two hours to determine who actually wins).

One way around this, is to connect the Core to every other part of the map.  From this I make the intuitive leap, is a 2-D map the best way to chart a 3-D space empire?  If I recall some reading I did years ago, for 3-D mapping, a sphere of space can generally accommodate 12 similar sized spheres around it (think of oranges in a big net bag). Trying to represent this simply in a 2-D map is difficult. I did have one map version with eight adjacent sectors to the core sector, but even then 2-3 players generally ended up controlling all eight access points. It just seemed like an iron law of geopolitics, any fixed node of importance could not sustain multiple factions in adjacent power projection positions.

I tried a lot of variations of map + senate games (mixes of Junta and republic of Rome) where a political sub-game could change who controlled the Core. While this worked to an extent, it increased both complexity and the time to play the game. It also had the problem that I never had to change adjacent territorial control – so after a political change in Emperor, one of the adjacent military powers would “restore order” in the Imperial Capital.

Another option was to increase the number of VP scoring sectors, but trying this led to players avoiding the core, leaving it under one player’s control for the bulk of the game. Its easier to defend remote provinces with limited points of movement access, then it is to defend core nodes with large networks of connections.  More recently I have been trying to increase both the sources of VP, and the quantity of VP sourced through them. But as my last playtest showed, even a passive gain of +1 VP per turn, in a game where 100 VP was required to win, cascaded into a 30 point VP lead by the time we were half-way through the game.

The King of Tokyo Solution

In King of Tokyo, you are either a giant monster in Tokyo, or not (but want to be as soon as you kick the current “King of the Hill” out). It makes for an amazingly simple game board. A bit simpler than I want for my theme, but I think I can work something like this:

  • the only permanent map space is the Imperial Capital, the Core sector of the Galactic Empire
  • the player who is Emperor, occupies this Core sector, until kicked out, or they choose to flee into exile
  • two related mechanisms will encourage change of the throne, first, the reigning Emperor cannot collect Power to do further actions, once they exhaust their power they should abandon the Core sector, and secondly, the other players have an option to “Plot”, that will over time escalate their effective strength for an attack on the Core to a point where an easy victory is probable
  • now I still want lots of combat and battle fleets elsewhere, but I think I can handle the map through a deck building exercise, by saying each card is a sector in space, connected to other sectors by wormhole tunnels … and that part of the decline theme is that wormhole tunnels eventually collapse, removing those linked sector map cards from the game. So as the game develops, the players will be desperately expanding into new map cards, trying not to have major forces in a sector when civilisation collapses there.

Next Steps

The next step here, is to do a bunch of mathematics around how many actions I expect players to do in 2-3 hours, and setting a Glory scoring mechanism that fits the bill. Having decks of cards potentially helps me scale the game to the number of players, by reducing the deck size to match lesser numbers of players. I also need to go check out a lot more board game design discussion forums. This is something I have neglected in recent years, and as the summary at the end of this article on game design makes clear, there is a lot more out there these days than Consimworld!


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.

Sun and Starship Playtest

October 19, 2014

Managed to get a playtest done for my boardgame design on Friday night. After a last minute cancellation due to health, we had three players, and completed the game in four and a half hours.

Some things worked very well, especially the Dreadnought construction mechanic and the way it interacted with the Decline & Fall of the Galactic Empire. Combat mostly worked, although there was an issue with “pure victory” not giving enough of a benefit to the winner. The game flow was about what I expected, early expansion, combat when the empty space for easy expansion ran out, a pause, then further fighting, a pause for a round of monument building, and then a quick descent into the abyss of the endgame.

Housewar Playtest 002

The Blame/Decadence mechanic did not work well. Partly due to an early Rotten to the Core event that removed Blame from Corruption in the Atomic Power collection phase, and partly due to there not being enough sources of Blame. So next playtest I will add more options for acquiring and manipulating blame.

The players mainly stayed with 10-15 Glory points of each other, which seems to justify a high glory score model, and they reached Glory scores of 50-60 by the time the End Game was triggered.

The players collected 197 Atomic Power during the game, and spent 53 Atomic Power on Dreadnoughts (roughly 27%). Only two of the 14 Dreadnoughts built in the game were destroyed prior to the endgame.

The Fall Track was at 12 after the second turn, 10 after the third turn, 6 after the fourth turn, and the endgame was triggered in the 5th turn.  So it declined at about the expected rate.  Atomic Power inflation did occur, and this makes the later turns slower, so I may think of reasons to have big power sinks to speed play a little. The playtest did show that becoming powerless was a bad move, running out of power before the other players made you quite vulnerable to raids on your territory.

Housewar Playtest 015

The endgame was a three way civil war, largely fought between a coalition of Blue and Yellow versus Orange (which included the Purple Imperial Battleships). Orange fought quite well, but really couldn’t outlast the determined attrition of two players. At the end Blue had two Dreadnoughts left and Yellow had three Pirates. In a four player game, it would have been much riskier for two players to go all out against the Last Emperor, as the fourth player could sit on the sidelines.

On the whole, the design feels very promising. I’ll be making some tweaks and trying to get another playtest done in the next few weeks.


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.


Sun & Starship Mechanics (draft)

January 17, 2012

Combat

Combat is initiated by an active player at a map table moving their Fleet into a sector containing a Hostile Fleet. The Game Master draws Combat Cards until a card is drawn that grants one player a victory.  The number and type of cards drawn up to and including the final Combat Card determine the casualties both sides take, and any damage to the Sector’s Atomic Power or Capital Dice.

The following Combat Cards exist:

  • Win if greater number of Ships (x2)
  • Win if greater number of Tech (x2)
  • Win if double+ number of Ships (x2)
  • Win if double+ number of Tech (x2)
  • Win if Dynasty Faction (x1)
  • Win if Rebel Faction (x1)
  • Win if House Faction (x5 one for each House)
  • Stalemate: no winner, draw again (x1)

I did consider having Fleet types (Raider, Cruiser, Mauler etc) or Stances (Assault, Siege, Defend etc) but I think that just adds unneeded complexity.

If the two Fleets do not have matching Ship or Tech strength, then 10 of the 16 cards will decide the battle on the first card draw.  If the two Fleets have equal strength in Ships and Tech, then only two of the 16 cards can decide the battle, and either side has a 50/50 chance of winning.  If you outnumber an opponent in both Ships and Tech, you have a 56.25% chance of winning the battle on the first card draw, compared to the opposing Fleet’s 6.25% chance.

I’ll have to make sure in the initial setup that Fleets have different Ship/Tech strength values, to avoid the first few battles being like the Somme.

Casualties:

  • Ship card: lose one or two Ship strength (on two Ship loss a Capital Die is destroyed)
  • Tech card: lose one or two Tech strength (on two Tech loss an Atomic Power is destroyed)
  • Faction Card: winner gains one Ship strength from the loser
  • Stalemate: both Fleets lose one Ship and one Tech strength, Sector loses one Atomic Power and one Capital Die

The maximum number of cards that can be drawn is 15, as once there are only two cards remaining, one of those two cards must be a Faction card for one of the Fleets.

A possibility is that as the game develops, the mix of Faction cards could be changed.  For example, if you slowly add in Rebel faction cards, this dramatically increases the chances of a Rebel victory, even when the Imperial Fleets may outnumber them strengthwise.  For example, if you add four Rebel Faction cards to the deck, then five of the 20 cards result in rebel victory (25% chance).

Another possible twist, is to have the Rebel faction card in Imperial battles indicate that one Ship has deserted to the closest Rebel Fleet.

Trade Mechanics

I am leaning away from using something like Civilization trade cards, mainly because of the maths involved.  What I am contemplating instead, is acquiring a large number of coloured tiddlywink counters, or beads.  A few hundred in half-a-dozen colours should be enough.

Trade counters spawn in Map sectors, where they can be harvested by players.  Once harvested they can be traded.  Towards the end of each game turn, the Operations GM will hold a quick auction.  The player with the most of each trade colour can win one auction.  Other players hoard their tokens for future turns.

The auctions are for beanies, special resource cards useful in Map Operations or other parts of the game.

If a trade colour is banned, then it stops spawning on the Maps.  Auctions will continue for it, so prohibited trade tokens become quite valuable.

Sector Economy

Still changing my mind on this frequently.  Sectors have two key resources Atomic Power (ATOM) and Capital Dice (CD).  CD are six sided, with the number on the die indicating its current value.

A sector can have a maximum of six CD and 20 ATOM.  Minimum is zero.

ATOM cannot move.  CD can be moved between adjacent sectors.  Each move reduces the value of the CD by one.

In the interphase, the Map GM will roll all the CD in each sector, “refreshing” their values (effective players will have spent their capital and reduced their CDs down to value 1).

Any CD that has a ‘1’ value after being rolled is removed from the sector.  Note: if a sector has the six CD maximum, it should lose one CD per interphase.  A bout of bad luck with a burst of ‘1’s indicates a local recession or depression.

The total value of the CD is quickly added together.  if greater than the current ATOM in the sector, the sector gains +1 ATOM.  if there are no CD left, the sector loses -1 ATOM.  Then add some trade tokens.  This will need to be done ten times for each Map.

During the game turn:

  • ATOM can be spent to build CD
  • CD can be spent to build Ship and Tech strength for Fleets

This is designed to be a steady state economy.  Barring external disruption, players should be able to maintain their CD and ATOM in sectors, while replacing damage to their Fleets.  Recovering from collateral damage from Fleet battles is hard.  There will be options elsewhere in the game (Trade beanies, Senate Bills) that can boost sectors back up.

Note: ATOM is what Factions score Victory Points for at the end of the game, so they have a strong incentive to maintain that resource (or to burn that which is held by other players).

Raiding

This requires two full player actions.  The first is an attack on the sector.  The second action (assuming the attack was successful) can be to either move the CD out, or to spend the CD.

Jump Keys

I am thinking of giving each player a random Jump Key.  Each Key is tied to one specific sector on one of the three game maps.  The Jump Key can be used once per turn to move a Fleet from anywhere in the game to that sector.  Players can buy and sell their Jump Keys.

Senate

I am now considering making the resource that Treasury controls be the number of Bills that can be submitted by the other Committees, rather than another version/source of Atomic Power.  A limit of ten Bills per turn, at least one must be allocated for each Committee.  if the Budget fails, then each Committee gets only one Bill as the crisis paralyses the Imperial Government.  I’m hoping to find 2-3 useful functions for each of the five Committees:

  • Treasury Committee: Budget
  • Honours Committee: award Status to players, nominate players to Committees
  • Defence: change Fleet commands, Emperor Mandated Offensives (EMOs)
  • Colonial: grants ATOM to sectors, tax sectors, change Sector commands
  • Security: espionage operations, regulate trade, removes players from Committees.

Buckets of Dice Grand Strategy Game – Player Roles

January 8, 2012

State of my thinking on the Buckets Grand Strategy game for 2012.

Players and Teams

Players will have a choice of playing with the large team, in a small team, or solitaire.

The large team is the Imperial Dynasty, a group of immortal clone princes/princesses.  The clone schtick means they can be assassinated, but back in the game five minutes later after their memories have been loaded up into a detanked body.  Goal wise the Dynasty wants to preserve the status quo (they rule the Galactic Empire), so that victory is based on Status.  Team size, about a third of the players.

The small teams are the Noble Houses, and the Enemies of the Empire.  Team size, 3-5 players.

Solitaire roles need to be handled carefully.  Some people could be observers (journalists/historians) with a social role outside of the main game system – perhaps with some ability to influence Status.  Any solo role with real power, however, is going to have to be able to deal with the fact that for the entire game the team based players will be either (a) attempting to suborn them into their faction or (b) attempting to eliminate them.  A solo player with a fleet is vulnerable in a way that a team fleet admiral is not, because they have no one else to back them up and resupply them if they get unlucky (or I make the games rules massively favour solo player recovery from disasters).

I am thinking that rather than having player pirates, we could have NPC pirates/aliens/etc.  have a new fleet spawn each turn on the maps for the players to deal with.

Player Roles

All players should have at least one role in the mechanics of the game.  Novice players should stick to one role, experienced players should choose two roles.  A player could choose more, but they will run into the issue of being required in multiple places at the same time.  So while they may get to do more stuff, they will not be as good as players with one or two roles.  There is some scope for people to volunteer for GM NPC roles in the game.

Admiral: command a force of warships (map game).

Merchant: can trade commodities in the Trade Pit.

Senator: can vote in the Senate and take part in Senate Committees.

Agent: can do espionage, status games.

Governor: can administer territory (map game).

Leader: for a team.

A team should probably try and have at least one of each role covered by a team member.

Player Attributes

This time around, I am going to avoid giving people special power cards.  I’m not convinced they worked well in my last few games.  I am still thinking about how to have an assassination mechanic that doesn’t suck.

Cash: banknotes held by the player.  I’m thinking of having two currencies, a game map one, and a player one, with game currency being convertible into player currency, but not vice versa.  This allows me to have player gambling, without it risking the map game being broken.

Status: these are victory point chits held by players and can be traded between players, with some mechanics allowing players to take them from other players.

Loyalty: this is chosen by the player when they register for the game.  A high loyalty indicates that it will be difficult for the player to refuse orders from the Emperor, or to rebel.  A player with low loyalty, will have more freedom, but might also be executed or forced to rebel early in the game.

The Senate

The senate will do a very limited number of things:

(1) Ratify bills from Senate Committees.

(2) Confirm membership of Senate Committees (5-7 players).

I am tempted to make the secretariat role for the Senate a GM/NPC role, in order to get Senate business done without filibusters.  So what are the Senate committees and what do they do?

(A) Treasury: proposes the budget for the other Senate Committees, but does not directly spend any funds itself.

(B) Trade: can regulate the conduct of traders and trade in commodities

(C) Colonial Affairs: can regulate the conduct of governors and the administration of sectors

(D) Military: can regulate the conduct of Admirals and initiate EMOs (Emperor Mandated Offensives) that allow Core Fleet ships to be used in the outer provinces.

(E) Security: can investigate loyalty, and punish players not following rules established by other committees (i.e. its up to the players, not the GMs, to enforce all imperial regulations).

A limit on player/committee action here will be a finite number of forms released for use every twenty minutes by the Imperial Civil Service (another GM NPC role).

Combat

Will be diceless.  The intent behind this is to speed map play up.  Combat resolution requires the GM to consult a chart.  Each map table will have a different set of charts, with a new chart being used every twenty minutes or so.  The combat process will be something like:

(1) Player A declares they are attacking Player B in Sector Y with Fleet Z.

(2) GM grabs the Combat Results Chart (CRT) and counts down to the row for this battle (i.e. the first battle uses row one, the second battle uses row two, the tenth battle uses row 10, and so on).

(3) The GM reads across the chart columns until a column entry determines a win.  This could be determined by:

  • Fleet Type (a paper-scissors-rock matrix)
  • Most Battle Ships (Usually greater than to win, but sometimes x2 or x3)
  • Most Atomic Power (as above)

So on one row victory may be determined by checking Fleet Type then Ships then Power, the following row could be Power then Fleet then Ships, and the third row could be the same or a different combination again.  We will want to use clip boards with flip open covers for the CRT, so its hard for a player to accidentally read the CRT (our players of course would not deliberately look at the CRT…)

(4) The GM reads across to the Winner/Loser columns, and applies the outcomes there to the two sides, and any damage to the sector.

A couple of things I plan to do with the charts.  First, the more combats in a Map each turn, the greater the damage to sectors caused by combat (disruption of trade, etc).  Second, as the game progresses, the combat results grow more hideous for all participants (representing the absolute trend in warfare towards a final conclusion).

Trade

Looking at imitating the classic Civilisation boardgame system.  So most trade goods are useful, but there will be some bad cards no one wants to be holding at the end of each trade round.