Pax Vicky: Iteration, Iteration, Iteration

January 24, 2013

Successful game design requires iteration.  Iteration requires you to recognise that your brilliant  idea is not going to work, and then coming up with a new brilliant idea. Which probably won’t work either, but at least it feels like progress!

Pax Victoria is going through an iteration process, as I turn several interlocking sets of mechanics over in my mind.  They key mechanics I need to cover are:

(1) Pre-game grand strategy formulation and its flow through impact onto all choices made in game

(2) An attrition based land combat system (i.e. its a meat grinder system if both sides are evenly matched)

(3) A maneuver based naval combat system (i.e. one which often results in no battle at all, or a decisive victory/defeat)

(4) “Twitter Diplomacy” – all written agreements must be done in 140 characters or less

(5) An economics/logistics system to allow units to be built/replaced and to track economic fatigue and eventual economic collapse.

I’m well into my third  iteration for all except the diplomacy rules.  For the second iteration I made my usual mistake of creating a dice game, and after a couple of happy days of meshing all the synergies together, I remembered what a PITA it is for GMs to spend time sorting dice and figuring out if a roll was good/bad hit/miss critical/boring and then implementing it in game.  So I took the numbers and underlying math and turned them into a card game of sorts.

For a World War One style game I am influenced by various history books and Great War boardgames that I have played, especially Ted Racier’s Paths of Glory.  So there a few key features I want to represent:

  1. Railway networks and supply lines are important. Industrial armies cannot survive by living off the land. If their supply line is cut they collapse quickly.
  2. Cavalry units are largely ineffective, unless a gap is created for them, or their opponents are weak.
  3. Artillery is the Queen of the battlefield – it was responsible for far more lives lost than the machinegun
  4. Fortresses are situationally powerful. Build them in the right place and they work like magic, build them in the wrong place and watch the enemy ignore them.
  5. Mobilisation of reserve forces is important.
  6. Enveloping units on multiple flanks, or pressing on all sides of a salient, is a tactically strong move.
  7. In a battle of resources, it makes strategic sense for an economically powerful country to focus on attrition, while a militarily powerful nation will be striving for the “Short, victorious war” beloved of politicians down through the ages.

So I have roughly six types of units with the following qualities:

  • a movement rate of zero to two hexes
  • a strength rating of zero to six
  • a range rating of zero to two hexes
  • a stamina rating of zero to two.

Guards

A Guards unit is an elite infantry unit. These will be limited in number.

Full Strength (5) Stamina (1)

Half Strength (2) Stamina (2)

Guards units are tough, the only unit at reduced strength with a strength greater than one, and the only unit with a stamina of two for a glorious last stand around the regimental colours.

Artillery

Artillery is a support unit. Like Guards, Artillery will be in short supply.

Full Strength (6) Stamina (0)

Half Strength (1) Stamina (1)

Special Ability: Because there will only be one unit in most hexes, artillery contribute their strength to any battle within two hexes of the hex they occupy.

Special Weakness: Artillery are the strongest land unit in the game, but at full strength they have a stamina of zero, so if involved in combat they must automatically flip to half strength.  This will make it hard to sustain attacks, as sooner or later you will need to resupply your artillery units back to full strength to keep attacking.

Regular

The standard army unit, no special abilities or features, other than being the most common unit on the map.  All nations will have a similar number of Regular units.

Full Strength (4) Stamina (1)

Half Strength (1) Stamina (1)

Reserve

Reserve units do not start the game on the map. They must be built during the game.  Nations will have very different reserve force pools, based on their grand strategy.  Effectively a weaker version of the Regular unit, but cheaper to build, and in quantity they have their own quality.

Full Strength (3) Stamina (1)

Half Strength (1) Stamina (1)

Cavalry

The last of the limited number elite units, Cavalry are good for rapid advances against light opposition or exploiting gaps in weak defensive lines.  Attacking solid defences, not so good.

Full Strength (2) Stamina (1)

Half Strength (1) Stamina (1)

Special Ability: If a gap is created in the enemy lines to the green fields beyond, cavalry units can move to the gap, and then onwards one hex into vacant enemy territory.

Headquarters

A Headquarters (HQ) is a supply source. If attacked in combat it collapses as Generals flee for safety. It counts as a Rail hex, so if you form a continuous chain of HQs you can carry supplies deep into the wilderness, or use the HQ line to bring reinforcements into the campaign.

Strength (0) Stamina (0)

Fortress

A strong defensive unit that is immobile. Good for defending cities, railway junctions, or key border crossings.

Full Strength (6) Stamina (+1)

Half Strength (3) Stamina (+1)

Special Abilities: (1) Acts like an artillery unit for support, but does not flip. (2) Can have a garrison unit stacked with it (3) Increase the Stamina of any garrison unit by +1 (4) Acts as source of supply for its Hex (5) Counts as a rail hex.

So those are the units.  Apart from Forts, I am keen to avoid any kind of stacking on the map, single counters are far faster to count and so will help players make good informed decisions in less time.

As for the crunchy bit of combat, after playing around with die rolls and realising that would be too hard I thought about a system where you pulled one card from a deck per stamina point the defending unit has.  Today I had the brainwave that it would be faster to pre-print cards with multiple entries for Stamina-1, Stamina-2, Stamina-3 etc.  Each Stamina line has a number, which is the total strength the combined attacking units require to defeat the defender and force a retreat.  Each line will be 1-10 strength, average of 6, accumulating over the lines.  So if attacking a Regular unit (Stamina 1), if you draw a card and get six on the Stamina-1 line, then if you are attacking with only a Guards unit (Strength 5) you fail, but if attacking with two Reserve Units (Strength 3 x 2 =6) you succeed.

Units would get a +1 stamina bonus for defending beaches, cities, mountains or rivers.

The defending unit is always reduced in strength by the attack, unless the card has a symbol indicating that the defender does not flip (I’m thinking of having this on about 10% of the cards).

The attacker flips a number of units equal to the defender’s stamina, plus all supporting artillery.  I may have symbols on a few cards (10-30% of the deck perhaps) indicating that elite units have their effective strength increased, perhaps even doubled, for that battle.  So while overall outcomes are predictable, there is enough variation to keep it interesting.

So how do you win a land war in the Southeast Colonies?

1. Attack reduced strength or stamina 0 units, with full strength units.   A destroyed unit costs more to build than a half strength unit costs to reinforce.

2. Envelop or surround a unit so you can attack with 3+ units, increasing your strength to guarantee a forced retreat. If you keep taking a hex a turn, after a few turns you will be in their capital city.

3. Use overwhelming force, Guard units supported by artillery can smash through on a narrow one hex front if the defender does not have stamina boosting terrain, Strength 5 + Strength 6 = Strength 11 total versus a maximum of Strength 10 on the One Stamina line of a Battle card.

4. Bloody Attrition, from a position of economic strength attack with expendable units so that you create a situation where (1) is possible.

5. Counterattack, wait for them to attack you when you are in stamina boosting terrain, then counterattack while they are weak.

Both 1 and 5 are going to depend a on when teams draw their logistic chits (the number of which you have are determined by pre-game grand strategy choices). Its going to be nerve wracking to see if the reinforcements arrive in time for the big push, or whether you signal to home that its been delayed by mud.

Next Steps

I need to ponder the naval combat design for a while longer, but I can probably do a post soon on how I see the pre-game Grand Strategy choices working.  I also need to do some thinking on the economics.  I found some economic analysis of GDP figures in World War One recently, and while the USA and UK had GDP growth during the war, all the other great powers lost a large chunk of GDP, despite massive increases in the government share of GDP.  So while a wartime economy works, more or less, it does not create an infinite supply train of resources, so I suspect peak wartime strength might only be around 20% above fully mobilised pre-war strength.

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Decline & Fall Part I: Failure

October 30, 2010

In the 15 odd years I have been tinkering with my ideas for a Decline & Fall of the Galactic Empire game, I have accumulated a lot of failed designs. This is not a bad thing. I learnt a lot from my failures, and most of the time I had fun along the way.

The original inspiration was to come up with a game around the bits I found interesting in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels. This in turned was inspired by the historical events of the fall of the Roman Empire. I did not find the Foundation itself too interesting, it was always the description of the Empire in decline that captivated me, and once the Empire fell and its capital of Trantor was sacked, the rest of the novels held little interest for me. Over the years I found quite a few other books with similar themes, and the artwork of Michael Whelan was pretty inspiring as well.

My original design intent was to create a multiplayer boardgame, that could be finished in an afternoon, was balanced (in that good play would be rewarded, victory required some skill and luck, but so that you had not obviously lost the game before it was half-finished), and that at the end of which the players could survey the debris and wreckage of the Galactic Empire and know, as Seth (a frequent playtester) put it, “That it was all their fault.”

There were many valiant failures. Over the years I have filled close to 4 rubbish sacks with cardboard counters from different design iterations of what the players nicknamed “Housewar” (a reference to an epic hand moderated SF play-by-mail game I had run from 1990-1993). Sometimes I managed to get a few of the design goals right, other times my prototpes were a shambles from beinning to end. I will go through as many of them as I can remember:

(1) A Fleet of a 1,000 Ships: this early version had a big map, a random event deck, and many, many ship counters which had 4-5 variables of strength and quality. In play, the players formed great towering stacks of ships, but avoided combat as the concentrated fleets were both too powerful and too vulnerable.

(2) Paths of Glory: captivated by the World War One card-driven strategy game designed by Ted Racier, I began experimenting with games that focused on cards that let a player choose between an action from a set menu of game actions or an event on the card, or a mixture of both. The problems I ran into were the difficulty of pacing events, as it was hard to encourage the players to play events that damaged the Empire, and the card-driven engine did not work well in a multi-player environment. Unlike a two player game, it was much harder to analyse what might be in an opponent’s hand – and players were always reluctant to ‘waste’ a game action on something as minor as spying on another player. I tried splitting the events into two decks: one common, the other containing the decline events, without success.

(3) Flawed Symmetrical Maps: Many of my early maps featured an extremely symmetrical Galaxy, with a central hub of territory and four identical spiral arms. The Imperial Capital in the middle was the only real geographical feature on the map, other territory might produce an income, but only the capital produced victory points. This featurelessness was a result of two factors (a) my desire for the game to not involve trading resources and (b) the lack of any real geographical or historical context in what was a fantasy game. The major problem I found in a 5+ player game with symmetrical maps, is that three players tended to gain control of a spiral arm each, with the remaining two fighting over the fourth. The two fighting always ended up doing badly. I found in practice that my setup mechanics often produced strong meta-gaming play, where players would growl at each other as they indicated what sectors they wanted to control at the start of the game.

(4) Weak Asymmetrical maps: did this fix the problem? No, instead it revealed a new one. While I could add crinkles and fjords to the map, the dominance of the capital remained strong. What became important was not only the capital, but the small number of sectors immediately adjacent to it. So long as you had the ability to attack the Imperial Capital, you could make yourself Emperor frequently. So the first players to lose these strategic points, started to rapidly fall behind in the accumulation of victory points. I did find that 60 sectors is a good number for random setups, as it divides evenly for 3-6 players.

(5) Republic of Rome in Spaaaaaace: I tried one design with a greater emphasis on politics and voting in an Imperial Senate, but it was so baroque that it collapsed in confusion. I vowed not to try that again. Eventually I came up with my “make one element complex” rule for game design (and its collorary “keep everything else simple”). So I could have complex events, OR complex politics, OR complex combat, OR complex technology, OR complex economics, but not all complex in the same package. Not unless I could find playtesters willing to go into seclusion for a week with me.

(6) Two Track System While in the UK I played with designs where the players controlled both loyal imperial forces, and rebel forces striving to overthrow the empire. The intent here, was that if a player started losing the Imperial game, they could try for a rebel victory by conquering the Imperial Capital with a rebel fleet. At the start the Imperial units were very strong, while the rebel units were very weak. It did not work too well the one time I tested it, and I lost interest in trying to fine tune it. I think this was because I did not really find it plausible that every great noble house of the Galactic Empire would be working hand in glove with rebel scum.

(7) Junta in Spaaaace: While I enjoyed playing the Junta board game it had a few flaws, chief among them being that you often knew you had lost the game before the half-way point if the first President had succeeded in being corrupt. But I liked its coup mechanic, where a short conflict was fought, and then the forces reset. This fit well with the concept of a civil war in the Galactic Empire, with the new Emperor restoring stability for a while. I tested this last year, and parts worked well (although I ignored my one complex thing rule with a ‘blame mechanic’). But it was hard to incorporate the element of decline into a game of shuffling portfolios.

To summarise my key design problems after much trial and error:
(a) setup, mid-game, and end-game balance issues, players had trouble scoring victory points and winning felt very reliant on chance
(b) the map was pretty unexciting as most of it was irrelevant
(c) the decline feel, relying on random cards from a deck, simply didn’t deliver a reliably paced decline and fall sequence.

So after ten months of not doing much tinkering with my design, I decided that what I needed to take the game forward was to go and read a solid history book that looked at the fall of the Roman Empire. What I needed was a concept that I could hang a game mechanic framework off. In my next post, I’ll write about what I found.