Monday, August 16, 2010

3p test and the receding finish line

We had a good 3p test last week; I will post a report in the game's DropBox folder. We had a player who followed a building strategy and scored huge points from his building accomplishments (we think that scoring category may be a bit loose), but I hit on a quirky combo of advance cards that brought him back a little bit: using "Replacement" (remove a structure from a territory and put another in its place) and "Altruism" (you may take a build action in another player's territory), I was able to tear down his valuable Cities and replace them with much more innocuous Storehouses and Amphitheaters. We couldn't decide whether this combo was too powerful or in the spirit of the game, and we do have ways to soften it if need be, but it was fun to see it play out.

We all agreed after playing that mechanically, the game seems more or less complete; we couldn't think of any major structural flaws in the game, although there were a couple of good suggestions for ways that things could be done slightly differently. One particularly interesting idea is to make each chronicle card pay out the same value regardless of which of the six categories you're using it to score for. Currently, each card has 6 categories on it, and gives a threshold and VP payout for each. The concern is that this could be too much information for new players to process, and a more unified framework would make the game easier to learn. I'm worried about scoring homogenization but I think it's worth a try.

So I think that for better or worse, the game has entered its fine-tuning phase. But it's unclear exactly how much fine-tuning it needs. One player made the simple yet alarming observation the other night that, perhaps there are too many territories on the map; perhaps the distribution of territory sizes is incorrect; I added another later: perhaps players have too many peasants (25). I've held most of this stuff fixed throughout the development, and hadn't really thought about changing them. But fine-tuning the game might indeed require adjustments. While adjusting these handles is easy, it's unclear what the "correct" balance will be.

Part of it comes down to what sort of experience the game is trying to create. At present, the game is slightly "loose" -- you mostly have access to as many resources as you need to do what you want to, and you mostly can avoid combat with other players. This is partly because combat is expensive, but also because it's not especially necessary. But what makes adjustment challenging is the possibility for unintended impacts on other systems. For example, reducing the number of territories will put players in closer proximity, but that could also make it easier to form Trade Routes, increasing the number of Achievement Tokens that each has available, which will loosen the game up even more.

Bottom line, it will just need some thinking, and some trial and error. I'd love to punt the tweaking to a developer as I suspect I'm too close to the game to do a really good job of it. But to get started, I'll at least start by removing the "6-capacity" territories and replacing them with 3s, and if that goes well, maybe reduce the number of peasants each player has from 25 to 20.

Monday, July 5, 2010


Two solo tests and another live 4p test have led to some further progress. The change, suggested by a playtester, to replace the common decks of Chronicle cards with an individual deck for each player has proven successful; not only does it have the intended effect of making it harder/less valuable to bring another player below the threshold of his scoring card (because cards are now placed face-down), but it also puts all of the scoring information right in the players' hands, making it easier to play.

Our live session lasted 3 epochs and while it was still anyone's game, we chose to quit due to the hour. The scores were fairly high for the end of the 3rd epoch, with the leader having 40 points and other players in the high 20s and low 30s. This was due, we believe, to two players having Democracy (helps you keep Unrest down inexpensively) and the other two had Emulation (lets you use an ability that another player holds), so everyone was able to keep their Unrest low.

We found that a 3 epoch game is not unsatifsying. I could see making a quicker-playing variant in which you choose any one of your initial 3 advances and implement it for free, and then just play as usual for 3 epochs instead of 4.

One of the players brough up the question of balance, specifically with respect to luck of the draw with the 4 structures tiles and 3 advance cards that form your hand. He suggested that having a hand of structures wasn't exactly interesting or important and these could just as well be drawn freely from the supply when you build. I tested this through and it does indeed seem fine. He also noted that there can be great disparity in the initial deal of advances. As I thought about it more, I realized that there are essentially 3 types of advances in the game: ones that are always useful and powerful no matter your strategy; ones that are more focused but are useful enough that you can build a strategy around them; and ones that are useful if you happen to be in a certain situation. To smooth out the luck of the draw, at least to start, I proposed dealing each player one "always useful" advance and two "strategy-specific" advances. This ensures that everyone gets one and only one powerful advance, and no "situational" advances, which don't really matter till later in the game.

It's encouraging that after each of the last two sessions, the changes have really been related to refining the way existing systems work, rather than re-envisioning entire systems or making big, sweeping changes. I think all that remains is to balance the advances a little bit to soften a couple and strengthen a couple others, and then it should be very close to done.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Perfect planning

There are some good discussions underway about the potential for perfect-planning in the game, particularly with respect to the scoring system. Although some people like games with a high degree of analysis, perfect planning can bog a game down which can really extend its length. There are 3 aspects that I'm watching:

-- Because each scoring card requires you to meet a specific threshold of "whatevers", players may take a long time deciding which card to take, as they calculate out the exact number of "whatevers" they can get before the next scoring round.

-- Because there are 6 different scoring categories and 7 scoring cards, new players, who haven't locked in to a particular strategy, may spend a long time selecting choosing a card that best fits their empire and will give them the most points.

-- Because the scoring cards are held face up and are drawn before they are scored, player X could spend a long time perfect-planning a way to get player Y's holdings below the threshold of the card that Y holds so that Y can't score his points.

I think my plan at present is to monitor problem 1 for now to get more insight into whether it's very serious, and to address problem 2 by perhaps providing more strategic guidance to new players when teaching the game. For problem 3, a suggestion was made that would allow players to select Chronicles face-down in such a way that you'd know what category a person was going for but would not know the threshold or VP value of the card they've selected. This imperfect information might make the scoring rounds more exciting, in addition to (possibly) mitigating the third problem, so it might be worth a try.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

4 player playtest

We had a lively 4 player session the other night, to test out the new action selection system. The game wasn't significantly shorter as hoped, but several of us are slow, deliberate players anyway, so it's difficult to say for certain. The new mechanic was a success and was well received. The ability to choose two abilities creates interesting situations. For example, I know I can initiate up to 3 combats each generation, but only once each can I pair combat with the migrate (lets me move warriors AND peasants), raid (lets me move warriors only, and loot resources) and produce (grab bonus resources from one territory) actions. That means each use of the combat action will give me slightly different abilities, and I have to plan carefully if I expect to need to fight multiple times in a given generation. And most of the abilities, especially build and advance, have similar considerations.

Overall, the session was a good success, and the final scores were very close (44/41/33/32), with the winner determined by the game end bonuses. I anticipate only two small changes prior to the next session (no Events in the final epoch, and don't reshuffle the Events until the deck is fully depleted). The newly rebalanced scoring cards seem to be producing fairly close games, and none of the payouts seem too generous or too stingy so far.

One concern a player brought up: since Roads homogenize the trade route landscape so much, does "Trade Routes" make sense as a scoring category? Will players be very differentiated in this, or can any player basically score the same as anyone else? Something to watch for.

A report on the session has been placed in the DropBox folder.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Solo testing and some changes

My wife has been away this week and I've solo tested the game several times to try out a new action selection system. Instead of the prefect abilities laid out in a 4x2 grid, they're now arranged in a 3x3 grid (Raid and Conquer functions are now split over 2 prefects). Instead of choosing one action each turn, you choose two, but they have to be adjacent in the grid. It speeds things up a bit, because naturally related actions (eg populate-produce, or migrate-conquer) are placed together in the grid.

I've also managed to streamline some of the bureacracy, by giving each player an abacus to track resources, by having achievement token payouts hard-wired into the action display, and by cleaning up the way events work.

And, some of the fiddly rules are removed or relocated. One of the biggest culprits was the definition of a "trade route". Now, it's simply a city or capital adjacent to a foreign city or capital. The details about citizens in an isolated city or foreign citizens in your capital is removed, BUT the effect is still present in this way: when you produce and receive achievement tokens for your trade routes, if another player has a citizen in one of your cities or capital, he gets a token too. Several other systems have similarly been cleaned up.

My solo tests seem to be taking about an hour per epoch for 4 players, and that's with me playing all 4 positions. Real players in all 4 seats might be able to go much faster. An hour per player isn't too bad but 45 minutes per player would be even better.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Yet another 3 player playtest

It seems like we can only ever find three of us at a time to play the game. Anyway, we tried out a new rule whereby the cost to build structures is your Unrest + the building's level, instead of the product of the two. The goal was to prevent easy building of everything in your hand, but also to make high levels of unrest less crippling. It more or less worked, but a couple of events made the overall vector of the game a bit screwy. I'll post the session report in the game's DropBox folder.

We played 3 epochs (we chose to forego the fourth since the eventual winner was obvious and it was getting late), with each epoch taking about an hour. This seemed acceptable but one of the players brought up the issue of downtime. I've begun to think about how to address that. I have come up with a fairly substantial change that would rework the turn structure. I'm running it through solo tests now and it seems interesting so far.