Saturday, April 9, 2011

4p playtest and Trade Routes

We had a playtest yesterday that gave me a chance to see some of the recent changes (new Structures, min Unrest = 1) in action. Everything worked pretty well; the scores were rather high by the end of the 3rd Epoch (at which point we stopped), but that could have been because the first 2 epochs were each a bit long, and certainly a bit because the low Unrest floor loosens things up. Happily, the scores were again close, with only 2 VP separating first and third place.

One ongoing issue that I need to address is what to do when a player's bonuses from Structures and Advances authorize him to take an action for free (eg build a structure at no cost) -- how many "free" actions may he take? The easiest ruling is simply to say "you only get one free action", but it's not as simple as it sounds -- there's a valid counterargument that says that if the player has earned the right to take actions for free, he should be allowed to take as many as he can. Some of the actions are self-limiting anyway, but nevertheless, I need to think about this more.

Two ideas for possible changes emerged, one sparked by a suggestion and one by an observation.

The suggestion was to renumber the Unrest track, so instead of 1/2/3/4/5/6/7, it could be 1/2/2/3/3/3/4/4/5 or something like that -- the idea being that voluntarily taking on Unrest feels very crippling, but maybe players would do it more willingly if it increased their position on the track without changing the actual number of their Unrest. This is a pretty interesting suggestion, and one that I'll certainly give some consideration, and maybe a solo test.

The observation was that (a) trade routes are very dependent on building (since they're formed by adjacent cities), and (b) historically, trade routes were long and didn't necessarily connect to cities. To that I'll add that (c) roads networks can make it such that everyone is connected to everyone else, so everyone may have comparable numbers of trade routes. The idea this sparked was to have 7-8 "premium resource spaces" spread around the board, and have the trade route scoring category correlate to how many of these you've connected to your capital with roads. But roads would take on a different form -- instead of being a tile, they would be a stick placed on the border between two territories, creating a connection between those territories.

I like a few things about this idea. First, it separates cities and trade routes a bit -- cities certainly help with trade routes, but aren't absolutely required. Additionally, it separates the economic exchange of trade routes (although it's still quite abstract) from the cultural exchange of trade routes, which would still relate to connections between cities; it's simply that the stick pieces would BOTH form trade routes AND connect up cities (so presumably, this encourages you to place a city on or near a trade route). However, it adds some complexity and more components, neither of which the game needs at this point. It's the kind of thing that could end up in an expansion some day if it's too much complexity for the base game.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

2p playtest and some changes to structures

For the longest time, I've considered the game to be playable for 3-6 players. Initially, I really thought of it as a 4-6 player game, with 5-6 players being the game's sweet spot, but the difficulties of getting a big group together necessitated creating a 3 player setup. This is mostly related to getting the mix of which territories to include (and how many), and what mix of resource tiles (ie, capacities) to use, as you want the same level of tight-ness to persist across all player counts. The 3p setup I came up with was a good move, as there have been many playtests where only 3 of us were available.

And it seems to work pretty well. This past week, I decided to go further and try out a 2 player setup. Again, it's simply a matter of whittling some territories out, but it's harder the smaller you go, in particular because of the "# of territories" scoring category. Specifically, that category maxes out at 10 territories, but if the board only has 10 territories, then to max out that category, you have to wipe the other player off the board, which isn't very nice. But having too many territories could make things too loose, where the players don't need to interact too much. I tried it with 12 territories, but removed all of the capacity-5 territories, so all the territories are small, which encourages/forces you to expand a bit. I've solo-tested it 3 times so far, and it seems to work fine; in each case, players came into contact, had some battles, formed some trade routes, etc, so it seems promising.

Additionally, it is fast -- I can play it through in about 90 minutes. In contrast, 3p solo tests take me a full 3 hrs, typically. Why the discrepancy? I think it's just that I'm capable of playing at a pace of about 45 minutes per player but that third player (or the 4th, when I've done that) just divides the mind too much and each player's turn I'm forced to re-learn their strategy. There was an article on this subject recently, which basically says that the brain can juggle two tasks at a time, by setting each lobe working on a different task, but more than that is hard. I wonder if that's a consideration here.

Anyway, I've also made some dramatic changes to the structures system. I continue to be unhappy with the lack of place-specificity in the structures; ie, with most of them, if you want a colosseum, you're happy to build it anywhere, doesn't much matter which territory. And, I don't think the early-game structures actually help all that much.

So, I've added some new structures that give you token boosts (eg the Monument, that gives a Civil token every time you build in an adjacent territory), added language to many of the structures that applies their effects to adjacent territories, and added a couple of structures that require certain terrain (eg the Quarry that must be built in the mountains, eg). And I shuffled some of the existing structures around so they're available later in the game. I've tried this new framework in a 3p test and the 3 aforementioned 2p tests, and I really like the changes -- the early structures now feel like they let you lock in a strategy from a much earlier time in the game, and the extra tokens make it easier to implement Advances, which had historically been rather difficult.

The final change I've implemented is to add space "1" to the Unrest track, which up to now had started at 2. This also loosens things up. So overall, the game is a bit easier for the players, but still doesn't feel too easy, as I haven't seen scores that are downright explosive. The caveat is that I've never been an explosive scorer to begin with, so it will have to pass muster with some of the game's playtesters, most of whom are better players than me. But so far so good.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

I had a chance to play about half a game with the new approach I described in the previous blog, and that seemed like enough.

On the one hand, it does a couple of things well. Because Monuments are lucrative, and you can only place one per territory, it makes territorial conquest and expansion more important. There are some nice timing decisions -- score now, or wait until I can meet the conditions of one more category on my card? And the decisions about what medium to use to record your Chronicle can be somewhat interesting (or would be, with some additional tweaking).

But overall, it changes the core emphasis of the game in a way I don't like. First, your primary goal becomes meeting as many conditions on each scoring card as you can, as quickly as you can. To move on to the higher cards, you reach a point where you can't keep making progress on multiple categories, and you're naturally forced to specialize -- this is good, but not what the game's focus originally was on. Although specialization is supposed to be viable and lucrative, it's also supposed to be possible to cobble together a composite strategy, eg "Trade Routes and Territorial Expansion", but in this version, if you can't pursue both at the same rate, you'll only be able to score for the category that you're moving fastest on.

There's also a built-in rich-get-richer problem that would be hard to balance out. At some point, it will become hard to meet the conditions of the next card, and your ability to score additional chronicle cards will stall. But, as long as you still have monuments from previous epochs, you'll still be pulling in points, until someone forces you to lose control of a territory (and this is hard); so, the game will really be about scoring quickly and then protecting your scoring machine, rather than going on to try to accomplish greater and greater exploits. And that's really not what the game is about.

So, as predicted, this was a brief excursion, and while I like some aspects of this new idea and may think about it in the background, for now I think my original scheme is vindicated and I can move ahead with bringing it to completion. The next step is to try some new Structures, which should improve the pacing and the territorial specificity of the map. We'll see if it's successful!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

What if?

One of the reasons that Sands of Time has been in development for quite a few years is my willingness to indulge “what if?” questions. At almost no point in the game’s development has it been genuinely broken, and at any point I could have left well enough alone and balanced the game in whatever configuration it happened to be in. But for whatever reason, I’ve instead had no compunction about pulling up significant systems by the roots and planting something different, sometimes dramatically so, in their place. Many of these transplants have grown into core systems that have stayed with the game, so I guess I can’t fault myself too much for being a tinkerer.

My latest foray into “what if?”-land may be brief. One of the features most distinctive to the game, and central to the game’s idea, is the Chronicle system. This has gone through various iterations but the consistent theme has been that there are cards that have a category, a threshold condition in that category you must meet, a VP payout if you meet the condition, and a cost in tokens to pay for the card. A corollary to this has been the idea of “heritage”, that after you score a card you get some tokens each subsequent turn in the same category as the scoring card.

The new idea turns this on its head; now, each token is worth 1 VP. Recording a chronicle is now free, and lets you place a marker on your heritage card, entitling you to tokens in subsequent turns. But, you get to choose the medium you wish to use to record your Chronicle, and this affects the way the payout is received. You can choose to write your chronicles on scrolls; these provide an immediate, modest payout (paper products permitted detailed recording, but didn’t last very long). Or, you can use Coins, which provide a small payout each turn and a bigger payout at the end of an Epoch based on how many trade routes you’ve formed (coins are more durable, and could easily travel far and wide, but convey less specific info about your empire). Or, you can use a Monument, which provides a bigger payout each turn, but is placed in a specific territory, and the payout ends if you lose the territory, and decreases if someone builds a monument claiming a superior achievement in the same category. You have 7 chronicle cards, and the thresholds of each become progressively more difficult, and you can only play each card once during the game, but you can claim as many of the 6 categories on the card for which you meet the conditions.

I like the idea because it puts the history-making more front-and-center. The decisions with the current Chronicle system pertain mostly to selecting a chronicle that you can pay for and whose conditions you can meet, and this works well. But I like how this new system would make you think about how (ie, what medium) to tell your story, and when it makes sense to go public with a Chronicle. It puts the emphasis less on getting yourself in position to score, and more on identifying the opportune time to score; so it’s less about maneuvering and more about deciding, which I think could be a good thing. I also think it would be more interactive, because as you see other players recording Chronicles, you may feel pressure to do so yourself to keep up. On the other hand, the current scoring system is very well balanced, and this will almost certainly have huge balance problems, at least initially. So, there’s a good chance, for that reason alone, that it could crash and burn.

I’ll probably try a few solo tests of this scheme next week and see how it goes.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

3p solo test

I played through a 3p solo test over the weekend; the final scores were 52/51/50. I think it's a good thing that the scoring seems to be consistently pretty close. The only major change I made was to remove the Disruption tokens. I liked the idea that you could retain control of a territory but not be able to do anything with it because it was "out of control", but in looking for ways to cut complexity, this seemed an obvious one to try. Practically speaking, the only real change is that regaining control of a territory now costs crops (to re-annex) as opposed to gold (to govern). It didn't come up too much in this game as there was little to no combat, so it remains to be seen how it works.

Moving ahead, there are only a couple of things that I'm monitoring at the moment. The first is that the game doesn't just reward advanced planning, it requires it -- if there's an action you want to take and you're not in position to take it configurationally, it can take several turns to set it up, and this can be frustrating. It's not necessarily a "bad" kind of frustrating, but it may be advantageous to loosen the game up a bit.

Second, I'm still not perfectly happy with the spatial elements of the game; there's a a certain equivalence to the territories that may not make the geographic aspects of the game as interesting as they could be. For example, if I need a crops-producing territory, I'm as happy to get Libya as Judea; there may not be a strong reason to prefer one to the other. But my bigger concern is with the structures system; the structures are supposed to modify individual territories, so you're supposed to care about where you place them. But in practice, as long as you have a Colosseum somewhere it's fine; same for a Wonder, etc.

All along, the board has mountains and rivers drawn on it but these are just decoration. However, my thought is that these could become active elements of the game in concert with the structures system, by having a couple of structures take maximal effect when placed on certain features, eg a quarry in the mountains, irrigation on a river. Tying the effects of a structure to its immediate environment, ie by having the structure's power affect only the territory in which it is placed, or its neighbors, could help emphasize this. If some of the structures also "boost" one or more actions, this could be a way to reduce the "advance planning" problem mentioned above (sort of -- you still have to advance-plan to build the structure!).