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.