Friday, April 6, 2012


Well, almost done.  I have been playing around with "option 2" from the last post:  for action selection, each player now has a deck of cards representing the 10 actions in the game (Conquer, Raid, Populate, Produce, Chronicle, Govern, Build, Advance, Migrate, and Caravan), and all players select two simultaneously, face-down, then execute in turn order.  I've solo tested this a few times, and while it does explode the decision matrix, it also gives you tremendous flexibility, and has been a solid success.  It still needs to be tried with a live test group to see whether it actually helps with game length.  But if we allow, say, 3 minutes for players to select their actions, 2 minutes total to resolve them, and one minute for bureaucratic stuff, then that's 6 minutes per turn, and the game's ~30 turns should take about 180 minutes for any player count, and probably much less for quicker players or smaller groups.  So, the finish line of this being a 3 hour game is definitely in sight!

I've added a few new advances, and pruned one or two out, and made some other minor tweaks, and as long as the next couple of live playtests go well, I think I'm ready to call the game done.  There are a couple of little things I'm still looking at:

- Setup:  Currently players start with 2 peasants and 1 warrior in each territory.  This was mostly for convenience -- ie, take a decision out of the setup, and it speeds it up -- but because everyone started with 4 production in each category, it also didn't matter much.  Now that production is calculated on the fly at the start of the turn, starting out with 2 in each territory means that if you have 2 territories producing one resource and one producing the other, then you'll only start the game with 2 of that other resource, which isn't enough to do anything.  So to give you more flexibility, I was thinking of changing the setup to placing your peasants 3/2/1 in your territories instead of 2/2/2.  It adds a decision, and some people will agonize over it, so maybe it's not worth the trouble -- just let players get into the game and get them playing.  The low production is only a "problem" in the first turn anyway; after that, you can easily move your peasants around, add new ones, etc.  So this is something I'm thinking about but am unlikely to change.

- Length:  The game currently lasts a minimum of 28 turns and an average (statistically, anyway) of 31.2 turns.  That may be a bit too long, and may lead to scoring that's a bit too "high".  I want it to be a real struggle to get to the highest value Chronicle cards, ie if you're going to go for the biggest card, you're almost certainly going to have to eschew just about anything else.  A longer game makes it a bit easier to get those high value cards, so clipping off a couple of turns might balance this out.

- Token glut:  In some situations (esp when there are a few short Generations in a row), players can end up with more achievement tokens than they can realistically spend.  This is good in one sense:  tokens can be used in combat, so extras may promote more combat.  But too many tokens could lead to "turtling", and anyway, it's supposed to be a hard decision to commit tokens in battle, since you need them to advance and to score Chronicles.  I can find more uses for tokens, or perhaps clip out a couple of the sources for tokens.  But it just needs more tests to see whether this is actually a problem or not.

- Events:  There's a good mix of Events that work very well, and going to only one Event per turn, drawn from a deck of Event cards, has been a great way to reduce the complexity of the Event system.  But the game may need one or two more events per Epoch to really make the players struggle a bit more, but without the game becoming too punitive.  I have a couple of ideas for how to accomplish this if the game needs it.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

v17 playtest, and game length

We had a successful 4p playtest of v17 on Sunday that was designed to assess two main changes: stretching out the Unrest track, and adding "trade route" pieces (Settlers roads placed on the border between two territories).  Both were successful and well-received.

The trade routes created some terminology ambiguity, but functionally they had at least two nice effects.  (a) Since you place a trade route when you pass one of the two actions you're usually authorized to make, it adds a nice decision point as well as gives you something useful to do even when you don't want to take both actions.  (b) It separates the scoring from "trade routes" (which now pertains to how many "star spaces" your trade routes pass through) from receiving achievement tokens from "trade routes" (which pertain to how many foreign cities your trade routes connect to).  Previously, the scoring and tokens were the same and pertained to how many foreign cities your own cities were adjacent to.  In practice, this resulted in big, explosive trade route networks that were pretty homogeneous across all players.  This new scheme will create more differentiation from those who want to score in this category and those who want to set up to get tokens.

Several helpful changes were suggested, including getting rid of the production tracks and just calculating your production at the start of each turn, and removing the +2 Unrest penalty for failing to record a Chronicle.

The "problem" with the game is that it's still long.  It took us about 4 hours for a 3 epoch game, and I suspect the last Epoch would have added another 1.5 hours or so.  That's still just a bit too long, and nearly all of the bureaucracy-induced length has been cut out of the game by now.  There aren't a ton of decision points, but there are many options at each decision point, so it just takes players time to evaluate their course of action.  Players can plan their actions on other players' turns, but this doesn't always happen.

So, I have two possible ideas, both revolving around players' selecting their actions simultaneously.  The motivation is simple:  if each player takes about 3 minutes to take his turn, then if you could have all of that decision time happening simultaneously, you could probably cut the game length by a factor of 2 or 3.  There's some risk that one player's actions would disrupt another player's planned actions, but a rule to let you change your planned action (maybe at the cost of +1 Unrest?) should be able to handle this; most actions don't directly interfere with other players, so this should be a somewhat infrequent occurence. 

The first is probably more of a suggestion than a hard rules change.  Players would write on a piece of paper which two abilities they plan to use during their turn, and what specifically they plan to do with each -- eg where they plan to build, or where they plan to attack, or whatever.  Then, when their turn comes up, they simply do what the paper says.  The down side of this approach is that it interfaces somewhat clunkily with the existing action selection board, with its 3x3 grid of actions.

The second approach is to (once again) rebuild the action selection mechanic from scratch, but retain the core principle of the current scheme, which is that you get to take two actions each turn.  Each player would get 12 cards representing his available actions, and each turn, players would place 2 abilities on the table in front of them simultaneously.  If, on a subsequent turn in the same generation, you want to reuse a card you've already used earlier in the generation, you have to gain 1 Unrest.  And, the "Produce" action has a built in Unrest, while others have a built-in achievement token.  (Maybe you also take an Unrest if you use two actions that each pay out a token). 

Probably, some of the actions would be simplified -- eg Advance and Build would just be "play a single card/structure" instead of "as many as you want and can afford", so that there's less of a problem remembering what you planned to do once your turn comes up.  Maybe you even write out your intended action, as suggested in the above scheme.  (Maybe you're provided a white board to write this on).

The upside of this is that it gives you even more flexibility than the current scheme.

The down side is that it slightly disincentivizes specialization in a way the current version doesn't.  But that may not be so bad.  A bigger down side is that it gives players explosively more options, since 12 x 11 = 132 combos (!) are available.  Maybe to reduce this somewhat there could be 6 double-sided cards, with one action on each side; but this reduces the number of available choices, but not necessarily the complexity, since you still need to remember which cards can potentially be played with other cards. 

This explosion in options is a big concern:  the current board has many options, but few enough that a new player can simply pick one each turn and go with it.  This explosion in options could lead to paralysis, since new players may not immediately realize which actions naturally go together, something the board originally scripted for them. 

I like this second idea enough to solo test it (I have no option to the first option but it's not any different in a solo test than just playing out the players' actions), but its true test will be how it holds up with newer players.

(*) One for each of the 9 current actions, 2 for "add a trade route", and 1 "x2", letting you take an action twice.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Gearing up for v17 playtest

It's been a while since there was a progress update on the game, but I haven't been completely idle. I did have a chance to try out a couple of the ideas mentioned in the last post, namely (a) changed the Unrest track to 1/2/2/3/3/3/4/4/5 from 1/2/3/4/5/6/7, (b) when you choose "Govern", you get one reduction on the Unrest track for free (but may pay for others), (c) added 8 "trade route destination" spaces, valued 1-3, around the board, and (d) when a player foregoes one of the two actions he's allowed each turn, he may spend that action placing a "trade route" (a road piece from Settlers) on the border between two territories.

For (a) and (b), this change made the Unrest system seem less punitive, and gives you some additional flexibility -- you don't feel as bad about taking on Unrest -- but in practice it did seem that everyone stayed at about 3 or below, which is a bit more homogeneity than I'd like. I'm inclined to try (a) without (b), because pscyhologically, what seems to hold you back as a player from taking on more Unrest is seeing the number move up.

For (c) and (d), the intent is to separate the scoring category based on trade routes from the achievement tokens you get from trade routes, and to reduce the number of the latter that your trade routes can produce. And, to make trade routes easier for players to visualize. This change seems to have the desired effect -- you are forced to think about how to place your trade routes in a way that also connects you to other players cities/capitals, AND to place your own cities and capital in such a way to promote players passing through them. However, there seemed to be a great deal of homogeneity in the way routes were placed: basically, everyone's routes looked nearly identical. One thought I had was to instead place trade route destination spaces on the border between two territories. There are 28 territories, but 64 borders between territories, so placing the destinations on the borders makes them more of a target that can be approached in multiple ways. The main question at this point is whether to have all destinations be worth 1 (for the purposes of the "trade route" scoring category) or to have some be more lucrative than others. In either case, I think these will be hard-wired on to the board.

Finally, I am trying, though it is hard, to act as the "voice of the player", and to represent what the player wants to be able to do against the imperialistic designer, trying to suppress their happy-go-lucky fun with restrictions! And the one thing that I consistently find frustrating as a player is the occasional need for two-turn actions, where there are two things I want to do in succession, but can't because of the way the action board is laid out. Since the Generations only last (typically) 2-3 turns, having to spend two turns to do something I want to do is too time consuming. Now the action board does a good job of enabling most of the two-step combos you'll want to pull (eg Raid/Conquer, Govern/Build, Migrate/Populate, etc), and, indeed, that was why it was created in the first place. But there are some combos you want to do -- eg Migrate/Produce, to move and then recalculate production, Chronicle/Produce, to record a Chronicle and then produce the achievement tokens you'll need to pay for it, or Produce/Govern, to get the resources you need to reduce Unrest -- that the current board doesn't allow.

Now going to an extreme that lets you take any two actions you want would be a terrible idea, as it would lead to analysis overload, and would remove some of the structure associated with the combos as currently constituted. But it basically looks like there will be times that you would like to be able to use Produce with just about every other ability (except Raid, probably), and maybe the solution is simply to redraw the Action board to allow that; so, instead of a 3 x 3 grid with Produce in the center, maybe the board should simply be an octagonal ring, with Produce in the center. The structure of the outer ring would essentially be unaltered, but now all abilities would also be usable with Produce.