Tests of the new population/unrest system went well, but a playtest several months back revealed the possibility for exploitation by a player who maintains a small empire and low unrest. Tightening a couple of rules and weakening a couple of advances seems to have mitigated that problem, and different strategies should again be well-balanced, so the game felt pretty much done for real.
However, .a playtester that I'm obligated to take seriously expressed several lingering concerns, namely, that the game has too large of a footprint, that it takes too long, and that the early-game scoring ramps up too slowly. Curiously, this playtester pinpointed the Advance system as the root cause for these problems: each player's display takes up significant table space, and it requires time and mental energy to keep track of what everyone can do. While this playtester advocated removing them entirely, I am keen to find a compromise solution if possible.
Separately, after the last session, players pointed to the caravans as an area for improvement, saying that they felt like an afterthought, and that they don't really integrate well with the other systems. This concern is valid -- after all, they were originally inserted into the game specifically to fill the role of "something to do when you don't have anything else you want to do."
My latest change is not necessarily a keeper (yet), but it weaves together a comprehensive solution to both of these problems.
First, instead of individual player advances, advances would be arranged in series of "advance trees" at the center of the table. There are six "trees", two for each category (civil, political, and cultural), and each tree has two branches, one on either side (it's really more of a tech rope than a tech tree...). You put your marker on any one tree at the game's beginning, and then the advance action lets you either move your marker to a higher level along the same branch (retaining access to the advances at lower levels on the same branch, of course), or to place an additional marker. When you reach the existing end of the branch, you get to draw 2 cards from the next level and pick which one is added to the end of the branch. So, the trees grow as the game progresses, which gives some game-to-game variation.
This has forced me to only retain those advances whose functionality could easily be expressed graphically, so that it's always easy to visualize what you and anyone else can do.
The second, and related, idea, is to cluster the "trade good" spaces into 4 regions, with each region having its own color of trade good. You still deploy caravans and touch these trade goods, as well as other players' cities and capitals, but these take on new importance:
- The number of different colors of trade goods you touch with caravans determines the number of advance markers you can place
- The number of a single color that you touch with caravans gives the maximum chronicle you can record.
- The number of cities and capitals you touch, plus your heritage bonus in a given category (from previously recorded Chronicles), must exceed your Unrest for you to advance in that category.
Additionally, many of the action cards now have a "locked" section, which requires having a certain Advance in order to use. For example, "Raid" lets you move and then steal resources, but the "steal resources" is "locked" unless you have the advance "Aggression".
The astute reader will note that this removes the need for Achievement tokens and the extremely astute reader will notice that this leaves the combat system in the lurch, since it previously involved a closed-fist bid of achievement tokens. In the new system, each player is given a die, which they set on whatever side they wish, and then reveal simultaneously. Each pip gives +3 to the combat strength, but the victor must increase his Unrest by the number of pips. It's somewhat akin to the system in Cosmic Encounter/Dune, but bidding Unrest rather than Units is (hopefully) an engaging twist.
Solo testing so far has been challenging, because the game requires very different thinking now that all of those actions are locked, and now that you have to build a caravan network to advance and to score points. I think it gives the feel of choosing to acquire greater flexibility, or to charge ahead "sub-optimally" to try to max out in a single category. Lopping off an epoch, the three remaining epochs do give the feeling of a nice three-act play. Live testing will tell whether this detour is a favorable one in the long run.