Tuesday, December 31, 2013


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.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

A (possible) new take on population growth

While I'm happy with the game in its present state, a suggestion emerged that I'm obligated to take seriously:  get rid of the events.  I don't object to this in principle; while they add some historical flavor, they aren't crucial to what makes the game interesting.  However, they do keep players from growing too explosively.  They are admittedly something of a kludge, particularly with respect to Unrest; they essentially force Unrest on the players, when, in an ideal design world, players would only encounter Unrest by taking it on voluntarily (i.e., by overworking their populace).  

The game's overall difficulty level can be adjusted in other ways, but the one event that's difficult to dismiss is Attrition:  when a territory is overcrowded, you (and everyone else in the territory) lose population until it's below the limit.  This has been organic to the game since its very earliest days, and the ability to overload a territory, but with some risk, affords flexibility -- e.g. to let a player amass a huge army for a crucial attack, or to massively produce an urgently-needed resource from a single territory.  The simplest solution to removing the event is to also remove the ability to overload a territory, but that changes the game in a way that probably isn't devastating, but it would be less satisfying.

Thinking about this forced me to think about the way the game handles population growth and pressure in the first place.  From the beginning, population growth has been voluntary, and costs crops.  You can only add population to territories you own, which was supposed to create an incentive to expand your empire early (which makes the empire itself more costly to manage).  This happens to some extent, but what seems a bit more common is that you just max out your population to fill the territories you own, and then you don't really grow much after that.  That's ok, but it's perhaps not entirely historically plausible.

This led me to the idea that population growth could be automatic (so you can't avoid population pressure), but infrequent (say, once per epoch).  If overcrowding didn't cause "attrition", but instead just forced you to take on Unrest, then perhaps this provides two forces pushing players to take on Unrest -- on the one hand, overcrowding may become difficult to avoid, and it may be easier to take the Unrest than to reconfigure your empire so as to avoid it; but on the other, particularly early in the game, you can't grow your population fast enough to produce enough to do what you want to, and you may have to use forced production, and accept the consequence (Unrest).

It would treat population, and "headroom" in your territories, as a resource in a way that the game hasn't previously, and it might be interesting as a way to retain some of the features that the events will no longer provide, and also to create an additional source of interesting and challenging considerations for the players.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Sands of Time in a nutshell

 I realized today that most of the posts in this blog go deep into the weeds of the design, but there isn't a basic overview of what the game is all about.  So this post is intended to provide a 30,000 foot view of the game.

Sands of Time is a civilization-building game set loosely in Classical Antiquity.  The game's action takes place on a board that emulates a Roman-era map.  The board is divided into 28 territories, and each territory produces a resource, either crops or gold, which players will use to pay for actions.  Players will fill the territories with citizens (peasants or warriors) and structures.
The Game Board

You get points in the game from Chronicle cards.  You have 7 such cards, and each Epoch, each Chronicle can be scored in one of six categories.  Each card gives the condition that you have to meet to score that card in a particular category. The higher cards are more difficult to achieve but are also worth more points.  The categories represent the sort of things you'd expect the head of a civilization to be proud of -- size of your empire, advances, great buildings, rare and precious resources you acquired access to, etc.  

Chronicle cards

However, it's not enough to just do great stuff; you also have to pay "achievement tokens" for your chronicles, which represents the idea that you must have an established reputation in a particular area before your proclamations of your own greatness will be believed.

Action Cards

The game lasts for four Epochs; each Epoch ends with a scoring phase, and each is divided into Generations, which represent the lifespan of an individual ruler.  Each Generation lasts for a certain number of turns (not known in advance -- you never know how long the king will live!), and in each turn, players have 12 available Action Cards, and simultaneously select two to execute.  If, in a subsequent turn, you re-use an Action Card, you incur some Unrest.  As previously mentioned, most of the actions cost Resources, and the cost is usually either your empire size (because a big empire is hard to manage), or your Unrest level (because an unhappy empire is hard to mobilize).  

Sample Advance Card
You can upgrade your empire by adding Structures to your territories, or by implementing Advances.  The game doesn't have a tech tree per se, but advances come in three main categories (roughly "expansion", "building", and "culture/more advances"), and when you replenish your hand, you choose which category you'll draw from, so you have some ability to specialize or diversity, as you prefer.  And each advance has a "basic" and "enhanced" side, so if you wish you can upgrade your advance to make yourself even more powerful in that capability.

Related to this, the game doesn't assign players to a specific historical civilization; rather, your selection of starting territories, and the advances that you choose to implement, will steer you towards certain chronicle categories, and by maximizing your achievements in those categories, you'll be entitled to score the highest chronicle cards and get the most points.  Because there are six categories, and because you frequently want to score in more than one category at a time, the possible range of viable strategies is enormous, and the diversity intrinsic to the system allows you to implement many strategies in more than one way.  (As a simple example, a "building" strategy can be executed by building a big population to produce lots of gold, or by using warriors to raid neighboring players' territories for gold, or to implement advances and structures that reduce your building costs to practically nothing, and so on...)

I think the game has several distinctive features, which I don't think I've seen these in other games previously:

  1. Emphasis on history-making as the vehicle for scoring.  You have to accomplish great stuff, but you also have to brag about the great stuff you did if you want it to be remembered for posterity.  This is amplified by the "heritage" system -- after you score a chronicle in a category, you're entitled to draw some achievement tokens in that category for the rest of the game.
  2. Unrest level sets your action costs.  Makes thematic sense.
  3. Circular board projection.  This prevents players from "hiding" at the edges and walling themselves safely away from the world, AND it promotes player interaction; most likely, even in a 5p game, your empire will be in physical contact with that of every other player in the game.  The game encourages this with the "caravan" system -- each of your caravans that touches another player's capital or city entitles you to receive an additional achievement token during the "produce" action.
  4. Nifty turn mechanic.  This game has been through numerous turn mechanics, and the one we settled on does a good job of reducing the down time to just about zero, and keeping the overall game length reasonably short given the game's scope, while still giving you great flexibility as to what you accomplish each turn.