Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The time of Sands

[Is there anything more irritating than blog post titles that try too hard to be clever?  I don't really think so.]

Feeble attempts at cleverness notwithstanding, as Sands gets closer to publication, I have been thinking about possible areas in which the game's theming might need to be polished; the terminology and whatnot that one uses in playtesting are mostly arbitrary, because one just wants to know if the systems work, but now that the design is "done", it's appropriate to take a step back and start considering those aspects more carefully. 

One criticism that pretty much all civ games receive, and almost all deserve, pertains to how they handle time.  On the one hand, these games are supposed to cover time periods spanning centuries or perhaps millenia.  On the other hand, you have individual actions like battles or construction projects or piece movements that seem quite out of proportion with the overall time period covered by the game.

Now I think that Sands is guilty of this criticism in spades.  But, I thought it might be interesting to see whether judicious choices of terminology, and thinking about the game in the right way, might be able to produce at least a hand-waving harmonization of the game's action and the time scale it purports to cover.

With its Roman-era map and Greco-Roman structures and advances, Sands is understood to occur primarily within classical antiquity, which (roughly) covers the period from about 800 B.C. to about 400 A.D or so. (This is entirely contained within the Iron Age). So, that's about 1200 years.   It's not crucial that every single thing that happens in the game occur in exactly the right chronological location or sequence, because we're remaking history here, but just roughly, the game should feel like it covers about 1200 years.  Good.

Now, there are two different "clocks" we therefore need to synchronize with this overall duration:  the population growth clock, and the individual player turn clock.

The basic unit of time in the game is the player turn, each of which consists of two actions.  Turns are grouped into multi-turn "clusters" of 2-4 turns (currently called "generations" in the ruleset, but let's just call them "clusters" for now).  Scoring happens after a certain minimum number of turns have elapsed (6, 7, or 8 turns, for the first, second, and third scoring round, respectively), but only after the current "cluster" ends as determined by a die roll.  So, let's refer to these groups of turns (and, simultaneously, groups of clusters) as "scoring rounds"; a scoring round, it can be seen, typically contains 2-3 (or rarely, 4) "clusters".  And the total game lasts 22 turns or 44 actions.

 If we divide 1200 by 22 or 44, we get 54 or 27 respectively.  So, could we simply view each action as taking ~25 years, and call it good?

With respect to population growth, this seems to work.  Each player starts with 9 "citizens" (6 peasants, 3 warriors), and population growth is abstracted:  rather than occuring every turn or cluster of turns, it occurs automatically in three specific turns of the game (4, 9, and 15, currently), and adds a single peasant to each of the player's owned territories. Making an allowance for the addition of warriors (which happens through an independent process), and sort of roughly compensating for war losses, a typical population growth curve might be:
Turn -- Pop
0 ---- 9
4 ---- 13
9 ---- 18
15 ---- 23
(No mention of how many people each citizen represents -- it's "quite a few" -- because the main thing is to get the rate of growth roughly realistic)

If we make the above assumption that the full game spans about 1200 years, then 15 turns should correspond to about 750 years, and this would give a population growth rate of 0.2% annually. The actual growth rate in the Roman Empire from 1100 BC to 200 AD was about 0.1%, according to an extremely reliable source (wikipedia). So, for a crude system, it seems that population growth gives a pretty decent model of the "correct" behavior under the time scale we're assuming.

The individual player action clock may be a bit more problematic.  Let's 
look at a few actions, and ball-park some time estimates that we might associate with those actions:

  • War -- A decade or less (?)
  • Major building project -- Several years to a few decades (?)
  • Establish a regional trade route -- A decade (?)
  • Implement a tech advance -- Several decades to a century (?)
  • Manage unrest through reforms, etc. -- Several years to a decade
This suggests that a turn (two actions) might be about 10-20 years or so.  (Call it 15, split the difference).  That would make a cluster of turns, which, again, can be 2-4 turns, 30-60 years.  I've called that a "generation", i.e., the reign of an individual ruler; and maybe that's about correct.

As for a "scoring round", which typically contains 2-3 "clusters" or "generations", the game currently refers to that as an "epoch" which is clearly wrong.  At 90-120 years, a scoring round seems to coincide not-too-unfavorably with a "dynasty", i.e., the length of rule of a typical ruling house before it falls or is overthrown or dies out or whatever.  So maybe "epoch" should become "dynasty".

There's a problem, of course:  at 15 years a turn, the 22 turns of the game only correspond to 330 years rather than 1200 years; and with only three "scoring rounds", only three dynasties rule over a 1200 year period, which also seems wrong.

I can see two possible reconciliations, both of which require a compromise to accuracy.  The first is to view the turns as lasting about 50 years each, and then the clusters are "dynasties" and the scoring rounds are "eras" or "periods".  The compromise this requires is that it over-estimates the time scale of the individual actions (more egregiously for some than others).

The other option is to view the turns as 10-15 years, the clusters of turns as "generations" or "reigns", and the scoring rounds as "dynasties", BUT, the idea is that we're not tracking EACH AND EVERY ruler or dynasty, but only the MOST CONSEQUENTIAL ones.  There is, to me, great thematic appeal to this reconciliation -- it acknowledges that some rulers didn't do that much or didn't establish a reputation that was preserved for posterity, and this is in keeping with the game's theme.  What I also like is that it keeps the theming of the player-as-individual-ruler intact.  Yes, with each generation, the player "magically" becomes the next ruler in a succession, but at any individual instant, the player's representation is concrete:  he is the current ruler of his civilization, and his current horizon is simply the length of the current "generation" -- his own life span, which is uncertain.

So I tentatively prefer the second, but ultimately, it's mostly a cosmetic consideration, and decisions of this sort ultimately fall to Spielworxx to implement.  Happy to hear any other comments, suggestions, or considerations that others have on this subject.

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