Invasion + Badgerkastan Playtest Report

Good news for the blog: I’m back from a week-long vacation to beautiful, relaxing western New York.
Bad news for the blog: My sabbatical from work is over, so my days of daily blogging about games are over. Twice a week is my tentative goal.

I got to playtest both Invasion and Badgerkastan tonight. Invasion went very well. The new anti-kingmaker-problem mechanism I wrote about before came up and worked well. The player who first exceeded the VP threshold went on to win, although the margin was small; the game was exciting throughout and the player in last kept struggling for his own score. The playtest also brought up a few wording changes that need to be made to Gadget cards, and I might need to examine the costs of a few of the Gadget cards, but so far they all seem to be usually desirable. So congratulations to Michelle, and thanks to both Ed and Michelle for trying it out.

Badgerkastan worked better, but not great. The Despot starts off very powerful. Part of the problem is probably that I let the Despot start with all cards in play. Probably the Despot needs to start with fewer cards in play and the Fundamentalist needs to have a prescribed starting hand. It’s also clear to me now that the game lacks an arc. The Foreign Influence mechanism, which I hoped would lead to an unbalanced-seesaw, isn’t anywhere near powerful enough to actually matter right now, and I don’t think that just multiplying its effect by 2 or 3 would make the game interesting. I need to find some way for the nature of the game to change midway through; perhaps this could be done by slowly or quickly granting a different selection of cards to one side or the other. I am also starting to have doubts about the quick-turn structure of the game. Each turn feels very small and if you can’t do much, you feel pretty stuck. I don’t know whether I need to make turns “bigger” by letting you do more, or placing each turn into a bigger context somehow, or something else. Thanks to Ed for giving it a shot.

Civilization in 90 Minutes?

A couple of days ago I looked at Civilization games and the entwined ideas of why they’re popular and the expectations that players have. Today I’ll look at why a 90-minute Civilization game might be a dream that never materializes.

Let’s start with the math. I’ll abandon the idea of a 5p game off the bat. With four players, this means that each player gets 22 minutes. This isn’t small, and ideally players can also use other players’ turns to think, examine opportunities, etc. However, we can’t leave out the heart of the genre: expanding and getting better opportunities as the game progresses. For this to feel meaningful, it means the beginning, middle, and end of the game all have to feel different. (Think of the settlement phase, buildup phase, and explosive final turns of, say, Twilight Imperium. Each player needs to spend around 7 minutes in each one of those phases, and suddenly now time is starting to look tight. We’ll need to skip exploration entirely, because that’s going to shove interesting but time-consuming decisions in the middle of every turn where it happens. If the player has several moving parts to consider–multiple bases, multiple armies–a two-minute turn might be OK but still feel rushed. So we need to get an interesting amount of action and decisions into a total of nine two-minute turns.

But wait, there’s more. We also need to provide a way for the players to interact. With only nine turns, we can’t have much tactical or positional back-and-forth. (Eclipse manages, but that’s because it breaks up its nine-turns into mini-player-turns. This makes a fantastic game but means it takes about twice as long as our hypothetical Grail.) This means that any aggression is going to have to be pretty abstract. If combat has a lot of randomness, that’s exciting to play, but it means that after every fight every player is going to have to recalculate all their options. If combat is more deterministic (comparing military values or whatever), that’s faster to resolve, but invites a lot of thinking or analysis paralysis before the fight breaks out. Adding the possibility of alliances or trade between players is a desirable feature, and a way to add balance and drama by letting the players resolve a runaway leader themselves–but the more freeform the negotiations can be, the longer the game will take.

After this amount of thinking about it, the idea of a 90-minute Civ game seems extraordinarily ambitious but not, as I had suspected at the outset, outright crazy. It requires some well-considered and painful sacrifices of a couple of genre tropes, which will certainly turn some people off; it requires very elegant mechanisms for expansion, exploration, and technology, probably even creating some innovative new ones or combining existing ones in unexpected ways.

Bluffing Game (now: Badgerkastan)

I got in a playtest of the previously-untitled bluffing game that I prototyped a few days ago last night. I’m pleased to find that the concept shows promise, although it clearly has a long way to go; enough promise that it’s worth talking about here.

First, I’m going to go with Badgerkastan for a working title. It lends itself well to the dark-humor tone I’ve got in mind now, and if I need to lighten the tone: well, anthropomorphic badgers are just as good as the go-to fantasy or SF tropes.

An overview of the game: The players are vying for control of seven ministries of Badgerkastan (the Ministry of Petroleum, the Secret Police, the Underworld, etc.) Each player plays cards face-down to their own side of the ministry. The Despot wins ministries by default when they are scored–more about that in a second–but the cards and actions they can take are different:

The Fundamentalist has a hand of cards and draws one for free from a 30-card deck every turn. This deck contains a bunch of Desperate Civilians (which are bluffs, and do nothing) but also Fanatic Infiltrators (which win the ministry), Sympathetic Innocents (which grant Foreign Influence if they are killed by the Despot), and Bombers (which prevent the ministry from scoring altogether, and grant the Fundamentalist bonus points if the important Despot characters were present). With an action, the Fundamentalist can draw extra cards or place three cards into any ministry. By spending cash (a secondary resource that is gained by spending an action or winning certain ministries), the Fundamentalist can draw and place in the same action, recall and redeploy many existing cards, or reveal Despot cards.

The Despot always has access to all their cards. The Despot controls a Popular Reformer (that cancels one Fanatic Infiltrator), a President’s Cousin (that cancels any number of them), and an Oil Executive, which grants Foreign Influence if it scores. With an action, the Despot can move two cards, reveal two Fundamentalist cards, or kill one Fundamentalist card. By spending cash, the Despot can kill or reveal all the Fundamentalist cards in a location.

A separate Scoring deck shows the ministries that will soon be scored; five scoring cards are laid out in a queue. The flow of the game is this: after every three half-turns, the player who’s about to play chooses a ministry to score. Choosing the first scoring card is free; you can also choose later from the queue (discarding everything that was skipped) for $1 per card. When a ministry is scored, all the cards in it are revealed, and the winner advances the score marker the appropriate amount towards their side. Scoring is a tug-of-war, but every Foreign Influence increases all your future score gains by 1, which should (hopefully) make the game end eventually.

After two games, we found that the Despot side is much too strong; the ability to win ties, plus the relative scarcity of Fanatic Infiltrators, means it’s too easy to secure safe ministries to score. Here are the changes I have ready for the next iteration. Hopefully these will even the scales, add another layer of guessing, and allow some mechanisms that didn’t quite work before to shine:

  • Choosing non-default scoring options was too easy, so the costs are adjusted. Choosing the default scoring now grants $1; choosing non-default now costs $1 plus $1 per card skipped.
  • Fundamentalist gets 5-6 new Angry Mob cards. Two Angry Mobs will allow the Fundamentalist to win a ministry if the Despot doesn’t have a defender present.
  • Fundamentalist gets 2-3 new Foreign Martyr cards that grant cash if the Despot kills them. (We felt that the Despot could use the ability to kill Fundamentalist cards with relative impunity, even with Sympathetic Innocents available.)
  • Fundamentalist gets 1-2 new cards, title unknown, that can win a ministry on their own if no Despot cards are present (even the bluffs).
  • Fundamentalist gets an additional free option: draw one card, play one card.
  • Fundamentalist will probably lose one Sympathetic Innocent.
  • Despot gains a new Riot Police card that cancels Angry Mobs. It also returns cards to hand when the ministry is scored, instead of leaving them revealed.
  • Despot gains a new War Profiteer card that grants cash if it is present when the Fundamentalistscores.
  • Despot’s paid action that examines a Fundamentalist card and can kill it can now optionally return it to hand as well.
  • Despot gets a new paid action to kill two cards in different locations.
  • Both Despot and Fundamentalist have action costs reduced to make prohibitively-expensive actions worth considering.
  • All ministries now score the same for both sides. I had thought some asymmetry here might be interesting–it turns out that in a two-player game, it’s not, and doubly so since the scoring is a tug-of-war.

Civilization Games

A few days ago I wrote about why I think the goal of Walsingham is a “Holy Grail” design. It’s the Holy Grail I am most interested in, but not the most famous. The most famous Holy Grail design, I think, is “Civ-Lite”, or a Civilization game that plays in 90 minutes or less. To get an idea of why that goal seems so out of reach, let’s look at the existing Civilization games and what players expect from them.

The first Civilization game was, well, Francis Tresham’s Civilization, published back in 1980 by Avalon Hill. The game is well-regarded but long out-of-print; I have never actually played. Each player controlled a Mediterranean civilization (Egypt, Assyria, Crete, etc). struggling for supremacy from the late Stone Age through the early Iron Age. The Civilization board game inspired the classic video game by the same name; Civilization was excellent, widely popular, and became in many eyes, including mine, the prototype of what a “4X” game should be. The 4X acronym stands for:

  • eXplore: players start off without much knowledge of the world and must explore to find resources and contact other players
  • eXpand: players grow their empires and claim territory by colonizing the areas around them
  • eXploit: players use the resources to research technology, create civic improvements, and muster military units
  • eXterminate: players are able to attack one another, gaining control of territory and possibly winning through eventual world conquest
  • Although it’s not spelled out in the acronym, technological progress has always been a key part of the Civilization series and the games it’s inspired. Technology provides more powerful military units, the ability to create bigger and more productive cities, and other capabilities as well, such as espionage or incresed mobility. One of the interesting parts of a Civilization-type game is prioritizing what technologies is most important to develop, and prioritizing technology which will be useful in the future against a military buildup that might be needed immediately.

(Whether on the computer or tabletop, most 4X games have either been about historical Earth civilizations, or interstellar civilizations, often starting off at the dawn of interstellar travel. On the computer, the Master of Orion and Galactic Civilizations series use the latter theme. A notable outlier is Alpha Centauri, a science-fiction game that takes place on humanity’s first colony, a single planet orbiting the titular star.)

Building a 4X board game is not easy, but it’s been done successfully several times: Twilight Imperium, Eclipse, Civilzation: the Board Game, and Through the Ages are all popular.

  • eXplore: It’s very hard to simulate fog-of-war, where some players have geographic information but not others, on a tabletop board. Often exploration reduces to granting the first player to send scouts into a new area a random event which can be good or bad (an ancient technology, a resource cache, angry natives, etc.)
  • eXpand and eXploit: This is board games’ wheelhouse; from Settlers of Catan to Puerto Rico to Hansa Teutonica and far beyond, many games have been designed and developed to challenge players to find the best ways to turn the resources they have into the resources they need.
  • eXterminate: This is the toughest challenge for a designer. Players expect direct, aggressive conflict; and this conflict will indeed drive the tension and drama that makes 4X games memorable. Naturally, this aggression usually takes the form of conquest. This opens up many design issues, though:
    • The conflict should not take too long to resolve–or the players who aren’t directly involved will get bored on the sidelines
    • There should be a way for wars to be limited, rather than total. On the computer, this is often modeled through war-weariness, having to spend resources to quell rebellions in captured territory, etc.. These details would typically be elided from a tabletop game, but if they’re simply removed, there’s little reason to simply take a few resources from a beaten foe rather than conquering everything. (Civilization: the Board Game handles this by saying: if you capture the capital of any rival, you win immediately! This provides a strong incentive to ally against an aggressive rival–or for a third player to threaten to pick off the loser and claim victory if the fight proves indecisive.)
    • There should be a way for players to ally with each other and against others to mediate a balance of power.
  • Technology: Like expansion and exploitation, the idea of gradually increasing capabilities is familiar territory for board games; unlike expansion and exploitation, the 4X genre demands a level of scope and sophistication that’s beyond, say, Hansa Teutonica‘s advancements or Agricola‘s occupations. Technology needs to be integrated into the resource system; it needs to meaningfully affect both your military power and further resource-handling capabilities; and there needs to be a way of tracking it so you can determine what every player can do as the game progresses.

This article is already long enough, so in a later article I’ll talk about the additional complexities of trying to distill all of this excitement into a 90-minute game, and discuss why that Grail might be entirely legendary.

Favorite Physical Tools

A few days ago, I wrote about some of my favorite software tools for prototyping. Today, I’ll list some of my favorite physical tools.

Rotary Paper Trimmer: I use this to cut out cards printed with nanDECK. It’s much faster than using scissors and gives more satisfying, straighter cuts. I have a large one that makes it easy to line up a large piece of paper on the grid lines, which is also helpful. (I print on ordinary printer paper rather than cardstock, then put the slips of paper into a sleeve backed with an old CCG card, like making proxies.) Mine is a Fiskars that I got at Costco a long time ago.

As a side note, Dragon Shield and KMC sleeves are the best I have found, but they’re on the expensive side. Most of my prototype sleeves are ugly holographic Ultra Pros that I got in the bargain bin at an Origins booth.

Plastic Cubes: Whether these are player markers, resources, trackers, or something else, almost every game needs cubes for something for another. The best deal I found is at educational supply store EAI.

Glue Stick: Liquid glue is messy and warps paper. Tape doesn’t roll on well and sticks up. Glue sticks are perfect. I mostly use glue to mount printed gameboards to posterboard to give them some heft (laminate at OfficeMax for extra durability), and to mount small paper squares to craft-store chipboard squares to make counters.

Cutting Mat/Utility Knife/Metal Ruler: This trio of items is how I cut posterboard to the right size to mount printed gameboards on. The cutting mat and ruler are from a discount craft store; the utility knife, from a hardware store. I used to use an X-Acto knife; the utility knife is a much better tool for cutting cardboard.

B&W Laser Printer: I have a Brother laser printer which I love. It’s reliable, sharp, and above all, cheap to operate. I do color printing at OfficeMax/Staples/Kinko’s; it’s cheap enough that trying to maintain my own color printer doesn’t make sense..

Sharpie Permanent Markers in a variety pack: For adding small amounts of color to home-printed B&W documents, and making changes post-printing or on-the-fly. Also for playing 1000 Blank White Cards.

Swingline Laminator:This is the newest item on the list–a Christmas gift last year–but already I love it. I would not have even thought to get it for myself (lamination is hard, right?) but the device is inexpensive ($20-$25), easy to use, and the sleeves are inexpensive as well. Laminating is a surprising way to give printed-out materials a lot of durability, heft, and even gravitas.

Design for Untitled Bluffing Game

Invasion and Walsingham are both waiting on another playtest, so it’s time to bring an all-new game out of my notebooks and onto the table. This is a high-level view, of course, so everything is liable to change–both as I put it together, and after a play or two reveals if the game is actually fun in the way I want it to be.

I played Netrunner for a while after it came out. It’s a fantastic game that I enjoyed a lot. However, the living, customizable aspect means that playing the game requires an ongoing investment of time and energy, which I just didn’t have in me. I’m trying to capture my favorite element of Netrunner in its own non-customizable, play-out-of-the-box game. That element is the bluff and counter-bluff of choosing what servers to defend and attack. The Runner can successfully attack any target, but not every target. The Corp secretly chooses where to place its valuable targets and its ambushes, and where to place defenses. The obvious choice is to defend the most important targets most fiercely–but doing this naively signals to the Runner exactly where the valuable targets are!

Netrunner also has a big chunk of customization that delves into the details of how these attacks and defenses will be mustered–fast vs. slow, cautious vs. reckless, and so on; this is what I’m hoping to elide from my new game to focus it down to the bluffing, intelligence-gathering experience.

The tentative theme for this still-untitled game is that one player controls the despotic leadership of a small country, and the other player controls a religious fundamentalist insurgency that’s trying to infiltrate the government so it can be overthrown and replaced with a theocracy. Looked at in this jaundiced way, both players are “bad guys”, and the theme is dark, maybe darker than I would prefer since I would like the game to be accessible and fast. I have several directions I could take it, in rough order of grimmest to lightest:

  1. Theme the game after Syria, which was the inspiration for the theme. This is a bad idea.
  2. Theme the game after a fictional Middle East/Central Asian country, and a fictional religion, but keep the tone serious.
  3. Theme the game after a fictional country and religion, but make the tone dark humor (like, say, Junta or Illuminati) rather than serious. This is what I am currently leaning towards, and if I continue the name of the country and game is likely to be Badgerkastan.
  4. As above, but throw a fantasy or science fiction theme on to go one step further away from real events and say “this isn’t real”… or “I wish this weren’t real.” Red November does this. It’s a cooperative game about averting disaster on a submarine. But it’s not about people drowning horribly, because the characters are gnomes!
  5. Scrap the theme entirely and choose something else.

Addressing the Kingmaker Problem in Other Games

After yesterday’s article about the kingmaker problem in Invasion, I thought it might be interesting to examine some other games and see how they avoid a similar kingmaker problem. I’ll focus on area majority games, since that’s Invasion’s style.

El Grande: This game was the inspiration for Invasion. The thing that prevents a kingmaker situation here is the simultaneous selection provided by the dial choice in the Castillo; no one player gets to affect the board last.

Evo: This game provided the inspiration for Invasion’s Will Smith rule. The rounds are tracked with a marker that also shifts the weather. After a certain point, a die is rolled after every turn. If it rolls high enough–against a threshold that gets lower and lower–the meteor hits, ending the game.

Chaos in the Old World: For a game with so much fighting, Chaos actually has a simple underlying area-majority mechanic for scoring Domination. But because of the uncertainty provided by battle dice, where the destructive power of even the smallest fighter is potentially unlimited, each player just has to set up their forces to increase their chances and pray for the best.

Carcassone: One of the important features of the other games I listed is that players have fairly free rein to attack and interfere with any other player at any time. By contrast, in Carcassone, your ability to interfere is heavily limited based on what tile you draw. You can usually improve your own position, and targetting a particular enemy is usually pretty difficult. These factors add up to no particular kingmaker problem.

Louis XIV: With its seemingly open, deterministic scoring and one last player, Louis XIV seems ripe for a kingmaker problem. However, the secret scoring bonus for crest majorities provides that tiny bit of uncertainty to make it usually more advantageous to increase your own score rather than tearing down a particular opponent.

Montana: I have to add a plug for my own design in here! Secret goals were added early to Montana and they manage to fill two important design goals at once. First, they increase the degree to which some regions are more valuable to some players than others. Second, they provide such a large chunk of the winner’s points (possibly a third or so) that attacking a “leader” before you know whether they managed to even managed to hit their secret missions is risky indeed.

I considered some kind of secret goals for Invasion, but I don’t think it’s the right choice. Invasion is supposed to be about making the best of a rapidly-fluctuating situation, not pushing towards one particular outcome.

Invasion: Rules PDF

As I promised on Twitter, here’s the latest rules for Invasion. Along with the latest rule and terminology changes, I also moved from Word to LaTeX, which changes the content in no way but makes it look super classy. (The last time I used LaTeX, I just used a text editor. I tried LyX but never got into it. This time, I used Texmaker, which is a really nice environment.)

Invasion Rules

Addressing the Kingmaker Problem in Invasion

When I wrote about my recent playtest of Invasion, the last point I mentioned was that I found myself in a kingmaker situation: I could not win myself, and I could stop either of two other players from winning, but not both. I ended up making the play that maximized my own score, but it made an unsatisfying end to what had otherwise been a tense and active game. I left this point until last not because it was least important, but because unlike the other points, I was completely unsure what I was going to do about it.

I want for players in a position like mine to be able to credibly play to maximize their score–or to narrow the gap between their score and the leader’s–without the futility of “the game is ending this turn so why bother?” The first way I attempted to solve this in a previous Invasion iteration was the “Will Smith Rule”: when the game would otherwise be over, roll a d6. On a 6, Will Smith’s heroics buy the humans a respite and the game lasts another turn. (Yes, the name was inspired by his role in Independence day.)

This mechanic works, but it has some flaws that kept me from ever becoming fond of it. It feels tacked-on and arbitrary, because it is. It comes as a surprise for first-time players, because it comes up only once, at the climax, and doesn’t fit the pattern of the rest of the game. It’s out of the players’ control. And every so often a game is going to drag on senselessly, boring everyone involved even when the winner is clear. Invasion is already tuned to be the “right length”; occasionally lasting for another turn is fine, but it shouldn’t happen frequently or for many turns.

To try to put the decision in player hands in a later iteration, I scrapped the Will Smith rule and created a Technology card: “Futile Heroics”. The text of this card essentially read “If this card is in your hand when the game is over, reveal it; you get 2 VP and there’s a 1/3 chance that the game lasts another round.” On one hand, this was an improvement, because it gave control to the players and didn’t require any extra rules explanation. On the other hand, it was a disappointing and low-impact card to draw, and when players avoided the Technology deck, it almost never came out at all. Also, in most situations players wouldn’t want to keep a Technology card unused in between turns. When I transformed the random-draw Technology deck into the common-pool Gadget deck, Futile Heroics didn’t make the cut, but that meant nothing was left.

My change for the next iteration is: a few of the Gadget cards now have an hourglass in the corner. (Currently, 4 out of 30.) When the game would otherwise end, you reveal one; on an hourglass, you set that card aside and play another turn. This seems a lot like the Will Smith rule, but I’m optimistic about it for a couple reasons:

  • There are enough Hourglass cards that one of them will almost certainly show up in the first two or three rounds. At that point, if there are first-time players, the rules teacher can reiterate its effect on the game end. The icons on cards act as a quiet reminder that the rule exists.
  • Because the icon is printed on existing cards, it seems like an organic part of the game. It also doesn’t require another component.
  • Because the cards are removed from the deck as they trigger, this provides a natural way to reduce the chances that the game keeps going on, without having to add any new rules or complexity.

Towards a Holy Grail (Part 3)

Here, as promised, is a short rundown of the changes I am planning for the next playtest of Walsingham. Everything is subject to change, of course, even mid-game if it ends up not working out.

  • Theme: As I’ve been mentioning, the current title is now Walsingham, after Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster. Conceptually, the players are merchants buying and selling secrets to win favors from the Crown–but one is secretly a spy for the Spanish! I am relatively pleased with this theme and will probably stick with it if the game ends up being fun.
  • Graphics and Terminology: The resource that the Spy wants is now known as Intrigue. Intrigue is now no longer harmful to non-Spy players; in fact, players get a small reward for stopping the Spy from winning by collecting more Intrigue. Victory Points are still Victory Points. Both of them have their own icons, which I got from game-icons.net:
    VP

    VP

    Intrigue

    Intrigue

  • Auction: The complicated simultaneous auction is replaced with a dollar auction in which non-winners pay half. The highest bidders get first choice of the rewards on offer each round. (This is the same mechanic as For Sale and similar to Steam.) This should speed the game significantly, since I think one of its largest weaknesses is likely to be an anticlimactic period in between when the Spy becomes obvious and the end of the game.
  • Secrets: Several rewards allow the players to draw 3 / keep 1 card from a Secret deck. This deck contains both VPs and Intrigue. This lets players accumulate Intrigue without it being obvious; of course, since there are plenty of VPs available, a player going for VPs could attract false suspicion. A few cards let you peek at the Secrets an opponent has collected.
  • Narrower Rewards: Previous iterations of the game featured a wide array of rewards. The only real rewards now available for bidding are VPs, Intrigue, and information. A few cards are worth extra VP or information in if you collect both cards of a set. Some of the reward chips do come in two different colors, and Loyalty cards reward players for collecting more of one than the other. This is to give the bidding some “texture” and cover for Spies to bid erratically.
  • Stinginess of Information: At the end of the game, starting with the player with the least (public) Intrigue, everyone gets to make an Accusation of the spy. An incorrect accusation carries no penalty. A correct accusation gives two rewards: first, a sizable VP award, and second, the Spy loses both VP and Intrigue. On one hand, sharing one’s information about the Spy can help everyone correctly accuse the Spy and stop the automatic win. On the other hand, being close-lipped–or lying outright–can help a player reap the successful-accusation reward alone. Since there is no penalty for being wrongly accused, players may even choose to deliberately act suspiciously to throw off rivals.