Category Archives: Discussion

Ditching a lousy rule

One of the rules I tried out in the playtest was: If there is no Spy, the player with the most Intrigue is eliminated, rather than earning a bonus. This rule arose thematically and on the surface I like it: if it turns out there is no Spy, the person who’s been snooping around all those seedy alleys ends up looking like a conspirator, rather than a hero.

However, upon reflection, this rule is lousy for several reasons, and I’ll be ditching it.

  1. It’s an extra bit of complexity. Every rule that has to do with loyalty has to be taught and drilled in at the very beginning of the game, since you can’t ask clarifying questions midgame without giving everything away, so this rule is extra ripe for removal.
  2. It scares people away from taking Intrigue, creating confusion. I had hoped that it would create a little mini-mind-game of players maybe wanting to deliberately avoid Intrigue. However…
  3. Most importantly, it will never be relevant. To actually affect the outcome of the game, this rule would mean that one player would have to collect both the most VP (to otherwise win the game) and the most Intrigue (to lose instead). Given that VP and Intrigue do not usually appear together on cards, this is improbable to the point of impossibility, even in the face of soft or even inept opposition.

As a result, I’ll be ditching this rule entirely. If there is no Spy, there will be no bonus for having the most Intrigue (so gathering it was a waste) but there’s no overt penalty. I will also be removing the Secret cards that provided negative Intrigue and replace them with something else. I’m considering either a split VP/Intrigue card or a Secret card that provides a large Intrigue bonus (4 or so) if it is your only Intrigue-providing Secret.

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.

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.

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.