Category Archives: Invasion

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.

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.

Invasion Playtest Report

Tonight was the first playtest of my post-Protospiel changes to Invasion. I was pleased that all the changes seemed to be more or less successful, although a few changes are in order.

  • The previous iteration had players choose any free region to place their Mothership in on the first round of the game. This iteration has each player choose a Portal card, which indicates a location for a mothership and two bonus ships. This narrows the choices and jump-starts the game, so I approve. This playtest version also granted some Energy based on the relative desirability of the Mothership spot. I will remove that as too complicated in the next iteration; any players sophisticated enough to care about the small difference will settle it through bidding.
  • The previous iteration used turn order cards 1-6, refreshed every turn, and used dice to distribute bonus Action Point chips between them. This iteration uses a small deck of turn order cards 1-16, some of which have bonus Action Points built in. This works well; it not only cuts down on the components but speeds the turn up slightly. Some of the cards gave bonus Energy in this iteration. That will change to a discount in Gadget cost to encourage using those and also to reduce the amount of component-shuffling.
  • I replaced the large and small washers that served as money with red and yellow plastic winks (transparent bingo chips). This worked great; players had no trouble remembering which was which, they look classier, and the game term “Energy” works much better than “Iron Points”. I replaced the pennies that indicated increased region value with small laminated paper chips with a “2” on them (the amount they increase the value by). This worked great except that they were too small, so I’ll print some slightly larger ones for the next iteration.
  • The big new change in this iteration is that the one-shot Technology cards, purchased in one turn from the deck and used later, were replaced by Gadget cards, which are refreshed at the start of the turn and are purchased and used immediately. They also have variable costs. This ended up working very well, infusing some more “action” into the game. However, some specific changes are in order:
    • Remove all the cards that don’t directly affect the board. One gained energy, one gained VP, neither led to an interesting situation or decision.
    • Rebalance card costs or effects to account for the fact that destroying or moving enemy ships is generally more powerful than moving or deploying friendly ships. (It lets you focus more strongly; it doesn’t lead to increased casualties; it makes it easier to lean on a leader.)
  • A secondary effect of the Gadget cards is that going earlier in turn order is now better than it used to be, because it gives a better choice of Gadget cards. I already accounted for this somewhat by reducing the spread of Action Points available between high- and low-numbered cards; I’ll keep an eye because if it makes the cards too equal, I’ll need to de-equalize them again to make bidding more interesting.
  • As the last player on the last turn, I found myself in a kingmaker situation: I could stop one of two opponents from winning, but not both. This is not ideal, and the possibility of such kingmaker situations is the worst problem that has plagued Invasion since its inception. I think the game is good enough to survive with this flaw, but I’d still like to see it resolved… somehow.

Thanks to Paul Jacobs, Eric Steiger, and Carla Schober for playing!

Invasion: Playtesting Anecdote

A story about the Gadget/Technology cards in Invasion from Protospiel. A playtester had just purchased a card with the following 12 words of text:

Move up to 3 of your own or enemy ships to Europe.

Playtester: “I hate this card, this is stupid. Europe isn’t scoring this turn so this is useless.”

Me: “Since Europe isn’t scoring, why don’t you move another player’s ships there?”

Playtester: “You can’t do that with this card.”

Me: “I’m pretty sure it says you can.”

Playtester: “No, it doesn’t.”

Me, now concerned that there is an error on the card: “Can I see?”

As it turns out, reading the card aloud was enough to convince the player that it could be used to get enemy ships out of the way.

This is a difficult situation. On one hand, I don’t want to confuse players, and I want to take playtester feedback seriously. On the other hand, this is not a complicated effect, and I don’t want to coddle recklessness or incuriousity. This player should be beaten by a more thoughtful opponent.

I hope that my change to Gadget cards that makes them public mitigates the effect of a player drawing a card and being frustrated because the right way to use it isn’t obvious; the other players can use the card instead and forcefully demonstrate.

Invasion: Overview of post-Protospiel Update

Project #1 for the sabbatical is updating my second-oldest prototype, Invasion, based on the feedback that I got at Protospiel. Here are the changes:

  • Rename “Technology” action cards to “Gadget” cards to reflect their single-use nature. Rename “Iron Points” to “Energy”; the old name “Iron Points” is a holdover from when VP (“Gold Points”) could also be spent. This is not a gameplay change, but it will require recreating most of the components.
  • The most common criticisms of Invasion are: some players want more direct aggression against the other players; and players complain about buyers’ remorse after purchasing a Gadget card and not seeing an immediate use for it. To address these issues together, I will rework the way Gadget cards work: Rather than being purchased and spent later, a set of Gadget cards will be available to all players, refreshing each turn. On your turn, you may pay for and use one of the Gadget cards, which is then unavailable to the other players; so there will be an advantage to going first. I may even add in free, weakened effects so that being broke does not shut players out of the cards.
  • Currently, the turn order bid works like this: The turn order cards are laid out 1-6; dice are rolled to see what cards get bonus action points. Mechanically, this works great, but it requires three sets of components: turn order cards, dice, and bonus action point chips. A Protospiel playtester suggested that I could use a slightly larger deck of turn order cards with bonus action points “built in” to the appropriate fraction of the cards, and thereby make the dice and chips unnecessary. I think this is a great idea, and the cards will need to be redone anyway (to handle the change in Gadget cards) so I’ll give it a try while I’m at it.
  • These changes will require a new board and player aids. I hope I still have enough of my old files that regenerating the board is not too hard.
  • All of these changes will require an overhaul of the rules and explainer’s script. I may go to the trouble to typeset the rules in LaTeX; I saw some of Gil Hova’s prototype rules done up in LaTeX a few months ago and they looked very sharp.