Sum of its parts

This is my personal gaming blog. To give you an idea of my taste in games, I offer this quote: "Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." -- Antoine de Saint-Exuper The blog will probably be mostly gaming projects, mathematical analysis, and reviews of game designs (the blog title is taken from my very intermittant review series). While I do dabble in design, I admit I'm one of those people who gets distracted with real life or another game and never gets things out of the door.

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The illusion of choice

James Fung
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I played two games over the weekend. The first was The Stanley Parable. The Stanley Parable is not something you can describe in too much depth lest you spoil it. I hope I'm not giving too much away in saying that its thesis is on what constitutes a decision in games.

The second game was The Walking Dead, a game that has breathed new life into the adventure game genre. It does this by breaking some long-standing rules.

First, for some conversations, you are not allowed to methodically click through every dialog option, mining the NPC for painstakingly written and voiced background story, world-building details, and character development. Instead, you make a choice, the NPCs take note of the way you responded, and the game moves on. Second, these decisions often have a timer and, if you don't answer promptly, the game interprets that as silence, the NPCs take note of that, and the game still moves on.

NPCs react to how you avoid questions, who you back up in arguments, and what you choose to do when there's not enough time to do everything. The Walking Dead, name aside, is not really about the walking dead; it's about the living and what they value and how they act when it's a question whether everyone will survive until next week. When it comes to the player's actions, the timer is barely long enough to read all the choices and make a split-second decision. Unlike most adventure games, which are pretty cerebral, The Walking Dead player often goes with their gut reaction. This makes the game experience feel very primal. (At least it does for me, but I play a lot of turn-based strategy games, so I don't make a lot of knee-jerk decisions.)

That said, The Walking Dead is exactly the sort of game that The Stanley Parable is critiquing. Do your decisions in The Walking Dead affect the game? Yes. I've tried to play mediator in fights only to have both hold a grudge against me for not backing them up. I've made decisions knowing that I'm leaving one character to die. (The player is forced to make a similar call in Mass Effect.) Choices made over the first 4 chapters determine who sticks around to help you in the last chapter.

But do your decisions really matter? The Stanley Parable would argue no. If you survive all of the instant-death quicktime events and finish the game, whatever choices you make, certain things are scripted to happen. For example:

Spoiler (click to reveal)
In chapter 1, Lee makes a decision to save Carley or Doug. Whoever he saves will be killed in a particular scene in chapter 3.


This is not new to games. Pretty much every game with an authored narrative does this. Oh, certain events might be taken out of order. So called "sandbox" games may give the player great leniency with how to accomplish goals or just let them ignore the main storyline while they pursue their own objectives. Many games, if there is a fork in the middle of the plot, the options will play out differently but parallel to each other for a few scenes before merging back onto the main storyline.

The reason is simple: it takes a lot of time and effort to write, voice, animate, and polish a strong, cohesive narrative. Now imagine if every significant choice the player makes means writing a separate plotline with minimal reuse of the existing ones. Such a game would soon become economically impractical.

The fact is that current technology does not have a way of procedurally generating interesting narratives. The closest thing may be The Sims, which models characters as individual agents with their own desires so dynamics happen organically. Unfortunately, the player still has to interpret what happens into their own narrative. Or, as most often happens, inject their own drama into events. Without a significant improvement in artificial intelligence, we probably won't be generating interesting stories there.

Maybe we should accept that most video games are effectively interactive movies and just enjoy the show.
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Sat Jan 4, 2014 7:09 pm
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Design Diary: Trench Run and Quidditch

James Fung
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Quidditch: Apparently I never announced when I started working on a new game design project, Quidditch. The central idea of the game is that each of the four houses is tied to a particular classical element and plays quidditch in the style of that element. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender fights on broomsticks. Gryffindors have powerful moves but tend to burn themselves out (e.g., have trouble maintaining hand size, their players need to take time to recover); Hufflepuffs use solid but not very flashy plays; Ravenclaws are extremely mobile and hard to hit but are not good at direct confrontations; Slytherin, as opposed to their book personas as bullies and cheaters, are adaptable, stronger but less fluid than air, weaker but less inflexible than earth.

A challenge all quidditch games face is how to prevent the seeker from dominating the outcome. My approach is to have each play that scores the quaffle represent several such scoring drives, earning 10-40 points. We'll see if it works.

Status update: the central game mechanics of movement and ball control are decided, as are most of the actions on the cards. I'm currently deciding the composition of each house's deck.

Trench Run: I recently played Delve: The Dice Game. It is fun, though a bit easy when you can stall killing the last monster HP while you fully heal your party before moving onto the next battle (I'm currently 5 for 5 on the starting adventure). I can't but help notice that my free web-published dice game Modern Pentathlon with a similar category dice game mechanic (at least in the Show Jumping event) never took off. This may not be an objective opinion, but I like my game better because there are more interesting decisions.

However, I admit that my game has some significant flaws, and Delve and D-Day Dice have several big advantages over my amateurish game:

1) Popular theme - I was hoping to at least get the Reiner Knizia's Decathlon community on board, but even that is quite small. In contrast, RPGs and wargamers are large(r) communities to draw upon.

2) Solitaire play - My hypothesis is that the only regular BGGers will hear about print & play games. But if a BGG recommends a game to their group, they will recommend one of the thousands of excellent, highly polished, published designer games available, not some amateur's dice game with too verbose rules. However, the BGGer may be more lenient when selecting a solitaire game to kill some time. Too bad Modern Decathlon was designed to require at least 2 other players, as I wished avoid criticism of multiplayer solitaire.

3) Graphics - Graphics do help make a product look more professional.

Anyway, time to suck up my pride and admit I have a ways to go. Given the above, I have new game idea: Trench Run, where the player gets to relive the epic space battle of Endor. To keep things fresh, I plan to have random scenario generation by putting dangers on cards and having the player reveal them turn by turn (like in Friday). The central game mechanic will very likely be a category dice game mechanic, as used in Delve and D-Day Dice, though I still wish to incorporate other dice game mechanics. The player will have a cast of ships that give him certain abilities (i.e. Lando/Millenium Falcon lets the player set the value of any die), and hopefully the combination of what ships are available to act and what dangers are on the table and what dangers scanners see in the future will make for dynamic gameplay with interesting decisions.

Status update: I'm currently collecting a list of pilots, starfighters, and capital ships involved in the battle as a basis for what elements to put into the game.
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Sat Mar 24, 2012 8:40 pm
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Games in the Classroom #4: Stone Age (Part 1)

James Fung
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Q1. You’re playing Stone Age. You place 2 workers on gold, 2 on brick, and 1 on food. What is the expected amount of each resource you’ll collect?

A1. Let G, B, and F be, respectively, the number of resources we get. Let X, Y, and Z be the rolls.

P(G=0) = P(X in {2,3,4,5}) = 10/36
P(G=1) = P(X in {6,7,8,9,10,11}) = 25/36
P(G=2) = P(X=12) = 1/36
(AN: Sorry, can’t use summation notation in BGG)
E[G] = 0 P(G=0) + 1 P(G=1) + 2 P(G = 2) = 0(10/36) + 1(25/36) + 2(1/36) = 27/36 = 0.75 gold

Similarly, we find E[ B ] = 49/36 = 1.36 brick and E[F] = 9/6 = 1.5 food. This a simple exercise in expectation for discrete random variables.

Q2. You have the same situation as before, but now you have a single tool. Assume you roll for resources in order: gold, brick, food. Also assume you use the tool if it will allow you to gain an additional resource but otherwise not.

A2. Let event TG be true if we have the tool before rolling for gold, and similarly for TB and TF. (One of the problems with probability notation is using capital letter for both events and random variables. Have to think of an alternative. Maybe Roman and Greek letters?) Furthermore, let TGc be the complement of event TG, and similarly for the others. We have already calculated:

E[G|TGc] = 3/4
E[B|TBc] = 49/36
E[F|TFc] = 3/2

We should recalculate the expectations given the tool (the calculations are very similar to the above, so they’re omitted):

E[G|TG] = 33/36 = 0.92
E[B|TB] = 59/36 = 1.63
E[F|TF] = 2

Also, we should calculate the probability that we retain the tool after rolling for each resource:

P(TB) = P(X not in {5,11}) = 30/36
P(TF) = P(TF|TB) P(TB) + P(TF|TBc) P(TBc) = P(Y not in {3,7,11}) P(TB) + 0 P(TBc) = (26/36)(30/36) + 0 = 65/108

That last line comes from the law of total probability in conditional probability since {TB,TBc} is a partition of the event space. Finally, we can use the analog of the law of total probability for condition expectation:

E[ B ] = E[B|TB] P(TB) + E[B|TBc] P(TBc) = (59/36)(5/6) + (49/36)(1/6) = 344/216 = 1.59 brick
E[F] = E[F|TF] P(TF) + E[F|TFc] P(TFc) = (2)(65/108) + (3/2)(43/108) = 389/216 = 1.80 food

In summary, by adding 1 tool, a player in this situation can expect 0.17 extra gold, 0.23 brick, 0.30 food, which I estimate to be worth 2.6 pips that turn, and you get to use the tool every turn. This is why tools are a good investment.

Q3. Instead of having 1 tool, say you now have 5 and then you roll a 7 for gold. Do you use all 5 tools to get an extra gold, or do you save the tools for the other rolls? Because it possible to get as many as 8 pips (1-2 tools for one brick, 3-4 tools for two food). This is a trickier problem which I’ll save for Part 2.
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Thu Aug 25, 2011 8:26 pm
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Games in the Classroom #3: Can’t Stop

James Fung
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Here’s an example of using conditional probability to solve for a result in Can't Stop.

Q. What is the probability of rolling at least one 7?

A. Let A, B, C, and D represent the four dice rolls. Because of symmetry, it doesn’t matter what A is.

There are 3 cases to consider for B:
* B = 7 – A, a 1-in-6 probability, in which we have failed to not roll a 7.
* B = A, a 1-in-6 probability.
* Otherwise, a 4-in-6 probability.

Therefore, after 2 dice, we have 3 cases:
* 7 has been rolled: probability 1/6
* Only 1 unique number has been rolled: probability 1/6
* 2 unique numbers have been rolled (that don’t add up to 7, which I’ll leave implied): probability 2/6

Let’s add a third die:
* P(7 has been rolled after 3 dice) = P(7 has been rolled after 3 dice | 7 has been rolled after 2 dice) P(7 has been rolled after 2 dice) + P(7 has been rolled after 3 dice | 1 unique number after 2 dice) P(1 unique number after 2 dice) + P(7 has been rolled after 3 dice | 2 unique numbers after 2 dice) P(2 unique numbers after 2 dice) = (1)(1/6) + (1/6)(1/6) + (2/6)(4/6) = 15/36
* P(1 unique number after 3 dice) = P(1 unique number after 3 dice | 1 unique number after 2 dice) = (1/6)(1/6) = 1/36
* P(2 unique numbers after 3 dice) = P(2 unique numbers after 3 dice | 1 unique number after 2 dice) P(1 unique number after 2 dice) + P(2 unique numbers after 3 dice | 2 unique numbers after 2 dice) P(2 unique numbers after 2 dice) = (4/6)(1/6) + (2/6)(4/6) = 12/36
* P(3 unique numbers after 3 dice) = P(3 unique numbers after 3 dice | 2 unique numbers after 2 dice) P(2 unique numbers after 2 dice) = (2/6)(4/6) = 8/36

Sanity check: these add up to 1. Finally, the 4th die:
* P(7 has been rolled after 4 dice) = P(7 has been rolled after 4 dice | 7 has been rolled after 3 dice) P(7 has been rolled after 3 dice) + P(7 has been rolled after 4 dice | 1 unique number after 4 dice) P(1 unique number after 4 dice) + P(7 has been rolled after 4 dice | 2 unique numbers after 3 dice) P(2 unique numbers after 3 dice) + P(7 has been rolled after 4 dice | 3 unique numbers after 3 dice) P(3 unique numbers after 3 dice) = (1)(15/36) + (1/6)(1/36) + (2/6)(12/36) + (3/6)(8/36) = 139/216 = 59.7%

Of course, all this should be rewritten in the usual mathematical notation so it’s a bit easier to read.

However, I’m having trouble coming up with an elegant solution to what is the likelihood of busting if your columns are 6,7,8 or 5,7,8, etc. I think it becomes a rather tedious counting problem, not much better than just having a computer exhaustively check every possibility. Even the probability of rolling any other number (like 8 ) becomes complicated once we lose the symmetry. That may be an important lesson in itself.

(Games in the Classroom #2 is off-site in my wordpress blog.)
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Wed Aug 24, 2011 7:12 pm
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Games in the classroom #1: Rallyman

James Fung
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Lately, I’ve been thinking about how I would teach various classes I may be called to teach. Frankly, I’m uncertain how to design a project-based course on, say, linear algebra or calculus. But for probability and statistics, I have some ideas: games. There are 2 reasons I want to use games: 1) Games are fun, which I hope will engage students. I want them to want to learn more, to explore a problem and try to solve it for themselves, something I find lacking in many math students. 2) I like games and can talk about them all day. I hope that will give my lessons that little extra fizz since I’m not the most charismatic teacher.

One excellent game that comes to mind is Rallyman. I don’t have time to summarize the rules, but it is an excellent mix of risk management and planning. Here are some ways the game can be used to illustrate various concepts:

Intro. If people don’t know what rally driving is, show them a video of Ken Block or something. Will this turn off people who aren’t interested in cars? Maybe. Have to work on that.

Probability and events. Start with a time attack roll, when all dice are rolled together. What is the probability that 3 hazard symbols come up and you lose control? Well, that depends on the mix of dice being rolled. Start with simple problems of all dice having the same probability of hazards (1-in-6 or 2-in-6), then move onto mixtures. This can lead to discussion of counting (how many ways are there to roll 2 hazards with 4 dice?) and/or making use of the probabilities of the events they just calculated.

Another concept that’s very important here is independent events: the result of one dice doesn’t affect the other dice. Furthermore, say you’re rolling 1 gas and 3 gear dice. We can create events A, one hazard is rolled on the gas die; B, 2 or more hazards are rolled on the gear dice; C, 3 hazards are rolled on the gear dice. Event A is independent of B and C, which makes it easier to calculate probabilities of intersections of events.

Conditional probability. I’m pretty sure there’s an example of conditional probability, but a lot of the simple events (i.e. die rolls) are independent, and the only example I can think of (how one turn impacts the ones after it) is probably better done after discussing expectation.

Random variables and expectation. The bottom line in Rallyman are seconds spent, which is an example of a random variable: if we make this move, we have an 80% chance of using only 10 seconds but a 20% chance of using a whole minute. From this, we can talk about expectation: on average, how many seconds will this take? (Of course, maybe taking only 10 seconds will win you the race while 60 seconds will lose it, so depending on the context, asking about expected number of seconds is the wrong question, but that will have to wait until we talk about cost functions and decision theory.) From there, we can extend this to conditional expectations: if you spin out, that screws up your next turn, which affects the number of seconds that will take.

Big picture. I don’t expect Rallyman to be solved by any student without a computer. I think if Rallyman were used in a classroom, its role would be to illustrate various concepts and to show sample calculations. For evaluation, students would instead use these ideas to study something else.
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Thu Aug 18, 2011 8:22 pm
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My mini(ature) dilemma

James Fung
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I'm not a bits man. I prefer great game mechanics with okay components to okay mechanics with great bits. That said, lately I've been thinking a lot about getting a space combat game with miniatures. As a kid, I liked A New Hope and Return of the Jedi because they had those imagination searing space battles at the end. The fascination has been stoked over the years by those huge battles in Star Trek: DS9 and Babylon 5 and various other media. (I'm also tempted to get Battletech Introductory Box Set because I grew up watching Macross/Robotech.)

I've been shopping around spaceship miniatures for a while, I'm currently torn between getting Battleship Galaxies: The Saturn Offensive Game Set or Full Thrust.

Battleship Galaxies: Things BG has in its favor:

1) It's cheap: For $40-some from online retailers, you get 20 plastic minis plus a load of other stuff.

2) Expansions: The game is designed with the ability to expand, so maybe in a year we'll see some more ships coming out.

Things against it:

3) Gameplay: Reviews of gameplay are a bit mixed. It's definitely on the simpler end of the spectrum, which is fine, because I don't have opponents who want to spend 4-hours plotting out a one-on-one battle (I'm looking at you, Attack Vector: Tactical). However, the most damning criticism seems to be the lack of maneuver, which I feel is crucial for the mental image of space combat.

Bottom line is that I probably won't play the game as printed. For instance, I'll probably borrow a notation/mechanic from the space game I'm designing: if a shield peg is on one side of the hex, it means shields are concentrated on that side. That facing and the two adjacent have double shield rating while all others have none. If a marker is placed at a vertex, the shields are concentrated on the adjacent faces. Having shields being weaker in some areas will encourage ships to maneuver for a better shot.

Full Thrust:

1) Emphasis on fun: FT has quick movement and a variety of weapons and systems in a pretty rules light package. As I said, I don't want a 4-hour game of bookkeeping.

2) Miniature round-up: FT is miniature-independent, so I've been window shopping miniatures. For dirt cheap, see the bottom of this page: 2.55 GBP for 12 minis of various sizes and styles.

However, I'm tempted to get this. For 30GBP (about $48, rising to $55 after shipping), you can get 2 different fleets of 8 ships of varying size. Actually, I made an external blog post here. While more expensive, they will be bigger than the above cheap ones, but probably not as big as the largest BG ships.

3) Miniature gaming?: I've never played a miniature game. Something in the back of my head balks at having to bring out a ruler to move my units or measure range or measure angles accurately. FT only allows course changes in increments of 30 degrees, so why not just put it on a hex-grid?

Of course, what I could do is get BG for the cheap minis and hex-map and mod the rules until I'm happy, even using them to play FT if I wanted. But the FT miniatures look pretty awesome too.
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Thu Aug 11, 2011 10:30 pm
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Republic of Ankh-Morpork

James Fung
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A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post about my anticipated issues with Guards! Guards! A Discworld Boardgame, partly on the theme, partly on mechanics. While it would be better to actually play the game before making opinions about it, I don't really have the luxury. In my circle of friends, I'm the only one who researches and buys new games, so unless I buy it, I'll never have the chance to play it. (Unless I pay for a game rental service...) And this is part of the raison d'etre of BGG: to be able to read about games so we can make buying decisions.

Theme. Anyway, I'm not here to justify my post. But the post did get me thinking about what kind of game, I feel, would capture the theme of the Discworld. I suppose the best place to start is to ask what, if any, is the theme of the Discworld series? While each series (Death, Rincewind, Watch, Witches) has its own flavor, is there a theme running through the series? The closest I can come up with is that the characters must overcome personal issues to advance: Rincewind learns to put friendship and/or doing the right thing above running away; Vimes tames The Beast, which would rather make peace using the sword; Magrat Garlick and Agnes Nitt learn to accept themselves, deficiencies and all. Not really sure how to turn this into a game mechanic, however.

Okay, different tack: is there a theme to Ankh-Morpork? While it has been described as the largest and smelliest city on the disc, those don't translate to game mechanics either. But if I were to characterize the people of the city, I would say that most of them are out to get whatever they can: power-hungry lords and guilds, worshipper hungry gods, profit-hungry businessmen, the plain hungry rank and file for whom petty crime is a fact of city life, other races out to get a slice of the Big Wahoonie. And yet somehow the city works.

Mechanics. This reminded me of The Republic of Rome (and Red Empire, though I never played it, so this is based of descriptions): players represent factions with competiting interests, but on some level they must hang together or they will hang separately. I can envision a game where players face a series of crises and have to spend resources / use character abilities to fight them. Players have to cooperate (or at least form alliances to pool their effort) to beat them, but at the same time don't want to sacrifice too much, kind of like the crises in Battlestar Galactica. There is no shortage of crises in the books: external (the Agatean Empire; Klatch; Uberwald; Borogravia & Zlobenia; the Muntab question; historical rivalries with the cities of the Sto Plains); internal (plots to kill/replace Vetinari; return of the king; racial tension; modernizing the city via newspaper, clacks, post office, and bank; and general chaos caused by tourists, football, etc.); magic/supernatural (the magic war instigated by the sourcerer; summoning of dragons; the Dungeon Dimensions; the Auditors of Reality; attempts to destroy the world by killing gods or stopping time).

If we examine the progression of Ankh-Morpork over time, comparing descriptions in Night Watch to the most recent novels, the patricianship is more stable (Winder had turned most of the city against him and eventually a conspiracy kills him; Snapcase would be no better), mostly because Vetinari is irreplaceable. The rise of the Watch is tied to Vetinari's plans to tame the city. The lords and guilds have always been the big players in the city, though the guilds seem to be winning of late. Also, a growing middle class of small business owners want to have their say, and Unseen Academicals was almost entirely about the lower classes; even Vetinari acknowledges he can't just trample over them and goes through pains to reform football. If possible, I would like to see various sectors of the city wax and wane in influence and wealth.

Vetinari. One nifty idea to simulate the effect of Vetinari was this: if the players don't quite successfully meet the crisis, Vetinari steps in to solve it. But the consequence of this is that he maneuvers himself to be even more essential to running the city, expanding his influence and constraining the players.

Magic. Also, I would like to make one comment about the use of magic in Discworld games. Discworld: Ankh-Morpork takes the view that magic is uncontrollable and inherently dangerous. Guards! Guards! A Discworld Boardgame takes the view that magic is to be used to help yourself and hurt others. I feel the former is much closer to how magic is treated in the books. Actually, I feel the latter is antithetical to the use of magic in the Discworld. As the witches continually mention (and Vimes), if you use magic to govern, it won't stop there. You'll need more and more, and eventually it will go bad. In the context of the Republic of Ankh-Morpork, one way to implement this is whenever a player resorts to magic, the cost becomes increasing higher, and the players are penalized in the final point tally for resorting to magic.

AM vs. GG. Finally, returning to comparison between the games Ankh-Morpork and Guards! Guards!, I feel much more comfortable with Ankh-Morpork, both thematically and in playing time. The Discworld is a not a fantasy world about heroes going on quests (e.g. returning the spells of the Octavo); in many of the books, the characters spend a lot of time just figuring out what crisis they are facing / what is the objective of the conspiracy. That's one point definitely in favor of Ankh-Morpork.

(I'll refrain from tagging Guards! Guards! in this post as I think I've given enough bad press without having tried the game.)
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Tue Jun 21, 2011 8:08 pm
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Design Diary: The essentials of space combat

James Fung
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I was going over my notes and ran across an old idea for a game. It hasn't reached physical prototype yet, but this should give you an idea of the mechanics.

Background: Like many people interested in space combat, I want 1) all of the tactical decisions that we see in sci-fi, 2) with a realistic 3d movement system, but 3) not bogged down in bookkeeping or number crunching. I feel most games that try to do (2) suffer from (3), though everyone has different tolerances for "bogged down."

So the idea is this: maybe what people really want are realism in the tactical decisions they make. If we don't have to track relative velocities and facing in 3 dimensions and boil down tactical decisions to their essentials, we won't get bogged down.

Sequence of play: When a ship activates, it can choose to do 2 of the following 3 things: move, fire, energy. By allowing more than one action, each ship can do something before the enemy can react (for example: move into range and fire; fire a full battery and recharge energy banks for the next salvo), but by not being able to do everything, it leaves the enemy some vulnerability to react to.

Movement: The goal in moving around in space combat usually involves: moving to the optimal range for your weapons; keeping enemy weapons/ships at bay; screening vulnerable ships and otherwise restricting the enemy from taking a more favorable position; orienting so your best shields are facing the biggest threat; attacking an enemy ship from multiple directions so you can a good shot no matter how they reorient. Sure, you can do this in 3d, but essentially we're trying to impose the above on whatever movement system we've created. So why not make it the movement system?

Two ships are either at close range, long range, or disengaged. That forms a progression, so two disengaged ships first move to long range, and another movement can bring them to short range. (This can be done with more than close and long range, but this is just to keep things simple, and a close/long can be represented by a single counter that can be flipped over.) A ship can be engaged (close/long range) with any number of ships; in a 3d environment, we'll assume some solution can be worked out. Two ships that are mutually at close range with any ship are at most at long range, thus an escort can protect another ship by staying at close range to it: any other ship that moves within close range to the protected ship is now within range of the escort's long range weapons, and the escort can move to close range with just one movement. Also, each ship has a primary direction (a marker pointing to another ship) that affects movement and combat.

During movement, a ship can close/extend range and reorient, each of which costs some number of movement points according to the ship. It is easy to close/extend range with the ship that is your primary direction, harder against other ships. Each close/extend range action only affects one connection with an enemy ship and any number of friendly connections.

Reorienting allows the ship to change primary direction and move shield markers around. The shield marker on the primary direction (this will probably be consolidated into one marker) must remain on the primary direction, but the others markers can be rearranged at will (or maybe there will be some limit like rearrange at most 3). If a ship has all of its shields oriented along its primary direction, then it can choose where it gets pointed now, but it exposes itself to any other ships engaged with it. If a ship has shields spread out among several markers, it can maneuver to present fresh shields to various threats.

Combat: Insert your usual space opera stuff here: lasers, missiles, point defenses, shields, hull damage, critical hits, ECM, etc. The interaction with the other game mechanisms is that range and shields will have a considerable impact on combat. Also, not firing in the primary direction suffers some penalties, and supercharged weapons can be fired for more damage, though this consumes energy.

Energy: The energy action does two things: 1) recharges and adjusts shields; and 2) supercharge ship systems (engines and weapons) so they are more effective. Doing shields allows the ship to increase total shield strength (no more than some max specified for the ship) and redistribute them any way they want. Charging engines and weapons can make those actions more effective, though if that energy is spent, they have to be charged again.

Summary: The goal of this design is to strip out the usual movement system where each ship is fixed to some position, and range and shield facings are determined from there. Instead, the movement system goes straight to the point. A battleship charges at your flagship with full shields facing in your direction. Your missile boats fire at long range. Quick little frigates swarm the enemy battleship from multiple directions, forcing it to deal with them (maybe redistribute shields; maybe reorient and blast the frigates one by one). Actions directly change the tactical situation and are not filtered through some vectorized position/movement map system.
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Mon Jun 20, 2011 8:27 pm
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Design Diary: Battle School

James Fung
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Introduction

Okay, this is good way to never be taken seriously again. Before I chase away all readers, let me preface by saying the game I have in mind is based off a work that in turn draws heavily from the Battle School from Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. But while OSC seems to have taken Sun Tzu's chapter on strength and weakness (to paraphrase, if you are "formless" while discerning the enemy's intentions / disposition, you can exploit the enemy's weaknesses while your weaknesses remain unknown) and said nothing more than flexibility and initiative is better than rigid formations, HP&MoR delves a little further into command & control issues, namely command push vs. recon pull doctrine. In particular, it describes initiative and coping with friction (which it refers to as "chaos"). Okay, I can't put it off any longer: the work is Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. And before the stigma of Harry Potter fanfic taints me, I'd like to cite Sturgeon's Law: just because 90% of everything is crud doesn't mean the remaining 10% can't be hilarious. Well, some of that 10%.

For those who are still dubious about the theme, I'd like to point out the command and control mechanism described below was originally designed for a snowball fight game, and later adapted for a space combat game.

C3i

The original command and control mechanism was as follows: each player has 6 (or N) units numbered 1 to 6 (N). Each player takes a number of 6-sided (N-sided) dice and rolls them. Those are the units available to be activated during the player's next turn. When a unit is activated, it's die is rolled. The result is that, most of the time, when a unit activates, it can't be activated again for a while. But this is also true for your opponent, so there's some suspense as to which player's unit in the crucial location will act first. And a savvy player will have some dice saved for that crucial showdown. There are also some ways to play around with the mechanism parameters: increasing the number of dice a player has increases their ability to plan ahead; using d8 instead of d6 would allow some dice to be useless (until, say, the player spends a turn to reroll them); replacing some d6 with d4 would make units 1 to 4 easier to activate than 5 and 6. This command and control mechanism bares some resemblance to Up Front, though with units instead of actions.

The central issue in command push versus recon pull is centralization, pun not intended. The trade-off is this: in recon pull, in exchange for subordinate units being allowed to act independently, use their initiative, and react to circumstances, coordination between assets is complicated by virtue of each subordinate unit needing to communicate its intel to command and other units in order for the group to act in cohesion. This does not necessarily have to be coordinated by command, but to do that would require good lateral communication. Thus recon pull places a premium on good communication and initiative, which usually requires that the force be well-trained, well-equipped, and experienced.

On the flip side, in command push, the commander does all of the coordination between assets. This makes it easier for the entire unit to act together and for the commander to impose their will upon the enemy. The trade-off is that, to coordinate forces, the commander must first collect intel and devise an appropriate plan, and that takes time. Also, it is seems to be part of Command Push culture that subordinate officers do not show too much initiative, as that would be deviating from the plan given to them from on high, but this seems to be more army culture than doctrine telling people to act stupid. Command Push is often associated with large, heavy forces (so the commander's will is irresistible by the enemy) and can be done with lower quality troops since they don't have to think for themselves.

Game Mechanics: C3i

In terms of game mechanics, what I'm currently thinking is this: each unit will have an Initiative rating, which describes its ability to act effectively without instruction. Instead of dice, players will have a hand of cards. Each card will list which unit(s) it can activate and an initiative Target. Units with Initiative equal or higher than Target can use a special ability on the card. Otherwise, the card can activate the unit, but its action (and therefore the player's turn) won't be as effective.

A player who chooses Recon Pull for their army will have increased initiative for all units, thus allowing units to act more effectively, but suffers a reduced hand size, simulating coordination issues. As for Command Push, during a discard turn (the player discards any number of cards and draws back up to their hand size but does nothing that turn) the player may draw any one card from the discard pile before filling their hand, simulating their ability to control assets, though this takes time. I'm still considering what is an appropriate drawback for Command Push: a flat initiative penalty may be too much, so possibly the X non-command units with highest initiative receive a penalty. This and alternatives can be playtested.

As for friction/chaos, I think the cleanest mechanism is for certain combat results to generate Confusion tokens on the battlefield, which lower the initiative of all units involved.

The last C3i issue I'm playing with right now is a player activating more than one unit in a turn in a coordinated action. I really should figure out the combat system first before seeing if something like this is necessary or desired, but an idea I currently have is if a player can activate both units (option 1: both units meet the initiative target; option 2: the player plays an additional card corresponding to their command unit, and the initiative requirement is waived), they act together, say combining their strength, flanking an enemy, etc.

While the above dice mechanic was a simple "play 1, draw 1" turn sequence, playing multiple cards bring up the question of hand replenishment. I'm leaning toward:

* On a discard turn, draw back up to hand size.
* On a normal turn, draw as many cards as unit activated

That is, the effort in making a coordinated action was front-loaded by requiring the player to assemble the required cards, and I think if they have to play with a reduced hand (i.e. simulating the army is fatigued from exerting itself and needs to recover before returning to normal operational tempo) it would unduly penalize the player. But this should also be playtested.

Other game mechanics

I would like each player to have 6 units. There's a reason for this: I'm thinking there will be 4 types of actions: command, and 3 reserved for the traditional rock-paper-scissors of infantry-tank-artillery, except here it would be offensive, defensive, and guile spells/actions. Each type need not strictly dominate another, but there should be asymmetry. A sketch of a card is shown below:


As each card is tied to a particular unit number, we can play with the mix of special actions available to each unit number. For example, unit #1 could be mostly (but not entirely) command and offense, #2 command and defense, #5 offense and guile, etc. Players will construct their armies, and this gives some flexibility as to army composition.

I'm thinking armies will be created through drafting: for a 3-player game, each player draws 3 units. They pick one and pass the rest clockwise. Then repeat with the ones given to them, and accept the last one handed to them. Then do the same counterclockwise.

After each general assembles their army, they secretly assign each unit a number and can perform some pre-battle training. Here is where they would pick a command and control doctrine or perhaps spend time on other things, such as increasing a unit's initiative, teaching a unit to use a particular spell, training a unit to be mounted (on broomsticks), plotting acts of treachery in other teams, etc. These can be put on cards that attach to unit cards and modify them.

For now, I'm thinking of borrowing hexes from Settlers to make a random map. Each hex represents different terrain that affects movement and combat.

A simple fog of war mechanism is to have two tokens for each unit: one real, one dummy. Whenever a player activates and moves a unit, they move both tokens. Under certain circumstances, tokens are revealed, with dummies being removed. At the end of each turn, all tokens are hidden again, and the dummy tokens placed on top of their real counterpart.

That's all I've got right now. I really should figure out the combat system before going much further.
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Thu Apr 14, 2011 2:55 am
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Discworld Dominion Retheme v1.9

James Fung
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A while back I posted that had I brushed off my Discworld Dominion retheme project, and that my goal was to expand it to include Dominion, Dominion: Intrigue, Dominion: Seaside, Dominion: Alchemy, Dominion: Prosperity, and the three promo cards. I'm happy to announce names have been chosen for the 124 different cards, and I'm pretty pleased with most of them. You can find version 1.9 here. Any and all comments and tweaks by Discworld fans are welcome.

And I really would like feedback before I get too far into the next step, which is to do the layout and image editing to turn these into cards. As a preview, this is the new card back:


(Link here if this image breaks.)
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Sat Apr 9, 2011 10:44 pm
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