Unfinished Games

A blog by BenthamFish, alias Alan Paull, sometime games designer, sometime games developer, sometime games player.

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The Ming Voyages: Treasure and Conquest for 2 players

Alan Paull
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The Ming Voyages is one of our new Pocket Campaigns games. It’s the closest to the first Pocket Campaign, The Cousins’ War. David J Mortimer and I designed it as a different take on the multi-use cards and separate dice-based battle system introduced in the earlier game.

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The initial idea was that an asymmetric 2-player game would be very interesting, in contrast to simply drawing from the same deck and having identical starting positions. The Ming Emperor starts with 3 cards and draws 2 cards per round creating a hand of 5 cards. The Barbarain Overlord starts with 4 cards and draws none. Players swap hands when each one has played a single card. Then, rinse and repeat.

As in The Cousins’ War, a player can use a valid action in their opponent’s turn, and part of the game is to limit the efficacy of these extra reactions. For the Ming Emperor, the added complication is that only actions keyed to completed voyages – each voyage being numbered – can be used as reactions. For the Barbarian Overlord, the least powerful cards have no useable action at all (they can only be used for 1 Command Point on the Overlord’s own turn), and many reactions are positional, so may not always be available. This is balanced by a number of cards whose power for the Barbarians is increased when the Ming have completed 4 voyages.

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This new system enables each player, particularly the Ming Emperor to seed the opponent’s hand with cards that might contain actions useful to the non-active player as reactions. The thematic background to this idea was that the Chinese, throughout their Imperial history and including during the Ming dynasty, used Imperial personnel, agents, traders, courtiers and ambassadors to penetrate into the ‘lands of the barbarians’ (basically, any non-Chinese was a barbarian). Besides the usual rounds of negotiations and trading relations, the Chinese had networks of spies and gift-giving officials, whose purpose was to discover the aims and intentions of potentially hostile peoples beyond their borders. Gifts of silk and other luxuries were bestowed on chieftains and rulers in order to bind them to the Chinese economy, and thereby ward off aggression; at least in theory. From these historical traits, we developed the notion that only the Ming Emperor draws cards, and they effectively choose within limits what cards the Barbarian Overlord receives. At the least they know what’s in the Barbarian Overlord’s hand. The Ming Emperor can take cards out of the stream of cards given to the Barbarian Overlord by playing cards into their reserve, or by timing the use of cards to minimise the Overlord’s ability to take advantage of actions during the Ming turn. The Barbarian Overlord can also do this, but to a more limited degree, because their hand is only what they’ve received from the Ming.

Although it might seem that the Barbarian Overlord is weaker, in fact, besides the obvious attack cards that enable them to invade and conquer Chinese Borderlands, they have many cards that can impact on the Ming’s ability to set sail on voyages by raiding for gold and by disrupting the ocean-going junks. In addition, only the Barbarian Overlord can use Command Points from their reserved cards to reinforce their normal CP actions. Where a normal CP action can produce an attack of 3 Horde pieces, this can be increased to a potentially devastating 6 Hordes using reinforcements.

The Ming Emperor can win a major and immediate victory by completing all 7 treasure voyages. But pressure from the Barbarians on the borders cannot be ignored, because the Barbarian Overlord can win a major and immediate victory by conquering all 5 Chinese Borderlands. If neither player can achieve their major victory, a minor victory is awarded from the number of voyages completed plus Borderlands controlled (for the Ming Emperor) and the number of voyages not completed plus Borderlands controlled (for the Barbarian Overlord). The Overlord wins a tie, so the Ming Emperor has to be resourceful.

Players operate the battle sub-system with our signature 3 dice each side to resolve invasions and defensive counter-attacks. Rather than bluffing, as in The Cousins’ War, in this version the attacker rolls their 3 dice first, and chooses whether to use reserved cards to re-roll. You can spend each CP on reserved cards for one re-roll of any number of your dice, the target being to get the best triple, double or single that you can muster. Then, once the attacker has finished, the defender rolls their dice similarly, and can also use reserved cards to re-roll. As in the earlier game, a better triple beats an inferior triple, a better double beats a double and a better single beats a single (ties are re-rolled); these result in the loser removing 1 Troop or Horde. However, triples beat doubles, and doubles beat singles – but these are Devastating Blows and the loser removes 2 pieces. Battles continue until only one side occupies the Borderland, so they can be bloody affairs. Of course, as in The Cousins’ War, the luck of the dice can play a part. This wouldn’t be war without a chance element, and you have to take into account in your tactics and strategy that you might unluckily lose or fortunately win.

I hope this has whetted your appetite for The Ming Voyages. If you’d like to know a bit more, Paul Grogan @ Gaming Rules! will be doing a live tutorial and playthrough of The Ming Voyages on Thursday 13 February at 2pm UK time. Please feel free to join us!

Board Game: The Ming Voyages
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Tue Feb 11, 2020 7:54 pm
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The March of Progress: the basics

Alan Paull
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Cambridgeshire
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Here's a little bit about the basics of The March of Progress, one of our new Pocket Campaigns series of games.

The introductory scenario gives you the fundamentals of the mechanics of the game. It's primarily abstract at this stage; the historical stuff comes in the other scenarios. Each player has a home country card, and between these cards is the neutral country. The maneouvre space is restricted to just these 3 spaces. You start with 1 army each, in your home country, and 2 armies in stock. The neutral country has no armies. Each of your armies is worth 1 combat strength, and your home country can generate 3 VPs whenever you score. The neutral country generates 2 VPs if you control it when you score.
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Initial set-up for The March of Progress, Introductory Scenario

You have 8 Action cards that enable you to move your armies, attack enemy armies in the same country, recruit new armies, fortify your armies – gaining 1 combat strength in defence -, increase your armies’ strength and finally, score VPs while also returning all your cards back to your hand. Each turn, you each play a card face down, simultaneously reveal the cards, then carry out the actions you’ve chosen in a standard order. Your played cards stay in your discard pile till you play your Score card, at which point you score VPs and get all your cards back into your hand. You can choose when you Score, but you cannot Score unless you have discarded at least 1 other card, so you can’t simply Score every turn.

A key feature of the strategy of The March of Progress is increasing your armies’ combat power. The Strength card enables you to add 1 permanently to all your armies. However, to do this you have to decrease the VP potential of a country you control. This is a bit like devastating the countryside in order to gain military strength or resources. Ideally, you want to increase your military might by decreasing the VP potential of enemy or neutral countries, not your own, but to do that you’ll likely have to fight, or at least get into the neutral country before the enemy. But you also want to recruit extra armies, which can only happen in your home country, and you want to earn as many VPs as possible from your own and the neutral country, because you win by getting the most VPs. So, there are a lot of choices to make right from the start. Do you advance rapidly into the neutral country with a weak force in order to gain VPs or strength before the enemy arrives? Or do you stay put and recruit, or stay put and strengthen your armies before moving? You only have 1 Recruit card, so before you can recruit your third army, you’ll have to Score – is it worth scoring quickly, but possibly with less VPs, in order to get your third army into play soon? It’s also worth noting that the Strength card that increases the combat strength of your armies only comes into effect after the Attack actions – this reflects the time it takes to deploy new weapons and train with them. So, you might lose a battle with your existing weak army before your new power matures.
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A game in progress. As the Blue player has the initiative, they will win the battle in the Neutral Country.

Owing to the multitude of choices that you and your opponent might make, reading your enemy can be a vital part of the game. If you know your enemy is cautious, maybe you can risk a score when they have the option to move, hoping that they will recruit or strengthen their armies, rather than moving into a country you control. But if your enemy is aggressive, maybe you can take advantage by fortifying your armies, and watching the enemy hurl themselves forlornly at your positions. You also need to pay attention to who has the initiative – this can enable you to force the enemy to move first, so you can react accordingly, or even help you to defeat your opponent before they can attack you.

These are the types of choices you’ll need to address in the introductory game. After that, the 4 historical scenarios provide glimpses of the new strategic imperatives from the 18th through to the mid-20th century.

If you’d like to learn more about The March of Progress, Paul Grogan will be running through the game on a live stream video at 4pm on Thursday 13th February. The video will be available online afterwards.
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Sat Feb 8, 2020 7:27 pm
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The March of Progress: Marching On!

Alan Paull
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Thanks to Klemens Franz’s hard work, we now have near-final artwork for The March of Progress, due for launch soon. It’s come a long way since the old days when it was called ‘Politics By Other Means’!

Here’s a picture of WW2 in the West in progress. It’s the biggest of the scenarios, a 2-parter in fact. The Germans start with stronger armies and a better ATTACK+1 card for Blitzkrieg, whereas the Allies can pay to play both their MOVE cards in the same turn, reflecting their potential for greater resources. The Germans have to win both halves to win the scenario, whereas the Allies ‘only’ have to occupy Berlin! The second half of the game introduces German V Weapons and Allied Air Power. This picture includes artwork prior to final layout, so it still has some rough edges – but I hope you get the general glory of it all.

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Partly as a result of the development of this scenario, I’m beginning to wonder about the possibility of a World War 2 Total War Pocket Campaigns game!
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Wed Feb 5, 2020 1:54 pm
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The Ming Voyages: cards

Alan Paull
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Some of the cards from Surprised Stare Games' coming-soon Pocket Campaigns game The Ming Voyages. Near-final artwork.

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Size of the cards will be 105mm x 75mm, same as The Cousins’ War 2nd edition.
Artwork by Klemens Franz.
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Thu Jan 30, 2020 8:44 pm
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A couple of Pocket Campaigns

Alan Paull
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Coming soon…

Following on from our Wars of the Roses game The Cousins’ War by David J Mortimer, we are continuing our SSG Pocket Campaigns series of small box games with The March of Progress and The Ming Voyages.

The March of Progress (by yours truly) has an introductory scenario The Thirty Years War that sets out the core rules of the game. It uses a limited hand of 8 Action cards per side, ranging from Move to Attack to Recruit and more. Each player simultaneously chooses 1 card to play each turn, then reveals and carries out the Action. Cards stay discarded until the Score card is played; then, the player regains all played cards and scores VPs. The aim of The March of Progress is to control countries, in order to generate VPs during scoring. The winner is the player with most VPs at the end of the game, unsurprisingly.

There are a further 4 historical scenarios in the box, The Age of Marlborough, Vive l’Empereur, World War 1 in the West, World War 2 in the West. Each scenario changes the set-up and tweaks the rules to give a flavour of strategy in different time periods. The scenarios create a varied and challenging 2-player game with cards, a small number of armies, VP cubes and dice to indicate VP generation and army strength.

The Ming Voyages (by David J Mortimer and myself) is set in the era of the oceanic treasure fleet voyages led by the Chinese Admiral Zheng He. One player is the Ming Emperor trying to complete all 7 Treasure Voyages as well as protecting the Chinese Borderlands from invading barbarians. The other player controls the 3 disparate barbarian factions trying to settle on the Borderlands with China.

The Ming Voyages has a similar approach to The Cousins’ War with multi-function cards for actions or command points. However, it’s asymmetric – only the Ming Emperor draws cards, and the 2 players swap hands at the end of each turn. This means the Emperor knows what’s in the Barbarian player’s hand. The Emperor wins automatically if he completes all 7 voyages. The Barbarian wins automatically if he occupies all the Chinese Borderlands. As in The Cousins’ War, players can exploit out-of-turn actions. Battles can occur in the Borderlands. Here, players use their 3 dice to roll for triples, doubles and singles that are better than their opponent’s rolls. Reserved cards can be used for re-rolls – but if you reserve a card, you don’t get the Action.

We’re currently working on the final artwork for both games. Here’s a sneak peak at The Ming Voyages' board (work-in-progress).

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Wed Jan 22, 2020 8:20 pm
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Kingmaker: moves afoot!

Alan Paull
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I've been working on a proposed revision to the Kingmaker board using 'regional' movement. In this idea, noble pieces using non-road land movement simply move from 1 region to an adjacent region, rather than having to count up to 5 'squares'. In this way, players can avoid many of the difficulties and inconsistencies with the original Kingmaker map, and also the slightly counter-intuitive diagonal movement that is available in many places in the original board. Although there are some necessary compromises, the actual distancies moved are similar in the new mechanism compared with the old one.

When a noble piece lands in a new region, the player selects a specific area within the region for the piece to occupy. This enables a noble or stack of nobles to end up in a specific named location (town, city, castle), in the 'open field' or on the road network, ready to exploit road movement in a future move. For ease of play, and maybe a bit of historical realism, I don't force nobles to decide immediately whether they are in a specific location, thereby avoiding potential random plague death; the decision about the noble's precise whereabouts can be made when a potential hostile force enters the area. However, if your noble is sent to a location by a raid or revolt, then he should be in that location - so, if it's a fortified town or city, the noble will be risking plague in this case.

We played the revised map last weekend at Eclectic Games, and it will have another outing or 2 at HandyCon this weekend. It was well received. In the meantime, here's a sneak preview. Bear in mind that this is a prototype version for playtesting purposes, based loosely on the old game board; it is not a newly created production version; that will only be commissioned once we have the prototype finalised.

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In this map, the purple lines are 'region' boundaries, the white lines are area borders. Wooded areas are passable only on roads. I would also note that the current draft hasn't been fully checked, so there may be the odd line missing or spelling mistake; it's very much a work-in-progress. Also, many thanks to my wife Charlie for much sterling work on this board. Finally in addition, we've not yet addressed the heraldry and any geographical anomalies that fans of Kingmaker have identified.
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Tue Jan 14, 2020 9:32 pm
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(War)games as models

Alan Paull
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I've been having some game-as-model thoughts over the last few years of a more philosophical than perhaps practical nature. As a way of at least getting them out of my brain, and hopefully as a way of stimulating some discussion, I've started to post them here. Tell me what you think!

A played 'game-as-model' is an instance or instantiation of a model rather than the model itself. This echoes comments by Volko Ruhnke, who, like me only better, applies systems thinking to games design.

It’s useful to realise this when thinking about game-as-model. It means that there are variables specific to a particular instance of the game. You could think of this as a specific 'run' of a process. Individual players have their own unique understanding of their particular role in that game. They also have their own psychological states while playing, and these are likely to vary between different plays of the game. There might be specific scenario details, for example, relationships between terrain components, peculiarities of actual combat elements, and unique mechanisms for the scenario.

Each play of a miniatures game is a unique experience, with fewer similarities between plays than most board games, I think. There are (nearly) always variations in troop composition, and in layout - precisely where terrain is placed will be different - even if the same scenario is being played. In contrast, successive plays of a board game have greater commonalities through perhaps gridded layouts for movement and stricter rules interpretations - firmer rules if you will - especially when compared with an umpired figure game.

However, there may be some general lessons to draw in terms of the interaction of players with instances of the model. One of these lessons may be not to draw too many conclusions from one instance!

I hope to return to this topic in a later post.
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Tue Jan 7, 2020 2:21 pm
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Kingmaker: Raids, Revolts and other shenanigans

Alan Paull
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I don't want to change the Kingmaker Event deck much at all, as so much of the flavour of the classic game comes from there. One of the basic mechanisms in the Event deck is to break up turtling stacks of nobles through raids and revolts that send powerful office-holders hither and yon. Part of the game is to be in a position to exploit this, either by picking off individual travellers, or by instigating a major engagement before a key noble can get back into position.

Offices can give a noble many more troops, the Marshal of England doubly so, in that he has 100 extra troops anywhere in the country, whereas others have only 50, with some having extras in restricted geographical locations. However, allocating the Marshal of England and the Bishop of Norwich to Mowbray for example isn't a great idea. In the current game, this would be the cards for that allocation:

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It’s not obvious to a new player why this might not be a good idea. A difficulty for new players is not knowing the details of who gets sent where by the Raids and Revolts in the Event deck. I think one way to help resolve this issue is to put more information on the Court deck cards to reference the Events that might occur. At the moment, I’ve put a simple number at bottom left in square brackets – this probably needs a better graphical and layout treatment, but it’s a start:

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Although Mowbray in this example is very strong, with 160 starting troops, there are 16 cards in the 90 card Event deck that move him involuntarily around the country. That’s slightly more than 1 in 6 times per Chance Phase. So, in a 4-player game, he’s likely to get moved approximately every other round (1 Chance Phase per player). This grossly reduces his effectiveness, and you need to take this into account when allocating the cards.

Hopefully, putting some of this information on the cards will help. I wonder whether increasing the information to ‘Events: 4/90’, ‘Events: 11/90’, ‘Events: 1/90’ might be better – at the expense of more clutter.
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Sun Jan 5, 2020 5:27 pm
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Kingmaker: Red-faced

Alan Paull
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Hmmm. The colours on the Events cards didn’t work. My print facilities failed to differentiate between the 2-1, 3-1 and 4-1. Now revised:

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Not exactly pro graphics standard, but I hope good enough.

Playtests of Kingmaker upcoming: Sat 11 January at Eclectic Games in Reading (also 15 Feb and 21 Mar). Free tickets from Eventbrite, just search for 'Kingmaker'. Also, HandyCon 17-19 January.
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Fri Jan 3, 2020 10:22 am
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Kingmaker: Events, dear boy, Events

Alan Paull
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I’ve been re-doing the Events Deck to make the lookup of odds easier for players to process. I’m using a bit of colour and a bit of layout amends. I’m still unsure whether to completely overhaul Events card wording (for clarity and consistency) – that sounds to me more like a final production process, so I may not. Also, I’m pondering the whys and wherefores of revising the Event content; I’m wary of that, because the ubiquitous Peasant Revolts, along with Marshal to Black Heath, are iconic.

However, there are 90 Event Deck cards – it takes a while to scan, prep, stick ‘em into InDesign and then add stuff and check! Here are a couple of examples:

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Without InDesign and Photoshop (other s/w programmez are available) this would have been pretty much impossible. I now have an intimate knowledge of the makeup of Kingmaker cards. Apparently, left align wasn’t a thing in those days, and neither was consistency of positions on a card. Also, consistency of font size and CAPS was not pursued. Ah, well sans DTP, I guess it was very tricksy.

The ‘victory block’ will match up with the lookup table, currently much like the original in the Gibson’s rules, but with added colour and amended heading. This will be subject to proper design and layout by graphics experts – this is just my prototyping.

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Continuing…
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Thu Jan 2, 2020 7:23 pm
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