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Rhine & Rhone: An express version of T&E (or Y&Y)

Oliver Kiley
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Alright, so having recently acquired Yellow & Yangtze I'm now getting all reinvigorated for the Tigris & Euphrates-style gameplay.

However, one thing about both games is that neither are particularly portable and games can run on for a while. My kids and nephews have really taken to Y&Y (yes!!!!) but sometimes we don't have the time to play a full game but still want something along those lines. Also both games are not very portable. And so I got thinking...

What if there was another two rivers themed game that uses the same mechanics but comes in much more condensed package - both in terms of components and overall game time. The Rhine and Rhone rivers have a nice ring to them, and are both rivers in relatively close proximity in Europe. Both played an important role throughout EU history and interestingly both have their headwaters up in the Swiss Alps but on opposite sides of the continental divide. The Rhine heads north into the North Sea, and the Rhone goes south into the Mediterranean.

Mechanically, to keep things small (and especially the game box) I'd use the "Micro Cards" (1.25" x 1.75" cards from GameCrafter) instead of tiles. Likewise, I'd dispense entirely with the need for a board. Instead, you would set up a 9x9 hex-grid of cards like in the image below. You'd have a set of fixed "River" cards for the Rhine & Rhone to form the basic layout of the map, with spots for the initial Black tiles (like in Y&Y). All the other cards would be face down. When you place new a tile/card, you'd take the face down card and add it to the top of the draw stack.

Here's a layout example showing the river locations and starting black cards.



One interesting thing is that with using cards to build the board, you could potentially have many different game setups recommended in the rules and/or a process for building out your own unique board each time you play. Interesting?

As for the suits/tile colors, the following make sense to me...

WHITE = Clergy (monasteries)
GREEN = Merchants (marker place)
BLUE = Peasants (farmlands)
RED = Lords (keeps)

Players would have a leader cards corresponding to those colors with a unique symbol and/or a special unique shaped/color pawn to mark the leader card as belonging to them. Alternatively, since the board is so much more cramped, I was thinking that leaders might actually just be placed ONTOP of a tile/card, so long as it's placed on or next to a Clergy tile, consistent with leaders needing to be next to red in T&E or black in Y&Y tiles.

All of this leaves the question of what mechanics to pull from across T&E and Y&Y to round this out. My sense is that it's mostly pulling from Y&Y since the gameplay is a little more straightforward.

However, for simplicity I'm ditching the yellow/wild tiles and leader, and instead adding back in the initial "treasures" that start on Clergy tiles like in T&E. Connecting two treasures together allows you to claim one if you have a merchant leader in the kingdom. Treasures count as a wild and the game ends when all the treasures have been taken (or all but 1).

I'm thinking monuments work like in Y&Y - but possibly also are dual colored. Not sure about that yet. Thematically, I was thinking that getting a triangle of 3 cards and would represent founding a "city", which would have a primary color plus another color to it.

Lastly, in terms of scoring, I was thinking of using a very small board with a Ingenious style OPEN scoring system. Basically, there would be 4 tracks for all the resources and players would have a cube in their color (yes, probably need to assign a different color token to each player, e.g. purple/yellow/black/orange or something) to track points earned. There could also be a victory trigger where the first player to get say "9 points" in their lowest color wins.

Thoughts about all of this? I'm kinda excited about the idea of it!
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Fri Aug 17, 2018 3:19 pm
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Emissary: Red Frontier Graphic Design

Oliver Kiley
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As a super quick follow up to my previous post on Emissary: The Red Frontier, I wanted to mention that I've been playing with a new graphic design base (background artwork) for the game (now that I have this martian theme in mind).

Below is a first cut at the idea, which is to use actual satellite imagery of the surface of Mars as the backgorund. A few Photoshop filters later and you get what you see below.



The cool thing is that a lot of this imagery is really high resolution and so you can use different parts of one image and have, potentially, a unique snapshot of the martian surface on each card. In many cases, you might even be able to lay the cards next to each other and form a larger image (no gameplay impact of course).

It would also be a way to call out and identify different land forms and named geographic features, which would be kinda cool to work in a subtle way. The image above was of a portion of the Melas Dorsa region on mars.

I'm debating whether or not I should try to add some additional detail to the cards as it relates to the different suits / resource types. But for now I'm leaning towards keeping it all quite clean and simple.

Thoughts? Am I on the right track here?
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Tue Jun 26, 2018 7:47 pm
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Rethinking Emissary for the "Red Frontier"

Oliver Kiley
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Emissary is a design I’ve been iterating on for a number of years now. And while the vagaries of life pulled me away from design work, recently I’ve had a window of time to resume my eternal tinkering.

For those unfamiliar, Emissary was created for a PnP design competition to either create an express version of a bigger game or a micro-game (or both!). At the time, I was experimenting with a number of games using the Decktet system, and I came upon the idea to take Hegemonic and distill it down to its 4X roots (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) by using the decktet. The resulting design worked quite well and had a vaguely Magnate-like feel to its balance of resource management, hand management, and area control.

GAMEPLAY TUNING

Since then, it’s been a lot of fine tuning over the years to get the balance and pacing smoothed out. The biggest change has been to rethink the victory conditions to be something that doesn’t require as much arithmetic to forecast, as that can be a major source of AP or slowdown. But more importantly, I really prefer games where the victory trigger is discrete. By this, I mean games where there is a single condition that if a player meets it, they win instantly.



Taluva is a favorite game of mine. It’s an abstract tile placement game where you also have three different types of buildings to place, each with their own conditions for placement. If a player gets all of two of three types of buildings down, they win. The backup is that if you run out of tiles, the player with the most huts wins.

I looked into doing something similar to Taluva for Emissary. Eventually, I settled on a system where there are three specific objectives to work towards, and if player can complete two of three they win immediately. One objective, Might, is based on building a region of a certain size (e.g. 5-cards) and having the most influence within that region. Another objective, Economy, is based on building a trade network, with 4-cards of the same rank adjacent. The last objective, Authority, is based on having the most power on Crown cards (and least two controlled crowns).

These objectives do wonders for orienting the gameplay towards more discernable goal posts. They also create more reasons to conduct certain actions, such as “Replace” to swap cards in the map as well as Hostile actions to push players out of key cards. Of course, there is a backup goal system (a much simplified version of the original scoring system) in the event that the map is built out and no one manages to secure two objectives first.

All in all, I really enjoy Emissary and how it’s grown. The latest version of the rules contain a fair number of other streamlining steps to smooth out the actions, turn sequence, and conflicts. The result is a game that, I feel, packs a lot of punch into a small package. It accomplishes my goal of creating choices with tough trade-off decisions and opportunity costs. For example:

Quote:
* Crowns cards in your hand are strong for winning conflicts, but playing them to the map is also needed to achieve am Authority victory.

* Aces are powerful defensively, but can be discarded for three resources, which can open up a lot of options for the Influence Action.

* Getting adjacent ranked cards is great for building up resources and working towards the Economic victory, but often makes it harder to effectively network a large region of the same suit together.

* Always tough to decide what cards to discard: do you keep a card for future use on the map, for resources when you need them, for winning conflicts?

* Moving influence is a cheap way to get onto a card that would otherwise be expensive to influence, but it is less efficient in terms of actions.

* Exploring is good, but has to be timed to not give your opponent an opening to influence the card first.

* Crowns on the board can help anchor your position on the board, but they can easily cut off regions and make it hard to connect.

* Tier 1 cards are cheap to influence, but don’t let you concentrate power very well.

* Tier 3 cards can let you concentrate power, but often gives your opponent an opening to build onto them as well - and they are expensive.

* Sharing influence on an card with an opponent may get you (or them) bonus resources through trade, but might let them (or you) get closer to meeting a victory condition.


Having patted myself on the back for the design work, there still remained one further struggle.

RE-THEMING WOES

One of the big struggles in the design of Emissary, around which I finally made a breakthrough, has to do with theme. Admittedly, Emissary is quite an abstract game mechanically, and so any attempts to theme the game need to be taken with a grain of salt. That said, I was never very satisfied with my efforts to theme the game previously.

Emissary’s theme started out as a play on the Decket’s mythos about being from the land of purple and red and sending Emissary’s to gain influence among various roving clans. It sorta worked. From there I was tinkering ideas for a proper space 4X theme or alternatively some terrestrial fantasy theme.



The challenge is that the design of the game is really dual layered. One layer is the map and specific suits each cards represent. What are these suits? Roving clans? Foreign space empires? Migratory fantasy races? Floating islands? Then comes the question of what the players represent via the layer of their influence over the cards. Is your influence goodwill? Spies and secret agents? Political clout? Mechanically, it was important that a major action be the replace action, allowing you to swap cards on the map around - but it was hard to rationalize what was being swapped from a thematic standpoint.

Long story short, I settled on an idea that I finally feel excited about. It started with a Popular Mechanics article about Mars colonization, that led to me this NASA research paper, about in-situ resource utilization on the Red Planet. It’s a pretty cool read. And so it may be a tad in vogue, but the wheels were turning and I had a compelling idea for theming Emissary at last.

The basic premise is that players represent different enterprises working to prep a new frontier region of the Martian surface for colonization. This prep work is done by working with six different guilds to leverage their expertise in terraforming and building critical infrastructure. The first player able to fulfill two “contracts” (i.e two of the three special victory objectives discussed above) first gain the right to colonize the region and earns the favor of the guilds.

What does this look like in practice?

The resources used in the game, instead of being generic, can now be coupled to basic resource needs for colonization:

* Blue = Water (for drinking and irrigation)
* White = Oxygen (for breathing)
* Yellow = Silica (for glass, dome construction, solar panels)
* Orange =Iron (for construction)
* Brown = Carbon (carbon fiber, plastics, hydrocarbons)
* Green = Plants (food and fiber)

The actions, rather than being so generic, can be framed in interpreted around terraforming and infrastructure building activities:

* Explore = Survey new areas (with a bit of optional terraforming)
* Influence = Build habitat domes and machinery for resource processing
* Collect = Extract and/or produce resources (with partnerships for trading)
* Move = Migrate workers/drones to a new habitat dome
* Replace = Terraform / Reengineer (changing equipment around for a different resource)
* Oust! = Negotiate ownership

Visually, the different types of cards can reflect things in a more thematic way too:

* Origin cards = Contract cards (objectives)
* Tier 1 cards = Barren plains
* Tier 2 cards = Arid foothills
* Tier 3 cards = Rich valley
* Aces = Strategic stockpile
* Crown = Guild outpost

Obviously this retheming will require revamping the background artwork for the game. I have a few ideas for this, but it will take some tinkering before it’s ready for public consumption.

The last element, is the name of the game. While I like Emissary as a name quite a bit, it doesn’t really fit the new theme all that well. After churning through a bunch of different ideas (including lots of really bad puns) I settled on one that I like (for now): Red Frontier. Or maybe it is just Wild Red (like Wild West, but you know, on Mars). Or maybe the full name is: Wild Red Frontier. Gosh, or maybe it’s Emissary: Red Frontier. Hmmm. Seems like there is more work to do after all!

Thanks for tuning in and let me know what you think!

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Fri May 25, 2018 7:32 pm
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Lobotomy Lab: Shipwrights of the North Sea

Oliver Kiley
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Someone Call a Doctor!

So I have a problem, and the name of the problem is The North Sea Trilogy, a series of viking-themed games by Shem Phillips. I'm not usually one to be suckered into being a completion-ist. But alas I have a weakness for viking-stuff. And when that "stuff" happens to be a boardgame coupled with amazing artwork, it is hard for me to resist (apparently).

After acquiring and enjoying Raiders of the North Sea quite immensely, I soon found myself looking into Explorers of the North Sea, a Tikal-like tile placement and action point game in the same North Sea series. Shortly thereafter, when I was in the store succumbing to that temptation, sitting on the shelf right next to Explorers was of course The North Sea Runesaga, which allows you to combine Raiders, Explorers, and Shipwrights of the North Sea into one multi-game campaign. Of course that also meant that I needed to buy Shipwrights, and so oh my god, what have I done.

My wallet considerably lighter, and with smiles on the store clerks' faces, I ambled home in a state of post-purchase bliss.



It was inevitable that Shipwrights wouldn't really click with me. It was an impulse purchase and had I done my usual due diligence its shortcomings would've dissuaded me from ever purchasing it in the first place. After playing through a few partial games by myself, these flaws were immediately apparent: it is a game with fairly dull decisions coupled with far too much downtime, excessive randomness, and a playtime that overstays its welcome. If it were a 30-45 minute filler game, these faults would be more forgivable, but this is a game that can drag on for hours.

And yet I really didn't want to give up on Shipwrights. Raiders is an absolutely amazing game and one of the few worker placement games that has won me over (primarily due to the more interactive nature of the shared workers and fierce competition for raiding spots). Explorers is a solid game on its own, and seeing as I didn't have a "go to" pick-up-and-deliver game, Explorers fit the bill.

But shipwrights! What would we do with you? The prospect of playing the whole Runesaga is considerably less attractive if the opening act is destined to be a tedious slog.

Something had to be done.

Shipwrights needed a lobotomy.



Fortunately, Shipwrights feels like "almost" a solid game, but the pacing and structure of the turn sequence is all off. The ingredients are all there (components, theme, basic ideas, etc.), but the recipe is has everything put together in the wrong order.

Getting specific, here are the issues I was hoping to resolve by lobotomizing the rule set:

(1) Game lasts too long, and getting it under an hour would be great. This is partly due to the victory trigger (once a player builds their 4th ship), partly due to how slowly resources are accumulated for building the ships, and partly due to a high dose of randomness (which can drag the game out if no one gets the cards they need to build things quickly).

(2) The turn structure is dull and non-engaging for the non-active players. Normally, Shipwrights has players drafting 3 cards during each day (full game turn). Except the drafting structure is based on drafting from a single hand of cards three times - and then going around the table a fourth time with each player resolving all of their actions. Ugh. Very slow and not exciting.


The Procedure

Changes to the End Game & Victory Triggers

First, in order to shorten the game length, I made the end game trigger occur when a player has accumulated 10 victory points (instead of 4 ships). Once triggered, the current day is finished and then one final day/round is played (as normal).

Overall, this change greatly speeds up the game. It also creates a more opportunity to create more cheaper ships, which normally aren't worth much in terms of VPs, but help advance the engine building aspect of the game (constructed ships provide various bonuses and/or penalties to your engine). The game also features a bunch of buildings that are worth VP's too, but these were always very difficult to justify playing in comparison to ships. Now there are a hotter commodity.



Changes to the Turn Structure

The next big change has to do with the turn structure itself. Something I thought was brilliant about Raiders' take on worker placement was that the "place a worker, take a worker" system created a very quick rhythm in the game and minimized downtime. It also made the core action mechanic interactive and engaging for all players at the table, since you can be thinking about how your own opportunities are taking shape the entire time. Nothing like this existed in Shipwrights, despite the game feeling like there should be that feeling.

So, what I did was have every player start with a hand of 3 cards. Then, rather than drafting cards one at a time from a single hand of cards that gets passed around, I had players draft from a pool of cards in the middle of the table (pool size is one more card than the number of players in the game). AND most importantly, rather than drafting three cards across three sounds, and then going around again to play cards, each player drafts one card from the pool and then immediately does the following: play one card from your hand, take one worker action, and take one trade action (you can do these in any order).

This change to turn structure accomplished a few crucial things:

In the original rules, each player's turn could be a bit of a convoluted puzzle of deciding which order to play cards, what worker action to take, the timing of when to trade, etc. By constraining the amount you can do at any one time, player turns take less time (less giant puzzle to solve), which keeps the game moving at a brisker pace.

Secondly, having a hand of cards to play from immensely reduces the amount of randomness in the game - or at least lets players mitigate it better. In the original rules, you had to play (or else discard) every card in your hand each day. Very often you'd get stuck with cards that were useless in the present situation and did nothing to help advance your position. This would lead to a lot of turns feeling like dead turns where you could only utilize a fraction of cards (or even none of them). This also contributed to drawing out the game. But now, with having a hand of cards and only drafting and playing one at a time, the decision around what to play is much more interesting and multifaceted. Key cards can be held and played at more opportune times and dead turns are nearly eliminated.

Changes to Resource Abundance

The final bucket of changes have to do with the supply of resources and workers in the game. The biggest immediate change has to do with trading. In the original rules, trading for goods cost 2 gold and 2 workers. The awful part of this is that each worker you have at the end of day generates a gold to use next turn. Players have an incentive to just sit around and do nothing other than build up a large pool of workers so their gold engine doesn't get wrecked when you start spending workers during trade actions or for making ships. This again stalled the pace of the game.

So I merely eliminated the worker requirement for trading entirely. However, trading was also limited to only being taken once per turn, instead of an unlimited number of times as before. As each day now has three player turns (coupled to their drafting action), you can still do up to 3 trades per day, however you need to think a bit more about the timing of them. But it also avoids potential analysis paralysis stemming from having multiple trade actions all occurring at once. Again, it speeds up the game while making the decisions a little more interesting at the same time. Constraints breed depth.

I also changed the way the "Townsfolk Expansion" works. Each player turn, you can now spend one worker to take a townsfolk board action. However, instead of workers being "spent" permanently to the townsfolk board (to be swooped up by an opponent), they are now placed in a "tired" worker pool next to your player board and won't be available for other actions until the next day. Overall, this adds a bit more flexibility to how you use workers, when you spend them, and how you build up your economy.



Recovery Room

If you're curious to get the full details on the rule changes, check out this post over in the game's BGG forums. It should spell things out pretty clearly.

I've had a chance to play the game with these rule changes in effect, and I was immediately far more engaged and excited about the gameplay. As with any major surgery, there are likely to be unanticipated complications. There might be situations where certain card effects aren't less clear and/or where the balance might be off. I'm not going to lie, there might even be glaring loopholes or exploits that are enabled due to these changes. If so, we can always make another visit to the cutting room.

Your turn: Have you played Shipwrights? What are your thoughts on the original gameplay and what these changes might mean? What about the broader topic of "lobotomizing games" through a fundamental shift in their mechanics? Any candidates in need of a lobotomy?
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Fri Apr 20, 2018 9:13 pm
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2017 Smorgasbord Part 1: New Stuff Played

Oliver Kiley
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It's been awhile, hasn't it? I suppose that means it is time for the regular yearly gaming update, coupled with the promises to do more frequent updates, right? Promises or no promises, the show must go on! So let's just launch into it.

Father Zargon is Pleased with your Progress


Reflections on the year in gaming


eXplorminate

Excuses first. I've continued to be a contributor over at explorminate. Between writing articles and playing the games we review enough to write those articles competently, a fair amount of time has been sucked up, which would otherwise have gone to writing here at Big Game Theory. Woe is having too many games to play!

I'll do a bigger recap of video game stuff in a separate article, but I'll mention the most interesting tidbit for now. Over the summer I wrote an article, All That Glitters is Not Gold, that was a heavy criticism of the state of 4X games and some of the challenges facing 4X game development.

Specifically, the article was about the lack of "polish" (balance, fine tuning, focused gameplay, etc.) among so many big strategy titles. It is interesting coming at videogames from a boardgame player and designer perspective, because polishing a boardgame design is so fundamental to making an enjoyable game for people. In 4X games, this lack of polish is most exemplified in the late game stages, where it's clear to me that relatively little design effort is focused around victory conditions. Imagine playing a boardgame where it just didn't really end, or where all the things and decisions you made playing the game were disconnected from how the winner was determined. Many people don't see this as a problem for 4X video games - but it bothers me quite a bit.

So before I get too enraged, let's proceed onward to the boardgames!

A Shift in Interests

To kick things off, the kinds of boardgames that I've focused on over the past year has shifted in response to life circumstances. Less time for big heavy multi-hour long games has prompted a deeper look into more kid-friendly games that still retain a spark of depth. While I did manage a few games of Runewars earlier in the year (more on that below), other heavier plays have been relatively sparse.

Hence, I'm finding myself drawn to games with some different traits than in the past:

First, are games with less complexity and fiddliness. Not that I cared much for complexity before, but now I'm really not interested in games that require more than about 5 minutes to teach (at the upper end). Even beyond playing games with my kids (the oldest is almost 7), when getting together with friends over a few beverages, lengthy rules explanations are a buzz kill. I want to be able to dump the box on the table and jump right in to the action.

Speaking of jumping right in, long and convoluted setup processes are also starting to bother me, and I'm wary of games that cannot be setup quickly. When kids are involved or any sort of time constraint exists, being able to get into the game fast is a big plus. Having to sift through a dozen baggies and meticulously arrange the starting board setup just isn't something I want to do. I realize that this may limit the scope of games that I find appealing, but so be it.

Along those lines, I also continue to be enamored with games that pack a lot of gameplay into a small package (e.g. box size). My self-imposed collection limit is that I'll keep what I can fit on the game shelf (which is about 2/3 of a largish bookcase plus a few drawers). I simply don't want more games than that - and a side effect is that games with big over-sized boxes relative to either the amount of components or the amount of depth in the game bother me (man - I'm starting to sound like a complainer!). Basically, I don't want games taking up more space than they need to. And on an even more sublime level, I really like picking up game boxes that feel "dense". Of course, this would seem to work against my desire for less complex games with fewer components, but it's really about just having smaller boxes that tightly fit the components.

And then there are the games that I acquire for some 'vain' reason. Maybe it's that the artwork strikes me and I want the game as a physical product, irrespective of it's potential play opportunities. Other times there may be certain mechanics or ideas (or designers) I'm curious about and want to tinker with - even if I'm not convinced the game is one that will hit the table much (if it at all).

Last - I've been paying more attention to cooperative games than usual. As I've been gaming with my daughters more and they are really into cooperative games and working together. They don't seem very interested in the typical competitive approach to gaming. I try to think of Knizia's quote: When playing a game, the goal is to win, but it is the goal that is important, not the winning. And so I stress, for competitive games, that it isn't about who wins or loses, but that we all do our best in pursuit of the game's goal. That said, we've also taken to playing competitive games in a "cooperative" mode where we just add our scores together at the end for a big uber score. Whoever contributes the most gets a high-five.

With these reflections out of the way, let's talk games!


New Games Played


5-Minute Dungeon (rating: 8; plays: 20+)


This is a joyous game to play, be it with young kids or adults. It is a "real-time" game and feels like an inverted version of Pit, in a way. Each player has a deck of cards aligned to their chosen hero class (bonus points for each hero card having a male and female option). Mostly the cards are simply symbols (shields, swords, arrows, spell books, etc.). The group has 5-minutes to work through a stack of dungeon monsters or obstacles by flipping over a card and then frantically playing cards to match the right symbols to clear the current card.

This has been a big hit with groups of kids as well as adults - and I must say the kids do just as well as the adults do! Despite the simplicity of system, it is surprisingly challenging with more nuance and coordinated play required than one might expect. You have to keep an eye out for opportunities to use a special card or ability to save time (and basic cards - because if you aren't careful you won't have enough of at the end to beat the final boss). It's straightforward yet has room for skill development.

Curiously, the mass market version of the game does not include the same difficulty and player count scaling options that the original kickstarter version did - which is a strange omission because it's really important! Without the per-player difficulty scaling, it's much harder with 2 players and too easy with 5 (for example). Anyway, BGG comes to the rescue once again if you check the file section.



Arboretum (rating: 7; plays: 3)


I finally got this to the table for a few plays this year. Unfortunately, this is one of those games where my typical gaming partners bounced right off the game. While on the surface it has the appearance of a straightforward rank & suit style game card, the play itself is very multifaceted (and fascinating I might add), but in a way that also isn't very intuitive. For seasoned gamers this isn't likely to be an issue, but for casual gamers the mental overhead proved a bit much.

That said, the artwork is gorgeous and the gameplay itself is a very clever mix of tableau/network building and rummy-like card draws + discarding. What throws people for a loop is that the scoring is not only contingent on what you've built in your tableau but is also contingent on what cards you have left in your hand at the end of the game. In order to gain the right to score combinations of cards in your tabelau, you have to the have the highest card value of that same suit in your hand. It's almost like playing two games at the same time and needing to win in both to do well. I find it awesome but not everyone else sees it that way. I'll keep it around in hopes of getting more plays.



Fox in the Forest (rating: 8; plays: 5+)


My wife loves the partnership trick-taker Euchre. Alas, that game requires 4 players. Along comes Fox in the Forest, and lo and behold we have a rather clever 2-person trick taker (a rare thing indeed). The game has 3 suites of cards numbered 1-10. Players earn points based on how many of the 13-tricks they take in a round. The interesting thing is that if you take too many tricks (e.g. shoot the moon or close to it) you don't get ANY points. So there is a really careful line you need to walk in order to score well.

Additionally, each of the odd numbered cards has a special ability that goes along with it, like being able to swap the trump card, taking the lead even if you lost the trick, etc. These special cards are essential to good play and controlling the momentum of the tricks. So far, my wife and I both really enjoy this one - despite me getting consistently wrecked by her!



Master of Orion: The Board Game (rating: 6; plays: 1)


This one is a bit tricky. I'll be doing a review of this at some point for eXplorminate, but after one play I'm quite sketpical. For the record, this is definitely not a 4X-style boardgame in the vein of Eclipse, as one might assume based on the Master of Orion videogame license it uses. Rather, this is a tableau-based card-driven engine-builder. Think 7 Wonders or Race for the Galaxy.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, the design forgot to include much by way of player interaction. Whereas 7 Wonders has card drafting and Race for the Galaxy has the role selection (with role leeching) as a means of making the core action dynamic have an interactive element to it, Master of Orion is a straight up action point game. There are practically no interaction points in the game, with players focused almost entirely on their own optimization puzzle. I haven't played a game that felt more like multiplayer-solitaire since... forever.

This is all kind of a shame. I actually like the basic card play and resource mechanics for building your empire. The problem is that, in the absence of an interactive action system, the card effects themselves needed to have WAY more interactive abilities to make me actually care about what my opponents were doing. A bit of a missed opportunity, sadly.



Raiders of the North Sea (rating: 9; plays: 5)


Now this game caught me unaware - but in a truly good way. Remember how, up above, I talked about "vain" purchase decisions? Well, this was one of them. As I considered my collection one day, it occurred to me I didn't really have a viking themed game. I like vikings quite a bit (I even a viking Halloween costume as my go-to outfit), and so this this lack of viking games bothered me. As I found myself at my favorite local game store, I considered the available viking-themed game options and this one jumped out because of, I'll admit, the artwork. The game is gorgeous and the illustrations are just lovely. This was an impulse xmas present purchase for... myself.

I was a bit worried because Raiders is billed as a worker placement game - which normally I don't really care for. But it turns out it isn't really a worker placement game in the normal sense. It doesn't have the same sort of solitary engine-building exercise that exemplifies most worker placement games, as you're never expanding your action (worker) capacity. The place-a-worker and pick-up-a-worker system de-emphasizes competitive placement decisions and replaces it with a more collaborative dynamic. And yet, many of the cards and crew abilities are directly confrontational and there is often fierce competition for the prime raiding locations.

Anyway - this game is a sleeper hit for me. I wasn't following the whole North Sea Saga series much before, but now I am enthusiastically. I suspect after more plays I'll have a more in depth analysis of this game to unveil.

Bonus points for having a reasonably-sized and dense box!



Runewars (rating: 9; plays: 3)


Last year, I mentioned that St. Nick brought me a copy of Runewars. I had a chance to play this epic monster a few times and it didn't disappoint. This is a BIG game - tons of miniatures, tons of tokens, hundreds of cards, modular boards, and so on. I wrote an equally BIG REVIEW of the game for eXplorminate - so if you want the full story check that one.

Otherwise, I'll just say that I'm very impressed by this game and how all the pieces fit together. For each of the avenues of critique I levied at 4X videogames, Runewars offers up a compelling solution. It's a very multi-layered game, but these layers entwine in compelling ways over the course of the game's seasons (rounds) and the rough choices both big and small. A glorious game. Can't wait to play more.



Hit Z Road (rating: 8; plays: 3)


This game killed 3 birds with one stone. #1: I had no game's my Martin Wallace (oh the humanity!). #2: I had no Zombie games (oh the horror!).
And #3: I had no bidding games (oh except Cyclades). Hit Z Road was a chance to remedy all of this lapses in my boardgame collection.

Overall, I'm pretty pleased with the game, although I would like to get it to the table more and really dig into it. That said, I found the whole artwork and component package to be pretty clever and engaging - and the progression of cards the events that unfold as you get past them builds a cool narrative for the player. The mechanics are solid and I like that the game is kinda-sorta a coop while still being competitive at the same time.



Kingdomino (rating: 9; plays: 40+)


I'm finding that in the absence of other information, the Spiel des Jahres nominees aren't a bad bet, most of the time. I was in the hunt for a family friendly game that I could play with my kids. If I could find something quick to setup, smallish box, and durable components that would be the icing on the cake. When I came across Kingdomino I took the plunge.

After playing 40+ plays, I must say that I really like this game. And Bruno Cathala again reinforces his place as one of my favorite designers. This game has worked well even with my 3-year old. We give her a little slack on tile placement (she doesn't have to stick to the 5x5 grid) and this way the whole family can play together. I love the little details on all the tiles, something my kids noticed right away. While the game isn't super deep, it can be surprisingly cutthroat and competitive at times.

Bonus points for helping the 6-year old with basic math and multiplication.



Rhino Hero (rating: 7; plays: 10+)


Rhino Hero is great. This is a reverse Jenga of sorts where players are tasked with building a tower of cards. I first heard about the game during the research phase of an older article I wrote on competitive and cooperative game formats. Rhino Hero has multiple end-triggers and victory outcomes that are possible. (A) If one player plays out their entire hands of cards, they win. (B) If the building collapses, the player that caused the collapse loses and the player with the least cards left wins. (C) All of the wall cards have been built and everyone wins. The only outcome that isn't possible is the game wining on its own.

All said and done - this works equally well as a kids game or as a drinking game for when adults are behaving like kids.



Jamaica (rating: 7; plays: 10+)


So I was also on a quest for a nice race game, and something that I could play with kids as well. Someone, somewhere, suggested Jamaica and I did a little research before deciding to pull the trigger.

Jamaica is a race game coupled to a pirate theme, coupled to a hand management game. The game plays at a brisk and exciting pace, and the system whereby the active player rolls two dice and chooses which affects the "day actions" versus the "night actions" for all players does wonders to keep everyone engaged and paying attention. While the decision space is small, it nonetheless creates ample opportunity for skillful play. It isn't a deep game by any stretch, but it gets you thinking (and trash taking - like all good pirates).



Red November (rating: 7; plays: 3)


Red November is another game I learned about during my competitive/cooperative game format research. This one is unique because any game outcome is possible: (A) As a fundamentally cooperative game, the players can all win by surviving long enough to be rescued while averting the missile crisis. However, (B) one or some players can win by prematurely abandoning ship - provided that the remaining crew don't survive! (C) The fleeing player(s) can lose if the rest of the crew survives and thereby turns them in. (D) Everyone loses if the ship sinks or gets eaten by a krakken or is crushed by the ocean pressure or the missiles get launched. Oh my!

The game is a little more fiddly than I would've have liked, exacerbated a bit by the absolutely tiny cards with more tiny text. The box is plenty big enough to have contained full size cards, so I'm not sure why it was produced in such a small format. We had a good time with this during our play, but it didn't have quite the staying power of other cooperative games we've been playing recently.



Tiny Epic Quest (rating: 8; plays: 5)


This game meets the criteria for dense games in an... EPIC way! I hadn't jumped on the "Tiny Epic" bandwagon previously, but thought that this one looked like particularly interesting point to jump on board. I'm working on designing a compact, kid-suitable, quest game so figured this one would be good as, umm, research! Turns out it is also a pretty fun game on its own right.

Considering the size of the box, there is a lot packed into the game and a lot of different mechanisms in play. There are movement cards that are drafted to determine how your hero meeples move. There are actions to trigger and plan around on some cards. There are multi-stage dungeons to delve into and goblin underhives to clear. There are quest contracts to fulfill, winds of magic to harness, health and recovery. And of course the customizable meeples with their adorable assortment of wargear and accessories. It's pretty remarkable really.

The gameplay itself is mostly a solitary affair however. There is a bit of interaction through the competition/race to finish certain quest cards first, but nothing too confrontational. And so this is another game that we've adapted to function more as cooperative game. All in all, I happy with game and remain impressed by how much game is packed into such a tiny box.



Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu (rating: 8; plays: 20+)


Last, but not least, we come to the Lovecraftian version of Pandemic. I admit that I hadn't played the original Pandemic, although I have played Forbidden Island, which borrows a lot of the Pandemic DNA. Set collection and getting the right cards in the right hands, the need to get to specific locations to do certain things, and various ticking timers that slowly unravel the gameboard and eventually lead to defeat for the players.

Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu sticks tight to this formula as well, but features the thematically apt "Old Ones" that herald the end times. As bad stuff happens, old ones are revealed and more bad things happen. The players are in a race close four arcane gateways before big daddy Cthulhu itself shows up and says "you lose!"

I've had a lot of fun with this one playing with my daughter. She doesn't seem to mind the vile creepieness of the old ones at all (should I be worried?) and rather delights in playing the hunter and slaying all the Shoggoth monsters that spawn around the board. As with other Leacock designed coops, the game can suffer from an alpha player syndrome, so with younger kids in particular I put the baton in their hand and ask them what I should do on my turn. Mostly it's slaying shoggoths.




Thus concludes Part 1 of the 2017 smorgasbord. Did others get a chance to play any of these games? Any thoughts or comments you'd like to share? The phones are open!

Part 2 will take a look at what other (older to me) games I've played last year, what games are still sitting on the shelf unplayed, and what games I put on the chopping block.

Beyond that, we'll take a look at some of the video games I've been playing over the past year and what exciting stuff I'm looking forward to in 2018.

Cheers and happy new year!
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Wed Jan 3, 2018 9:55 pm
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A Circle of Madness Broken by Empathy

Oliver Kiley
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2016 was a brutal year for many. Amid the deaths of cultural and empathetic icons, the world watched as a new leader of the “free world” was elected, in no small part on the backs of racism, bigotry, anti-intellectualism, and nationalism. Martin Luther King Day this year underscored the dichotomy between the Civil Rights movement and this haunting new world we face in 2017. It is so painfully acute. How did this happen? And more importantly - what do we do about it?

I tend to avoid mixing politics and games - after all gaming can be a source of respite for many (myself included). And yet, it is impossible to ignore how increasingly politicized our world, our art, our entertainment, and all the mundane moments our lives have become. And so I’m writing this as I watch the beautiful Women’s March in Washington D.C. unfold - not only in our nation's capital, but in places big and small across the United States and, indeed, across the globe.

Optimistically - I hope that I’m witnessing the birth of a new civil rights era. It's easy to be complacent when everything seems like it’s going fine - particularly I admit as a white male. It's easy, though it shouldn’t be, to forget that things are not fine for a lot of people. So often, and unfortunately, it takes something truly horrible to deliver the wake up call that “things aren’t right” in world. And optimistically, I hope that Trump’s election will deliver a motivational kick in the ass for all people to reclaim their democratic rights and liberties.

All during the primaries, and the campaign, and even after election night - even right up to the moment before Trump started talking during his inauguration - I hoped that it was all a ruse. I hoped that Trump would smile and say to the American people: “Are you kidding me? You all elected me? I said the worst possible things about almost every type of person on the planet - and you still voted for me. This says something about me, but more importantly it says something about you. As it is, I don’t intend to actually carry through on all the awful stuff I said.”

Sadly, that didn’t happen - and so here we are.

I don’t really want to debate what went wrong in the election itself, but I’ll mention a few things - because I think it underscores how our Country is poised in a terrifying moment. First and foremost is the issue of Russian hacking - the extent which it impacted the election will undoubtedly take a while to discern. But it is dreadfully worrying to the integrity of our democracy.

Second, and I think worse, is the wholesale gerrymandering of voting districts across the Country. We’re just now seeing ethics and legal action calling out these practices. These practices have resulted in representation for many demographic groups being unequal as it manifests in State and Federal legislatures - fueling a cycling of disempowerment. This gerrymandering, coupled archaic and unjust voting laws and practices, are not about democracy and American values - they are about the people in power staying in power by any means necessary.

Third is the catastrophic miscalculation concerning the blue collar working class - the long-standing base of the Democratic party. In a campaign focused on the personality and antics of Trump versus Clinton - Trump with his incendiary remarks and Clinton’s perpetual spectre of conspiracy surrounding her - it isn’t hard to see why the base, upset at stagnation and gridlock in Washington, just wanted to say “screw it” to the whole system and vote for something, indeed anything, different.

The unfortunate part is that the working class base was duped into believing that Trump will do anything to further their wellbeing and prosperity. Whether the issue is taxes, health insurance, environmental protection, housing, worker pay, or education - Trump’s rhetoric paints a harrowing picture for the future. And what little substance there is in his words - such as his cabinet and administrative nominee selections - show a clear interest in dismantling and scaling back all the institutions that are vital for every person in this country: clean air and water, safe food, quality education, stable neighborhoods, and health.

The direction of education in particular saddens me to no end - because the more inequity and dysfunction is sowed in the educational system, the more people are kept ignorant and denied the tools for thinking critically. And so many seem to take pleasure in being anti-intellectual - and in large part, this is what got us into this mess to begin with.

Fourth, and most shocking, is the surge of racism, misogyny, and nationalism that has been emboldened and set free by Trump’s election. We might summarize that the shadows have to grow darker before things can become brighter. Perhaps, by this underbelly of our Country being exposed for what it is, we will be afforded the opportunity to challenge it head on once again. And it needs to be challenged head on before it snowballs into something much worse.

And so it is sad that this nation spends much public discourse over what rights a woman has to her own body, or what bathrooms a transgender person is allowed to use, or what false science we teach our children, or what rights that all citizens have - regardless of their origin or anything else. It is a travesty that these are pressing issues weighing on our conscious - these should be solved issues. But they are not. And so we must continue to fight for them.

Taking action is hard. A march, like the Women’s March, can galvanize many people - but you have to act on that momentum. Take that energy and build on it through your own lives. It starts with everyone, as their own individual self, being willing to be critical and reflective of their own lives and actions. To be willing to question their own assumptions and beliefs.

It takes empathy.

This is an increasingly divided country - both ideologically and geographically. Political leaning and whether you live in a red or blue state, a liberal island or a conservative plain, divide us increasingly more than any other characteristic. So it is ever more imperative that we be willing to listen to each other - if nothing else than to understand where we each are coming from. To endeavor to find a common ground. To be willing to have our beliefs and assumptions challenged - and to respectfully challenge the beliefs of others. Building empathy is about building understanding - and I believe that when we truly understand each other - we will find that our interests and aspirations have far more in common than we assume.

I hope that the energy of the Womens’ March gives rise to a new movement born of respect and equality for all people. One that is willing to reach across and shatter old political lines to form a new accord. Opposition and competition has defined the political landscape for generations. And in turn, cooperation and inclusion has been lost at sea. I hope that such a movement will rise at the national stage and bring the ships to port.

But close to home we each have a role to play in building empathy - in reaching out to those different from us, finding common ground, and standing together for the values of freedom and equality that this nation can exemplify like no other nation in the world.

But it starts with each of us.
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Sat Jan 21, 2017 9:50 pm
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Smorgasbord: Good Things in Small Packages

Oliver Kiley
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Recently, my gaming and design interests are gravitating towards “smaller” games. They might be physically smaller games or have more condensed, less sprawling gameplay - or some combination of the two. Part of this is no doubt driven by time. Getting together with a big group of people for an extended gaming session is a challenged endeavor. And so I’ve turned more towards games that I can play on a more casual or spontaneous basis, particularly among my immediate and extended family circles. These tend to be games that are quick to setup, straightforward enough that a 6- or 7-year old could stumble through, and yet which still have some appealing “hook” that gets people wanting to play.

In looking back, I realize these “what I’ve played” posts that were supposed to be monthly or quarterly thing are more like a yearly thing. Ah well - that just means there is more to walk about! So anyway, over the past year, here’s a little run down of what I’ve been playing - along with some other stuff thrown in for good measure!


Stuff played



I mentioned The Grizzled in my last post - which if you haven’t heard is a fantastic little cooperative game for 2-5 players. It’s about surviving in the trenches of WW1. The game does an amazing job transcending the war theme and being a more genuine cooperative tale. Paradoxically for a wargame, this isn’t about shooting at enemy troops, in fact there is no shooting at all. I’m surprised at how well this game has resonated with people, especially among non-gamers.

During the summer my family and extended family went to visit Hocking Hills area in Ohio - which has some fantastic (although short) hikes through some surprisingly rocky terrain. Lots of waterfalls and canyons to explore, and pretty kid friendly (most hikes are less than two miles). While we did the tent camping thing for most of our stay, we did spend one night at Ravenswood Castle, which was right there! Pretty cool spot.



Long story short, they had the new version of Odin’s Ravens in their game library. Interestingly, Odin’s Ravens was one of the first games I remember reading about here on BGG - but it was already hard to find and so I never had a chance to play it. Until now. Needless to say, it’s a great (quick) little race game - and after playing it at Ravenswood I knew I had to grab a copy (which I did). My wife and I have fun playing it. It isn’t too big of a brain burner but there is, nontheless, nuance and strategy involved in managing your special Loki cards. Nice production too.



Also on heavy rotation during our Hocking Hills trip (and since) is Sushi Go. You’ve probably already played this one and formed an opinion - but it’s a perfectly nice little drafting game. Good for the kiddies and passing cards around in-between sips of <insert beverage of choice>. I can’t say it is my favorite - as it is quite a minimal and random game. For my money, I’d rather play something like Keep, which is just a tad more involved but has a considerably more interesting decision space.



One of the games that has seen the most play with my kids (even the 2.5 year old - in a more limited manner) is Sea of Clouds. This is a pool drafting game (e.g. players draft cards out of a common pool in the middle instead of passing around hands of cards). I think this one is just fantastic - and hits all the checkboxes of something like 7 Wonders but in a more accessible and less tedious package. I like how the big pirate battles wipe your stock pirates clean after each one, allowing players to rebuild their offense on equal footing a few times during the game. We play with semi-open cards in the middle (once a player looks at a card, it stays flipped over) so that I can help the kids with the text. But even with adults we’ve taken to playing this way because it makes the turns progress much faster as you can plan your moves better. Anyway, I really enjoy this one.



A game we didn’t enjoy was much is Welcome to the Dungeon. This is a sort of group-based press your luck game. I’ve only tried it with the kids (and my nephews) and they had a hard time rationalizing that we (the players) were all bidding on the chances of ONE hero to survive (or not). It just didn’t click - and so we made up our own version that I like even more.

In our version of Welcome to the Dungeon, each player takes their own hero. On your turn you can draw a monster card and either add to a line/sequence in the middle, discard a piece of your own equipment, or “pass” for the round. When all players pass, all the heroes enter and each have to face each monster in the line. The player that survives (if only one does), or lasts the longest wins. In the case of a tie, the player that put in the most monsters and discard the most of their own equipment wins. It’s pretty slick. Of course, it also isn’t really balanced very well as some heroes seem much stronger than others (ahem, rogue) - so we just rotate the characters around each round.

The next chapter in this tale relates to my desire to find a game that my 5-year old would enjoy (engaging theme, not too complex) but that would still be fun for adults. I kept drifting back to Witch's Brew - which was another game I read about early on in my BGG days. Alas, it was already out of print and hard to find - so I never played it.



But then comes Broom Service, which is a kinda-sorta a reboot. I was really looking to find a game for my daughter with a proper board that shows some geography, so this seemed like a great fit. I considered a few others at the time (Elfenroads, The Witches, Via Nebula) but settled on Broom Service. I haven’t regretted the choice at all. My daughter loves it, and she does a pretty great job selecting role cards for the round. I thought the action programming was going to be way beyond her, but she really does a good job with it.

Over the last couple of months I’ve been rounding up my large man-friends for an evening of face-to-face gaming, and Broom Service made an great showing. There’s something amazing about watching your buddies exclaim “I am the brave Hill Witch!” as they look timidly around the table to see if anyone will yank the rug out from under them. Overall, it’s a fairly chaotic game - and so the skill comes from making lots of contingency plans and having cards that you can make the best of regardless of how they fall. This was a Kennerspiel winner for good reason.



But back to Witch’s Brew. I still wanted to try that game, if only to see how it was different. And so I crafted myself a rather fine copy indeed. Turns out my daughter loves that one too, and we’ve now been rotating between the two games. The dynamics are certainly different - even if on paper the central mechanic looks similar. They’re both great games and I’m happy to have them.

Speaking of dudes night in, there is another game which I thought would be fantastic for the group, and which is another game I’ve been eyeballing for 5+years: Red November. This is a game about drunken Gnomes on a sinking Russian submarine, trying to survive long enough to be rescued while making sure the nuclear warheads aren’t accidentally launched. Perfect.



Red November pretty much solidifies Bruna Faidutti as one of my favorite designers (Citadels, Mascarade are favorites). It is one of those games where, despite some rather fiddly seeming mechanics at first, the gameplay flows smoothly and logically when you start playing. It’s a clever case where you have to use the environment (along with it’s many calamities) to manage your situation. Of course opening a door between high water and no water compartments equalizes the water (and optionally puts out fires). I love that the game can end with any possible combination of players winning and losing. No one can win, one can win, some can win, and all can win. Pretty slick!

 


Another game featured at a recent mustering of men was Lords of Scotland, which indeed features lots of mustering. More spectacularly, this game was given to me by my 88-year old scottish neighbor who plays the bagpipes and whose interior walls are completely covered in plaid wallpaper. After a few wee drams at his house I spied this game half buried under a stack of Terry Pratchett and scottish history books. I asked about it he said: “you take it - I’ll never play the damn thing.” Well, we played it and it’s a pretty interesting game - if a little long in the tooth with four players. The game doesn’t sugar coat anything, if you aren’t paying attention to what you’re doing you will lose hard. I like these sort of games, and overall the crew enjoyed it.



Last up, is a bit of solo gaming. After having it on my shelf for a long while, I finally learned how to play Friday earlier this year. This game is a blast. Definitely challenging and there is an appreciable skill curve to claw your way up. The theming is great as well. If you’re looking for a nice solo game in a small box, you can hardly go wrong with this.


Stuff still to play



Speaking of Bruno Faidutti, I traded for a 1st edition version of Mission: Red Planet. Guess what? This is ANOTHER game I saw early on in my BGG days that I always wanted to try. I’m one step closer to that goal, as I now own the thing - but I haven’t yet managed to play it. Looks to be a pretty solid and interesting game.



Speaking of trades, I’m also due to receive a copy of King Chocolate. I don’t really know why I want this game (well, a bunch geek buddies said it was good). Rumor has it that it is a sort of shared production-economy game in the same vein as Container, but a little different (maybe better?). I guess we’ll find out!



Speaking of finding things and out, and also speaking of older games I saw but never played, a certain special someone might (or might not) be receiving a copy of Ameritrash tour-de-force Runewars for the holidays. I have no idea why I want this game other than that is has 100’s of plastic figures, big fantasy hexes, and a pile of tokens. Actually - the game looks and sounds pretty slick, and I’m hoping to foist the monster upon man club at the first opportunity. Also - even though it’s totally beyond my 6-year to play properly, I figure we can fun with all the components and even setup some little cooperate scenarios to play through. Heck, there are enough components in the box to make up about a dozen of your own games if you wanted to.



Speaking of games that aren’t Runewars, I also have Arboretum sitting on the shelf. This looks great and I need to play it. Sort of a cross between Lost Cities and Golf (the traditional card game) is the closest I can describe it. Maybe? I like trees - so there is that.

 


Speaking of something totally different, I also recently re-acquired a copy of Key to the Kingdom. Like a moron, I sold this game in a garage sale a few years back, right around the time some youtuber made a video raving about the game (which admittedly isn’t a very good game), a video that has currently over 1.2 million views. Yeah - so there was some crazy “gotta have it” vibe and the game was ludo-expensive for a while. Like a dolt, I didn’t realize it would be a great kids game - go figure! Anyway, I finally tracked down a used (but complete!) copy for a good price. It’s awaiting its moment to shine again over the holidays.


Stuff I’m watching

There is, as always, plenty of stuff on the radar. First up is Near and Far. I’m a big fan of Red Raven Games - although that mainly is an appreciation for all that Ryan has built on his own, his amazing art, and his interesting design ideas. I’ve only played Eight Minute Empire: Legends of his - so it’s hard to call me a big fan.

But in anycase, I kickstarted Near & Far and can’t wait for it’s arrival sometime… sometime way off in the future. I’ve been tinkering around with a narrative, cooperative sandbox game of my own design, and while Near & Far isn’t anything like it, there are certain similarities and I’m keen to see how the game works. Plus, I gotta love his artwork.



Along similar lines, I’m also watching The 7th Continent and its development progress. I didn’t back this one, and hopefully sometime it will come to retail. It’s a pretty amazing and ambitious design concept with a staggering amount of stuff packed in. I find the design space between this one and Near & Far to be pretty interesting.



Other games I’m watching, as possible kid-friendly candidates, include Via Nebula and Celestia. The former is a Wallace game that kinda-sorta looks like a train game but simplified in lots of ways. Celestia is an interesting sounding remake of Cloud 9, and is a press your luck style game with a pretty cool artistic vibe.



Then there is Tiny Epic Galaxies. I haven’t really hopped on the Tiny Epic <your favorite thing in the world> train yet, but this one sounds like a good one to try. I like small game boxes, and I like space. So this sounds great. Kudos for a solo mode (?).



Laaaaassstly, I’ve been sweating over Handful of Stars. I don’t own any games by Mr. Wallace - and it seems like this would be a great one to dig into. It’s currently in pre-pre-order phase (yes, before pre-orders), whatever that means. The game is a continuation / culmination of the A Few Acres of Snow and Mythotopia lineage, and early reports from Essen sound promising. But gosh it’ll be expensive. I’m watching this one… closely.


Digital stuff

I’ve continued to be heavily involved as a writer over at eXplorminate, which in part explains my less frequent posting here. There is only so much time dang it! Anyway, I’ve had a chance to play some interesting games over the past year, and I wanted to highlight a few of them here.



Stellaris was one of the big 4X game releases this year (along with the new Master of Orion game and Civilization 6, neither of which I’ve played). Stellaris is from Paradox Studios and was to be a grand unification of 4X and Grand Strategy game - although it is far closer to the former IMHO. The official eXporminate review was really glowing - but I wasn’t nearly as enamored with it. Six months and three big patches later, I wrote up a Stellaris reeXamination (hot off the press). The TLDR version is that I still think the game has a ways to go.



Halcyon 6 is another matter. This quirky, pixel-art infused game looks like a mashup of XCOM, FTL, Roguelikes, and Star Trek. It both is and isn’t anything like those games - somehow becoming its own intractable beast in the process. I rather like the game - it’s the sort of thing you can just kind of veg-out on and hang on for the ride.



Another pixel art wonder that I have access to (currently closed beta) is Children of Morta. This could become one of my favorite game. At present it’s only about ¼ way developed content wise, but it’s an amazing ride so far. The best pixel art I’ve ever scene, amazing action RPG controls (think Diablo but more hands on), progressive roguelike gameplay, and a totally engrossing and touching narrative. I can’t wait for this to be finished.



Let’s stay on the pixel are kick for a moment. Another one is Kingdom, and it’s follow-up Kingdom: New Lands. These are a sort of side-scrolling tower defense puzzle game. You are the King or Queen of a new kingdom and just ride around your horse collecting coins and using coins to entice workers to do certain things (make bows, build walls, construct farms, etc.). It’s sorta like a god-game in that regard. It’s a simple game mechanically, and very much a puzzle optimization thing - but it’s gorgeous at the same time.

Next, and maybe a little closer to home for tabletop gamers is Total War: Warhammer. This is the Warhammer Fantasy (Games Workshop) themed version of the long-running Total War series. It’s quite a magnificent game to be be honest. It’s been a long time since I played a TW game and I was rather surprised at how in depth and impactful the turn-based strategic layer is. You really can play this as a grand strategy game and just auto-resolve all the battles if those aren’t your thing. Of course, the battles ARE pretty freaking glorious, so you’d be missing out on a major selling point of the game if ignore them. Pretty solid game.

Last is Blizzard’s team-shooter Overwatch. This has kinda-sorta taken over most of my gaming time. One reason is that it’s the first game in a long while that all my close friends are playing - it’s sorta like the band got back together to jam out on Overwatch. So that is a huge part of the appeal. But it’s all a really excellent game, assuming you like team shooters like Team Fortress 2. Teamplay and coordination is the deciding factor more than anything in the game - although there is a high individual skill ceiling as well. I usually don’t get into the lore and backstories for games like this, but Blizzard really nailed it in my opinion. If you want to learn a little more about the gameworld, check out the animated shorts. Blizzard, as always, are masters of game cinematics. Here's the older trailer:




Stuff rolls on…

Alright folks, that’s it! Let me know if anything above sparked your fancy or if you have some thoughts to share. Cheers!
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Fri Dec 2, 2016 3:45 pm
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Reflecting on Depictions of the Great War

Oliver Kiley
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I just finished listening to Dan Carlin’s podcast series on World War I Blueprint for Armageddon. A friend, far more into history than myself, urged me to listen to the show - and on a whim I did. Approximately 24-hours later, spread out over the course of a month, I have absorbed it - in all of its shocking, horrifying, and tragic reality.

I’ve never been a big history buff, preferring instead to appreciate the subject from afar and look forward. But I am utterly enriched by having listened to this tale of humanity gone off the rails. The time period leading up to the Great War and during it, is a time I knew little about - but always seemed so interesting to me, the roots of it so buried in the past and yet so close and tangible to the modern world.

I was traveling through Austria many years ago and when much younger. I was filled with wonderment in thinking that were “Emperors of Austria” (the Austria-Hungary empire) that were alive in the 20th century. I knew this because there were statues of them everywhere. In my mind, Emperors and Kings and Tzar’s were things that existed back in the Middle Ages or the Renaissance - surely not in the 20th Century. And so I always wondered how the world transitioned from the “old world” powers to the modern world I lived it. And I certainly didn’t understand how WW1 played the pivotal role in forcing that change. Now I do - at least a little bit.

There were some things that I knew about the Great War. I knew that some Archduke named Franz Ferdinand of Austria was killed, which in turn kicked off the war. But I never knew about the remarkable, uncanny irony surrounding his assassination. And I never knew about ill-fated web of alliances between the Great Powers of the old world, that would set off a domino-effect of chain reactions and mobilization time tables that made war an inevitability when the trigger was pulled.

Of the battles I knew about the “Western Front” and trenches, and gas attacks, and artillery shellings. I knew it was horrible - but I didn’t really understand how horrible it was, and why it was so horrible. How battlefields from Verdun, to the Somme, to Ypres to turned into hellscapes of craters, poison, mud, death, and suffering. And where, on display, was both the worst capacities of humanity - as well as some of its finest.



While Dan Carlin touches on the military history of a few key battles - his focus is far more on conveying the human experience and sense of loss and tragedy at work. It makes for painful listening. Much of it builds on the personal accounts from common soldiers to the highest ranking military leaders, on both sides, in order to paint a much wider picture of the unfolding madness. In particular, I was fascinated to understand how the industrialization of the military caught practically everyone off guard and at a terrible price in human life, as hard lessons were learned over, and over, and over again.

Perhaps most shocking to modern sensibilities, was realizing that the causes and justifications for the war did not match, in any way, the death toll that was being paid. World War 2 is easier to comprehend as sort of good vs. evil narrative - at least from the perspective of the Allies. But looking at WWI, this line of thinking doesn’t hold up. There is no good and virtuous ambition to the conflict - only bitter survival and victory by any means necessary. And this was made all more difficult to stomach when you realize how the entire pretense for the war was rooted in such old world sensibilities. That the various “secret treaties” were negotiating territorial claims with staggering costs in human life. And to what end?

I understand better how the world came to be as it is. How the culmination of the first World War set the stage for the second. And through all of this, I have a changed perspective - and that impacts my view of certain games.






There has been considerable discussion about EA’s latest entry into the multiplayer shooter area, Battlefield 1 - which is set during WW1. The first game in the series, Battlefield 1942, was set during WW2. Then there was one set in the Vietnam war. Battlefield 2, 3, and 4 are all set in current or near-future times. It is important to note that beyond traditional wargames and strategy games - not as many games have focused on WW1 as subject. And perhaps the tragic, futile, no-one wins, horror of it all is one explanation.

Wired wrote an article criticizing Battlefield 1 - asserting that unlike the heroic narratives and good vs. evil tales that fom the backbone of countless WW2 games, there is little heroic about WW1. It was a tragedy all around. The Wired article criticizes the game’s handling of the subject matter by EA painting WW1 as bombastic and explosive action experience. In the real WW1, you were as likely to die stuck and slowly sinking into the toxic mud at the bottom of a shell hole, abandoned by your comrades, as you were to die by an enemy bullet or gas attack. But the reality doesn’t make for a FPS game with a lot of “player agency” does it?



Regardless of whether you agree with the gist of the article or not, or with EA giving the “Battlefield” treatment to WW1 - it was the comments to the article that most struck me, because it raises lots of questions about the medium of games as a whole, and how they handle their content and subject matters specifically. As with many things, there is no right answer. There are simply different perspectives - and they all have their own values and merits.

There are people asserting that this is entertainment, and freedom of expression, and if you don’t like it then ignore it. What’s the harm, they say. This is a valid perspective - and certainly I don’t think censorship or anything like that should be considered. Further they argue, that other war-themed games from other eras are likewise filled with tragedy and lies and horror - why is there no outrage in those instances?

But this is where, being informed and knowledgeable about a subject changes your perspective. Having listened to harrowing accounts of WW1 combatants - I would have a hard time playing something like Battlefield 1, themed around WW1, where the basic premise is so incongruent with the reality of WW1 warfare. Why even play a game about WW1 if it bears no resemblance to WW1 in the first place? Then, one might ask whether or not making the experience more authentic would actually be any fun as a game. Maybe it wouldn’t be. And the point at which you are asking that question, is the point where you start to question what the appropriate entertainment value is that you personally are seeking out in a game.



Contrast Battlefield 1 - a first person video game totally disconnected from its theme - to the Grizzled, a cooperative board game intimately linked to it. The Grizzled, without ever asking its players to shoot at (let alone even see) the German opponents manages to evoke a first perspective of having to deal with - or at the very least become cognizant of - the issues and psychological traumas soldiers grappled with. The tangle of interpersonal interactions in the game does the realities of WW1 far more service. Of course this isn’t an action game - it’s a sobering experience of trying to mitigate the worst the war has to throw at you, while helping your fellow mates retain their life and sanity and see it through to the end of the war.

One of the values of games is in teaching. While playing the Grizzled may not be “fun” - it is nevertheless engaging and thought-provoking. While you don’t learn a lot about the war - you at least get a hint of what it could’ve been like to be there. Battlefield 1 - in all its grandeur and detail and garishness - doesn’t appear to convey much of anything that might enlighten one about the war. But it’s entertainment right? Maybe it doesn’t have to. Or maybe, the pointless senseless disconnect that Battleflied 1 may offer up provides a commentary on the Great War afterall.

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Fri Aug 26, 2016 3:25 pm
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Delusions of Grandeur (Part 2)

Oliver Kiley
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PART 2: The Fresh Smell of Administrative Air



My delusions continue from Part 1 of this series, which provides teasers, spoilers, and other amazing ideas I have for creating my very own, not-another, space-based 4X game. Last time I outlined the big vision for my 4X game, Transcend, which is built around the notion of guiding your civilization to transcendence while avoiding any number of galactic threats that want to eat you and your citizenry for a midnight snack. I also talked about some specific design goals, around trying to eschew the usual 4X complexity for something built around simple numbers and a relatively small number of total turns. In other words, a more finely tuned game all about hard decisions and big consequences.

In this installment, I’ll be talking about a few core elements of the design related to the structure of your empire and its management.

Elementary Building Blocks

I’ll start first with a criticism of many other 4X games, which is this: why do so many 4X games have space bucks? Or galactic credits? Or whatever they are called. Having money (and associated things like taxes) as one of the central resources, or the central resource system, assumes an incredibly anthropocentric worldview that ends up permeating the rest of the game design. “If we have taxes, then raising taxes must be bad? So we must have some sort of happiness system, right? And if we have happiness, we got to have ways to buffer that right? So we need, like, entertainment centers and futuristic thunderdomes to provide the spectacles, right?”

You see where I’m going here. The central mechanics and how those relate to alien races, in so many 4X games, is just projecting the human modus operandi into the stars. Dressing humans up in ugly clothes and calling them aliens. But what does a cybernetic hivemind care about taxes? What need does a robotic civilization have for money or food? Can they even feel happiness? I want to move away from these thematic conundrums as much as possible, which means taking a hard look at the underlying mechanical system of the game.

When you boil it down, the fundamentals are time, resources, and labor. Any imagined civilization wanting to do anything in the physical universe as we understand it does so over some increment of time, uses some sort of resource (matter and/or energy), and has some unit of work labor (be it a person or a machine) with which to carry out the desired activity. That’s about it really. Money doesn’t need to be a part of the equation (although it could be). Nor does happiness, or taxes, or virtual reality holo-theaters. So my interest is taking these very simple building blocks and building a deep and engaging game with them.



So Much to Do, So Little Time

I’m interested in the notion of time. Time in many 4X games, despite their focus on vast sweeps of time (and history), time itself is rarely a limited resource. Most AI opponents are inept enough that we really have all the time in the world to get our ducks in a row and work towards a win. Even more so, the role we assume in the game, be it as emperor, overmind, benevolent dictator, etc. is limitless in its ability to affect change. By this, I mean that within the confines of any particular turn we can retool our domestic agenda, change ideologies, cue up entire armies for construction, plot out sophisticated movements of forces, engage in diplomatic summits, reassign research priorities, etc.. The player is given full control over their empire each turn, with nothing to limit their actions. Time stands still for us.

King of Dragon Pass had a very compelling idea, which is that in each season (e.g. turn), you could only take two actions. Maybe that would be to adjust the members of your council ring, or conduct a cattle raid, or build up your defenses, or send someone on an expedition. Whatever it was, you were limited and you couldn’t do everything each turn. The result is that you were constantly having to juggle your priorities and where you spent your own time developing your clan or preparing for grander things to come. This limitation forced, very organically, tough choices and tradeoffs. I want to bring this feeling into Transcend.

Hence is the first concept I want to discuss: Admin.

Admin is your ability as a leader “to do stuff.” In some cases, Admin might be consumed permanently as an upkeep cost. For example, it would take a full point of Admin to establish and maintain a basic level of authority over a new colony. If you spent all of your Admin on establishing colonies, you’d be paralyzed and have literally no time for anything else, like marshalling fleets or conducting diplomacy. Those are important things too, and you better leave enough Admin on the table to perform actions in those arenas.

Secondly, and something both FTL and King of Dragon Pass have, is the notion of a “budget.” In FTL, the “budget” is your ship's energy supply, which you distribute among the various subsystems (weapons, drones, shields, engines, etc.) depending on the situation at hand the “strategy” you are going for in your ship design. In King of Dragon Pass, each year, you get to reallocate your budget of “magic” to various fields: cows, healing, communing with spirits, fightin’ words, beards, etc. It has an impact on how the upcoming year plays out. As you might guess by now, Admin in Transcend gets put into the budget mill.

Admin can come in a number of different forms. Military Admin is used for mustering and issuing orders to fleets. Agency Admin for conducting espionage or diplomacy. Civic Admin for building large infrastructure projects. Expeditionary Admin for exploring the stars and establishing new outposts. Players will start off determining an initial “budget” for their pool of Admin across these (and more) different categories. Over the course of the game, the pool of admin will grow, with new admin being assigned to the different categories. Or you might need to reallocate during play, pulling Admin out of research and dumping into Military so that you can coordinate the movements of a dozen fleets during a military campaign. Changing admin from one type to another will consume that point of admin for the turn, meaning that it isn’t available for more productive uses. So long-term planning is rewarded because changing the budget all the time is inefficient.

The question you are asking is what exactly does Admin do? Admin get’s used in a few ways. First, Admin can be consumed as an upkeep expense, such as for maintaining control of a colony. The bigger your empire gets, the less Admin you have for other purposes, which is a nice balancing mechanic against the steamroller trend. Basically, bigger empires are less nimble. Second, Admin can be used for a certain, specific, passive benefits. For example, Military Admin might govern the number of active (non-defensive) fleets you can control at once. Last, Admin can be used to perform actions, which range from launching expeditions, to hosting a diplomatic session, to building facilities and infrastructure, and to executing an espionage operation.

Admin Types might include:

- Military Admin (mustering fleets, launching invasions, supporting defensive fleets)
- Trade Admin (setting up / maintaining trade routes/facilities, economic exchanges)
- Research Admin (building labs & skunkworks, queuing up research projects)
- Industrial Admin (building shipyards and ship, constructing mining and energy facilities)
- Agency Admin (intelligence, espionage, detection)
- Expeditionary Admin (exploration, colonization, archaeology, minor battles)
- Cultural Admin (governance structures, development, cultural influence, psychology)
- Political Admin (treatise, proposals, exchanges, etc.)

With a limited pool of Admin, and hence a limited pool of actions each turn, it requires players to prioritize towards long-term goals. Admin, is basically an action point system, like you often have in board games, which ensures that you’ll never be able to do everything you might want to do. You have to make tradeoffs. When you couple this with the galactic threat (the “death clock” so to speak), you simply don’t have the time or capacity to to do everything it all. Speaking of doing things …



100% All Natural, Galactic Resources

Here’s another zinger … how many 4X games have you depleting the ore resources of an entire planet? Or tapping the energy potential of a black hole? And what unfathomable use could an empire have for such awesome energies in the first place? What if each turn in transcend was 1,000 years? 30 turns is 30,000 years. What are humans going to be like in 30,000 years? What about the aliens?

Harnessing the tiny bits of matter, scattered like crumbs of bread over the ocean, will require careful planning and consideration. Fundamentally, I envision three types of resources: ore, energy, and exotics (of which there will be a number of different types). Ore and energy is fundamental to most building and development tasks in the game, be it planetary improvements, orbital facilities, or space ships. Ore is generated by mining and energy is produced by constructing energy generators of various types. Late in the game, one might be able to build super structures that converts harnessed energy directly to into matter (theoretically possibly, I might add).

A game with a simple resource system that I really adore is UltraCorp, and I’d like to emulate some of that in Transcend. Basically, as you generate ore and energy somewhere, it needs to be transferred to where you can combine it with labor (the third leg of the stool) to produce the final product. Of course produced things have upkeep costs (in ore and energy), so the basic economy becomes a logrus of balancing resource flows through a network of energy and ore supply, all the while keeping an eye on the dwindling pool of resources. The transferal process will be kept as simple (and as visual) as possible. Each level of extraction facility would let you send an increment of resources to a destination of your choice when you build the facility. Of course, changing around your shipping lanes after the fact would require spending Admin (see the rub?)

I’ve always found it clever when games let you screw yourself with your own economy. If you build too fast, without securing enough resources, you production won’t be able to keep up with growth and things will start to unravel. I’ve been interested in this notion of making internal management systems strategic, and doing so by creating pressured within the system where things can spiral out of control if you aren’t careful. What happens when you can’t afford the upkeep on your ring world? What happens to the people then?



The exotic resources will be things like antimatter, organics, rare minerals, power crystals, black slime, and so on. Exotics will occur randomly and sparsely around the galaxy but are a vital part of building/implementing more advanced technologies. In particular, many of the late game technologies that will set you down your path to transcendence may require stockpiling a large supply of exotic resources. Want to build a nova bomb and detonate a star? You’re going to need a lot of anti-matter. Want to build a transdimensional gateway to connect your worlds? You’re going to need a lot of black slime. How about a Dyson sphere or a ring-world? Get those wonderful power crystals!

Exotics also provide a central means to facilitate genuine trade and diplomatic agreements. The key is that not all races will need the same resources in the same abundances. For example, the actual requirements for constructing things, or researching tech, or what a given race needs for “food” might change depending on your selected race. The result is that each empire may have access to a number of exotic resources but only be able to utilize a few of them. It behoves those players to trade their excess resources for the exotics they need. And late game, this becomes a point of leverage between players. If you are relying on a flow of organic materials from my unused gaian world for food production, and I cut you off, suddenly the gloves are off. It makes trade and diplomacy all the more critical and a real tool for pressuring other empires that goes beyond just warfare.



A Labor of Love

The final leg of the stool is labor, which relates directly to your population, so let’s break down the systems here a little bit.

Planets (as well as orbitals or deep space facilities) can contain population. In locations where conditions are favorable to your race’s physiology, growth will occur provided that you provide upkeep for your population (although there is no actual “food” resource in the game - upkeep is purely an energy and ore flow). Humans would likely thrive on a Gaian planet, but would have a much harder time living close to a Jovian planet. Which isn’t to say that late-game technologies and genetic modification of your population wouldn’t alleviate these ill effects! Other locations might have zero growth or even inherent population loss - so maintaining a work force might require a continual influx of offworld workers.

Coupled with your raw population is the planet’s “development level” (DevLvl). The Development Level is essentially an abstract reflection of the quality of the infrastructure in supporting your population. Development levels might range from 0 - 6 (for example), and each level would be able to support an escalating number of population (1/3/6/10/15/etc…). On high growth planets, it may be possible for the population growth to quickly outpace your ability to develop the planet's infrastructure (which gets increasingly costly), resulting in some amount of population being “unsupported.” Unsupported population not only wouldn’t contribute to the planet’s outputs, but it might also put strain on the rest of your population. Of course increasing a planet’s development level requires spending Admin and an injection of energy and ore.

For the supported population, each unit of population is assigned to a built “facility” that is part of your empire, and produces some sort of output that you can put to use. So a facility might be a sensor relay station, or an asteroid mine, or an orbital shipyard, or a research lab. The population assigned to these facilities generate a fixed output based on the facility and subject to some simple modifiers. For example, your budget allocation to Admin can passively provide bonuses to its associated field. Having a large research budget, and whether you are spending research admin to initiate research projects or not, would provide a passive output bonus to all your research output.



A Delicate Balancing Act

One issue with 4X games that I’m sensitive too is the runaway steamroller problem. The steamroller is largely, I feel, a function of centralized production systems. In a Civ or a Master of Orion type game, city’s generate “production” that gets used universally to build everything and anything. So production can go equally into building a research lab or a spaceship or a holo theatre, despite those all being very different in nature. It means that raw production is almost always king, and getting a big advantage in production can see you quickly outpacing your opponents in the global race.

In Transcend, there is no generic “production”. Your population units work facilities “after” they are built in order to produce a certain output good (space ships, culture, ore etc.). Instead, it is your pool of Admin that enables the construction of empire controlled facilities. Constructing an advanced science lab might require 6 Research Admin (for example). If you only have 2 Research Admin in your overall budget, it would take 3 turns of fully investing in your new lab to build it, meaning that Admin would not be available for other Research uses (like queuing up a new research project or implementing a technology). But this has no impact what-so-ever on how quickly you can build up Embassies to extend your diplomatic reach - that would tap into your political Admin budget.

But haven't I just shifted a steamroller that runes on “production” for one that runs on “admin”? Potentially. But Admin points will be much harder to come by, and the pace that your overall Admin budget grows by will be far more limited compared to the exponentially increasing productivity levels seen in other games. Furthermore, implementing facilities that grow your Admin will lock up population to work that building, pulling population away from other productive uses.

Furthermore as the size of your empire grows, relatively more admin is required to maintain authority and control of its various parts. So a smaller empire is more efficient in its use of admin, freeing up relatively more for performing actions. A larger empire would have relatively more of its admin locked into basic upkeep, giving you less available admin to play with each turn. This would make a bigger empire less nimble and flexible.



Like, So Totally Alien

I mentioned early in this article about wanting to identify the most basic elements at work in building an empire, the “universals” of time, resources, and labor that can be applicable to any alien species we might imagine. I mentioned in Part 1 about how different aliens might have different ways of winning the game, that “transcendence” might mean different things for each type of alien.

This closing section will describe a little more how alien races are constructed. Essentially, each alien species will have be identified along the following lines:

Physiology: This is the physical characteristics of the species. Is it biological and organic, having evolved through some combination of chemical and evolutionary process? Or perhaps the beings are based on crystalline or gaseous forms. Even maybe they are synthetic in form, artificial beings created at some lost point in history. Regardless of the types, physiology will to basic characteristics of your population in terms of how they grow and utilize different types of planets. For example, biological species might reproduce at some basic fertility rate, while synthetic species might grow by queuing up new “labor” or machine-workers as a construction project.

Mentality: This refers to the psychological structure and organization of the species. The species might be like humans in that they are individuals - each with their own free will. On the opposite end, would be perfect hive-mind, where all populations are essentially of one shared mind. Or it could be organized based on various sizes of mass-minds or sub-collectives.

A species mentality will have a direct impact on how it can utilize Admin - particularly with respect to galactic expansion. A hive mind might be wonderful where all elements are in close proximity and connected with little delay to the central mind. But maybe the individualistic mentality of human-like species is more suitable for more dispersed expansion behaviors, where colonies can operate more autonomously. Then again, individualists may care a great deal about the happiness of each member of its race, and be prone to revolts or rebellions when not satisfied - something that would be more difficult for a hive mind (unless it became schizophrenic!)

Demeanor: This relates to the overall psyche and motivation of the race, including things like ethics or attitudes. Is the race genuinely curious and wanting to be galactic peacekeepers, or are they paranoid xenophobes that want to eradicate everyone else? Demeanor will have a big impact on diplomatic relationships as a result. But they are also critical for driving the transcendent victory conditions. Different demeanors will relate to methods and endpoints for achieving transcendence. It may be that in order for the peacekeepers to achieve transcendence, they need to build a multi-species coalition first, achieving some feat of galactic unity. Conversely, an technophilic isolationist race might want to hide in the corner of the galaxy and pursue their own private agenda.

So you could make your typical Artificial Intelligence Aggressive Hive Mind Machine Race, hell-bent on domination. Or your benevolent collective consciousness crystal-cortex race. Each of these traits determines basic attributes about your empire (growth, bonuses, etc.). Different technology trees could even be attached to each major type of trait - so depending on what species you play could yield different mixtures of technology.

But more importantly, the combination off all three establishes a unique pattern of objectives you need to transcend. To couple a 3-stage quest/objective system to finding transcendence, and trying to do so in the face of a rising galactic threat seems like a pretty awesome space opera story to me and would let people dabble in the all the cool 4X strategy things, but have it all geared towards a cool narrative win condition instead of the typical win conditions we always see. And I would love to incorporate the ability to actually change your species composition overtime. It may very well be necessary for achieving transcendence that certain traits change over time, or that you change your species to chase a different win condition. It’s an interesting proposition.



Up Next: The Galactic Topology & Exploration

In Part 3, we’ll look at some ideas related to how empires can interact in various ways, and how those interactions dovetail with technology advancements. cheers!
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This Thing Called Strategy

Oliver Kiley
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Note: This article is mirrored at eXplorminate, posted July 15, 2016



Geopolitical strategy, circa 1675


For the past few years, a question has been haunting my dreams: What is strategy? A narrower follow up question is: What makes a compelling strategy game?

One reason this question has been bothering me, particularly in terms of 4X or Civilization-style games, is that so often the gameplay does not feel like what strategy is or ought to be, at least for me. If the gameplay isn’t strategy, then what exactly is it? And if I’m not getting what I want out of a strategy game, then what in the heck do I really want?!

I have a number of pet theories floating around these troubling questions, which might help me work towards an answer. Fair warning though, much of this article will be spent in the realm of “pontification” or “theorycrafting.” Back in the old days, we called this “BSing.” You’ve been warned!

That said, the concepts I’m trying to discuss are hard to wrap the mind around (well, my mind anyway), so I’ve tried to break my thinking down into bite-sized morsels. These morsels are parts of a bigger thesis I’m working towards. Usually the thesis statement goes at the beginning, but I’m saving it until the end for dramatic effect.


Simulation, Game, Sandbox, Toy, or Puzzle? Or none of the above?


Games, Contests, Puzzles, and Toys, Oh My!

I’m going to start with something that might ruffle some feathers: many of the games we love to play aren’t really “games” at all. Game designer Keith Burgun, in his hierarchy of interactive forms, describes proper games as a “contest of decision making.” What does that mean? Let’s step back for a moment and consider Burgun’s hierarchy in full.

At the basic level there are toys. Toys are a system of interaction that may have any number of rules (from just a few to a great many) that describes how the system works or operates - but there are no prescribed goals. A big pile of LEGOs on the floor is a perfect example of a toy. It’s a sandbox where you can do whatever you want subject to the constraints (i.e. rules) of how the pieces lock together. Even then, you can break or bend the rules with few repercussions.

Now consider a puzzle. Puzzles are systems of interaction that generally have a single solution or prescribed goal state. A jigsaw puzzle has a correct final arrangement, just as we might follow the instructions to build a LEGO set and arrive at the “goal” of the finished castle/spaceship/hospital. Puzzles generally have optimal or perfect solutions - they are about solving for something.

At the next level are contests. Contests build on the notion of a puzzle by layering in a means of evaluating the result. With a jigsaw puzzle, it is either solved or it’s not. But in a contest, the end result can be measured in some objective way and compared across participants. A running race is a contest to see who can cross the finish line first. We could likewise start a stopwatch and see who can build a certain LEGO set the fastest. Generally however, there are few decisions to make in a contest. The optimal path is usually clear and it comes down to who can execute or solve it better or faster.

Finally we have games. Games introduce the notion of making decisions. The need to make decisions exists because the “optimal paths” to victory are unclear and interlinked with the decisions of other participants. You might not know what move your opponent is going to make, or what the results of a combat encounter will be, or what diplomatic arrangements your enemies are making behind your back. And so you have to make a decision about how to move forward without having perfect information and without knowing the optimal route to accomplish your goal. To round out the LEGO example, consider the game Mobile Frame Zero, which creates a miniature battle “game” out of constructed LEGO robots.

I need to pause for a moment and make an important distinction. Burgun’s use of the word “game” is very specific - and in this article I’m not intending it to replace the more common understanding of a game as a type of media (e.g. a video game or a board game). So, we can have a video game or a board game (or a sports game) that is structurally a puzzle, or a contest, or a toy, or a proper “game.” When referring to Burgun’s definition of a game, I will use the term “game” (in quotes) or the term proper game or strategy game to keep things clear.

Each step in the hierarchy builds on the prior, and so “games” are contests but with the additional element of making decisions. If we think about 4X games, it isn’t hard to imagine one manifesting as any of the four interactive forms. Imagine a 4X game with no opposing empires and no random events. Two players instead play separate instances of the exact setup and we see who gets the highest score at the end of a certain number of turns. We just made a 4X contest. Take out the ability to compare scores, leaving a singular, solved “win state” instead (e.g. transcend or colonize 50 planets!), along with no competing empires, and we just made a 4X puzzle. Strip out any sense of goals, and we have some sort of space colonization sandbox - a toy, or perhaps an empire simulation.


Civilization: A study in internal versus external game mechanics for over 25 years


Internal vs. External Systems

Now that we have a basic understanding of interactive forms, we can examine how different mechanical systems relate to each type of form. In particular, there is an important aspect to 4X game mechanics that drives what sort of interactive form it is: internal versus external systems.

Internal systems relate to gameplay mechanics that exist and operate primarily within and amongst the assets you control directly in the game. In a typical 4X game (Civilization, Alpha Centauri, Master of Orion, etc.), internal systems include city or colony management: production queues, population happiness, tax rates, economic balance, research priorities, etc. Consider this: if there were no other players or empires in the game, which mechanical systems would continue to function more or less as normal? Those are the internal systems.

The external systems are gameplay mechanics that create and/or depend on interactions with forces outside of your control. Most often these are the interactions you have with other players or empires through the likes of military conquest, espionage, diplomacy, trade, foreign relations, and so on. Beyond other players or empires, it could also include asymmetric forces like random events, endgame threats, space amoebas, or other sources of randomness that add chaos and unpredictability to the gameplay. The key aspect to keep in mind about external systems is that they are outside of the player’s control.

These differences are critically important. In order to have strategic gameplay there has to be an engagement with external systems. Why? Because these external systems and resulting interactions, per Burgun’s hierarchy, are what enable a game to be a proper “game” - and not a puzzle or a contest. External forces provide ambiguities, which obfuscate the optimal paths to victory, and in turn create room for strategic play where we can’t be certain whether our long-term decisions will pay off or not. Moreover, being able to navigate these ambiguities better than your opponent is where skill matters in determining the eventual winner. Games that have many levels of skill (e.g. Chess rankings) and more elaborate heuristics, tend to be deeper and more strategic games.

By contrast, the more a game leans on internal systems, the more puzzle- or contest-like it tends to be (e.g. Apollo4X). In most 4X games, for a given setup, there is an optimal path to expand and grow your empire that follows the rules of the game. This optimal solution can exist because there are few (or no) external systems that make the potential results of the decision process unclear. Of course, external pressures might shift or change what you are optimizing towards during the game - but once that shift in direction is decided, the actions that follow are largely self-evident.


In some games, survival is the only form of winning


The Goal of Succeeding versus Surviving

A curious quality to games is the difference between succeeding (e.g. meeting a victory condition) and surviving. Some games are structured around the notion that eventually you will fail to survive. Consider the game Tetris. Eventually, the blocks will fall so quickly that the game becomes mechanically unwinnable, and so the game ends and you get a final score. Burgun’s iOS game Empire is the Tetris of 4X games. Eventually your empire will be overrun by external forces - the challenge is to see how long you can survive and how big your final score will be.

Survival games can also be driven by more passive or internal forces. There are plenty of survival sandbox games these days (The Long Dark is a nice one), and here it is less about keeping ahead of some menacing threat actively trying to kill you and more about managing your own affairs and assets such that they don’t unravel and lead to your demise.

Similarly, Paradox’s grand strategy games tend not to have specific victory conditions. Games usually end when the time period covered by the game is over, and the main question is whether or not you survived to that end point. Players might also establish goals of their own choosing during the game. In this regard, these games function more like Burgun’s “toy” definition - although I’m inclined to call them “simulation sandboxes” given the level of complexity and the potential for “failing to survive.” So does the lack of a defined victory condition make it less of a proper “game?” I’m not sure - but maybe.

Most 4X games, however, concern themselves with the notion of victory and “succeeding” - being the first to reach a goal or victory condition. Granted, there may still be an aspect of survival at work, as other empires may decide to wipe you off the planet (or galaxy)! And so in many 4X games, there is a tension between the need to survive and the need to achieve victory; finding the balance is certainly a question of strategic decision making.

So what then are these strategic decisions?


Civilization. Civilization never changes (Heiko Günther’s Advanced Civ Re-design)


The Balance of Actions

The next theory I want to lay out is an approach for categorizing the different types of actions or activities one might take in a strategy game. Personally, I want games that emphasize making interesting choices as opposed to making mindless non-decisions. Think of it this way: deciding whether to spend the afternoon at the park or going to see a matinee movie might be an interesting choice, but deciding to turn on the car in order to drive is a necessary (and boring) part of achieving either goal. We’ll get to what interesting means in game terms in a bit. For now, I tend to see actions in the following types:

Strategic Decisions: These are high-levels decisions that feed into how you are going to win the game. Most often, strategic decisions are influenced by external systems. Is my neighbor going to invade me (or not), and should I therefore strike first (or not)? How much should I invest in building military units versus funding empire growth? Who should I conduct espionage against or form an alliance with? What type of victory condition am I working towards, and how will I get there before everyone else? Do I need to shift strategies? Strategic decisions exist in our minds - they don’t play out in the physical game space. They are about establishing objectives that set you on a path to victory.

Tactical Decisions/Actions
: These are the important decision points and/or actions players take to actualize their strategic decisions or to respond to short-term issues and events. They relate to how you will accomplish an objective. If a long-term strategic plan calls for subjugating a neighboring empire, how are you going to do it? What type of fleet will you build and what route will it take? How will you deal with enemy forces or planetary defenses? Unlike strategic decisions, the result of making a tactical decision is usually reflected by a change to the game state - e.g. I move my fleets to another system, and thus the game state has changed.

Optimization Activities: These are actions that relate mostly to internal systems and consequently ask you to solve or optimize for a particular objective. Do I build my research lab and then my production facility, or vice versa? A lot of time can be spent in 4X games optimizing a particular decision point, and, depending on the complexity and math involved, can be very challenging or relatively trivial. Adjusting the allocation of workers on a colony between production, food, and research is an optimization task as there is often a best solution for a given strategic goal. 4X games are occasionally derided as being “spreadsheet managers,” and the need to optimize outputs (or military efficiency) strikes at the heart of that criticism.

Upkeep & Overhead Actions: These are the routine actions that relate, again, mostly to internal systems and are part of the maintenance or upkeep of your assets. Generally, there is little choice in these actions, they are things you just have to do to advance the game state. In board games these upkeep actions are quite common (reshuffle decks, refill tokens, pay upkeep costs, etc.). We see these in 4X video games, too: tweak the ship design to add the newest laser weapons, add the newly-researched building to your all your production queues, send constructed units to the rally point, clear notifications to advance the turn. These are “no brainer” decisions that rarely require much thinking.

I’ve often found myself critiquing strategy games by asking “what percentage of my time am I spending on what types of actions?” The optimal balance is, of course, a matter of personal preference. For me, I’d much rather spend my time making strategic and tactical decisions, rather than running optimization exercises. Overhead actions, ideally, are just automated and resolved by a competent AI or streamlined UI - or else removed entirely. As a result, I tend to prefer games that emphasize external systems (e.g. more wargame focused 4X titles) over those focused on internal systems and hence optimizations and puzzle-solving.

The notion of survival versus success is also relevant to this topic. Strategic or tactical decisions are easiest to see as they relate to external factors (e.g. other empires), which in turn relate to the choices you make to move closer to success. Less common, but certainly possible, are strategic and tactical decisions relating to survival and internal mechanisms. Grand strategy games often latch onto this idea - where various internal pressures (e.g. mismanagement) can result in a revolt or collapse (e.g. a coup or assassination). This transforms them into external factors, which could then destroy your empire. But I feel like more could be explored along these lines.


A stone here, a stone there… Where will you Go?


The Deception of Complexity

Consider for a moment the classic board game Go. Go has a ruleset that can be explained in a few sentences. And while it’s one of the simplest strategy games, it also has nearly unrivaled depth. This no doubt accounts for the game’s lasting appeal over the course of thousands of years (yes, thousands). The key point is that mechanical complexity does not equal depth, and Go is a testament to the notion that great depth can emerge from simple systems. And so, if we can achieve great strategic depth through simplicity, what role does complexity then play in strategy games?

Complexity can affect gameplay in two fundamental ways. First, complexity can affect the size of the decision space. Playing Go on a 9x9 grid is less complex than playing on a full 19x19 board, where there are vastly more possible moves and game states. Second, complexity can affect the number of factors or layers that go into making a decision. Imagine a simple, multilateral wargame with no option for diplomacy. Now insert diplomacy - suddenly there is a new system for interaction that can influence your decisions for who to defend or war against.

But does this added complexity always make for a deeper strategic game? Not necessarily.

Perhaps enabled by increased computing power, I feel that strategy games have become more complex over time. For many, this added complexity is welcome because it means the game has more longevity - it takes longer to tease apart all the inner workings and to build up skill. We see this frequently in modern board games as well, where learning the rules of the system is a major part of a game’s appeal. Players discuss the joys and thrills of learning how a new system operates and what all the levers and cogs do. But this can be a double-edged sword.

In many cases, complexity merely makes the math of solving optimization problems more convoluted and challenging - diverting attention away from the real strategic interactions in the game. For example, many 4X games have giant tooltips filled with positive and negative modifiers explaining all the factors affecting a colony’s happiness. Maximizing happiness, and in turn productivity outputs, requires identifying what options you have to mitigate each of the contributing factors and determining which has the best net return. You might even conduct this optimization task across all of your colonies to determine exactly which one yields the most bang for the buck. In this regard, the complexity is making the optimization harder, but it doesn’t really deepen the strategic landscape - you are still trying to solve for the same X.

Moreover, once you’ve cracked the code and learned these internal optimizations, you have solved the major puzzle of the game - and can then beat it relatively easily over and over again. There might be strategic or tactical decisions to be made - but they are no longer as interesting and gameplay depth has been diminished as a consequence. A question to ask yourself is this: does a given strategy game become more interesting or less interesting as you play it more?


That’s the same face I make when I strategerize...


The Quest for Deep, Interesting Decisions

My ideal strategy game is one where I spend most of my time making interesting strategic and tactical decisions - compared to optimization and upkeep actions. But what makes a choice interesting in the first place? Principally, an interesting strategic decision is one where you have to make a choice and you are uncertain about what the long-term payoff of that choice will be. But you are not shooting blindly in the dark, either. This balance of uncertainty - and the nature of it - is crucial because otherwise the “game” is reduced to a solvable, though potentially quite complex, puzzle.

Uncertainty itself can arise from a number of sources, each of which has an implication on the strategic depth of a game.

One source of uncertainty is chaos or randomness in the game system. If random events, die rolls, or the Wizard-Kings of Probability have a bearing on your long-term decisions, then clearly the outcome has uncertainty to it. However, this may not make a deeper or more strategic game; rather it may just make it more unpredictable and harder to predict. Would chess be considered as skillful and deep if there was only a 50/50 chance to capture a piece? The randomness would make it difficult to strategize and diminish the potential gains for careful planning. In other cases, for example in a game like poker, high degrees of uncertainty adds another level - one of probability and risk assessment - to the optimization activities. It makes decisions more uncertain and harder to calculate, but maybe not in a fundamentally more interesting way. What makes poker interesting is that the randomness of the deal is filtered through the skills and behaviors of other players in an interactive way.

So then, the other major source of uncertainty is related to the interactions between players - and here is where decisions become more interesting. If “games” are understood to be interactive systems that are contests of decision making, then having to account for and react to the actions of your opponents is crucial. Player interactions are external in nature and manifest across a number of 4X game systems: diplomacy, military positioning, espionage, etc. They can also take on a number of different forms: open negotiation, bluffing and feigning, double-think, maneuvering, etc. The crucial skill is being able to read your opponent based on understanding their position, personality, and playstyle, and in turn identify your likely moves (and countermoves). This is where you can leverage your own wit or cunning to achieve a strategic advantage. This is where skill and experience comes into play.

Ultimately, what makes choices interesting is whether or not the strategic landscape of the game - the multi-layered decision spaces that exists in your mind - allows unique and consequential decisions to emerge. In the board game world, games are often discussed as having either “pre-baked” strategic pathways that are created by the designer (and to be discovered by the player) versus games that are more player-driven and emergent in the game states and situations that arise. The pre-baked path approach relies heavily on “learning the system” and on complex internal mechanics.These are often paired with limited player interaction and less volatility as a result. The player-driven approach is more in line with the “simple to learn, lifetime to master” notion - where the depth and interest comes from unique situations where player personalities mix in an interactive and dynamic environment. The former is predominantly about optimizations, the latter is concerned with strategic or tactical interactions.


Diplomacy for another age


Implications for 4X Game Design

I’ve laid out a number of pet theories in this article:

- The definition of a game versus a puzzle, toy, contest, or simulation
- Internal versus external systems
- Surviving versus succeeding (victory, goals)
- Types of actions (strategic, tactical, optimization, upkeep)
- The roles of complexity
- Interesting decisions, uncertainty, and player- vs. system-driven games.

What does all of this mean for 4X games? If I have one big critique (here is the thesis!) of 4X games, it is that they often emphasize the exact wrong things in their design (given my preferences), and so I don’t find many of them to be all that strategic as a result. In many cases I’m not even sure they could be classified as proper “games” (per Burgun’s hierarchy) - they feel, to me, more like puzzles.

Complexity appears to be increasing in 4X games, but much of this complexity is directed towards internal game systems: ever more intricate systems of colony management, internal policies, worker optimizations, more complex development pathways, and so on. Little of this really affects how interesting the big long-term strategic decisions are. In fact, the focus on creating compelling or interesting victory conditions (essential for a proper “game”) seems to be in decline - making the choice of what you are optimizing for all the more obvious. In so many 4X games, I feel your race selections and starting position railroad you down a certain track towards a certain pre-ordained victory condition. You might start the game game knowing you are going for a technological win because your empire/species is all about boosting technology. The decisions that follow from there are all about optimizing and solving for X. It’s a puzzle, not a game.

One of the challenges with complexity also has to do with the AI’s capabilities and level of cunning. On one hand, a shift towards greater focus on internal system complexity could be seen as a way to sidestep a weak strategic AI. However, the AI still has to navigate these complex internal systems, and often it ends up receiving bigger and bigger bonuses to compensate for its inefficiencies. This isn’t a good foundation to build a competitive strategic game. On the other hand, simpler game systems might be able to better leverage a computer’s brute-force calculation power to legitimately out-optimize or out-wit the player. I have a Go app on my phone and the AI, sans bonuses, absolutely trounces me. Go figure...

Other types of 4X games (and especially grand strategy games) take a different approach. They are using increasing complexity as a basis for building more detailed simulation models. Within this type of simulation, players are at liberty to decide their own goals and what game systems to focus their choices around. It is a sandbox experience and, short of a failure to survive, is not usually oriented around goals or victory conditions at all. This is, of course, a perfectly valid approach, and simulations have a great capacity to allow for player-created narratives to emerge. But in a certain sense, these really are not “games” either - at least in the strict sense of active competition for victory.


Depth through simplicity?


So, 4X games appear stuck between a puzzle optimization pole on one end and a complex simulation pole on the other. And neither of these really results in a focus on making interesting strategic decisions based on external, player-driven interactions.

Personally, I’d love to see a 4X game take a different approach and embrace mechanical simplicity - using it to build a more interesting interactive player environment. What would a 4X game with practically zero empire management look like - with all the focus instead on diplomacy, military maneuvering, controlling shared markets, and cultural exchange? The skill of the game, and its potential depth, would be less contingent on knowing the optimal pathways and instead about making strategic decisions within an emergent and dynamic game space, including the personalities and eccentricities of your rivals.

Most titles seem to drift towards either the survival/sandbox simulator or the optimization/ steamroller to victory. There are a few games that strive to zero-in on interesting strategic decisions and that focus more on external interactions as a result. Age of Wonders III, for example, has relatively simple empire management and de-emphasizes optimization tasks. Instead it emphasizes military positioning, maneuvering, and the careful use of magic resources - all higher level strategic or tactical decisions. This bring it closer to a proper strategy “game” than many other 4X games, at least given my preferences. I would put Master of Orion (the first one) or Sword of the Stars (the first one) in the same category. They are relatively simple games mechanically that emphasize external interactive systems over complex internal mechanics. But fewer and fewer games seem to follow in their footsteps.

As a parting thought, consider these various pet theories and whether they have informed or changed your perspective of 4X games that you have played. How do your own interests and preferences align or not with these concepts? Do you see other styles of 4X or strategy games that do or could exist? Do you feel that the games you play are are “puzzles” or “contests” or “games?”

As always, the comment line is open.
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Mon Jul 18, 2016 2:02 pm
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