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Spirit Island Design Diary - Adversaries

R. Eric Reuss
United States
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On another forum, someone asked me about adversary design - the process of translating a nation’s real-world/alternate-world tactics into the mechanics of Spirit Island. It's an interesting question.

(For the unfamiliar: an Adversary is a specific Invader nation to fight against. Each one changes the game in different ways, and offers multiple levels of difficulty, starting at "a step up from the teaching game" and going to "masterful players with hundreds of games under their belt have around a 1-in-3 chance of winning".)

Making an Adversary tends to involve the following:

1. Research on the country’s historical colonization efforts and society-at-large, with a particular eye towards “How were they distinct from other colonizers / countries of that time period?” If it’s a country that didn’t have much colonial activity in real history, “why not?” and “how is the alternate-history different?” are important to know, too. I may do this research myself (which is fun, but time-consuming) or get a precis / have a discussion with someone who has a deeper body of knowledge than my own.

2. Brainstorm possibilities for representing the distinctive items from #1 in game terms.

3. Find a core gameplay element (or pair of elements) to modify/subvert, changing up the game in interesting ways. Ideally, this is based off of the possibilities in #2, so that the core element reflects historical/alt-historical reality.

4. Experiment with different progressions to see which make for a good difficulty ramp. Make sure the core element from #3 appears early on in the progression. (Level 1 or Level 2.)

Example: England

Research taught me that Britain's later colonies (US, Australia) tended to have much greater immigration and population than most other nations’ colonies, and some of the reasons behind / consequences of that fact. Also, that Britain gave its colonies greater (though still limited) autonomy in self-governance: decisions could be made locally which in other countries' colonies might have required taking 6 months to consult the homeland.

Brainstorm: How to represent “more population”? How to represent the land grants given to indentured laborers? How to represent local self-governance? There were multiple possibilities for each; I listed a number out.

Core element: One idea looked particularly promising for shaking up play with a historically-inspired feel. Normally, Invaders only Build in lands which already have other Invaders in them (at least an Explorer). But “indentured laborers gaining land” could be represented by ignoring that restriction: lands bordering multiple Towns/Cities could Build even if unexplored, representing local laborers earning their plots (without much choice about where those plots are). Repelling Explorers to prevent Building is a core tactic of the game; this rule foils that tactic in areas of Invader strength.

I then chose several of England’s other effects to help support this core element: representing “more immigration” with an extra Build action means the indentured-laborers rule crops up more. Starting each board with two extra buildings makes the coastal regions vulnerable to it from the get-go. And so forth. Multiple Adversary designs might subvert the rule “Invaders only Build in lands where they already are”, but they’ll do so in different ways, and part of that difference is what other effects support the core modification.

...and from there, it’s been experimentation to figure out good orderings and testing to figure out if it all works.

But it doesn’t always happen in that order.

Example: Brandenburg-Prussia

This Adversary arose from a playtester request for an Adversary that made the game harder, but changed the basic dynamics of play as little as possible. I was initially a bit resistant - the whole point of Adversaries was to present a unique opponent requiring different strategies! After some conversation, though, it became clear that testers usually reached “desire for increased difficulty” before reaching “desire for increased variety in strategy-space”, so they won me over.

In this case, I started with step #3 - find a core gameplay element - because I had a particular mechanical purpose in mind. The boost that least changes the core strategies of the game is speed - the Invaders would simply come faster, more accelerated. ("Start the board with more Invaders" changes dynamics even less, but doesn't work well as a core element; I'll talk more about this below.) As the design evolved, simplicity also became a core consideration: Brandenburg has no additional rules to remember; all of its changes are performed during setup. (It does have a Stage II escalation, but it's not anything you have to remember during play - there’s a big flag icon on some Invader cards that tells you, "go do that thing".)

From the core gameplay element, I went back to #1, and looked for a nation of the era which had a reputation (either past or contemporary) for speed / ruthless efficiency / a certain driven focus. Prussia seemed to fit the bill, so I read up on it a bit, and found that one King of Brandenburg (a partial predecessor) had had colonial ambitions, but had been blocked from pursuing them by a number of fundamental factors: lack of navy/coast access, low population due to war, etc. In some cases I came up with plausible alternate-history changes to mitigate these factors, in others I handwaved. (This was before Paul created a unified alternate history of Europe.)

Ranges of Threat

One requirement of an Adversary is that it make the game harder. On the face of it, this looks trivial; the game has many levers to pull. Just make some Invader action/stat/behavior nastier, and you're done.

But it's not quite that simple. For starters, it's pretty easy to flat-out make the game too hard. As well, there are several important ranges to consider:

Range of player skill - some things that add difficulty for beginning players won't make the game appreciably harder for more experienced players, because the experienced players are already avoiding the circumstances you've made nastier. For instance, the single effect of "Cities have +3 Health and do +3 Damage" might be problematic for newer players, but more experienced players will simply never allow a new City to be built, and will gain overall board control swiftly enough to dig for Major Powers and handle the starting Cities before that rule has overmuch impact. You can get around this with synergies between Adversary abilities: if some other effect were "whenever there are two Explorers in a land, they turn into a City", Cities will threaten much more often! It's fine if an Adversary's Level 1 effect doesn't impact really good players much, so long as later effects make it relevant when they're playing at an appropriate difficulty level.

Range of time over the game. Both Invaders and Spirits increase in effectiveness over the course of the game - the Spirits a bit every turn, the Invaders in larger steps as they hit new Stages in the invader deck. You can envision it as a pair of upwards-sloping curves, each competing to rise higher than each other. Different changes alter the Invaders' power-curve at different points. For a simple example, consider "add more Invader buildings during setup". This makes the opening-game much harder, but doesn't provide much ongoing bonus to threats: the Invaders aren't adding any greater quantity of units over time, nor are their units more problematic to the Spirits. By turn 5-8, those extra buildings will either have caused an early Spirit loss, or will have mostly faded to the status of "juicy targets". On the other end of the spectrum, consider "When Exploring, Stage III Invader cards add a Town in addition to the normal Explorer." This is brutal in late-game, but has no impact whatsoever until the middle of Turn 7.

(Digression: Adversary tempo interacts interestingly with Spirit development speed. Some spirits by nature are very fast out of the gate, others crest in midgame, still others are weak early yet phenomenal in endgame. But Growth choices affect development speed: players choose whether (and how) to push long-term growth vs. short-term board control. It's obvious that different Adversary abilities make certain Powers more/less desirable, but subtler is that different Adversary abilities make certain *tempo* choices more/less desirable.)

Range of Spirits facing the Adversary. Some Spirits will be stronger and some weaker against a given Adversary; there's no getting around that. But it's still important to keep in mind that a variety of different play-styles and power combinations will be going up against an Adversary, and try to keep any of them from being flatly useless. For instance, England's indentured-laborers rule would have been simpler if it said "Invaders Build even in lands without Invaders" - none of this checking-adjacent-buildings stuff. But in addition to being less thematic, this would have been bad design: Explorer-control powers would become irrelevant to the game. Instead, they're relegated from "central strategy" to "niche effect" - very useful if you manage to mostly-clear an area... but you have to work for it.

Types of colonization (or, Why you probably won’t see Spain anytime soon)

Very roughly speaking, there were three broad categories of European colonies:

1. Colonization-and-immigration. Lots of people sent over to live in a new land - perhaps for its resources, perhaps for strategic reasons, perhaps as a societal pressure-valve. One iconic example is Britain colonizing North America.

2. Conquest-and-subjugation. Some immigration, but not nearly as much as #1. Instead, the colonials subjugated the local inhabitants to demand tribute / enslave them / require work from them. One iconic example is Spain's conquistadors, and the encomienda/repartimiento systems in Latin America.

3. Factory-and-trade. Relatively low immigration, usually to a single coastal city intended to act as point-of-presence for the nation’s trade in the region. This required good relations with the local leader - perhaps through gifts or diplomacy, perhaps by backing one leader/tribe/faction (to the detriment of others) or by simply outright installing a local ruler. One iconic example is the Portuguese trade colonies chaining out to the East Indies.

The core mechanics of Spirit Island represent #1: colonization-and-immigration-type colonies. But not all exploring countries performed that type of colonization! So there are some historical powers that you won't see, at least for now. (I'm confident the game could be extended to Conquest Adversaries. Trade Adversaries are trickier, but I have some ideas.)

This limitation is actually one of the motivations for the alternate-history of Europe: to have more potential colonizing powers (especially type #1) than we actually saw historically. I'd originally planned on not going into too much detail, for fear of having just enough knowledge to metaphorically hang myself with, but Paul at Greater Than Games loves history, and has come up with a great split off our own past that serves the game really well and makes for an interesting contemplation of how just a few things shaking out differently might have changed the course of Europe!

(And he even made it compatible with the alternate Brandenburg-Prussia! :-)
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