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Great strategy games hinge on creating interesting decision for players to make. Interesting decisions need to have an impact on the game state (i.e. they should not be irrelevant) and there shouldn’t be one "right" decision (otherwise there isn’t a decision at all!). Uncertainty (or risk) in outcomes, a varied decision space, and a balance between short- vs. long-term goals all contribute towards making more interesting decisions.
Over the course of Hegemonic's development, I continually re-evaluate the gameplay to polish the kinds of decisions that players face. And Hegemonic does contain quite a few decision over the course of the game! Below, I’m going to review the primary decisions and associated factors that players need balance during gameplay. I feel that discussing decisions is the best way to convey the feeling of a game for interested players. So here we go!
Decision 1 ... or ... How to explore a galaxy
Hegemonic’s galaxy board is gradually filled out over the course of the game as players place sector tiles (hexes) from a pool onto open board locations. At the start of each turn, players go around the table choosing a tile to place from the pool, and then add another sector from the draw pile to the pool.
Sector tiles indicate locations for building the three different types of bases (industrial complexes, political embassies, martial outposts) in different number of combinations. Furthermore, when playing sector tiles, they can be played anywhere on the board. You aren’t limited to playing next to previously explored sectors or your own territories.
The exploration mechanisms offer a number of decisions which shift over the course of the game. A limited number of tiles are face up in the sector pool, so when it is a player’s turn to choose a tile they have to think critically about what to place AND where to place it.
For example, do you play a tile that supports your own strategic objective (i.e. expanding military bases)? Do you then place that tile next to your empire so it is easy to expand to in the short-term, or do you place it in a position that makes better use of its power later in the game (i.e. a more centralized or aggressive location)? There is a risk proposition built into the sector tile placement. If you place it further away, will you be able to get there first or will someone else beat you to it?
You’ll also need to consider what your opponents are likely going to do. It may be more important to play a tile that an opponent would otherwise take. You’ll need to weigh the benefits of playing to further your own ends versus playing to limit your opponents opportunities. Later in the game as the board fills up more, additional options open up for placing tiles in ways that block or cut off the expansion base types in a way that can hamper your opponents.
Holistically, the exploration mechanisms support a very wide decision space. Like a game of Go, you can play a tile anywhere, and each tile is going to come into play in different ways over the course of the game depending on where it is played. Tile placement has a significant impact on driving your longer term strategies ... and successive tile placements can definitely require you to re-evaluate your strategic direction and/or support a needed shift in new direction. But tile placement is only part of the game. How you take advantage of the evolving board provides an even deeper decision space.
Decision 2 ... or ... How to sequence an empire
The primary actions you take in building your empire occur over action phases, of which three occur each turn. During each action phase, all players simultaneously select one of their seven action cards for the phase. Players flip their cards over and the cards are resolved in numerical order as listed on the cards (actions are numbered 1-5). In the case of ties, the Arbiter (i.e. the lead player) gets to choose who goes first among the tied players.
Deciding which action to perform is a case of balancing what you really want to do against what you think your opponents are going to do and whether their decisions might impact your choice.
For example, the Industrialize, Politicize, and Martialize actions are all #3 action cards and are the main "empire building" actions, allowing you to build bases in new sectors where you have influence. You may want to expand your industrial complexes (using the industrialize action) in a certain valuable sector. But is your opponent ahead of you in turn order and likely to get there first if they also choose Industrialize? Or are they likely to choose a #2 Assault action and try to sabotage your expansion effort before you have a chance to build? Do you instead play the #1 action to block the open base locations and give yourself priority for expanding there later but at an added cost? Do you assault them-instead and cut off their ability to expand to that location? Or do you feign your desire for expanding industry and make a bold political move somewhere else?
The three action phases occurring each turn give you lots of choices for how to sequence your actions around both the turn order and what other players are likely to do. It makes for a good deal of tension and deduction while also creating opportunities for pulling off unanticipated moves and staying one step ahead of your opponents. Furthermore, knowing what actions everyone else has played (after revealing the cards) creates interesting deterrent situations, where you might modify your strategy on the fly to protect yourself against what another player might do on their turn.
Another facet of the action selection mechanic that supports interesting decisions is the opportunity costs faced with performing one action over another. You always left wanting to perform more actions in a phase or turn than you are able to, so managing what actions you take over others is crucial to effective play. For example, the discover action card contains a number of really useful abilities, such as collecting more CAPS, exploring new sectors, or performing additional technology research. But what expansion or board control opportunities are you giving up by spending time discovering more? Tough choices!
Choice 3 ... or ... How to balance the economy
In Hegemonic, each of your base types (complexes, embassies, outposts) generate an amount of capacity (CAPs) at the start of each turn. You use these CAPs to pay for actions, from building new bases to sending fleets on raiding actions. As you build more bases of a certain type, you’ll generate more CAPs. But the cost of bases also goes up with each type.
From a purely economic standpoint, you can generate the most money by always building the cheapest base of the three types that will increase your income (i.e. the lowest marginal cost for the highest marginal benefit). However, a diverse economic approach like this means you will have less power within each of the base types to defend or attack with. Building more bases of one type generally makes each of those bases stronger, but then you’re sacrificing your income potential. So while you need to expand your income, you need to balance this against having sufficient power to protect yourself and conduct offensive moves. If you are too diverse, you’re open to an easy takeover from other players, even though you may be out producing them economically.
There is also a macro-level economic decision you need to make, which is whether you save money to try and become the Arbiter next turn and be able to affect the action sequence. At the end of each turn, the player with the most CAPs remaining automatically gets the Arbiter token. Keeping an eye on other player’s CAPs (CAPs are visible to all players) and whether they are in a position to take the Arbiter position will have a bearing on what actions you select (i.e. maybe you want to hold more money back), or whether you use the capitalize action to generate more CAPs to secure the Arbiter token, etc. The Arbiter does provide a key advantage, and often times you’ll want to sequence your actions and economic flow for an entire turn to secure the arbiter token and set yourself up for a key move the following turn.
Choice 4 ... or ... How to use technology and win the good fight
One of the tougher choices in Hegemonic has to do with the Technology/Resolution (Tech/Res) cards. Each player has a hand of five of these cards, which are used in resolving conflicts or to provide a technology benefit t if played to one of your empire’s three advanced technology slots. The Tech/Res cards range from Tier 1 to Tier 3 in level. Furthermore, each card lists two resolution powers; a general power level (ranging from 1-5) and bonus power level (5-8) that can only be used if the current conflict matches the conditions on the Tech/Res card. The lowest tier cards have the weakest general power (usually 1 or 2) but the highest bonus power. Often too the technology benefit of the weakest cards is very beneficial early on, while the higher tier cards become more useful later in the game.
Hence the tough decisions. Do you keep a particular Tech/Res card in your hand to use in conflicts that are aligned with your larger strategy (i.e. cards with a big bonus power to Agent actions if pursuing a political strategy) or do you play that card for its technological benefit? Cards played for technology can be drawn back into your hand later in lieu of drawing from the draw pile, so you have flexibility later on to shift strategies. Perhaps you play a lower tier card for its technological advantage and then pull it back into your hand for higher resolution power later in the game as conflicts become more frequent.
Tech/Res cards used for conflicts are returned to your hand at certain points in the game and can be used again in subsequent conflicts. There is an intriguing deduction/bluffing element to using your Tech/Res cards in conflicts. You need to balance retaining cards in your hand to carry out your actions effectively (i.e. raiding an enemies complexes) but you also need to consider whether you will be attacked and what cards need to be held back to use in defense. Over the course of the game, you will start to figure out others players’ strengths and can begin to play to their weakness. Do you carry out a secondary target to feign and draw out your opponent’s high power card, thereby making it easier to attack a key location of theirs as your primary target?
The diversity you maintain the cards in your hand is also crucial. You could retain a lot of high power martial cards and be able to clean house with martial actions, but that might leave you really weak in other conflict types and unable to effectively defend yourself. If you use all your high power martial cards attacking, you won’t have any left to defend with.
An additional layer to the conflict resolution that adds interesting choices is how political power is used. All political embassies belong to a political faction depending on the color of the sector tile. Regardless of which players are engaged in a conflict, if either of those players are using political power in the conflict, other players also having political power in the same faction as the engaged faction can lend their power to the engaged player.
And so begins the makings of alliances and negotiations. Do you appeal to a 3rd party to lend their strength in sabotaging a player with a menacing military stronghold? Does the target of your sabotage benefit the 3rd party player at all? Will they require some Non-Aggression agreement for a set number of turns in exchange for helping you out? Do you stick to the deal?
All in all, there are some intriguing decisions for how you work with other players to maintain an even playing field. But don’t expect help if all your requests for political support are clearly self-serving. Again, this creates another decision point where you need to balance doing something that benefits you the most directly versus something with more diffuse benefits across the board but gaining political support in the process.
Choice 5 ... or ... How to achieve Hegemony
The overarching strategic direction you pursue is informed by all of the above elements; the arrangement of sector tiles in the galaxy; the sequence of actions and managing play order; balancing economic with power and arbiter attainment; managing technology/resolution cards; and using political leverage.
Yet the optimal strategic direction you pursue is a dynamic and moving target. The board state can change rapidly with swings of power occurring frequently. Recognizing when to shift strategies and balance your empire’s growth and technologies to be flexible and responsive is critical to success. You might have an opportunity to dominate the board militarily, but doing so makes you a huge target, and a few critical attacks on your outposts could leave you with little to fall back on in shifting to another strategy.
Ultimately, scoring is determined by a combination of your total power on the board (i.e. you want to build as much as you can) AND the distribution of your power across the galaxy (i.e. you want to have more power in each of the galaxy boards than other players). This scoring mechanism creates a wide range of interesting choices that will drive your strategy beyond whether you are pursuing industrial, political, or martial expansion. It informs how you are building those assemblages of bases.
Do you play it safe and expand incrementally, concentrating your total power and excluding others from your territory? Or do you take a dispersed and opportunistic growth strategy, expanding quickly but loosely throughout as many regions as possible to get a foothold in more total area of the board? Or is it a mixture of both? Or do you switch from one approach to other as the game nears completion?
This dynamism is an aspect of Hegemonic that thrills me the most. The strategy is highly layered from a grand strategic level down to a nearly tactical level, from big decisions about "how much power where" to the sequence in which you use your Tech/Res cards in resolving conflicts. All the while you need to keep a close eye on a quickly evolving board state and adjust your machinations accordingly to out plot your opponents’, no doubt devious, designs.