Other Wise

From the keyboards of babes

A conversational comment to David Boyd about arc in games, “Right, the optimal funnel should narrow and the variance of potential gains should increase,” got me thinking. Sometimes I type faster than I think. In this case the clear implication is that the special powers and roles should, nay must have limited use lifespans. Doh, of course!

Positional prostitution

A significant portion of the game surrounds efficiently meteing out token resources over the duration of the game. While this is interesting, it is a single pass decision space (there is no opportunity to revisit investment decisions or change gross investment patterns). Perhaps it should be multi-pass (ie support more adaptable and responsive strategic structure depths).

I’ve a fondness for games which allow exchange of victory points for in-game advantage. The best ones (for my tastes) support giving specific other players (potential) victory points. The more general case involves sacrificing personal victory points for position (equivalent in the zero sum view). I generically prefer the targeted distribution simply as it allows players to competitively position themselves for handouts and I have a particular fondness for games in which players can create emergent dependencies; positional structures in which it is in a player’s positional self interest to help another player win as the most effective (or even only) method of improving their own position (KaiVai makes extensive use of this pattern and it is a common feature of good Age of Steam and 18XX play). A possible application to Pax Mongolica could allow VPs to be sacrificed to re-acquire previously spent tokens. A more(?) entertaining form which hews closer to my interests might allow a player to resurrect tokens by simultaneously resurrecting a larger number of tokens for another player. eg PlayerA resurrects N tokens for cost X, which results in PlayerB also receiving 2N resurrected tokens for free (rations and costs TBD). As a result players would explicitly (plan to) position themselves for positional handouts from other players…positional prostitution.

Thematically this is a mess. I’ll probably have to change the tentative Viking/Varangian theme again. A small loss. I’m a more concerned that the game is too mechanically rich, too many layers in the mechanical layer cake: network building, combat, player-elected scoring, turn order auctions, area influence, resource (exchange) management., special powers and roles (which I’ve never felt good about). Time to start pruning again?

The importance of being earnest

The special powers and actions cards seem to work, however they make the game far more tactical than I like. I prefer a game which keeps the players focused on ~3 turns out, always playing and making their decisions on three turns hence rather than the current situation.

Proposal:

1) When an area is scored a player holding one of the plurality levels may elect to score the area and receive victory points or not.

2) A player receiving victory points when an area scores must discard one of their tokens from the area.

3) If a player elects not to receive victory points when an area is scored, then their presence is ignored in subsequent scoring of the area, allowing the next lower plurality player to score as if they held a higher plurality.

I think this heads in the right direction. I’ll get a new version of the rules plus some minor action card changes together soon.

Supporting files and home production

Current (updated) rules: http://www.bgdf.com/tiki/tiki-download_userfile.php?fileId=525 Action cards: http://www.bgdf.com/tiki/tiki-download_userfile.php?fileId=523 Special power cards: http://www.bgdf.com/tiki/tiki-download_userfile.php?fileId=524

Tiles should be ~8cm across parallel edges and can be easily made with cardboard and crayon. Glass bits work fine for tokens. Wood bits from any other game work fine for cubes/goods, and usually no more than 6 of each colour are needed.

Balancing the special actions

I’m unsure how to balance the special powers or if in fact they need balancing

The basic arithmetic is simple enough. There are few enough tokens in the game, and more particularly on the board, that any action can be measured in terms of token count effects. That gives a base scalar. The primary necessity at that point simply becomes ensuring that the token effect counts for each special power are similar. That’s not hard. What I’m finding more difficult is working through the permutations of the action card deck and thence determining how many actions will be collected in the game how quickly, and if an uneven distribution of actions in the early game will be too large a swing. What is making this more difficult is that I’m quite unsure of this analytical approach is even valid for answering the question. More annoyingly, if early acquisition is in fact a real problem then it is likely that adding use-count limits to the special powers won’t fix the problem.

Gahh! I’ve seen too many otherwise interesting designs broken by simply getting the basic math wrong. This is annoying.

Current rules for Pax Mongolica

The current rules may be found here: http://www.bgdf.com/tiki/tiki-download_userfile.php?fileId=522

Yeah, I do all my rules in LaTex (TeX). My preferred interface is Lyx.

Adding special powers and roles

See: http://www.bgdf.com/tiki/tiki-view_blog_post.php?blogId=149&postId=602

The initial concept is to add special powers that break or extend the rules for the bearer. That’s the simplest and thus lowest risk implementation. However it is also largely uninteresting. A single special power doesn’t do enough to develop arc for the game, which is the whole reason for considering SP&R in the first place. Okay, combinatorial special powers then. Players may acquire multiple special powers and may then use them freely in interesting combinations. Hurm. Freely. Maybe not — why not apply the single global resource currency to the SP&R as well? Nice idea, not sure how to make it work. In particular calculating correct costs could be a problem, especially for the combinatorials.

The bigger problem is how to distribute the SP&R. Ideally the mechanism would involve significant player decisions, opportunities for aggressive competition and would involve no random elements or player luck. (The game is otherwise a perfect and certain information game) Simple purchase has pricing problems, drafting has luck-of-the-draw problems, tieing it to the turn order auction is appealing but perhaps overwrought.

The current concept is to split the SP&R into two types:

1) Each of the scoring action point selections also comes with a SP&R which may be used by that player for that turn only. Remember that the scoring action point selection also provides the least action points (and resources) of any of the sections. The SP&R tied to scoring rounds will need to be interesting without being overly compelling. Pot sweetners, not game throwers. As most of the scoring action selections have only 1 or 2 action points when 6, 7 or 8 is common for the top, this should be farily easy. The kicker is that there is one action selection set of 6/5/5/4/4score (4 player game). The SP&R on the scoring 4 will require care.

The concept implementation simply notes an SP&R along with the score instruction for the smallest action selection. If a player selects the scoring action they’ll also see the SP&R that accompanies it.

There’s also a pleasant side-effect given the current production. Currently the action selects are on cards, a column of numbers down the left hand side of each card. This allows the card set to be shuffled and then displayed as a spread stack so that all the numbers are visible with the cards still stacked. By putting the SP&R at the bottom of the card along side the score instruction, the stack can now be spread at a roughly 45 degree angle so that the numbers along the side and SP&R along the bottom of each card in the stack is visible. Cute.

2) The game board consists of 23 hexes, of which 4 are water (and thus useless barriers), 3 are Constantinople (or whatever the new theme dictates), and 4 are fixed and adjacent to the starting locations. That leaves 12 hexes which are placed randomly, two of them albeit very close to the starting locations. The players already compete for plurality on those hexes — which not also provide a SP&R with each of the 12 hexes and have it won by the plurality player? The base idea is that the first player to accomplish plurality on each hex gets the SP&R for the rest of the game. The question is when the SP&R award is made?

2a) Possibly award the SP&R only upon scoring? This could tend to leave SP&R awards until the late game due to insufiicient incentive gradiens and thus may provide too much of an impediment ot scoring in general. It could also encourage scoring if the SP&R are particularly attractive. Player’s might score even if it puts them nominally behind just to get desired SP&R’s earlier. Other players might deliberately sploit that relationship to get high scores early while sacrificing SP&R gains. Tough call. Given that the game is epxected to be either 8 or 10 turns long, this seems possible but suspect.

2b) Immediately upon the end of the full turn (all players) on which the first plurality for that hex was accomplished. Sub-question: Is a monopoly on the hex acceptable or must it be a competitive plurality? Monopolies will greatly reduce the total number of SP&R issued per game as many hexes don’t provide enough VP profit to compete for.

The initial working model is to assign SP&R at the end of every full turn in which new pluralities (or monopolies) were accomplished. This should bring out almost all SP&R within the first 4 – 5 turns of the game, which seems about right. The concept implementation is to randomly distribute SP&R cards directly on the hexes. As turns end with pluralities the cards are awarded to the players with ties being unfriendly. As a distribution system this has the advantage of being mechanically simple and largely uninvasive of the rest of the game.

3) Are SP&R immortal? A possibility would be to make SP&R use cost a resource (probably from supply), and to limit the number of times a given SP&R could be used. Physical representation could be by placing tokens on circles marked on the SP&R cards. All circles filled == no more SP&R. This also would encourage amusing games of tempting other players to exhaust their SP&R for tactical advantage too early.

3a) If the re-use count for an SP&R is too small then the game arc may tend to peak in the centre with a somewhat grinding end-game. If it is too large it might as well be uncounted. However use-count limits does allow an accidentally over-powered SP&R to be reined in. Ideal would be having half to two thirds of all SP&R exhausted by the end-game, thus creating increasing tension and angst over when exactly to spend the last SP&R opportunity.

3b) Making unused SP&R counts worth VPs could encourage the amusing temptation games noted above. Certainly it seems an interesting decision opportunity. Possible representation for unused SP&R VPs would be to note the VP value in each circle. In the end game, score the highest VP count in any exposed circle for each SP&R card.

Background on Pax Mongolica

The applied theme has varied widely from the operations of the mongol horde in the fertile crescent in the time shortly after Tammerlane, the human immune system under assault by player-diseases, the progress of the western steppe vikings to overland to Constantinople and along with the sailors who sailed the long way around and the resulting formation of the Varangian Guard, the spread of polynesian tribes and societies across the pacific islands via proas and their wave/wind pattern based navigation systems, etc. I have no doubt that the theme will change again, and again, and again. A new theme and backstory are easy enough to contrive for whatever the current set of mechanisms are. Getting the game right is more interesting.

The basic assumptions of the game:

0) Semi-random board setup (half random, half fixed)

1) Only one resource which is used for everything, or if you want the currency is fully fungible. A unit of currency equals a man equals a unit of influence equals a combat casualty equals a unit of every other cost in the game.

2) A (mostly) closed economy. Players start with a fixed pool of resources which they will spend during the game. They get them all at the start of the game, they won’t get more and when they’re out, they’re out.

3) Fully deterministic and yet interesting combat (well, interesting in the multiplayer case). It is a fun little bit of applied number theory. In short one player declares combat in an area. Each player with at least one token in the area in turn either kills another player’s token, or retreats their token or passes. Repeat until there’s either only one player left or all participating players players pass. (Yes, there are many paradoxes and dilemmas in there as well as rewards for “Let’s you and him fight!”)

4) Each turn there is a New England-style auction for turn order (the auction style may change, but the variable turn order won’t).

5) Action points. In each turn a set of different numbers of action points are available and after turn order determination players uniquely select how many action points they wish to use that turn. Each number of action points not only defines the count of action points, but also where on the board all those actions must start from.

6) Action points are resources and have fixed exchange rates with resource tokens, either 1:1 or 2:1. (There is only one currency…)

7) Players will build routes among the areas of the board and thus gain access to them. Building routes is expensive. Joining an already built route is cheaper. Destroying a route is expensive. Removing another player’s access to a route is cheap. Manipulating the network and the network accessibility occupies much of the game.

8) Scoring occurs any time a player selects the score action. That player gets the least number of action points that turn and scoring happens immediately after their turn. Scoring also occurs when the game ends. (Lots of HiLo? games)

9) Players score for pluralities and monopolies in areas and markers. Areas are contiguous sets of board tiles of the same colour. A monopolies is a plurality by the same player across all areas of a given colour. Markers are present on tiles and are gained by plurality on that tile. Scoring is (currently) triangular.

10) I’m toying with special powers and roles (See http://www.bgdf.com/tiki/tiki-view_blog.php?blogId=149)

The game currently plays in about 150 minutes. I’d like to shrink that to 120 minutes.