Kingdom building, of sorts

A friend was talking to me about wanting to find a game that, and I can't remember his exact words, was a lightish, quickish kingdom building, strategy game, and he liked the idea of having elements interacting with each other by proximity to each other.  Actually, his words were quite a lot different from that as I am pretty sure I am conflating a couple of things that we were talking about, but let's run with this as a starting point anyway.  There are almost certainly some other games out there that would fit this, but I'm wanting to design things, right?
A bunch of stuff scribbled onto little squares of card, all put on a chessboard with some cubes.  All the glamour of game prototyping.

My first thought on this was to do a tableau building card game.  As you build up the tableau and activate cards for special abilities, the effects are influenced by how far away certain other cards are in the display.  I can see a couple of potential problems here right away: firstly that card tableaux can easily take up a lot of table and I would prefer light games to take up controllable amounts of space in general, and secondly this might result in little direct player interaction and I think we were really looking for a game that allows you to attack your rivals.  That said, I quite like the idea of attacking players adjacent to you around the table, but not further away, which can have some interesting repercussions in games with four or more players.

I next thought of tile laying.  I very much like tile-laying games, whether open ones like Carcassonne, where a map is built which can sprawl over the table in unpredictable ways (though see my earlier comments about table space) or ones that restrict themselves to a finite grid, like in Kingdoms.  Tiles as a game component don't really do anything that cards don't, but can have a wonderful tactility and would generally allow for a more compact play area than cards would allow.  I like the rapid flow of both of those games where each turn is not much more than draw a tile and place it somewhere.

Another game that comes to mind at this point is Tigris & Euphrates, which is a kind of kingdom building game which I haven't played for some years, which has players building up blocks of tiles, though the blocks don't necessarily correspond with player-controlled kingdoms.

I think this time I'll try going with tiles.  Here are some of the thoughts I noted down to try to develop the idea...
  • Tiles contain locations like farms, markets, forts, castles, etc. 
  • A row of tiles equal to one more tile than the number of players is on display.
  • Each player on turn chooses one tile from the row, then places it on the board.
  • If there are no tiles available at the start of a player's turn, then that player draws replacement tiles (1 + number of players).
  • Most tiles provide some sort of resource (food, gold, military strength...).  That resource is projected over a number of spaces (-1 per space).
  • Most tiles require a certain number of resources to allow their placement (projected a number of spaces as above).  Resources can contribute to placing a tile if they are either controlled by the active player, or are neutral (no control marker on them).  So, for example, a Market might project 2 gold, meaning that 2 gold is available to tiles on adjacent spaces, and 1 gold to tiles two spaces away.
  • When placed, a player places one of their control markers onto the new tile.  If they have no control marker available, they move it from another tile.
  • Conflict: a control marker can be removed from a rival controlled tile or added to a neutral tile, subject to influence projected by castles and forts (work out  the details) plus a card play (I envisage something like having cards numbered 1 to 6, allowing you to play one card to add to combat strength, and having to cycle through all cards before restarting).  Details to be figured out.
  • Victory: no idea as yet, but having something that pretty much requires conflict to take place would be good.
  • Also... I think this is likely to be pretty dry as is, so some sort of wackifying influence is required. This could be event cards, special abilities, secret victory conditions, etc.  This needs more thought, but I think only really needs to be worried about if the basic mechanics are solid.
So, I thought, let's try some of this out.  I figured that I would start off with the very basics and made a couple of dozen "tiles", each with a title, a requirement for building and something that it provides.  For instance, a market requires 1 food and provides 2 food, while a fort requires 1 food and 1 gold, and provides 1 military.  Adding a couple of starter tiles and a few cubes in two colours, I was able to try playing this at its most basic level, using a chess board to provide the playing area.

Some thoughts on this experience...
  • The "game" such as it is plays pretty smoothly, even though it is boring.
  • Without a scoring or victory system in place there is nothing to do here... but I knew that when I started trying this out, so this isn't a problem.
  • Even using just half a chessboard, it took several turns for player moves to even look like they were going to affect each other.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it needs to be noted.
  • I had basic production tiles producing 1 of either gold or food, but that seems to be too limiting.  Making the base production 2 would allow a lot more flexibility.
  • I had a few "advanced" tiles (like a castle, which is an upgrade for a fort), which are utterly useless if they turn up in the first couple of rounds.
  • Related, there should be a way to allow a player to discard a tile instead of drawing one.
  • A "flat" board is dull.  Having some sort of terrain would be good, and could restrict placement of certain tiles (e.g. mines on mountains, farms on... not mountains).
  • Maybe some strategic locations added to the board could help things along.
  • As it stands, production and supply only affects placement of tiles.  There is not really a "machine" to build.  This isn't necessarily a problem (driving a machine can be fiddly) but may limit depth.
So, some things to think about here.  I think my next step has to be to provide some sort of objective, turn the board into some sort of a map (maybe as simple at first as black squares are mountains, white are not), and maybe have a setup phase where players have an initial hand of basic tiles to play before we get into drafting tiles that may be more advanced.



From the archives: Quick Quack Quo

Here's something that I was working on about a year ago, pretty much at the start of my current bout of interest in game design.  It was inspired by a list of game challenges that someone posted on BoardGameGeek, one of which was to create a game using nine cards.

I don't remember all the processes that I went through while working on this, but I ended up thinking about combining a worker placement mechanic with a tic-tac-toe game, where the nine cards were used to form the three-by-three board (different configurations make for different games) and each had some different effect in game.  I found some cute wooden duck meeples, which worked nicely with the idea of trying to get your ducks in a row, and I introduced a couple of resources to swap about: bread, because ducks like bread  (though it's not good for them, kids!) and little bread bits were also available, and... umm... coins because I ran out of inspiration.  Incidentally, the rules linked below don't specify how many resources to use.  I found that 5 each of bread and coins seems about right.
Yes, it's a game all about getting your ducks in a row.  Maybe I should do one about singing from the same hymn sheet.

This game also gave me an introduction to nanDECK for creating the cards.  My graphic design skills are, of course, terrible, but at least the software allowed me to produce passable prototype components reasonably easily.

After some playing and revision I ended up with a version that isn't awful.  It is what it is, a little, not-completely-trivial, but lightweight two-player game.  Sometimes, however, the cards end up laid out in such a way that the first player gets a huge advantage, so if I was to do more work on this game I would certainly have to look into that, but for now I think I will leave it as a good little exercise that got me going.

Incidentally, I can't remember where I got the images I used on the cards, and I didn't make a note at the time (something I do now), but I'm pretty sure I used stuff that was freely reusable.  Apologies for the lack of credits.

Rules on DropBox
Cards on DropBox


Snakes and Ladders redux... with added groundhogs

Inspiration can come in strange places.  I was reading an interesting post about a forthcoming time travel game which basically allows players to repeatedly play through the same scenario, a la Groundhog Day, in order to finally solve The Problem or defeat the Big Bad.  This got me thinking about similar ideas where you played through a relatively simple game multiple times, which allowed you to modify your actions a little on each run in order to gradually improve your moves based on what  you see others doing.

My first thought was of something like Robo Rally, where the whole game was preprogrammed (it would have to be a lot shorter than a typical game of Robo Rally!) and on each run of the race each player could switch out a small number of their program cards.

Pondering on this some more, I figured it would be good to explore the mechanic by dropping it into a game that's about as simple as they come.  So, Snakes & Ladders...

The problem with Snakes & Ladders, if you worry about this sort of thing, is that there are no choices to be made: you just roll the die, move the pawn, and then go up if you hit the foot of a ladder, or down if you hit the head of a snake.  The game essentially plays itself.

Now, if instead of dice we had a deck of cards with the numbers 1 to 6 on them (each number represented, say, 3 or 4 times), and just flipped over the cards one at a time you would have the same effect, though the distribution of cards within the deck would shape the outcome, whereas a true die would give proper randomness.  The die could (though is very unlikely to) always roll a 6, while the cards couldn't unless every card in the deck was a 6.

If, for one player, we now dealt out ten cards, face down in a row, we have now predetermined the first ten moves in the game.  So far we still have a completely random game.

Now, if the player draws a hand of, say, four cards, these cards can be used to substitute for the predetermined cards.  Each time a card is turned over, the player has the opportunity to discard that card and replace it with one from his hand.  Then the card that is chosen is used to move the pawn, obeying the usual rules of the original game.

At the end of the ten cards, the player will have progressed some way along the board, but probably not to the end.  So, flip the cards back over, keeping them in the same order, draw a fresh hand of cards, put the pawn back on the start space and try again.  Over a few plays the player should be able to get further and maybe even (depending on the board layout) get to the end.
It's a basic prototype, but it's all that's needed.

To make this into a multi-player game, each player has their own deck of cards, colour coded on the faces.  Each of the ten moves has a pile of cards, one for each player, and for each of these moves one player acts as MC, picks up the pile of cards, gives them a shuffle and then turns them over one at a time.  I thought about trying to maintain the order of the cards to add some predictability, but decided that the chaos of each move being shuffled should add to the fun.  Each player decides whether to switch the card as it is turned over, and then moves his pawn.  If a pawn ends its move on another pawn at any time, then the one that has been landed on moves back one space.

The ten-turn game is repeated up to five times (an arbitrary number that seems about right).  If someone reaches (or passes -- exact numbers are not requires) the last space on the board at any time, they instantly win.  Otherwise, whoever has got the furthest at the end of the fifth race is the winner.

So, to test...  As it turns out, we didn't actually have a snakes and ladder board in the house, so I found a printable board on t'internet and made do with that.  I also marked up two sets of cards on flashcards that I keep around for this purpose and then kicked myself for not thinking of using the cards from Ave Caesar, which would have been just the job.  Rookie mistake.

Then I played through a couple of two-player games, playing both sides myself...

The problem is that on the board I had, there was a good chance of hitting a ladder that took you to two spaces from the finish within a couple of turns, and that was what happened both times.  I didn't even get through the ten cards for the first time.

Thinking all this through I realise a couple of things.  Firstly the design of the board is absolutely critical to the game and can't be thrown together in a random way as most Snakes & Ladders boards seem to be.  Secondly, this set up pretty much means that the game can be all but over in the first couple of turns, given a lucky draw.

I think that perhaps with more players and possibly restricting further the number of cards that can be played in a race (plus, of course, a better designed board) we could have something OK.  I'm not sure if I'll do another round of this particular experiment (maybe I will), but I expect I will have another go at this whole "Groundhog Day" concept.


In which treasure is found

Today was my daughter, Miss B's school May Fayre.  Rooting through the white elephant stall, we found an intact-looking copy of Labyrinth, a great little game of chasing around a maze that keeps on changing, making navigation difficult to predict.  Unfortunately, getting the game home I discovered that one of the map tiles was missing.  Whereas a missing tile in, say, Carcassonne is unfortunate but ultimately no big deal, in Labyrinth this makes the game unplayable by its intended rules.
Cute wizard minis.  Gotta love cute wizard minis.

My immediate reaction was, shame, but look at all these new components to add to my bits box.  I mean, I still have a bunch of map tiles that'll be useful for something, and this edition of the game has some really cool wizard miniatures, each having its own sculpt.  All that will find its way into some game or another at some point.  Heck, I've been thinking about working on some sort of dungeon crawl game...


Space Station 7, more words, still nothing playable

Moving on from my previous post on Space Station 7, I got to work on solidifying some ideas so I could actually have some sort of prototype to play around with. I still have some way to go on that front, but I have a lot more ideas thought through and written down.
Awesome though it is to post pictures of the ISS I really must put some effort in to provide pictures of my own. Picture from NASA, obtained via commons.wikimedia.org.

So the idea for the game is a combination of card play and worker placement or action selection. I envisage the game involving play passing round the table with each player taking a short turn which essentially involves placing an agent somewhere and resolving the result, and continuing until everyone passes, after which agents are recovered, time moves on, and we go through the whole thing again.

 The main spots to place agents would be either a main board, representing SS7 itself, which provides a few opportunities for action, or a player's own mini-board representing their homeworld and colonies, providing other actions, some of which might be specific to the race/species that the player is controlling. Tying in to this, cards would have multiple uses, and be playable in a couple of these locations to allow one of the card effects to take place. For instance, a card might allow for use in building up military strength if played with an agent on a homeworld, or for calling for another player to suffer economic sanctions if played with an agent on the council chamber on the station itself.

I feel that about four locations on the station should work out about right (this could easily change later) and so far I have thought of using:
  • Command & Control for actions about resolving event cards (oh, I haven't mentioned that yet -- better do that soon).
  • The Council Chamber for political actions that would basically be votes that could advantage or disadvantage one or more players.
  • The Forum, a "mingling" area where players could build influence with non-player factions.
  • Down Below, where actions can be used to interact with the black market, use espionage actions, and so on.
I envisage most of the main action cards including one action available for one of the SS7 locations and one for a homeworld or colony location.  I may make it three actions on each card, but suspect that getting enough information onto the cards for that (while keeping them manageable) could be a struggle.

A final use for the cards (for now) would be to discard them to supplement something else.  A discarded card could add one (possibly more -- that's a matter for testing and balancing) vote in the council chamber, for instance.  Or you can discard a card to move an agent, effectively getting an extra action (this could be huge -- maybe you need to discard more than one card in this case).  In fact, there could be a value printed on the cards to specify its strength when used in this sort of way.

To balance all this, players need to receive a set number of new cards each turn, so the choice is to save or spend.  If hands got replenished to a certain size each turn, the "correct" thing to do would almost always be to use all your cards every time.

With all these goings-on, I think we will need to have some resources that need tracking.  Resources is probably not the right name for them, but it'll do for now.  Whether these get tracked by moving a marker along a racetrack, by collecting counters, or something else, is not relevant at the moment.  For now I think we probably need something to represent political support (which could translate to votes in the council chamber), an economy, and military strength.  All of these are massive abstractions, but they seem about right.

Of course, something I haven't really got into at this point is victory conditions, but it would be nice if everyone had their own (possibly secret) victory conditions, some or all of which could be related to the resources being tracked.

I'll just mention events now, even though I'm not planning on using them in the first prototype.  I figured that it would be nice to have some sort of external stimuli for the players to give them something extra to think about each turn.  If done right, this should help develop a narrative for the game and add an extra layer of interest.  This could be along the lines of an attack by space pirates, the arrival of mysterious "other" aliens, or discovery of an ancient ghost ship.  Players would then be able to commit resources to resolving the challenges presented and may gain something useful as a result.  I am not entirely sure how to handle this, but it would be nice if there could be scenarios set by different decks of event cards.  I've seen this done well in the game Rune Age.

Anyway, the upshot of all this is that I still don't have a prototype, but what I do have is a much clearer idea of where I am going.  Of course, that is bound to change, but you have to start somewhere, right?

My plan right now is to make a list of a bunch of actions that could be on cards and then construct enough cards to play through a turn or two with two players, just to see if the basic mechanics look okay.  When that is done I'll write up another post and we'll see where we can go from there.


Introducing Space Station 7

Here's a game that I have actually come up with a working title for. And please note that this game has absolutely nothing to do with any TV shows that might have been based on space stations with numbers, and any similarity to any such shows is purely coincidental. Right, now we have that out of the way...
An actual space station which is probably not home away from home for diplomats, hustlers, entrepreneurs, and wanderers. Picture from NASA, obtained via commons.wikimedia.org.

The idea was inspired by seeing a review of Among The Stars, which commented that it was really quite cool that the game was based around building space stations and wouldn't it be great if more games were about space stations rather than building galactic empires and the usual stuff along those lines.  That sounded like a good sentiment to me, but I thought what I'd like to do would be something a bit political based on the sort of space station where humans and aliens could work out their differences peacefully, but often had different agendas that might make that lofty aim a little tricky.

I pondered on this for a while and had one mechanic that I thought could be interesting (I'm sure there was something that inspired this, but can't remember what it was): using cards for events and actions, but selecting some of the cards that will be available to you for each turn right at the beginning of the game.  So you get the opportunity to lay the skeleton of a strategy early on by, for example, ensuring that you will have the card that allows you to launch a military attack on turn 4, or an assassination on turn 2.  With cards like this, incidentally, I wanted to make sure that any card had multiple possible uses, so you will have some flexibility, plus there should be additional cards available each round which would give more options than those that have been pre-scripted.

So we are looking at a game that is at least partly card driven, but I also liked the idea of using a form of action selection or worker placement.  I would actually hesitate to use the term worker placement as among many gamers that seems to evoke a game where placing a worker is as much to deny your opponents an opportunity as it is to gain something yourself, and I don't think I'll be going strongly down that path, but I do like the idea that you control an ambassador, an attaché, and maybe a couple of other agents and each round you select what each of them will be doing.  You could have a central board representing the space station, with areas for choosing assorted actions, and perhaps some of the cards that get played would require an agent to be placed on them to activate.

With this sort of stuff in mind I got out my supplies of blank cards and got started on knocking together a first prototype with some guesses at what could be on the cards for actions.

That was probably my first mistake.  A little while later I had a small pile of cards with a load of incoherent writing and scribbling on them, much of it crossed out and none of it really making any sense.  When someone tells you to prototype early, they probably mean you to have at least a bit of an idea of what should go on the cards, tokens or whatever.

This is starting to ramble on a bit, so I will pause here and continue soon with something about my next steps.