Archive for October, 2007

Here There Be Monsters

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

In honor of Halloween I’m going to kick off something I hope is a regular feature for the next couple of months. Every two weeks I intend to post some art from the upcoming free expansion pack for Armageddon Empires titled “Cults of the Wastelands.” The 10 card expansion pack is going to center around 3 unique cults that are represented in the game as independents. You will be able to toggle the appearence of the cults on or off in the options panel. If the cults are toggled on then one of them will appear in a game…or there might be a “good” chance that one will appear. I still need to test this out so the effect of the toggle is TBD. You might prefer that sometimes because each cult is going to have some unique game bending rules built around it. I’m going to be pretty tight lipped about those for now because I need to test them out. If I do post them I’ll have to be a little vague about the actual mechanics because for some of the cults half of the fun will be the surprise of trying to figure out what is going on.

So each cult gets 3 cards. That’s 9 cards for the cults and 1 card remaining for what Armageddon Empires really needed and that was a titan sized monster. Enjoy!

The Mighty Kabaagh

Game, Set and Match

Saturday, October 27th, 2007

I’m going to briefly discuss the set collecting mechanic. It’s one of my personal favorites and it sees a lot of use in board games, especially Euro-style board games. It’s not a stranger to computer games design. You might recognize one of the classic versions here:

DiabloSet

The basic idea is that a player can acquire individual elements of some group that when used together have an effect that is greater than the sum of the individual parts. In Diablo II the elements were pieces of armor, weapons, and jewelry. Often each piece by itself was nice but overall fairly mediocre. When a player donned the full set however, new powers emerged.

The more common use for set collecting in games is the concept of the “meld.” Here individual elements are grouped together to claim victory or points towards victory. Poker is really a game about collecting sets. The sets of cards within the game of poker have a ranking hierarchy which determines the winner of the hand i.e. a full house beats two pair. Mah Jong is a game about collecting and matching tiles.

One of my favorite set collecting games is Ticket To Ride by Days of Wonder. The concept is simple. Collect colored train cards to fill in rail road links between cities. The more cards of the same color played to link a specific route between cities the more points are scored. The kicker is that the point progression isn’t totally linear:

Ticket To Ride Board

As you can see, after a 2 card match the points awarded are greater than the sum of the cards’ individual point values (i.e. matching a single card to claim a one car link). This type of payoff schedule exhibits the “positive feedback” type behavior I talked about in an earlier post. It adds a great deal to the game’s design on two levels. First it’s enjoyable to be able to lay down the smack by assembling a difficult combination of elements. There is often tension involved and the promise of great rewards. Second it can really spice up the decision space with out inducing what’s called analysis paralysis i.e. so many choices and often great difficulty in assessing their utility. The choice introduced with set collecting that yields non-linear payoffs is often a risk reward choice along a single axis. In Ticket To Ride there are a fixed number of routes between cities of a particular number and color. The longer you wait to assemble the 6 car route the greater the chance that it will be taken by an opponent or that other key routes that you might need will be grabbed up.

I said the concept was simple but in actuality the decisions can be complex. That’s what is great about Ticket To Ride. You can lure non-gamers into playing the game because of its easy to grasp mechanics. The easy part is deceptive. There are additional mechanics that bring more decision making dimensions into action. Destination ticket cards and the general level of aggressiveness amongst the players can add some nice “game theory” and bluffing aspects to the play.

There is a psychological aspect to collecting sets. Humans generally desire completeness. I think it’s a product of the finite aspect of our existence. I’m not a philosopher or psychologist but my hunch is that a desire for completeness is something that is Kanntian. We are born with it. How else do you explain that feeling that overcomes you when you shuffle through your shoebox of collectible card games. Got to catch them all!

So set collection is fun and can be used to create a rich decision space. I’m planning on using it in my next computerized board game currently codenamed Project Brimstone. The resource system is definitely going to use it. Discrete resource elements will be worth more grouped and spent together. I’m also going to see about adding what amounts to special abilities to a resource. For example, Ki is NOT a resource in the game. But if it was I would have the players collect discrete Ki cards. A certain Ki card that was collected might have a special ability like +1 to Kamehameha attacks. When you went to activate the Kamehameha attack against your opponent and payed for it with the Ki card with the +1 special ability then you would get the bonus in the attack. If you used 2 ki cards you would get two damage dice but if you used 4 you would get six dice.

Kamehameha

There are two kinds of people in this world…

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2007

Those with loaded guns and those who dig. Right now it feels like I am digging. Work progresses on a whole series of fronts:

Update 1.06 is well underway. It will include some minor bug fixes found due to save games kindly sent in by players, and some good UI fixes like a redesigned card holder with more cards in view.

Challenge Game. I’m working on an edited save game that begins on turn 1 with a specially designed Imperial deck. The enemy factions will have been given large starting stockpiles of resources. The game will be posted on the news section some time soon.

A free mini expansion pack is being planned as well. Tentatively titled “Cults of the Wasteland” it will add new independent cards. I’m also hoping to add some new game mechanics as well…more on this later. It will be free to all those who have purchased the game and the target date for release is this Winter.

Project Brimstone: Work on my next strategy game is underway. I have been adapting a board game prototype of my own design that I hauled out of the vaults. It will feature a fresh theme, simultaneous turns, structured diplomatic interactions, some euro-style board game mechanics, hexes, combat, fantastic artwork, and single player and PBEM modes of play. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Back to digging. I’ve been coding to the score of the Transformers movie lately. Great stuff by Steve Jablonsky, who was a disciple of Hans Zimmer I believe. It makes the digging seem epic.

Arch Stanton

The Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Fortune

Saturday, October 20th, 2007

I’m going to riff some more on events in strategy games. My original design concept for Armageddon Empires was to incorporate a random event generator into the game but that was cut when I realized that the effort was going to be a bridge too far. I had the frequency selection option stubbed out on the new game settings menu and I had also built in a system to globally modify the players’ data and abilities. Things like making research more costly, draining resources and transfering intel to other players. In fact these types of events are all possible with the espionage system that works within the game. When I went to actually implement the event system I found that there was a tremendous amount of work needed to get it right. The UI for Espionage events was going to function as the display area for any random events. This was part of the original design intent and why the button to view espionage is called “Events.” The idea was that the randomness of any events would be an additional red herring/masking factor in trying to decide whether you actually had a spy messing up your infrastructure or just a bit of bad luck. The extra art for all the random events on my list became a real issue. The game already had over 400 pieces of art so the axe fell.

What’s the purpose of events random or not in strategy games? Here are a few design goals I can think of.

1. Thrill of the unexpected: Simply put people like the feeling of seeing what is behind curtain number 1. That’s a little misleading because there is a choice being made and then the observation of some result….a new car? But the feeling translates to the idea that on any given turn something unexpected may occur.

2. Random Reward and Punishment (The Spice of Life): Events punish (your library is destroyed and your tiles all yield -1 resources per turn) or reward (A hero has shown up at your capital and desires to serve you). Even if the distribution of reward vs punishment is skewed heavily towards punishment, people enjoy this. Don’t think so? Go spend some time in Vegas or Atlantic City or just your local reservation casino. The psychology is pretty fascinating on this but people generally believe that they are luckier than the jerk sitting next to them. Being the “I” of your universe tends to do this.

3. Simulating “Real” Life Challenges: Events can introduce unexpected challenges that must be overcome. The enjoyment of this is based on points 1 and 2 above but there is an additional component as well. Players may like the idea that despite the abstraction, the game does mimic real life a little. Most games are structured so that you work against an opponent who is yet another agent in the game system. The idea that the system itself is working against you is appealing to some players. The general must fight not just the enemy but the weather and terrain as well.

4. Shaking up the snow globe: Events can function as a way of shaking up the game state. However, the more you shake the more you are likely to piss some players off. Changing the game state incrementally is likely to be tolerated more than a catastrophic change. It’s a difficult curve to follow though. Humans love challenges. That’s probably why they are playing your game in the first place. Galactic Civilizations 2: Dark Avatar has a mega-events feature: Plagues, Pirates and host of other game state shifting events. These range in severity but they are all going to get the players’ attention.

5. Choice and Consequences: Sometimes events are coupled to some component of the gameplay mechanics. In the Dominions games by Illwinter you create a pretender god as your avatar. There is a lot of room for customization and one of the areas you can change is the Luck/Unluck scales for your domain. Choose more luck and the odds favor positive random events. Choose Unluck and you are likely to see some labs burnt to the ground and some provinces lost to marauding heroes.

One of my favorite games is Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri (SMAC). In SMAC if you go crazy and “pollute” the planet then you can get the Volcano event. The terrain of the game alters and often right in the middle of your painstakingly zoned and terraformed city state a huge lava spewing volcano emerges. I will not reload! I will not reload!

6. Theme: Events can enhance the game narrative. Every strategy game tells a story. Some board games use event cards to not only dress up the theme a bit but also to direct the unfolding game story. The board game A Game of Thrones by one of my favorite companies Fantasy Flight Games has an event deck mechanic that is absolutely brilliant. It not only adds fantastic thematic elements, it also controls core gameplay mechanics.

Feast For Crows Westeros Deck

We need a bigger helicopter!

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

Shark Jump

Chances are you’ve seen this photoshop rendition of Quint’s nightmare. It’s the combination of some really bold helo ops in the San Fran bay and a National Geographic photographer’s patience in catching a Great White of off South Africa (although apparently he did have to do some “trawling” to prompt the monster to jump for the camera). A couple of things come to mind while looking at the picture. I’m not talking about the analysis to “prove” that the photo is a fake, but deeper and odder things. First, what kind of men do that type of thing? Sitting behind the keyboard all day, you lose perspective on the world out there and the things humans do that have associated risks that are beyond acceptable tolerance levels. On the other hand, these guys are in great shape and well trained and the machines are expertly maintained, so I bet if you compare mountain biking accidents to Pave Hawks going down into the water while retrieving combat rescue swimmers, the odds favor the Pave Hawks. The shark is a monster. Sharks have very specific strategies for hunting prey. Great Whites like to wound the prey and then let it bleed to death. Why would a great white jump out of the water to get the climbing diver when there is a nice easy morsal in the rotor wash?

The photo works because it’s a frozen moment of horror. This is something that belongs in strategy games. I like the idea of event decks that contain these lurking monsters. Event cards are one of my favorite things about board games. Besides adding surprise they can add theme. Fantasy Flight’s War of the Ring does this brilliantly. I also have fond memories of Ambush

Just a quick update as well. I’ve released the Mac version of Armageddon Empires. If you have tried the demo and are having problems starting a game when playing the Machine Empire then you should redownload the demo. It seems that there was a corruption in the game data files after uploading that was causing problems. It should be fixed now.

Runaway Leader Syndrome

Friday, October 5th, 2007

Runaway leader syndrome is a situation in which one player gains a seemingly insurmountable lead such that the outcome of the game is forgone conclusion. The more time remaining, the more “dissapointing”, “not fun”, or “trivial” the enjoyment of the game is often considered. This is a subjective judgement of course. Not all games have to go down to the wire to determine a winner. An underdog winner who played poorly and then vaults to the winner’s circle at the last moment can be as fustrating as the Olympian God who outplayed the mortals from the first roll of the die. Normalizing for skill though, good strategy game design should not allow an early leadership position to consistently achieve a lock on winning the game.

How does this relate to positive feedback? The basic assessment is that success breeds more success. It’s a pretty simple observation. The runaway leader is often seen in games with economic systems that underpin the play. The Law of Compound Interest is a frightening thing. The more resources you have the more you can do. The more you do the more resources you can generate. You get the point. With this in mind let’s examine some ways to design a little “breaking” on the feedack.

Structural Limitations: Some game designs have breaking mechanism built into them to retard the potentially exponential growth in a leader’s position. All of these following items basically break down to “add some negative feedback.”

1) Guns or Butter Dilemma: This is the classic tradeoff choice that theoretically should dampen explosive economic growth. If you just make butter and butter makes more people who can make more butter then you will achieve explosive butter output. Guns are needed to protect your butter makers. The more butter makers you have the more guns you need to protect them. Of course some systems let you put those guns to other uses. In a strategy game like Third Reich you can use your guns to capture butter makers. The return might not be as great as if you had created the butter makers yourself but at least you have found an “active” use for the guns in increasing you butter maker inventory.

2) Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns: For each additional unit of input into some system the output is less than the previous. Many systems are simply structured this way. The classic example is agriculture. Pioneers of the dismal science like Robert Malthus examined the trend towards farming less and less productive land as population increased and predicted unhappy consequences for what at the time seemed like explosive population growth. I recently implemented something like this in Armageddon Empires. For each additional initiative die purchased the cost increases. Thus the return on each additional die is less. It wasn’t my idea but I recognized its cleverness when I saw it posted as a suggestion on the Wargamer boards for the game. Runaway resources especially in the late game were a problem I was trying to address and this fit the bill perfectly.

3) Explicit Constraits: These types of mechanics/rules usually set some limit on an attribute or process that regulates growth. In Master of Orion II you had a command points rating based upon technology level and the number of a certain type of facility that you controlled (if I remember correctly). You could only build a number of ships up to this arbitrary level. By regulating the fleet size you ensured that no matter what the strength of a player’s economic base, the military base was constrained. In a game where conquest can fuel a runaway juggernaut this helped restrain a runaway leader….not always successfully however. Action point systems can do this as well. If each player is given a certain fixed amount of action points to spend each turn then a leader sitting on a pile of gold will still be limited in the scope of actions that they can perform.

4) Helping Hand: Some game systems extend a helping hand to the pitiful losers. Power Grid is almost excessive in the benefits it gives to trailing players and the penalties it imposes on leaders. I think it still works and quite well. But the result is a new metagame for jockeying the fine line between losing and winning at any given point which is interesting. Nexus Ops throws the loser of a battle a bone by giving them bonus cards. It’s a subtle way to throw in some negative feedback.

These are just a few observations from off of the top of my head. In a future entry on strategy game design, I am going to address bandwagoning, balance of power and king making in some fashion. They relate directly to runaway leaders. Plus I always liked reading about them when I was doing my graduate work in national security affairs.

I’m Back And Better Than Ever

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2007

Ok, I’m back in the old USA after a grueling 10 day trip to Finland. The scenery was lovely, the Finns were charming and the company (my wife) was delightful. It was all very tiring though as we were attending an art festival in the rustic city of Kuopio and we walked miles every day. We did spend two days in Helsinki and I managed to sneak off and go see the military museum. I had just finished up my background book on the Russo-Finnish war Frozen Hell by William Trotter and was really wanting to see it. Here is a StuH 42 (I think that’s what it is) parked in front of the museum.

StuH 42

Kiitos means Thank You and everybody says hello by saying “Hey” and goodbye can be “Hey Hey” I am a bit of a linguist myself having once been fairly proficient in German, Russian and Arabic. The Finnish language has got to be one of the hardest languages to master. The words are long……very long. And the vowels repeat with the frequency of losing symbols on a slot machine.

Anyways, I am catching up on emails, fixing some odd bugs that trickled in over the last 10 days and working on finishing up the Mac version of Armageddon Empires. I wanted to have the Mac version out some time ago but a technical issue regarding the background music playing during the AI processing has been hounding me and no easy solution has presented itself. I have finally decided to disable the music for the Mac version when the AI processes its turns. Not very elegant but the stuttering that was going on during nested and recursive function calls was painful on the ears.

I’m also working on a challenge game to be put up on the website. It will be a save game that has been edited on turn 1 to provide the AI’s with a heap of starting resources. More about that later.

I’m also going to get back onto the AAR “Distant Thunder.” I have come to a critical decision point early in the game and like I tend to do in real life I have procrastinated on which path to choose. Aggressive attack risking it all on the roll of a die or a risky expedition to the East in search of resources. Both options are poor choices but hunkering down and turtling is going to be a recipe for disaster with the Xenopods and Mutants already well aware of where I am. And the Squidies are pretty close as well.

I’m also going to continue the last entry as well and proceed with a little examination of the runaway leader phenomenon in strategy games.