Archive for May, 2009

The Known, The Unknown and The Unknown Unknown

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

One of the fundamental design concepts of my first game Armageddon Empires was that you had to make a smart effort to gather intelligence about what was going on out in the vast irradiated wastelands that surrounded you. Reconnaissance was a real force multiplier and identifying incoming threats and as well as important targets was a key to survival and eventual victory. In Hell however it seems that there is very little privacy. The Solium Infernum design treats the legions like chess pieces for the most part. There is a lot of “perfect information” for the players to evaluate about the game state. There are some mechanics to obscure the strength and position of agents on the board but they are few and require concerted effort. With that in mind, I thought I would enumerate the known, unknown and the unknown unknown aspects of SI.

The Known

Legion Position, Attributes and Some Attachments: The legions are the main actors/agents on the game board. They have a group of attributes that define how they interact with other agents as well as the ability to have “attachments” placed on them that enhance or increase their powers and abilities. One type of attachment is an evil artifact which is seen by all opponents. The position of a legion unless affected by a ritual is known to all players.

Public Prestige: This is an important known piece of information. It represents all the prestige points gained by the public actions of a player at any given time in the game. It’s also a good indicator of who is leading in the game.

Places of Power: These special locations are always visible as is the status of their ownership and how much prestige they generate for their owner each turn.

Territorial Boundaries: This is pretty obvious but important. Claims on territory are absolute and ownership of territory can only be transferred by following strict diplomatic protocols.

Diplomatic Stances: This is a very important set of information about players and is visible to all players. If someone makes a demand of or hurls an insult at another player, it is done in front of the entire Infernal Conclave. A demand or insult that results in Vendetta can require concentrated effort by the players to resolve especially since prestige is at stake. A player involved in a Vendetta or even engaged in demands and insults by other players is more exposed to further “diplomatic entanglements.”

Items in the Bazaar: The Bazaar provides players with legions and most of their power ups (attachments). All players have perfect information about the items for sale and the minimum bids needed to purchase them.

Public Objectives: Each player chooses a public objective as part of their avatar’s build. The public objectives conform to the seven deadly sins and generally operate in a similar theme. The Sloth public objective for example requires that you end the game never having made a demand or insult….perfect for the Archfiend who wants to turtle away in his own private corner of Hell. Of course knowledge of this aspect may signal a lot to all the other players concerning the aims, objectives and strategies that will be pursued.

Conclave Tokens: The conclave tokens function as the game clock. Depending on the number of tokens you selected when you created the game, once that number has been reached (a chance to pull a token exists each time a turn is processed) the Infernal Conclave convenes and chooses a new ruler. If you have pulled 14 of the 15 tokens then all players know that the end of the game is near and they must take action accordingly.

The Unknown

Avatar Attributes and Perks: The key aspects of each players avatar are concealed from the other players. This means that you don’t know the scope of powers and actions available to any given player. Some perks can affect the outcome of the game as well and it is essential that their possession by kept secret. Anything that is secret of course can become known. A prophecy ritual as well as some events can reveal information to players about the attributes, powers and perks of other players.

Combat Card Attachments: These are bonuses that are “attached” to legions to give them an edge in a single battle after which they are discarded. They are generally hidden from other players. Like everything else that is secret, there are conditions (rituals and events) where they can become known.

The Vault: When you acquire an artifact, relic or praetor in the Infernal Bazaar they are sent to your vault. Here they are safe and unseen by your rivals (some rare exceptions included of course). Your decision is whether to deploy them to the board where they will generally be of more use but at a greater risk to be destroyed or even stolen by another player or to keep them hidden in the vault. Additionally all your resource cards are stored in your vault and their number and quality hidden from prying eyes.

Your Orders: It goes without saying that each turn your specific orders are unkown until they are executed. This includes important things like your marching orders for legions and your initiation of rituals.

Your Ritual Chamber: Each player has access to a ritual chamber that has a maximum capacity of 5 ritual slots. Slots are gained by increasing your Prophecy power level. A ritual slot can be used to perform a ritual which is special action like damaging an enemy legion, stealing a relic from a place of power, hiding your own legions from view….. etc. A handful of unholy relics must be placed in a ritual slot to unlock a special ritual power that they can perform. In general your opponents can not see what is going on in your ritual chamber.

Deceit and Prophecy Rituals: The player performing one of these rituals is generally unkown to the target unless the player fails the “detection challenge.” Here the computer rolls two dice for each player and adds the appropriate bonuses (based on the players’ respective power levels, perks and relics owned). If the player performing the ritual exceeds the adjusted roll of the targeted player then the player is not revealed as the performer of the ritual. Players who have achieved level 5 in the Deceit discipline can attempt to frame other players for performing any ritual.

The Unknown Unknown

This is my favorite part of the evaluation of any given system. For a game designer it’s a perishable commodity akin to letting the genie out of the bottle. In my Cults of the Wastelands mini expansion pack it corresponds to the strategy theme of each of the Cults that you encounter. The joy is in the energy of first contact and the palpable sense that you get that all is not as it appears…. that your appraisal or judgments lack something for complete understanding of the situation. In Solium Infernum I’ve tried to use the event system to provide this. There are a range of events that break rules, alter mechanics or simply provide Solomonic decision making. After playing the game several times and having been exposed to their existence and implications you will have broken the seal on the booster pack so to speak but you’ll be left with calculations based on anticipation of how the event deck unfolds. Each player draws a card or cards as the role of Regent is passed around the board. At this point I haven’t decided on whether to even include a detailed listing of the events in the appendix of the manual. Discovering the deck would seem like part of the fun and challenge. If I do include it for reasons of fairness (the knowledge of the events will be fragmentary for players and dependent on playing time) then I would strongly recommend that you don’t read the appendix at first and enjoy some single player games of discovery.

When The Tip Of The Spear Breaks

Sunday, May 10th, 2009

Sometimes success can be your undoing. Even when the thrust of the plan is carried out to perfection and the objective is accomplished, a single unattended detail can be ruinous. That’s the case here:

BrokenTipThumb

I have been testing out and refining the AI goals that deal with pursuing and defending against Vendettas. In the case above, I had gambled prestige that I could capture a single place of power from another player within a given set of turns. Since my AI opponent had been involved in some ugly disputes with his neighbor to his North , I decided to try out a blitzkrieg operation to send two legions deep into enemy territory to see how the AI would react. The AI was both unlucky and a little imprudent. He didn’t have a lot of tribute cards left so my demand of 4 tribute cards was the equivalent of “outrageous” to his silicon sensibilities. He was doing his best to maintain his holdings to the north and in close proximity to his stronghold. The AI’s appraise territory according to a value system that includes the range to their stronghold, the presence of a choke point, the connectivity it has with places of power it owns, etc.

I don’t want to discuss the particulars of how the AI’s decide some things as that can lead to a sense of having the curtain pulled away to reveal the unimpressive little guy pulling the levers feeling, but the Concede to Demand decision can really be a tough one. In this case the AI was presented with its own Kobayashi Maru scenario. Either choice was going to doom him to some very nasty consequences. This highlights one of the toughest programming problems I’ve had to approach during the development of SI…. namely getting the AI to “hope for the best.” In this case it chose to keep fighting the Devil it knew to the North and resigned itself to hoping the one to the east was just bluffing or not as dangerous.

In retrospect it was probably the best choice even if it was for the wrong reason. When the AI ran simulations to see how dangerous the opponent to the east was it didn’t quite get the consequences right because my legions were pulled away from the border a bit and they both had very unusual movement rates. One legion actually had a 4 movement point rate which is really almost unheard of in Hell. The unusual movement bonus came from the fact that my Avatar had an expensive perk “Fiendish Energy” that boosted all legions under my control by +1 movement points. Not taking this into account the AI came to the conclusion that there was a strong Bluff element going on and refused the demand. Although here is the rub. Even if it had thought that the enemy might be serious about grabbing some land, I’m not sure that the right decision would be to concede the 4 tribute cards. With an ongoing already “blooded” conflict with his neighbor to the North those 4 tribute cards might do a lot of good…like buying another legion in the bazaar. So ironically enough getting the AI to choose the lesser of two evils is really a challenge in this game. It’s an AI conundrum that I run into a lot. Adding a small stochastic element helps simulate a “human” approach to some extent but it’s not a complete solution. You have to have constructed the probability matrix correctly in the first place.

This all leads to the final little irony of the blitzkrieg gambit that I had unleashed. The AI refused my demand and I naturally made a bolt for the Place of Power which was fortuitously a lower level one that I could overwhelm with a little support. My two highly mobile and motivated legions crashed across the border and stormed the parapets (actually just one did the other was adjacent lending support) and promptly found themselves trapped in a pocket of their own making. You see the Vendetta was satisfied and the Infernal Conclave awarded me my prestige stake and a small bonus plus I got to keep the Place of Power but I had miscalculated a bit.

The Protocols about the transfer of land holdings in Hell are a little archaic and conservative. You have to occupy a Canton at the end of the turn and it must be adjacent to own of your own in order for the Infernal Conclave to award you possession. You can daisy chain them together with multiple legion placements. But I had overshot my own border by a Canton too far and despite the fact that the conquered Place of Power functioned as a new anchor for determining borders, I was trapped.

You can see that in the screen shot above. Neither legion could fly so they were both stuck there until I managed to enter a Vendetta with my beleaguered AI neighbor again…and my other neighbors would look with glee upon my borders the next turn. The hard part of course is getting the AI’s to recognize a broken tip….but that’s another story.