In the mind of a game designer

What is a good game? What is the history behind a good game? What does it take to design a good game yourself? With the intention to find answers to those questions, I set out on an exciting journey in the world of game design. The more I travel, the more I learn how much that remains to discover, and I cannot claim that I have found the answers yet. Nevertheless, I would like to send small post cards along the way, sharing my experience both with you and with my future self. All comments will help me on my journey because there is one thing I have learnt: no game is better than its players.

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The Quest for the Holy (Civilization) Grail Part 7 - A Civilization Game that stands the Alpha-test of Gameplay

Nicholas Hjelmberg
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In the sixth part of The Quest for the Holy (Civilization) Grail Part 6 - The Legacy of the Civilizations or the Events, I looked into how the civilizations advance and develop. In this seventh part, I look into the creation of a playable prototype.

The discussion so far has spawned many ideas about what to include in a civilization game and how to include it. The time has finally come to put it all into a playable prototype and start testing the various ideas.

But testing such a long and complex game will be more challenging than any other game I've designed and tested so far. The main reason for this is the sandbox nature of the game. Where many euro games have few decisions with limited strategic paths to explore, our civilization game aimed at giving our players freedom to choose their own destinies. Yet, we must find a way to "alpha test" the game to make it playable enough to run through a "beta test" without having to stop and modify the game after each and every turn. The best way to do this is to apply common test methodology and break it down into testable units and this is how I did it.

First, I ran some calculations and simulations on what I call the economy of the game. How many units are necessary to give the players enough room for a varied production but not so many that it becomes cumbersome to manage the civilization? In a simple game like Catan, a player does not have to think about more than a hand full of settlement whereas a player in the computer version of Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game have way too much to keep track of without computer help. Given that our players need to produce food, commodities and luxuries as well as use tribes for other actions, I settled with up to 3 tribes per action area or 12 tribes in total.

Next, I looked into how many resources that are necessary to take those actions. To feed 12 units, you need 6 food. Later tests suggested that the 1st tribe should be "free" (otherwise a player with no food wouldn't be able to get back his or her tribes and the gameplay would come to a halt) so 5 food per player was enough. To advance your civilization traits, you need 2/3/4 luxuries so 4 luxuries per player are needed. To acquire new development cards, you need 2/3/4 commodities so 4 commodities per player are needed. However, given that there are more development cards (45) than civilization steps (6x3=18), I increased the number of resources to 30, of which 10 are available from the start and the rest get available with development.

Those numbers allow a civilization to manage 12 tribes to take every action needed to feed, advance and develop the civilization. With advancements and developments, the supply and demand of resources may be modified and free tribes for other actions - the better the civilization, the more efficient its use of resources. The rest was simply a matter of scaling the numbers for different player counts.

Resources 3/4/5 players

Food
Grain 3/4/5
Pulses 3/4/5
Cattle 3/4/5
Poultry 3/4/5
Fish 3/4/5
Shellfish 3/4/5

Luxuries

Fur 2/3/3
Silk 2/2/3
Spices 2/3/3
Sugar 2/2/3
Resin 2/3/3
Gems 2/2/3

Commodities

Clay 3/4/5
Timber 3/4/5
Iron 3/3/4
Metals 2/3/4
Coal 2/3/3 (double value)
Oil 1/3/3 (double value)

No resources

Desert 24/32/40
Sea 60/80/100
Polar 24/32/40

Finally, I simulated the critical first few turns. With the six civilization traits, there are six basic starting strategic paths and it's important that they are balanced, meaning that they will provide equal conditions for the rest of the game. If not, there will either be an inferior path that only serves as a trap for beginners or a superior path that makes the first few rounds an unnecessary haul for experienced players. With "equal conditions", I simply wanted to ensure that the players had acquired asets of about the same value after the first few rounds, before their paths start crossing. This exercise helped mitigating some obvious imbalances.

corn Civics' city building power provides nothing before a settlement is founded and doubles the production once a settlement is founded.

Solution: Balance the building time so that a settlement building civilization falls behind the first turns but catch up later (when the other civilizations have managed to build other "engines").

indigo Economy's trading power + Increasing exchange rates of unique sets was over-powered.

Solution: Flat exchange rate but requirement to exchange unique resources only, limit the number of resources you're allowed to save.

coffee Military's attack power is purely destructive for both attacker and defender.

Solution: Allow the attacker to plunder so that the action still give a resource while allowing the defender to retreat to safer area to avoid too much destruction.

sugar Culture's/Religion's ability to co-exist/convert was not only too complicated but also made Military redundant.
Solution: Link the abilities to cheaper advancements/developments instead and move the more spectacular abilities to the development cards instead.

tobacco Science' ability to act across longer distances was useless as long as there is free space nearby to expand to.

Solution: Let science be used to produce at distance as well to allow for more varied production similar to (but not exactly like) Economy.

The concerns about the more aggressive civilization traits (Military to eliminate or enslave opponents, Religion to convert and replace opponents) were interesting. Initially I thought they belonged to a civilization game but to be weaker and meet such a civilization just felt boring. Either you build a similar civilization to protect yourself (with less variety between the civilizations) or you ignore the threat and get wiped out. Those concerns were aggravated as I got the opportunity to play Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization and its smaller cousin The Flow of History. In both games I became weaker with no opportunity to catch up, with the result that I was constantly attacked in a downwards and most unfun spiral.

This experience led to the decision not only to lessen the destructive game mechanics but also to add the specialists with the one-time civilization trait abilities. Through them, a civilization may ignore the full investment in a civilization trait while still protect itself against other civilizations buy investing in the cheaper specialists.

This also became a turning point in the game development. The game took a small step away from a dudes on a map game towards an economic euro game, where a successful civilization is rewarded not with supremacy but with a more efficient production, whether it be a production of military, resources, culture, religion or anything else.

Another turning point was that the game started to feel fun again. Usually in my game designs, the tedious Excel simulations turn the work into an unfun optimization exercise where everything feels too complex and complicated, but not in this case. Instead, I had began to identify myself with the Aggressive Romans, the Trading Olmecs, the City-building Sumerians and all the others and really looked forward to see the game played in my alpha-test.
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Sun Jun 25, 2017 5:20 pm
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The Quest for the Holy (Civilization) Grail Part 6 - The Legacy of the Civilizations or the Events

Nicholas Hjelmberg
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In the fifth part of The Quest for the Holy (Civilization) Grail Part 5 - The Development of the Civilizations or the Technology Tree, I looked into how the civilizations advance and develop. In this sixth part, I look into the events outside the control of the civilizations.

So far we have discussed how civilizations influence each other through their various civilization traits. But there are many other sources of influence. There are external forces such as natural disasters (a well-known example is the calamities of Civilization) as well as internal forces (new ideas, leading to peaceful transformations or violent revolutions).

The history is full of events with a major impact on the civilizations: the agricultural revolution triggering the rise of the first civilizations, the barbarian invasions contributing to the fall of the Roman Empire, the various freedom movements shifting the power from absolute rulers to popular democracies and so on. Throughout history, civilizations have been faced with those kind of events and forced to react to them, sometimes with success to emerge as even stronger civilizations and sometimes with failure to fall into obscurity.

However, although those kind of events add to the thematic feeling of a civilization game, they also add the challenge of taking away control from the players. How do we ensure that those events remain within the players' control while still providing them with changing conditions that ensure replayability and meaningful decisions?

In Civilization, the dreaded calamities add both theme and control. Do I accept the fate of an Earthquake or do I trade it away? If I am the victim of a calamity, which other civilizations do I bring in my fall? Which civilization advances do I invest in to mitigate expected calamities? Also, calamities do create memorable situations that can be very fun, at least if they happen to someone else. Hence, we can't simply rule out random, tradable and shareable events as something completely bad.

Instead, let's see how we can utilize random events while maintaining player control. One idea is to let them be partially known to the players, similar to how the valuable winter tiles are known by individual players from the start of the game so that they may build their strategies around them. This also promotes long-term building of a sustainable civilization instead of the short-term calamity mitigation of Civilization. (This was later fixed in Advanced Civilization, by placing the civilization acquisition AFTER the calamity resolution.)

Another idea is to let the events affect all players. That removes the direct take that mechanism, where you target specific players, something that I'm not very comfortable with in Civilization. (In my games, secondary effects were either used to bash clear leaders or simply equally allocated.) It also gives a more thematic feeling, as new ideas spread all over the world. One such example could be emancipation, where slavery is being abolished all over the world.

A third idea, also similar to Keyflower's winter tiles, is to give the players the power to choose which events to add to the game and which to remove from the game. Then they can choose the best (or least worst) event. That power works both ways: if I have an event like barbarian invasions, I can either choose to build up my military to be prepared or simply remove the event, knowing that I don't have to fear any barbarians.

To conclude, we want to add some kind of event cards, which the players may choose to add to or remove from the game during regular intervals. They could be handed out to the players at the beginning of the game, have two events to choose from and be played at certain milestones, such as when the player enters a new age. They could also focus more on universal ideas rather than local disasters to contribute to the story told by the game. What if the religion is never separated from the state or the democratic movements are suppressed? The players will not only experience history, they will create it!

Finally one word of warning. When choosing events, it is important to avoid a Eurocentric perspective and find truly global events that relate to more people than only Westerners. Having grown up in European cultural context, I may know the history of other parts of the world but I don't fully understand how important and influential various events have been in their cultural context. I'll do my best to build this understanding and any tips on "must include" events are welcome.
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Sun Apr 23, 2017 7:53 pm
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The Quest for the Holy (Civilization) Grail Part 5 - The Development of the Civilizations or the Technology Tree

Nicholas Hjelmberg
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In the fourth part of The Quest for the Holy (Civilization) Grail Part 4 - The World of the Civilizations or The Board, I looked into the world in which the players act and what boundaries and opportunities it should provide. In this fifth part, I start looking into the actual building of a civilization.

Most civilization games have one thing in common: the technology tree. A technology tree allows you to plan your gameplay step by step towards a preferred ability, it gives you a sense of progress as you unlock new abilities, and the many combinations of different abilities ensure replayability as each civilization gets unique. Plan, progress and replayability are all important parts of a good game.

A typical gameplay scenario could be the discovery of a new continent with a numerically strong opponent. Should you rush for gunpowder for a preemptive military strike? Or perhaps art to culturally assimilate any invaders? Or simply resort to industry and reach mutually beneficial trade agreements? A good game should not have any definite answers.

But that freedom is also a challenge. Do you get too many options, potentially leading to analysis paralysis? Are the many abilities compatible or are there potential role issues? Perhaps the worst, are the abilities balanced or are there game-breaking combinations?

Personally and as an old chess player, I prefer transparent games where all options are restricted to the board and where detailed knowledge of large amounts of cards and combinations don't determine the outcome. The civilization cards of Civilization constitute my main issue with this otherwise great civilization game: to win you must understand how to maximize the many bonus relations between the cards, something that detracts a bit from the civilization building aspect of the game.

Thus, I want to offer the players civilization cards to tailor their civilizations but they shouldn't be an end, just means to a greater strategy. The civilization cards shouldn't add new abilities, just enhance already existing abilities. Given the context of civilization traits, they should also be linked to them somehow.

One idea could be to link each card to two civilization traits, for example economy level 1 and military level 1 could allow the purchase of mining, which in turn could allow production of metal resources on the board. Other civilization cards could affect other meeples (slavery, conversion etc.), movement (navigation for sea travel etc.), resources (pottery for saving food etc.), and even civilization traits (writing could allow 1 culture level to be used as 1 science level and vice versa). This system would also work like an implicit technology tree, not with specific civilization cards as prerequisites but with certain civilization trait levels.

A remaining question is whether the civilization cards should be limited. From a strict game perspective a limit adds a sense of urgency but thematically it's difficult to explain why a civilization would be unable to acquire abilities known by other civilizations. No limits at all would require a lot of cards, many of which may never be used anyway. This solution is neither elegant, nor good from a production economy perspective. (As a self-publisher relying on print on demand, I'm very cost sensitive.) Also, a player may still choose not to acquire an ability and accept a "breach" in the technology tree.

A simple solution would be to just have one card of each but allow other players to buy it as well. The second player could simply place a marker on it to indicate the right to use it one round and the following rounds the card could return to the "public domain" and be available for everybody for free. The implications of this would have to be tested but the idea of diminishing first-mover advantages is interesting from both a game and a theme perspective.

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Sun Mar 26, 2017 9:29 pm
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The Quest for the Holy (Civilization) Grail Part 4 - The World of the Civilizations or The Board

Nicholas Hjelmberg
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In the third part of The Quest for the Holy (Civilization) Grail Part 3 - Turning Epic Time into Playable Turns, I looked into challenges like playing time, downtime and runaway leader problems. In this fourth part, I start looking into the more concrete setting of the game, starting with the board.

I've previously touched upon the importance of civilization board games actually being played on boards. The definition of a civilization as "domination over the natural environment" further strengthen this. Even the Pulitzer Prize winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guns,_Germs,_and_Steel) argues (although not without criticism) that the gaps in power and technology between human societies originate primarily in environmental differences.

Since this is supposed to be a game, we can't let the players' fates be determined by their starting positions, but let's at least look into the different decisions that the environment may put before them.

The first decision is how to make use of the nearby resources. This has been covered in the discussion about which resources to have in the game. A tile should have land or sea shape with a number of resources that the players can start producing with their initial units.



The scenario is not unlike that of the first civilizations: gather resources, learn how to gather resources more efficiently, use the surplus resources to advance the civilizations. Just like the first civilizations, the players will reach a natural stop when the nearby resources have reached their maximum utilization, and this leads to the next decision: where to find new resources?

Now we have a thematic game reason to explore the world and expand the civilization but what should the board look like? A fixed board? A modular board? An unknown board? In history, and in our game, the civilizations will want to go for resources they don't already have (since sets of unique resources are worth more than sets of similar resources). But did they know where to go to find them? And did they know who to meet there?

The answer to both questions is no so a board depicting an thematic world map with thematically located resources would not give thematic decisions. This rules out the fixed board. How about a modular board, where the land/sea tiles and resources are randomly located? And how about letting the tiles remain face down until discovered? Yes, this would indeed keep the players uncertain about where to go. However, they would still know who to meet there. Can that be avoided in a board game?

In a computer game like Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game, the different players can play in different spheres surrounded by void that's only gradually discovered until the whole world, and all civilizations in it, have been mapped. Wouldn't it be cool to see this happen in a board game as well? Mechanically, this is simpler than it may sound.

The land and sea tiles are numbered and a die roll determines which tiles that are added to a player's continent as they explore the world. Eventually, their continents will get connected to those of other players or to the polar regions, which set the Northern and Southern limits to the world. There is also a need of size limits, forcing the players to reroll if the continents grow too large to be physically possible to connect to each other, but that's not too fiddly.

If the world in a 5 player game is 10 tiles wide, one player's continent must be connected to another player's continent when exceeding a width of 2 tiles, two players' continents must be connected to a third player's continent when exceeding a width of 4 tiles and so on. A simple way to add tension and uncertainty to the game!

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Sun Feb 26, 2017 6:06 pm
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The Quest for the Holy (Civilization) Grail Part 3 - Turning Epic Time into Playable Turns

Nicholas Hjelmberg
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In the second part of The Quest for the Holy (Civilization) Grail Part 2 - The Decisions of Civilizations, I looked into which decisions civilizations face and how to abstract them into a game. In this third part, I look into the further abstracting of them by turning the epic time into playable turns.

Turning the epic time of real civilizations into playable turns of simplified game civilizations carries many challenges and paradoxes. How can centuries be compressed into minutes? How can the stats of complex societies be managed in a manageable way? How can small civilizations survive in the shadow of large ones? From a game perspective, we need to ensure that our civilization game has a reasonable playing time, a low downtime and no runaway leader problems.

The task may seem daunting but remember that we don't want to build an actual civilization, we merely want to capture aspects that are relevant for the players and remove the rest. As many other designers have put it: remove everything that can be removed without making the game worse.

Take the time challenge for example. A game round that plays out exactly the same way as the previous turn isn't interesting. Instead, we should box the rounds so that each new round adds new conditions to the gameplay. The acquisition of new civilization traits is a typical such condition. A player should be able to acquire iron in one round, construct weapons in the second round and launch an attack in the third round. Playing out ten rounds for the iron acquisition and another ten for the weapon construction wouldn't be fun for that player, nor would it be fun for the other players to suffer ten rounds of iron attacks. Thus, the acquisition of civilization traits should define the rounds and the general timeline of the game (Bronze Age, Iron Age etc.).

Moving on to the stats, which resources are important to keep track of when it comes to a civilization? Food is an obvious one to maintain and grow your population. Once you produce a food surplus, you can start to produce other things necessary to grow other aspects of your civilization. But which other resources do we need to keep track of for this?

The classic Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game game uses commodities (to construct buildings and armies) and money (to allocate to maintenance, science and happiness). But this is based on a computer game that can keep track of different stats and building queues whereas a boardgame trying to do the same thing would be very fiddly.

In our game, the purpose of non-food resources is to develop the six civilization traits discussed above so why use more than one non-food resource type? Then we would have one resource type for expanding on the board (food to get more meeples) and one resource type to develop your civilization (commodities to exchange for civilization cards). Since the civilization traits determine the various levels of your civilization, there is no need to keep track of different army units, buildings etc.

Also, since each round should aim for the acquisition of cards, there is no need to store resources and keep track of building queues. You simply move meeples in the world, produce food and resource tokens, and exchange them for civilization cards that make the next round different from the previous one.

Should we only have "food" and "commodities" then? No, as mentioned in the discussion about Economy above, many different resources could be used for set collection mechanisms and also encourage players to explore new parts of the world to find new resources. A player producing say 5 iron could earn 5 "commodity points" whereas a player producing 1 wood + 1 iron + 1 coal could earn 1+2+3=6 "commodity points".

This leads us to the third question about the sustainability of small civilizations. A variety in production could compensate for a small production and put it on par with larger civilizations. That possibility would help mitigate some of the runaway leader problems but not all. A player moving around ten meeples will still have more actions than a player moving around one meeple. A player playing out ten civilization cards will still have stronger actions than a player playing out one civilization card. Besides the runaway problem, this would also create a downtime problem.

But is this an issue for real civilizations? No, a civilization's ability to act doesn't have a linear relation to its size or advance level. Small civilizations often turn out to compensate with a greater flexibility. Let's just use that real life observation instead of artificially trying to hold back leaders.

* Movement mechanism: The civilizations take turns to act with meeples and lay them down after they have moved. Restoring all the meeples takes one full turn, during which no other action can be taken. Hence, a large civilization will still have more actions overall, since it doesn't have to take the restore action as often, but that doesn't mean that all actions are equally productive. A small civilization may very well be able to compete with fewer but more productive actions.

* Action mechanism: The civilizations spend their civilization trait levels to make their actions more powerful and restore them again at the restore turn mentioned above. Hence, an advanced civilization will have to spend more civilization levels for its most advanced actions and not have unlimited access to them.

To summarize, a round could look like this:

1. Move a meeple to a neighboring tile by spending cards with 2 military symbols and 1 science symbol.
2. Remove the opponent meeple (whose civilization only has military level 1).
3. At the end of the round, produce 1 grain+1 wood from the newly conquered territory. Add to that 1 corn+1 iron from another territory.
4. Exchange 1 grain+1 corn for 3 "food points", spending 2 to feed 2 meeples and the 3rd to add a 3rd meeple to the board.
5. Exchange 1 wood+1 iron for 3 "commodity points", spending 2 to acquire a civilization card while forfeiting the 3rd.

Simple and yet room for thematic gameplay. In the next post, we'll look at the world the players act in.
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Sun Feb 5, 2017 7:00 pm
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The Quest for the Holy (Civilization) Grail Part 2 - The Decisions of Civilizations

Nicholas Hjelmberg
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In the first part of The Quest for the Holy (Civilization) Grail Part 1 - What is a Civilization Game?, I asked what a civilization game is and received many good answers. In this second part, I look into which decisions civilizations face and how to abstractize them into a game.

In our previous post, we decided, using Reiner Knizia's philosophy, not to try to model a specific environment, but instead try to invoke the thought and decision-making processes that are key to the theme. Our first challenge is that this perspective is anachronistic. Outside the megalomaniac dreams of mad dictators, civilizations do not follow the large scale millennia plans of one man. Instead, they are the result of the combined and often conflicting interests of many men and women over a very long time.

Translating this into the game, the players should have limited decisions and merely watch how random elements determine the fate of their civilizations. This wouldn't be a very fun game, would it?

But what if we would let the players represent many different interests throughout the game? In a turn, they could choose whether to take a "cultural" action, a "military" action etc. The players would still be able to choose the general characteristics of their civilization (a small peaceful one with cultural advances, a large barbarian one building an empire etc.) but no matter which they choose, they would have to prepare for and react to external forces. In game terms, they would have to play both strategically and tactically.

Another benefit would be the possibility to include multiple victory conditions. Thematically it does make sense - Rome may have been military stronger than Greece but the Greek culture survived the Roman Empire. The tricky part of the design is to balance the different victory conditions so that not one civilization trait is stronger than another but that will be a later task for the game testing and tuning.

Note that multiple victory conditions does not equal multiple victory point scoring (or "point salad"). If I may quote Reiner Knizia again, he stated that it is the goal that is important, not the winning. We want the players to focus on having built the greatest civilization at the end of the game (and, as a bonus, win the game), not on maximizing a civilization engine just for the sake of earning victory points.

So which civilization traits should we have then? Military is an obvious one. War is not Man's greatest invention but it's hard to deny the impact wars have had in our history. Fortunately, Culture is another one with achievements that often last longer than military achievements. Science is a third one which greatly has impacted how people have interacted with the world around them and it's no surprise that the tech tree has been an indispensable part of civilization games. Economy and Religion are two other civilization traits that may be disputable. Economy has served as a strong driver for both states and individuals while Religion, for good or bad, influence our values even in our days. A sixth one could be Civics to capture how civilizations have developed from small groups of hunters and gatherers to the present super cities.

Those are the six civilization traits I chose for my game Peoples - Migrations, which is why I choose them as candidates for this game as well. Whether some of them can be grouped and/or others added remain to see.

The next step is to turn them into game elements and link them to meaningful player decisions. Since they all affect how civilizations interact with each other and/or their world, let us turn them into elements that affect the players' encounters with other players and/or the board.

Military is a simple one. One of many examples from history is the Mongol invasion, where military superiority almost brought the civilized European nations to their knees. Using 4X games terminology, a stronger military player will exterminate a weaker and lay claim to his or her land.

* Mechanism: A player with stronger military can move units into the land of a weaker one and remove the opponent units.
* Decision: Does the short-term cost of a military campaign outweigh the long-term benefit of more land?

Economy is more tricky. Early civilizations often conducted peaceful trade with each other to get access to resources they couldn't produce themselves. But as resources became more global, different trade schools emerged. Mercantilists argued in favor of export of finished goods to obtain a positive trade balance, while free trade advocates like Adam Smith argued that nations should specialize on production where they have comparative advantages (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mercantilism). And how do we treat the Imperial powers' use of military to open foreign markets or the present outsourcing trends to take advantage of cheaper labor?

Again using 4X terminology, a stronger economy player will exploit a weaker and lay claim to his or her resources. But should we turn all historical examples above into game mechanisms? No, although they all deserve to be part of purely economic games, economy is only one of many parts of a civilization game and thus must be simplified in our game. Still, even simple mechanisms may capture some of them, such as modular maps, engine building, set collection and card combinations.

* Mechanism 1: Different resources are produced in different parts of the world.
* Mechanism 2: Certain advances can improve the production of specific resources.
* Mechanism 3: The bigger the set of unique resources, the higher the value.
* Mechanism 4: Trade conditions can be improved with stronger civilization traits but trade comes with a risk where civilization traits are weaker.

* Decision: Which resources do I need and how do I obtain them to maximize the benefit/risk ratio?

Religion is another tricky civilization trait. Is religion satisfying the people's spiritual need or is it the "opium of the people" to quote Karl Marx? Christianity conquered the Roman Empire peacefully but was then used as an excuse to launch crusades. Christianity inspired cultural achievements but also suppressed science. And how to treat iconoclasms and other strives within the same religion? Religion is indeed a contradictory element to add to a game.

But perhaps this characteristics can be used to create tension and unpredictability? What if a player's religious influence can extend across the military borders without actually changing them? A player could - voluntarily or involuntarily - embrace another player's religion. Events in the game could sometimes give religious advantages (e.g. Renaissance) and sometimes religious disadvantages (e.g. Fundamentalism). This could add another exciting layer to the game and also qualify as the expand part of a 4X game.

* Mechanism 1: In addition to people units, players have religious markers showing the spread of their religion.
* Mechanism 2: Event cards, random or influenced by the players themselves, dictate the game conditions for all players.
* Decision: Should I embrace other religions or pursue the enemies of the "true faith"?

How about culture then? In a narrow sense, culture expresses itself through beautiful art, literature of wisdom, rich traditions and many other things that create a sense of belonging both in time and space. But culture also has an ability to survive long after its people has gone, such as the Ancient Greek culture, or even absorb foreign people, such as the Mongols after their invasion of China. How do we capture this in a game?

Cultural influence could be one way but we've already used that mechanism for religion. How about simply allowing people units to co-exist under certain circumstances? A military player would have to share his or her conquered land with the cultural player and either co-exist in a multi-cultural but fragile empire or try to suppress the foreign culture with the risk of triggering civil wars. Mechanisms for this have to be detailed during further development but the idea is interesting. It also serves to mitigate the effects of extermination, exploiting and expansion discussed above.

* Mechanism 1: If a cultural gap is bigger than the military gap, cultural units are not removed in conflicts.
* Mechanism 2: Using culture, units of different players can co-exist and cooperate but if either gap grows too big, conflicts may arise.

* Decision: Is it in my interest to merge with my opponent?

So far we have turned the four civilization traits Military, Economy, Religion and Culture into game mechanisms that dictate how the players interact with each other. Military remove opponents, Economy trade with opponents, Religion convert opponents and Culture lets players co-exist. Do we need additional interaction mechanisms? Or should we focus on how the players interact with the world around them instead?

In Peoples - Migrations, Science dictated the movement while Civics dictated the city sizes so why not let them do the same here? During the Age of Exploration, scientific advances helped the Europeans explore and, using the other civilization traits, expand, exploit and exterminate, thus completing our use of the 4X terminology. Urbanization has been a key to civilization advances throughout history ever since ever since the agricultural revolution produced a food surplus enough to let people gather in cities and develop other skills.

* Mechanism 1: The greater the science level, the greater the movement capacity.

* Decision: Is it worthwhile exploring new lands?

* Mechanism 2: The greater the civics level, the greater the city building capacity.

* Decision: Do I have enough production to let my cities grow?

With that, the high-level framework of our game has been completed. The players will run civilizations by taking military, economy, religion, culture, science and civics decision with the ultimate goal of standing the test of time (and, at the same time, fulfill a specific victory condition).
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Sun Jan 15, 2017 8:54 pm
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The Quest for the Holy (Civilization) Grail Part 1 - What is a Civilization Game?

Nicholas Hjelmberg
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Many gamers talk about the Holy Grail of a light civilization game, a game that will encompass the epic feeling of a timeless civilization in a limited playing time. Many games claim to have succeeded in this quest but none of them have been universally accepted as a true civilization game by the gamer community. Can such a game exist at all?

In this designer diary I take on the challenge not to find such a game but even to design it myself. Why do I think I will succeed where even the best designers have failed? The simple answer is: I don't. But what I do expect is an interesting journey where I will learn a lot, both about game design and about my gaming preferences. I will do this by discussing which elements that should be part of a civilization game and which mechanisms that could support them. You are more than welcome to join me on the journey and give me advice and criticism on the way. But be warned, I have no idea when and where the way will end.

Let us start by looking into the concept of civilization. According to Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civilization), a civilization is a complex society characterized by urban development, social stratification, symbolic communication forms (typically, writing systems), and a perceived separation from and domination over the natural environment by a cultural elite.

Translated into game elements, this could be covered by city building, worker placement, a technology tree and management of natural resources and calamities. I would also like to add the interaction with other civilizations, either peacefully through trade or aggressively through warfare. Not surprisingly, Francis Tresham's pioneering game Civilization has all those elements.

A related game category is 4X games with its elements of expand, explore, exploit, exterminate. Those elements are not enough to make a civilization game but for a civilization game they are important to provide an epic feeling. (But don't take my word for it - for some reason Civilization is not listed as a 4X game.)

So is there really no other game than Civilization that has all those elements? Many other authors have examined this question, such as BlogSpot user Melissa (http://boredgamegeeks.blogspot.se/2006/08/give-me-light-no-c...) and BGG user EndersGame (https://boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/30588/ideal-medium-weight...). Note the many good comments, among them one by the renowned designer Lewis Pulsipher, who states that he also pursued this Holy Grail but "but concluded that the people who want civ lite don't want to sacrifice any significant aspect of Civ". Here is my own short opinion on some of the candidates:

* 7 Ages: A strong candidate with its ebb and flow of rising and falling civilizations but way too long to be called light.
* Through the Ages, Nations: Clever gameplay but without a map I feel like I'm building card combinations rather than a civilization.
* Mare Nostrum: Reminds a lot about Civilization with one crucial exception - no tech tree.
Historia: An interesting tech tree where you choose between technology and military but few other civilization elements.
* Tempus, The Golden Ages: Two games that I haven't played but that look promising. However, critics argue that they are too light. (But I do recommend the Golden Ages designer diary.)
* Small World: I cannot understand why this is invasion game is called a civilization light game. It has very few of the civilization elements listed above.
* Catan: I cannot understand why this settlement game is NOT called a civilization light game. But it does lack the epic feeling and historical flavor.
* 7 Wonders: It's light but it's a card game, not a civilization game.

The task seems daunting so far. A civilization game will either miss critical elements or simply be too light. But what if we switch focus and look not on the elements but rather on the feeling those elements should convey. This is more in line with my favorite designer Reiner Knizia's philosophy that a game should not "try to model a specific environment, but instead try to invoke the thought and decision-making processes that are key to the theme". This is how my favorite game Tigris & Euphrates work: rather than micro managing the rise and fall of the empires of Mesopotamia, I focus on how my dynasty can influence the civilization development and benefit the most from it. Perhaps this is the way to go (so if you think that Reiner Knizia's games are too dry, this is probably the time to excuse yourself from my journey).

If you're still with me, let's look into the decision-making processes of a civilization. How to grow a small tribe into an empire that stands the test of time is one. How to make use of the geographical surroundings is another. How to adapt to external forces (natural events, historical events, other civilizations etc.) is a third. A game with all of our civilization elements will provide the player those decision-making processes but are all of them necessary and to which degree? Well, the only answer to this question is to start the game design!

To be continued...
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Sun Jan 1, 2017 5:44 pm
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Designing Lucca

Nicholas Hjelmberg
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This is the twenty-fourth of hopefully many blog posts where I reflect upon my first tentative steps as a game designer.

I've always been intrigued by simple and elegant abstract games like chess and go. Iconoclasm was one attempt to design such a game but the rules were not as straightforward as players expect from an abstract game.

The game built on three fundamental mechanisms:

1. Circular relations: Colors form units where each color supports another color
2. External struggles: Stronger units win over weaker units
3. Internal struggles: Winning units get weaker and potentially overtaken

The mechanisms sounded good in theory but were hard to realize in practice. The first one was not intuitive. (Why does Fire supports Earth etc.?). The second one was hard to assess. (Fire supports Earth against Water but does Fire support Earth against Fire?) The third one was not elegant. (When I get weaker, which ones do I remove?)

I think the main issue was that Iconoclasm couldn't decide whether it should be a thematic game about shifting allegiances or a purely abstract game. A thematic game could move in the direction of masterpieces like Tigris & Euphrates and weave an interesting story around the struggle between the players while an abstract game could focus more on simplicity.

All my attempts to move in the first direction were overshadowed by Tigris & Euphrates - why try to design a game that has already been designed to perfection? Instead, I got inspired by the recent success of abstract games like Santorini and Tak. Learning from my reengineering of my first game, Nova Suecia: The Last Letter Home, I returned to the core of the game: What did I want it to be and how could I remove everything that wasn't this?

But how could I abstain from any of the three fundamental mechanisms listed above without removing the core of the game? They were all needed to design the game of ebb and flow that I wanted. Perhaps they could be combined into one visual element?

It was probably Santorini and Tak that gave me the inspiration I needed. What is a symbol of power if not a tower, rising towards the sky? The "strength" would come from the height of the tower, the "support" from different colors in the tower, pushing the top tiles higher, and the "weakening" simply from the removal of the top tiles. This realization was the Eureka moment that got me started.



The name of the game was perhaps the easiest. During a visit to Tuscany, I really came to like the city of Lucca with its many towers, so what else could I call a game about towers? The components were easy as well, I really didn't need anyting else but a checkered board and colored tiles. The game could be expandable as well, increasing the size and the number of tiles with the requested game length, and a luxury look could easily be obtained with for example natural wooden components made of birch, ebony, oak and cherry for the different colors. Now I just needed to carve out the rules, because I was convinced that they were just waiting for me to release them.



Well, as you may expect, that wasn't entirely true. Even the simplest game require a lot of rule decisions.

• Which colors may a player play per turn?
• How many tiles may a player per turn?
• How may tiles be played to blocks?
• How may tiles be played to towers?
• What happens when two towers struggle?
• Should more than two towers be allowed to struggle?
• Which tiles are removed from the weaker tower?
• Which tiles are removed from the stronger tower?
• How does the game end?
• How can you win the game?

Unlike earlier designs, I couldn't prepare my search for the answer through probability calculations and scenario simulations. Instead, I had to play through games over several iterations. I experienced many issues on the way, such as runaway leaders (strong towers couldn't be stopped), kingmaker effects (weaker towers could only weaken stronger towers with no chance of winning), scripted gameplay (games followed the same path) and lack of tension (towers were better off waiting than fighting). Some times I was simply stopped and forced to start over when the rules became incoherent or complex. Nevertheless, I could see a game in the fog and eventually I found it.

Some critical design decisions included the following:
1. One color must not dominate a tower too much to allow hostile takeovers.
2. Players must be able to use other colors to allow taking advantage of them for furthering own colors.
3. Winning towers must lose not only tower tiles, to allow takeover of the tower, but also block tiles, to allow takeover of parts of the block.
4. New towers musts be possible to extend at a higher rate than existing towers to allow challenging towers.
5. There must be multiple victory conditions to allow different strategic paths.

The real breakthrough came when I linked the color mix in the block to the color mix in the block and forced towers to have all four colors to grow. Not only did it set the stage for the ebb and flow gameplay that I wanted but it also ensured that even weaker players remained in the game until the very end. At last, the game of Lucca had been excavated!

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Sun Sep 18, 2016 6:00 pm
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Designing Find the Bug! Agile

Nicholas Hjelmberg
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This is the twenty-third of hopefully many blog posts where I reflect upon my first tentative steps as a game designer.

The first test game Find the Bug! became very popular in the test community. Being a game focused on V-model testing, it naturally gave rise to questions about games more towards agile testing. However, since I didn't have much experience in agile testing, nor any good ideas about how to turn agile methodology into game mechanisms, I didn't pay much attention to that.

But then came several inspiration sources to me at the same time. One was a negative experience of an agile project, where the test-driven methodology was abandoned in favor of a forced and undocumented delivery of untested code, since defects could be put on a backlog anyway. Another was the brilliant but sadly underrated game Alchemist, which used simple mechanisms to capture the idea of mixing potions towards a predefined goal. This is very similar to how test-driven development aims at testing code until a predefined test case passes. As if this wasn't enough, I was asked to prepare a speech about how games can be used to teach testing to submit to the test conference EuroSTAR, using Find the Bug! as a physical illustration. Wouldn't it be great to show games both for V-model testing and agile testing? Last but certainly not least, the next contest at The Game Crafter was the Learning Challenge: design a game with a learning objective. Find the Bug! Agile simply screamed to get designed!

The initial idea was very simple. Collect codes (cubes) and create components (tiles), similar to how potions are created in Alchemist. Then spend them on other players' user stories (cards) to test for the right combination of codes, similar to how you guess combinations in Mastermind. Failed tests would give codes to the product owner while passed test cases would give victory points - the more integrated user stories, the more victory points. Just like Find the Bug!, this agile cousin would combine fun game mechanisms with good learning points.



But in spite of the simple idea there were many questions that needed to be answered. How many different codes should there be? How many codes should be used as input and how many codes should be used as output? How should the game encourage a natural flow, where players set up use cases for each other? How should the game be balanced, so that the tester and the product owner both get a fair share of the reward?

As often before, I resorted to a spreadsheet to answer the questions. After some iterations, I decided to proceed with five colors in total, of which two may be used as input and two as output. The rationale behind the number of colors was that five colors can be paired in twenty combinations (if Color 1-Color 2 and Color 2-Color 1 are counted as two separate combinations), which is a reasonable number of user stories for a short game. The rationale behind the two input-two output mechanism was to make the individual combinations equally attractive (who would want to use 3 codes as input and only get 1 code as output?) and make it easier to split the reward between the tester and product owner by letting them have 1 each.



For the actual testing or the guessing game, I used the Master Mind mechanism of letting the product owner give clues about the results (fail if all are wrong and partial pass if only one of the two is wrong). The decision to reward the product owner with codes and the tester with victory points was a design decision supported by simulations. The design decision allowed two different strategic paths and the simulation ensured that the two paths were balanced.

For the integration of components into modules, I wanted to create the image of a growing system where more and more data flows in and out. By requiring the components to be arranged in dislocated_columns, each component would have to feed and be fed by two other components. However, such a component would become wider and wider, requiring more input but also giving more output, and creating an incentive to simply hoard codes until the other players have prepared the components for you to integrate.



This turned out to be more difficult than expected. First I considered a hand size limit of six, a number often seen in other games (like Tigris & Euphrates). This would allow the players to have at least one of each color and only allow three components to be executed, since each component requires two input codes each.

This seemed to solve the problems but was not very elegant. A golden game design rule says the gameplay should be restricted not by rules but rather by strategy. For this game, I would have to find a mechanism that would allow code hoarding but make it bad. I found three.

First, I introduced the ability to copy other players' codes. The more codes you hoard, the more do you help the other players replenish their codes.

Second, I increased the reward for product owners and testers to be given once their components get integrated. This would give them an incentive to deliver components in time and with the right quality (i.e. that can be integrated). Not only an elegant solution to the game problem but also a thematic one!

Third, I made it easier to integrate modules without too many codes. The more "missing links" in the module, the more open input slots to put codes in. Again, the theme helped me find the solution. Real test environments uses stubs where components are missing so why couldn't I do the same? By letting stubs skip one level and link components with one level between them, codes at the first level could flow through many more levels.



With that, I could focus on tests and rule reviews. The components were fairly few and simple; the codes could be represented by wooden cubes for a more concrete test feeling and the components only had to show input and output. I decided to stick to the black and green color scheme of Find the Bug! and reuse the labyrinth-like pipes from Mice in a Maze. I even got to reuse the first but rejected bug image for Find the Bug! by adding longer legs to it to make it look more "agile".



Shortly after the game was published, I was contacted by another test conference, TestCon Vilnius. Perhaps this will be the beginning of a world tour for Find the Bug! and Find the Bug! Agile.

For more information about the speeches, please visit:

https://conference.eurostarsoftwaretesting.com/speaker/nicho...
http://www.testcon.lt/teams/nicholas-hjelmberg/
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Sun Sep 4, 2016 6:00 am
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Designing Politeia

Nicholas Hjelmberg
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This is the twenty-second of hopefully many blog posts where I reflect upon my first tentative steps as a game designer.

With Demokratia and Apokalypsis, I started a series of games set in the Ancient Greece. However, I felt that I missed a game depicting the struggle between the city states and thought of which mechanisms that would give justice to this dynamic epoch. A light civilization game? An area control game? A war game? The answer came from another old wish to design a game with a quick and smooth action system instead of the rather downtime-prone system of rounds and phases.

How about a system where the players choose only one action at the time? Perhaps a rondel mechanism like in Murano or a mancala mechanism like in Trajan? Those two fine games inspired me to a more dynamic system. Imagine only one mancala board, like in Five Tribes, where the players may open and close opportunities for each other, to determine both number and cost of actions. After some thinking a simple but brilliant system emerged.

Similar to my previous games, I started trying out rule fragments (which actions, what would they cost, what would they return etc.) and then proceeded to put them all together in draft rules, partly to get them organized and partly to facilitate the process of making them intuitive and consistent.

The key question was which actions to have. The actions needed to be fairly balanced (although powerful actions will be picked more often and hence be more expensive) and they needed to create a balanced economy (with surplus enough to keep the game flowing and shortage enough keep the game tense).

First, I needed actions to increase the players' assets. Production, Taxation and Import are natural actions for this. They could also be linked to specific city-states (Hellas, Ionia and Megale Hellas), partly to increase the players available actions for acquiring assets and partly to decrease the outcome of each action. One alternative would be to let all city-states and players benefit, similar to Alexandros, but I preferred to keep the actions individual and quick.



The distinction between liquid assets (talents) for immediate use and non-liquid assets (resources) for set collection and delayed use was inspired by Civilization. This added a balance between tactical short-term gains and strategic long-term gains.



I did consider player trade as well but again decided to prirotize quick game turns. Instead, I added the action Trade to give the players another alternative to acquire resource they miss in their sets. Finally, I needed an action for liquidizing the resources by exporting them for talents.



What then would the talents be used for? Assets on the board of course. Again, the actions were linked to city-states but with a slightly different perspective. Colonization is linked to Megale Hellas (and improves the value of the Import action) while the Mobilize and Intrigue actions are linked to both Hellas and Ionia. This added another dimension to the conflicts between the players: the external threats of mobilized armies and the internal threats of intriguing citizens.



The other uses of talents were inspired by the theme. The diplomatic game between the Greek city-states, where alliances kept changing, required a diplomatic track. The still visible archeological traces of the Greek civilizations required buildings. The former could offer military advantages (more strength in conflicts) while the latter could offer economic advantages (less cost for actions).



The final actions needed the direct conflicts. While a normal euro could have settled with the talents-citizens-more talents-flow, Politeia would also be about direct conflicts. The Attack action was a natural one: let the players use a surplus of citizens to attack players with less citizens. Again, Civilization served as the inspiration for the simple and predictable battle mechanism where the players take turns to remove citizens. This would also naturally make the attacker weaker, as his victorious citizens are spread out on more city-states.

The twelfth and last action was a simple "adjustment" action: Maneuver to allow player to reallocate placed citizens.



How about the Persian threat then? I couldn't deny the game this epic struggle between the two civilizations. But an event that hurts all players equally wouldn't be interesting so how could I make a Greco-Persian war individual? I already had the answer from my decision to have both Hellas and Persian political levels. Players with many citizens and/or high Hellas political levels would benefit from Greek victories while players with few citizens and/or high Persian political levels would benefit (or suffer less) from Persian victories.



Game testing revealed another use of this event. In one test, the players hoarded citizens, which made internal wars too costly. By letting it trigger when the balance between Greece and Persia shifts to much, this external war not only restored the balance but also removed some of the hoarded citizens. This event became the most complex but since it's not likely to happen that many times in a game, I accepted it.

With that I had a game with a unique action mechanism that would allow players both the standard euro gameplay of spending assets to build an economic engine and the more warlike gameplay of spending assets in direct conflicts.

The artwork was another challenge. Most civilization games have lavish art, with 7 Wonders being only one of many fine examples. But although buildings do play an important part in the game, the main part is played using actions and geography, where art may clutter other important information.



Instead, I went with simple map representation of the city states, with the additions of pottery style images for marker placeholders. Italy, Greece and Asia Minor were perfect backgrounds for the Megale Hellas, Hellas and Ionian city-states. The actions also uses geographical backgrounds (although faded out) to indicate where the actions take place but the main information conveyed by the art are the colors (to group similar actions) and the symbols (to tell how talents, resources, citizens and city-states are used in the action). Finally, the player markers were distinguished both with colors and with symbols representing the ancient city-states of Greece. This also kept the art in line with the two previous games in the "Ancient Greece series", Demokratia and Apokalypsis.
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Sun Aug 21, 2016 6:00 am
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