Sands of Time development history

A blog about the development of The Sands of Time, from Spielworxx

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On the civ-ness of civ games

Jeff Warrender
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One frequently reads threads in the civ game forums, asking “does this game give a civilizational feel?” Such discussions run quickly into differing opinions about what constitutes "civilizational" in the first place. What is the essence of a civ game? Does a civ game need to have a board? Does a civ game need to have a tech tree? And so on.

This post is about my thoughts on what makes a civ game a civ game, and obviously it’s relevant to Sands because these thoughts informed Sands’ development. But perhaps it’s helpful or interesting to think about other civ games in this way.

To that end, I’ll list seven criteria that I think are vital, and will then talk about Sands in the context of those criteria. However, I hope this discussion will be of interest beyond the scope of Sands, and to that end, have created a dedicated Geeklist at which we can all go and rate our favorite civ games on the degree to which they meet these criteria. That may not help us agree on which civ game is the “best”, but it certainly might help build a consensus view of which is the civ-iest!

1.Growth

The civilization increases in some way. Its population expands, its access to resources increases, its territorial footprint enlarges. This growth creates additional opportunities but also additional pressures that the player must contend with. Obviously, the original Civilization is the quintessence of this design ideal.

Sands embodies this largely through the territorial capacity limits. You start with three territories, but the resource production they generate for you probably won’t be enough to be competitive in the game, and so you will likely need to annex some additional territories. Population growth is automatic and chances are, by the third dynasty, everyone’s territories are fully stocked and so population pressure is a problem everyone is grappling with. Can you relieve it or will you accept it and take on unrest?

2. Enhancement

The civilization gets better at some things, or acquires some new capabilities or features as the game progresses. Many civ games do this in various ways. Clash of Culture may be the most extreme, having 48 unique advances, but even simpler tech trees like those in Antike and The Golden Ages get the idea across. And of course games like Through the Ages and Nations are entirely about enhancement.

In Sands, this is modeled through the Advances, which provide civ-wide benefits, and the Structures, which provide a benefit to the territory that they occupy. Advances are more stable – they can’t be lost once you’ve acquired them. But the path to getting them requires you to increase your heritage, whereas Structures can be built simply by producing (or raiding, or acquiring through tribute) enough gold. Both modes of enhancement are rate-limited by your unrest level.

3. Differentiation

In the process of growing and enhancing (and specializing), each player’s civilization should look different from the others in some essential way.

Sands achieves this through a broad range of options and decisions. Where will you set up on the board? How many territories will you acquire? What advances will you pursue? What structures will you build? What scoring categories will you claim? Each of these questions has a multiplicity of answers, and so generally each player’s civ will look quite distinct from the others’.

4. Specialization

The game encourages you to pursue a strategic path to the exclusion of others. Diversification is possible but carries a higher cost, be it resource cost, opportunity cost, etc. No historical civilization was completely monochromatic, but the civilizations we think about as the grandest are signatory for their superlative accomplishments, which, in game terms, should require a degree of single-mindedness. Sid Meier's civ, with its four different victory categories, exemplifies this ideal.

In Sands, the heritage tracks have the strongest funneling effect. To be able to advance in a civ category, and to score points in that category, you need to have achieved a sufficiently high heritage in that category, and that requires intentionality. You can get “wild” heritage boosts by building trade routes, but the use of emphasis cards, and the legacy effect of scoring a chronicle, are self-reinforcing heritage boosts that tend to further reward progress you make in a category.

5. Multiple paths to victory

However much civ flavor a game communicates, to be a true civ game it must be possible to emulate different civ styles and still do well in the game. One frequently hears that this-or-that game has a civ feel but is ultimately a wargame, or an economic Euro, or what have you. Other games like Mare Nostrum or Sid Meier’s civ have different ways of winning, but they also give players starting conditions that may steer the players heavily toward one of those win conditions.

Sands has 6 different scoring categories, two in each of the three civ categories. This affords a good degree of strategic diversity. It’s possible to follow a one-category strategy and try to hit the highest cards in that category, but it’s equally possible to pursue two categories in parallel. Usually, “two-card” strategies are imbalanced (indeed, they must be since you can’t score the same card in more than one category at the same time), so an A-B strategy and a B-A strategy are actually two completely different strategies.

6. Cooperative interaction

Players can interact in some essential non-militaristic way or ways. Again, Civilization's trade mechanic is the example par excellence of a cooperative mechanism that has the bonus of exemplifying the game's theme; of course trade was absolutely crucial in the ancient world and Civ's trade system captures this beautifully. Mare Nostrum's system is more game-y but still quite clever.

To be honest, Sands in its final form doesn’t have too much of this. Trade routes are the closest thing. Building a trade route that touches a foreign player’s city gives you a heritage boost, but it makes it possible for that player to use the Tribute action to grab resources from you. So it’s beneficial for you to build connections with other players, and to position your own cities in such a way that other players will likely build trade routes that run through them.

But there isn’t any trading or deal-making to speak of. We experimented with these at various points but they add game length and we judged it to be not worth it. Groups that agree to play this way can consider making, for example, mutual non-aggression pacts or mutual aggression pacts (!), but it’s up to the groups to police such things and decide whether deals are binding: the game has no official rules that govern these sorts of deals.

7. Thematically motivated scoring system

The scoring system in the game should represent something that a ruler of an ancient civ would actually pursue. This is tricky in games that are supposed to span generations, and especially so when the player’s role in the game isn’t well-defined. I like Antike's system for this very much, with its emphasis on attracting key people to your civilization, which indeed seems like something a ruler would try to do. Whereas, a Feldian "point salad" civ game might not evoke the theme very well, if the points don't represent something tangible; we can presume that no ancient ruler set out in pursuit of victory points!

Obviously, Sands was built around this very consideration, and the Chronicle system is my attempt to realize this goal explicitly. Yes, the game spans several “dynasties”, but by splitting these into “generations”, we create the concrete effect that, at each instant of the game, you are the currently-living ruler of your civilization, and your aim is to accomplish feats that will be long remembered. That’s what the Chronicles represent, and the system, in which you play Chronicles to boast about your achievements, and in which you must achieve a reputation for your boasts to be believed, strongly undergirds the theming of the system. One doesn’t simply receive “chronicle points”, one must go through the process that an ancient ruler would have had to go through to make successful boasts that would survive the sands of time.
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Fri Jan 11, 2019 7:20 pm
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Not really an expansion

Jeff Warrender
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I may have said that I don't plan to design an expansion for Sands, and I think I'm settling on this being definitive.(*) I just want to work on other things at this point, and the group that tested Sands has sort of dissolved so it would be hard to get an expansion properly tested anyway.

That said, I've mentioned that prior to the advances trees of the final game, advances were individual cards with a wide range of powers. Some of those powers were tested extensively, but didn't translate well into the icon language of the advance tree cards and so they were left on the cutting room floor. I could see releasing, maybe just as a no-art PnP, a set of "setup cards" that confer some of these quirky abilities on the players. We tried something like this once and it was kind of fun.

How are they used? I'm not sure. Maybe each player is given two during setup and picks one to use? Maybe everyone just declares what special power they want to try this game? Maybe they're drafted in reverse turn order? I don't know, and I also don't know for sure that I have to decide. This expansion is almost certainly intended for experienced players so it's up to them to figure out how they want to use it. (Yes, that's sort of a cop out. Hey, take what you can get!)

Here are some of the abilities that could show up. "*" means that this ability has been tested quite a bit during earlier stages of development.

Embellishment (*): You may score a chronicle card if you meet the conditions of the next lower card. Still must have enough heritage. Use once per dynasty.

Medicine (*): Once per generation, change one die roll at the end of a turn by 1 in either direction

Slavery (*): When you win a battle, the opponent's casualties become peasants in your color

Efficiency (*): You may perform an action even when you are one resource or one heritage short (This is WAY more powerful than it sounds...)

Coinage: When you use a bonus action, place a cube on the emphasis card

Ambition: Once per dynasty, you may select an emphasis card as a free action

Benevolence: Your minimum unrest is 1 (This, I suspect, is LESS powerful than it sounds...)

Currency (*): Pay crops OR gold when you conquer or govern

Assimilation (*): You DO receive resources for your peasants in foreign territories

Planning: When you use the advance action, you may build out the entire advance tree on which you advance, if it isn't already complete

Stability: During "check for overcrowding", you must have at least TWO overcrowded territories to incur unrest

Military tradition: When you win a battle, increase your unrest by one less than the number of pips showing on your die

Exploration: In games with less than 5p, you may move population into territories that lack resource tiles. If you annex such a territory, add a randomly drawn resource tile (from the set of the same color as the territory) to the territory.

Navigation: All territories that touch the same body of water are considered adjacent (for movement of population ONLY)

Trade Routes: Your caravan networks may originate from any territory in which you have citizens (doesn't have to be a city or capital)



What do you think? Do any of these sound especially interesting or especially uninteresting? Certainly they're not all balanced, but then, they're intended to be useful under certain circumstances, so the goal, I guess, would be to steer your play toward the circumstance in which the ability you received was maximally beneficial.

Other suggestions for powers that could be added to this list are welcomed.


(*) What I wouldn't rule out is the possibility of an expansion that makes the game playable for 6 players. The trouble with this is that in addition to the components it requires for that sixth player, the board needs 4 additional territories, so really it wants a whole new board. Thus the price point would be high, and probably that's a showstopper.
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Mon Aug 27, 2018 7:26 pm
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Beyond Sands of Time: peering into the future

Jeff Warrender
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Unfortunately, it looks like Sands won't be released until Spring of 2017. Instead of trying to stretch this series out to keep building the anticipation, I'll fire off the last two posts now and bring the series to a conclusion. There's one more post that will have to wait until closer to release time, but for now, we've reached the end of the line. I hope you've enjoyed the series.

Although I've contemplated some possible paths for expanding Sands, I've also been working steadily on a few other projects, which I'll mention here in case anyone is interested in keeping an eye out for them (or playtesting them!).

Collusion

This one is a heavy-ish Euro-ish game about building a power structure to ensure that the end game state best conforms to several schemes that you were dealt during setup. The game features a degree of "cut-throat cooperation"; the most original mechanism for that being that you have a stack of "power discs" which can be used to power up your actions, but which can be lent to players with whom you have an alliance in exchange for a one-time power boost. So, you want to ally with players whose power structure best complements what you have, so that you can benefit from their structure and they are likely to loan you power discs to use yours.

Status: early beta


Lost Adventures

An Indiana Jones-themed artifact hunt co-designed with Steve Sisk. Travel around the world visiting "theme cards" to get information about the whereabouts of a lost temple and its contents; then, enter the temple and try to run through it to be the first to find the artifact. But, the Nazis are in hot pursuit and will challenge you at every step!

This is another one that has been years in the making. Like Sands, it has gone through quite a few versions, and has recently gotten another overhaul. The latest approach introduces time as a resource, which you can use in a few ways -- to boost your chances when facing a challenge, or to acquire powerup cards to help you on your way, or to scoot across the board to capitalize on windows of opportunity that may quickly slam shut.

Status: under evaluation with a publisher


Evangelists

This game is set in the 1st century. You're traveling around the Roman Empire compiling accounts about the life of Jesus of Nazareth, and interviewing the eyewitnesses to those accounts. I'm not aware of other games specifically about writing a book like this, but I think the solutions to this problem in this game work well thematically. You have full-size cards that represent papyrus sheets, and you place the accounts (half-size cards) onto those sheets, physically, representing that you've incorporated that story into your gospel. Then you can move around the pages to get bonus points for implementing literary devices. Takes about 90 minutes, playable for 1-5 players.

Status: late beta


The Thirty Years War (a Quartermaster General game)

I worked some years ago on a Thirty Years War game but never got it to testing. Ian Brody, designer of Quartermaster General, is an attendee at our playtest gathering, Spielbany, and I pitched to him the idea of a Thirty Years War game using his system. (For those unfamiliar, it's an ingenious card-driven system that lets 6 players reenact WWII in about 90 minutes). He was receptive to the idea, and it's currently in pre-alpha testing. There's no specific plan to publish the game at this time; it's more an idea that I had that he's given me the space to run with.

It's playable for up to 6 players, but unlike QG where the players are split onto two teams, in this game, everyone is out for himself. However, there are still teams: in fact, there are four, and every player is part of two teams. So, you're either pro- or anti-Habsburg, and you're either Protestant or Catholic. The game can end when one team beats its rival, but your own score is based on how your teams did and how many lands you acquired. So, you don't want your team to win until you're in position to win individually. In fact, this wrangling was exactly what caused the war to go on so long.

Status: early alpha


Le Sablier

Way at the opposite end of the spectrum from Sands is this chaotic real-time co-op about a dinner service at a busy French restaurant. Each player has a different role in the restaurant, and must oversee the processes characteristic of that role. The twist is that all of these processes are governed using sand timers, and the game uses about 25 total, of a few different durations. Some timers represent processes you're waiting for (e.g. cooking food, waiting for customers to peruse their menus), others represent processes that have an upper limit (e.g. how long a given customer will wait before leaving), and trying to synchronize everyone's activities between these processes is fun and a challenge.

Status: late beta


I am Spartacus!

A co-design with Rich Durham. It's a very short large group social deduction game for players who don't want to have to engage in "bluffing salesmanship" -- "I'm not a werewolf, he is a werewolf!" This game (sort of) recreates the iconic scene from Kubrik's classic film. A few players are Romans, most are slaves, one is Spartacus. The Romans call for a confession, then slaves can, if they wish, stand up and declare "I am Spartacus!" The Romans then execute some of them. The twist is that the Romans and Spartacus are on the same team -- they both want Spartacus to die (in Sparty's case, because he wants the other slaves to be spared). It's simple but fun, and requires few components.

Status: seeking playtesters

Ultimatum

A game of "confrontational diplomacy". Players are rulers acquiring cards to build up various aspects of their nations. They can negotiate to acquire each other's cards, but in this game, when you "negotiate", you don't make deals, you issue ultimatums! A player on the receiving end of an ultimatum can comply with the demand, or can defy -- in which case the issuing player must make good on his threat or else must incur "disgruntledness" from his population!

This one is, believe it or not, custom-designed with my wife in mind. She has a strong preference for games with direct conflict, and the core idea here is inspired by her play-style in trading games like Chinatown.

Status: early alpha

[Untitled]

A pure negotiation game that plays in 30 minutes. Players are [politicians/representatives at a peace treaty conference/TBD]. There are seven agendas, each with a track from -5 to 5. Each player has a stake in four of those agendas, and wants to advance either the positive or negative side of that agenda. Players also have influence cards that give votes on the agendas. But each agenda needs at least 3 votes to advance, and you can only play one vote on an agenda each round. Over a series of 3 rounds, players will try to persuade other players to support them, and at the end, the player whose agendas are in the strongest position will win.

Status: early alpha
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Tue Jul 19, 2016 12:46 pm
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Sands of Time: some plugs for the people who made this possible

Jeff Warrender
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I'd like to end this series with a few plugs for the unsung heroes of Sands, the people who made the game possible. As I said in an earlier post, to me, the reason I'm happiest that Sands will be published is that something tangible has come of the many, many hours that playtesters have generously donated to help the game come to fruition. It's been a fun journey and the finished product is a testament to their dedication. In this post, I'll link to some of the creative projects that I know they're working on, for your consideration. If you have a chance to play and enjoy Sands, you could pay me no higher compliment than to patronize and support the work of its playtesters.

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P. D. Magnus is the creator and designer of the Decktet, and a zillion games for it. It's a deck where each card has two suits instead of one. It's been remarkable to see the variety of games that he and others have designed for it, and how different many of them feel from anything you've ever played before with a standard deck. Buy a Decktet, you won't regret it! Also check out a formerly Decktet-only game, Emu Ranchers

Dan Purdy is a former Spielbany designer who has several impressive designs of his own in the works. I'm not sure where they stand publication-wise yet, but some of the ones to watch out for include Lord and Land, a very nice engine-builder, and a game whose title I forget but that is about defending the earth from alien invasion.

(Dan and P.D. deserve particular credit for some of the really important features of the scoring system; it was P.D.'s idea that each player should have an individual hand of Chronicle cards, and Dan's that the cost to score a Chronicle card should scale with the level of the card. These ideas work so well that once you've played, you won't be able to imagine that the game could have ever worked without them -- and you'd be correct!)

John L. Velonis is a designer and the head of Synelix Games. His game Venus Needs Men is a silly bit of retro sci fi beer and pretzels fun, and was a favorite at Spielbany for years. He's started working on an expansion so we get to start playing again, a good thing! He has a few other games in development that are well worth watching out for.

TauCeti Deichmann is a fellow designer, and has designed an amazing trading game called Trade Empires, possibly to come out on Kickstarter next year. It seats up to 9 players, and includes 9 different playable factions. Each one plays completely differently from all of the others, and they're all balanced, which is a monumental feat. It's incredible. Do not miss this game when it comes out! Seriously, do NOT miss this game when it comes out!

Gil Hova has just started a company, "Formal Ferret", and has released a couple of well-received games, Bad Medicine and The Networks. His games Prolix and Battle Merchants have also been favorites at Spielbany for years.

Tom Kiehl is one of the co-founders of Spielbany, and has an engaging game, "Othberon", that hasn't yet been released. In the meantime, check out his clever flicking game Triple Delight or his and P.D.'s game Ice Weasels.

Seth Jaffee is head of development at Tasty Minstrel Games, and has several games under their imprint, most notably Eminent Domain. He has several exciting new games in various stages of development, and we've enjoyed having the chance to try them out at Spielbany, including a game about the Knights Templar and another one about the journey of Odysseus. Keep an eye out for those!

Steve Sisk is the co-designer of another game I'm working on, and he has designed quite a few games that are available via PnP, including Good Cat Bad Cat and Pocket Pro Golf.

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Of course it goes without saying that you should have a look at Spielworxx's forthcoming releases: Solarius Mission, North American Railways, and Sola Fide: The Reformation. It's quite an honor to have had Sands picked up by Uli and Spielworxx given the quality of the titles that they release, and it looks like 2016 will be another great year for them.

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And finally, the most unsung of Sands' unsung heroes, my wife and children, who endured without complaint quite a few Sands playtests, some of which ran pretty late into the night.

First, my younger daughter Abigail is a budding seamstress and has a fashion blog about her sewing and design projects: freckledfashionista.wordpress.com

My older daughter Hannah is a writer, and has self published a fantasy novel, The King's Decree. She also has a blog of fan fiction writings called Middle Hyrule

Our little guy Marck is too young to have a blog, but he's nevertheless a little bit of a celebrity.

Finally, my lovely wife Melissa (who also features prominently in the article about Marck) runs a cooperative play space at our church in the Albany area called the Launch Pad.

I don't know whether any of the four of them will ever play Sands, but they certainly made it possible and I'm incredibly grateful to them.
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Tue Jul 19, 2016 12:41 pm
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Sands of Time: The cutting room floor

Jeff Warrender
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This post summarizes some of the ideas (some have been mentioned in previous posts) that didn’t make the final cut, but that I still think are interesting or worthy of further investigation. If anyone wants to steal one of them to use in their own game, feel free!

1. Action board

I talked about this a fair bit, but of all the systems that have been part of the game at one time or another, I think I liked this one the best. Arrange the available actions in a grid, and players choose one of the edges between boxes and use the two actions on either side of that edge. It was a very nice way to give players a limited decision tree that narrowed as the turn progressed (you couldn’t re-use the same edge twice). It solved the common problem that single-action-turn games are susceptible to: you're often limited in your ability to set up multi action combos because all of the other players will act before your next turn comes around. The 2-action approach has been a nice improvement over this, and it was catalyzed by the action board. The board also had a balancing mechanism built-in, as the different edges could provide different bonuses or penalties commensurate with the “strength” of the action you were using.

One problem it did suffer from was the not-infrequent situation when you’d only want to use one of the two boxes you had claimed. This was actually the original impetus for the “caravan/trade route” action. If you chose not to take one of your two actions, you could instead place a caravan (for free). Now, of course, the trade route action works differently and is a full-fledged action because of its importance to the Heritage system.

2. Caravan

This one was pretty cool. Civhas a great trading mechanism. Mare Nostrum has a great trading mechanism. Sands of Time originally had a free-for-all trade system, in which almost anything could be traded at any time. This is a terrible trading mechanism. Open-ended trading adds considerable length to the game, and it doesn’t give the players enough guidance about what to trade, when to trade, or why to trade. It didn’t work (and I don't think it works generally). But I still thought the game should have some cooperative interaction and that trading made the most thematic sense.

The solution I came up with was this: there is a caravan piece that can move around the board. There’s a counter-rotating card that says “move the caravan”. If you start your turn with that card, you move the caravan. If the caravan is in one of your territories, you can upload stuff to it, or you can download stuff from it, by negotiating with the player who uploaded the thing you’re interested in acquiring. This restricted trade temporally and restricted the scope of trades, both of which should have been successful. Unfortunately, I don’t think we ever actually tested it so I’m not sure whether it was. And the game moved away from players holding commodities like cards that could be traded, so it wouldn’t make sense to try to add it in now. But I think it’s a promising way to implement trade.

3. Events

I really liked one of the event systems in particular that we used. Events are numbered 1-8, with the “worst” events having lower numbers. Every turn, you draw X event tiles, and then you discard the lowest number and return the remaining events to the cup. So, the most punitive events tend to hit and leave, whereas the weaker events tend to be annoying and keep coming up over and over again. The event system as a whole was more complexity than the game needed for the relatively minor role that it played, but in a civ game where avoiding and dealing with disasters is more prominent to the game’s theme, this system could work well.

4. Prefects

One of the earliest ideas in the game was that you were dealt a few cards, each of which had three special abilities and a strength in each of those abilities. You could use each card only once, which forced you to choose each turn, do you use the ability that best aligned with your strategy, or the ability on the card that was the strongest? I’ve already detailed why this was cut, but it has some things going for it and could easily fit into many other game designs.

5. Achievement tokens

This idea originated way way back in the early days of the design during a discussion at the Board Game Designer's Forum (www.bdgf.com) These were a currency that loosely captured the idea of having established a reputation for doing stuff in different categories. We've since replaced this with the Heritage track, but I think the core idea of a reputation currency that you can spend to get stuff done has legs. Maybe the most obvious direction would be in a political game, in which your actions earn you "political capital" and you can spend it to force things through, but can also lose it as a result of attacks from other players, scandals, etc.
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Wed Jul 6, 2016 12:20 pm
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Sands of Time: Not really a strategy guide

Jeff Warrender
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It’s my earnest hope that players will find the game to be strategically engaging and highly replayable. If the game succeeds in this regard, it will be because the scoring categories can be combo-ed in many different ways and the details of a given combo can be played out in different ways.

Think, by comparison, of the different strategies in Puerto Rico. There are, roughly, three: "shipping", "building", and a hybrid of shipping and building. But within each strategy, there are different approaches based on the crops you grow; the corn shipping strategy is a bit different from the indigo shipping strategy and a lot different from the tobacco shipping strategy. The strategy provides a rough framework for your decision-making, and the details of your approach inform your tactical considerations. And I think Sands is built to permit similarly layered decision-making.

For example – say you want to emphasize scoring for Fountain symbols (which you mostly get from structures) and Trade Good spaces (which you get by building trade routes). You’re a civilization that trades a lot and builds some noteworthy stuff.

The rules state that trade routes must originate at one of your cities or your capital. So, one approach might be to build a couple of cities at the edge of your empire (and cities also provide fountains), jump trade routes off of them, and then connect up to Trade Good spaces and use the resultant Heritage boosts to achieve advances that increase the fountain value of your cities. Another approach might be to keep a small, centralized empire, grow a spider’s-web trade route network out of that, and use the “Taxation” bonus action to produce massive gold to build many structures. Keeping your empire small makes it easy to reduce the Unrest that you incur for those Taxation actions. A third might be to use Migrate to send your population far and wide, taking advantage of the free trade route drops that it can give (when you achieve the corresponding cultural advance), then acquire “outpost” territories, drop Irrigation in each, and keep cranking out population to repeat the effect (also grabbing some fountains from Irrigation coupled with the advance "Engineering" in the process).

In all three of these, and the others that you or I could come up with, you’re pursuing the same overall strategy, in that you’re targeting the same two scoring categories. But your approach to that strategy can vary wildly.

Here’s another quick example. Often you want to tailor your strategy based on the available resources in the area of the board in which you set up. (Although the map is always the same, each territory gets a resource tile that gives its resource (crops or gold) and population capacity. So, every game is a bit different)

So, if you’re in a gold-rich region, an obvious thing to do might be to focus on building (since the build action requires gold), whereas in a crops-rich region you might focus on expansion and conquest (since the conquer action requires crops). But even these guidelines aren’t absolute.

For example, I once ran a militaristic strategy out of an empire whose initial territories produced only gold. You can use gold to muster warriors, use the advance Law and the Colosseum structure (which you can build with all of that gold) to keep your costs to annex new territories low (dramatically reducing your consumption of crops), and Raid for the crops you need to initiate battles. Or you could grab a few empty territories early, drop Victory Arches in them (gold), maybe build a City and jump some trade routes off of it (gold again), and then scream through the political advances so you have a super-charged army that can become a tactical expeditionary force that can move around quickly (maybe you spend, yes, gold, to build a Roads network to enable this), knocking over lightly defended territories with your military superiority.

In other words, for each strategy that you can conceive, there are quite a few different ways to realize it tactically. They don’t all work equally well, but a lot of the fun is experimenting with the many different approaches. Of course you have to match your approach to the board situation, and you must be mindful of what the other players are up to and react accordingly.

I’ve tried to force players to grapple with whether they will specialize or diversify -- and to give pros and cons for either approach. As a player, this specifically seems to be a decision about whether you want to pursue the highest value Chronicle cards – the 6 and 7 cards. Make no mistake – these are all 100% achievable in the time that the game allots; but they are by no means easy, because the game goes by quickly, and they will require a narrow focus, probably scoring a single high valued card in the final scoring round, and sometimes no other cards that round. A strategy aiming at a couple of different cards of lower number can be more forgiving; at the same time, it’s less efficient. Consider that card 6 awards 21 points and requires a heritage of 6 to be able to score. Combining cards 5 and 3 is also worth 21 points, but requires a total heritage of 8 (probably in two different categories, generally). Counterbalancing this, specialization will often require you to take the same action multiple times in a generation, which incurs Unrest; whereas a diversified strategy will let you use any individual action less frequently, thus reducing your frequency of Unrest increases (and corresponding need to “waste” an action governing).

One confession I have to make is that I'm not actually a particularly great player of Sands; I think I've only won once or twice. The good news in this is that the strategies you'll be able to come up with should be much more creative and effective than mine. I'm looking forward to hearing about the interesting approaches that players discover, and I very much hope the game is engaging enough that this process of creativity and discovery will be enjoyable.
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Mon Jun 27, 2016 2:33 pm
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Sands of Time: Events and calamities, speed bumps on the road to a pleasant Unrest

Jeff Warrender
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The rationale

It’s probably unwise to speak of the various event systems that the game went through, since events have now been cut from the game – I don’t want to risk making anyone wistful for something that isn’t actually part of the game! Nevertheless, they’re a standard enough trapping of civ games that I think it’s worth discussing why there aren’t any random events and disasters in the game -- and why their removal led to something better.

Events were part of the game for nearly its entire development. As I’ve mentioned, I hadn’t played Civilization too much, but one element from that game that resonated was the calamity system; the ability to trade calamities is a bit incongruous, but the basic idea that over a long span of time, some bad things are going to happen to your civilization seems to be a realistic feature that a civ game ought to include; at least, it seemed that way to me.

Early approaches to events

Initially there were just a few event cards shuffled in a deck, and you pulled one at the end of each turn; several of these were “Historians”, and when those came up, scoring happened. This had some rough edges, though. For one thing, at this time, turns were longer, so the random end meant the difference between a four hour game and a five hour game, too big. And some of the events didn't have much effect if they were drawn in the wrong part of the game; e.g. “attrition”, which punished overcrowding, but had little effect if drawn early.

A better system was to put Dynasty-specific events onto each card, and whichever card you drew, you executed the event that corresponded to the current Dynasty. This was a decent way to control the severity of events and tailor things appropriately to the game’s arc, but it still wasn’t ideal.

I was interested in the idea of having different players incur different events. When we went to the 4x2 action board grid, a nice way of handling this was to deal out one event card to each column in the grid, and you suffered each event that was placed over a column in which you had used an action. The rule had been that if you used two actions in the same column, your unrest would go up by 1, but you were at least sheltered from facing a second event. This also made the longer generations more punitive, in that you faced more events, but you had more opportunity to string actions together, so there was a balance.

When we switched to the 3x3 action board, I devised an entirely different solution to preserve this same idea (whether it needed preservation, I’m not sure); tiles were placed in a cup, and four were drawn each turn and placed at the interior vertices of the grid; if you had, during that turn, used an action that touched a particular vertex, you faced the event that had been placed at that vertex. So, same logic – using the same action twice protected you from facing two events, which sort of encouraged you to specialize.

The events were numbered, and each turn, after resolving events, all events were thrown back in except the lowest-numbered event. The more severe events were given lower numbers, so you would often (but not always) face them once and be done with them, compared to little events that would keep hitting you again and again. This accomplished a difficult balance that is always hard to strike with events generally: you want them to be impactful enough to affect the game (or else why bother with them?) but not so impactful that they decide the game.

But when the system switched to its final incarnation, with the action cards, this number-based system no longer really fit. Even before that, it was clear that, though it was somewhat clever, it took some time and attention to execute, and I realized – far too late in the game’s development, honestly – that, in a long game, any time spent on anything other than player decisions is really wasted time. Status phases, resource production, adjusting markers on a track – anything where players are simply doing bureaucracy is … not superfluous exactly, but it’s wasteful; it’s not the part of the game the players enjoy, and it needs to be minimized.

And this was really what killed the event system, ultimately. The final event system was card-based and similar to the second system (different events depending on the dynasty), but really it was still just bureaucracy, and didn’t add anything really important to the theming of the game. The theme needs to stand or fall on what you do as a player – making decisions, taking actions, scoring points – if those things don’t feel thematic, then random bad stuff happening to you won’t either.

Unrest over unrest

There was a problem with removing the events – a big problem, actually. Throughout late development, I had begun to rely on them as a design crutch to balance the difficulty arc of the game. When the game was too tight/punitive, players couldn’t do nearly enough and the game lagged; when it was too loose/easy, the players could accomplish so much that the decisions became easy and uninteresting. The key to this was forcing players to contend with Unrest, and I had never really come up with a good mechanism for players to incur Unrest that they would consistently choose. Players would typically do whatever it took to minimize unrest, and the players that did that would always outperform those who kept a higher level of Unrest. The events helped to force unrest upon the players in a few ways: originally it was “if [such-and-such] is true, take 1 unrest”, but eventually it was just “take 1 unrest”, or “one territory becomes disrupted" (basically a spatial unrest that must be removed with a Govern action). This was pretty lame, but it worked, and I couldn’t think of anything better.

Removing the events was actually the kick-in-the-pants that was needed to really grapple with the unrest system and come up with something better. Removing the events also forced me to get rid of the “attrition” event, which had been the game’s primary risk-reward system (you can overcrowd, but at the risk that an attrition even will pop up).

Rethinking population growth

At about the same time I realized that “populate”, which had always been a player-selectable action, could instead become something that just happens automatically, and that in fact this probably made more thematic sense. Forced population growth would achieve what Civilization did so successfully – organically create population pressure that the player would have to deal with, either by expanding (to relieve the pressure) or by incurring consequences. Unrest is both a thematically and mechanically appropriate consequence. Hence, Unrest for overcrowding was born, and it’s now one of the most unavoidable forms.

Taking on unrest for a temporary resource boost has been around for a while (since the 3x3 action board), and has always worked well; with the action cards, being able to re-use a card but having to take unrest when you do was another nice way to create incentives and consequences for specialization.

So, getting rid of events led to the realizing of an unrest system that truly works thematically: you can voluntarily do things that help your position but that are unpopular with your people, which affects your bottom line.

In the final unrest system, you get unrest for
(a) taking “bonus” actions (you’re riding your populace too hard, they get angry about being oppressed),
(b) using the same action more than once in a generation (you’re being a one-trick pony, your populace wants to see you improve their society in a variety of ways),
(c) over-crowding (your population obviously resents this), and
(d) from voluntarily taking on unrest to boost you combat strength in a battle (errr....let's not worry too much about what that means thematically...).

These work thematically and the game is now tight enough that it’s nearly impossible to avoid unrest pressure completely. Even though all four are volitional (even, arguably, population pressure), it’s very difficult to not need to take the unrest hit from time to time to be able to get something important done on time.

On bureaucracy

One possibly surprising thing in a game that has gone through a lot of iterations is that at no time have I contemplated a “feed your people” sort of effect. Those systems work fine in some games, of course, but I really never wanted an effect like that here. There’s enough other stuff to think about that failing to provide for upkeep due to simple inattention would just be more frustrating than fun, and anyway, I really wanted the passive systems of the game to police these kinds of things. So it’s not that you’re actively feeding your people, but that the territorial capacities and the unrest that comes with overcrowding essentially represent those effects, abstractly.

As I mentioned, the realization of the need to minimize extra-turn bureaucracy came late in the development, but I think it further validates this approach to this design, and to design in general – let the passive systems of the game patrol bureaucracy for you, don’t introduce too many systems or game-states that need to be tracked or anything like that. Time spent complying with the rules is time not spent thinking about strategy, and is therefore wasted. And I think the end result is a game that is streamlined with little latency. Losing the thematic effects of events is a small price to pay for that!
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Fri May 27, 2016 1:24 pm
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Sands of Time: Advances and the emergence of a branchless tech tree

Jeff Warrender
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Disclaimer up front: This is a long post!

Historical development

Advances have been in the game for a long time but only assembled into a tech tree in the most recent incarnation. Originally, there were “structures” and “ideas”, but there wasn't much difference between them. They were cards, and were added right to the territories, meaning they could change hands when someone else took over your territory. If I recall correctly, there were five different categories of card. Each category had three different upgrades, and each card was double-sided, so it contained two of the three upgrades in its category. And obviously, you would choose which one you wanted to build in your territory by placing that side face-up. I believe that the way it worked was that you could see the top face of 2 or 3 cards and choose which to draft; and, you knew with a 50-50 chance what the upgrade on the flip side of each card was, so if you didn't like the upgrade that was showing, you might still gamble on acquiring the card in hope that the upgrade on its reverse was the one that you actually wanted.

This led to a more concrete separation between structures and ideas. In the next iteration, every card had both a Structure and an Idea side, both on the front of the card. When you acquired a card, you slid it under the board, leaving either the Structure or the Idea visible. However, the “idea” side of the card existed solely to authorize you to build higher-level structures. This, I think, was after the special roles had been eliminated. As you may recall, originally roles had been the gatekeeper for the better structures: you don’t just need a bunch of gold to build a Pyramid, you need an Artisan of skill 3; so the “ideas” were taking the place of that.

Pretty shortly after that, the Ideas became Advances, and became their own component, separated from the Structures (which themselves eventually became tiles placed on the board). But Advances were functionally the same as Ideas: one side of the card gave you a benefit, the other side authorized you to build better structures. Briefly, there was something like a tech tree effect, whereby one side of the Advance gave you a discount in achievement tokens to future advances added to it in a chain, and the flip side gave you an actual power.

This led to the first idea of “upgrading” an Advance, which survived late into development. At this point, and for quite a while afterward, you were dealt a hand of 3 Advances during setup, and could use the Advance action to implement one and draw a replacement. You could pick which civ category you wanted to receive a replacement advance from, but the actual card you received was randomly drawn(more on this below).

You played an Advance onto its “basic” side (which gave you a discount on advancing in that category) and flipped it to its “enhanced” side (which gave you a power). In practice we judged that this felt too much like jumping through hoops to get to the good stuff. I kept the basic/enhanced idea, but made the “basic” side of each advance a power, and the “enhanced” side had an upgraded version of that power. I did away with chaining these to build trees, but each card became its own mini tech tree, in effect: you could either get a better power by advancing twice on the same card, or diversify by getting a second card. Kind of cool.

These powers were grouped into the three civ categories, but even so they were quite diverse and some were perceived to be stronger than others. What I eventually realized was that many of the advances that were thought to be “stronger” weren’t necessarily better, they were just more generally useful. So, I categorized the advances into three groups: those that were always useful regardless of your strategy, those that were useful at steering you down a particular strategic path, and those that were situationally useful. I then had the setup condition require that each player receives, at the start of the game, one “always useful” and two “strategy-useful” advances. Of course you still had to pay to implement them, but the idea was that you have the game, from the outset, nudging you along a particular path. And part of the fun was trying to cobble together a scoring strategy that made all of your advances work together. This was immensely fun; in fact, it was what I liked best about playing the game; you’ve got these six scoring categories, and the game is telling you, by the advances you’ve drawn, which couple of scoring categories might be optimal, but you have to figure it out, and it will be completely different every time you play. I loved it.

Uli didn’t love it. Or, to be fair, I’m not sure that he didn’t, but he noted two very significant problems that had never affected me. The first was that, with something like 25 different powers, it took a long time to read and remember what each player could do, and this got worse as each new advance was implemented; it slowed the game down. The second was that, using poker-size cards for the Advances, with each player acquiring maybe 7-10 advances over the course of the game, the game took up a lot of space, and was too big to fit on a typical table. (There was a third problem with this that Uli didn't mention but that had always plagued our sessions. Because you chose which pile to draw from, the Advance action was always the slowest in the game. A player would play their Advance, and then spend several minutes examining each draw pile to figure out what Advances were available before choosing which pile to draw from. As a designer, this was painful -- just pick a pile and take what you get! It's supposed to be random! It just shows that any time you give players a decision, even a simple one, it will add length)

Uli suggested removing the advances entirely. I hated to do this, but couldn’t see an alternative that would still make the game acceptable to Spielworxx. Happily, I came up with the idea that’s now in the game: place the advances into a central display, and use markers to show what each player has achieved. It saves space, and it’s easy to see who can do what.

This necessitated converting the text of the Advances into icons, so that it would be easy to see at a glance what powers you have. This resulted in losing some of the quirkier advances from earlier incarnations. (Some favorites included Embellishment, which let you claim a Chronicle at the next higher level than the one you were entitled to claim, and Slavery, which let you convert ALL of an opponent’s pieces in a territory into peasants in your own color, if you defeated them in battle) And we lost the effect of trying to concoct a strategy based on the advances you're dealt. In practice, though, that same strategic openness is there, and I'll say more about this below. It’s just that now you are the one responsible for putting in the work to connect the advances and structures you pursue with the chronicles you wish to score. For whatever reason, it’s not quite the same experience as trying to get three apparently disparate advances to work together, but you are still completely allowed to do it, of course, and indeed, coming up with interesting cross-category strategies is still absolutely part of the game's fun and its appeal.

How it actually works

The Advance trees are rows of cards, each in a single civ category, that go from Level 1 to Level 4. Your marker on a card signifies that you have that Advance and all lower Advances on the same tree.

At the start of the game, only the Level 1 and Level 2 advances are visible. Each civ category has two of each, and they're randomized.

So for example, maybe in the Cultural category, in this game you have your two trees as

1.Technology -> 2.Writing
1.Literacy -> 2.Music

but in the next game maybe the level 2's are reversed. And similar for the other two civ categories. Thus there are 8 possible initial setups for the Advance trees. However, the players control how the higher level Advances are added to the trees.

During setup, you pick one tree and place a marker on level 1 -- you get this Advance for free. You can use the Advance action to move your marker up on the tree, or to place another marker on a new tree.

If you are the first one to reach (say) Writing, you draw two of the Level 3 cards for the Cultural category, and pick which one goes onto the branch after Writing. Say you picked "Drama". Then, whoever is first to achieve Drama gets to pick which Level 4 card goes after Drama.

Quick overview of the advances

The specifics of the advances are potentially still being tweaked at Spielworxx HQ, but I can at least give a general sense about what some of the advances do.

Advances in the political civilization category tend to be militaristic. Several of them increase your warriors' combat rating when fighting in a particular type of terrain (this is the only effect of terrain in the game, currently).

Many of the civil advances give you ways to get additional fountain symbols, which is one of the six categories you can score in, and represent building achievements. Almost all of these are indexed to particular structures; so, for example, one advance might make the structure Irrigation worth one fountain for each that you build. There are a couple of civil Advances connected to Cities, which is a special structure in the game.

The cultural advances, on the other hand, are mostly geared towards getting additional lyre symbols (another of the six chronicle categories), representing cultural achievements. Actually, almost every advance provides at least one lyre symbol. This sets up an obvious asymmetry, whereby you mostly get Fountains from building stuff (and using Advances to enhance the stuff you build), but you mostly get Lyres from Advancing. Furthering this, Structures have special effects that take effect in the territory in which they're built (and sometimes its neighbors), whereas Advances give you a benefit that takes effect across your entire civ. It's rare to ignore one or the other completely, but it's definitely common to set up an "imbalanced portfolio" with respect to advances and structures, if that makes sense.

And of course, each category has one advance that unlocks all of the "locked" content in that category on the action cards, so you don't have to play the Emphasis card in that category any more.

It's worth noting that the Advances don't exactly give you cool, super-interesting powers. "+1 fountain for Irrigation, whee!" said no one. The interest, for me, comes from the decisions you have to make about which trees to be on, how you'll parse the tree, and how you'll direct your strategy to take advantage of the small benefits that the Advances confer on you. There's a balance to struck between being proactive or reactive. Proactive means that you want to pursue advances that help your strategy; reactive means altering your strategy based on the advances you're able to access. Because of the tree structure, you won't ever be able to pick and choose single advances. This constrains your choices, and forces you to be proactive at times and reactive at others, and to identify when the time is right for which.

Take the very first decision you must make, after you've determined that you wish to pursue advances in a particular civ category. You must then decide which of the two trees in that category you want to be on. And, will you be proactive or reactive? If you race to the front of a tree you get some influence over what the next card will be, and that can be very powerful, especially if you know what advances you need for your strategy. On the other hand, taking a more reactive posture, you might sit back and wait to commit to one tree or another until you see how the other players develop them, and in this way shape your strategy around the advances you acquire.

But whether you take an active or passive role in building the trees, matching your strategy to the advances you unlock is crucial to doing well in the game. Take political advances as an example. If your territories are mostly in the Med, then Triremes may make more sense for you than Elephants, so if you get to Level 3 first, you might choose to place Triremes and not Elephants on your tree. But this depends on whether you're taking an active or passive posture with respect to militarism. Specifically: are you trying to protect what you already hold, or to go out and conquer new lands? If the former, Triremes are indeed the way to go; if the latter, Elephants will help you if you're planning an invasion into Italia and Hispania.

These same sorts of decisions influence all three categories, but in different ways. In many cases, the decision isn't merely about boosting your score in one of the scoring categories, but about how to leverage an advance to accelerate your scoring potential in more than one category.

For example, if you acquire the civil advances Agriculture (lvl 1) and Engineering (lvl 2), you'll get additional fountains for Irrigation, Roads, and Colosseums, so that helps with the fountains scoring category (obviously). But there are different directions you can take this in. Perhaps your strategy may involve building Irrigation to carry a higher population and then use Roads to Migrate that population out quickly, in pursuit of points from Trade Routes. Or, you might build Colosseums to keep unrest at bay, and use Irrigation to heavily populate your territories, use the Produce bonus action to generate massive gold, and then build expensive structures off of this, essentially going gonzo in the fountains category. Or maybe you use this same "engine" but you place it in your crops-producing territories to generate massive crops and use that, along with Iron-Working and Chariots, to go out and conquer a bunch of Territories, in pursuit of the empire size scoring category.

This is just a toes-in-the-water view of how the Advance system informs the strategic space of the game, and I'll post more on that later, but I doubt we'll go much more than ankle-deep! My hope is for players to have fun exploring the strategic space for themselves. My point here is simply to observe that even the relatively simple effects of the Advances connect well to the game's scoring system: they give you a lot of flexibility as to how you can combo them to come up with an interesting strategic approach.

The advance system in context

There are a few other civ games (Antike,Clash of Cultures,The Golden Ages, Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game) that have advance systems with some surface-level similarities. Both Antike and Golden Ages have fixed rows of advances. Clash of Cultures has advances broken into categories, but you aren't obligated to complete them in any order (that's closer to the way Sands used to work). Sid Meier's Civ has a neat advance pyramid that's built by the players out of cards, and is somewhat similar to the card-based trees in Sands. None of these systems were influences on Sands' system, strictly speaking, but I hope players will find it interesting to consider the different benefits and limitations of these different approaches, given that there are some similarities. It would be harder to compare Sands to, say, Mare Nostrum or Civilization, which are just completely different.

One possibly useful way of thinking about advances in a civ game, to me, is the role they plan in promoting Specialization and Differentiation. I consider these to be two of the seven criteria needed to make a civ game, a civ game. (The others, for those who are interested, are Thematic Scoring System, Growth, Enhancement, Cooperative Interaction and Multiple Paths to Victory).

So, for specialization, does advancing in one category encourage you to keep advancing in that category? In Sands, clearly yes -- it's actually (and maybe counter-intuitively) a bit easier to progress further along a single tree than to start progressing in a different category.

Regarding differentiation, does your civ look different from other players or are you mostly just homogeneous blobs doing more or less the same things? This one is more complicated, but here's a way to think about it. In Sands, by game's end there can be as many as 26 Advances in play. You'll take about 44 actions in the game. Say that about 5-6 of those might be Chronicle actions, leaving ~39 actions. Now, the main actions that improve your position are Build, Advance, Conquer, and Trade Route. All of the other actions, and the Emphasis actions, are support actions to these main four. Say that you spend roughly 66% on main actions and 33% on support actions. So of the 27 main actions you take, if you split them evenly among these four (you won't), that would correspond to about 6-7 advances per player over the game. If you're following an advance-heavy strategy, you might use the action more like 11-12 times, maybe even a bit more than that sometimes.

So, non-advance-heavy players might pick up 1/4 of the available advances over the course of the game and focused players might achieve about half of the available advances. Of course, the specific strategies used by the players determine how distinct these are but it's clear that there's a good likelihood that every player's advance portfolio will look different than other players'. At the same time, there should nevertheless be several advance trees with more than one player on them. Because the trees are built by the players, this overlap doesn't actually function as homogenization, though: you're jockeying for who gets to decide what the next card on the tree will be, and you may have very different preferences for that.
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Wed Apr 27, 2016 3:36 pm
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Sands of Time: Tyrannical designer locks actions, then unlocks them in a sweeping display of benevolence

Jeff Warrender
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I've mentioned in previous posts how a good degree of Sands' development felt like trying to control a pendulum swinging between the game being too loose and too tight. I'll confess that, as the designer, making the system tighter was always more enjoyable than making it easier. Being a designer is a bit like being a tyrant, and finding ways to smother players' feeble ambitions to exploit weaknesses in your harsh, unforgiving game system can be fun!

The playtesters, then, serve as a vital role, the Greek chorus expressing to the designer the folly of his harsh, punitive ways. And so, as mentioned, much of the game's forward progress was a matter of me getting out of the players' way and letting them do what they wanted. But! There was one significant late-stage development where I did the exact opposite of this, that ultimately turned out well.

In the next post I'll talk about the Advance system. For most of the game's development, players had Advance cards representing the new technologies and ideas they had discovered, but as a result of suggestions from Spielworxx HQ, we changed this to where the Advances now live in a central display. I judged that the Advance effects had to be communicated visually -- no text! -- and I needed about 20 or so different powers. I was only able to port about half of the original advances into this format (the others were just too complex to express in an icon language). So, needing some functions, I had the thought that we could take some of the abilities that the action cards provided, and lock them. Then, we could have one advance for each action, and it would unlock the locked capability of that action.

So, for example, the "Govern" action lets you reduce Unrest at a cost, but there's a locked ability that gives you a free Unrest reduction, and having the Advance "Democracy" unlocks that special action.

The playtest in which this debuted fell pretty flat. There were other factors than just this system that were responsible for it, but this was certainly a contributing factor. Trying to understand how to parse which abilities a player had unlocked, or to plan around this in a coherent way, was a mess. Not to mention, climbing up the tech trees requires some actions, so there were a lot of "locked" abilities that you simply weren't ever going to be able to access -- there just isn't time in the game to acquire all of the advances you needed to unlock them all.

TauCeti Deichmann solved this problem unintentionally, by attempting to solve a different problem. Unwilling to completely part with some of the quirkier player advances that I liked so much, I had given each player a single special power during setup. Tau observed that these are highly asymmetric and add a weird strategic effect that may steer the players too strongly (John Hornberger referred to them, correctly I think, as a “coupon” – something you feel like you’ve missed out if you didn’t use them). Tau preferred the idea of distributing cards like these each turn, and allowing players to create short-term combos, e.g. committing to being really good in one particular area just for this turn. I think he envisioned these as specific rules, like “produce an extra gold in each gold-producing territory” or “warriors are +1 in mountainous territories this turn”, that sort of thing. But what I saw in the idea was a way to make the “locked” abilities fit into the overall framework of actions and civ categories that already existed, and it was out of this idea that “emphasis” emerged.

Emphasis does two things in the game. First, you have one Emphasis card for each civ category, and if you use it, it unlocks the “locked” content on all of the action cards and structures in that same category. Each civ. category also has an advance that does this permanently, and it’s often a good idea to achieve that advance if you plan to use a given category frequently. Second, each Emphasis card has three boxes, and each time you use an action or build a structure that matches the civ category of the card, you fill one of the boxes; if you fill all three you increase your Heritage by one in that civ category. So, there are three ways to build up your Heritage: by connecting with foreign cities and key resources, giving your citizens a chance to spread stories of your greatness; by legacy effects from previously-scored Chronicles; and now, by focusing, laser-like (not actually an ancient technology, of course!) on a particular civ category, building a reputation among your people that your reign was typified by great works of [building/culture/conquest].

There are other neat effects. Short generations, in which your ruler “dies young”, now feel like a missed opportunity, if you didn’t fill all three boxes or didn’t get the benefit of the capability you spent an action to unlock. Second, emphasis may motivate you to re-use an action that you previously used so as to fill the boxes on the card; yes, you’ll take an Unrest hit, but Unrest can be reduced; Heritage is forever!

Slightly before this, development-wise, the change to action cards from an action board had one nice effect. That action board had 9 actions, the central one was “produce”, which gave you a hodge-podge of ways to get extra resources, but at the cost of needing to increase your Unrest at turn’s end. It makes thematic sense -- you're squeezing every last drop of production out of your populace, but they hate you for it. Mechanically, it was an attempt to get players to voluntarily take on unrest (see later posts), but it was a bit under-powered to give up a whole action for a resource boost. Moving to action cards allowed “produce” to become a bonus action – an action you could take in addition to your two “free” actions, but still at the cost of increasing your Unrest at turn’s end. It has since expanded to three different potential bonus actions, and they are printed on the board instead of on cards in your hand, since they’re always available. (Although, having them as cards could help players to remember to use them more frequently)

I think that the emphasis cards, the bonus actions, and the rule about re-using an action card in a later turn at an Unrest penalty, do a lot to elevate the simple "pick two cards" action system. Taken collectively, these give you more flexibility to make your turn more productive, but they carry consequences (you give up an action, you take on unrest, or you take on unrest, respectively). The reward/consequence dynamics of these three aspects make thematic sense so they don't impose too severe a cognitive burden on the player, but they definitely add some fun to the decision making beyond just "do I want to build or advance this turn?".
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Fri Apr 1, 2016 2:51 pm
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Sands of Time: Beyond Spielbany and toward an action selection system

Jeff Warrender
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Averill Park
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After a few years bringing the game to our designers' gathering, Spielbany, I realized that the game’s length and complexity just weren’t appropriate for that setting – the game hogged too much table time. So, I began hosting dedicated sessions for the game, and it was in these that we really hammered the game into its final form. Principal players in this stage included P.D. Magnus, Dan Purdy, Doug Hoover, TauCeti Deichmann, Mike Pearsall, John Hornberger, Quentin Hudspeth and Dean Howard.

Getting out of the players' way

The most significant change that this group presided over was the reworking of the action system. As I mentioned, by the end of the Spielbany era, there were 8 actions arranged in a 4x2 grid. Your turn consisted of taking one action. There was an achievement token reward associated with the column you chose, but you incurred Unrest if in a subsequent action you re-used an action in the same column (originally, this was outright forbidden). As a player, I found this frustrating; many of the actions benefit from or require combinations with other actions – for example, you want to move and then attack, or produce and then build, etc. In pursuit of short, punchy, single-action turns, I was actually getting in the way of what players wanted to do, and I came to see that I had to let players take two actions per turn (although, initially, I couldn’t see a clean way to accomplish this with the 4x2 board.)

I can’t emphasize how difficult it was for me to see this, and yet how important. It can be incredibly hard as a designer to take off the “designer” hat and see things through the eyes of an unbiased player. In all of my games, not just this one, there have been many playtester suggestions that I resisted before eventually accepting, because it’s just so difficult to see what the experience for the player is like when you’re committed to seeing what you think it ought to be like – what you’re sure it will be like when the game is done and everyone who’s playing understands the rules and so on.

Anyway, as a result of this realization, I changed the action mat to a 3x3 grid, with each box representing one action. On your turn, you placed a marker on an edge between two actions, and then used both of those actions (in either order). Each edge was marked with one of the three civilization categories or an Unrest symbol, so when you used a particular pair of actions, you received the reward or penalty appropriate to that particular pair. I still think this was pretty clever, and it worked well. Thematically, it mostly preserved the idea of different “prefects” ruling over your empire. I envisioned the action board looking perhaps a bit like the council board in BattleLore: it would depict the ruler's throne room and twelve different prefects waiting to do the king's bidding, each prefect bordering the two different roles that that prefect specialized in.

The solution
During this phase, length was still an issue; my wife and (at the time) young kids endured quite a few sessions that ran well into the night despite my assurances that, surely this time we'll wrap up by bed time! I had hoped that this change to a 2-action-per-turn system would make the decisions quicker but it wasn't to be. I thought that if we stripped out all of the extraneous bureaucracy, all of the status phases and state checking and such that similar games rely on, that surely we could get the game shorter. All of those things helped (I think that Sands has a higher "up-time ratio" than just about any other game in this genre) but the game length remained stubbornly long. Two minute turns were typical, and that added up to a lot of minutes.

Simultaneous action selection could, we hoped, speed things up, but that couldn’t be done with the action board. (*) This drove the change to the card-based selection system that is in the game now. Of course, thematically, it's a small step back. (I guess we could think of the action cards as “edicts” that the player is issuing to his empire), but in the most important way -- controlling the game length -- they've proven to be a big win.

In the action system, players simultaneously select two action cards, one of which can instead be an “emphasis” card (see the next post). Each indicates one fairly short and punchy action that you get to execute. You can take the actions in either order. Additionally, you can use a single “bonus” action (see next post). The game turn or “generation” lasts 2-4 turns, and in each turn after the first, you have the option to re-use one action card that you previously used, but must increase your Unrest by 1 at the turn’s end if you do.

Perception is an interesting thing. To me, and probably to most of the core playtesters, the card-based action selection mechanism is simply the culmination of various iterations over possible ways that actions can be selected. It never seemed, to me, to be the beating heart of the game, it’s just the mechanism I stumbled upon that gives the players the best experience in selecting their actions. However, to Uli, and to many of the people who have played the game, it’s the aspect of the game that has resonated most strongly. Players seem to really enjoy it. And I guess, of all the systems in the game, it’s the one that’s probably the most easily ported to another game design. I have no specific plans to do this, but game designers who are reading this, take note: you have my blessing (not that you need it) to use the action system in your own game!

(*) Grr…I actually realized while writing this that, actually, yes it could have: in a 3x3 grid, there are 12 internal edges between boxes. So, number each box, and give each player a 12-sided die, and they all simultaneously pick a side of the die, then resolve which box they have chosen. That would have worked pretty well. Ugh! But the card system does have some real advantages – more flexibility, and makes the Emphasis concept possible; and anyway, there wouldn’t be space for the 10 actions in a 3x3 grid so something would have to go, which might be tough at this point.

Trade routes, or exactly how many different things can we cram into this game without it feeling overwrought?

One other important change in this era pertained to the trade routes. I originally wanted the game to have some cooperative interaction, and in fact, have it be important enough that it could be a scoring category unto itself. In the very first proto one of the scoring categories was “who has the most population currently residing in foreign territories?” This wasn’t motivated well by the rest of the design, though; why did you want your population in foreign territories? It was just something you were doing because the game’s scoring system was telling you that you should be doing it, but it wasn't actually particularly interesting.

This morphed gradually into the idea of trade "connections": if you built a city that was adjacent to a foreign city (and remember the funny effect that Roads can have on this), you were eligible to receive an achievement token from that adjacency when you took a certain action. Also, one of the scoring categories pertained to how many such adjacencies you had. This system was unsuccessful in two ways. First, the pendulum almost always swung too far in the "easy" direction: you would often have many adjacencies, so you could easily get a lot of tokens. Second, players’ positions ended up very homogeneous: because of the board layout, most players all ended up with about the same number of adjacencies; it wasn’t something you could (or even needed to) target, so it was weird to get points for it.

The solution to this came from a suggestion John made about having trade routes physically appear on the board. I expanded on this idea to where they’re a network that you have to grow through deliberate placement. It solved a problem the action board-based action system presented – what do you do when you don’t wish to use two actions? You place a trade route! But it also enabled, for a time, a distinction between the “resource” aspect of trade routes (getting tokens or, later, heritage) and the “goal” aspect (getting VPs for your trade routes). There were different colors of trade goods and you counted variety of colors for one of those but number of a single color for the other -- it was really too much complexity, and even my most hard-core playtesters found it super confusing. The distinction is somewhat less in the final form – a trade route connecting you to a trade good gives you a heritage boost AND counts towards a scoring category. But the advantage of this approach is the asymmetry it creates between players: your trade route network is your own.

These two changes were nearly sufficient to get the game into its finished form. It just needed one small-ish tweak to the action system and one big tweak to the Advance system, which are what the next two posts will cover.
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Thu Mar 10, 2016 1:16 pm
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