Big Game Theory!

Musings on games, design, and the theory of everything.

Archive for Oliver Kiley

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Big Game Theory - Article Index

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
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Theoretical Rambling

Game Genomic Framework Series

This Thing Called Strategy (2016)
Exploring the nature of choices and decisions in game design

A Genomic Framework for Game Analysis (2015)
Uber Framework for Game Design: Fundamental, Intrinsic, Dynamic, and Aesthetic Layers

The Player’s Point of View: Theme and Framing the Experience (2014)
Taxonomy of thematic function and purpose in game design

Towards a Grand Unified Theory of Boardgamery (2014)
Meta Frameworks for Game Design

Game Format: Competitive, Cooperative, and Semi-Quasi-Collaboration Games (2014)
Framework for determining "game format" (cooperative vs. competitive structures)

Conflict Soup for the Gamer’s Soul (2013)
Taxonomy for types of interaction in games

Searching the Depths: Strategy, Tactics, and the Deception of Complexity (2013)
Framework for understanding strategy, tactics, and decisions in game design

Modes of Thinking
Framework for player skill assessment in games

The Choices We Make (2012)
Framework for scoring system mechanics in game.

Towards a Science of Boardgames (Part I) (2012)
Framework for identifying essential traits and characteristics of games.

Genre Definition Series

Crossing the Rubicon: Defining the 4X-Like Genre (2018) (Published at

Defined by Committee: Games and the Language Thereof (2014)

Schools of Design and Their Core Priorities (2014)

What makes a Euro a Euro? (2013)

Critical Inquest

State of Gaming Series

Ubiquitous Violence (2016)

Prepare to be Assimilated: The Roguelike-ification of All Games (2015)

The Rise of Boardgame-Like Games and the Platform Paradox (2015)

On Game Obsessions, Disillusionments, and Finding Meaning (2015)

Culture Storms and the Evolving Medium of Games (2014)

Game Compulsion Disorder and the Call for Discipline Games (2013)

A Brief History of Hobby Boardgaming (WIP) (2013)
Geeklist for the history of hobby boardgaming

Digital Kills the Physical Star (2013)

My Journey into Haunting Ambivalence (2013)

Critiquing the 4X Genre Series

All That Glitters Is Not Gold (2017) (Published at

The Inglorious State Of 4X Games (2018)

A Shattered Dream: Critiquing the 4X Genre (2015)

The Snowball and the Steamroller: Fundamental Challenges in 4X Game Design (2015)

The Gulf Between: Civ vs 4X Games (2014)

A Failure to End - Too much "What" and Not Enough "Why" (2013)

4X’ing the 4X’s (2012)

Methods of Criticism Series

A Designer’s Perspective on Audience Feedback (2013)

Critically Effective (2013)

Voice of Experience 2.0: Is Simple Beautiful? (2013)

Critical Collision Course: Kickstarter, Reviews, and Retorts of Course (2012)

An Armature for Critique (2012)

The Rise of the Cult of the Slow and Critical? (2012)

Data Mania

Keyforge: IMPACT Deck Analysis (2019)

Visualizing the BGG Game Database with Gephi. Whoa! (2018)

By the Numbers - BGG Rank Data + Analysis (2012)


Stellaris is Dead... To Me (2019)

Cardboard eXcursion: Raiders of the North Sea (2018) (Published at

4X Board Game Review: Runewars (2017) (Published at

Off the Shoulder of Orion - Sid Meier's Starships at First Blush (2015)

A Hellivator to Heaven: Adventures in Terraria (2015) - Terraria Review

The Stars My Destination – An Armada 2526 Retrospective (2014) - Armada 2526 Review

The Wondrous Ages I Have Known (2014)

15 Years and Worlds Apart - Autumn Dynasty: Warlords & The King of Dragon Pass (2014)

Of Finding Civilization in a Barn (2013)

For the Love of the Decktet (2013)

A Budding Infatuation with Game Systems (2013)

UltraCorps - The Boardgame That Isn't (2012)


Game Collection Series

Self-Deception & My Game Collection (2018)

I’ve got my eye(s) on you! (2013)

My Collection After the End-of-the-World Didn’t Happen (2013)

Collection Conjunction - What’s your Recollection? (2012)

What I'm Playing Series

Smorgasbord: Summer '19 Report (2019)

2017 Smorgasbord Part 1: New Stuff Played (2017)

Smorgasbord: Good Things in Small Packages (2016)

Smorgasboard 2015-16: What's Going On Edition (2016)

What's Going On!? The Game of Too Many Excuses (2015)

What's Going On!? Roguelikes and Like Other Stuff (2015)

The Not-So-Quarterly Report (2015)

2014 Synopsis and Highlight Reel (2015)

Crossing the Digital Veil (2014)

A View from My Lerkim (2013)

My Dear Dossier - Part I (2011)

About, about, in reel and rout (2011)

Miscellaneous Reflections

A Circle of Madness Broken by Empathy (2017)

Reflecting on Depictions of the Great War (2016)

These Halls I Walked: An Homage to Doom and Quake (2015)

My Life Through Microbadges (Part 1) (2015)

Fall-time Spectacular: The State of the Blog! (2014)

Big Game Theory! Expands into a New Universe (2014)

A BGG Love Story (2013)

BGG Digital Game Nights (2013)

BGG ... My Social Media Gateway Drug (2012)

Design Skunkworks (My Projects)

Game Design & Roundup Series

Rhine & Rhone: An express version of T&E (or Y&Y) (2018)

Lobotomy Lab: Shipwrights of the North Sea (2017)

All Roads Lead to Amber (2014)

Skunkworks Update 2012 – Never too Late to the Party! (2012)

On the boards ... or ... A Skunkwork Orange (2011)

Don't Drown in Your Files! (2011)

A Light Transcendent Design Series

Delusions of Grandeur (Part 2) (2016)

Delusions of Grandeur (Part 1) (2015)

Emissary Design Series

Emissary: Red Frontier Graphic Design (2018)

Rethinking Emissary for the "Red Frontier" (2018)

Emissary's Thematic Conundrums (2014)

A Call to Arms! (2014)

Emissary: A Study in Brain-burn and Emergence (2013)

Hegemonic Design Series

Breaking the Shrink (2013)

Hegemonic - A Pictorial History (2013)

The Hegemony of Kickstarter! (2012)

Hegemonic on Course for Publication! (2012)

How to Takeover the Galaxy - Hegemonic Style! (2011)
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Fri Jul 19, 2019 6:06 pm
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Smorgasbord: Summer '19 Report

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
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Times seems to fly these days.

Here we are, 6-months later, since the last report on my boardgame activities. My last post was about my game collection woes - and perhaps tipped off by a recent thread, I figured this was good timing to circle back on what I’ve been playing of late and how “the collection” is faring.

First of all, I did a little reorganization of my BGG inventory, and if you click HERE you’ll get a list of ~110 games that I “own” and consider principally part of my collection. I realized one little fatal flaw with my usage of the “has parts” tag to denote games that my household owns but that I don’t consider “mine” - which is that I started getting peppered with requests for game parts! Whups!

Now, I simply take all my owned games and then use the “want to play” flag for those games that I could conceivably desire to play sooner or later (rather than never). This gets us to 110 games and excludes from the list all the assorted kids games (2x copies of Candy land, etc.), games I want to sell/trade away, and other games that would require a “family discussion” were I to try and purge them from the shelf. It’s a reasonably-sized feeling list - and while there are few in there still listed for trade, unloading them is a low priority.


But enough of that! You want to hear about all the games I’ve been playing over the past few months. I’ll start with a listing and then dive into specific titles in more detail below. Here we go!

* Sekigahara (x3)
* Root (x3)
* Aerion (6+)
* Sylvion (2x)
* Blue Lagoon (~10x)
* Broom Service! (~10x)
* Hand of the King (~12x)
* Ginkgopolis (1x)
* The Game (12x)
* Heroes of Terrinoth (~10x)
* Keyforge! (40+)
* Kingdomino - Age of Giants (~12x)
* Lord of the Rings (3x partial games)
* Raiders of the North Sea (1x)
* Small World (3x)
* Shadows Amsterdam (1x)
* Yellow & Yangzee (2x)
* Wizards Wanted (6x)

Sekigahara (x3)
Last update, I had recently acquired but not yet played Sekigahara. Since then I’ve played it three times and this title has made quite the impression. It’s my first foray into block wargames (and I should mention I’ve only dabbled with wargames overall). My friend and I have been embarking on “Sake and Seki” sessions, when where we split a bottle of warm Sake and replay the famous reunification wars in 1,600 Japan.

It’s not a terribly complicated game - but there are a lot of subtitles to the rules that are easy to miss (or maybe that was the Sake?). We had some fatal rule fumbles in the first two games (realized afterwards), but we’re getting the hang of it now. The interplay between force movement and cards is really tremendous and creates a fascinating decision space and tons of tension and uncertainty about how the battles will pay out. Really enjoying this one more and more with each play.

Root (3x)
Root continues to captivate my friend group as well as the younger generation of kids and nephews - who are surprisingly adept at internalizing all of the rules and quirks in the game. I understand people’s criticism about the need for “player-driven balancing” (aka table talk and negotiation). But for me, this player-to-player interaction and brinkmanship is exactly what makes certain games (e.g. Root) so fun and engaging for me (and explains my general dislike for lower interaction engine-builders).

I’ve kickstarted the second expansion for Root (due later this year), and looking to dive into that when it lands. I feel like I’m just barely getting a handle on the first expansion factions. So much to dig into in this game.

Aerion (3x)
I recently picked up Aerion, which is the 6th game in the Oniverse series. I adore this series, not just for the artwork but for the great solo and co-op gameplay. Onirim has long been a favorite of mine.

In any case, I “think” Aerion might take the cake for my favorite solo game and possibly favorite Oniverse game as well. Aerion tasks you with building a series of airships by managing a flow of cards that emanate from six stacks, which you draft from using dice in a yahtzee-like die rolling fashion. There are clever means of cards affecting dice in turn affecting card draws, that is a delightful puzzle to sort out. But it has enough randomness to force you to adapt and keep on your toes.

As with other games in the series, the box comes with half a dozen “expansions” to layer more onto the game. So far, I’ve found that expansion #1 (flagship) and #6 (with the hellkite) to be a nice balance of maintaining focus on core gameplay while adding just enough other tensions to open up the decision space more. Love this one.

Sylvion (2x)
I also went back to Sylvion briefly, as it had been a while since I played it last. Not too much to report. I like the theme and basic structure of this one, but depending on your card draft and hands drawn, the experience oscillates wildly between overly easy to downright impossible. In some ways, it feels like it plays itself and I’m not sure there is enough player agency in the mix.

Blue Lagoon (~10x)
I picked this up a few weeks back on vacation, after eyeballing it a whole bunch over the past few months. I’m so glad I picked this one up - and even more excited that I’ve got it to the table a few times a week! It’s been a hit with everyone: kids, friends that aren't “gamers”, my wife, other people’s kids, gamer friends. It’s quite easy to teach - although for many people it’s one of those games where you just need to play a round and see how the scoring works for it all to click. It’s awesome watching people’s eyes light up when they start to see how it all connects.

It’s also one of those games - true to many of Knizia’s designs - where the depth continues to open up the more you play. There is a ton of nuance in where you place huts, both to make it easier to get onto islands in the second round but also to potentially block your opponents from islands and/or resources. The first round is interesting for it’s Go-like feeling of having this big decision space where you are pre-positioning and scattering your influence in hopes of linking it all together later in the round. Just amazing.

Broom Service (~10x)
My 5-year old - somehow - has processed this game to a freaky level. She’s memorized what all the cards do and has a crazy ability to program out her turns. Anyway - I still enjoy this game and it hits the table pretty often.

Hand of the King (12+)
I’ve had this game for a while, and on a lark brought it out to a family restaurant. I broke it out while waiting for food and the kids took to it immediately. Maybe it’s the artwork (very cool), or that it’s a way for them to “get in” on the Games of Thrones mystique (no - they have not watched the show!). I like this game for its simplicity. It does a great job getting the kids to “think ahead” about making moves that benefit themselves but tempered against not giving their opponent an even better follow-up move. Fun, quick game.

Ginkgopolis (1x)
I dug this one back out with my friend group as we were discussing various game design topics and I mentioned this as an example of a “clockwork” design where there are these different systems that feed into each other. Tile placement and board control connects to card play and drafting, which connects to tableau building, which connects to scoring and back to the board, etc.

That said - my fondness for the game plummeted after playing it again. I was reminded of how utterly fiddly this game is. Passing and managing cards, making sure to check the tableau, placing reminders on new tiles so you remember to sort through the decks to add the cards to the other deck when it gets reshuffled. Juggling tiles and resources and score tokens behind your player screen. I think this is a game I appreciate more from a conceptual and aesthetic standpoint that I do from actually playing it.

The Game (~12x)
This has a similarity to “The Mind” (I’m not up to speed on the origins of these respective titles), as a game where you take turns trying to play cards in numerical order across four lines. It’s okay. Doesn’t do a lot for me and if I’m going to play a non-coordinative co-op I’d much rather play Hanabi.

Heroes of Terrinoth (6x)
I was on the quest for a nice cooperative dungeon crawler game. I’d been eyeballing Warhammer Quest (Card Game) for a long time, and this reimplementation of it seemed worth trying. I really like the mechanics and basic structure of this game. However, it feels overly procedural and doesn’t flow all that well. I also think it misses the appeal of dungeon crawlers with respect to character advancement. “Leveling up” your skills during the game is nice, but no substitute for acquiring skills and gear that persist between games and builds more attachment to your character (like say Hero Quest or Mice & Mystics). The kiss of death on this is that the setup time is agonizing. You have to organize all the stacks of enemy and item cards and rebuild a deck for each mission. It’s ridiculously irritating.

Keyforge (40+)
Oh boy. I’ve really fallen for this game (as you might have noticed from my last blog article). I started with two decks at the start of this summer, and now I have… maybe 18? Anyway - a bunch of buddies have got into it as well, so we all have a fun time playing. It scratches the Magic the Gathering itch without relying on the time consuming card collection and deck construction cycle. It’s great having a fixed deck that you can spend time learning more and getting better at playing, instead of endlessly fiddling with your deck lists. I really enjoy the structure and pace of the gameplay too - very dynamic.

Kingdomino - Age of Giants (~12x)
I’ve enjoyed Kingdomino since it came out, and my 5-year old in particular really enjoys it too. I picked up Age of Giants expansion for her birthday and it’s gone over well. It adds a pretty light layer onto the gameplay along with a fun thematic element. ‘Nuff said.

Lord of the Rings (3x partial games)
This is a case where I owned the game once upon a time, sold it off unplayed, and then re-bought it second hand. Mostly, my kids were interesting Lord of the Rings after we watched bits and pieces of the first movie, and started looking at Lord of the Rings games…. and here we are.

In any event - this game is an oddity in the history of gaming. It was an early cooperative design and one that was structured around a finely crafted set of events following (loosely) the narrative of the books. Parts of the game feel very outdated (I’m playing the original version BTW) from a clarity and graphic/iconography standpoint. It makes the game a little hard to manage (and the kids struggle to follow the phasing and turn structure). I feel like this game could do with a redesign. But even as is, we’ve been having a fun time working through it in stages.

Raiders of the North Sea (2x)
Snuck in a couple of plays of this, one with the gamer group and one with my 8-year old. Not too much to say that I haven’t before. As far as worker placement games go, this is one I find palatable. Reasonably interactive, competing for shared space (reminds me of Caylus in way), quick turns, amazing art.

Small World (3x)
I stumbled back into Small World and have been playing a bunch with my 8-year old. Years ago I played a ton of 2-player Small World, which I vastly prefer over 3+ players, so it’s nice to go back to that. This is a solid and streamlined design. I am on the hunt for the Realms expansion (that lets you build randomized maps) as my only complaint is that the board geometry is fixed and leads to similar gameflows from game to game.

Shadows Amsterdam (1x)
Finally managed to get this to the table at a family gathering, where we played with a nice mix of kids and adults. It’s a really cool concept, and has structural similarities to Code Names (two teams each with a clue giver and multiple guessers). The design is a little fiddly feeling for what it is, and it can be an awful lot to visually parse at times. Need to play it more with some different groups to see how it goes over.

Wizards Wanted (6x)
Ths kids and I have been playing this one quite a bit. Who knew that Mattel was in the business of designing movement programming and resource management, set collection games? The theme here is wacky (kids love it), and the gameplay is a little fiddly at times for what essentially amounts to racing around the board and collecting cards. But there is some enjoyment to be had in puzzling out the optimal moves to get you to where you want to be ahead of your opponents. Amazing components for a $20 game!

Yellow & Yangtze (3x)
Played more games of Y&Y, and deeper opinions are starting to form. Despite being so similar to Tigris & Euhprates at the structural and overall goal level - the differences in these games are really stark in terms of the flow of play. The more I play, the more different these feel.

In general, I like Y&Y for the hex-based system and (most) of the tile actons - like discarding two blue farmers for a catastrophe, or two traders to move a pagoda. The off-board leader abilities are also a nice touch and can add a good wrinkle to the gameplay. However, what I miss from T&E is (1) treasures on the starting tiles as a driver for play (and more interaction) in the early game; (2) the greater stability of monuments creating more geography on the game board and a less volatile landmark to fight over; (3) the system for resolving fights.

The streamlining the fights in Y&Y, while seemingly simpler from a rules standpoint, at times create odd counter-intuitive situations. For example, when a player has leaders in two different kingdoms, despite “winning” one side of their fight, their own leaders in the losing side might nevertheless be displaced. It’s a little strange and disincentives the co-mingling of leaders and kingdoms that is such a cornerstone of Tigris & Euphrates.

I’d love to have a game that blended both games and did so in a more 2-player friendly manner perhaps. Maybe it’s time to restart design work on Rhine & Rhone?


I set a soft goal (resolution?) to try and get my remaining unplayed games played this year. There aren’t too many on the unplayed list:

* Acquire (low interest - I have a copy for vintage purposes mostly)

* Brutal Kingdom - I bought this on a whim and didn’t really do my homework. Given the player count and style I’m not likely to get this to the table ever. Feels really overwrought for what it is.

* Condottiere - Also bought on a whim. I’m hoping to get this to table. Feels like a great, tight blending of incremental trick-taking and area scoring.

* Domaine - Bought this at a garage sale year. This is great seeming abstract-ish game, based on my solo-play and learning the rules. Feels like it occupies a similarish design space as T&E/Y&Y, as a complex spatial abstract with a layer of theming on top.

* Fabled Fruit - I bought this as a drafting/deck-ish building game (mostly) for the kids, hoping the theme would be of interest to them. But every time I pull it out and suggest we give it a try it gets the vacant stare of disapproval. Might need to go on the purge pile...

* Mission: Red Planet - Benn sitting on the shelf for a while now, sadly. I love Bruno Cathala and Bruno Faidutti games and this one looks like a great combination of elements. I just need to push this one a little to get it to the table.

* Monad - Odd little Sid Jackson relic. No intention or great urge to get it to the table. Mostly have as a collection item.

* Pocket Mars - Purchased as part of homework on other Mars-related games. Seems like a cool, quick playing design. But somehow doesn’t seem all that exciting, so it might be a tougher sell getting it to the table.

* Tea Dragon Society Card Game - Another one the kids don’t seem too interested in playing. I think they’ll like it if I can catch them in the right mood. The game is designed to be played “open hand” which should make it pretty easy to teach. I love the theme and artwork.

* Via Nebula - Picked this up in a math trade, after eyeballing it for a long time. This is kinda-sorta a super streamlined train game but presented via (no pun intended?) a completely different theme. The kids love the artwork and the piggy-meeples. Hoping to play this soon.

* Werewolves of Miller’s Hollow - Not likely to play this anytime soon. Grabbed it for $1 at a garage sale. I think I’d also chose to play Mascarade (different game style I know), over something like this. Could be good to hold onto for the right moment though. Maybe a fun campfire activity with the whole family?

Beyond the unplayed stuff, there are plenty of games I want to get back to the table. A Study in Emerald is #1 on that list. I only played it once (and loved it), so need to bring it back with more people. I’d like to get some games of Tigris & Euphrates in again soon for comparative purposes, and I’d also like to revisit Glen More, which I haven't played in quite some time. Oh, and Inca Empire (aka Catan on steroids). And so many more..

So many games, so little time. Cheers until next time!
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Thu Jul 18, 2019 4:38 pm
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Keyforge: IMPACT Deck Analysis

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
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Like many, I heard about Keyforge, from Fantasy Flight Games, last year, months before its proper release. As a former Magic: The Gathering player (circa 1994-1997 and sporadically thereafter) I was curious about Keyforge and how it would play. As a designer, I was downright intrigued by Richard Garfield's creation. As a gamer staring down the barrel of less free time, the prospect of playing a collectible card card (CCG) game without the expense and time most CCG’s require - what with all the card collecting and deck construction furor - was enough to sell me on the idea.

Fast forward, I’m now the owner of eight decks and have managed to pull a significant number of friends and family under the Keyforge umbrella. Afterall, one does need opponents! Fortunately, it’s been universally well-received among kids and adults alike. It is remarkable in how the procedurally generated decks nevertheless find ways, often clever or unexpected, to shine. I can’t shake the sense when staring at a “weak” seeming deck, that if I keep digging I’ll keep finding lines of play and nuanced card-combos that keep the gameplay fresh and exciting.

As readers of this blog may know, I’m a data geek at heart. And so it should come as no surprise that I decided to dig into the numbers and data behind Keyforge. In particular, I was trying to understand how and why different decks perform they way that they do. Hence this blog post.

The good news is many people before me have had this same thought, and a variety of “rating systems” have sprung out the aether-net to help players better understand their deck’s capabilities. Most prominent is the SAS/AERC system at But there is also the ADHD system, best accessed at, or Baron Ashler’s system for generating a deck’s Expected Win Rates(EWR). ToyWiz has developed some of their own metrics, and connected the whole thing into a storefront for buying and selling decks.

Despite all these rating systems, none of them quite clicked with me. I feel that they didn’t fully or consistently appraise all facets of play and card effects, which results in skewing the perceived worth and values of certain decks. While I have tremendous appreciation for the SAS/AERC system (as it is the most thorough), the way in which SAS card ratings are subjectively determined and how the six AERC sub-values don’t fully cover all possible card effects means that some cards are either over/under rated, or whole swaths of card functionality are devalued. I was determined to change this. It’s data geek time.

IMPACT Deck Analysis, The Making Of

I penciled out an idea for a new deck rating system that was comprehensive and reasonably objective (or at the very least consistent), with how it determined card ratings. Here’s how it came into being:

Step 1 - The first thing I did was establish that a value of “1” was roughly analogous to 1 aember. For those that don’t know, the goal of Keyforge is to forge keys (clever name, eh?), which you do by collecting six aember tokens per key. The first player to forge 3 keys (18 total aember) wins. Thus, the effects of a particular card can be framed in terms of its IMPACT on the flow of aember.

Step 2 - The second thing I did was look across all the 300+ cards and start to categorize the primary effects of each card into a different categories. Some cards generate aember and others steal aember. Some abilities help you draw more cards and cycle your hand faster (giving you more flexibility and options) whereas other cards stall and slow down your opponent (thus hindering their options).

All in all, I identified twelve impact categories for card effects, which can be aggregated further into three big buckets: pacing, flexibility, and board. Pacing relates to effects that either speed up your aember production or stall your opponent’s. Flexibility is about manipulating your options through card cycling, recall effects (e.g. pulling creatures from play back into your hand) and activation, as well as messing with your opponent through hindering effects. Board (i.e. board control) is all about maintaining and leveraging creature and artifact power on the table. You can see descriptions of all 12 impact effect categories further below.

Step 3 - After identifying the impact categories, I developed a scoring rubric for how to assign value to each card based on the strength of its primary effect and modified by contingencies, penalties, bonuses, and other card attributes.

For example, I valued each point of creature power at 0.25, such that a 4-power creature would be valued at “1”, on the premise that a 4-power creature would be expected to survive at least one round and could reap (i.e. collect) one aember. Stronger or weaker creatures would be expected to gain more or less aember in proportion.

There many cards with strong effect, but which are tempered by their effectiveness being contingent on specific in-game situations. Other strong cards might come with a penalty that can potentially harm you as much as your opponent if you don’t plan around it. These contingency and penalty effects, alongside secondary bonus effects, also play into the scoring rubric.

Step 4 - With the rubric in hand, the most laborious task was to go through the 300+ cards in the game and assign impact values to each card. However, this is where the strength of this rating system, I feel, shines through. While each card has a “total impact” value, this value is an aggregation of each of the 12 categories, allowing you to see in exactly what ways a given card’s effects might impact the game.

I was able to weave in some interesting modifiers too, like providing cards with a bonus when they have an “Outhouse” effect. In Keyforge, you are limited to playing and activating cards of only one house (i.e. suit) each turn. But some cards have effects that let you activate “out of house” cards (e.g. outhouse or “house cheats”), which can open up powerful lines of play. Accounting for outhouse abilities is, IMHO, pretty important for a rating system.

Step 5 - The final step was to assemble a tool, in this case a google spreadsheet, that lets users plug in their deck and automatically generate an IMPACT score profile for their deck. Check it out.

Credit goes to Baron Ashler’s Expected Win Rate calculator which provides the technical backend for querying the Keyforge Master Vault API and automatically plugging the target deck’s unique card list. From there, some spreadsheet jujitsu (vlookups mostly) reads the master card rating table for the various IMPACT scores, and from there slices and dices the information in a bunch of different ways - including but not limited to a spider graph. Where would the world be without spider graphs?

So how does this tool work? Read on my friends!

IMPACT Deck Analysis, Tool Description
Click on link above to use the tool

Purpose: The IMPACT deck analysis tool is intended to provide a comprehensive assessment of a Keyforge deck’s composition, relative strengths/weaknesses, and potential playstyles.

Disclaimer: As with all Keyforge rating systems, this should not be viewed or used as if it provides an objective truth about a deck’s performance. Many facets of interactions between cards, both within the deck and between an opponent’s deck, are not fully captured by the system. Moreover, skillful play is always a significant factor in determining the winner of a match (as it should be), and so higher or lower relative IMPACT comparisons should be seen as a predictor of which deck will win.

Let's take a look at a personal deck of mine, the aptly named, Oliver, Rock Viking.


The top section of the impact tool summarizes the raw scores and totals across the 12 different IMPACT factors, aggregating these into Pacing, Flexibility, and Board sub-scores.

PACING: Relates to ability to control the flow of Aember, both yours and your opponent's

* Speed: Amber generation from raw aember bonus, card effects, and buffs to any of the above.
* Stall: Aember control or ability stall or delay your opponent from making keys by stealing, capturing, removing their Aember, increasing key forge costs, etc.
* Forging: Ability to forge a key outside of the normal turn process - which can be a huge boost to your pacing.

FLEXIBILITY: Relates to the ability to manipulate your hand/deck or limit your opponent's options

* Cycling: Measure of hand cycling, deck stacking, archive effects etc.
* Recall: Ability to move cards between board/hand/discard, which is a big boost to flexibility (e.g. regrowth)
* Activation: Ability to change the exhausted/ready state of cards, unstun cards, activate neighboring creatures, etc.
* Hinder: Ability to mess with opponent’s flexibility (i.e. make them draw less cards, discarding their cards, forcing house selection, exhausting their cards or stunning cards)

BOARD: Relates to the ability to maintain or exert board presence through creatures and artifacts

* Damage: Ability to target direct damage or issue mass damage
* Neutralize: Eliminate or takeover threats - either single target or global "wipe" effects
* Artifact: Ability to control, destroy, steal or otherwise deal with hostile artifacts
* Power: Ability to deal damage with creatures, offensive boosts and effects (e.g. charging, skirmish)
* Stability: Defensive and staying power of creatures (heal, elusive, taunt, armor)

These twelve impact categories are also aggregated into external vs. internal effects, giving an overall evaluation of how much your deck’s capabilities relate to managing and utilizing your own cards and assets versus interacting with those of your opponent (e.g. hindering effects, direct damage, stealing aember)

Another line of consideration is the distribution of effects relative to cards in your deck. For example, in the deck shown in the image (Oliver, Rock Viking), the Recall Impact of the deck is 10.5, which is linked to just five cards. These type of calculation is aggregated into a diffusion score, which is a measure of total impact divided by the total number of card effects. Deck’s with a lower diffusion value means their card effects are spread out among relatively more cards, which can help improve the consistency of the deck compared to those where a lot impact is concentrated in a smaller subset of stronger cards.


This middle section runs some statistics on the 12 criteria to determine the percentile score of each impact category relative to a larger pool of cards. These percentiles are graphed on the spider chart, giving a quick overview of the relative strengths and weaknesses of a given deck.

For example, in Oliver, Rock Viking, the deck scores above the 85th percentile for hinder, meaning that it has a lot of effects that allow you to mess with your opponent’s stuff. The 2x tremors can stun three creatures each in your opponent’s line (often costing them the bulk of a turn to remove). The 2x Succubus can shrink your opponent’s hand size, limiting their options for future plays. And so on.

NOTE: These percentile scores should be taken with a grain of salt, as they are based on a small sample of about 30 decks. I need to figure out a way to build a more representative sample of decks for calculating percentages more accurately.

The impact + playstyle graph also shows a general relationship between each impact category and its aggression vs. control value and internal vs. external value. More aggressive decks will favor high scores in impact categories like speed, forging, and power - which will try to outpace their opponent through direct aember generation, key hacks, and using masses of creatures to reap. Conversely, a control-oriented deck will use stalling (discarding or stealing opponents aember), artifact stealing, and creature stability effects to control the board space. These two dimensions intersect with impact effects that are more internally focused (e.g. card cycling) or externally focused (e.g. dealing direct damage).


The final section contains a detailed table of results for all of the cards in the deck and types of impact provided by each card. The three columns to the right of the net impact provide a breakdown of some specifics, such as raw amber generation from cards, raw creature power, and the bonuses for outhouse abilities.


The hidden secret of all of this is that “deck construction” is still very much alive and kicking in Keyforge. It’s just shifted from buying individual cards and deck tuning into a scouring the web for interesting decks with particular combination of cards. Central to these scouring activities are tools that help people quickly appraise the composition of a deck and help winnow down the staggering range of possibility.

Now it’s your turn…

Have you played Keyforge? Are you a data junky? Have you used other rating systems? If you plug your deck into the IMPACT system, how does it fare? Does it match your experiences using the deck?

The phones are open!

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Fri Apr 19, 2019 8:13 pm
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Stellaris is Dead... To Me

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
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First, a disclaimer: This whole post is like just my opinion, man.

Now onto the grave business at hand…

I was listening to Three Moves Ahead 2018 yearly review of strategy gaming, and the conversation inevitably swung around to how things went for Paradox this year, which unsurprisingly gets us to Stellaris (which has been the hottest space 4X videogame since 2016 - for those that might be wondering). One of the panelists made a comment to the following effect (I’m paraphrasing): I finally have to come to terms with the fact that Stellaris is increasingly not - nor likely to ever be - the game I imagined it would be.

I couldn’t agree more.

Many of Stellaris’s major patches - version 1.6, 2.0, 2.2 - have been riddled with bugs, glitches, and game-breaking jankiness or oversights that have certainly hurt the reception of the game. But for this conversation, I want to set all of that aside. I want us to pretend that these major updates were released and working as intended without the technical issues that have been levied on the fan base and patient customers. I want to pretend the game is working properly because I want to focus the conversation instead on the changes to the game’s underlying design.

When I say that Stellaris is dead, it is not because of bugs and glitches that will - in all likelihood - eventually be fixed. After all, version 1.6 was an utter mess. But by version 1.9 the game was stable and working well. It can happen again.

Rather, when I say that Stellaris is dead, it is because - “FOR ME” - the game’s underlying design has gone in a direction that runs counter to both my preferences, but more importantly, against what I felt the initial vision and dream of Stellaris was in the first place. And not just for me, but for a vast swath of the game's early adopters.

What was this initial vision, you ask?

Galaxy spanning empires and beautiful geopolitical messes… in theory.

Stellaris was billed as 4X meets Grand Strategy, and is developed by the company that is the undisputed master of grand strategy games (Paradox). My idealized vision of a 4X game is one of empire growth and expansion that feeds into a titillating geopolitical strategic experience. By geopolitics, I’m talking about diplomacy, foreign trade, military deployments, competing ethics and national personalities - you know the stuff that Europa Universalis IV is praised for. I thought, that this is what Stellaris would be. That it would take geopolitical strategy and bolt on the initial empire expansion and exploration hallmarks of 4X gameplay. It would be glorious!

When Stellaris launched (again ignoring the bugs and glitches and quality of life lapses in the UI), I felt that I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Here was a game where you could have a 1,000 stars and dozens of races in all sorts of geopolitical entanglements (Vassals! Subjects! Alliances!). It had an exceptionally refreshing exploration and discovery phase. The warfare system offered up something unique at the strategic level (e.g. accounting for varied types of FTL movement or how federations operated).

The game also tackled one of the big questions that has dogged the genre for years: how do you scale up the size of your empire to dozens or hundreds of systems across an entire galaxy without drowning the player in tedious micromanagement? The answer of course is the sector system, which lets you scale up the level of your management to match, so that you don’t have to deal with the individual planets anymore. The sector system frees you up to focus on the grand geopolitical game. At least in theory.

In those early days, we could opine about all the things that needed improvement: rebalancing combat mechanics, improving the sector AI so it wasn’t a dunce, adding even more diplomacy options, making leaders more interesting, reworking the internal faction system, adding quality of life features, refining the end-game threats. Maybe even adding a cool ethics based goal or victory system.

We got a few of these improvements over the past few years. But we also got a lot of things that undercut, trivialized, or simply did away with them entirely. Whole gameplay systems were replaced with re-designed systems that took the game away from its initial vision (and what compelled me to hold out hope for so long) and turned it into something else entirely.

Lordy, take a look at the new, low-micro planetary management model.

Let me try to spell it out it as concisely as I can. The changes to Stellaris have taken the game further away from its premise as a grand, highly interactive, geopolitical 4X game and more towards an inwardly focused, optimization-based, low-interactive empire management game. I see a very stark difference between an empire management game (think of city management games) that focuses gameplay around internal decisions and optimizations and a typical 4X or Grand Strategy game where the gameplay is focused around external interactions (warfare, diplomacy, trade, etc.).

In short, the changes to Stellaris, on the whole, have shifted the entire conceit of game from externally-oriented to internally-oriented gameplay. Evidence:

* Instead of multiple, distinct FLT (faster than light) modes of travel that created a rich strategic landscape, we now just have star lanes with easy to defend choke-points and brain-dead warfare strategy as a consequence (hold the gap!).

* Instead of messy territorial boundaries that create weird emergent situations and force strange interactions with foreign empires, we have neatly defined and discrete territories with very little uncertainty or dynamism.

* Instead of building a huge empire and being given the tools to manage it at higher level, the game space has been shrunk down.

* Instead of a clean and intuitive planetary management system (if a little micro-heavy outside of using sectors), we now have a labyrinthine horror masquerading as planetary “economy” - which incidentally requires even more micro and attention paid to it (see the diagram above). All of this means fewer planets to control and relatively more focus on the internally-oriented optimization gameplay. God help the AI understand this.

And overall, instead of a daring game of exploration, expansion, and geopolitics, we’re left with a safe game where we can build our little, tall, turtle empire in the corner and not have to interact with other empires much at all. The AI is clearly broken right now - but I suspect a lot of people are just fine with that - because they don’t want to deal with the AI or other players/empires in the first place.

Worst of all, is that so much time and effort was spent reworking existing game systems, which needed tweaking not wholesale replacement, that we’re still waiting for many of things that have been sitting on the wish list since day one. Diplomacy has gotten worse since launch, with whole ideas and mechanics stripped out and replaced with nothing. Sectors were improved - and then their reason to exist was virtually eliminated in version 2.2. Trade was added, albeit through a half-assed global marketplace. Warfare has changed and yet the mechanics around war score vs. war exhaustion feel like they are still going in circles with no clear direction in sight. And of course we’re still waiting for something to spice up the mid- and endgame.

It’s like their empire boundaries naturally conform to the choke points! That’s soooo deep

A good number of people, perhaps even a majority, are happy with the changes in the game’s design direction (assuming the technical issues are fixed). For many people, it seems their enjoyment of Stellaris is coupled to the narratives they imagine for their empire, which are heightened by the more internally-oriented gameplay systems. So for them, the changes may be seen as a positive. This is, I worry, part of a larger trend in strategy gaming towards less-interactive gameplay systems. So to say the least, I’m not surprised.

Call me old school, but I want the narratives I create and the stories I can tell to exist on the grander, galactic, geopolitical stage. On the stage that I thought Stellaris was building. That’s my dream for a 4X meets grand strategy game. But increasingly, this dream is a distant and fading memory. I have little faith that Stellaris will be the game to revive this dream. And so I hold out hope that some other game will.
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Thu Jan 17, 2019 4:07 pm
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Self-Deception & My Game Collection

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
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File this post under first world problems. Or privileged peoples’ problems if you want.

After all, how silly is it to cry “woe is me, for I have too many board games on my shelf and it’s causing me psychological grief!” I suppose one small consolation is that at least I can use the opportunity to impart games to people that can put them to use (i.e. play them). But we’ll get to that..

How did this start?

Recently I looked at my BGG “owned game” tally, and was rather surprised to see that it said 179 games. How did that happen? What made it worse is that I know that isn’t even all of the games sitting in my house. There are dozens more kids game procured from garage sales or bargain bins that I never owned up to in my BGG collection.

Now, 179 games may not sound like a lot to many BGG users, but for many others it’s surely a ridiculous number. For me it feels like entirely too much. In an ideal scenario I’d have maybe 10 or 20 games that were the ones I really, truly loved. Okay, maybe 25 or 30 and. And surely not any more than 50. 75 would be right out. But 179? Downright lunacy.

It bothers me to see that number and to know that a great many of those games are sitting on the shelf and haven’t been played in years. Thankfully only a few linger entirely unplayed, as I am pretty good about getting everything to the table at least once. But still, I don’t “feel” like someone that wants to own 179 games.

And thus begins the self-deception....

First of all, are all of these 179 games really “my games”? The answer is no. Quite a few, when it comes down to it, are games that aren’t really “mine.” They are games that if it were only up to me, and I didn’t have anyone else consider (you know, like my children) then the games would be donated to the nearest store ASAP. But I can’t go throwing out my 4-year olds copy of Candyland, or my wife’s copy of Sorry! that she’s had since she was a kid. I’m not a monster.

So I asked myself this: if it were purely up to me, would I get rid of this game immediately? Games that met this criteria I removed from my owned list and shuffled over to the “Has Parts” list. While I was at it, I moved all my miniature game stuff over to that category as well. The six editions of Warhammer 40k, stacks of Battletech books, various CCG leftovers, etc. are categorically a different animal than the “board games” on my shelf, so they’ve been banished from the list. 38 down. 141 to go.

Next up, I got in touch with a local high school that was starting a board game club and wanted games to get their library started. Without further ado I posted a list of all the games on my “for trade” list that wasn’t a high value item (I don’t have many of those anyway). They said they’d take one modest stack (and were quite humble about it). So I did the charitable thing and gave them “two” modest stacks of games instead. 13 more down. 128 games left.

Next up I have 8 games on my trade list. Most of which I’d be fine just snapping my fingers and having them go away. I have copy of “Hegemonic” for trade, but really I have nearly a dozen copies sitting my basement. I like to donate or drop copies of this game off at places I visit (that are receptive to it of course). Ignoring Hegemonic, that’s nevertheless 7 games that I’d part with readily. I moved these to “For Trade” and removed from the owned category. Down to 121.

Last up are expansions. These are included as owned “board games” but also tallied separately under the expansions section. I have 13 of those at the moment. I’m pretty religious about stuffing expansions into base game boxes, and they are sort of a package deal at that point. So that’s 13 more down, bringing us to XXX games. We seem to be getting into more reasonable territory here.

So that leaves me with 108 games. Much better than 179, but still above where I’d like to be.

To Prune or not Prune the Collection?

108 games is still far more than I can reasonably expect to play in any sort of regular manner. There are games I’ve played just once, years ago, languishing on the shelf. And so I have to be honest with myself about answering this question: why do I still have these games? The answer is… nuanced.

There are some games that I own, simply because I enjoy the fact that I own it, if nothing else than for its aesthetic, sentimental, and/or collection value (not necessarily monetary value mind you). If I had all the time in world, I would surely find time to play these games too - but baring that, I get some value out of simply having them.

Inca Empire for example is game that I really liked the one time I played it. It’s also a jaw droppingly beautiful game (IMHO). Even if I won’t play again for years - or maybe never - I still like it on the shelf. Fantasitqa is a game I bought because (a) I love the cover painting by Caspar David Friedrich and (b) I bought it at BGG con during the launch of Hegemonic. So it has some sentiment attached to it.

As I discussed in a previous post of this nature, at this point in the self-deception I find it useful to consider groupings of related or similar games and ask myself: if given the choice between playing A or B (assuming A & B are relatively in terms of style of game, length of play, etc.), is there one I’d always rather play? If so, I should boot the other one out of the collection.

What follows is a list of the 25-games I most want to keep with an eye towards covering my bases in terms of style of game, playtime, likely audiences, and so on. So this ultimately reflects a broad range of games, from those I enjoy playing with my kids to big meaty games that will take a whole afternoon or evening to play. In addition to these top 25, I’ve also flagged about 30 runner ups that I’d strongly like keep to round out the collection. The rest? If they vanished one day I probably wouldn’t bother trying to replace them.

In no particular order...

Asymmetric / COIN-series like

#1: Root

DESCRIPTION: This is an amazing game in a lot of interesting ways, and a fascinating case study on the current market and trends in the design of boardgames. While I'm likely never going to dig into really heavy wargames, this one scratches at the edges of GMT's COIN series games. Asymmetric player factions, plays 2-6 players, has solo/cooperative modes. Feels both sandboxy and tightly designed. Wonderful.

Block Wargames

#?: Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan

I've only played this one once, which was awesome (and just happened recently). I'll see how repeat plays go, but I may need to chisel out a space in the collection for this.

2-Player Light Battle/War Game

#2: Iron Curtain

DESCRIPTION: Basically a 20-minute version of Twilight Struggle that captures the essence of the ops vs. event card play, area majority on the world map, and variable scoring timing that is at the core of the original game. I'm really impressed with how satisfying this game is for being in such a small package. Only complaint is that the box is too big!

Empire Games / Dudes of a Map / Wuero Hybrids

#3: Antike

DESCRIPTION: Fabulous rondal game of ancient civilizations. Has just enough historical notes to make it feel like a proper civilization game but in a reasonable playtime. A few house rules even out the timing of the end game when more players are involved to keep things from overstaying their welcome. A very clean and classic feeling game.

#4: Cyclades

DESCRIPTION: A true hybrid / wuero-style game that combines dudes on a map style area control with a clever bidding system. Awesome pacing.

#5: Runewars

DESCRIPTION: Super impressed by the times I've played this game. A poster child for Ameritrash-style games from FFG.

Runner Ups:
* Civilization

Adventure Games

To be frank - I don't have one of these that sits in the top 25. I am on the look out for an interesting adventure game, and there certainly are tons of them on the market, but none I've played have really grabbed me.

Runner ups:

* HeroQuest - bad boy from the late 80's
* Key to the Kingdom - my daughter loves this hideous throwback. Nostalgia in effect
* Tiny Epic Quest - Zelda inspired compact adventure game. Pretty slick.

I guess I'm still on the hunt for the right kind of adventure game. I do have some ideas sketched out for one that I'd like to make. More to come on that front - one day.

Beer & Pretzels

This is a category where I own a bunch of games but frankly don't have much interest in playing them. Too much chaos and not enough interesting choices. And these can be frustrating for the kids. Doesn't really have an audience anymore.

* King of Tokyo
* Illuminati (this game still has a special place in my heart though!)
* Plague & Pestilence

Lightweight / Quick Games

#6: 5-Minute Dungeon

DESCRIPTION: This is a real-time cooperative card-based dungeon crawler. And it's a blast with almost anyone. Fun times.

Runner ups:
* Rhino Hero
* Pit

#7: Sushi Go!

DESCRIPTION: About all you need to in card drafting game.

Runner ups:
* Sea of Clouds

#8: Kingdomino

DESCRIPTION: Awesome little puzzle building game. Love this one.

Runner ups:
* Fairy Tile

Role Selection / Set Collection (Family Game)

#8: Broom Service

DESCRIPTION: This has become one of my favorite family games. There is a tremendous amount of variability within the game and the various optional/advanced rules that can be tacked onto it. Great deduction and double-think angle.

Runner ups:
* Witches Brew
* Mission: Red Planet (unplayed)

Tile-Laying (Family Game)

#10: Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers

DESCRIPTION: A favorite game for me and my wife. Builds on the classic game with enough twists to keep the gameplay fresh and tense after 100's of plays. Great, great game.

* Explorers of the North Sea - tile laying crossed with pick-up and deliver and a simple action point system. Pretty fun game, just not exceptional.

#11: Taluva

DESCRIPTION: A masterful game of multi-level tile laying. Plays quick but has tense gameplay from the opening moments to the end. Really excellent design.

Runner ups:
* Hive

Press Your Luck / Dice Rolling

I also don't own a great game in this category. But maybe that's okay - but I'm sure I'm missing some classics in here.

Runner Ups:
* Roll through the Ages
* Loot

Cooperative & Solo Games

#12: Onirim (second edition)

DESCRIPTION: I like this game *a lot*. Plays well solo or with 2. 7 Expansions in the game box provides all kinds of ways to add variability and different challenges to the core game. Amazing artwork.

* Sylvion - part of the Oniverse (with Onirum)
* Castellion - also in the series

#13: The Grizzled

DESCRIPTION: Both thought-provoking and challenging gameplay. Brilliant execution and handling of the subject matter. Strikes a nice balance between coordinative and non-coordinative play.

Runner ups:
* Hanabi
* Pandemic Cthulhu
* Lost Expedition

Social Deduction / Bluffing

#14: Mascarade

DESCRIPTION: Off all the love letter, coup, citadels style games - this remains my favorite. The game can be a real mind-bender with just 2-3 players but also scales up to being a whole roomful of people activity if you want it to be.

Runner ups:
* Citadels
* Coup

Complex Card Games (Eurogame)

#15: Innovation

DESCRIPTION: Fantastic small box game with big brain-burning gameplay. So much variability and interesting card combinations make this is a solid classic in my book.

#16: Race for the Galaxy

DESCRIPTION: Race for Galaxy is an excellent, excellent game. It really does require that everyone have a firm grasp on the mechanics and the pool of cards in order to make smart decisions. For that reason, I have a hard time getting to the table. Thank god for the digital implementation with a pretty decent AI.

Runner ups:
* Villages of Valeria
* Pocket Mars (unplayed)

Deck-Building / Bidding / Other Stuff

#17: A Study in Emerald

DESCRIPTION: A Study in Emerald (first edition) is the kind of game I'm increasingly being drawn to. It's not perfect and clean and clear. It's convoluted and messy in many ways. And yet it's such a deeply interesting game. The deck building combined with area control and bidding and hidden roles and all of it makes the game almost more impressive as a story generator than as a game. But it's a damn fine game too.

Runner ups:
* Hit Z Road
* Fantastiqa
* Serica: Plains of Dust
* Star Realms

Map-Centric Euros(Area Control & Tile Placement)

#18: Yellow & Yangtze

DESCRIPTION: Could it be that I'm placing this above Tigris & Euphrates. Whatever the reason, it's made it to the table more than T&E and I like hexes more than squares. But seriously - Y&Y is a more approachable if more forgiving game, and yet has a nuance and character all of its own. I think I like it more. Maybe it's not the deeper of the two games, but it's deep enough and balances it well against other aspects.

Runner ups:
* Tigris & Euphrates
* Samurai
* Domaine (haven't played this yet!)
* Acquire

#19: Eight-Minute Empire: Legends

DESCRIPTION: I really like this game for its compactness, quick playtime, and high degree of interactivity. I adore Ryan's artwork as well. Kinda like a miniaturized version of El Grande without quite as much brain burn.

Runner ups:
* Small World (really like this one still, awesome 2-player game)
* Condottiere (unplayed)

Engine Building / Clockwork Games

Clockwork games are my term for games - and generally eurogames - that combine a bunch of a different mechanics together into some big engine building thing. My tolerance is generally pretty low for this sort of thing.

#20: Raiders of the North Sea

DESCRIPTION: I really, really like this game. It reminds me bit of Caylus in that it's a worker placement game that focuses on the jockeying for spaces on a shared board. Awesome theming and artwork seal the deal.

Runner ups:
* Stone Age: I play this one as math practice with my kids!

#21: Glen More

DESCRIPTION: Probably the most solitaire-like tableau building game I have. Nice and small package with a clever tile selection system that nicely balances jumping ahead for a juicy reward against taking more actions. The tile placement puzzles are fun to work out.

Runner ups:
* Ginkopolis: Gosh I really like this game too. Has more shared board space in the area control game, but there are so many mechanics in thi one that it can feel a little incoherent. But I so like it.

#22: Inca Empire

DESCRIPTION: Another game I need to play more. It's like the next step on the Catan rung, with a combination of network building and shared assets. Absolutely gorgeous looking game too. Really need to get it to the table more.

Rank & Suit Style Games

#23: Decktet

DESCRIPTION: Amazing. 6-suited, dual suited deck oozing in mystique. So many amazing games can be played with it.

Runner ups:
* Lost Cities
* Rook
* Wizard
* Pixie Deck
* Badger Deck
* Traditional Cards

#24: The Fox in the Forest

DESCRIPTION: Excellent 2-player trick taking game.

Runner ups:
* Odin's Ravens

#25: Arboretum

DESCRIPTION: A lovely, lovely game. It can be a serious brain burner for sure. Reminds me a bit of golf but with more nuance and depth in the scoring and card arrangements.

Runner ups:
* Red 7
* Lords of Scotland
* Monad

Traditional Abstracts

All excellent stuff - but I prefer slightly less abstract games.

Runner ups:
* Bakcgammon
* Cribbage
* Go
* Othello

Well there you have it. If I had to pair things down to just 25 games, this would be it. To recap:

* Carcassone: Hunters & Gatherers (2002)
* Taluva (2006)
* Antike (2006)
* Race for the Galaxy (2007)
* Decktet (2008)
* Cyclades (2009)
* Glen More (2010)
* Inca Empire (2010)
* Innovation (2010)
* Rune Wars (2013)
* Study in Emerald (2013)
* Eight Minute Empire: Legends (2013)
* Mascarade (2013)
* Sushi Go (2014)
* Onirim (2014)
* Broom Service (2015)
* Raiders of the North Sea (2015)
* The Grizzled (2015)
* Arboretum (2015)
* Kingdomino (2016)
* 5-Minute Dungeon (2017)
* Iron Curtain (2017)
* Fox in the Forest (2017)
* Yellow & Yangtze (2018)
* Root (2018)

Now... How about you?
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Tue Dec 18, 2018 4:12 am
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The Inglorious State Of 4X Games

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
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NOTE: This article was originally posted at eXplorminate. Head over to eXplorminate to get your fix for 4X and strategy game news, reviews, and more.

Greetings! If you haven’t listened to the 33rd Strategic Expanse – 4th Anniversary Hangout featuring all of the lesser (I’m jesting) eXplorminate staffers then please stop reading this and go listen to that first. The rest of this little rant (thoughtful article?) will make a bit more sense with the proper context. With that out of the way…

I’m elated that, despite my absence on the podcast episode, my name was referenced (usually couched in swear words) a significant number of times. That means you’re all listening to me, which is good because it makes me feel a little less like a crazy person screaming into the wind – and more justified because I’m sure you’ll agree that I’m right. And if you don’t agree now, then maybe you’ll agree to agree with me sometime in the future. Only time will tell.

Alright, alright, enough of the snarkiness.

This episode, live from the Galactic News Network.

The StraX episode centered on a number of big questions pertaining the 4X genre:

*** What is the current state and market of the genre?
*** What needs to happen to evolve or innovate the genre?
*** What are the low points and the high points in the genre?
*** What are you playing now and looking forward to?

All of these are very serious and important questions. And so are my answers.

State of the 4X Market

Many have described the past few years as a new Golden Age for the genre, while others insist that it was only a Silver Age or, perhaps, a Renaissance. There is no doubt that we have seen more big titles (exhibit A: the 4X database) with bigger budgets and from big publishers, as well as indie games, released to the 4X market than any other time in the past. But looking back, I would not call this a Golden or Silver Age.

Perhaps the Gilded Age is a more apt comparison. We’ve certainly witnessed an explosion in the total sales and number of games being released, as well as an industrialization and commercialization of the genre. But frankly, it feels like a veneer of gold (aka sexier graphics and features) plated over a dearth of design innovation. New shiney look, same old stuff.

What do the Gilded Age and Cthulhu-looking monsters have in common?

Many of the big games are merely a modern regurgitation of the classic formulas, and I’m not convinced the underlying designs are all that much better. The resulting opulence of new mechanical systems and features have added little to the narrative structure or strategic depth of 4X games. We’re still stuck in the same basic pattern of sending out colony ships/pods/carts, optimizing our cities/colonies, incrementing along tech trees, and waging war/diplomacy with typically incompetent AIs in pursuit of boring victory thresholds where it’s evident who is going to win hours before the ending arrives. We’re still stuck, thoroughly, in this colonization paradigm. Maybe this paradigm is, by definition, what a 4X has to be – but I don’t really buy that. I want better.

I would be doing a disservice to the genre and its fans if I didn’t mention that there are games nipping at the heels of this paradigm. Thea comes to mind, with its focus on questing and survival in a hostile environment. Or the promise of Stellaris (delivered on or not?) to be a grand simulation sandbox where all things are possible. Or the focus of Age of Wonders 3 on its deep and diverse tactical combat system. Or Star Ruler 2’s quirky take on diplomacy and planet management. Even the highly asymmetrical factions of Endless Space 2 and Endless Legend are a step in the right direction.

But really, none of that is enough. Maybe I’m hard to please or I just hold game creators to a higher standard. Or maybe it’s as Brad Wardell said in my interview with him: “We [4X] developers kinda suck … There is what we want to do in games and then there is ‘what we’re able to do’ given the size of the market.” Well, the market recently got a lot bigger. What now?

The fundamental question is this: how do we want the genre to innovate? My worry is that we had this big Gilded Age opportunity, where the market turned its eye to 4X games, and instead of offering up something novel and amazing, developers just put out more of the same. I really hope we didn’t miss our window to innovate and gain traction with a larger audience.

I don’t know if it’s art, but I like it.

So, how can the 4X genre innovate?

A few things come to mind, but the biggest by FAR, is the need for more varied and engaging victory systems and end-game triggers. This is critical for the future of the genre.

First of all, it has to do with the variety of experiences on offer within the 4X genre. How many 4X games rely on the same old combination of conquest, economic, political, and technological victory conditions? Almost all of them do. And as a consequence, we’re really just playing the same damn race-to-victory game reskinned a dozen different ways. The hoops and hurdles we go through along the way – fighting off barbarians or space pirates, optimizing build orders, chasing pointless quests – don’t make for truly different experiences.

It’s my view that the arc and the narrative structure of 4X games (not the plotline mind you, but rather the story created by the sequence of strategic choices you make) is largely the same. So many of us play out the opening moves (exploration phase) only to abandon it when we reach the point where we know how the rest of the story will go. Once the mystery is gone, the illusion is shattered and our motivation to keep playing plummets.

Shattered dreams, like this broken window.

There are two aspects to this issue of victory systems that are important to acknowledge. One plays into the strategic depth and challenge in games and the other plays into our desire for roleplaying and immersion. I feel, these two aspects are frequently at odds with one another in the design of 4X games – with successful games tending to fall more on one side or the other. Games that appeal to both sides – the “grand unification of 4X games” – seem non-existent.

For example, AoW3 clearly places its design emphasis and victory conditions around strategic warfare and tactical challenges. On the opposite end is something like Stellaris – a great big sandbox where you can live out your fantasy as the hive-mind behind a race of xenophobic hamster slave-masters… Or whatever strikes your fancy. The point being, victory conditions in Stellaris are irrelevant to the game’s larger purpose of letting you craft a story and inhabit a universe. In the third corner of the ring is a game like King of Dragon Pass or Six Ages (admittedly not a traditional 4X by any stretch) – which genuinely puts the narrative first and foremost and structures the gameplay around these events.

Incidentally, the game that has come the closest to this unification is Emperor of the Fading Suns, which is a big beautiful mess of a game. But it takes the idea of a clever victory condition (in this case snatching a certain number of “scepters of power” from the hands of rival houses) to reach victory. You can get these through diplomatic exchange, warfare, or espionage. The key is that these tools are all applied towards a common, narratively-based win condition – they aren’t separate tracks that lead to a divergent victory point. It forces players to adapt and think deeply rather than to merely follow a pre-baked pathway to the finish line. Why aren’t more developers remaking this game (instead of yet another MoO2-clone)?

Empire of the Fading Suns: A forgotten dream of what a 4X could be.

So, I believe that the biggest potential for innovation is the idea of crafting more unique and varied victory conditions that are tightly coupled to the roleplaying and narrative-building aspects of the game. It’s creating new strategic challenges and marrying that to a roleplaying experience. I don’t think this is terribly hard to accomplish and I feel like it can be achieved within the structure of many existing games. Nevertheless, novel approaches to victory are critical for enabling whole new 4X gameplay experiences to emerge.

Let’s consider Stellaris again. What if it was restructured such that multiple crises occur simultaneously (and perhaps in competition with each other) and your faction’s ethics align you with one of these sides? The result is a grueling geopolitical nightmare scenario. But if you survive (and are hence on the winning side), your race ascends to godhood and you win the game. The struggle is real, but the rewards are worth it. Suddenly, the game isn’t about merely surviving and creating your little sandbox story, instead it is connected to a much bigger narrative that has huge mysterious consequences for the how the endgame will play out. It blows my mind that these sorts of ideas aren’t developed or implemented more often.

Amplitude has taken some steps in the direction with faction quests from Endless Legend – but in that case they feel too isolated and disconnected from what the other factions are doing. In ES2 they forgot that idea entirely, it seems. They also missed a huge opportunity to inject a game-winning geopolitical challenge via the Academy quest line. The Academy quest could be cool but it’s implemented in a totally janky and superficial way. It could be so much more. And so could the entire 4X genre.

Not even a Samurai bear could save StarDrive2’s sad ending.

Low points and high points

My low points in the past few years – as it relates to 4X games – are many. The saga of Stardrive 1 & 2 stands out. Not so much because of the developer’s antics (although that has been a challenge) but because SD2 was so close to being a modern MoO2 replacement. I wanted it to succeed so that, if nothing else, we could finally and definitely say, “Here is the modern MoO2 game – it’s great and awesome. Can we move on to new ideas now?” I enjoyed my time with SD2 in particular, but its buggy final state makes me sad.

So many other 4X games, space ones in particular, just failed to grab me. Galactic Civilizations 3, Stars in Shadow, ES2, Stellaris, Dawn of Andromeda, Oriental Empires – I tried and want to like them more, but it’s just the same story each time and I’m looking for a different experience. And for those wondering, despite what Stellaris claims to be, it is far more of a traditional run-of-the-mill 4X than it appears, and from that lens it’s boring. It’s the pinnacle of optimization based gameplay and I just don’t care for it (nevermind that the fundamentals and meta of the game keep changing from version to version). The soundtrack however is freaking awesome. I still listen to that in the car.

“Ahh, it feels so good to be so bad!”

My high points in recent years come down, primarily, to two games.

The first is AoW3, which was released on the early end of this Golden/Silver/Gilded age. The game is often derided as a 4X “lite” but I think it’s all the better for having a clear focus on combat and strategic warfare. The game cuts out the tedious city-building optimization stuff (or greatly streamlines it) and instead focuses on more interesting strategic conundrums: where to position forces, what units to bring to bear, how to hold multiple fronts, how to control objective triggers, and so on. It can be tense and varied, and I think it’s really great.

The other highlight is the Total War: Warhammer series. We can argue about whether it’s a 4X or just enough in the 4X family, but it scratches the itch of building an empire and waging strategic warfare like few other games manage. Almost every choice matters, and the margins for error are slim. The factions all have unique and interesting mechanics, and things like the Vortex campaign are a perfect illustration of creating interesting victory systems that connect throughout the game’s design and strategic decision points. Awesome stuff.

What I’m playing now and in the future

To be honest, I’m on a hiatus from 4X games until the next wave arrives. Mostly I’ve been indulging my inner Warhammer-geek by playing far too much Vermintide 2 for my own good. If you have any interest in Left 4 Dead-style cooperative FPS games – Vermintide is a blast. Pay no attention to the people complaining about loot drop rates and weapon balance. This is a cooperative game – play it for the moment.

Star Traders: Frontiers – another planet, another delectable spice hall!

I’m also really digging Star Traders: Frontier, which is a starship sandbox game (imagine playing Han Solo’s life as a smuggler) from the Trease Brothers. It’s simple but well executed, with elements of Halcyon 6 (also good) and Darkest Dungeon (also good). Reminds me a lot of the X-series of games (also pretty good) but without the first person space sim / flight simulation bits.

Beyond that, I’ve been diving back into board games. I still maintain that strategy video game designers have a lot to learn from board games – particularly when it comes to creating interesting gameplay arcs and victory conditions. Recent favorites include Root, A Study in Emerald (cthulhu meets Sherlock Holmes), Yellow & Yangtze (a civ-building abstract), and Iron Curtain (fight the Cold War in 15 minutes). Good stuff. Root in particular is a rather amazing combination of counter-insurgency inspired wargames (COIN-series) with a woodland animal theme (think Redwall book series). Root boasts an amazing production value, highly asymmetric factions, and lots of negotiation across the table. Puurrrrfect.

As for the future of 4X games, the picture is a little grim overall, but there are a few bright spots on the horizon. I’m impressed by what I’ve seen (and played) of Interstellar Space: Genesis. The game falls within the traditional 4X paradigm (i.e. MoO2-derivative) but it has a lot of unique ideas under the hood. But while the individual systems demonstrate some needed innovation, I nevertheless worry about the overall feeling of the game and whether there will be interesting victory systems to provide a more novel experience. Regardless, it may indeed fill the role SD2 attempted in being the MoO successor we can all point to. Or maybe it will be Dominus Galaxia. That one also has some clever ideas in the works. Fingers-crossed.

Help me AoW: Planetfall, you’re my only hope.

Of course, what I’m most excited about is Age of Wonders: Planetall. I feel like Triumph Studios “gets” what it takes to create challenging and interesting strategic depth in their games. I’m excited about the many ideas they are bringing forth that build on AoW3’s strongest points. AoW3 – more than most other games, had clever victory systems with the Seals and Beacon victory conditions, and I really hope they build something even more novel for Planetfall.

My fingers are double-crossed – not just for Planetfall, but for all of the 4X genre.
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Tue Oct 9, 2018 6:47 pm
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Visualizing the BGG Game Database with Gephi. Whoa!

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
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So I stumbled into an interesting post over at r/boardgames from reddit user Shepperstein, who had downloaded a trove of data from BGG’s database. He then used Gephi to create some fantastic network models (aka graphs) depicting relationships between game categories. Very cool stuff. I urge you to check out his post and links to his analysis.

Of course, I immediately wanted to start playing around with the data myself!

Fortunately, I’m no stranger to excel AND I used Gephi several years ago, so I was already familiar with its basic functionality. Shepperstein also kindly provided a direct link to his database, so I could tap into that information directly. Are we excited yet?

Even more, this would prove to be an opportunity to tackle something I’ve long wanted to do. If you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know I’ve always had an interest in game classification and taxonomy. In particular, I’ve had a long-standing attraction to Selwyth’s Alternative Classification of Boardgames, which provides a comprehensive rework of BGG’s category and mechanism descriptors.

One of the challenges has always been finding a way (or perhaps simply the motivation) to “remap” BGG’s category + mechanism descriptors into new classes (based on Selwyth’s approach for example). Ideally, these classes would better reflect the nature of the individual descriptors. For example, the 80+ descriptors in the category field are a total hodge-podge of thematic items (“farming” or “trading in the mediterranean”, etc.), mechanisms, domains (i.e. Wargame or Party Game), and more besides. Likewise the mechanism attribute contains stuff that aren’t really mechanisms at all.

Long story short, I remapped all of the categories and mechanisms from BGG’s system over to an “alternative” system. You can check out the category-mechanism reclassification tables to see what I did, if you’re so inclined. Armed with these reclassified tables and a trove of BGG database… uhh… data… I set about pulling it all into Gephi and having a look at what I could do.

In contrast to Shepperstein’s work, I wanted to use Gephi to visualize not just the BGG categories, but also the Mechanisms, AND do it in a way such that the final output would give an indication what new class the descriptors would fall into. I wanted it so that things Selwyth classified as mechanisms or genre would be identified as such. Of course I also needed to balance this with the ability to logically discern groupings (aka “communities”) of related attributes.

The image below shows the culmination of this effort. If you want to read it, you really need to expand the image link and make it full screen. Have at it, and I’ll provide some discussion below.

A few technical notes about the above analysis.

(1) The database from Shepperstein only includes games from 1990 to 2018, although that still reflects tens of thousands of games, and also tends to be things more recent and more likely to be tagged with mechanisms and categories.

(2) In Gephi, I excluded node records (i.e. the list of descriptors) with less than 50 games using that category. Likewise, I excluded games where the “weight” of connections between any two descriptors was less than 40. This means that if there aren’t more than 40 games that both share a pairing of any two attributes, then the relationship is ignored. With over 18,000 node connections, it made sense to prune out the ones with a fairly minimal impact.

(3) The fainter-shaded outer circles/colors around the nodes correspond to my reclassified descriptors discussed above.

(4) The colored “community” groupings were based on running a modularity statistic (I have no idea what it’s doing, just for the record), but it results in assigning nodes to groupings based on the relatedness to other nodes. After playing around with the tolerances, it ended up with 11 categories that you see in the brighter colors (e.g. all the “Wargame” related stuff are Red).

Now, I think there some really cool things to come out of this graph and the community groupings. Wargames along with their frequently used mechanics (area movement, campaign/card driven, chit-pulling, point-to-point movement) are all clustered pretty well together. Likewise we see groupings around Party games, which also contains the gamut of social deduction-style games.

Given the plethora of cooperative games with horror/zombie themes, roleplaying elements, and adventure, it was neat to see all those clustered together. Of course, this was pretty well intermingled with fantasy games that leverage variable player-powers, fighting mechanics/genres, miniatures, collectable components (i.e. LCG’s). Science-fiction is likewise ensconced in this zone of the graph.

Economic games are in the bottom right, and constitutes the bulk of what I see as mainline euro-style games. I like the little enclave of Route-Network Building, Transportation-theme, Train-them, Stock holding down there. Aka, the 18xx games and their ilk. I do think there is a high level of alignment with Tile-laying games and eurogames, which is why they also fell into the same community.

Another interesting result is that Area-Control / Area-Influence ended up as it’s own community, and rightly situated between wargames and more euro-style economic games. Area control games tend to have more direct player-to-player interaction on a map, and hence are associated somewhat with their wargaming neighbors. Is this the homeland of the wuero?

Abstract games are down at the bottom, at a logical point between both euro-style economic games (which also tend to be somewhat abstract in nature) and Children’s Games, which are also quite abstract (perhaps as a means of keeping things simple in mechanics - or just that they share some common descriptors?).

In the dead center are a few big communities, including card games and the obviously associated hand management, along with Dice and press your luck type systems. Some of these, like cards and dice are so ubiquitous across domains of games that it’s not at all surprising to see them in the middle of the graph with connections to just about everywhere. I tried excluding them from graph and it basically had no structural impact at all, more or less confirming this assessment. Of course you get things like “take that” games and “trick-taking” games are very closely associated with card games, so I left it in for clarity and completeness.

I also thought it was interesting to compare opposite sides of the graph. Wargames are directly opposite to Children’s games. Highly thematic games in the Fantasy/Fighting, Science fiction, and Cooperative realms are all opposite to Economic (euro-style) games and abstract games. Likewise, games that focus on area control/majority elements and derive much of their deep strategic play from spatial positioning and the like are opposite to party and deduction style games, which emphasize an entirely different sort of player-to-player interactions.


Having done all of this, I’m not sure what’s next! I’m tempted to see about refining the database to pull, for example, the top 10,000 ranked games or top 10,000 most owned games - irrespective of year - in order to hone the database around games more likely to be known, as well as grabbing more of the popular (or classic) games from prior to 1990. Much of the database is filled with relatively obscure games or print-and-play projects and don’t reflect fully published and circulated titles. Over 50% of the dataset (~8,200 records) are games with less than 250 owners for example. I also have pulled in BGG ranking data, average weights, number of owned copies, and more - but I’ll need to think more on how to make that interesting.

So for now, I guess it’s time to open the phones! Any reactions? Thoughts or ideas of other ways to slice the data? I’d love to hear from you all. Cheers.
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Fri Aug 31, 2018 2:53 am
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Rhine & Rhone: An express version of T&E (or Y&Y)

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
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Alright, so having recently acquired Yellow & Yangtze I'm now getting all reinvigorated for the Tigris & Euphrates-style gameplay.

However, one thing about both games is that neither are particularly portable and games can run on for a while. My kids and nephews have really taken to Y&Y (yes!!!!) but sometimes we don't have the time to play a full game but still want something along those lines. Also both games are not very portable. And so I got thinking...

What if there was another two rivers themed game that uses the same mechanics but comes in much more condensed package - both in terms of components and overall game time. The Rhine and Rhone rivers have a nice ring to them, and are both rivers in relatively close proximity in Europe. Both played an important role throughout EU history and interestingly both have their headwaters up in the Swiss Alps but on opposite sides of the continental divide. The Rhine heads north into the North Sea, and the Rhone goes south into the Mediterranean.

Mechanically, to keep things small (and especially the game box) I'd use the "Micro Cards" (1.25" x 1.75" cards from GameCrafter) instead of tiles. Likewise, I'd dispense entirely with the need for a board. Instead, you would set up a 9x9 hex-grid of cards like in the image below. You'd have a set of fixed "River" cards for the Rhine & Rhone to form the basic layout of the map, with spots for the initial Black tiles (like in Y&Y). All the other cards would be face down. When you place new a tile/card, you'd take the face down card and add it to the top of the draw stack.

Here's a layout example showing the river locations and starting black cards.

One interesting thing is that with using cards to build the board, you could potentially have many different game setups recommended in the rules and/or a process for building out your own unique board each time you play. Interesting?

As for the suits/tile colors, the following make sense to me...

WHITE = Clergy (monasteries)
GREEN = Merchants (marker place)
BLUE = Peasants (farmlands)
RED = Lords (keeps)

Players would have a leader cards corresponding to those colors with a unique symbol and/or a special unique shaped/color pawn to mark the leader card as belonging to them. Alternatively, since the board is so much more cramped, I was thinking that leaders might actually just be placed ONTOP of a tile/card, so long as it's placed on or next to a Clergy tile, consistent with leaders needing to be next to red in T&E or black in Y&Y tiles.

All of this leaves the question of what mechanics to pull from across T&E and Y&Y to round this out. My sense is that it's mostly pulling from Y&Y since the gameplay is a little more straightforward.

However, for simplicity I'm ditching the yellow/wild tiles and leader, and instead adding back in the initial "treasures" that start on Clergy tiles like in T&E. Connecting two treasures together allows you to claim one if you have a merchant leader in the kingdom. Treasures count as a wild and the game ends when all the treasures have been taken (or all but 1).

I'm thinking monuments work like in Y&Y - but possibly also are dual colored. Not sure about that yet. Thematically, I was thinking that getting a triangle of 3 cards and would represent founding a "city", which would have a primary color plus another color to it.

Lastly, in terms of scoring, I was thinking of using a very small board with a Ingenious style OPEN scoring system. Basically, there would be 4 tracks for all the resources and players would have a cube in their color (yes, probably need to assign a different color token to each player, e.g. purple/yellow/black/orange or something) to track points earned. There could also be a victory trigger where the first player to get say "9 points" in their lowest color wins.

Thoughts about all of this? I'm kinda excited about the idea of it!
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Fri Aug 17, 2018 3:19 pm
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Emissary: Red Frontier Graphic Design

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
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As a super quick follow up to my previous post on Emissary: The Red Frontier, I wanted to mention that I've been playing with a new graphic design base (background artwork) for the game (now that I have this martian theme in mind).

Below is a first cut at the idea, which is to use actual satellite imagery of the surface of Mars as the backgorund. A few Photoshop filters later and you get what you see below.

The cool thing is that a lot of this imagery is really high resolution and so you can use different parts of one image and have, potentially, a unique snapshot of the martian surface on each card. In many cases, you might even be able to lay the cards next to each other and form a larger image (no gameplay impact of course).

It would also be a way to call out and identify different land forms and named geographic features, which would be kinda cool to work in a subtle way. The image above was of a portion of the Melas Dorsa region on mars.

I'm debating whether or not I should try to add some additional detail to the cards as it relates to the different suits / resource types. But for now I'm leaning towards keeping it all quite clean and simple.

Thoughts? Am I on the right track here?
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Tue Jun 26, 2018 7:47 pm
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Rethinking Emissary for the "Red Frontier"

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
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Emissary is a design I’ve been iterating on for a number of years now. And while the vagaries of life pulled me away from design work, recently I’ve had a window of time to resume my eternal tinkering.

For those unfamiliar, Emissary was created for a PnP design competition to either create an express version of a bigger game or a micro-game (or both!). At the time, I was experimenting with a number of games using the Decktet system, and I came upon the idea to take Hegemonic and distill it down to its 4X roots (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) by using the decktet. The resulting design worked quite well and had a vaguely Magnate-like feel to its balance of resource management, hand management, and area control.


Since then, it’s been a lot of fine tuning over the years to get the balance and pacing smoothed out. The biggest change has been to rethink the victory conditions to be something that doesn’t require as much arithmetic to forecast, as that can be a major source of AP or slowdown. But more importantly, I really prefer games where the victory trigger is discrete. By this, I mean games where there is a single condition that if a player meets it, they win instantly.

Taluva is a favorite game of mine. It’s an abstract tile placement game where you also have three different types of buildings to place, each with their own conditions for placement. If a player gets all of two of three types of buildings down, they win. The backup is that if you run out of tiles, the player with the most huts wins.

I looked into doing something similar to Taluva for Emissary. Eventually, I settled on a system where there are three specific objectives to work towards, and if player can complete two of three they win immediately. One objective, Might, is based on building a region of a certain size (e.g. 5-cards) and having the most influence within that region. Another objective, Economy, is based on building a trade network, with 4-cards of the same rank adjacent. The last objective, Authority, is based on having the most power on Crown cards (and least two controlled crowns).

These objectives do wonders for orienting the gameplay towards more discernable goal posts. They also create more reasons to conduct certain actions, such as “Replace” to swap cards in the map as well as Hostile actions to push players out of key cards. Of course, there is a backup goal system (a much simplified version of the original scoring system) in the event that the map is built out and no one manages to secure two objectives first.

All in all, I really enjoy Emissary and how it’s grown. The latest version of the rules contain a fair number of other streamlining steps to smooth out the actions, turn sequence, and conflicts. The result is a game that, I feel, packs a lot of punch into a small package. It accomplishes my goal of creating choices with tough trade-off decisions and opportunity costs. For example:

* Crowns cards in your hand are strong for winning conflicts, but playing them to the map is also needed to achieve am Authority victory.

* Aces are powerful defensively, but can be discarded for three resources, which can open up a lot of options for the Influence Action.

* Getting adjacent ranked cards is great for building up resources and working towards the Economic victory, but often makes it harder to effectively network a large region of the same suit together.

* Always tough to decide what cards to discard: do you keep a card for future use on the map, for resources when you need them, for winning conflicts?

* Moving influence is a cheap way to get onto a card that would otherwise be expensive to influence, but it is less efficient in terms of actions.

* Exploring is good, but has to be timed to not give your opponent an opening to influence the card first.

* Crowns on the board can help anchor your position on the board, but they can easily cut off regions and make it hard to connect.

* Tier 1 cards are cheap to influence, but don’t let you concentrate power very well.

* Tier 3 cards can let you concentrate power, but often gives your opponent an opening to build onto them as well - and they are expensive.

* Sharing influence on an card with an opponent may get you (or them) bonus resources through trade, but might let them (or you) get closer to meeting a victory condition.

Having patted myself on the back for the design work, there still remained one further struggle.


One of the big struggles in the design of Emissary, around which I finally made a breakthrough, has to do with theme. Admittedly, Emissary is quite an abstract game mechanically, and so any attempts to theme the game need to be taken with a grain of salt. That said, I was never very satisfied with my efforts to theme the game previously.

Emissary’s theme started out as a play on the Decket’s mythos about being from the land of purple and red and sending Emissary’s to gain influence among various roving clans. It sorta worked. From there I was tinkering ideas for a proper space 4X theme or alternatively some terrestrial fantasy theme.

The challenge is that the design of the game is really dual layered. One layer is the map and specific suits each cards represent. What are these suits? Roving clans? Foreign space empires? Migratory fantasy races? Floating islands? Then comes the question of what the players represent via the layer of their influence over the cards. Is your influence goodwill? Spies and secret agents? Political clout? Mechanically, it was important that a major action be the replace action, allowing you to swap cards on the map around - but it was hard to rationalize what was being swapped from a thematic standpoint.

Long story short, I settled on an idea that I finally feel excited about. It started with a Popular Mechanics article about Mars colonization, that led to me this NASA research paper, about in-situ resource utilization on the Red Planet. It’s a pretty cool read. And so it may be a tad in vogue, but the wheels were turning and I had a compelling idea for theming Emissary at last.

The basic premise is that players represent different enterprises working to prep a new frontier region of the Martian surface for colonization. This prep work is done by working with six different guilds to leverage their expertise in terraforming and building critical infrastructure. The first player able to fulfill two “contracts” (i.e two of the three special victory objectives discussed above) first gain the right to colonize the region and earns the favor of the guilds.

What does this look like in practice?

The resources used in the game, instead of being generic, can now be coupled to basic resource needs for colonization:

* Blue = Water (for drinking and irrigation)
* White = Oxygen (for breathing)
* Yellow = Silica (for glass, dome construction, solar panels)
* Orange =Iron (for construction)
* Brown = Carbon (carbon fiber, plastics, hydrocarbons)
* Green = Plants (food and fiber)

The actions, rather than being so generic, can be framed in interpreted around terraforming and infrastructure building activities:

* Explore = Survey new areas (with a bit of optional terraforming)
* Influence = Build habitat domes and machinery for resource processing
* Collect = Extract and/or produce resources (with partnerships for trading)
* Move = Migrate workers/drones to a new habitat dome
* Replace = Terraform / Reengineer (changing equipment around for a different resource)
* Oust! = Negotiate ownership

Visually, the different types of cards can reflect things in a more thematic way too:

* Origin cards = Contract cards (objectives)
* Tier 1 cards = Barren plains
* Tier 2 cards = Arid foothills
* Tier 3 cards = Rich valley
* Aces = Strategic stockpile
* Crown = Guild outpost

Obviously this retheming will require revamping the background artwork for the game. I have a few ideas for this, but it will take some tinkering before it’s ready for public consumption.

The last element, is the name of the game. While I like Emissary as a name quite a bit, it doesn’t really fit the new theme all that well. After churning through a bunch of different ideas (including lots of really bad puns) I settled on one that I like (for now): Red Frontier. Or maybe it is just Wild Red (like Wild West, but you know, on Mars). Or maybe the full name is: Wild Red Frontier. Gosh, or maybe it’s Emissary: Red Frontier. Hmmm. Seems like there is more work to do after all!

Thanks for tuning in and let me know what you think!

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Fri May 25, 2018 7:32 pm
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