The Golden Ages - designer's diary

Something about "The Golden Ages". A designer's point of view, in a very bad english.

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WAR IS A MERE CONTINUATION OF WORKER PLACEMENT BY OTHER MEANS (Carl von Clausewitz)

Luigi Ferrini
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Welcome back! It’s a bit of time that I do not update these pages, I hope that this wait has not casued too much anxiety on you.

Today I will talk about the choices that underlie the conflict management in The Golden Ages.

The rules of war have been a much suffered generation: I have tried at least ten different possibilities, but in the end the only one to remain standing was this. In the design phase, the initial assumption was obviously that there was the war: there’s no human history without conflicts, and in all the civilization games the military aspect cannot be ignored. But I did not mean that war was too complicated because I did not want that she becomes the very main mechanism of the game.

There being a map, there must have been direct attacks: I have therefore rejected all forms of indirect war, as is the case in other games like “Through the Ages”, “Nations” or “Imperialism: Road to Domination”. However, the attacks tend to carry with them a lot of unexpected problems:

- they penalize the losers. If this aspect can be tolerated (and indeed, in some cases even necessary) in warfare games, I didn’t like the idea that a player uses many turns to build an empire and then he see it wiped away in a single attack and without chances to recover;
- they encourage the fury against the weak. If, say, I attack an opponent by lowering his defenses, the other players will do likewise, taking advantage on the moment of enemy’s weakness;
- they encourage the meta-game, that is, all those activities that directly relate to the interaction between players, like “I attack you because you attacked me before”.

The kind of game add other problems to those. The first one is the “only strategy”: if a player is getting ready to fight, everyone else has to do the same to prevent a total defeat. I liked that one could instead set a strategy less oriented to the war, which did not suffer too many slowdowns from lost battles.

The last challenge is to preserve the uncertain outcome of the battle: the war must introduce a random element, but in a game like TGA, where you have a very strict amount of moves, this factor was likely to destroy at all the strategic dimension.

In addition to that, there was some problems due to my personal taste: for example, I never liked the fact that in many games the gameplay confuses tactical and strategic dimension. For example, in the “Civilization” series for PC, a turn simulates the passing of many years, during which I may erect wonders, buildings, etc. However, the movement of troops is tactical: to move a legion of three squares, for example, I need three turns, that correspond to… decades!

Finally, given that all these bonds were not enough, I also wanted to pass an “ethical” message, that is that the war is a tragedy not only for the losers but also for the (supposed) winners.



So the solution was to total abstract a military action in an economic investment through which area of ​​the map will change the flag. In a single “combat” action we can abstract decades of battles, embargoes, movements of population and change in the economy. This process has generally positive outcomes, but often not as much as you would like, hence the solution of fishing hidden points. This solution moves the uncertainty from the clash results (“roll the dice to see who wins”) directly to its outcomes. Among other things this solution also has the side effect to keep hidden a part of the score, to avoid “paralysis by analysis” near the end of the game.

I fully understand how the purists of the “Euro” games may be disappointed in such a choice, but I would agree with them if attacks were mandatory; you can choose instead to don’t attack at all. In this way, you don’t take neither the risks related to the war outcomes.

Anyway, the “Cults & Culture” expansion introduces some ways to make the war outcomes more controllable, opening the way to new strategies based on military force. But I will speak about this expansion in the next episodes! See you soon!
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Wed Feb 17, 2016 12:03 pm
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NON-RENEWABLE RESOURCES

Luigi Ferrini
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Do you want your civilization is filthy rich? Well, you need to know that the main engine (but not the only one) to produce wealth in the game is the acquisition of resources. In order to take full advantage, it is necessary that you have developed the appropriate technology: with the right technological apparatus, you’ll be able to get more money when you take control of a resource, or when you found a city. The downside is that to get these technologies you will have to spend money: it will be necessary to carefully plan your expansion, keeping in mind also the fact that resources, once acquired, will not give money any more. Then, if you want to “specialize” in acquisition of one single kind of resource, you’ll need to move a lot around the map (and to do so, needless to say, you will need other technologies). And when you will found the right resource… maybe you’ll need to fight for them!

Let’s give a look at the tech tree as it appears at the beginning of the game, with all the technologies yet to be developed; in the picture above, the “lightened” technologies are those involved in the exploitation of resources or those that give points according to their control (little squares in the technologies of the last column).

There are four different kind of resources, and each has its own peculiarities: the Game (deer picture) provides a gold since the beginning of the game and there is no way to improve his income. On the Continent tiles, the Game is present in the first round and rarest in the following: the purpose is to make it easier to make money in the beginning without influencing the different strategies.

Wheat and Rocks are virtually identical in their effects and in their exploitation: each of them is on a different technological line, at the end of which you can make points based on the resources of that type that you control. In the second round may come into play some Civilization that derive additional benefits if the player takes control of wheat and rocks symbols. In the third round, two wonders grant victory points for the control of these two resources.

Different story with regard to the Gems: they start to appear on the continents from the second round and some most advanced technology is needed to exploit them; in addition, the civilization who benefit from the Gems are three and may come into play from the second to the last round; the last round have also a wonder that convert the Gems control in victory points. The main difference with Wheat and Rocks, however, is that the technology of the last column that gives points for the Gems is located at the end of a different technological line, the one related to the movement! Gems earn many more points of other resources (3x instead of 2x) but the required effort is greater because it requires the development of two different tech lines. Moreover, it often happens that towards the end of the game the control of Gems triggers a certain amount of competition between the players making the conquest of Gems rather risky.

And of course you can always fight for getting resources away from your opponents… but we’ll talk more about that in the next post!
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Mon Oct 13, 2014 1:33 pm
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TIME, TACTICS AND TITS (the third one is only to bring attention)

Luigi Ferrini
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And we are at the heart of the game: the action phase!
Who does not know what we’re talking about is kindly sent to the previous posts.
Little summary for the lazy ones: the game is The Golden Ages, it takes place over four rounds and in each round there is a phase in which the players take turns clockwise and perform actions until all of them have passed. Some actions require that you use one of your three colonists (the number of these actions is therefore limited), while other actions can be performed without using a colonist but have other limitations (for almost all, the available gold).
Each colonist can be used on the map or out of the map: on the map you’re using it as a explorer or as a soldier, in order to take new resources and new coins. If you use it off the map (on the “Agorà”), you give up the potential revenues to gain advantages of another kind (constructing a building, which typically makes available new “free” actions, or turning the colonist into an artist, doing 3 victory points).


In designing the actions, I followed two specific constraints.

The first constraint was to make actions more “elementary” as possible, in order to make the game quicker and minimize downtime between turns. I always hated games where between your turns you have the time to play another game (or take a nap, true story). Perhaps this way of designing games could fit in 70-80 years; I think that today such games work very well only in asynchronous online versions, and not very well if played in realtime.

The second constraint was that any action would give the feeling of having done at least a little progress. There are no useless actions, or that just make damages to enemies and no benefit to you. Many games have this flaw: you sometimes have the feeling of having lost a turn, or not having accomplished anything good. Here instead, even when you have to pass because you have nothing to do, you enter a Golden Age with all the involved benefits (we talked last time about that).

In any case, it seems to me that both of these goals have been achieved: even in presence of a lot of “reflexive” players, the game proceeds quickly and every move always gives the feeling that you’ve got a little progress.

The normal flow of actions is interrupted as soon as a player enters the final round in the Golden Age: in that case all the others have only a last action to be carried out before the game ends. For this reason, there is no time to waste: the last round is fought and tight, with each player that keeps an eye on what others are doing, because probably there will not be the time to complete all the actions that he would like to do. On the other hand, in the last round many of the most attractive actions do not require the use of the colonists; however, you cannot end your turn without having used all of them. For this reason, everyone will be forced to decide how much stress their strategy pulling it too long.

In the end, as expected, the only lord of history will be the time.
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Wed Oct 8, 2014 6:04 pm
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MAT DEMON

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Let's start familiriazing with player's mat, that it's the thing you'll look more during the play. The main part is occupied by the Technologies Tree, the technical and scientific knowledges that your civilization is able to master. Here:


On the right there are the reserve of cubes, your "bricks" to build cities on the map, and the space where place your gold.

On the bottom left there are the spaces where construct the buildings, and on the bottom right there are the attack table and the summary of the actions that you may perform during the turn.


If you haven't been overwhelmed by the Stendhal syndrome, try starting right from this final summary; the possible actions are eight, four of which (those on the left) require the use of a colonist, while the other four did not require the use of colonists and can therefore be performed freely (although they are nevertheless limited by other factors, such as the disposable income).

Before going into the details of the actions, which we will do in the next post, a note of design: you can't conclude your turn as long as you still have available colonists. Since the colonists are three, each player is "forced" to perform at least three actions during his turn. This is very important, because the action of passing (the one with the golden sun, in the lower right corner) corresponds to bring your civilization in its "golden age": who enters a golden age do not stop playing (which happens in many games, where those who "passes" remain inactive, waiting for the other players' actions), but continues to accumulate money while the other players finish their actions. In game terms, however, that means that you can't just accumulate money and let others play: you must instead use all your colonists in the better way. Unfortunately, to use them in the real better way it's necessary to perform also the other actions, those that do not require the use of a colonist... and so the turn lengthens and the Golden Age gets away! The effect that occurs is that there is a growing tension, a continuous choice between "running" to be the first to start a golden age or making another move to improve your condition; however, in this way you delay the end of your turn and thus risk benefit other players, that in the next turn will have more available money.

This rule, if we cut off the whole civilization superstructure, it the main mechanic of the game: I think it's the "newer" thing that the rulebook proposes and it's so important that it was even mentioned in the title.

Yes, that's why the game is called "The Golden Ages", in the plural, because every civilization in history had its golden age, the period when it reached its maximum might. Then, usually, another civilization came and took its place. It happens, sorry.
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Tue Sep 30, 2014 10:22 am
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CONTINENTS AND CONTENTS (the author is verbally incontinent, please forgive him)

Luigi Ferrini
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Today we'll talk about continents and exploration.

As usual, let's start from the game rules.

At the beginning of the round, after each player has revealed his civilization card, the one that has the lower value draws a new continent and places it on the map, adjacent to other already placed continents. The placement must respect the territorial boundaries of the already placed pieces, i.e. land should confine with land and sea with sea.

Moving clockwise, each player discovers a new continent (and will decide whether to move or not his capital, as explained in the previous post). The result is that the aspect of the world will be revealed slowly, just as has happened in human history.

This kind of progressive discovery is present, of course, in many civilization gamesn; I don't remember any game in which a modular map would give birth to the "real" world, as we know it. This conformation is obviously just one of thousands of different possible configurations of the map, but I liked the idea that this possibility existed.

In the game you can also make "disappear" the islands printed on the board by putting the continents on them. This simulates the fact that during the explorations some areas initially appear to be smaller than they really are. When Christopher Columbus landed in San Salvador, for example, he did not imagine being in front of an entire continent, but he thought he had just discovered some island ...

If you look at the illustration above, you will notice that the continents are not correctly scaling. The Middle East, Africa and Europe are larger than America, East Asia and Oceania. This choice is on purpose: it simulates how, throughout history, the world has become gradually more "smaller", as the technologies underlying exploration grow up. The decision to start the game in the surroundings of the Mediterranean is definitely a result of my being European and having an "Eurocentric" vision of the ancient history; however, we may say that most of the mightiest ancient nations (Egypt, Babylon, Greece, Rome ...) had its origin in this area.

On the other hand, as I will explain in a moment, I had the need to create the larger continent tiles for the first round, allowing a greater range of choices in the first moves. Then I had to "stick" these continents to some precise parts of the real world map.

But why I needed some larger continents? Simply, in the first round the colonist movement is very limited, as well as player's gold. I didn't want to force anyone to go to war immediately against the opponents (although there are many cases where this is still a good strategy), nor have to suffer the consequences of a too unhappy position of the capital. For this reason, neither on the original 2x2 square, or on the continents of the first era (those with 3 squares) there are gem symbols. At the beginning of the game, there are indeed some resources easier to manage (the game more than others), while it needs some more advanced technology for properly get benefits from the gems.

As the game goes on and the map fills up, the race for gems becomes generally much more important... and also bloody!

But we will discuss the war in a future post!
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Wed Sep 24, 2014 9:14 pm
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THE CIVILIZATIONS YOU'LL MAY IMPERSONATE, or the hard job of writing a short and catchy title

Luigi Ferrini
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At the beginning of each turn in The Golden Ages, each player plays from his hand the civilization card that the fate assigned to him for that turn, then he decides if "becoming" that civilization or discarding the card and keeping the former one. This historical aspect is present in few games (one for all: the classic History of the World of Avalon Hill), because, as usual, of Sid Meier's Civilization for PC, where you may have since the prehistory Egyptians and Russians, Babylonians and Americans... and goobye to the historical accuracy! I liked also to reproduce in game mechanics also the succession of different civilizations, one on the ashes of the other.

After revealing his civilization card, each player places on the map a new continent tile (but we'll talk of this another time...), then he may choose to move or not his capital on the just layed tile. Even this mechanic, other than strategical effects, have a pseudo-historical side: if a player chooses to play with a new civilitazion and he don't move his capital, we may interpretate this event as the born of a new civilization on the ashes of the former one.

If he chooses the new civilization and moves the capital, we may read this event as a fall after which a new power rose up (in history, this happened for example with Byzantium, which empire has born taking over all the rests of the Roman empire).

If the player chooses to keep the old civilization and moves the capital, this move can be interpreted as a change of dynasty with consequent territorial reorganization (historically, it has happened for example in China).

Finally, if the player keeps the old civilization and don't move the capital... well, the history is not always so dynamic, right?

In game terms, keeping the previous civilization is often not very useful (many special powers are exhausted when the card is played the first time), but it can be because the first player for each turn will be the one with the lowest number on his civilization card. In the first round the numbers range from 1 to 7, in the second from 11 to 16, from 21 to 26 in the third and from 31 to 36 in the fourth: for this reason, the "oldest" civilization always acts first. The more astute readers would noticed that there are "holes" in the numbering... If the game will be a great market success and an expansion should be produced, the holes will surely be filled with all those civilizations that have been "left out"!

The thing that amused me more during the whole development was the research of game effects that were not purely abstract but related to the historical reality. This is indeed clearly visible in the civilization cards: each of them has a special power that is closely linked to its historical "personality". For example, the Phoenicians were the inventors of the alphabet and then start with the knowledge of Writing, the Portuguese receive additional gold if their colonists circumnavigate the world, the Japanese have an advantage in technological development, and so on.

I really care about these small "setting" details, because I find that they make the game more fun and less abstract.

Maybe you have already got that I actually enjoyed a lot developing The Golden Ages. I really hope this fun be visible even to those who will play the game.
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Mon Sep 22, 2014 9:24 am
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PLAYING WITHOUT HEADACHES

Luigi Ferrini
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Before going forward with design’s considerations, I think it’s appropriate to summarize the course of the game in a few lines, for those who have not yet had the time (or desire) to read the rules.

The game consists of four rounds, each of which is a different era of human history. Each round starts with a phase of exploration, in which new continents are discoverede and placed on the board; then the main phase begin, during which you do all the main actions (explore, fight, build, etc..). I’ll talk more of these phases in the next posts.
Some of the resources on the game map:
weath, rocks, game.

Today I want to focus instead on what happens at the end of the turn. Typically, in civilization games, this is the time of the headache: you check the owned resources, you see if your people are dying of hunger, you score points in many ways, you update many tokens on many tables … so you make all counts, often repeating them several times because it is easy to make mistakes.

During the development of the game I realized (and I needed seven different versions of the prototype to understand it!) that this part is … tiring and boring! For this reason I have taken out of the game almost all counts at the end of turn.

Only one of them remains, very simple and always different, linked to the “Judgment of History”, which allows you to make victory points and therefore is not boring at all.
With Agricolture you get one Gold
whenever you take control of
a “wheat” symbol.

The design choice that I made is that I moved the stage of economic rent of resources at the time when such resources are acquired. That is, if for example your civilization knows agriculture, then you get gold when you take control of a “wheat” resource. Having control of the wheat will be useful again in various ways, but rarely you will need to count the wheat you control. In this way, also the attacks become less frustrating for those who suffer, because losing a resource can affect the points you make, but you don’t ever lose money and then you’ll never slow down in the strategy you’re pursuing.

Of course, this design choice helps to keep down the total time of the game and contain the dead times between rounds.
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Tue Sep 16, 2014 10:55 pm
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“SHORT AND FAST”: GOOD FOR A GAME (not so good in a bedroom)

Luigi Ferrini
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In this blog I'll talk about my experience in developing “The Golden Ages”, a boardgame that will be released in Essen 2014, published by Quined Games and Ergo Ludo Editions.

When I started thinking about the game, it was February, 2010. For a long time I was mumbling about “civilization” games, a kind of games that I love since the first Sid Meier’s Civilization for PC. I was thinking about how the board games taken out from this kind of videogames was never without flaws, like the game’s length or the high downtime. These flaws are of course merely subjectives, depending from the friends with whom I usually play… someone have shortage of free time, and someone have the habit of thinking too much about his moves!
The players mat: I’ll explain it in a future post!

In conclusion, I felt like it was missing a game that reproduces the main aspects of the civilization games, but with a short play time and game mechanics making easier competing with players suffering of “paralysis by analysis”. I haven’t found this games around, and then … I tried to make it myself!

The first consideration that I feel I can do, and that is perhaps obvious, is that in a civilization board game you cannot have the same complexity of a computer version. And on the other hand it is necessary that the interaction with other players is tighter, because otherwise the game becomes a multi-solitaire for at least half of the match. For this reason, something of the original experience must somehow be sacrificed. Many games typically sacrifice the map; others sacrifice urban development; still others sacrifice the variety of the strategies, which are almost always heavily influenced by the military choices of some of the players; others sacrifice the historical extension to a single historical age. Some games, finally, focus on just one aspect of the matter, such as the tech tree, and leave out all the rest.

I realized the need of leaving out something only after the first 2-3 versions of the initial prototype. At first, there were 5 different kinds of resources, a more complex technology tree, and the game was still too long and chaotic. But the base structure was there and it worked well enough, so the development process went for stepwise refinements (for the curious: 16 main versions of the prototype, plus a few minor releases), some of which have proved to be much more difficult than others. I think it’s worth exposing at least some of these steps, because each of them has taught me something and maybe it could be useful to other game designers.

If you’ll have the patience to keep following me, I’ll get in the next posts.

(and sorry, but my english skills are not so great... please forgive my mistakes!)
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Mon Sep 15, 2014 11:39 am
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