Thematic Solitaires for the Spare Time Challenged

A blog about solitaire games and how to design them. I'm your host, Morten, co-designer of solo modes for games such as Scythe, Gaia Project and Viticulture.
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Rubber Banding, and other balancing features of game design: Part II – Guest post by Mound Builders designer Wes Erni

Morten Monrad Pedersen
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Continuing where he left off Tuesday, Mound Builders designer Wes Erni walks us through the set of thematic rubber banding mechanisms from the game, so without further ado I’ll pass the keyboard back to Wes.

RB #4 Saving Action Points and/or having Reserves

In Mound Builders, players are allowed to save 1 Action point (sometimes 2 AP), and have the ability to “loot” their carefully constructed infrastructure (Mounds) for bonus Action Points. Cruel Necessity and Swing States also feature saving AP (CN in a big way). Israeli Independence and Soviet Dawn offer “Reserve Offensives”, and Ottoman Sunset and Hapsburg Eclipse offer “German Staff Operations” (many other State of Siege games offer analogous reserves). On the surface, all these options appear to be dynamically “neutral” – but the reality is that having an “emergency fund” is far more critical in a game you are losing, than one in which you cruising. It’s true that having reserves might help a dominant player complete a “crushing blow” to the AI (usually “knocking out” an army), but accomplishing that same task while behind, might “reset” the game math completely (even if it leaves the failing player desperately vulnerable in the short term).

Most Reserve ability is “one and done” (in Lost Cause, and Malta Besieged they can be recovered). In Mound Builders, players can choose to recover from their looting “predictably, and expensively”, or “unpredictably, and cheaply” (I like to provide choices for the players at all levels). “Looting” is not really literal here, we rationalize the mechanic as far less malignant then it sounds (bottom line, it “works” for game purposes, and there is no research that contradicts this view).

In Cruel Necessity, the saving of Action Points (Zeal) is a cornerstone to the design (and a lot of fun). In Mound Builders, it didn’t seem right to give such a primitive society such flexibility (although we added a touch of chrome in allowing “storage” improvement). There is another diabolical little twist here, saving that one Action Point is often strategically wise (you never know what that next card will bring), but using that last Action Point to attack is very efficient tactically (no Rout).

RB #5 The Fortress Capital

This is the big one. No other Rubber Band mechanic can approach the impact of a Fortress Capital (or so disrupt the external balance of the game). In Mound Builders, the capital city (Cahokia) can be built up to immense strength (using a construct that is a slightly tweaked “rip-off” of Cruel Necessity). Thematically, I was comfortable with this staying power, Cahokia was by far the largest, most elaborately defended city in all the lands destined to be the United States (Philadelphia did not equal it, until after becoming the capital of the nascent U.S.).

Very quickly in development, State of Siege “Capitals” (The “0” Space) started becoming more and more formidable. Even in Israeli Independence, we see the Desperation Morale +1 modifier appear. At the heart of all of these protective ideas is Rubber Banding (you scarcely need a strong Capital, if there is no enemy Army remotely in striking distance). The problem: what happens when players start to use these bonuses when their back is not at all “against the wall”. Some examples: the Barricades in Zulus on the Ramparts, the Town spaces in Dawn of the Zeds, Paris in Levee en Masse, the “multi-Capitals” of Lost Cause, and Cruel Necessity.

I had not played Zulu until I playtested the Second Edition, it was startling to see all the various character ability combos that existed to totally stymie the Zulus (most centered around Barricade mechanics) – all the “game-breaking” ones are (hopefully) now crushed. In Zeds, fantastic killing grounds can be created around the Town (being fixed right now). In Levee en Masse, I missed “the welcome to Paris” strategy initially (in my zeal to play the expansion with that bizarre “Despotism strategy”). With that strategy crushed, I finally noticed that beautiful little RB rule “one free attack against every army in Paris” could be twisted into a killer strategy. Let the British and Vendee “live” in Paris, while caging the deadly German armies against their KO cities. It was kind of thrilling to spend nearly the entire game at the edge of death, but I also had cold math (80% Super-Decisive victory, 20% dismal defeat ratio) supporting me.

Such is the price solitaire designers get for offering their players a helping hand. Of course, this doesn’t just happen in Rubber Banding. In both Dawn of the Zeds, and Lost Cause, clever little designer constructs can be twisted like a pretzel – allowing both Zed Mobs and Union armies to herded around like rambunctious pets (also being currently fixed). Too often, the solo player grabs the designers “helping hand”, and then shoves a knife into the “gut” of his creation.

I am sorry, I forgot that the lead word of Morten’s blog is THEMATIC, and I have appalled everyone.

I was certainly afraid of similar abuses in Mound Builders. In fact, having two or three enemy armies “under the walls” was particularly efficient if your Great Sun (leader) was patrolling the area. But there turned out to be sufficient negatives to this strategy to remove it from Plan A status. Turning Cahokia into a Fortress is not at all “free” (especially for a player that is already AP strapped), and using the Capital as the “front” eliminates all the potential economic value of that “Warpath”. Also, Diplomatic solutions were barred, and the Great Sun doesn’t “shine” all the time (even when he does, the constant 1 in 36 instant death possibility is not trivial). When I play, I start out brimming with optimism (Plan A), but usually I must concede failure, and then hopefully transpose into a workable Plan B etc. Depending on the board, the Cahokia front strategy is usually Plan C, or D.

External image

Non-final game used for playtesting. Image credit: Wm Seabrook.

RB #6 Revolts

In Mound Builders, when a Revolt strikes a Warpath, rolling one die locates the Revolt and often affects the owner of that Land (the bigger you are, the harder you… well… are discomfited). I have been waiting to use this RB rule ever since I saw Israeli Independence (my “Assyrian Empire” SoS game has been languishing for 5 years). It works very much like the “Clubmen revolt” of Cruel Necessity. This rule seems perfectly thematic, and alters the game math in intriguing ways. Although it was very clear in my head, actually writing the rules for this RB was surprisingly difficult. I know Alan Emrich, our patient developer, was ready to sharpen his rule killing knife here, but I hope the end result is worth it.

RB #7 The Spanish and Smallpox

It is by happy coincidence, that the rule that looks like the cheesiest tacked on Rubber Band rule ever, happens to be very thematically sound. In the endgame, at some random point in time, the Spanish will “scout out” the greatness of your empire and select a group of conquistadors commensurate with your “target value”. If you are barely hanging on, the Spanish will send in their “B” team (historical, since Cahokia did not quite “make it” to the Spanish Era). If your Empire rivals the Incas, you likely will find Pizarro heading your way. Shameless RB work, but thematic, and often very dramatic (the Spanish army is absolutely relentless, you must win or die). I was worried that players would ransack their empire late in the game to dissuade the Spaniards, but the stiff price paid (and the uncertainty of when the Spanish start sniffing around) prevent this from being a viable strategy. It does discourage late game economic development, but happily, archaeological evidence supports this trend.

Smallpox is another Mound Builders rule loaded with RB implications. The deeper the Spanish penetrate, the more severely limited the player’s Action Point allowance (for the rest of the game). If your empire has already been reduced to the Stone Age, you will hardly be affected – if you were thriving gloriously, it becomes a tense battle to keep the (formidably led) Spaniards from crippling your empire (or even outright killing it). It is all hypothetical, but there is evidence Cahokia would been extremely vulnerable to the Spanish diseases. Cahokia’s dense population suffered a great deal from infectious disease long before the Spanish appeared, it is likely they would have been harder hit than their Indian neighbors.

I don’t find any real parallel to other State of Siege games, usually the designer ends the game going nuclear on his downtrodden players (literally, in We Must Tell the Emperor). They are looking at their preferred kill ratio, and have no interest keeping the “sick” alive anymore. Of course, they are following an historical playbook that is clearly defined. I didn’t have any of that “historical deadweight” in the (hypothetical) Mound Builder climax, so I went in a “cool” direction. Or so I thought, I have a feeling others may not be nearly as enamored of the ending, as I am.

RB #8 Luck

Luck is present everywhere in solitaire gaming, it seems strange to refer to Luck as a Rubber Band, but it is. Games with a low amount of true luck (paradoxically, rolling hundreds of dice is actual reduces the luck factor), have inherently little Rubber Banding (Cruel Necessity). Games with lots of luck (a few KEY random elements), have volatility that works very much like strong Rubber Banding (Ottoman Sunset). This happens in other venues – in baseball (where one swing of the bat can decide the game) the worst team in the league has a much better chance to win than the worst team in basketball (where scoring is constant).

In Mound Builders, there is a powerful new luck dimension (drawing from the Chiefdom Cup), that can dominate game flow more than traditional dice tossing. The variable Action Point cards have tremendous volatility (and some will never appear), ranging from fantastic to horrifying, and card order can be crucial. Even the die tosses have extra kick – there is many a time I have rolled a “1”, and have barely restrained myself from throwing that die across the room.

I really didn’t design Mound Builders to enjoy it. It was designed as an endlessly replayable, and volatile thrill ride, oozing theme that no one had seen from a game (and some mechanics very different from the tried and true State of Siege format). I thought it would be way too frustrating for my “assassin” game persona to enjoy (indeed, I have only won half of the 50+ games that I have played). But the fact that I played 50+ times (I really should stop calling them playtests), is indicative of the surprising fact I am enjoying the game – I am not quite sure whether that means I have failed, or succeeded in my design goal.

The issue of Rubber Banding in solitaire games is a fascinating one. It has constantly weighed on me these past months designing Mound Builders, but I had never consciously tried to methodically categorize the concept. I have to thank Morten for initially broaching the subject, and allowing me to Guest Post my thoughts with you
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