Sands of Time development history

A blog about the development of The Sands of Time, from Spielworxx
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Sands of Time: the rise and fall of achievement tokens

Jeff Warrender
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Averill Park
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We left off with Sands having gone through a major overhaul, from an Avalon Hill-esque “long, enumerated list of phases” to a sleeker Euro with “dichotomous choices” as an animating design concept. Two types of units, two types of resources, two possible directions in which to steer each action (“inward” or “outward”); everything was pointing toward Sands becoming an exploration of binary options. It didn’t exactly stay that way.

The Spielbany era

At about this point, with the game in mid-development, I moved to Albany, NY. I had connected with some fellow designers at the Board Game Designer’s Forum, and we organized quarterly playtest sessions that have continued running for over a decade now; eventually we called this “Spielbany”, and Sands became a regular staple of many Spielbany sessions – but because it was still pretty long we rarely were able to play the game to completion! Key players in the early Spielbany stage included John Velonis, Nate Brown, Gil Hova, Tom Kiehl, and Steve Sisk.

During this time, the Chronicles were added in as a replacement for the majorities-based scoring system. At first you just took a card for the category you wanted to score in and the card had a table giving you your VP payout depending on how much stuff you had accomplished in that category. A lot of the time in this period was spent fiddling around with making this system work, as well as starting to separate the Advances and Structures into two separate systems. With the chronicles, the question became, should there be a barrier to scoring a card, and if so, what should it be? Chronicles reflect the idea that you were making claims about yourself, and they really grew to become the main way that Sands differentiates itself from other civ games – you aren’t just entitled to points for every aspect of your civ; you have to choose the superlatives you want to be judged by. And, you had to invest some effort to be able to make claims; scoring isn’t automatic.

Rise of achievement tokens

The (original) solution to making this concept work came out of a suggestion at BGDF: namely, to add a currency. I called these “achievement tokens”, and they represented both the level of emphasis you had placed in an aspect of your civilization and your reputation in that aspect – so, a combination, of “I, Joe, ruler of the Joe-ites, invested a lot of time and energy into building” and “whoa, that Joe sure was quite a builder”.

This new currency had two design benefits: it allowed me to link the costs for Advances and costs for Chronicles, both of which needed some kind of currency; and, it motivated the identification of three “civ categories”, the names (political, cultural, and civil) and symbols (helmet, head, and columns) which have persisted to this day. Additionally, eventually it gave me a way to create the feedback loops that I had wanted – when you scored a Chronicle, you were entitled to receive some achievement tokens in the same category at the start of future turns, and the number you received were related to the size of the chronicle you had scored. This in turn made acquisition of additional advances and scoring of chronicles in that category easier, so it promoted specialization.

Fall of achievement tokens

Eventually, at Uli’s suggestion, the achievement tokens went away. After tinkering with them for years, this was painful. But in the end, removing them ended up solving more problems than it created. For one thing, the tokens were fiddly, and in a game with only two resources that are tracked on an abacus, it admittedly didn't make a ton of sense that there was this additional currency that required all of these additional tokens that you had to manipulate. For another, the ways players acquired them were never entirely satisfying. I'll talk more about this in a future post, but basically, there was a turn action that would let you "produce" tokens based on your connections to other players' cities. This was ok, except that the number of connections you could set up varied a lot from game to game and so it was hard to balance how many tokens you had, and consequently, how easy or hard it would be to pay for the stuff that the tokens allowed you to pay for.

So while I liked what they represented, the way they worked was just never quite right. The Heritage tracks are much more effective at providing a non-fiddly permanent game state that’s easy for everyone to survey and remember, they remove a bunch of components, and they still mostly achieve the intended thematic effect (I guess it doesn’t make too much sense to “spend” reputation anyway).

Combat system (again)

One problem the removal of the achievements created was with the combat system. The tokens were originally used to beef up your combat in a closed fist bid. I liked that system very much, because sometimes you would start a battle not to win but simply to force the other player to dump some tokens and thus make it harder from him to score a chronicle. The new system, in which you “bid” Unrest, isn’t really thematic but it’s pretty painful, and I like that.

The combat system has been through some interesting changes over the years. From the beginning, warriors were worth 2 combat points and peasants 1. But in the earliest design, you supplemented your combat rating with Tactics cards. This approach has of course been used extensively in the intervening years (A Game of Thrones , War of the Ring, etc), but at the time it hadn't been done too much, except by Dune, which was a favorite in our group and clearly influenced this game and some of my other designs as well. So it's a bit ironic that the finished-product combat system also emulates Dune's, but in a different way.

Anyway, as I previously mentioned, in the earliest days you had "personality" cards you could use for special abilities, and these connected to this card-assisted combat system in a few ways. The “Strategist” ability let you draw cards, and the “General” ability determined how many you could play. These Tactics cards gave a numerical boost to your combat rating in one of three categories: speed, attack, or defend. The idea was that the player with the higher Speed rating got to attack first, and compared his “attack” rating (his combat strength from his units plus any attack bonuses from tactics cards) against the defender’s “defend” rating (same deal, combat strength plus “defend” bonuses). If the attacker’s rating was higher, the defender suffered casualties and then became the attacker. I think the process repeated until one player withdrew, or maybe there was only a single round; I can’t entirely remember. There was also a rock-paper-scissors effect on the cards with cavalry, infantry, and fortifications, and you got a bonus to attack or defend if you had a [X] card against a [Y] card.

I liked the system and the players did as well, but as the game shifted to one in which militarism is relatively infrequent, it was just too complicated to justify the number of rules and components that it required. The final system just uses dice, but you don't actually roll them! Instead, each player uses the die to select a number, representing "how much Unrest I'll take on if I win"; the number on your die boosts your combat strength by 3 per pip, but the increase to your Unrest can really drive up your costs. One neat thing is that there's no "zero" face on a die, so you can't help but increase your Unrest to win a battle. Actually, that's not true -- you can declare up front that you won't increase your combat strength at all with the "die/Unrest enhancer" -- but of course this gives your opponent some incredibly valuable information before he selects his die face.

One other amusing change that emerged in the Spielbany phase was that, for the entire development of the game up to then, the icons for the resources had been Corn and Gold but in his first time playing (the final session of the game’s Spielbany period), P.D. observed that corn is a New World crop. My instinct is to brush stuff like that off -- "it's just a prototype!" -- but for whatever reason, once I knew this, the inaccuracy bothered me enough that I had to change the corn icon to wheat everywhere it occurred – and there were a lot of places!

Pendulums of complexity

As I mentioned in the last post, really this period and the one that followed were a matter of trying to get two different pendulums to collide mid-swing. One swung between complexity and simplicity (how easy is the game to learn?), the other between “looseness” and “tightness” (how easy is the game to play – or, put differently, how punitive is the game system?)

As the complexity would change a bit, the systems we had used to make the game looser or tighter would have different effects. The addition of the achievement tokens were an increase in complexity that nevertheless pulled a number of disparate systems together conceptually, so it was, I think, a net win; but then, balancing the way you acquired them had to be adjusted as we made other changes. When the game was too loose, players would have a fistful of tokens that they couldn’t use, and so you’d have these monster battles where players would dump a dozen tokens, because what else did you need them for? When it was too tight, you barely had enough tokens to score your chronicles, and so battles were much more painful – but also more infrequent. And of course getting rid of tokens altogether had ripple effects that required a re-balancing of the loose/tight pendulum as well. It was a necessary change, though, and one that falls out of what I’ll discuss in the next couple of posts, the action system (and the advance system, to some extent).
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