Sands of Time development history

A blog about the development of The Sands of Time, from Spielworxx
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Sands of Time: Tyrannical designer locks actions, then unlocks them in a sweeping display of benevolence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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