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The Quest for the Holy (Civilization) Grail Part 7 - A Civilization Game that stands the Alpha-test of Gameplay

Nicholas Hjelmberg
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In the sixth part of The Quest for the Holy (Civilization) Grail Part 6 - The Legacy of the Civilizations or the Events, I looked into how the civilizations advance and develop. In this seventh part, I look into the creation of a playable prototype.

The discussion so far has spawned many ideas about what to include in a civilization game and how to include it. The time has finally come to put it all into a playable prototype and start testing the various ideas.

But testing such a long and complex game will be more challenging than any other game I've designed and tested so far. The main reason for this is the sandbox nature of the game. Where many euro games have few decisions with limited strategic paths to explore, our civilization game aimed at giving our players freedom to choose their own destinies. Yet, we must find a way to "alpha test" the game to make it playable enough to run through a "beta test" without having to stop and modify the game after each and every turn. The best way to do this is to apply common test methodology and break it down into testable units and this is how I did it.

First, I ran some calculations and simulations on what I call the economy of the game. How many units are necessary to give the players enough room for a varied production but not so many that it becomes cumbersome to manage the civilization? In a simple game like Catan, a player does not have to think about more than a hand full of settlement whereas a player in the computer version of Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game have way too much to keep track of without computer help. Given that our players need to produce food, commodities and luxuries as well as use tribes for other actions, I settled with up to 3 tribes per action area or 12 tribes in total.

Next, I looked into how many resources that are necessary to take those actions. To feed 12 units, you need 6 food. Later tests suggested that the 1st tribe should be "free" (otherwise a player with no food wouldn't be able to get back his or her tribes and the gameplay would come to a halt) so 5 food per player was enough. To advance your civilization traits, you need 2/3/4 luxuries so 4 luxuries per player are needed. To acquire new development cards, you need 2/3/4 commodities so 4 commodities per player are needed. However, given that there are more development cards (45) than civilization steps (6x3=18), I increased the number of resources to 30, of which 10 are available from the start and the rest get available with development.

Those numbers allow a civilization to manage 12 tribes to take every action needed to feed, advance and develop the civilization. With advancements and developments, the supply and demand of resources may be modified and free tribes for other actions - the better the civilization, the more efficient its use of resources. The rest was simply a matter of scaling the numbers for different player counts.

Resources 3/4/5 players

Food
Grain 3/4/5
Pulses 3/4/5
Cattle 3/4/5
Poultry 3/4/5
Fish 3/4/5
Shellfish 3/4/5

Luxuries

Fur 2/3/3
Silk 2/2/3
Spices 2/3/3
Sugar 2/2/3
Resin 2/3/3
Gems 2/2/3

Commodities

Clay 3/4/5
Timber 3/4/5
Iron 3/3/4
Metals 2/3/4
Coal 2/3/3 (double value)
Oil 1/3/3 (double value)

No resources

Desert 24/32/40
Sea 60/80/100
Polar 24/32/40

Finally, I simulated the critical first few turns. With the six civilization traits, there are six basic starting strategic paths and it's important that they are balanced, meaning that they will provide equal conditions for the rest of the game. If not, there will either be an inferior path that only serves as a trap for beginners or a superior path that makes the first few rounds an unnecessary haul for experienced players. With "equal conditions", I simply wanted to ensure that the players had acquired asets of about the same value after the first few rounds, before their paths start crossing. This exercise helped mitigating some obvious imbalances.

corn Civics' city building power provides nothing before a settlement is founded and doubles the production once a settlement is founded.

Solution: Balance the building time so that a settlement building civilization falls behind the first turns but catch up later (when the other civilizations have managed to build other "engines").

indigo Economy's trading power + Increasing exchange rates of unique sets was over-powered.

Solution: Flat exchange rate but requirement to exchange unique resources only, limit the number of resources you're allowed to save.

coffee Military's attack power is purely destructive for both attacker and defender.

Solution: Allow the attacker to plunder so that the action still give a resource while allowing the defender to retreat to safer area to avoid too much destruction.

sugar Culture's/Religion's ability to co-exist/convert was not only too complicated but also made Military redundant.
Solution: Link the abilities to cheaper advancements/developments instead and move the more spectacular abilities to the development cards instead.

tobacco Science' ability to act across longer distances was useless as long as there is free space nearby to expand to.

Solution: Let science be used to produce at distance as well to allow for more varied production similar to (but not exactly like) Economy.

The concerns about the more aggressive civilization traits (Military to eliminate or enslave opponents, Religion to convert and replace opponents) were interesting. Initially I thought they belonged to a civilization game but to be weaker and meet such a civilization just felt boring. Either you build a similar civilization to protect yourself (with less variety between the civilizations) or you ignore the threat and get wiped out. Those concerns were aggravated as I got the opportunity to play Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization and its smaller cousin The Flow of History. In both games I became weaker with no opportunity to catch up, with the result that I was constantly attacked in a downwards and most unfun spiral.

This experience led to the decision not only to lessen the destructive game mechanics but also to add the specialists with the one-time civilization trait abilities. Through them, a civilization may ignore the full investment in a civilization trait while still protect itself against other civilizations buy investing in the cheaper specialists.

This also became a turning point in the game development. The game took a small step away from a dudes on a map game towards an economic euro game, where a successful civilization is rewarded not with supremacy but with a more efficient production, whether it be a production of military, resources, culture, religion or anything else.

Another turning point was that the game started to feel fun again. Usually in my game designs, the tedious Excel simulations turn the work into an unfun optimization exercise where everything feels too complex and complicated, but not in this case. Instead, I had began to identify myself with the Aggressive Romans, the Trading Olmecs, the City-building Sumerians and all the others and really looked forward to see the game played in my alpha-test.
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