Heikki Harju
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In this diary entry about the design of M.U.L.E. The Board Game, I will describe how Personal Events, Play Order and (to a lesser extent) Production are guided by ”the invisible hand” of Ranking. Ranking addresses a typical problem in economy/ investment board games: a group of friends or family members want to play together, but they aren't equal in their skill, experience, or knowledge of the game rules. Often someone is playing the game for the first time.

Ranking was a unique feature in the original M.U.L.E. Adapting it into The Board Game was one of our biggest design challenges. Because of Ranking, small advantages gained in early game are less likely to snowball into an unstoppable lead. It introduces some complexity, but it's worth it. It's part of what made M.U.L.E. special to begin with.

Ranking itself is a simple procedure: in the end of each Game Turn (after Market Phase and before Personal Events), all players count their Galactic Dollars and publicly announce their wealth. The richest player becomes the Rank 1 Colonist and the poorest becomes the Lowest Ranking Colonist. The ultimate consequence of Ranking is that the Player occupying Rank 1 at the end of the game is named the First Founder and wins. However, at other times, players usually benefit from having a low Rank and must overcome ”bad stuff” when occupying a High Rank.

There are three catch-up mechanisms associated with Ranking: Play Order, Personal Events and some Production Cards.

Play Order
In M.U.L.E., if you're the Lowest Ranking Colonist, you will always have the best place in Play Order. Conversely, if you're Highest Ranking Colonist, you will always act when it's least advantageous for you:
Land Grant: Play Order is from Lowest Rank to Highest
Development: Play Order is from Highest Rank to Lowest – but this reversed if there are 6 or fewer M.U.L.E.s left in The Store.
Market: Play is Simultaneous, but lower-ranking Colonists have priority to buy from The Store in case of conflict.


Play Order Summary next to the Ranking Track (click to enlarge)

Personal Events

Dum dum dumm, dumm...

Most people who have played M.U.L.E. on computer remember the ”random events”, good and bad, that occasionally strike different players at the beginning of their Development Phase. The ”good stuff” never happened to those who were ahead in the game and, vice versa, ”bad stuff” never happened to those lagging behind. The events were actually a catch-up mechanism that also built the theme.

In M.U.L.E. The Board Game, the mechanism for Personal Events aims for the same outcome, but uses a combination of Ranking and human judgment:
Rank 1 Colonist first draws a random Lucky Event card and gives it to another player of his choice.
The player who received the Lucky Event card then draws an Unlucky Event card and gives it to another player of his choice.

This system was the final result of many, many iterations. We realized that the players are the best authority in judging who is strong and who is weak. They can take all visible and invisible factors into account far better than any mechanic: money, stocks, future price increases, land production values and even player skill. (As a side note, as the game designer I've certainly had my share of Unlucky Events my demo games. But bring them on!)

Since Ranking is based on Money alone, it's sometimes inaccurate. However, counting all the players' wealth tied into their Goods, Lands and M.U.L.E.s every single turn at current market prices would be too cumbersome. This is why Ranking is done roughly and based on Money alone, but it's only the starting point for dealing Events, not the final verdict. Usually, the Highest Ranking Player wants to give the Lucky Event to the player who threatens them the least. Conversely, that player is likely to give the Unlucky Event to the strongest player (or sometimes to the player who suffers the most from the Event). Since they already received the Lucky Event, they don't have to please anyone. An added bonus of this system is that the two Events will never go the same player.

In early game turns, the differences between players can be very small. Someone may tactically decide to spend money for Goods or Land Auctions to become the Lowest Ranking Player. This is a valid, but risky tactic: it will not give them immunity against Unlucky Events if the other players consider them strong. In fact, it might have the opposite effect by making their cash position vulnerable.


One of the luckiest Lucky Events! (unless you were Hunting the Wampus) (click to enlarge)

Production Cards
Some Production Cards are affected by Ranking. However, two of them (Radiation! and Pest Attack!) have a special effect on Turn 1, where this the event is lesser and same for every player. These special Turn 1 effects were introduced to diminish the effects of the arbitrary Turn 1 set-up Ranking.


Production Card Example. The effect of this Production Card is affected by Ranking (click to enlarge)

Optional Rules for Ranking and Events
Ranking and the catch-up mechanisms driven by Ranking are something that make M.U.L.E. stand apart from most other games. However, if you have a group of strategy boardgame enthusiasts where all players have roughly equal skill and want to play a more cruel version of M.U.L.E., we have provided options to tune down the effects of Ranking in Event Cards (by leaving them out completely) and Production Cards (by applying their Turn 1 effect throughout the game).

An alternative Personal Event system is also supported, where Ranking alone is used to define who gets the Personal Event. The target Colonist's Rank is marked in the top left corner of each Event Card (as can also be seen in the card picture above). However, by far the most playtesters considered the default system described above more interactive and fun.

Featured Player Species: Flapper

Flapper is a ”beginner species” with strong special abilities. In addition to receiving an extra ”nest egg” of money and an extra package of resources, she is partially vaccinated against Unlucky Events! A good choice for a child's species, for example.


Flapper (click to enlarge)

- Heikki
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Anthony Rubbo
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Thank you for providing the alternative options to the catch-up mechanism! Excellent!
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Nicely done; these mechanisms feel very true to the original video game.

The wording on the Lucky Event card seems awkward, though:
Lucky Event card wrote:
Effect to target Colonist with

Couldn't it say something simpler, like:
"If you have:"
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Heikki Harju
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BStringham wrote:
Nicely done; these mechanisms feel very true to the original video game.

The wording on the Lucky Event card seems awkward, though:
Lucky Event card wrote:
Effect to target Colonist with

Couldn't it say something simpler, like:
"If you have:"


In this case, some simplicity has been compromised to hint that someone else than the player who picked and read the card should be its target.

We started with shorter wordings, such as "effect with:", but in playtesting we saw that first-time players were initially quite puzzled about the whole Event system. Their first instinct is to assume that the text refers to the player who picked the card rather than another (target) player. I guess it could have also been "If Target Colonist has:" and assume that first-time players understand that the text field in the bottom describes the effect of the card.

Anyway, thanks for feedback.

- Heikki
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Kim Choy
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This is one of the two aspects that I struggled with in converting the computer game into a (playable) boardgame. Like you said, it's pretty tedious to have players counting up their net value including lands owned, developments on those lands, goods value and money. I understand the motivation for the different way to handle this.

Using money only probably works just fine, as it really depends on how the economy has been generally fine tuned. If you changed nothing else in the computer game but made the turn ranking based solely on cash on hand it wouldn't work at all. Since the board game changes many aspects of the economy in addition to the altered ranking, there's a greater possibility that it works. It seems to me that this simplification severely underestimates the value of land but I say this without having played.

I didn't get far enough into play testing my prototype to determine the breaking point for it, though.

My first test was to simplify the values of goods and lands by assigning them fixed money values. Since you don't horde too many of either, it was relatively simple to calculate the added wealth of a player (as long as you were comfortable with multiplication but it would have put the game out of reach of younger players) without slowing the game too much. It needed more tweaking though as I hadn't gone through a third stage reduction of the quantities of money and goods earned in game.

---

As far as assignment of the event cards I'll say it's a novel approach. It certainly adds an element of "take that" mechanics to MULE that did not exist in the original. Also, it's interesting that there will be personal events every round. There was no such guarantee in the computer game. However, given that the board game is half as many rounds there's some merit to doing it this way.

---

Just reordering the ranking / personal event / land grant / land auction phases has interesting consequences. I'll be interested to see how it plays out.
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Heikki Harju
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Thank you for the thoughtful comments, Kim. I can see you've really put some thought into this!

My short reply is that the simplified Ranking mechanism needs to be viewed in conjunction with the interactive Event system. The interactive Event system mends some of the shortcomings of using only Money. Ranking is not meant to be 100% accurate and fair; it's just meant to do its job.

Using only Money to calculate Ranking means that:
Simplified Ranking is more accurate in telling top Ranks than bottom Ranks.
Simplified Ranking is more accurate in late game than early game.

An example: Leggite spends $20 in early game to buy a plot of Land. Mechtron buys all Energy from The Store for $18. Packer and Spheroid spend nothing. All colonists spent the same amount on M.U.L.E.s. This puts Leggite at Rank 4 and Mechtron at Rank 3. Packer was ranked higher than Spheroid in the Setup, so Spheroid is Rank 2 and Packer is Rank 1. In reality, they all still have roughly equal wealth, though.

In the Personal Events Phase, Packer has to give a Lucky Event (say, +$5) to someone else. She chooses Spheroid, because she knows that all players are roughly equal in wealth, but +$5 would help the cash-starved Leggite and Mechtron much more. Now Spheroid chooses the target of an Unlucky Event (say, losing half your Food). She targets Leggite, because now Leggite cannot develop her new Land!

In conclusion: Leggite and Mechtron did not really benefit from being low-Ranked. While the Ranking itself was under-estimating the wealth of Leggite and Mechtron, the Event system enabled other players to take that into account. If you wish to have a bit more accuracy in Ranking, an Optional Rule is provided to assign a standard $5 value for M.U.L.E.s and $10 for Lands. IMO, it's not a big deal.

I'm also glad you mention the re-ordering of Phases. Had I been 100% faithful to the computer game here, Events would have happened between Land Grant and Development. However, this seemed to interrupt the logical flow between claiming and developing Lands for no obvious reason. The reason for that sequence in the computer game was that Development phase was the only Phase where the computer spoke to players individually, but that reason was no longer valid in the Board Game. Initially Events were the first Phase of a Game Turn. However, it didn't feel right that the game should start by drawing and targeting Personal Events based on the random Setup Ranking. Rather than putting an exception "skip Events on Turn 1" in place, I moved Events to be the last Phase, to be done only AFTER the Ranking has changed once. Not having Events in the last Game Turn felt right, too. The number of Events appearing per phase was standardized to add predictability.

- Heikki

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neko flying
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Shouldn't the overall colony success scale be adjusted for advanced ranking and/or longer games? Have you got a quick and dirty formula to scale it?

If not, I can try and give it a shot myself later
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Heikki Harju
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flying_neko wrote:
Shouldn't the overall colony success scale be adjusted for advanced ranking and/or longer games? Have you got a quick and dirty formula to scale it?

If not, I can try and give it a shot myself later


That's something we can do together, as a player community .

If we have a place for logging hundreds of games and questions controlling for the number of turns and for the most popular optional rules, we should be able to improve the baseline scoring table provided in the Rulebook and also provide success tables for the main variants. We could also log which species win more often when optional species power rules are used.

I'm all for it!
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That would be cool. One question though.


I have never tried to collaboratively get a high colony score btw. How much of it is a matter of "gaming the rules" to create artificial shortages ad opposed to a measure of actually good play?

I do remember consistently getting average-ish results in the computer game when playing competitively.
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In my experience, the players would have to largely work together to get a maximum colony score, but doing so would make the chances of a first founder outcome rather uncertain (since everyone would be doing well).

On the other hand, everyone playing cutthroat guarantees you the debtors' prison ending.
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Heikki Harju
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For the benefit of those not familiar with M.U.L.E. I want to be clear: M.U.L.E. The Board Game is a competitive, not a collaborative game. The colony total score is much more a thematic storytelling element than a real game goal.

It would be possible in the future to craft an expansion that would turn M.U.L.E. into a more competitive/collaborative combination game. Perhaps the colonists could invest into an "early warning telescope" to counter the Pirate Ship. Perhaps the players could together use different means to negotiate a better "export deal" for Crystite. Changing the nature of the game was beyond our initial scope, though.

- Heikki
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Big Head Zach
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harmandil wrote:
For the benefit of those not familiar with M.U.L.E. I want to be clear: M.U.L.E. The Board Game is a competitive, not a collaborative game. The colony total score is much more a thematic storytelling element than a real game goal.


Very true. However, the computer version did not recognize a winner / First Founder unless the colony earned a minimum score (which is the "minimum standards" result, if I recall). Obviously play groups can choose to interpret it their own way.

It's the curse of all semi-coop / semi-competitive games, but in MULE's case the coop aspect is super-light compared to other games with that distinction (and which can suffer from the "doomsday" effect that losing players can instigate).
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Kim Choy
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Thanks for the extended explanation! I might try to clean up my prototype rules a bit and send them to you just so you can see how close our ideas were for many aspects of this conversion .
harmandil wrote:
In conclusion: Leggite and Mechtron did not really benefit from being low-Ranked. While the Ranking itself was under-estimating the wealth of Leggite and Mechtron, the Event system enabled other players to take that into account. If you wish to have a bit more accuracy in Ranking, an Optional Rule is provided to assign a standard $5 value for M.U.L.E.s and $10 for Lands. IMO, it's not a big deal.

Yeah, this is the "take that" mechanic that I was talking about. I'm unsure how this will change the feel of MULE but I envision being the one targeted by negative events more often than is necessarily warranted by position (as one who is perceived to win games more often).

However, there is also the optional rule of assigning the event according to the player rank on the card. This alters how players should approach playing for rank, which is fine but different.
harmandil wrote:
I'm also glad you mention the re-ordering of Phases. Had I been 100% faithful to the computer game here, Events would have happened between Land Grant and Development. However, this seemed to interrupt the logical flow between claiming and developing Lands for no obvious reason. The reason for that sequence in the computer game was that Development phase was the only Phase where the computer spoke to players individually, but that reason was no longer valid in the Board Game. Initially Events were the first Phase of a Game Turn. However, it didn't feel right that the game should start by drawing and targeting Personal Events based on the random Setup Ranking. Rather than putting an exception "skip Events on Turn 1" in place, I moved Events to be the last Phase, to be done only AFTER the Ranking has changed once. Not having Events in the last Game Turn felt right, too. The number of Events appearing per phase was standardized to add predictability.

- Heikki
I left the personal events in place. Skipping the first round or skipping the last round makes no real difference since you're "breaking sequence" once during the game anyway. I figured that having players skip a turn sequence at the beginning of play is preferable, if only because new players will be using the rule book at the beginning and may miss out a change in rules in the last round. One minor difference to having the personal events occur where they do is that it may change how a player approaches the land grant phase. Interesting either way!
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Kim Choy
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bhz1 wrote:
harmandil wrote:
For the benefit of those not familiar with M.U.L.E. I want to be clear: M.U.L.E. The Board Game is a competitive, not a collaborative game. The colony total score is much more a thematic storytelling element than a real game goal.


Very true. However, the computer version did not recognize a winner / First Founder unless the colony earned a minimum score (which is the "minimum standards" result, if I recall). Obviously play groups can choose to interpret it their own way.

It's the curse of all semi-coop / semi-competitive games, but in MULE's case the coop aspect is super-light compared to other games with that distinction (and which can suffer from the "doomsday" effect that losing players can instigate).

Not only that, but there was an actual "game loss" scenario for the players if they failed to generate enough food and energy in a round. I can't remember the exact trigger at the moment but, essentially, if the players had a shortage of food and energy heading into a round the game ended immediately in a total loss for the players. In this way, the game is semi-cooperative; players are fighting the desolate new world to survive, in addition to trying to exploit the planet for personal profit!
 
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Heikki Harju
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Quote:
Skipping the first round or skipping the last round makes no real difference since you're "breaking sequence" once during the game anyway.


Actually, the Personal Events phase is not skipped on the last Turn either. It is just not reached because the game ends in the Ranking Phase. But in the big picture, almost any place in the sequence would have been valid for Personal Events. They are not mandatory for the main "economy engine" and can easily even be skipped without having to compensate anywhere else.
 
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Kim Choy
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Oh, I missed that detail about the end game condition (I admit I haven't read the rule book thoroughly yet).

I agree that, in principal, the personal events could have been at any time. As long as it's consistent in the sequencing, players can plan around the eventuality of minor gains/losses. There is a very minor tactical difference between having personal events before land grant as opposed to after land grant, though.

Suppose you want to play a "Land for Sale!" card but don't want to be outbid by your competitor. If you get lucky and he's hit by a negative event that drains his cash then you will be able to also play your card without risk. If personal events were after land grant, then this would not be available.

Not a huge difference (and likely a very rare occurrence!) but it's different.
 
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Heikki Harju
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That's absolutely true, Kim. That is a consequence of the design choice to move Events Phase to the end of the Turn Sequence: players can better predict the cash position they are going to have in Development Phase when bidding for Lands in the Expansion Phase.

 
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