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Subject: Designer Diary #4: Invocations and Advancements rss

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Scott DeMers
United States
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Fair warning
In this designer diary I may take a shortcut on an explanation for brevity sake. Should you notice a discrepancy between what I type here and later published versions, know that it is for the above reason, an unmet stretch goal, or perhaps some late stage fine tuning.

One of the central theme of Hellenica: Story of Greece is that the world is at a crossroads. The old world of gods and “magic” is giving way to the advancement of science and man that birthed the Western world. There is a balance between technology and mythology that players will have to choose. Players will almost always leverage both, but will usually lean on one more than the other. Let’s look at this interesting aspect of the game…

Invocations are when players call upon the gods to break the rules of the game in their favor. They take effect for some period of time, from instant, to a round, to a combat, or a full game turn. As one would expect, the more powerful invocations cost more, but usually last longer or have stronger effects.

In order to cast invocations a player needs two things: favor and dedicated temples (see Designer Diary #3: Player Actions). Favor is earned via the worship action in a city of yours that has at least one temple. Players must spend 1, 2, or 3 favor, depending on the level of the invocation they wish to call upon from the deity. However, a god in Greece does not intercede for just anyone. In order to cast an invocation, the player must show loyalty by also having temples dedicated to that god in equal number to the level of the invocation.

Take a look at the Hades deity card shown below. If a player has 2 temples dedicated to Hades and 2 favor as well, that player could cast the level 2 invocation, “Illness”. The player could also cast the level one invocation, “Epidemic”, by spending 1 favor as they have at least 1 temple to Hades. However, Annihilation is not possible as the player would need another temple dedicated to Hades and 3 favor to spend.

At first glance, advancements are similar to invocations. However, they are different in several ways. First, they are not magic that must be powered by something. Rather, they are always in effect once purchased. Secondly, advancements are purchased using philosophers earned during a research action, not favor (See the aforementioned Designer Diary #3: Player Actions). Finally, the advancements are split into two levels. A player may not research an upper level advancement until they have at least one lower level advancement. Additionally, the player must have 2 lower level advancements before they can research the 2nd upper level advancement.

Let’s look at a few of the invocations and advancements in the game as samples in order to better understand how they operate. For this section, please refer to the Poseidon deity card and the naval advancement diagram below.

Invocations: Poseidon
Poseidon is ruler of the seas and has 3 invocations that he can perform for players.

His first level invocation is Shipworm. It is situationally useful and only lasts for a single round. It is important to note that each invocation may only be used once her turn. You may have noticed that the square area next to the invocation fits an 8mm cube nearly perfectly to denote that the invocation is exhausted. Shipworm impacts an elite ship to cause it to fight as if it were not elite.

The second level invocation can bring a storm upon an invasion route or slow the advance of an enemy. By casting Storms at Sea, the notoriously unseaworthy triremes of ancient Greece must pay a price to enter or leave the tile. Specifically, the moving player must destroy a ship in the targeted tile to move through, or transport across that tile.

Poseidon’s third level invocation is called Favorable Winds and it is a potent one. Normally when a unit is supplied for movement in a round, the unit moves one tile. Ships may be supplied multiple times in a turn, but each supply action allows it to move one tile. Thus, players usually have time to react to a player’s actions. However, with Favorable Winds, a player can move his ships an extra tile and attack before the enemy can react. Building a third temple to Poseidon should put all players that share a sea with you that you are ready to strike should they let their guard down.

Advancements: Naval
The naval advancements in the game also improve the quality of your sea capabilities. However, they act different than do Poseidon’s invocations.

The first level one advancement is Naval Tactics and it allows your triremes to be elite. They become nearly twice as effective in combat.

The second level one advancement is Copper-Banding. Normally triremes can transport 2 land units per round. However, with this advancement, their capacity doubles. Smaller fleets can now transport much larger armies.

The first level two advancement is Brilliant Admiral. Once learned, a player takes a +1 military leader token and can now place it, once per turn, in a sea area of their choice to increase their combat strength in the tile.

The second level two advancement is Trade Routes. During the game, a player can discard 3 trade (see Designer Diary #3: Player Actions) to add 1 philosopher to their stock. However, by establishing trade routes, they can convert trade to philosophers at a 1:1 ratio – much more efficient.

The deities in ancient Greece were vain and petty despite their immense power. Each deity has a rival whom they loathe. In game terms, a player may never have temples to both a deity and that deity’s rival at the same time. These rivals are determined randomly at game start, thus creating a near endless number of scenarios to which players will need to adapt. A preferred combination of invocations may not be available from game to game.

Invocations or Advancements:
Frankly, a major part of the enjoyment for new players of the game is to discover the advancements and invocations on their own. How they interplay is one of the key replayability themes in Hellenica: Story of Greece. Surrounded by enemies this game? Ares and Hades can be of great assistance to you as can the military and naval advancements. Is yours secluded civilization? Perhaps Athena, Zeus, or Hermes are better choices along with the construction and government advancements. Care to play a patient game where you leverage world events to your advantage, Hera, Demeter, or Aphrodite may be more to your liking.

Each game of Hellenica FEELS different because of the ever changing map and the way the advancements and invocations play off of each other. I look forward to when you have your hands on the game and can experience this thrill for the first time.

If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that 75% of the play-balancing that has occurred over the lifetime of Hellenica: Story of Greece has been spent on the invocations and advancements.

The relentless march of advancements
The first version of the advancements was a tech tree that would have felt at home in a game like the computer Civilization. Some advancements had multiple prerequisites and planning a few turns in advance was like a calculus class. It was not much fun and felt more like a process (apologies to all the calculus wizards out there).

Additionally, there was a unique cost in money for each advancement in addition to a research cost. Thus, one had to track money in the game (originally called talents). Some of the advancements cost was in the 18 talent range – way more than a player could earn in a turn. As the game design progressed, I realized that tracking yet another commodity was over complicating the game. Thus, talents were abandoned and philosophers became the primary mechanism to purchase advancements. And the cost had to come down significantly – now all advancements were either 1 or 3.

Why 1 or 3? Math. Or, at least I felt it was math. Are the 2nd level advancements three times as valuable as the level 1 advancements? Most of the time, not. However, early in the game all players can produce 1 philosopher per turn. A player can spend the entire game trolling around the lower level advancements and never go for the more powerful ones. However, if a player wants to leverage the relentless progress of science, they must invest in academies and research to generate the philosophers needed to produce an advancement every turn rather than one every three turns. It worked elegantly from the first day I put it in and that has never changed.

The other thing that changed was the removal of the tech tree. Instead of a complicated set of prereqs, why not instead simply require a single advancement before going for a higher level one? I am a firm believer that there are multiple paths to discoveries and that is why so many civilizations discovered very similar things at nearly the same time in vastly different ways. The game models that with the simple rule of 1 lower level advancement allows a player to get 1 upper level advancement and so on.

If one were to look at the finished game vs. the initial playtests, you would find about half of the advancements are in their near final form in that first version. I secretly hold my chin up on that count – I figure that is a pretty good success rate. 100s of playtests in, we have a balanced set. I seldom see players go for the same advancements in the game. You will see some go for mining, some go for the advancements that allow extra actions, some go for better military, and all in a nice balanced ratio. Which make sense to you depends on the goals once must accomplish – public and private – to win the game.

Death by many cuts – play balancing the invocations
In contrast to the advancements, play balancing the invocations was like the arm in a grandfather clock. It swung too far in one direction each time we played. Every play test had me working late at night in a new balanced set of invocations. Only at the next playtest, when I found someone meta-gaming some small tweak would I know what further modifications I needed to make (Demeter doubling the actions of markets and allowing them to be active immediately comes to mind).

Another example is one that will make sense when you see the game – Hermes has an invocation called Alliance. It allows a player to take control of a neighboring neutral city immediately (instead of moving troops in and waiting until the end of the turn to conquer it). It is quite powerful – especially early in the game. In the first incarnations, it was a level 1 invocation. I vividly remember the play test where all 7 players took Hermes as the deity for their initial temple. What curse word I chose to use at that moment escapes me now, but it was probably not one of the more mild ones. It took several games to “right-level” Alliance to a level 2 invocation; still very useful, but requiring some investment before its availability.

The good news is that most games had the arm of the grandfather clock swinging a little bit closer to the middle. I could not ask for more. Over time, I saw a wide variety of strategies in starting game deity and I have seen every deity leveraged fully with powerful invocations used to stunning effect (one game where a player used Aphrodite to seduce Zeus to keep him out of a game turn, only to have Hera change a world event for the win is a fond memory).

Did I get it exactly correct – my guess is that there is no such thing. That some combinations of deities will be more powerful than others. This is why the concept of rivals entered the game. Knowing that perfection was not possible, I could at least nerf the best laid plans. What if you cannot leverage the invocations of both Zeus and Hera or Ares and Hades or whichever 2 gods you prefer? What if the god you want is not even present in the game this play? Those are real possibilities and you must adapt.

Also, there are those pesky goals (victory conditions). I may be the best at leveraging Apollo’s movement invocations or Athena’s wisdom, but what if neither supports the public or private goals I must accomplish (See Designer Diary #1: Victory Conditions). I must learn how to apply the right deity or advancements at the right time to win the game! There is no perfect strategy before a game is played. I must adapt to the ever changing situation on the table.

In Closing...
I will have more to follow in upcoming diary entries. Look for posts about the movement and combat system, player counts (including solo), mythology, and more!

If you found this valuable or have a question, please give it a share, a like or a comment. If you did not, drop me a PM so I can find a way to make these entries more valuable for you.

Thanks for reading and may Apollo’s chariot not burn your back as he did mine (I write this from vacation in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina in mid-Summer, 2017)….
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