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Subject: [Design Diary] Evolution of the Chronobot rss

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David Turczi
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This was originally written as a backer update, but due to how long it turned out to be, I'm posting it here instead.

Hello there. I’m David, lead designer of Anachrony. These updates are normally written by the wonderful team at Mindclash, since they know the world and the game just as well - often better - than I do, but there is a very special corner of the game that remains “all mine”, and that is the solo mode. I’m here today to talk about my journey as a solo mode designer and the path of Anachrony’s solo mode from inception and creation of the Chronobot to improved Chronobot Omega and finally Chronossus.
Anachrony’s Chronobot is a very special milestone in my career: it was the very first solo mode I’d ever done. What made me do it, you might ask? Is it because I’m an avid solo gamer and I was hungry for something better? Nope. Other than a few solo challenges of that certain other game that launched the same day as we did (rhymes with Merraforming Tars) I had never played a solo game in my life. I did it because Tuscany came out while Anachrony was being developed at Mindclash, and after I read the rules of their ground-breaking Automa, I said to myself, “this doesn’t look complicated, I’m sure I can do this.” So when Viktor asked for a few more stretch goals I volunteered to design a solo mode. A short while later another solo mode followed, this time for Days of Ire, then for Petrichor, then for Cerebria, and then somewhere along the way - due in no small part to Anachrony’s success - I became the “solo guy”. Today, half of all my game development work is designing solo modes for other people’s games!



Chronobot, fresh out of nursery


Solo designs have patterns, methods that I learn to do better. I credit Chronobot’s success to two facts: the awesome thematic coating of a solo mode (thank you Richard and Viktor!) and predictability. You can look up as you plan your turn and guess where the bot’s next move will be. This is something most simpler solo opponents will never provide. But as the years went by and my solo design skills improved, I noticed something about predictability. For most solo modes I created, the player could predict the bot’s move with 25-50% accuracy, yet with the Chronobot’s six token accuracy was only 16-32%! My newer bots had a victory point spread of ~10-15% (their lowest and their highest scores were reasonably close, yet dependent on the game’s rhythm enough that they didn’t feel like “beat X points to win), yet Chronobot had twice as much spread. Rolling three or more sixes after impact caused a spread of 30% (up to 15 vp in this case). Then, of course, there was the famous panic of 2018 when somebody proclaimed on BGG they “broke” the bot, and could defeat it every time. I was besides myself. How? We tried every strategy: the better we played, the better the bot performed. I should have guessed: if you play completely terrible, the bot does poorly. If you don’t play at all, the bot loses even worse. We fixed this by saying the bot will take at least three actions, but still, the problem was inherent. The Chronobot didn’t have difficulty levels: it played as well as you did, took as many actions as you took. That’s not how opponents work. Some are more efficient, some are less but have a higher maximum… In short, Chronobot was still well received - mostly because it was within a well received game and it was something different - but I just couldn’t let it go: I could do better.
So I was overjoyed when I got the green light and component budget from Viktor to design a new solo opponent for Anachrony’s expansion. Meanwhile, a fellow called Darren on BGG submitted a negative review of the Chronobot, where he explained how much he wanted to love it but due to 3-4 problems (randomness, lack of human opponent’s feel, lack of difficulty levels and expansion support) he just couldn’t enjoy it. I immediately posted that I agreed with him, and invited him to join the playtesting group I was putting together. The core of the team was - as always - Nick Shaw, my co-creator on Cerebria’s Ego and my chief playtester on pretty much everything else. Then I invited John Albertson, who impressed me during playtests of Rome and Roll (a heavy-euro roll and write Nick and I have coming up this year) by playing every single character against the solo opponent multiple times. I tasked them to help me tweak this new mysterious solo opponent which eventually turned into the Chronossus. The goal was bold: pass like a human, have difficulty settings, be less random, and support all expansions.


So that’s the epic backstory. Next up is: how did we go from Chronobot to Chronobot Omega to Chronossus?

Randomness
The main problem was six tokens gave too much spread to Chronobot. Luckily, Fractures already had an “average die”, with faces showing 2/3/3/4/4/5 - the flux die. So the solution was obvious: have 4 tokens, with uneven odds, and remove the condition that it can only build superprojects after impact, and adjust locations of some action tiles. This increased predictability AND stabilized the victory point spread.

Pass like a human

Human players collect a bunch of Energy Cores and then decide how many to spend on a given era. Instead of writing complex conditions determining when the bot should pass, it was easier to simulate this decision. Initially, we tried having a set number of Energy Cores available for the bot. However, we quickly discovered this occasionally caused a loop where the bot would get eight to fifteen actions more than typical and cause a huge gain in points. A couple of tweaks here and there were made until the Energy cup was born. The Energy cup contained: five new tokens, in the shape of Energy Cores, but blank (I’m sure the actual graphics will be much cooler ). You mix these with some energy cores together in a container (your clean coffee mug will do), and when it’s the bot’s turn to power up, you pull out three tokens, and for each Energy Core pulled it powers up one additional exosuit (pre-impact the bot starts each era with three powered up suits, and post-impact, two each era to a max of 4- so it can power up 3-6 exosuits pre-impact and 2-4 post-impact). Blanks go back to the cup (simulating the bot running out of cores), used cores are discarded, but a new action on the bot’s loop allows it to gain more.
I knew some people would not like this change, despite what the testers and I felt were clear improvements; because it costs nothing extra, we decided to include a “Chronobot but improved” on the back side of Chronossus which only includes the randomness fix, but otherwise plays as the old opponent did: this became Chronobot Omega (or “1.1” as we called it in testing), and the framework of this more realistic bot became the Chronossus (aka “2.0”). At this point we knew we had a solid foundation to build from and that is when Darren (mentioned earlier) and Sara T joined the team to continue playtesting.

Supporting difficulty levels

This was a fun challenge to fix.: To play at harder difficulties I needed some actions to become stronger. he solution was moving some actions onto removable tiles and leaving their spaces on the board empty. If you want harder difficulty: flip it to the other side where it does more. Or since the loops have uneven odds, you can even make it harder by putting the “more powerful” action on a more likely loop! You can also increase the bot’s difficulty by giving it more Energy Cores at setup. Easy!

Support expansions
I sneakily introduced the tiles for one other reason: so I could swap them out for different actions for each expansion! Playing with Fractures? Add tiles that might send it to the Valley! Playing with Guardians? That action might hire a Guardian! It can support any one expansion (as there are a limited number of spaces to put the tiles), but at this point I’m confident that any future module that is supported for two players will be supportable in solo as well. Fractures itself had one more challenge: the bot needed to learn to blink. Fortunately the solution was already designed into the system: the Flux cup! A second container with Flux the bot gathers in it, plus Flux-shaped “blank” tokens. Whenever the bot can legally blink and wants to take a main board action, draw a token from the Flux cup. If it’s a Flux, it blinks. If not, put it aside (the blanks go back in the cup at the end of the round) and place an exosuit normally. If it wants to place an exosuit (couldn’t or didn’t want to blink) and doesn’t have any more (since the number of powered up exosuits are still decided by the Energy cup as explained above), it passes - just like a human would.
So the use of cups and flippable tiles feels like a natural solution to every problem “2.0” had to face to be better than “good old Chronobot” and I’m happy to report we passed those challenges.

What about those objectives?

Oh that’s a funny story. When the multiplayer Fractures module got finalised, I sent a pnp to the solo testers, so they can try out the “final” UI. John messaged me in panic: “The B evac of Unity depends on the objectives in play! There are no objectives in solo!” Ok. I'll admit it. We totally forgot about solo play when designing this particular evacuation condition, but I really didn’t want to go back to Viktor to have a fourth go at designing a good B evac for Unity,especially when we finally had one we liked and worked! So I first told the team “play with the A evac, that’s it”. But I knew that was a weak answer, and eventually I had a “why not” moment. “Why not have objectives in solo?” Multiple, hard to reach milestones in random categories. You can reach the easiest level in many, or the hardest in few, but you still have to do the things you have to do to beat the now-much-stronger Chronossus.

So that’s the full story of how Chronossus came to be, and why I can’t wait for all of you have a go at it and tell me whether you agree we managed to make a good system so much better.

Now I’ll hand the mic over to Nick, who recorded all these fancy theories in practice, to introduce you to the solo mode in spectacular fashion - including your first look at the actual Chronossus board (without art), and a playthrough video of him playing against the evil bot:




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Odysseus X
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The more I play your stuff, the more inspired I am to attempt to try to design my own... something. game? mode? solo? I'm not sure, but as I figure out what you are thinking, to the best of my knowledge, it feels so elegant and pretty streamlined, usually. Then I read your thought process and it is is both encouraging and discouraging. I understand it. It seems feasible. It's all very logically laid out. But it's also pretty brilliant, in my opinion. I'm sure with practice and time, anyone could achieve the skills you have, but the talent is something else.

Thanks for letting me fanboy at you. I look forward to playing the new Chronobots.
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Stijn Lamers
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Looks like my next few moments of free time are sorted! I can't wait to dive in and meet both Chrono-entities.
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Dmitry Nazarov
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Great post, David!
Looking forward to the new bots.
One question... You said:

TDaver wrote:
the awesome thematic coating of a solo mode


Is there some "lore" behind the Chronobot that I could read? There's none in the rulebook and I couldn't find it on the website, but I do vaguely remember seeing something some time ago.
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Dante
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I just want to say thank you very much for figuring out how to play with the modules in solo mode. I have the base game with the exo-suits but it was a bummer having the modules that I could never use.

I was thinking about skipping this kickstarter but when you announced that the new bot can use the modules, it made this kickstarter an easy choice for me. I really look forward to playing my modules now in solo mode.
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John Albertson
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don_caballero wrote:
Great post, David!
Looking forward to the new bots.
One question... You said:

TDaver wrote:
the awesome thematic coating of a solo mode


Is there some "lore" behind the Chronobot that I could read? There's none in the rulebook and I couldn't find it on the website, but I do vaguely remember seeing something some time ago.


MCG is referencing Chronossus in the newest update (whoops, not update it's a prologue) and campaign page. It looks like it will be significantly involved the story for Fractures of Time.

Based on that you want to check the original Kickstarter to see if anything is there.
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Dmitry Nazarov
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albinoork wrote:
Based on that you want to check the original Kickstarter to see if anything is there.


Thanks, John!
 
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David Turczi
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don_caballero wrote:
albinoork wrote:
Based on that you want to check the original Kickstarter to see if anything is there.


Thanks, John!


I seem to recall reading the full lore in the art and storybook. I'm sure the new developments will be included in the new book.
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Joe Farrell
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Thanks so much for sharing this. As much as I love playing Anachrony with others, every multiplayer game I've had so far has had at least one new player in it, so I haven't really gotten to explore the existing modules yet, and I'm really looking forward to the solo mode having that capability.

Incidentally, it was solo play that led me to discover Anachrony in the first place. One night I was in the mood for a game of Teotihuacan but had no one to play with, so I decided to give the solo mode a try. My experience with solo modes before that had been limited to much simpler implementations (like the one for Tuscany) so at first I was kind of overwhelmed by how much space it took up in the rulebook, but once I figured it out I was amazed by how well it worked, and by how quickly I could execute Teotibot's turns. I looked up the designer on BGG and went out and bought Anachrony the next day.
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John Albertson
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Arcturian wrote:
I looked up the designer on BGG and went out and bought Anachrony the next day.


Do yourself a favor and checkout Dice Settlers. The AI is little more complicated to manage than Teotihuacan, but is well worth the extra effort.
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