Dealing with defeat

An 8-hour game of Twilight Imperium, 15 minutes in

Two down, two to go

Strategy games can take a long time to play. And if you’re not careful, you may end up spending most of that time watching your friends duke it out over the remnants of your former empire.

Have you ever been in that situation? You arrange a board game night with some friends, and plan ahead to get enough players and time to go for the really involved, large-scale strategy games. Anything from Avalon Hill or Fantasy Flight will do.
You set up the board, order pizza and make your first moves… only to get immediately overrun by three of your former friends. “Sorry, but we figured we cannot allow you to tech”, “Hey, rushing is a viable strategy” or “Come on, you know that game so well, we had to team up to stand a chance” are the usual comments that accompany your quick defeat.

The good thing is: They are probably right. Playing with experienced gamers adds additional meta-game levels around the table. And you just lost the mind game. Next time, try not to be so smug about former victories, keep a low profile in the start phase and have enough beer at hand to bribe your neighbours.
The bad thing is: You still have to spend the next hours either watching as your usurpers finish the game, while contributing only pretzels and snarky commentary. Or you could call it a day and go home. Or watch TV if you are already at home.

A game of bones

If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine

From zero to zero degree hero

It is an unpleasant situation, and many gaming groups try to avoid it. When it is more about a friendly get-together than the competitive challenge, they are well advised to check out more Euro-style games. But for the hard-of-core who want to have it both, deadly challenge and keeping players in the game, I suggest a new feature: Zombies!

Some time ago, I constructed a little board game on that concept. Essentially, it was a fantasy war game with players gathering resources, recruiting armies and battling each other over the crown. But there was a twist to that: As long as no one was on the throne, the dead would refuse to stay dead. And every battle that was fought between players was increasing the strength of the undead army. Finally, players could be defeated or voluntarily abdicate their right to rule the living. In which case they would gain new victory conditions and take control of the undead hordes.

This concept basically boils down to creating and including a second game mode into the first. It is kind of a loser’s bracket where defeated players can team up to make life harder for the remaining competitors and exact revenge on those who defeated them in the first place.

Creeping feature, how hard could it POSSIBLY be to add this feature from my wishlist?!

Already got strategy and undead...

Does any reader know of a game that already uses a similar feature? I’d very much like to hear about it. It seems unlikely to me because of one large hurdle to execution: Bad cost/effort ratio.
Implementation would require assets and balancing for two separate game modes, only to cater to a very small audience. As a designer, you will fare better by concentrating on your core game and make the original “go for the crown”-game as enjoyable as possible.

But maybe, just maybe, you got some spare time and resources to create an additional set of rules for your game. There are some solid video games out there which could fit a “game of bones” feature snugly onto their existing mechanics. I’m looking at you, Blight of the Immortals.

Bullet points of death

As for board games, some general rules could be applied to anything from Twilight Imperium to Axis and Allies. These are not tested, only starting points for first prototypes:

Unit creation:

  • Create an undead pool of the weakest combat units (fighters/infantry).
  • For every defeated player, add a new undead pool of stronger units (cruisers/tanks).
  • At the beginning of each turn, add a linearly increasing number of that unit to each existing undead pool.
  • After every battle, put half the number (rounded down) of destroyed units towards the undead side. Yes, those undead buggers are unlikely to get annihilated.

Deployment and combat:

  • Undead units do not spawn until there is a defeated player to control them.
  • They can be spawned in any territory that is not occupied by living forces or structures.
  • They do not require any production facilities, but are still limited by any production cap of that territory.
  • Undead act last in turn, after all other players have made their moves.
  • They move and fight like regular units.

Multiplayer and scoring:

  • Undead players have to play cooperatively against the living: They share units and should coordinate their strategy.
  • Undead win if there is no living player left, either through defeat or abdication.
  • That’s it. Go out there and get those brains!

Shambling along

Never out of fashion

Zombies: Improving games since 1889

There are a lot of problems with this draft. The rules and balancing need to be better tailored to their core game. And of course, the main question should be answered: Is it fun?
At the moment, this feature will probably just create a more tedious endgame for all players for the sake of keeping them at the table.

Still, I like the basic idea. So … I’ll just put it out there and come back now and then to iterate. It’s also a pretext to start digging at core strategy game mechanics, to exhume their bones and expose their graphs and digits. There is some un-life left in this feature, it just needs more brains-power to rise to its promise.

Meanwhile, try these rules: Whoever gets defeated in a strategy board game, may call himself “Hand of God” and remove some random units from the board each turn. Yes, that includes a lot of crying and throwing the pieces around the room. Very old strategy, guaranteed not boring. And who would want to play with those backstabbing sneaks ever again, anyway?

Ecobalance exploit in ANNO 2070

More than meets the eye

Vote for progress!

There is a huge exploit in ANNO 2070. And it is one of the more realistic elements of the game.

This exploit allows players to utilize standard game mechanics to completely shut down an opponent in multiplayer matches. And it works like this: Choose to start with the Tycoon faction. Start scouting for Eco faction players immediately after the session begins. Other players are not very hard to spot, since the islands with the important starting resources are usually located in the middle of the map. After you have found a thriving Eco settlement, plant your own warehouse on another beach of that island. If you want to be extra mean, put one or two depots near it to secure the area should your warehouse be destroyed. Now build some cheap buildings with large Ecobalance cost – namely Excavators and Coal Power Plants.

See where this is going? Yes, you take a hit in early production for spending building materials on your opponent’s island. And against another Tycoon player, you just slowed your economic growth for nothing. But Ecos are far more sensitive about the Ecobalance of their island. And with just a few buildings, you crippled the productivity of their farms and made their inhabitants too unhappy to pay any taxes. And there is nearly nothing they can do against this, apart from openly attacking your warehouse or trying to migrate to another island, where the grass is still green.

Stop complaining, it could be worse!

I shall kill you... with buildings!

Somewhere in the bugtracking tool

This issue popped up not long after the game’s multiplayer mode became functional. But what to do about it? The problem is created by the shared attribute, but the shared attribute is the core of the feature, and the feature is at the core of the new setting. So nothing we could chalk up as design flaw and remove it quietly.

Actually, that feature had already been dialled back from being global to just affecting one island. Just imagine playing the Eco faction and having to deal with a steadily decreasing ecobalance because a Tycoon player is settling anywhere on the map.  No fun at all. And very, very hard to explain. It is one thing to construct a building and get an immediate feedback via numbers and changes in the island’s appearance. But another to build up peacefully and suddenly get a starving and rioting population, because you failed to constantly monitor one little abstract number somewhere on the screen. Which you do not care for anyway, because you have no idea how it is calculated or what it does exactly.

Just… don’t play with other people?

...or Europe, America, Africa, Australia. Not Antarctica. Yet.

Somewhere in China

Anyway, the issue still exists when players share an island. We decided against either gutting the core mechanic by creating separate ecobalance values for players, or constructing contrived crutch-features and workarounds through quests or items. We want to solve the issue, and solve it right. So, yes, there will be updates to the game down the road that addresses this exploit.

But in the meantime, your best solution to avoid it when playing ANNO 2070 multiplayer is to form a social contract. Talk to each other, agree on house rules and shame anyone that uses cheese tactics. Chances are, you will be more successful than the UN in Copenhagen, Cancûn or Durban. I had hoped to get some results from these conferences that could be transferred into our game world. In a simplified form, of course, but the analogy would have been nice. At the moment, we will have to come up with something of our own. But on the bright side, it is probably implemented before the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012.