Encouraging player interaction in games

Players build around the fringes of their territory while trying not to get too close to other players for fear of attacks.

Players build around the fringes of their territory, while trying not to get too close to other players for fear of attack.

Players surprised me during a recent game. As one of them hit the lead, the other players co-operated with each other in an effort to stop that player. I must say that it was not my intention to make the rules play out this way, but instead, to create a more open game where player progress was easily identifiable. In saying that, it has effectively encouraged more player interaction. I felt this inadvertently reflected a real-world scenario, as players were put in a position where they had to compete, or they would lose the game. Some players, however, could do little because of their distance from the winning player, or their lack of resources. It played out really well and it created a spectacular and speedy end. Nothing promotes interactivity between competitors like a common enemy.

Players sacrificed their own lead to work together and hold the winning player back. Each player worked only as hard as they had to, so that they would not affect their ability to win. This created an interesting scenario as it became a race towards the end. Players were feverishly counting the number of turns it would take to win the game. At the same time, they tried to stall other players just enough to stay ahead.

The game certainly played out with the three stages I was after.  1. An easy building stage where people built up empires and strategically staked out territory. 2. A middle stage where players are more cautious, and their strategies are well thought out, (while keeping a close eye on other players). 3. The last stage; a mad rush to the finish, where players are counting every action carefully and using bonuses they’ve collected to gain advantage, and ultimately, try and win.

Let’s look at how this was achieved:

Defensive strategy: to cordon an area (England) off for later in the game

A defensive strategy. The purple player has cordoned England off for later in the game, when space becomes an issue.

Early part of the game: To make players build an empire and think strategically, there had to be limited space. A smaller board space and limited resources at the beginning meant players needed to concentrate on creating a territory.  Good players laid their cities in a way that was easy to defend, or provided land for later in the game. Players found it difficult to attack early on as the distance between players made it hard to surprise anyone. Players had plenty of time to build up defences while an enemy army approached. Players who did not spend at least some time building defences early on in the game found themselves weaker in the middle part of the game. Players had to allocate resources evenly between their own strategy, while defending themselves against other players’ strategies. How well one plays this stage could potentially affect the remainder of their game.


Midway through the game the board gets full

Midway through the game the board is starting to get crowded and players need for space is encouraging interaction. I would like to test smaller board arrangements to encourage more interaction earlier.

The mid-section of the game: Players could now see the other players strategies start to take shape, and build themselves up to counteract them. Any player trying to stop another player would be reducing their chance of winning.  This meant players had to be very calculating when making their decisions. With only a limited number of actions, it severely restricted players from getting ahead too quickly.  Balance was everything. Players could spend all actions in their turn when expanding, but then they may have found they lacked the technology and armies to defend themselves. Players also may have spent all their action points on technology, without enough city tiles to be able to buy more technology or build the newly discovered units.

The final part of the game: Players could not win by surprise, as you could only collect one victory card per turn (this rule has been changed now, but a similar condition is now in place). Players could clearly see opponent progress, so they always had time to intervene. The limited actions per turn restricted players from suddenly building numerous armies or discovering a complete row of technologies. This has greatly increased creative playing styles and caused the players to calculate very carefully.

Game-play Phases:

In the end I was very happy with the pace of the game. Play at the beginning of the game is now easier, allowing players to concentrate on their own moves and ‘warm up’ their minds. The middle phase is more calculating, and tends to play a bit slower because there are many options to consider. It is also still possible to change strategies during this part of the game without affecting players chances too much. The final phase is usually over in two to four turns, and is highly stressful for the player. Hopefully this leaves them with a bit of a ‘game high’. I always find myself rapidly going over some ‘what if’ scenarios, then I try to remember them for the next game session. 🙂

Testing board games for balancing

We recently had another test of the board game. We attempted to play the game through, although we didn’t quite make it after seven hours of play.  We did get very close, however, so it did become obvious as to who was most likely to win.

What I was really hoping to check during the game was the balance of the unit strengths and weaknesses, and whether they were balanced against the cost, the game stage, and against other units.  The other part of our testing was the discovery tree.  There were a number of bonuses in there that had not been tested, and I felt we need to examine these as well.

Combat system testing

The city in the bottom left was taken more than 10 times during the game, most of the battles never needed a die.

The city in the bottom left was taken more than 10 times during the game, most of the battles never needed a die.

Combat is something that is hard to measure without solid play testing.  I have created a small program where you can check the numbers of each combat system.  I have tried a number of variations, but the format we went with was 1d6 + bonus.

The results were interesting, but not exactly what I was after.  Very quickly players would opt to build large armies that did not require a roll, ensuring victory, rather than taking any chances with rolling.  This demonstrated two issues; units were not balanced using the 1d6; and there was no real balance with shadow costs, as a player was not taking any risks for the gain of winning a battle.

Balancing with alternate game strategies in your board game

There needs to be an inherent risk involved with the war strategy, and an equivalent reward.  In the game, there are of course three winning strategies, and I would like to make each valid and worthwhile.  The game balance is heavily weighed towards expansion; war being the next best strategy, and then technology.  These need to be equal, and this test-play demonstrated it’s current flaws.

The blue player switched from technology to expansion later in the game and was unmolested due to their position on the map.

The blue player switched from technology to expansion later in the game and was unmolested due to their position on the map.

I have recoginsed some of the issues with the game. One player took the option of fighting everyone, and this stopped other players from continuing their strategy, as they needed to concentrate on their defence.  Another player took expansion as their approach, and they quickly exceeded other players in points as they researched many technologies, allowing them to catch up with players who had technology as their approach. Expansion is by far the best option, providing you are well placed on the map and not threatened by other players.

Since this test-play, I have given the issue some thought, and I am looking at finding a way to limit expansion as an option and make war and technology more appealing.

Technology also gained rewards which were too great.  Doubling of points was powerful, and allowed players to jump forward quite dramatically.  I think the technology tree can play an important part in balancing, and there are a few approaches I can take.  One is to make technology advantages dependent on other activities.  A particular form of technology could allow expansions of cities, but only cities greater than four or five.  This means the player who avoids expanding cities has a smaller reward from this technology.  This forces the player to think more carefully about their tactics long-term.

Allowing players to implement various strategies is proving to be a real hurdle, but I think it’s an important aspect to the games’ appeal.

Balancing resources on your playing board

Resources on the board were unbalanced; Spain was easily defended and had plenty of resources.

Resources on the board were unbalanced; Spain was easily defended and had plenty of resources.

Something that needs some work is resource distribution on the board, and it can really only be worked out through test-play, although a little logic always helps.  This was evident in the first test-play and I adjusted it marginally for the next one, however, as it turns out I needed to do more.  Spain was by far the strongest position, and Greece the weakest.  I have since improved resource placement and have tried to entice players to weaker positions for more points, and stronger positions for less points.  The logic here is obvious, but the idea is to have players make a tactical choice on their location based on these two qualities and their chosen playing style.  Always give your players ‘interesting choices’.

Board game testing with multiple players

Initial multi-player test of Sovereign Light the board game

I finally managed to co-ordinate a test play for the new and simplified rules, dubbed Sovereign Light. I gathered five people together to play, and it was amazing to watch how different each player approached the game.  The main aim of this game was to play out some of the rules and identify dominant strategies in the game.  I was focusing on three possible winning scenarios; trying to make each of these strategies balanced. Each player took their own, varied approach and we were able to recognise which strategies were going to pay off long term.

Making your game appeal to a variety of player types

There are five winning conditions listed below, although we mainly focused our testing on the first three:

  1. Your civilization conquers all others
  2. You discover all the top tier technologies
  3. You receive 400 points a turn
  4. Your point rate is more than all other nations combined
  5. You are declared unbeatable by other players

The different winning scenarios exist in order to create variation in play, but more importantly, they make the game appeal to different player types.  The winning conditions appeal mostly to Achievers and Killers, although there is some room for ExplorersSocialisers will hopefully enjoy the act of playing a game in a group, especially since the game is aimed at 4-6 players. I am also thinking of introducing player cards that would list a nation, its leader, and some personality traits with advantages and disadvantages. This may add a role-playing element to the game, and potentially appeal to Socialisers even further.

With a focus on the first three possible winning scenarios, it became evident early on in the game that fast expansion of small cities was by far the dominant strategy. I tried to vary my approach by not picking optimum strategies in order to test the extent of the disadvantage.

Recessive strategies; adjusting the combat system in the board game

The one player who did take an aggressive approach found themselves at a disadvantage also. We had to modify the rules slightly as it became immediately obvious that attacks on cities needed to be improved. One change we made was to the combat system; we decided that the use of the 1d6 + the bonus value worked fine, as stated in the previous post about combat systems.  However, in the initial rules, only one unit could attack another unit at a time.  We decided to change it so that the bonus could be compounded, then two units would add both bonuses together to increase the possible roll.  This created an extra dynamic to attacking, and added an advantage to the combat approach to winning the game. It also allowed for army building, which adds some extra variety and strategy for the players.

This shows the first part of an attack using an army. They attacked with 3 horsemen against one warrior.

This shows the first part of an attack using an army. They attacked with three horsemen against one warrior.

Another change we made is as follows.  During an attack on a city, you can continue your attack move through the city so long as you don’t lose.  This allows you to capture an entire city in one move.  At this point we decided you could also split your army, by choosing to leave units in the captured ‘city tile’ and continuing with the rest of your army.  I have created a diagram that displays a move one of our players made.

This shows the second attack on the city, using only 2 horsemen and leaving one in the newly acquired tile.

This shows the second attack on the city, using only two horsemen and leaving one behind in the newly acquired tile.

Using three horsemen in an army, the player attacked with 1d6 +6, against one warrior with 1d6 +1 +1 (city bonus), and then two warriors with 1d6 +2 +1 (city bonus).

In the rules, only the army controlling the city gets the defensive city bonus.  I did this to help players defend their cities early on in the game, and prevent it from finishing too quickly.

Reducing the effectiveness of the dominant strategy

I had originally set up the costs of settlers who can build new cities somewhere between the first city expansion and the second. This (I hoped) would discourage single tiled cities.  This condition resulted in many cities of two tiles being built all over the board, which is fine, but it also means your points would increase very quickly with this method.  Players, as a result, were not really thinking or doing anything else, so there was very little player interaction, and the level of strategy involved in placing city tiles was severely limited.

Cities give native units a bonus to defence for all adjacent squares. This is not awarded to units who are cpaturing the city.

Cities give native units a bonus to defence for all adjacent squares. This is not awarded to units who are capturing the city.

After some debate, we found an approach which might reduce the effectiveness of this dominant strategy.  While we did not implement it in this game, the test playing allowed us to recognise a flaw in the costings of city expansion versus new cities.  We came up with a change where the defense of cities was affected by the layout and size of the city.  This made logical sense for real world scenarios as well, which in turn supported the players suspension of disbelief.

The change to the rules meant that cities were larger and stronger; two factors I was really hoping to encourage during the game.  Strategy was an important factor in the game also, and I really wanted players to have to think carefully about how and where they built their cities. Decisions made earlier in the game could now affect play much later down the track. A player’s skill and in-game experience now made more of a difference to their success in the game, creating more player satisfaction.

Our solution was one simple change; instead of a blanket +1, cities afforded a +1 for all adjacent city tiles (see diagram). This will hopefully encourage players to think carefully about their city location and layout, and placed shadow costs using only the highest point tiles.  The simplicity of this rule made is easy for the player to quantify their choices.  It is important for a player to be able to easily weigh up the odds when making decisions in a game.

Fairness in game-play

In order to make things fairer, I created one new rule before we played.  To prevent players from building single cities near enemies and making this a launching pad for large scale attacks, I restricted cities to only being able to produce as many units per turn as they were in tiles.  In other words, a single tile city could only produce one unit per turn, whereas a city of three could produce a maximum of three per turn.  Another constraint was that you could only have as many units in a city as it had tiles; this may work for combat as a winning strategy, but it needs some more testing.

Speeding up the game

There was a real need to speed up the movement, which we had learned from the testing.  Units moving faster meant that the combat would begin sooner, making combat a more valid approach to winning.  In the past, players avoided attacking in the early stages of the game because units took so long to reach an opponent, that the opponent had two or three turns to build up a defence. So I doubled all the movement rates of beginner units and added a few more movement points to the later units.  We did not progress far enough into the game to see the impact this had on the later stages of the game, but it certainly helped player interaction at the beginning.

Don’t bombard your player with trivial decisions

One small change (and I suspect there will be many more) was in the first tier of discoveries.  We had a free city expansion, which all players happened to pick as their first move. This was the best option for a player, and any player not taking this course of action would have been disadvanatged. If it is a trivial choice, then why bother the player with having to make the choice.  As a result, I have since moved the technology to the second tier to remove this temptation. It was important to address these kinds of problems and I will pay close attention to any similar issues.

Building a better and simpler game board

Testing a board game with more players

This a new design for the board using the  numbers 1-7, they can be supplemented for the terrain types as used in the original rules.

This a new design for the board using the numbers 1-7, they can also be supplemented for the terrain types as used in the original rules.

We recently had a board game day, where we played a number of board games. One of the games we played was ‘Sovereign’, and having only played it previously with two players, we managed to discover quite a few new issues with the game. This was great, and the discussion afterward left us with some interesting solutions to these problems.

The main issue, however, still remains; the overly complex economic challenges and calculating all the resources. While the balancing of many resources is challenging, it tends to create unwanted amounts of player stress, and moves game-play away from the social interaction, (especially when playing in a large group). This is one of the more appealing features of board games, and I feel it is an issue that must be addressed.

Simplifying the board game rules

When we looked at this problem, the solution was really staring us in the face. We had to find a way to reduce two things; the number of resources; and all the mathematics – the adding up for each turn was taking up too much time. I have listed a solution to this in the spin-off game ideas under combat version.  This discussed reducing the number of resources to one, resulting in less adding up, less spending and shortening turn length. In doing this we had to sacrifice some of the more interesting aspects of the current rules where players strive for a variety of resources, rather than focusing on just one. The multiple resources created a situation for the player where they must think a lot more about the rest of their game-play. When placing cities, they must consider the strategic locations, while also considering the resources in the tiles they have yet to access.  This was part of the reasoning behind the variety of resources in the first place.

Hexagon map with simplified resources

Hexagon map with simplified resources system.

Upon review, some investigation, and a little number crunching, we found a way to maintain those aspects, albeit a little less complex. By having a single value between one and seven, players can choose between more strategic tiles and the high scoring tiles. As a general rule seven point tiles, which are located on rivers, are accessible by ships and seldom have natural mountain barriers for protection. Low scoring tiles tend to be located in or around natural defenses, or have a more strategic location.

The rules we came up with to govern city capture also help balance choices, by requiring the player to protect the first city tile or risk losing the entire city.  Rivers will generally make a long string-like city, and therefore make it harder to defend. There are also advantages in blocking another players’ access to an area by building your city in a choke point on a map. This forces a player to take a city or travel the long way around, effectively buying you time to set up defenses.

Reducing the complexity in each players’ turn

A hexagon map with the city tiles in orange. The dark orange is the central tile of the city, this needs to be defended to hold the city.

A hexagon map with the city tiles in orange. The dark orange is the central tile of the city, this needs to be defended in order to hold the entire city.

To reduce a typical turn, we decided adding points should be much simpler. Players would simply add all the points of the tiles that their cities occupy. This will give them an amount that they have to spend in a given turn. We can also remove the accumulation of points, and now players have  fewer numbers to remember.  The spin-off for this was the added challenge of trying to spend all their points in each turn. These rule changes have allowed a turn to be a lot faster, by adding up your points, spending them, and then moving your playing pieces.

I will post the new ‘light’ rules soon, once we have had a chance to test them out.