Testing maps and boards in strategy games

Major map update

Caribbean Map for download - Sovereign Board Game

Well it has been a very long time since I updated… what can you say stuff happens. I have been working on a map of the Caribbean though. Why the Caribbean? Well it was for testing ultimately. The board we have been playing has mostly been Europe, and this has proved quite a lot of fun, but that board had shown certain parts of the game to be less useful.

Ships head from the central islands towards the Venezuela coast

Ships head from the central islands towards the Venezuela coast

Most of the land is connected, and the shape of the land is such that the fastest way to move around the board is on land. The down side of this is that players tend to shy away from ship building. So to make sure that this part of the game works well I designed the Caribbean map. The main differences are the map is much larger,  21 land maps instead of 12. However many of these maps do not have anywhere near the amount of land on them. So effectively there is just more space filled with water. Water then becomes the most effective way to move around.

Designing a balanced board or map for strategy games

There are many things in board design that can effect play and the Europe board was changed countless times to help balance the game. I have talked about this in previous posts, but in summary, a players’ position should not determine the outcome of the game.

Building cities amongst mountains has defensive value but this comes at a cost

Building cities amongst mountains has defensive value but this comes at a cost

The board should be balanced in way that strong defensive locations are either low on resources or expensive to build on. While you don’t want a completely balanced board, and it would never happen unless every tile was the same, you want to make sure that the advantages of a location are equaled by the disadvantages. The main reason you don’t want a perfectly balanced board is you need the variation, this allows players to take different approaches to playing the game dependent on where they are.

Why test different boards and maps for your strategy game

The player in the Amazon is only in contact in one near the Andes

The player in the Amazon (purple) is only in contact in one near the Andes (Yellow)

The benefit of testing these two maps is that now I can compare the play styles. The Caribbean map has somewhat spread the distance between players allowing limited contact with all players (except their direct neighbors) unless they build boats. Having a military victory is much harder as a result. The new map has helped us address some the issues related to military victories and battles. In turn we have made some major changes to attaining a military victory and I will update the rules next week. Keen players have also occupied the large number of islands in the centre of the board leaving them slightly exposed, but this has also allowed them access almost any player.

Conflict between players was limited to neighbours

Conflict between players was limited to direct neighbours, especially while units could not travel far

They can effectively pick the weakest one from this vantage point. For these players certain technologies also hold more value than others, for example ships are much more useful than railroad. Another change is the geography, a large desert in the north west corner and jungle and rivers in the south east encourage players to build cities in the most economic fashion, rather than the most defensive.

Playing only the Europe map would never have changed play styles to such a degree. The new map also removed the players’ ability to pick key locations on the map, knowledge that had built up over several games. This really leveled the playing field again. On top of which players had a new map to play on, and the change was fun. A new world to conquer, so to speak – sorry 🙁

Building a strategy game that works on any board or map

Part of the game design is to make a game system that can work on any map, custom maps included (coming soon). So far the game system is working well for both maps. I feel they are significantly different to push the game rules, but in time more maps will tell me if that’s true.

So please enjoy the map of the Caribbean and feel free to download it for your own game.

Making Board Game Pieces

Making your wooden game board pieces

Making your wooden game board pieces.

This is just a quick post about making board game pieces.  A word of warning, when making wooden pieces, hexagons are hard to make. Luckily I have a father who is a carpenter, and because I certainly did not inherit his ability to work with wood, it was very helpful.  We eventually did make quite a few pieces, but it required plenty of heavy equipment.  That equipment made light work of what would have been a very slow process manually, and if I ever need to make more, it will be quite easy now that we know how.

How to cut your own board game pieces

First we worked out the height and width; 20mm and 17mm, and about a metre long Then we cut and planed the timber to size (planing gives timber a smooth edge).  With a circular saw we ran the lengths along an angled blade to create the first side, then rotated until all the sides were done (four in total).  The 17mm width needs no further changes, but the 20mm side is altered.  Dad made sure the angled sides were 17.5mm apart, so that we had and extra 0.5mm, or 0.25mm for each side.  This way, we could run it through the planer and get a nice smooth finish.  Then we just sliced it up, like a carrot, 10mm thick. (All the credit goes to my dad, thanks!)

I thought this diagram might shed more light on my description.

Cutting hexagon board game pieces out of wood

How to cut your hexagon board game pieces out of wood.

I then sanded back each piece, yes each piece, until they were nice and smooth on the flat sides, and I had removed most of the splintered edges. There are about four hundred pieces all up.

Painting the home-made board game pieces

The emblem on the home made wooden game board pieces

The emblem on the wooden game board pieces. They stack nicely, which will work well for armies.

I had two ideas; staining the pieces and using six kinds of wood, or painting the pieces.  Since we only had three kinds of wood at the time of cutting, painting was the option I chose. Painting them was easy if I just wanted them plain, but I wanted some pieces that could be distinguished from others.  I thought of a variety of ideas, but some were impossible (or at least very difficult), and as these are just trial pieces I didn’t want to get too far into the process.

Painting home made wooden board game pieces

Painting home-made wooden board game pieces. It was fairly easy and the paint dried quickly.

I found a hole punch in the shape of the Sovereign emblem (fleur de lis) and cut out some sticker paper into those shapes. Then I painted one side in a contrasting colour to the final colour, generally ‘slate grey’.  When that paint was dry, I stuck the sticker over the top, and then painted the end colour over the top of that.  The end result, once the sticker was pulled off,  left the emblem in the slate grey. It was very fiddly, but it looked nice when the sticker came away clean.

Some things to note about making your own game board pieces out of wood

  1. The first thing I found was that hard wood, with a fine grain, is much much better.  The pine was rough, light and didn’t paint well.
  2. Make sure you have plenty of pieces to trial out your ideas for painting etc. although you can always paint over them.
  3. Make it easy to reproduce, if you are only making a few one offs that’s fine, but four hundred to six hundred pieces can take a while (I am still not finished).
  4. Think about the colours you use; high contrast is best.  The yellow I used does not stand out too well on the board.
  5. If you can buy them and they are not too expensive, it’s not a bad option.

I will write about a really successful test-play we did the other week soon.

Hexagon and square-tiled game board maps

Discussing the values of hexagon and square grid game board

Hexagon map to replace the original square version.

Hexagon map to replace the original square version.

After some discussion we have concluded that the hexagon map works better, as there are no issues with diagonal movement distance, which you get from using a square grid. Hexagon shapes allow equal-distance movement between tiles, where a square grid allows diagonal movement.

The conflict I have is that squares work better for cities and buildings games and hexagons work better for movement games. As our game is a mixture of both, it makes it an interesting choice.  There is a limitation with using hexagons, as you sacrifice either true horizontal or vertical movement. Hexagons will always exclude moving in a straight line for north-south or east-west directions.

As a result of this discussion I have made up a new grid over a map of Europe with hexagons encompassing the United Kingdom to West Russia, and down to Algeria. I think this will work better for moving troops, and should have far less effect on cities. The map takes a total of six A3’s, and is roughly the same size as the previous game board.

No dice, no pen – ‘Alhambra’ a great game

Game-play – Alhambra

In Alhambra, players are acquiring buildings to be placed within their Alhambra complex. [box art]

In Alhambra, players are acquiring buildings to be placed within their Alhambra complex. (box-art)

I recently played Alhambra with a friend of mine, and this game allows you to work with four resource types through buying and building without dice, and not having to writing anything down. I will try to find a way to integrate their game-play into the current rules we have. This is a great game and I recommend it. We played it with two players (they suggest four) and it has some clever shadow costs.

Shadow costs

The idea behind the game is to build a palace ‘Alhambra’, and you receive points for the most of any one building type, with different values placed on the different types. With each turn – you can collect resources, buy and place a piece, place a reserved piece or re-arrange your palace. This last point is necessary as the tiles can only be arranged in a certain way, much like domino tiles, and you can get stuck if you’re not careful.

The shadow costs are everywhere, and you are constantly weighing up your options. One of the clever ways they make the game interesting to play is in the turns where you pick up resource cards. They have different values, (e.g. 1, 3, 6, 8 etc.), and you inherently want to pick up the highest value every time to have as much as possible. They turned this way of thinking on its head. If you can pay the exact amount when you buy a building piece, you get another turn, so collecting a variety of values of all resource types is the best approach. There are many other examples of this in the game, but this one stood out for me.

New map for the second test play


New board for our second test run. A larger map and grid made for more interesting play

New board for our second test run. A larger map and grid made for more interesting play

In our second test play, we tried to play the game faster and this time, we included combat. There are a couple of areas yet to cover, but we are still looking at getting the basics of the game-play right first. Trying to simplify the process of the game, while keeping the complexity, has proved quite difficult. Part of what makes the game a challenge is the variety of interesting choices you have to make. We are looking closely at making sure we remove all trivial choices, leaving only those that have both an upside and a downside, and therefore making the whole game a balancing act for the player. This invites the player to choose a strategy that suits them and leaves it open to various kinds of playing styles.  On the other hand, we are also trying to reduce the overall complexity, as the calculations required throughout the game may be more suitable for a computer game.

Updating the map

You can see that France has mostly grassland squares driectly around it. Outer rings contain hills and coastal squares.

You can see that Paris has mostly grassland squares directly around it. Outer rings contain rivers, hills and coastal squares.

The first thing I changed was the map, as it’s scale and dimensions needed improvement. We are still negotiating between grid and hexagon, but I would have to update quite a few numbers to switch to hexagon, so for the time being we will stick with grid. I expanded the map, making it just Europe, and the grid is now larger.

The game became more strategic in relation to city placement as there were more of one type of terrain in some areas. My brother founded Paris, and this had a great deal of grassland. His city grew rapidly as grassland produces lots of food, but he had little production in the city as it had no production resources.

The larger grid made play a little more interesting, as the map had more detail and made the nations more realistic. If you look carefully, we also marked the mountain tiles with green Ms, to signify tiles that could not be placed — a rule we added. We decided at the beginning of the game that this would improve tactical play for city placement and troop movements.

Cities, and far too many resources

Rome with 2 defending units (blue), Yorick is sending a horseman (green) down to greet me.

Rome with two defending units (blue). Yorick is sending a horseman (green) down to greet me.

After our goal of reducing the complexity we created a new chart to help manage the city data. I still feel strongly that this is to complex and I am trying to find a way to reduce the calculating. I have considered cards, counters, money, tokens and more, but apart from cards, I have yet to find a solution that will reduce the players memory load with out compromising game complexity. Which then leads me to the fact that I will have to reduce game-play complexity in order to do this.

Some of my solutions to this problem include:

  • One type of resource instead of four (this reduces the need for terrain types, but loses complexity regarding where you position cities)
  • No resources, and one build per city per turn (this reduces some of the shadow cost related to the strengths/weaknesses of units and other improvements)
  • Reduced number of resources
  • Cards for technology discovery instead of a chart (an inherent problem with this is that you end up with a lot of space being used with the cards, and it’s harder to see which technologies are coming next)
  • Cards for special resources (good for initial use but hard to work out which city they belong to)
  • Cards for units (this might be handy to remind a player what they can build)
  • Tokens for resources (could get messy with one for each city, and would become difficult as the amounts increase)
  • Separate card for each city (good for two to four cities, harder to track for more.  I have an issue with this in the future as my chart can only fit four cities on it)
  • Simplified resource calculating (players could simply count cities and city sizes to work out the total resources) see spin-off ideas

Display complexity but don’t get complicated

I have a confession to make on the last section.  While I am all for reducing note taking and dice rolling, I am an old-school D&D player. Those games were basically all note taking and dice rolling, so I don’t actually mind doing it in a game.  I wouldn’t, however, want to limit the target audience with this; you always need to consider a variety of player types who may be interested in your game.  That is actually where the open source idea came from, because in this game you could have a variety of rules (each with a different level of complexity) so that a wider array of players at different levels could enjoy the game.

With the new chart I did manage to reduce it down to four numbers to recalculate each turn (although any city expansion increased the length of the turn significantly).  A shift to hexagons would further reduce this time, as the number of tiles to deal with are less.


Combat between 3 horses, a catapult and trireme.

Combat between three horses, a catapult and a trireme, with a settler in the background waiting to found a city.

We did have our first combat and I didn’t fair too well.  While I was annoyed about losing all the battles, it did provide an element of randomness which adds spice to a game.  We found that the defence units had the advantage, as you need to roll one point higher in an attack. This meant I lost two horses when attacking my brother’s one horse. In hindsight, I should have just protected my city as this would have given me an extra defence dice.  It is important to remember not to let random events determine the outcome of the game.

One lone rider (green) attacks and beats my small army (blue)

One lone rider (green) attacks and beats my small army (blue). I never did get to use my catapult.

Unit production costs also need to be adjusted as Warrior units were all but void at the beginning of the game. The cities were too far away to be attacked early on. By the time either of us produced any units we had already upgraded to horseman.  As it was a dominant strategy, we tried to balance the shadow costs by reducing the cost to 5p. There is a good chance we may remove them altogether.

For the next test play

I think we may have worked out a few bugs now for play at a basic level.  The next game will be with more players — how exciting!

Improvements for next time:

  • A few small corrections for the technology chart
  • A couple of updates for the city chart
  • Changes to costings for city improvements and units
  • Create a hexagon map to test out

First trial run of the game


Our first test of the rules for sovereign, using 6 sided dice and glass markers

My main focus for the first test play was to nut out the rules, and try to ascertain what worked and what didn’t. Game balance was the aim of our first test play, to see if I had written fairly even rules. I had done quite a bit of research in this area, looking at the rules from a range of board and computer games to see what techniques they were adopting. Having played most of the games included in my research, I was able to identify rules that lead to dominant strategies. I tried to minimize these in Sovereign’s rules, giving the player plenty of choices, and strengthening the fun part of strategy games — decision making.

Dominant Strategies

I recently tested the board game out with my brother. For the first hour we simply discussed the rules. We made a few adjustments on what I had written down and talked about my initial ideas. As mentioned earlier, I had tried to find a good balance between all the elements to avoid any dominant strategies in the game play. It would have been impossible to get this perfect the first time around, so we really had to play the game. I did try to find some balance between the two primary goals for winning; discovery and domination. There was a good balance between military units and technologies, as far as the required points/costs for each were concerned.

Tactical versus strategic

Early on in the game, we have two cities each and one unit each.

One area we were able to test was how to play the strategic part of the game. Cities in the game are where the players’ strength lies (especially at the beginning of the game), however they are also important at the end when you need to gather a lot of resources. This is a shadow cost, as building units detracts from your civilisation expansion. The unit combat usually comes into play later, so we were unable to test this area during this trial.

When we established our cities, we immediately identified the need to simplify the amount of information within each city. I had developed a chart prior to playing the game, which would help with reducing complexity. But having not played yet, I had not set these up correctly.

Terrain was time consuming to keep track of, as there are quite a few different types. You only need to calculate this once, however, for each expansion. Updating the numbers was confusing and prone to error. I created a table in the city chart that a player fills out which helps keep track of the various resources, including food, production and wealth. You fill this out according to what type of terrain exists around your city.

There are many decisions to make in this process; selecting a location, choosing what to build, improving the city or creating a unit. How you spend your wealth and what you choose to research are also vital decisions. All these add to the versatility in the game play. Our practice run focused on the best way to make these decisions. We were presented with many flaws, including what to do at each stage, and the order in which they should occur. Do we calculate the totals first? Do we then expand our city or research technology? In the end, we simplified the process and worked out that all players could calculate at the same time, then make their tactical moves at the end.

This sped up the game, and one turn went from an hour to about thirty minutes. At this stage the game is quite difficult and each turn should be completed sooner, once the players have more experience in the process.

Shadow costs

We used glass markers represent units and cities and examined how the costs of building units effected the cities resources.

Enemy units also constantly increased in cost. I based this on the idea that your production would increase as time went on, raising the costs higher for stronger units. On top of this, I set the discovery of offense and defense units up in such a way that you could choose which to discover first. The idea here being that a player could take a defensive or offensive stance, depending on the other players in the game. In our first run of the game we did not get to do any real combat, so we could not test this effectively.

Playing board

This decision was based more on personal preference, but I felt that scale-wise, the game board was too small. It made it harder to make moves on the map, as my playing pieces were larger than the grid, and resources/terrain types were harder to determine.

Versatility and compensating factors

Building a few units, and moving them on the board proved interesting as it should some strengths and weaknesses

Building a few units, and moving them on the board proved interesting as it showed us some strengths and weaknesses.

I did originally have technology discovery set up like a chart, where one technology would lead to another and you might need two to get one. For example, you may need ‘road building’ and ‘pottery’ to discover ‘trade’. After discussion with my brother during the first game, we realised it was too complex. We have simplified this into sets or tiers, where you need to discover all technologies for one tier before you can start on the next. Each technology in the same tier requires the same amount of resources, which should simplify it further.

‘Bonus special resources’ was also interesting. I intended to add some random elements in the game to keep it interesting. My brother managed to acquire gold, which has a large wealth bonus and gave him a very strong advantage. Wealth can be converted into any resource. This allowed us to investigate whether the compensating factors I had applied were correct. Gold could only be converted 3 to 1 and only into one type of resource in any one turn. My brother also suggested we add market cards, which gave us a variable rate for conversion, 4:1, 3:1, 2:1 and should be drawn each turn. We will leave it for now, but it can be added into game play later.

I have worked hard to give the players a variety of choices, but I fear this has led to an overly complicated game. It keeps the game balanced, but is far more difficult for us to be able to test single parts. On reflection, however, I think it will still work. The approach I am taking is an open and flexible rule system that should allow us to simplify rules, as well as expand on the existing rules and still have a playable game.

For the next test play

The areas we examined that need improvement are:

  • city chart, which reduces the amount of required calculation and memory load for the player
  • the order of the steps in each turn
  • resources for cities; add or remove some and adjust quantities/bonuses.
  • to update and simplify the research technology chart
  • enlarge map scale and grid size
  • look into variable market cards

Making a board already?

I must confess, I really like maps and I like making things (and as a result I have already begun a test board). I wouldn’t say I am totally kinesthetic in my learning, but I do find getting stuck into things very satisfying. I have divided the board into a 1 centimetre grid, and made the board about A1 size in length.  Inconveniently, the world map is not the same dimensions as standard paper! By the way, I know the map is from Nasa, but I will eventually design a world map from scratch. Well, actually, I’ll use one I have already designed for some publishing work and modify that.

My initial gameboard for test plays

I will have to work over the board and allocate each grid with a value, as I think that this ‘city/army’ game needs resources, and as a general rule, they come from the ground (and most probably the sea). I have been thinking about the kind of land and sea resources that could be available, and trying to condense them so that the game does not get bogged down with players needing to keep track of too many things (players can add more resources if they like).

At the moment, most ideas about this are very rudimentary and generally based on board games and computer games that I have played. I currently have a list of land types in my first draft rules (which I will post once I have finished them), although I think there may be too many (ten so far). I will try to group them in order to simplify our test plays.

I already have my brother interested in a test play, so I think I might start fleshing it out with him and give the game a trial run. I must finish my basic rules first though!

My initial thoughts on the board were that it needs to be bigger, but I have had an idea that may solve this down the track. I could break the board up into world sections, which then piece together. So you could play North America, or both North and South America, or just Asia. This way you could play on a smaller board, for a faster game, with fewer players. Then, you could always enlarge the board later if desired. Another idea is to make a large number of small tiled pieces that match together as the game is played, much like Carcassonne. This would add a ‘discovery’ element, but on the other hand, it might be a bit cumbersome and could slow down game play. In any case, I thought I’d start with a smaller map of the entire world and see how I go.

Unofficial beginnings

This is the unofficial beginning of the project, and only a handful of people know about what I am doing so far. I invite anybody interested in contributing, to either make comments or suggestions about the direction of the game. I am trying to make this a collaborative effort, so the more minds at work here the better the game will be.

On a side note, I would like to mention that I am aware of a few web sites that are working on open source board games (see links). But for me, this is more of a focus on developing a single board game that leaves plenty of room for adaptation by the players. Games are often quite restrictive, and with good reason. Game makers spend a lot of time making sure the game is balanced. I think that most players can make adjustments to rules, and through trial and error, they will create a game that agrees with their playing style.

I would like to design a board game that is flexible, like any other open source project, but specifically designed to encourage player manipulation of the rules and game play.

I will make as many resources as I can available, in order to give the game some direction, but keeping it flexible will always be important to all aspects of the game. I am completely open to suggestions on the design, and will take your comments into consideration when making updates.