Kickstarter coming soon…

Kickstarter campaign coming soon

With the new inclusion of Australia on Kickstarter, I thought it an opportunity not to be missed. I’ll be offering the published game in 3 player, 4 player and 6 players sets, plus some fun extras.

When kickstarter is launched in the very, very near future I will have some limited special editions/pledges – and I want you guys to get them! All I need from you is your email so I can let you know the details and the start date of the campaign.

On top of this I am looking into making some more maps, so I’m going to count votes for requested areas. (The emails I collect will only be used for Kickstarter)

Kickstarter Alert

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Map Votes so far:

Location/Country Votes
US 33
Australia 20
Canada 13
Sweden 9
South Africa 3

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.

Sovereign launch day a success

Sovereign Board Game Launch

My brother and Jeff discussing tactics, that's me in the back

Well the 29th has been and gone, and the day worked out quite well. It was probably more of a thank you to everyone involved over the past year than a game launch, but it was great to watch a few first time players experience the game as well. Everyone decided to pair up and play, which created a slightly longer game, but it was fantastic to hear everyone discussing tactics. I managed to wrangle a large format print of the board! It was nice to play on a high gloss board without seams.

I did find the board a little too large, but I suspected as much from a previous game I had played with my brother (a 2 person game). I will write more in an upcoming post about this issue.

Pete and James making a strategic move!

Pete and James making a strategic move!

There was some really good discussion afterward, and I now have some great ideas for future versions, and tweaks to the game. I’m going to savor these ideas for later posts, so stay tuned.

I also plan to add plenty more content for downloading and customisation in the next 2 weeks.

Thank you again to everyone who could make it. I hope you enjoyed the game, and of course, don’t forget to download the game when you get a chance.

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.

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’.

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.

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

Approach

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

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