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.

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