Saturday, May 12, 2007

Another Terra Prime playtest, with afore mentioned changes

Last post I mentioned some changes I thought would be good for the game. I implemented them and made all the necessary adjustments to the prototype, and today I got a chance to try the game with the new changes. I'm not sure I've decided whether I think they were successful or not...

Some of the significant changes were...

Switching the cost of Fuel Cells (aka Thrusters) and Cargo Holds.
Since the number of Thrusters on your ship dictated the number of actions you get to take, the early game for all players was fairly universal... upgrade thrusters in order to get the maximum number of actions. It seemed strictly better than anything else. Ideally, the cost in time and money to upgrade that much would offset the bonus of doing almost twice as much stuff every turn, but either it didn't cost enough, or since everyone would do it it didn't really matter what the cost was. The worst part was that aside from the Thruster upgrades, the tech upgrades were largely ignored.

It didn't help that the upgrades required Blue resources, and the thrusters were bought at Blue planets - the ones found nearby Terra Prime and discovered early in the game. In an effort to remedy this, make other upgrade tracks more interesting, and to incent other courses of action (other strategies) besides "upgrade actions," I tried switching it so that the Thruster upgrade required Yellow cubes, and making Thrusters available on Yellow planets. Yellow planets are further away from Terra Prime, and with this change I hoped to push Thruster Upgrades and extra actions they bring into the midgame.

In theory this was sound, it meant if you wanted to go for maximum actions as quickly as possible you could do that, but it cost a lot of time, so it might not be worth it anymore. After the playtest game, no one even tried to upgrade their thrusters except me, and after getting the tech upgrade which allowed me to install more thrusters, I never did buy a 4th or 5th one. Thinking about it afterward, the MINIMUM number of turns to upgrade Thrusters and buy a 4th (allowing for 1 additional action per turn) is 20. So it takes at least 7 turns, and that required that other people colonize a Blue planet and an Asteroid for you. In order for you to make out ahead with that extra action, the game would have to go more than 20 turns after that one. 10 if you buy a 5th Thruster module. That's just to break even.

Unfortunately, I have not been counting turns, but that seems like too many to really make the thruster upgrade worth it. I want people to be able to gain advantage by maxing out their actions, I just don't want it to be so much better than anything else that it's clearly the best thing to do right off the bat.

Solutions I'm considering to make Thruster upgrades better again (but not too good) are...
1. Add "+1 Action per turn" to the first Thruster upgrade, so you get an extra action per turn as soon as you upgrade, which still takes a minimum of 14 actions, as well as the ability to buy more Thrusters (which will take another 6 actions at least). So a player can break even on actions and start making an actual profit (actions over other players without the upgrade) on turn 14 or 15 (at a minimum) rather than turn 17 or 18 as it is currently.

2. Thruster upgrade costs a Yellow cube, but Thrusters are available at the Blue planets. This way to get started with extra actions takes 14 actions, but to start actually using them only takes another 3 or 4 actions. This cuts it down from the current rule by only 1 turn though.

3. Thruster upgrade costs a Blue cube, but Thrusters are available at Yellow planets. This cuts Upgrade time down to (a minimum of) 7 actions instead of 14, but it will still take another 11 actions to purchase a Thruster (and start getting extra actions)... cutting out only a turn's worth of actions from the current rule.

4. Remove altogether the buying of thrusters, and make each upgrade simply add 1 additional action per turn. This has the added benefit of allowing Shield and Weapon modules to be available at green and blue planets and cargo holds at yellow (or perhaps weapons at yellow and cargo/shields at green/blue) and no modules available at Terra Prime. This may be simply easier, but on the down side, it takes away from the decision between more Thrusters and more Cargo Holds which I currently have.

5. I just thought of this one. Forget the restriction of having to upgrade first to buy Thrusters, and just put them on Yellow planets. Then you can get them with 7 actions at a minimum (but more likely it'll take a little longer than that) and you can start benefiting after about turn 10 (turn 8 or so if you get a 5th Thruster). Then, to keep it interesting, the places you put thrusters should be able to hold either a thruster or a cargo hold (as they do in this latest version), so getting all 5 thrusters means you can only carry 1 Cargo Hold worth of stuff (2 cubes or 1 Colony marker). I'm liking this best of all I think. And this frees the Engine upgrade up to be something more useful...

Changing the costs of the Tech Upgrades for consistency.
My friend Bo was pretty intent on not using money for the tech upgrades, only resource cubes. He was also pretty adamant that the prices of the upgrades should be symmetrical (i.e. look the same - Thruster upgrade costs Yellow and Brown, Weapon/Shield upgrades cost Green and Brown, Cargo upgrade costs Blue and Brown...). So the cost indicator on the tech tree looks the same, but the actual cost isn't really the same because Yellow cubes are harder to get (take longer to find, more rare) than Green and Blue cubes. Bo is a stickler for consistency, however I fear he tries so hard to look consistent that he misses whether he's actually being consistent, or if it's even appropriate. In the case of the Tech Upgrades, the costs are listed on the sheet, so if one costs more than another, or one costs money and one doesn't, then it's not that big of a problem. Also, as I mentioned, just because it costs the same number of cubes doesn't mean the costs of the upgrades are consistent.

Bottom line, I will have to reconsider the costs of upgrades anyway, as I'm reconsidering what some of them do... and when I do, I probably won't put too much weight into whether or not the costs look consistent.

Money worth points at game end.
I liked this change, which was to make money worth points at the game end. Specifically 1 VP for 2 units of money. The 'going rate' for cubes is 2, 3, or 6 units of money (for Green and Blue, Yellow, and Red cubes, respectively) - and this VP payout lets me equate that to 1, 1.5, and 3 VP. When you pick up a cube at an opponent's colony, they get 1 VP, and now you get effectively 1, 1.5, or 3... with the option of spending some of that to upgrade your ship. I think I like that, it sounds about perfect.

Delivery system - Demand tiles and bonus points.
The relatively new system of demand tiles appears to be working out. In order to facilitate something else in the game, I tried beginning the game with 2 Green tiles face up, and added a face up yellow tile as soon as a Yellow colony was founded, and adding a red tile as soon as a red colony was founded. That seemed to work OK. The number of tiles needs to be tested and tweaked, as I'd like to use it as a game end condition - either when the last Yellow Demand tile is completed (consistent with "last yellow space tile explored"), or when all the green and yellow Demand tiles are completed.

The scoring for these is as follows: When delivering a cube, the player gets money depending on the value of the cube (2, 3, or 6 units of money). This translates into 1, 1.5, or 3 VP as has been discussed. When completing a Demand tile, a player keeps the tile in front of him (face down)... the tiles have a number on them (2, 3, or 4) and are worth that many bonus points at the end of the game. These numbers were higher at first, and money was not worth points, so a player putting the last single cube would score all the points for the tile. Now a player placing the last cube gets maybe 3 or 4 out of 4 or 6 points available, and whoever else that contributed gets a point or two as well. That might still be too many points for completing the tile, I might like to reduce it a bit, maybe X-1 VP where X = number of cubes on the tile.

In all, I think the new system is good, but I don't know if the tiles are a good mix, how many I should have, and how exactly they should trigger the game end.

Game End
The game end rule we used was that one of the game end triggers occurred, we finished the round, then played 1 more full round (like Railroad Tycoon). However in that last round, 2 people had absolutely nothing they could do. It makes me wonder if that last round is needed, or if the game end trigger should simply signal that the current round is the last one (like Hansa). I think I do like the idea of each player getting the same number of turns. This puts the first player at something of a disadvantage at the end of the game, and some players claim there's a disadvantage to going first already (which I'm not sure I agree with). This game we started the first player with 4 points, the second player with 3, the third player with 2, and the last player with 1 point at the beginning of the game. I'm not sure this made any difference, really - the difference in scores were 13, 6, and 7. If I subtract out the starting points for each player, the difference in points would be 14, 6, and 4 (same finishing order). If I do this again, I might start players with 5/4/3... which would be nicer for a 5 player game anyway, and might make a little bit of difference, though I'm not convinced. I don't know if that last round of actions is needed either, and if not I might set the starting points at something like 6/4/2/1/0 or something, as it seems painful to get screwed out of that last turn at the end...

Aliens - scoring and the Attack action.
I adjusted the alien scoring... instead of 3 VP per symbol, I scaled it up to 3/7/15 points for level 1/2/3 aliens in order to reflect that they get harder and harder to kill as you add more and more. That was more true when you had to kill them all in one action. Now that you don't (you just need to kill them all in one turn), it seems pretty easy to kill the aliens. The Attack action which gives an additional die to roll makes it even easier to kill them. In tonights game John killed 22 points worth of aliens (a level 3 and a level 2), with relative ease. Under the old scoring that would be 15 points, 7vp fewer than he got. He won by 13 points, so it wouldn't have meant the difference in the game, but it would have made for a closer game.

Looking a little closer, the winner (John) got about 1/3 of his points from Aliens, 1/3 from colonies, and 1/3 from deliveries. Considering that he didn't have many colonies relative to other players, killed 2 sets of aliens, and had a lot of demand tiles I think maybe that split isn't so good... although he did spend most of his money on upgrades, hereby reducing his delivery score. 2nd place (Ben) got almost all of his points from colonies, and he did put out all 8 of his colony markers (1 on an alien that got in the way). So 7 colonies, including several in the deep reaches of the board. I think his score being comprised mostly of Colony points is probably representative of his game, and had he upgraded a tad less he would have been able to score more delivery points. 3rd place (Aric) had 2/3 of his points from Colonies and 1/3 from delivering. He put several colonies out there and avoided aliens, so this is a reasonable split... his score was low because the colonies were pretty low in value. 4th place (Seth) had 70% colony points, 20% Alien points, and 10% delivery points. With what I did that game that was a reasonable split, but I had a low score because I didn't do it very efficiently. I didn't get any bonuses off the Demand tiles, and I spent resources on upgrades I didn't use. I also spent too much money on upgrades I didn't need.

In light of that, I think the scoring is probably OK, but I'll keep an eye on it to see if Aliens are "too easy" to kill, and if they are, is that only true when you spend money on weapons, shields, and upgrades, or are they too easy in general... I'm not sure about the Attack action giving a bonus like it does (right now it's an extra die to roll) - maybe it should be a +1 on any one die rolled, so it's not as good as the upgrade.

I think that's enough for now, I'll let this playtest sink in and try the game again. I'm not going to send it to the KublaCon design contest, because it needs more work, and the rules are not written clearly enough for a blind test. I'll wait until it's ready and maybe submit it next year.

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