Sunday, October 12, 2008

10/11/08 playtest: 8/7 Central and Invasion of Trishula

According to my record keeping, I haven't played 8/7 Central since January 2007. I've been meaning to get back to it and fix the stuff I didn't like all this time, but it seems I just never got around to it.

Mohan has asked for the current state of the game, and I have yet to get him any information (sorry Mohan!) - I sat down to figure out what exactly to send him and realized Eric was coming over to playtest, so I would be able to try 8/7 Central again, with the latest ideas implemented, and then send Mohan up-to-date information.

8/7 Central
I incorporated the recent ideas into the game:
* No auctions - instead you buy programs from a track like Civ cards in Stone Age.
* During Setup, players were simply dealt a random program for each day, then paid for those out of a starting $30.
* As an action a player could purchase a program and place it directly into their lineup, or move a program from one time slot to another. As a result of the move/placement, another program could potentially be 'bumped' into the player's 'hand' - which doesn't count as being in play, but may be moved back into the lineup with a future Move action.
* All advertisement cards were removed from the deck (even the special ones I planned to keep). Any card could be placed face down as an Ad. Placing an Ad rewards a player with $1 immediately, and $2 each time that program is viewed. There can still be 1 ad on a 1/2 hour program and 2 on a 1-hr program.

All of these changes seemed to work well. I believe $30 is too much to start with, it used to be $30 when players would start with 6 programs, for which they would bid in an auction, and I felt like that was a good number. Now the prices are a little lower (due to no bidding), and they started with only 5 programs, so they had plenty of money to start with and weren't pressured to get more in the early game. However it did seem that as they spent their money, it got appropriately tight, so this wasn't a problem.

I think the next time I will start players with fewer shows. My first thought was to have people start with a random program on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and let them buy new ones for Thursday and Friday... but Ben suggested starting the first week on Wednesday and just having a 3 day week. I think the first week or week and a half will be mostly a setup week to get your lineup going, so having a short Week 1 seems like a really good idea.

I'd like the early game to be about filling out and building up your lineup, and the late game to be about aggressively going after Victory Points by moving strong programs to compete with your competitors. Maybe to emphasize this there should be a ramp-up of Victory Points... I was going to say "award 1vp/Genre during Week #1, 2vp during Week #2, 3vp during Week #3, and 4VP during Week #4" (I'd like the game to last at least 4 weeks) - but 4vp at a time seems way to much compared to 1 in the first week. Maybe 0/1/2/3 would be alright. Or maybe 1/1/2/2 VP for weeks 1/2/3/4.

Alternatively, maybe the game should only last 3 weeks, and then 0/1/2 could be feasible. There's a problem with a shorter number of weeks though, which I'll talk about later. Ben also suggested giving more weight to Friday programming because thematically, that kind of thing happens in real life (I guess more people watch TV on Friday nights). I don't think this is necessary, and in fact I think it kind of happens naturally since there are lots of actions available each week before Friday is scored - while there are only a couple before Tuesday is scored. However it might be interesting to offer an extra VP in each category for Fridays to give players something to concentrate on (the big point Fridays, or easier, smaller points the rest of the week). It's an idea worth considering.

The Moving/Placing programs as an action seemed fine to me. There was a small problem with the purchasing mechanism though. When the queue fills up with programs that are unattractive, then nothing will change that except purchasing a program. But nobody want's to purchase an unattractive program! So what I think needs to happen for that mechanism to really work is either (a) as an action, a player can wipe all or some of the queue clean and replace with cards from the deck, or (b) at the end of each day simply remove the program in the cheapest slot and slide the rest down. The removed program could be discarded, or placed on the bottom of the program deck, or whatever. If deemed necessary, this could also happen an additional time at the end of each week.

The new advertisement mechanism worked beautifully - just as I'd hoped it would. Players now have the choice between Fundraising (discard a card for $2), and playing an Ad (for $1, and potentially more later) - which seems good. Normally an Ad is better, but if you are in a bind and need that extra buck, you can get it. Also, in the endgame there's a way to get more than $1 at a time (via Fundraising action).

The game really needs to be longer (more weeks) so that shows can build up, gain Ratings counters, ads can yield revenue, etc. Maybe an additional die roll at the end of each week would help - ALL programs would be checked for hits, allowing more programs to be viewed, gain ratings counters, and yield revenue. This could be a tricky way to add virtual weeks to the game without adding to the game length.

The game length was an issue - we played for 2 hours and cut the game short after 2 weeks. People's turns were taking entirely too long. I think the fact that this was a 4 player game (maybe the first time this was played with 4 players) might have been part of it, as well as the fact that it's difficult to see who has what on each day - the information isn't organized very well. I've had an idea to make a central board where you place your programs, so it's easy to see who has what on each day - but even better than that might be a central board which has a chart for each Genre on each day, and each player has a marker in each column - this would simply show your current level in each genre on each day. Then at a glance you could tell which genres you're winning on a given day, and how close you are if you're behind. I think that will cut down on people's turn lengths considerably, but I still worry the game might take too long.

Let's see... in a 4 player game lasting 4 weeks (with the 1st week curtailed to 3 days) each player gets a total of 18 turns, and there are 22 status update phases. That's about 94 'turns' worth of time. For the game to take a reasonable amount of time (with 4 players, maybe 75 minutes, max) then each of those turns needs to average just 45 seconds. I just hope that's realistic.

The good news is that the players felt the game worked alright (aside from the information processing snags, and some number balancing), and was fun. They said they thought it's definitely worth pursuing.

The Invasion of Trishula
After some discussion on 8/7 Central we played Eric's game: The Invasion of Trishula. I'd played this before, but not since a year ago June. The basic idea of the game is pretty neat - 3 players are co-existing on a planet, sort of fighting amongst each other for territory (and therefore resources). Then a common enemy arrives to invade their planet. The game is won by the Invader player if they reach the Temple. If the Trishulans (the other three players) successfully defend the temple until the end of the game, then the Invader loses, and the winner of the game is the Trishulan with the most VPs.

You gain VPs by (1) occupying ("Defending") the temple, (2) sacrificing (or donating) resources to the temple each round, and (3) defeating Invader units in combat. it costs a couple VPs to attack Trishulans. There's a neat mechanism wherein at the beginning of the game, the Trishulans aren't very aware of the Invader, so the amount of resources they can gather and a few other things are at a certain level becasue they're not worried or concerned with the invasion. As the Invader kills your units or contaminates your territory, you become more and more aware or upset, and after a point you become more dangerous to the invader, and at that point your rewards/incentives shift away from bickering with your fellow Trishulans. The idea is that you begin fighting amongst yourselves, and over time you become aware of an ever-increasing invasion force, so you are supposed to band together and protect against it (or die).

The biggest problem with this game, for me, is that any game with a common enemy and a single winner is just begging for a Kingmaker. Some people don't mind that in games, where at the end of the game it comes down to player A making a choice which either makes player B win, or player C win, and neither option has a net effect on themselves. In fact, one could argue that every game is like that, but the "kingmaker" decision is not obvious, and occurs well before the game is actually over. However I for one agree with those who feel that is a design flaw. When playing a game and coming to such a decision, I feel deadlocked. I feel I can't reasonably choose one over the other, so what am I to do? Randomly choose the winner of the game? Vinci is a game that I actually enjoy, which sometimes comes to a kingmaker decision in the end. Tyler used to argue that the point was to get so far ahead you couldn't get kingmade out of the win. In that respect you could consider a win one in which you were that far ahead, and anything where kingmaking happened a tie I suppose - or you could consider the game a sort of diplomacy game, where you don't want to be the guy that was picking on the eventual kingmaker the whole time - or he won't make you king!

That said, I don't think there's anything that can be done about kingmaking in such a game. One idea might be to hide Victory Points, so that it's not obvious ho is winning. However, if VPs are hidden but trackable, then in essence they're not really hidden at all (many people don't bother hiding trackable information, and there is good reasoning behind that, even if I don't necessarily agree with it). The next logical step would be to make VPs hidden and not trackable. Not sure how that would work exactly...

The rest of the game seems a lot better than it was the last time I played. The game attempts to balance an exponential growth of the invading force with a linear regression of the strength of the Trishulans in such a way that at the climax of the game it will come down to player action as to whether the Invaders succeed or fail. In that respect I think the game is succeeding. There are still some balance issues, and some aspects of that system that aren't right, but I think it's getting pretty close. In our game it did come down to the wire, and while a couple of us had a rule or two wrong, in retrospect the Invader may have in fact been able to win.

Suggestions made after the game were, in no particular order...
* The Trishulans started with 65 units in play - WAY too many. That could be scaled down to 40 or maybe even fewer.
* The first round was intended to be for the Trishulans to do some stuff without the invaders in play yet, so the invaders start on the 2nd turn. Maybe better would be to 'pre-play' that first round, and start the game with the Trishulans in a reasonable position (where they'd be after 1 round of play) and begin with the Invader arriving.
* The invader never sacrificed any resources - she couldn't afford to. There's a mechanism wherein something happens if the invader sacrifices more than the combined Trishulans, but since the invader cannot afford to sacrifice, that thing will never ever happen. I suggested that this other thing that the Invader can (and wants to) pay for right before the sacrifice be folded into the sacrifice - where "as long as the invader sacrifices X resources, that thing happens." There's an analogous thing for the Trishulans, so I think it fits well.
* Eric forgot a rule about movement which would have helped - that you can move 2 spaces if moving through friendly territory. This is important because otherwise units get stranded on the board and cannot do anything. But moving 2 when attacking is too good, so the rule should be that you can only move 2 spaces if you're moving through your own territory (probably ending in your own territory), and you can only move 1 if you're attacking a unit or in fact moving into territory that's not your own.
* The points awarded for occupying the temple were atrocious. Originally it was a straight 25 points for being in the temple. That was too much. This time it was 3vp per unit in the temple (irrespective of who's unit) - which meant when Eric and I each brought 12 units into the temple, we gained 24*3=72 points against Rif, two rounds in a row. There's no way he could come back from that - so obviously that was not the right reward. Eric's intention was to reward players for 'cooperating' to defend the temple. I see where he's trying to go with that, however I think the long and short of it is this: The reward for cooperating in the temple (being friendly and not killing each other in that location) is "being able to defend against the invader". The penalty for not doing that is "you all lose the game". Therefore I don't think it's so necessary to have a VP reward for cooperation in that respect. The VPs from the temple need to be more in line with the other VPs in tha game (mainly the VPs from sacrificing - as you sacrifice 1x/round, and you get temple points 1x/round). Note also that you sacrifice resources for points each round, while temple points don't cost you anything. So maybe a better VP reward (if it must increase for sharing) would be "each player in the temple gets 3vp per player in the temple" - which means you either get 3 points on each opponent, or 6 points on 1 opponent, or you net nothing if all three players are present. This is also irrespective of the number of units there... the reward for having more units there might be defending vs the invaders anyway...
* Actually, this is counter to my last statement... a thought I had last night was that there should be an opportunity cost to hanging out in the temple en-mass. So if temple VPs is based on the number of people you have in there, then those units are getting you VPs instead of getting you something else. I'm not sure what - maybe you should need a unit on a space to get resources from it? Or maybe having a static VP reward is the answer, so piling guys into the temple simply doesn't do much for you in the early game - except keep you from being kicked out by your opponents.

That was sort of a disjointed, stream-of-consciousness report, but hopefully helpful in some respects.


etothepi said...

I've given it some more thought - I'm not sure the Kingmaking is too big of a deal, actually.

You were up in my business the entire game. Anna was not. Given the possibility of destroying you, and possibly still losing, versus keeping the peace, I'm not actually sure what I would've done. But after your relentless pursuit of my resource spaces (while, again, Anna had not done so), I could see a justification.

The simple answer is that the Invader should be hounding all players to a greater extent - getting them more pissed off at the Invader, and any kingmaking situation going to them. As for internal Kingmaking, I would believe that most players will wind up doing so in favor of their weaker players and against their stronger players - something the stronger players should account for when interacting with their weaker counterparts. I might increase the benefits on this to enhance this choice in the future, but only when convinced that kingmaking is a problem.

Seth Jaffee said...

So what you're saying is that you don't mind the Kingmaking aspect. In your example, the choice of you playing Kingmaker between me and Anna had some basis - I was 'all up in your business' all game, certainly. Anna wasn't (she was busy being all up in MY business!). So it follows that you might have been justified in making sure she won instead of me (if you'd decided you were not going to win).

But that wasn't really the issue in our last game. The real kingmaing issue was Rif's situation. He couldn't win, but he could ensure that (a) I won, or (b) you won. In fact, he also could have ensured that (c) Anna won if he'd wanted to. That last turn for example, when he chose to either let your 11 guys into the temple, or fight you, is the perfect example. Either way, he ends up solidly in 3rd place. If he lets you in, you win. If he doesn't, I win. He has no real basis or reason to pick one over the other. No one picked on him all game (if anything, you did more than I did). He went with the reasoning "I'll do what nets me more points" (which is really arbitrary) and let you in the temple.

If Anna hadn't blown her wad attacking the temple early (and it's probably evident that she shouldn't have done that if she wanted any chance of winning at that point), Rif could have ensured she won as well, by entering the temple and attacking whoever he could. In no case could Rif advance his position, and his choice is fairly arbitrary as to who wins the game.

Some games are just like that, and maybe it's good to stay on everyone's good side, so that if you're in contention for the lead someone will make you king. I just don't want to be the person faced with that decision - and I'm not the only one.

etothepi said...

I generally agree - I hate Kingmaking.

What *should* be occurring on the final turn, however, is that the Trishulans are so concerned with getting every last unit into the temple that they can, that they're not even considering screwing each other over. It's a failure on the part of the Invader (and my "balancing" of them) when the situation exists otherwise.

All other points issues should be primarily resolved much earlier on. And, hopefully, it will become very clear in future session that the Invaders are the *primary* enemy.

But if it's the final turn, and the species I'm weak against has been hounding me for the whole game while the Invaders haven't touched me, I just might be more likely to go in favor of the Invaders.

With further playtesting, this issue will hopefully be mitigated to some extent. But do know that I share your concerns.

J C Lawrence said...

As the term is often used I look for and even seek out games which encourage kingmaking situations. Specifically I look for games in which players are often maneuvered into the position where the primary way to better their own position is to also make someone else win. I have a particular liking for that pattern, whether or not I'm the one maneuvering or being maneuvered or watching another in that position.

Seth Jaffee said...

JC: Yeah, I'm familiar with your affinity and affection for that pattern in games (primary way to advance your position is to help someone else). However, I don't think that's the same as Kingmaking.

I see Kingmaking - at least the bad kind - as a decision which doesn't help your position, you just have to pick a winner arbitrarily between other players.

As I think I mentioned previously, that's fine in a game that's about politicking, but not otherwise. I hate being in the position of having to arbitrarily choose the winner of a game.

J C Lawrence said...

I find it rare that such a seemingly arbitrary position is in fact arbitrary, that there are no advantages accrued, positionally, score-wise, or even in posture were the game to continue. As such there is some weighting of the decision and thus a value that can be setup and manipulated by the players. For the cases it is in fact arbitrary I agree, yes, it isn't ideal.

Confucius is particularly delightful in this regard. The entire game is about setting up tied situations which resolve in your favour in just this sort of incidental manner.

Seth Jaffee said...

Rare may be a relative term. Some games feature this Kingmaking aspect, some don't - and among those that do some are more prominent than others. Vinci has been used as an example of a game that often comes down to a kingmaker situation at the end. I like Vinci though, and I think the kingmaking doesn't bother me as much in that game because it only happens sometimes... maybe it seems less prominent to me.

If it is a kingmaker situation, then after a point it definitely is arbitrary. There's no advantage to be gained (that matters) positionally or score-wise if the game is over. Posture were the game to continue is completely meaningless when the game is not going to continue.

What you end up with is a whole other discussion about whether it's appropriate to "play for placement" or not. Some players will do what they can to maximize their score, irrespective of finishing order. Others, once out of contention for the win, will play for 2nd place. Others still, once out of contention, will count the game over and not try to improve their position at all.

This is a topic for another post, and perhaps I'll write something up and solicit opinions on that separately. Playing for Placement is a distinct phenomenon to Kingmaking, but I think they're related as the Kingmaker's decision is informed by that player's opinion of playing for Placement. And as you suggest, if I know a particular player will make a Kingmaker decision based on the fact that they will play for 2nd place, I can use that to my advantage - it's another question whether that counts as 'arbitrary' or not.